Three Ways The Passing Revolution Could Alter Fantasy Football In 2019
Last season, the NFL saw a total of 17,671 pass attempts or 34.5 for each team per game. In 2017, that number was 34.2. The average team scored 21.7 points per game in 2017, while the average team scored 23.3 points per game in 2018. This trend affected fantasy football pretty drastically as players from the Chiefs, Rams, Saints, Patriots, Colts and Steelers saw relatively absurd fantasy totals. There were some other smaller trends that branched out from how pass-heavy the NFL is becoming. More teams are using 11 personnel as their base set which means fewer fullback and second tight end snaps. More wide receivers are seeing more playing time (expanding the pool of fantasy-relevant players) and more teams are using specialized receiving running backs (expending the pool of fantasy-relevant running backs). Most teams in the NFL have started to realize that running backs don’t matter and that passing the ball is a better way to gain yards and score points than running the ball.
There are still teams, like the Detriot Lions, Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, or Tennesse Titans that are adamant that running the ball leads to winning games. However, it is my supposition that the revolution has already been started. The passing cat is out of the bag. More and more teams will trend towards throwing the ball over 65% of the time in neutral-situations and running 4+ WR sets. What we care about, however, is that this is going to do to fantasy football. I have thought about what this continued evolution to passing the ball more and more might look like. In doing that thinking, I have realized that there are three key ways fantasy football could be altered in 2019 if the passing trends continue.
Fewer True WR1’s/Greater Number Of Playable WR3’s
As more teams use a greater amount of wide receivers and are passing more frequently, it stands to reason that fewer players are going to be the unquestioned top dog in their offense. Last season, only one player saw more than 30% of their teams’ targets (DeAndre Hopkins). In 2014, there were five players that had 30% or more of their teams’ targets. In 2017, there were only 37 players that saw 100+ targets. In 2014, that number was an astonishing 49 players with 100+ targets. In 2015, there were 42. In 2016, there were 48 and in 2017 there were 36. 2017 was really the beginning of this revolution with the Rams bringing Air Raid concepts and 11 personnel to the forefront of NFL success. The trend line seems to suggest that there are going to be more players seeing 50+ targets but fewer players seeing 100+ targets. Think of the Rams or Chiefs’ offenses as the archetype. Watkins/Kelce/Hill all have similar target projections on a weekly basis and the same goes for Woods/Cooks/Kupp.
Teams like the Arizona Cardinals or Tampa Bay Buccaneers could start to shift that direction as well. Mike Evans or Larry Fitzgerald are likely to see their total targets number drop as fourth and fifth wide receivers garner more snaps/targets than in years’ past. This, of course, will not hold true across the board and Julio Jones/Odell Beckham/Juju Smith-Schuster types are still locked into their roles. Where this will make a difference for fantasy is that, for example, James Washington/Donte Moncrief/Ryan Switzer/Diontae Johnson might all get usable amounts of snaps on a week to week basis.
While I am fairly certain the trend of a greater amount of receivers seeing a more equally distributed range of targets is going to happen in 2019, that doesn’t necessarily make projections all that much easier. The way I am playing this trend is to take advantage of cheap secondary receivers on elite passing offenses. Players like Mecole Hardman/Demarcus Robinson, Tre’Quan Smith, Josh Reynolds, the aforementioned Steelers wide receivers and Antonio Callaway are all tertiary elements of what project to be good passing offenses that don’t really have much of an ADP because of all the uncertainty.
Pass-Only Quarterbacks Will Lose More Value
This really should go without saying but if more quarterbacks are passing more frequently, the only way for quarterbacks to differentiate themselves is through 1) rushing or 2) touchdown variance. 19 quarterbacks in 2018 averaged over 250 passing yards per game, 19 quarterbacks averaged a 5.0% or higher TD rate, and 12 quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 passing yards. Eli Manning threw for 4,299 yards and 21 touchdowns! This version of the NFL, with even bad teams able to rack up heavy amounts of passing yards is making the running quarterbacks more valuable than ever. Of the quarterbacks in the top-12 in fantasy points per game last season, five added meaningful points with their legs (Watson, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, and Mitch Trubisky). Quarterback passing scoring is so flat, with a large swath of the field averaging between 20 and 17 fantasy points per game, that the real difference makers are going to be the runners. Every season includes quarterback touchdown outliers (Mahomes with 50 in 2018) but if we follow this trend further and assume that even more QB’s are throwing even more pass attempts then the gap in projection between someone like Andrew Luck and Derek Carr actually narrows. This assumption is essentially predicated on the idea that the teams that were throwing less will come closer to the crowd and that it is unlikely that the already-pass heavy teams go above a 70% pass rate. While I would love to see it, I don’t know if any NFL team is ready to try and beat Matt Stafford’s 2012 record of 727 pass attempts.
This is obviously a lot of conjecture (based on available evidence, granted) but I think it is important to start thinking before the season about how we want to start adjusting to new information. You really do not want to be caught surprised by new trends. If there are only five hold out teams that are still trying to #EstablishTheRun, the value of the Phil Rivers/Drew Brees/Tom Brady tier is going to be at a historical nadir while Dak Prescott/Lamar Jackson/Josh Allen get real bumps (assuming a corresponding pass rate).
Satellite Running Backs Could Routinely See Meaningful Targets
Targets are more valuable than carries for running backs. We just know that to be true. Targets are worth 1.36 more than a carry in standard leagues and a target has been worth 2.74 times as much as a carry in PPR leagues. This is pretty self-explanatory stuff and most RotoExperts readers are going to be smart enough to understand that running backs that get targets AND carries are the most valuable players to draft/stash/pick up on waivers/trade for. However, I think there is a somewhat reasonable chance that the “satellite back” has a ceiling that hasn’t been touched yet. We covered in the Ultimate Guide To Zero RB Drafting the #LayeredRunningBack theory which is simply: your teams should contain multiple different types of running backs. Pure handcuffs, satellite backs and uncertain playing time RBs. My supposition here is that perhaps the scatback actually has a ceiling even if the particular back doesn’t get 150+ carries.
The last three seasons, there have been six running backs with more than 80 targets but less than 150 carries. One in 2017 and 2016 (Duke Johnson and James White) but there were four last season. This idea correlates with the first point, the idea that teams are spreading their targets out more than ever because there are simply more passes to go around. If you were forced to chose between a limited-role RB, you would take the five target running back over the five carry running back any day. In the last three seasons, there have 99 running backs with less than 50 targets and more than 100 rushing attempts. What if those numbers, on average, started to switch? Instead of giving Alfred Blue, LaGarrette Blount, Wayne Gallman type running backs inefficient carries, teams could opt to give a few extra targets to the Theo Riddick, Giovani Bernard, Justice Hill, and Chris Thompson’s of the world. Again, this is mostly conjecture and we are just thinking of ways we may need to adjust our expectations in season. It would seem to follow that if teams are going to throw more and the pie of passes is larger and the pie of carries is smaller, the number of total running back targets will increase. This would dramatically increase the playable pool of running backs because you could never feel comfortable starting an eight carry running back but due to how valuable targets are, you could start a five target running back. If there are simply more backup/secondary running backs seeing targets, that expanded pool would make Zero RB teams way more viable and would make in-season management much different than it had been in years past.
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