A 12-Pack of Chilled Plays
Welcome to this week’s advanced targets column, written by a moron.
As I did in last week’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, in this article I give six recommended plays each for the 12 PM ET and 8 PM ET slate of Saturday games. Within the six recommendations for each slate, three are “Paying Up” plays (top-12 salary at their positions), and three are “Digging Deep” plays (outside top-12 salary at their positions).
As an aside, I should say that when I’m analyzing players I take into account the following: Projected median and high scores, the probability of players hitting those marks, potential key positional matchups in contests, the Las Vegas lines, the salaries of players within a position and across position, the likely exposure of players in the fantasy market, where and in what weather games are being played, and a few smaller factors that might (not) mean anything—like whether a player has a horned frog on his helmet.
I won’t mention most of these factors when talking about any given player, because I want to keep the numbers-oriented wonkiness to a level that everyone can understand—especially me—but know that I have looked at all the players I recommend (and many players I don’t recommend) from many different angles.
Finally, last week’s column was way too long. Starting with this piece, I will exercise a modicum of concision. Last week I was up really late the night before my deadline, writing the Advanced Targets piece in my office—with the door closed so that I could concentrate—and my wife was maybe 51 percent convinced that I was developing a pornography addiction.
In retrospect, that story didn’t need to be told. #Concision
Let’s get to it.
EARLY SLATE: 12 PM ET
Paying Up: Cardale Jones (Ohio State) – $9,200
Jones has a high floor because of his rushing ability (13 rushes for 99 yards and a TD last week), and his ceiling is incredibly high because of his exceptional teammates and his advantageous matchup. Of all the teams in the early slate, OSU (per the Vegas lines) is projected to be the high scorer with 52.5 points and is a 41-point favorite at home against Hawaii. The only way Jones will fail to produce is if OSU scores too many points too quickly and Head Coach Urban Meyer pulls Jones from the game ridiculously early.
Jones isn’t an exceptional passer, but he’s good enough to exploit a mediocre defense in any manner he chooses. His Week 1 performance merited a solid +1.8 grade at Pro Football Focus. He’s not the most expensive quarterback in this slate, but he has a reasonable chance of being the top producer at his position.
Digging Deep: Lamar Jackson (Louisville) – $6,100
I was tempted to go with Wisconsin’s Joel Stave, because he is cheaper ($5,800), has a better matchup (his team is projected to score 42.25 points at home as a 32.5-point favorite), and last week against Alabama he was pretty good (26 completions for 228 yards, two TDs, and one INT with a 66.7 completion percentage). But I’m not going with Stave because he was an abomination of a quarterback in 2014 and WIS has the capacity to beat Miami (OH) handily without him.
Instead, I’m going with a true freshman in his first college start. (Yikes!) Louisville is a 13.5-point favorite at home and projected to score 34 points against a Houston squad with a defense that struggled against Power Five opponents last year. If the Cardinals are to live up to the Vegas lines, Jackson will likely be a large contributor. Last week, in his first college game, the dual-threat quarterback rushed 16 times for 106 yards and a TD in a touch matchup against Auburn. Jackson has a high floor, a high ceiling for his price, and only the 17th-highest salary at his position.
Paying Up: Derrick Henry (Alabama) – $9,200
I don’t need to tell you about Henry. The best running back in the country last week against Wisconsin, Henry has the potential to be the best back in any country in any week. On Saturday, Alabama is projected to score 45.5 points against Middle Tennessee State and to win by 35 points. Although backup running back Kenyan Drake is likely to see significant touches, Henry is capable of doing immense damage on limited touches.
Last week, he had an elite 181.3 elusive rating and strong +2.3 grade from PFF. Per rushing attempt he averaged more than nine yards after contact. And this week he gets to face a defensive unit that last season struggled to stop teams from Conference USA. His ceiling—not just this week but almost every week—is the single-week rushing record and six TDs. His realistic floor is 100 scrimmage yards and a TD.
Digging Deep: Patrick Skov (Georgia Tech) – $4,400
Few running backs in Week 1 outproduced Skov, a graduate transfer from Stanford—but he has only the slate’s 34th-highest salary at his position. Perhaps Skov is inexpensive because last year he had only 18 yards rushing on 12 carries, which throws into question the 72 yards he managed on 12 carries last week. Maybe he is cheap because all of his Week 1 production came against Alcorn State from the Football Championship Subdivision in an unrepresentative 69-6 victory. And maybe Skov is discounted because running backs in triple-option offenses, though productive, are often considered not to be “real” running backs. All of that might be fair—but Georgia Tech is a 28.5-point favorite at home against Tulane and projected to score 41.5 points. Even if last game is unrepresentative of most games, as a large blowout win it actually might foretell the story of this game rather directly.
