Here’s a breakdown of the Thursday Night Football one-game DFS slate featuring the New Orleans Saints (10-1) at the Dallas Cowboys (6-5) that kicks at 8:20 p.m. ET on NFL Network and FOX.
Saints Core Plays: Brees, Kamara, Thomas … Lutz?
Why did Drew Brees’ four touchdowns on Thanksgiving night feel like a such letdown? Maybe it was the 171 yards — which will happen when you only attempt 22 passes. From a fantasy perspective, no defense has been able to stop Brees except his own: The Saints have held seven of their last 11 opponents under 24 points, and Brees hasn’t let it fly more than 32 times in any of those games.
Still, Brees has 15 touchdowns in his last four games alone and now faces a Cowboys defense ranked 12 spots worse in defensive efficiency against the pass than the run, per Football Outsiders DVOA. Brees has the top Projected Plus/Minus on the Saints in our DK Showdown Models and is the top projected player on the slate in our FanDuel Models, as well.
In fact, our Models make a pretty clear distinction between the top three Saints:
- Brees: Top Projected Plus/Minus, highest floor
- Alvin Kamara: Top ceiling projection, second-highest floor
- Michael Thomas: Top median projection, lowest floor
The models are also telling us that there’s value in paying up: While Mark Ingram and Tre’Quan Smith are the two cheapest among the eight players on the slate with a projected ceiling of 23 or more points (great for tournaments), this is a slate where DraftKings lets you get in four studs. And Ingram and Smith also happen to be the only two players priced in the top eight with negative Projected Plus/Minuses (not so great for cash games).
Instead, our Models know that there’s a good case to be made for the under in this game, and that the Saints are second in red-zone trips on offense, while the Cowboys possess the league’s fourth-best red-zone defense. Enter Wil Lutz, the NFL’s leading scorer and the only player priced below $6,800 on DraftKings or $12,500 on FanDuel whose median outcome projects to be in the double-digits.
Interlude: What Happened to Kamara’s Targets?
Kamara saw 71 targets in his first nine games and two since, which wouldn’t be as glaring if he’d recorded more than one target against Atlanta, the league’s foremost source of backfield catches since Dan Quinn took over the team.
Being the sharp offensive mind that Sean Payton is, it’s possible the lull is nothing more than a tendency breaker; remember, the Falcons essentially beg you to go underneath to your backs. Also, the NBC crew noted defenses often treat Kamara like a receiver, which leaves them softer fronts more vulnerable to inside runs.
The Falcons don’t have much pass rush to speak of (28th in PFF’s pass-rushing grades), so it’s also possible Payton simply didn’t feel the need to slow down the rush with screen passes. The Cowboys’ pass rush is more formidable (14th), and they also rank 24th in DVOA on passes to running backs, so I’ll definitely be checking our NFL Player Props tool for value on a Kamara receiving prop as kickoff approaches.
Someone You Either Never Heard Of Or Forgot About Will Probably Catch a Touchdown
The real issue comes with rostering anyone on the Saints not named Brees, Kamara, Thomas, Ingram, Smith, or Lutz. Sean Payton keeps his sideline stocked with an endless supply of skill-position reinforcements who eagerly await their chance to shuttle into the game and catch a touchdown from Brees, prompting a barrage of “that touchdown helped no one” tweets from people who have obviously never had the pleasure of being a part of a 7,000-way tie for a share of first place on a one-game DFS slate.
- Ben Watson is the player our Models like the most. He’s third on the Saints in receptions this season (22) and has popped a couple of times for 60-plus yards. On paper, at least, this game sets up for Payton to favor his backs and tight ends in the passing game. Dallas tends to lock down wide receivers the outside and funnel the action to backs and tight ends, which the metrics bear out: Byron Jones sits atop Pro Football Focus’ cornerback grades, and the ‘Boys are top-eight in defensive DVOA vs. both No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, but 20th vs. tight ends and 24th vs. running backs.
