How Does a Healthy Greg Olsen Impact the Carolina Panthers' Passing Game?
Last year was the first time since his 2007 rookie campaign that Greg Olsen did not play all 16 games in a season. He broke his foot in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills, and didn't make a full return until Week 14.
An injury of that severity does raise some red flags for a 33-year-old, but Olsen averaged nearly 10 targets per game over his last 4 contests of 2017 (including playoffs). The Carolina Panthers also don't seem too concerned with the long-term implications of the injury, having signed the veteran to a two-year contract extension worth at least $17.1 million.
With Carolina committing to Olsen for 2018 and beyond, he'll look to return to his role as an integral part of the offense. There was much talk of the Panthers' new-look offense last season, but with Olsen playing more than 40% of the team's snaps in five regular season games, it's worth taking a deeper look into how much of an impact his absence had on the team's numbers and the fantasy value of players around him.
From 2013 to 2016, Olsen led the Panthers' offense in targets three times. In his first six years with the team (up until his injury-shortened 2017), he didn't rank lower than second on the team in targets in any given season.
We had two partial games for Olsen (playing between 30 and 40% of the team's offensive snaps), but for simplicity's sake, here I'm just going to look at games in which he saw a full workload and games in which he didn't step on the field.
First up, a look at the team's target distribution when Olsen played:
* One game played in this sample
** Increases to 18% in the four games without Benjamin
And here's how things shook out without Olsen:
* Held at 23% in games without Benjamin
** 6 games played
With Olsen out, Devin Funchess soaked up a lot of the extra volume, jumping 7% in market share (5% if you just look at the games after Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo). The tight end position was far less of a factor, with Ed Dickson's market share sitting barely above half of what Olsen's was, and there was room for a second receiver to pick up volume. That came in the form of Benjamin at first (despite ceding his top spot on the pecking order to Funchess), and eventually went to Curtis Samuel, who had a 20% market share in the three games played without Olsen and Benjamin.
The addition of D.J. Moore (particularly with the draft capital spent on him) muddies up the Panthers' wide receiver situation even further. If we try to find a sample in which the Panthers had two top wideouts, Olsen and Christian McCaffrey all playing, we're left looking at only one game, so that will require a fair amount of extrapolating and projecting to decipher.
Depth of Targets
Not all targets are created equal. For example, Christian McCaffrey's 2017 targets came at an average depth of only 2.5 yards -- the shallowest of any Panther with 20-plus targets, according to AirYards.com. On the other end of the spectrum, Funchess' 12.7 average depth of target (aDOT) was tops in that group.
The addition of a short-range weapon like McCaffrey in the passing game seems to have played a role in shaping the Panthers' offense last year, but a deeper look shows that to have only been the case in certain games. In games without Olsen, Cam Newton had an aDOT of only 8.6 yards -- while his previous lowest mark in a season came back in 2013 (9.6). In the three seasons between, he had an aDOT of at least 10.4 yards.
When Olsen did play last year, Newton's aDOT was still down, but it was more in line with his recent numbers, at 10.1. It's no real surprise that Olsen pulled that number up, with a 10.6-yard aDOT in 2017, which follows 2016's 10.9 and 2015's 10.5. What does stand out is how other player's numbers changed in that sample.
Without Olsen, Devin Funchess had an 11.6-yard aDOT. With him, that mark jumped way up to 15.5. That difference also doesn't seem especially related to the departure of Benjamin, as Funchess had a higher mark than Benjamin in the games they played together. Even McCaffrey saw a slight increase with Olsen, at 2.9 yards compared to 2.4 without him.
So with Olsen playing, Cam Newton and the Panthers pushed the ball downfield much more often, even if we look at passes that didn't target Olsen. That is a big departure from the trend that shows up on a surface-level look at the numbers, where Newton's 8.9-yard aDOT for the seasons suggests that they were moving toward a different style of passing.
How it Affects Cam
We've seen both the players targeted and the depth of target change drastically with and without Olsen, suggesting he has a big impact on how Cam Newton plays. So how does that that affect Cam's production?
In 2017, Cam's efficiency took a serious hit when he was throwing to Olsen. On a per-target basis, looking Olsen's way generated -0.14 Net Expected Points (NEP) for the Panthers, while the rest of the team combined for a 0.21 Target NEP per target average.
Looking back to 2016 though, targeting Olsen generated 0.25 Target NEP per target, compared to 0.10 for the rest of the offense. We see a similar trend in 2015, with Olsen's 0.40 comparing favorably to the rest of the offense's 0.32.
In general, Panthers quarterbacks (mostly Newton, with a small dose of Derek Anderson mixed in) have been far more efficient targeting Olsen than targeting the rest of their weapons. And we can see a similar effect on Newton's fantasy points per pass attempt over his career:
|Targeting Everyone Else||0.38||0.29||0.41||0.36||0.41||0.41||0.41|
Last season was the first time ever that Newton saw his fantasy efficiency drop when targeting Olsen.
