So, here we are. Tonight’s the final Thursday night game of the season, and what a ride it’s been. I’m excited as we still have meaningful football to be played this late into the season. Half of the divisions aren’t even secured! However, and I’ve said this before, I feel like the schedule makers did us a solid.
It’s fantasy championship week for most leagues, and most fantasy managers are looking for easy roster decisions. Well, it doesn’t get much simpler than what we’ve got on tap tonight. As the surging Cowboys head to Nashville to face a battered Titans team, the fantasy options look clear heading into the game.
The Cowboys continue their march to the playoffs as the Titans look to Week 18
The Cowboys are one of the best offenses to watch in the league. Since their bye week, they are first in passing touchdowns (19) and second in rushing scores (13). There aren’t many other teams who can boast a similar level of productivity and balance.
And it all intersects at Dak Prescott:
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) December 25, 2022
Since his Week 7 return, Prescott is third in EPA per play with the fourth-highest CPOE. Dallas fans may find the completion percentage metric hard to stomach after the seven-year vet threw an interception for the fifth-straight game on Saturday (two consecutive outings with a pick-six). But the Cowboys' main flaw is their lack of depth in the passing game.
Through Prescott’s five-game pick stretch, CeeDee Lamb has been the target on just one of those throws. However, the team’s reliance on ancillary options like Noah Brown and now T.Y. Hilton has brought out the best (as seen above) and worst of Prescott. Playoff defenses may be able to attack this weakness, but there aren’t any concerns for their aerial attack tonight.
Lamb is eighth in YPRR over the last month, and he holds a seven-target lead over Dalton Schultz, who’s next in line at 24 looks from Prescott. With Dallas still at a -5 percent PROE, outside options like Michael Gallup fall into the low-end FLEX category. I’ll dig into the running game shortly, but let’s look at the Titans’ offense to see if there’s any interest from a fantasy standpoint.
I’ll start with something positive before diving into the details. The offense may look rough, but at least the rushing aspect of Malik Willis’ game had been working.
— NFL (@NFL) December 24, 2022
Willis had 15 designed rushes across his three starts, with three resulting in explosive runs. He’s had a success rate (ratio of positive EPA runs versus negative) of 56.0 percent of his carries and has more missed tackles than Ryan Tannehill, who was placed on IR on Thursday. But Willis' development as a passer has a ways to go.
We won't see if he's made any progress Thursday, however, as Joshua Dobbs has been named starting QB for this game, which presents a number of possibilities for tonight and beyond.
Nonetheless, the Titans offense has averaged 23.7 yards per drive with Willis under center. The Texans, who are dead last in the league, have a 25.7 YPD average. Tennessee’s passing rate plummeted from a -6% PROE (through their previous four games) to -24%, and Willis was still bottom-eight in CPOE. Derrick Henry is expected to miss the game, putting at least one Titans’ running back in the fantasy spotlight. However, with so much uncertainty at quarterback, Tennessee may be the team to avoid to secure yourself a fantasy title.
Points of Interest in TNF
“Ezekiel Pollard” — A frustrating 1-2 duo
I could hear the screaming of fantasy managers who rostered Tony Pollard through my TV after this play:
— NFL (@NFL) December 24, 2022
It was like Pollard juking defenders and then firing himself up the middle to get to the one-yard line didn’t even happen. Ezekiel Elliott capped a top-notch drive, but the touchdown should’ve gone to Pollard.
But vulturing short touchdowns has been Elliott’s thing this season.
There will be no vulturing on Thursday though as Pollard has reportedly been ruled OUT for the game because of a thigh injury. We should see a heavy dose of Elliott as long as the game is competitive as well as some Malik Davis along the way.
Jamaal Williams leads the league in short-yardage scores in 2022 at 10. But Elliott (7) isn’t too far behind. His 42 fantasy points on those plays alone account for 24.0% of his total production in PPR leagues. However, even with the Pollard-Elliott tandem sharing the touches, it’s not like both haven’t been productive.