At 6’1” and 235 lbs., Skov is basically a fullback playing the B-Back role. Even if he doesn’t get a majority of the carries in this game, he should have ample opportunities to score TDs as the team’s primary big-bodied runner. Last week he had three TDs on 12 carries. Last year, he had four TDs on 12 carries. Skov is very likely to score at least one TD this game if he gets double-digit touches—and in a blowout like this he should touch the ball 10 times.
Paying Up: Leonte Carroo (Rutgers) – $6,700
Last week, despite playing in only the second half (he was suspended for the first half), Carroo had three receptions for 129 yards and three TDs. Granted, this production came against FCS-opponent Norfolk State, but with only three receptions Carroo outproduced every other wide receiver on this week’s slate. Here’s a point of comparison. Last year, Carroo caught an elite 45 percent of Rutgers’ TDs receiving. In that one half last week, Carroo caught 100 percent of the TD passes and 75 percent of the receptions. Those numbers are unsustainable for the season, but at 6’1” and 215 lbs. Carroo has the physicality to be one of the most productive receivers in college football.
This week, Carroo is the fifth-most expensive wide receiver, but he could be the slate’s most productive receiver. Rutgers is a two-point favorite at home and projected to score 32.5 points against Washington State in a shootout with a 63-point over/under, the second-highest on the slate. Carroo should see action all game against one of last season’s most porous defenses. His 2014 PFF receiving rating was 85.1, tenth in the nation entering 2015. Last year he had 55 catchable targets. He didn’t drop one of them.
Digging Deep: Alex Erickson (Wisconsin) – $4,900
Erickson gets no respect, but he is the undisputed lead wide receiver for a Power Five team that is going to score a lot of point throughout the season. He might never be this cheap again. Last week, he had six receptions, 98 scrimmage yards, and a TD against Alabama, netting him a +0.8 grade at PFF. He basically was his team’s offense. In this slate only Ohio State and AL are projected to outscore Wisconsin, which is a 32.5-point favorite at home against Miami (OH) of the Mid-American Conference.
With the Badgers projected to score 42.25 points, Erickson should get his piece of the production pie, but he is only the slate’s 16th-most expensive wide receiver. Even if he is pulled early because of a large lead, Erickson has the easy potential to catch around five passes for 75 yards and a TD.
LATE SLATE: 8 PM ET
Paying Up: Josh Rosen (California-Los Angeles) – $8,900
The late-slate games are not projected to see as much scoring as those from the early slate, so these recommendations might be uninspired in comparison, but there’s nothing uninspiring about what true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen did last week against Virginia. Even if one wants to diminish Rosen’s accomplishments by faulting UVA, the elite recruit took advantage of his opportunities by completing 28 passes for 351 yards, three TDs, and no INTs with an 80 completion percentage. Even in good matchups, how many redshirt junior quarterbacks do that?
In his first college game ever, Rosen earned an impressive +4.1 grade at PFF—higher than any one-game grade Brett Hundley received last year as UCLA’s starter. Playing on the road as a 30-point favorite against Nevada-Las Vegas and projected to score 47.75 points, UCLA is in a matchup with one of this slate’s highest over/unders. Last week, Rosen completed three of his six 20-yard attempts for 97 yards and a TD, with one drop from a receiver. Rosen has the skill to exploit a defense that last year struggled to stop everyone.
Digging Deep: Lamar Jordan (New Mexico) – $5,300
Jordan is only the 24th-most expensive quarterback in this slate—and he’s the starter on a team that is a 3.5-point favorite at home against Tulsa and projected to score 39.25 points in a shootout matchup with a 75-point over/under—the highest on the slate. If Vegas is correct, UNM should have a lot of points to go around, and some of those will belong to the quarterback. Jordan isn’t much of a passer—he’s only 5’10” and 190 lbs., and last year he never approached 200 yards passing in any game—but in his four starts last year to end the season he averaged 70.8 yards rushing per game. For a cheap option, he has a very high floor.
And, although his production last week came in a 66-0 blowout against FCS-opponent Mississippi Valley State, the redshirt sophomore, in limited action, did complete all seven of his attempts for 103 yards. He might be improving as a passer—and of course he also rushed five times for 62 yards and a TD. Against a Tulsa defense that last year was one of the worst in the country and allowed 214.7 yards and 2.5 TDs rushing per game, Jordan should be able to accumulate a lot of production in a full 60-minute contest.