- Every other player is projected for 0-5 points. In what perfectly conveys how much of a toss-up these guys are, Austin Carr has the top projected Plus/Minus among them — pretty much solely due to being the cheapest. Carr has caught two red-zone scores over the past two weeks.
- Former NFL player-turned-commentator Rodney Harrison spent the majority of last Thursday night’s telecast doing his best Tony Romo impression, calling targets to rookie tight end Dan Arnold every time he was spotted on the field. Harrison’s onto something: Over the past three weeks, Arnold has run 27 routes but has been targeted on 40% of them. He’s posted at least a 2-25 line in each of his past three games and is third on the team in receiving yards over that span with 95 — three more yards than Kamara, mind you.
- The reason Arnold isn’t also third in air yards is undrafted wide receiver Keith Kirkwood, who himself has been targeted on 27% of his routes over the past three weeks. At 6-foot-3. 220 pounds, Kirkwood is the Brandon Coleman to 195-pound Austin Carr‘s Willie Snead.
- We’re not done. There’s also wide receiver/special-teamer Tommylee Lewis, who fell out of bed into a touchdown in his first action since Week 2; blocking tight end Josh Hill, who you’ll kick yourself for not playing if he gets in the end zone because he plays the most snaps out of all these dudes; Brandon Marshall, who was presumably signed only to catch touchdowns; and fullback Zach Line, who as Sean Koerner points out could turn our free $1,000 Thursday Night Football Props Contest on its head with a goal-line vulture.
- Last but not least is Taysom Hill, who has at least one red-zone rush, target, or pass attempt in 7-of-9 games since Week 3 (14 in all). If nothing else, Hill will be the most fun player to roster, but he’s a high-leverage play in the sense he can vulture literally anyone on the team, from Brees to Kamara to Thomas, and he even returns kicks.
Cowboys: Dak, Zeke … and Then What?
The Saints defense has been rock-solid against the run (third in DVOA) and could also feast on a Cowboys offensive line that could be without stud left tackle Tyron Smith (neck, questionable). Tough matchup, O-line injuries and all, our Models still like Ezekiel Elliott as the odds-on favorite to be the highest-scoring player on DraftKings.
Zeke’s Plus/Minus in our Showdown Models comes in at No. 3 overall, right behind Brees and Dak Prescott, who the Models actually like to outscore Zeke on FanDuel. It’s a volume thing: Dak has taken off running at least six times in five of his past seven games (with five rushing touchdowns to show for it), and Zeke leads the team with 62 targets.
Amari Cooper is the top projected value in the middle tier over Ingram and Smith. The Saints generally have gotten roasted by No. 1 receivers (27th in DVOA), and Cooper’s air-yard share in four games with Dallas (35%) is actually greater than Thomas’ on the season (28%). Still, Cooper is one of the most likely high-priced players to bust. Our Models set his floor in the same range as D/STs, and he has a wildly negative Plus/Minus of-4.41 Plus/Minus and rock-bottom 15% Consistency Rating in games after putting up 20 or more DraftKings points.
Coop is the type of play that could win a a tournament … or lose you a cash game. Whereas the Saints were willing to stick Marshon Lattimore on an island with Calvin Ridley while giving Eli Apple help on Julio Jones last week, it’s entirely possible the Saints trust Apple to handle Michael Gallup one-on-one and sell out to stop Coop, which would almost certainly create value somewhere else in the Dallas pass-catching corps.
- Cole Beasley has the matchup in the slot against P.J. Williams, who’s been repeatedly scorched this season and has a ranking of 127th in PFF’s cornerback grades to show for his troubles. Beasley’s projected ceiling is the highest among players not priced in the top eight.
- Blake Jarwin ran more routes that fellow tight ends Dalton Schultz and Rico Gathers (he’s never happening, is he?) last week. With the offensive line banged up, blocking duties likely await the undrafted second-year man out of Oklahoma State, making him more of a floor play than a ceiling play, but he’s got the top Projected Plus/Minus on DraftKings among players under $2,600.
