The NFL Is Changing, and Your Fantasy Football Strategy Should Change With It
I've been on a weight loss journey recently. Long overdue, I embarked on a New Year's mission to change my health and appearance, and over the past five and a half months, I've lost over 50 pounds.
But it's been interesting to see who's even noticed the difference. My neighboring coworkers have barely noticed. My wife can hardly tell a difference. However, when I run into people who I haven't seen in several months, they immediately give compliments about my appearance.
The "before and after" illusion is stark to them, whereas my coworkers and family see me nearly every day and don't notice the gradual change occurring in front of them.
Trends in the NFL are slowly shifting as well, and I wonder: are we even noticing?
Like the unobservant coworker, we fail to see trends as they are occurring. Instead, we lean on our recency bias to assume that future seasons will be very similar to the most recent one. We operate with an understanding of positional value that is only updated with anecdotal recent evidence.
But as we prepare for the 2018 NFL season, we have to realize that it will not look like the NFL we grew up watching. It's also unlikely that we see a repeat of 2017, which was unique in many ways.
So let's dive in and look at some league-wide trends in order to build a better understanding for what should happen in 2018. It may change the way you look at fantasy football this year.
2017: The Peak of Offensive Football?
There is a common narrative among NFL fans that the game of football has never been more fast-paced, high-scoring, and offensively-friendly than it is right now. But that's simply not true.
2013 was the high-water mark for offensive pace in the NFL. In three of the four years since, we've seen fewer plays than the prior year.
Plays are essential to fantasy success. Plays provide volume. Volume provides opportunity. Opportunity provides fantasy points. A decrease in plays yields a decrease in possessions and, in turn, a decrease in touchdowns. That is unless you can score touchdowns at a faster rate, which is exactly what NFL teams have done in four of the five seasons before 2017.
There appears to be a real trend pointing towards a slower game than in 2013, and we must realize that scoring opportunities will be largely tied to overall pace of play. The good news for fantasy production is that teams are becoming more efficient with their decreased opportunities. With the exception of 2017 (which saw decreases in passing and rushing touchdowns for the first time since 2003), the NFL was coming off seven consecutive years of an increasing rate of points per possession. While 2017 saw teams score 0.13 fewer points per drive than in 2016, the general trend has favored offensive scoring per possession.
Pace of play is the restrictor plate of fantasy production, and it appears to be trending in the wrong direction. Fortunately, offenses do appear to be steadily improving their yards and touchdowns on a per play basis.
Is the Run Game Back?
There's no doubt that 2016 and 2017 have been friendly to the running back position. The passing game has seen a decrease in scoring in consecutive years. However, league-wide pass to run ratio has gradually become more and more pass heavy with the exception of 2017.
You've probably noticed by now that 2017 was an anomaly in quite a few ways. Following a steadily increasing pass-to-run ratio in seven of the eight prior years, we saw a sudden and noticeable increase back towards the run last year. Similarly, pass attempts were down while running back rushes saw their first increase after eight straight years of decline (and 12 out of the previous 13 years of decline).
Who Sees the Most Targets in Today's NFL?
As the pace of play takes a dip, competition for available targets becomes even more important. The graph below shows how targets have been allocated since 2000. What is noticeable is that wide receivers saw a sharp decrease in targets last year despite having seen that number increase in seven of the eight previous years.
Another observation that stands out is that running backs and tight ends are seeing nearly equal volume in the passing game. Despite the reputation of niche running backs becoming more involved in the team passing game, the data suggests that the role of running backs as pass-catchers has held quite steady over the past two decades.
The market share percentage of these targets has held relatively stable as well. Since 2000, wide receivers have seen between 54.2% and 56.1% of team targets in every season until -- say it with me -- 2017. Last year, wide receivers only garnered 52.9% of targets, a 3.2% drop from the prior year.
Beyond positional trends, the most impactful movements may exist in how targets are being distributed to players throughout an offense.
Let's take a look at all passing options regardless of position:
The primary pass-catching option in a team's offense has become a less and less valuable position as time has gone on. More players are becoming more involved in the passing game. Rather than workhorse wide receivers dominating a steady 30% of targets consistently, teams are relying more on their third, fourth, and subsequent options. The role of "number-one receiver" no longer means what it once did in a vacuum.
How Are Rushes Being Distributed?
Like wide receivers, teams have also employed more rushing options to take pressure off of bell-cow running backs.
A team's leading rusher has seen his role shrink over the years, while more rushes have been given to secondary options, including the quarterback. As a result, the bell-cow running backs and receivers are precious by comparison because the role itself is going away, making the players remaining in those roles all the more scarce.
What Does Success Look Like?
With the exception of 2017, passing efficiency has been steadily trending upward. Using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which determines the value added to a team's potential score based on the result of an individual play, the value of a quarterback drop back has consistently increased through the years until last season. By comparison, running back rushes continue to have a net negative impact on a team's desire to score points.
