In this era of the Philly Special and record-breaking touchdown passes from defenders, it seems like a team is coming with a wacky new play every game. But are these play calls a sign of season-long tendencies, or just a flash in the pan? I’ll attempt to determine the fantasy implications of a unique play each week and let you know if it’s safe to trust the players involved.
Week 4: Courtland Sutton’s Failed Hook-and-Ladder to Emmanuel Sanders
The big storyline from Monday night was Patrick Mahomes’ apparent ascendance to god-tier quarterbacking, and appropriately so. After completing just half of his sixteen first half passing attempts, Mahomes led a torrent comeback in the final quarter. Just four of his twenty pass attempts hit the turf and the Chiefs reached the end zone twice. With 1:39 remaining, Case Keenum and the Broncos took over, down 27-23 after leading by 10 with six and a half minutes left.
After missing a wide-open Demaryius Thomas, Keenum and Co. faced a fourth and ten at the Kansas City 28-yard line. With sixteen seconds on the clock, it was unlikely that they would have a second chance at the end zone if a pass was completed in bounds. Dial up an out route to the sideline? Nah. Heave a prayer to the end zone? Not for this team. Bill Musgrave, Denver’s offensive coordinator, opted for a hook-and-ladder beyond the sticks. The pass, intended for rookie Courtland Sutton, should have been caught and tossed to Emmanuel Sanders. Devontae Booker laid out Kansas City defensive back Armani Watts, paving the way for what could have been another improbable game-winning touchdown for Case Keenum.
If only it were that simple.
Sutton never appeared to fully control the ball and his toss to Sanders fell meekly out of his hands and bounced around on the field. The pass was ruled incomplete. Cornerback Steven Nelson was breathing down Sutton’s neck as the ball was in the air, and for the rookie to react so quickly is admirable. In fact, this entire play is a testament to the Broncos’ confidence in their second-round pick in the 2018 Draft. Musgrave trusted Sutton to facilitate the trick play effectively. While he wasn’t able to complete the exchange, this is a sign for Sutton to receive a larger role in the Denver offense.
His snap share is currently the third highest among wide receivers on the team, at 72.01% per Pro Football Reference, but his target share is just 14.3%, according to Player Profiler. He lags far behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in targets, as the pair sits at target shares of 23.6% and 21.4%, from the same website. He received just one fewer target than both Thomas and Sanders Monday night and finished with the most receiving yards of any Broncos wide receiver for the game. Sutton’s 17.8 yards per reception through four weeks currently rank fifth among all NFL receivers. He’s a playmaker, and both the Broncos and fantasy owners should pay attention to him in the coming weeks.
The second receiver involved in this failed trick play was Emmanuel Sanders, who is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence this season. In games he played last season (of which there were only twelve), Sanders averaged about a 75% snap share, per Pro Football Reference. Through the first quarter of this season, his usage is up to over 86%. The 30-year-old has also rushed the ball twice, something he did none of last year, for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Denver is clearly making an attempt to get the ball in his hands more often. Sanders has nearly double the receiving yards as the next highest receiver on the team (314 to Demaryius Thomas’ 168). He is the only player with at least ten targets with a catch rate higher than 73%. Monday night was his first game with less than ten fantasy points in standard PPR, and he still scored 9.5 points. Though it is a small sample size, Emmanuel Sanders might be the consistent Denver receiver to own in fantasy.
Bill Musgrave shouldn’t be disheartened because his hook-and-ladder call failed in primetime (he should be disappointed for other reasons). Rather, he should continue to incorporate misdirection and “trick” plays into his offense, like end-arounds to Sanders. While the Broncos will never be the speedy, high-flying Kansas City offense, there is still fantasy potential as long as the thin air in Denver doesn’t suddenly turn Case Keenum into Brock Osweiler.