Olsen's Down Year
What could have caused this sudden drop in efficiency from Olsen? It's hard to imagine the injury didn't play a big role in the decline. There's reason to believe that the Panthers may have rushed him back before he was 100-percent healthy -- they were 8-4 and vying for a playoff spot. They also tried to bring him back in Week 12, when he played only 33% of the offensive snaps before sitting out another game in Week 13. And even if we want to assume he was completely healthy by Week 14, coming off an extended absence could certainly have hurt his performance as well as the rapport between he and Newton.
It's a very difficult task to quantify whether a player was impacted by an injury, but one thing we can look at the numbers behind is how fast they ran, thanks to Josh Hermsmeyer's great work on game speed. Josh has found players' speed relative to position average to be very stable as far as numbers in the high-variance world of football go, and Olsen saw a massive dropoff between 2016 and 2017, going from well above the league-average for a tight end to slightly below-average it in 2017.
Age and the injury could still impact that speed next year, and we may not see him return to his 2016 levels, but a full offseason of rest should do him some good in that area. And again, the new contract he received suggests that the team isn't concerned about the injury moving forward.
Projecting Into 2018
We're always dealing with small sample sizes with a 16-game fantasy season in the NFL, and splitting stats to account for injuries makes that especially true. That makes it incredibly difficult to accurately pin down something like how the Panthers' targets will shake out in 2018 with all of these moving pieces, but what we can do is look at the trends and get a general idea of what is likely.
Greg Olsen: Olsen has a great shot to lead the team in targets again, and he will likely be one of the league's most-targeted tight ends. He saw the highest share of his team's targets among all tight ends in every season from 2013 to 2016, with at least 23.5% each year. Over the last five years, there have only been four other instances of a tight end seeing a target share of at least 23.5%. Even if he has lost a step and cedes some work to the younger players, it's hard to envision a world in which Olsen isn't a key cog in the Panthers' passing attack.
Devin Funchess: The Panthers drafting D.J. Moore leaves some room for concern, but Funchess' big market share over the second half of the season (a team-high 23% from Weeks 9 to 17) leaves him as the best bet to serve as the team's top wide receiver come September. New, young players are exciting, but we've already seen Funchess atop the depth chart, and it's not likely that Moore steps in and immediately snatches that from him. The Panthers haven't had a wideout see more than 22% of their targets in a season since 2014, and with a lot of weapons in the offense, being the most-targeted receiver makes seeing anything north of about 100-110 targets a serious long-shot for Funchess.
D.J. Moore: The number-two wideout in Carolina will likely have a tough time seeing much volume. In the first eight weeks of 2017, with Benjamin and Funchess both playing, Benjamin ranked second with a 19% target share. That sample includes only 1 1/3 games of Greg Olsen, though. And numbers from 2016, where two wideouts saw at least 17%, don't include the presence of McCaffrey. The WR2 in Carolina will likely be behind Funchess, Olsen and McCaffrey in the pecking order, and here are the number of targets for players who finish fourth on the Panthers over the last few years: 48 in 2017, 58 in 2016, 54 in 2015, 40 in 2014. That's saying nothing of the threat that Curtis Samuel poses, having seen a 20% target share in his two games after Benjamin left.
Curtis Samuel: While Samuel's shiftiness led some people to believe he may have some sort of running back/wide receiver hybrid role, his 12.0-yard aDOT shows that to have not been the case in 2017, and he and Moore will likely be competing for a similar role. If anything, only one of them could see decent volume, but if you're investing in one in fantasy football, the risk is a lot easier to stomach with Samuel at the end of the draft (per ESPN's average draft position data) than Moore does a few rounds earlier.
Christian McCaffrey: The loss of Jonathan Stewart and addition of C.J. Anderson makes the conversation about McCaffrey's potential rushing volume an interesting one, but here we're just looking at the passing game. He saw a slight bump in market share with Olsen out last year, but even when Olsen played, his 21% was a very strong mark and would have been good for first among all running backs in 2017. He figures to continue to be a focal point of the passing attack as he moves into his second NFL season, and is up there with Olsen as far as being the safest bet for targets in Carolina.
Olsen's injury means that a surface-level look at the Panthers' 2017 numbers simply isn't enough. Their offense played like two distinctly different units with and without Olsen, and the effect spread beyond when Olsen was targeted, with changes in not only volume, but in depth of target for other players.
We saw a significant dropoff in efficiency from Olsen, but that looks to be injury-related, and with his new contract extension, it seems likely that the Panthers expect him to be back near 100%. If that is the case, he should continue to shape the offense as he has done in previous years. If his efficiency picks back up, we can also expect to see increased efficiency from Newton.
This doesn't look like it will be a big concern for McCaffrey catching passes out of the backfield, but it does leave the Panthers' wideouts fighting to divvy up a fairly small share of the overall passing volume. In other words, we shouldn't see any super high-end assets emerge, but we can expect the offense to click with a healthy Olsen.