Let’s not forget that the Cowboys are still a run-first offense. Since their Week 9 bye, they’re 22nd in early-down passing rate in neutral situations. And Pollard’s lacking rushing opportunity has been offset by his red-zone looks. He’s sixth in targets from within the 10-yard line among all running backs. With Dallas scoring the second-most points per game in the league over the last three weeks, we were set to bank on both backs on Thursday.
But with Dallas setting its sights on a deep playoff run, a dynamic (Pollard) and powerful (Elliott) running game must be part of the plan. Playing it safe with Pollard and resting him against the Titans speaks to the Cowboys long-term goals.
There are few complete NFL teams, but Dallas has the ingredients to be one. Their defense, when healthy, can be stifling, while their offense can find beat you through the air and on the ground.
Hassan Haskins, Come on Down?
zero chance derrick henry plays tomorrow pic.twitter.com/7h29creZJ3
— Denny Carter (@CDCarter13) December 28, 2022
Let’s start here. Henry missed practice on Monday but got in a limited session Tuesday. So, his relative health is on a positive trend. However, the Titans are a 10.5-point home underdog, and a win against Jacksonville in Week 18 is all they need to secure a playoff spot. I can follow this logic trail to its logical conclusion, where Henry “is available,” but we see more of his backfield mates throughout the game. If that scenario plays out, we’ll get a good look at Hassan Haskins in prime time.
Haskins got nine carries back in Week 2, but six of his touches came in the fourth quarter of their blowout loss to the Bills. However, even with that context in mind, there are still a couple of positive takeaways for the rookie. He was the only other running back with a touch and posted a 55.6% success rate on the day. Haskins was also part of the passing game, which continued into Week 16 despite the change at quarterback.
I’m interested to see how Haskins performs as the main rusher with Tennessee (potentially) looking to the future. Haskins has worked well in pass-protection situations and has been an effective runner on his limited workload (3.27 yards after contact). Julius Chestnut would work in on early downs, but I’d expect to see more of Haskins throughout the game if the team does indeed decide to rest Henry.
One Up, One Down
You know my process for this section by now. I’m trying to find a player from each squad to start or sit. And I’m betting you could go off vibes alone to identify the team I’m trying to avoid. The Titans have a 15-point team total, so I’m sure folks still alive in the playoffs have better options. But, just in case, let’s walk through a couple of mid-range players worth mentioning.
If we were in Week 12 or sometime earlier in the season, this section would be about Gallup. You’ve seen me stick my neck out for high-risk players (e.g., Zay Jones, Mack Hollins, Rashod Bateman), but this is for the championship. So I’m balancing floor and ceiling, and Dalton Schultz fits the bill.
Over the last three weeks, Schultz has run a route on 87.5% of Prescott’s dropbacks, and he is second in targets (tied with Pollard at 18). To be fair, a 10-target outing buoys his total volume over the stretch, but his floor has been four looks over the last two games. Schultz also has the third-most red-zone targets since Week 11, giving Schultz top-12 upside. Plus, the matchup is also in his favor.
Across their last two games, tight ends facing Tennessee have averaged 68.5 yards on six targets. And I almost forgot that Evan Engram trucked them for 162 yards and two scores in Week 14. Dallas has better receiving options than Jacksonville, so we can’t expect the same production level. But the matchup makes Schultz a top target for TNF.
I’m not trying to disparage all tight ends, but other than Henry, Chigoziem Okonkwo was the next-likeliest Titan fantasy managers would be rostering. But with Willis under center, the rookie tight end has a lesser chance at those explosive plays, which made him fantasy relevant. Also, he has more target competition.
Last week was Treylon Burks’ first game back after missing the previous two weeks due to a concussion. With him back in the lineup, Okonkwo’s routes and targets slid back to his usage rates of nearly a month ago. And with a matchup against Dallas, that's not the trend you want to see.
The Cowboys are ninth in schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed to tight ends. I mean, sure. We just watched Dallas Goedert get 67 yards against them, and Engram tagged them for 62 yards on ten targets in Week 15. So, Okonkwo can be productive. But those guys come from passing offenses. Tennessee had a -24% PROE last week. Without a semblance of a floor, I wouldn’t want to “get Chiggy with it” in my final match of the fantasy season.