- Michael Gallup is the highest leverage tournament play on the slate: Since Cooper arrived, Gallup has a 32% air-yard share — that he’s done absolutely nothing with. Still, Gallup is the typical GPP-winning play that gets overlooked because he’s a poor cash-game value (think Demaryius Thomas on Monday night).
- Large-field GPP players will also want to note that (1) Allen Hurns actually out-snapped Gallup last week, 36-32, and (2) the team could be looking to get Noah Brown more action after he needed just two targets last week to come within two yards of Hurns and Gallup on eight targets combined (24).
Roster Construction Notes
- Kamara is the most likely player to hog all the fantasy points for himself. The negative fantasy-point correlations we see for the Saints in our NFL Correlations Dashboard aren’t surprising: QB-RB1 (correlation coefficient of -0.11), RB1-RB2 (-0.19), and RB1-WR2 (-0.16).
- Stak-Zeke. Outside of QB-DST (0.59), QB-RB1 (0.51) is pairing with the strongest correlation in fantasy points. For Dallas, RB1-WR1 (-0.24) and RB1-TE1 (-0.46) are also in the red.
- Jarwin is a leverage play. The Cowboys TE1 has been negatively correlated with the entire team this season, so Jarwin is a candidate in lineups that fade any of the Cowboys studs, as well as Saints onslaught lineups.
Cash Game Strategy
DraftKings lets you fit in all four of the highest-floor studs on the slate (Brees, Kamara, Prescott, Elliott), and given the unpredictable nature of available options in the middle tier, this looks like the right move. You have to punt the last two slots for this to work, though. Jarwin and Carr are the top two values in that range.
FanDuel lets you get in only three studs. Kamara and Thomas’ quiet Thanksgiving has brought each of their salaries down to the point where they end up in the optimal lineup in terms of projected points despite being behind both quarterbacks in raw projected points. Using Kamara and Thomas lets you get up to Lutz and Zeke if you punt with Jarwin, or to Lutz and Dak if you go with Gallup (the higher projected of the two).
Given all that we know from the Models, correlations and matchups, a few core strategies emerge:
- Put the Gambler’s Fallacy to the Test with Kamara. With the highest ceiling on the slate and inverse correlations with his teammates, there’s plenty of sound reasons to roll out Kamara in the 1.5x slot. There’s also this: No. 41 is sitting on a two-game streak of under 20 DraftKings points. The last time he went three straight without 20? Weeks 5-7 of last season.
- Captain Dak. Quarterbacks don’t usually work out in the 1.5x on DK in guaranteed prize pools — 1.0 PPR all but ensures one of his pass-catchers will outscore him if he has a big passing day — but the prime exception is mobile quarterbacks; Dallas averages 1.0 rushing touchdowns per game, and Dak has just one fewer than Zeke on the season. Captaining Dak also plays perfectly into the scenario of Zeke not having a ceiling game, either due to the matchup or because Dak stole his touchdown, and into the scenario of the Saints funneling targets away from Cooper toward Beasley, whose 7.2 average depth of target could prevent him from outscoring Dak even if he leads the Cowboys in receiving.
- Take What the Slate Gives You. A national audience just watched both of these teams hang at least 30 points last week, so ownership is likely to skew toward various iterations of Saints dart-throw lineups while overlooking value at kicker and, on DraftKings, defense (particularly the Saints). Also, the presence of all the studs may deter users from rostering someone like Ingram in the Captain spot, but especially given how run-centric the Saints have become, Ingram is never a bad bet to be the slate’s high scorer.
Let’s get this shmoney!
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Chris Raybon is a Senior Editor at the Action Network and a co-host of “I’ll Take That Bet” on ESPN+. He has watched every snap of every NFL game since 2010 — even the kneel downs. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisRaybon and read about how he quit his accounting job and got paid to watch sports.
Pictured above: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4)
Photo credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports