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Fantasy Playbook: The Kings of the Red Zone

These players don’t see the most action, but they have the best opportunity to break out in any given week

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Volume will always be the most important factor in fantasy football scoring, but not all targets are created equal. Touchdowns are a high-variance statistic, one that is hard to count on week to week for both tight ends and receivers, and they don’t always go to the guy who sees the most passes coming his way. When it comes to making the difficult sit/start decisions on your roster—especially in these lean weeks in the middle of the year when at least four teams are on byes—you should consider the potential for red zone looks. A low-volume performance can still be salvaged, after all, if one of those few targets goes for a touchdown.

On the league’s red zone targets leaderboard, there are plenty of familiar faces, fantasy stalwarts like Dez Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins, Rob Gronkowski, and Larry Fitzgerald. But there’s a handful of surprising names sprinkled in, too—and four players in particular stand out as options that may be worth a second look for your TE, WR3, or FLEX spots in the second half of the year.

New Rams head coach Sean McVay’s play calling has been integral to quarterback Jared Goff’s astounding sophomore-year turnaround, but it also helps that Goff has found himself a new trusty target over the middle in rookie receiver Cooper Kupp. The former Eastern Washington star, who holds the FCS record for career catches, is tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (three), second in targets (47) and yards (370), and third in receptions (26). Those numbers make Kupp a fantasy factor, though he’s owned in just 48.6 percent of ESPN leagues. That could change if Kupp can start converting a higher rate of his red zone looks into touchdowns. Why? Well, before the Monday Night Football matchup between the Packers and Lions, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound slot receiver led the league in red zone targets with 15.

McVay has made the rookie a featured weapon inside the red zone, where his quick feet and lateral agility give him an advantage in tight space. Against the Cowboys, Kupp ran a simple out route for a score, beating veteran corner Orlando Scandrick to the outside to reel in a pass and run it in.

Then, against the Cardinals, Kupp took a quick tunnel screen 18 yards for a touchdown, weaving through defenders and around blocks to find the end zone.

He’s still just scratching the surface of his potential inside the 20-yard line, though, and has left a lot of meat on the bone in that area. He fell down on a whip route at the goal line against the Redskins (he still caught the ball but was touched down immediately at the 1-yard line), and against the Niners was tackled on a shallow crossing route at the 2-yard line. Kupp also just missed a catchable touchdown on a route up the seam late in the team’s loss to the Seahawks, had another pass batted down in the end zone against the Cardinals, and couldn’t hang on to a dart into the back of the end zone on Sunday against the Giants. The L.A. playmaker isn’t likely to see those opportunities dwindle, either: The Rams offense is firing on all cylinders (they just dropped 51 points on the Giants), McVay hasn’t hesitated to dial up plays for the rookie in key situations, and most important, Goff seems to trust him. It’s not a stretch to say that Kupp is due for a bundle of scores.

Another shifty slot receiver who could see his touchdown production explode in the second half of the year is Cole Beasley. The Cowboys’ diminutive pass catcher is tied for just 49th in the NFL in total red zone targets (six), but if you narrow that scope to inside the 10-yard line, where all six of those targets have come, he’s tied for fifth. He just so happens to be tied for second in the NFL in touchdowns in that area (four), too.

Like Kupp, Beasley relies on quickness and acceleration, and the 5-foot-8, 180-pound dynamo has turned quick outs into touchdowns twice this year, first against the Packers in Week 5 and then again on Sunday against the Chiefs.

Not only do the defenders tasked with covering Beasley have to worry about his speed to the outside, they also aren’t going to get much help over the top if he runs a slant to the middle. Against the Packers, it was the threat of an Ezekiel Elliott run that gave Beasley a one-on-one situation in the end zone. Green Bay’s linebackers came forward at the snap, allowing Beasley to get in behind them.

And against Kansas City, it was the dual threat of Elliott’s run and Bryant’s jump-ball supremacy on the outside that gave Beasley an opportunity to beat his man with ease. As the Chiefs played close to the line of scrimmage to take away Elliott and bracketed Bryant out wide, all Beasley had to do was make one fake to the outside before cutting upfield toward the post.

That’s easy money that the Cowboys are sure to use a few more times this year. You could say the same about the back-shoulder fade the Seahawks have begun to use with tight end Jimmy Graham. Finally.

From 2010 to 2014, Graham was one of the league’s most dominant red zone players, and inside the 10-yard line he was damn near unstoppable. In that stretch of five seasons, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end caught a league-high 29 touchdowns on a league-high 55 targets in that area. But in his first two seasons with the Seahawks (27 games), he was targeted just seven times inside the 10 (tied with notable pass catchers such as Tavon Austin, Jordan Norwood, and Andrew Hawkins), catching just two scores. It’s no wonder fans began to wonder why Seattle had traded for him in the first place.

Well, Graham’s had a weird, up-and-down performance again this year, and has dropped way too many passes—but we can finally say, at the very least, that the Seahawks have started to show an understanding of where the big playmaker is at his best: isolated in coverage against a smaller defender. Through nine weeks, Graham is tied with Bryant for the league lead in targets inside the 10-yard line, where he’s caught three touchdowns and should’ve had a few more if not for the aforementioned problem with the drops.

Against the Rams, he got man coverage on the outside, posted up, and caught a lob pass from Russell Wilson near the sideline for a score.

Then, against the Giants in Week 7, he did it again, using his size to box out the defender and reel in Wilson’s throw.

Graham has already been a go-to starter for fantasy managers at a thin tight end spot this year, but we could see his numbers skyrocket down the stretch—especially if Wilson gets back to his usual second-half sorcerery.

If you’re really digging deep for help at your WR or FLEX spots, one more surprising name showed up on the red zone targets list: 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin. The fifth-year wideout is a boom-or-bust prospect when it comes to fantasy football because he’s primarily used as a deep threat in the 49ers offense, but it may surprise you that he’s also been featured in the red zone for San Francisco pretty frequently, too, where he’s tied for the team lead (with tight end George Kittle) in red zone looks (10). That ties him for 10th leaguewide, and he’s been targeted six times inside the 10-yard line—tied for fifth in the NFL.

Of course, there’s a reason Goodwin is owned in just 9.3 percent of ESPN leagues: He’s turned those six targets inside the 10-yard line into exactly zero catches thus far. But now that Pierre Garçon is on injured reserve with a neck injury, Goodwin figures to not only inherit a bigger chunk of the passing-game target share, he could be featured even more often inside the red zone. Head coach and play caller Kyle Shanahan has shown a willingness to use Goodwin’s speed on crossing routes and quick outs, similar to what the Cowboys and Rams do with Beasley and Kupp—so if he’s sitting out there on waivers, Goodwin could be worth a stash, especially if we ever get to see new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo take the field.

None of these guys are likely to suddenly turn into top-tier target-share hogs or fantasy stars. But while Kupp, Beasley, Graham, and Goodwin may remain relatively low-volume pass catchers within their respective offenses, each of them gives you weekly touchdown upside as featured red zone targets for their teams.