Paying Up: Zack Langer (Tulsa) – $6,600
One of last week’s “Digging Deep” selections, Langer is a holdover whose Week 1 production has facilitated his promotion to the “Paying Up” category. A matchup-dependent banger, last week Langer exploited a soft opponent to the tune of 25 touches for 123 scrimmage yards and three TDs—and this week his matchup might be even better. Tulsa is projected to score 35.75 points against UNM as a 3.5-point underdog on the road in a matchup with the slate’s highest over/under.
Just as this game should provide UNM’s Jordan with many scoring opportunities, it should also furnish Langer the occasion accumulate stats. Last year, UNM had one of the worst defenses in college football and allowed 46.4 rushes for 268.4 yards and 3.3 TDs per game. At 6’0” and 220 lbs., Langer will be the guy to score those TDs for Tulsa. He is the slate’s ninth-most expensive running back, but he has top-five positional upside.
Digging Deep: Terrell Newby (Nebrasks) – $4,800
Last year Newby was Nebraska’s third-string running back behind Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, but, with Abdullah now in the NFL, Newby appears to have beaten out Imani for the lead job in a timeshare. Last week, Newby led Nebraska in all rushing categories with 10 carries for 43 yards and a TD in a tough loss at home to Brigham Young, scoring his TD on 10-yard run while Nebraska was behind 17-0. If Newby can get double-digit touches in a loss and red zone opportunities when his team is trailing by more than two TDs, he has a chance to be very productive when Nebraska is in more favorable circumstance.
This week, Nebraska is a 27.5-point favorite at home against South Alabama and projected to score 40.75 points. In this matchup, Newby has the potential to accumulate over 100 scrimmage yards and to score multiple TDs, and that’s a lot of upside, especially for a guy with only the 17th-most expensive running back salary. Even if Cross and other running backs get more touches in this blowout than they otherwise would in a tighter contest, there should still be enough production to go around for Newby to get his.
Paying Up: Jordan Payton (California-Los Angeles) – $5,600
Here’s a lesson in perspective: Last week Payton was a “Digging Deep” recommendation, with a $4,700 salary in a good matchup. He disappointed with only three receptions for 54 yards and no TD. And now this week his salary is $900 more and he is the slate’s 10th-most expensive wide receiver. What? It’s called perspective. Payton is still the lead receiver for UCLA, just as he was last season, and last week even though he didn’t catch a TD his freshman quarterback (about whom there were some concerns) threw three TDs and shows that the college game is not to big for him. Even though he wasn’t highly productive last week, his prospects for this week and the rest of the season are improved based on what happened in Week 1.
And Payton’s matchup this week is even better than the one he had last week. UCLA is a 30-point favorite against UNLV and projected to score 47.75 points, the slate’s second-highest projected total. Given how good his quarterback was last week, and given UCLA’s expected point total as projected by Vegas, the lead receiver in UCLA’s offense has an excellent chance of scoring a TD this week and getting around 75 yards.
Digging Deep: Steven Mitchell, Jr. (Southern California) – $4,100
This recommendation is based almost solely on the Las Vegas lines and the history of how quarterback Cody Kessler has distributed TDs to his receivers in high-scoring games under Head Coach Steve Sarkisian. USC is a 43-point favorite at home against Idaho and projected to score 54.75 points, the highest point total in the slate. Last week, when USC scored 55 points against Arkansas State, Kessler threw two TD passes to a total of two wide receivers, including Mitchell.
In 2014, in the five games in which USC scored at least 40 points, the Trojans averaged 49.2 points and Kessler threw 3.8 TDs to 2.6 WRs per contest. In other words, the odds are very high that a wide receiver other than Juju Smith-Schuster catches a TD pass in this game. In particular, I’m going with Mitchell instead of Darreus Rogers for a few reasons: 1) Mitchell is a year younger and is one year less experienced than Rogers. Mitchell profiles as a guy who could emerge in future seasons as Nelson Agholor did last year and Smith-Schuster is doing now, whereas Rogers profiles simply more as a veteran contributor. 2) Last week, Mitchell tied Smith-Schuster for the team lead in receptions with four. He already seems more integral than Rogers to USC’s offense. 3) Rogers’ salary is $4,800, so I’m going with the cheaper option. If I’m making a play based almost solely on situation, I prefer to dig as deep as possible and using the cheapest reasonable option I can find. That’s Mitchell.