Each week in this space, we’re taking a look back at Sunday’s games to find five of the most interesting or most important stats for fantasy football owners. With 14 of 15 games from NFL Week 12 in the books, here are the five stats you need to know:
1. Only twice in the history of the NFL (since sacks became a stat) has a quarterback recorded back-to-back games with at least 20 pass attempts, a passer rating of 140.0 or more, and zero sacks. Both of these instances have come in 2018, to Drew Brees (Weeks 10-11) and Baker Mayfield (Weeks 10-12).
Brees has been transcendent this year, recording a league-high 127.3 passer rating, while also earning the distinction of being our highest-graded quarterback. If the season ended today, his 127.3 passer rating would actually be the highest of any quarterback in any season all-time. And his 95.8 PFF grade would be the highest recorded by a quarterback since we began grading in 2007.
As good as Brees’ recent stretch has been, Mayfield’s might be more impressive if adjusting for receiver play. Jarvis Landry has been Mayfield’s highest-graded wide receiver this year and he ranks just 49th, while Michael Thomas leads the position. Mayfield also ranks second-worst of 25 quarterbacks in drop rate (percentage of throws dropped by receivers), while Brees ranks eighth-best with a drop rate exactly half that of Mayfield’s (3.4%). Given Mayfield’s college resume, I’m confident he can continue this hot streak despite poor surrounding talent in Cleveland. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence Mayfield’s two best games have come during the three-game stretch that follows the departures of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley.
2. On Sunday Christian McCaffrey became just the 15th player to ever record at least 100 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, 100 receiving yards, and one receiving touchdown in one game. He's the first player to accomplish this feat while also recording double-digit receptions.
In total, McCaffrey turned 17 carries into 125 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and caught all 11 of his targets for 114 yards and one touchdown. This was good for 46.7 fantasy points, or the most by any player at any position since Week 12 of last year.
McCaffrey has quickly overcome his physical limitations (he’s 5-11 and 205 pounds) and his haters to become one of the league’s top bell-cow/workhorse running backs. He currently leads all running backs in snaps (671), while also ranking fifth in touches (197), third in touch percentage (53%), and fourth in yardage market share (33%).
McCaffrey now ranks behind only Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara in fantasy points, averaging 24.1 per game. Astoundingly he ranks ninth in rushing yards (757, just three yards shy of seventh place) and would rank 18th among all wide receivers in receiving fantasy points. He’s also been one of the league’s most consistent fantasy options, finishing as an RB2 or better in all 11 games.
3. The backup connection lives!
Several years ago I wrote an article about a phenomenon I deemed “the backup connection.” In short, here is it: When both are on the field at the same time, former backup quarterbacks (now thrust into a starting role) will lean heavy on a team’s former backup receiver (now also starting). I suggested this was due to a superior rapport based on the way reps are split up in practice and in preseason games. Still skeptical? Well, then it’s a good thing Week 12 offered some strong supporting evidence.
- This preseason, Taquan Mizzell was Chase Daniel's most targeted receiver (14, four more than next-closest). Mizzell had just one career catch before Week 12. Then, in Week 12 (Daniel's first start a Bear), he caught two of three targets for 21 yards and a touchdown.
- This preseason, Trey Quinn was Colt McCoy's most targeted receiver (eight, two more than next closest). He never even caught a pass heading into Week 11 (though that’s mostly due to injury). Through McCoy's two starts, Quinn has caught nine of 10 targets for 75 yards and a touchdown.
- Gus Edwards played the majority of his preseason snaps with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Before Jackson's first start, Edwards had played on just 31 snaps (compared to 594 for Alex Collins and Javorius Allen). Since then he's played on 61% of the team’s snaps. Perhaps his ascension has something to do with his familiarity with Jackson.
- This preseason, Mark Andrews was Jackson's most productive receiver with 61 receiving yards. On Sunday Andrews was his most productive receiver again, totaling 75 yards while no other receiver had more than 25.
How actionable is this? Well, not very – none of these names had an especially big game, but it is another chance for me to reinforce my confirmation bias. I will say, Quinn seems like a name to monitor moving forward and, though I’m bullish on Edwards, there might be a chance he gets unseated if Flacco reassumes his starting job.
4. Leonard Fournette has played in five games this year but has only managed to play four full quarters twice.
Despite being ejected in the third quarter of a 24-21 loss to the Bills, Fournette still totaled 21 touches, 108 total yards, and two touchdowns. In Weeks 1 and 4, Fournette left on the first drive of the second quarter and didn’t return. So, through 15 quarters of football, Fournette totals 104 touches and 88.9 fantasy points. Or, per four quarters, he averages 27.7 touches and 23.7 fantasy points. Among all running backs, he would then rank first in touches per game and sixth in fantasy points per game. Keep in mind, because he never completed the third quarter of Week 12 or the second quarters of Weeks 1 and 4, perhaps those numbers should be even higher. In any case, it’s unlikely Fournette is going to be suspended for Week 13, which means he’ll be a mid-range RB1 this week, and probably every week moving forward.
5. On Sunday, JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a 97-yard touchdown pass, which was the NFL's longest play from scrimmage since his last 97-yard touchdown catch (Week 8 of last year). Over the past two seasons, Smith-Schuster has a league-high five receptions of 65-plus yards. That's one more than Tyreek Hill, two more than Tyrell Williams, and at least three more than any other player.
On Sunday, Smith-Schuster exploded for 13 receptions, 189 yards, and one touchdown (on 17 targets). Pittsburgh got creative, moving him outside to take advantage of a better cornerback matchup. Antonio Brown's day was quieter, catching nine of 13 targets for 67 yards.
On top of having explosive big-play ability and week-winning fantasy upside, Smith-Schuster has also been one of the league’s most efficient and productive players. In fact, it’s scary to see how well he stacks up against Brown.
Among all wide receivers, Brown ranks sixth and Smith-Schuster eighth in fantasy points. In terms of targets, Brown ranks third (122) and Smith-Schuster eighth (110). Despite Brown drawing 12 more targets than Smith-Schuster, Smith-Schuster totals 181 more yards. To better illustrate the efficiency discrepancy, let’s consider Ben Roethlisberger’s 96.6 passer rating. When excluding all throws to Smith-Schuster, his passer rating falls to 92.4. When excluding all throws to Brown, his passer rating actually rises, and significantly so (to 102.2).
Brown’s saving grace for fantasy has been a league-leading 11 touchdowns, but with everything else factored in, I think there’s legitimate cause for alarm. Is this signaling a changing of the guard? Or is this just a small slump in an otherwise historically great (maybe the greatest ever) 80-game sample?