Overall, passing has continued to yield substantially better results than the run, but 2017 puts a concerning spin on the future of passing. Last season saw the Success Rate (the percentage of positive expected points plays made) decrease for running back targets, tight end targets, and wide receiver targets, suggesting that the state of the passing game in 2017 was a bit atypical. Unusually large dips in net yards per pass attempt, yards per drive, and overall pass attempts further point to 2017 as an anomaly.
The biggest point that gives me confidence that passing is set to rebound in 2018 is the fact that a drop back is still a far more successful option than a handoff to the running back. Whether your standard for effectiveness is Success Rate or efficiency (Net Expected Points), the passing game continues to provide a significant advantage.
Beginning in 2013, a new phenomenon was unlocked in the NFL: the mobile quarterback. The quarterback rush has become by far the most successful play in today's NFL, and it totally makes sense. Quarterbacks are picking up key yardage in pivotal situations through scrambling and even designed runs, which pays off in Success Rate. Players like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and even Robert Griffin III have redefined the quarterback position, adding a dimension to the offense that is now utilized by a greater number of quarterbacks. Athleticism is more necessary at the position than ever before to capitalize on this defensive blind spot.
The 2017 campaign saw decreases in Success Rate as well as Net Expected Points for both passes and running back runs. Overall, it was simply a bad year for offensive football.
What Happened to Passing Games in 2017?
To the dismay of those interested in good offensive football, 2017 saw a series of factors that contributed to the ultimate result.
Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Ryan Tannehill, Josh McCown, Andrew Luck, and Carson Palmer all missed at least three games due to injury. Marcus Mariota, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, and Derek Carr all had uncharacteristically poor years in terms of fantasy performance compared to expectations.
The NFL's stud signal-callers were either missing significant time, or they were simply not rising to the occasion. Granted, injuries happen every year and so does poor play from guys with high expectations, but 2017 featured a disproportionate amount of both. The talent of the NFL didn't shine in 2017, but that could all change in 2018, beyond just regression to 2016 levels. While injuries will certainly occur to some extent next season, it's important to realize that 2017 featured some extreme variance at the quarterback position.
What Will Things Look Like Moving Forward?
There are several trends within the NFL that should make us feel optimistic about the future of fantasy skill players.
A ton of tired coaching regimes have been replaced with youthful staffs with explosive tendencies. Last year, the Los Angeles Rams replaced Jeff Fisher with Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan took over in San Francisco, and running back guru Anthony Lynn took the reins for the Chargers. This year, Matt Nagy highlights the bright offensive class of coaches by taking the Chicago Bears job. Frank Reich is now in Indianapolis, and Pat Shurmur is looking to revitalize the Giants.
Unfortunately, the league has yet to fully invest in the offensive renaissance. Over the past two seasons, the Bills, Broncos, Cardinals, Lions, and Titans have plucked defensive specialists for the head job. What's encouraging, though, is that at least two of those teams (Detroit and Tennessee) have identified strong offensive coordinators with a great track record of fantasy success.
The NFL is also investing more heavily in running backs through the draft. We know that drafting a running back in the top 10 of the draft is a huge mistake for a team's salary cap. But as long as teams keep doing it, it's going to have implications for fantasy football.
There's a trend now to exploit running backs on rookie deals and dole out large workloads immediately. There's a youth movement at the position, and there's a shift in the mindset among many decision-makers in the league as to how to utilize the position. Draft equity is always a strong indicator for predicting future fantasy success, and it at least reveals something about the team's priorities. As more teams adopt this strategy of dumping work on rookies, less value is found in each of those players individually. In other words, the more quality backs we see, the less scarce -- and valuable -- those players become.
Similarly, the veteran quarterback contracts continue to raise the bar at the position. Each time a top-10 quarterback comes up for contract renewal, they reset the market. The NFL knows where its bread is buttered, and it's at the quarterback position. Despite seeing more investment from teams in the run game through the draft, it's apparent that the NFL knows successful offenses flow through the quarterback. This appears to be a clear indicator that the rise in passing that was occurring pre-2017 should resume in 2018.
One thing is crystal clear here: 2017 was a blip on the trendline. It's not the start of a new normal.
After several consecutive years of the passing game pulling away from the running game in total volume, 2017 was a major hiccup. Since it's the most recent season in our collective memory, though, many will expect it to be the norm moving forward.
That means there's an opportunity to seize value in fantasy drafts right now by taking valuable pieces of the passing game.
We aren't breaking any new ground by saying that you should desire high-volume wide receivers and multi-purpose running backs on your fantasy roster. That much has always been clear. But what has changed in 2018 is where these players are falling in the early portion of drafts. Currently, only three of the top-13 players selected in fantasy football standard league drafts are wide receivers. Last year, that number was six.
Running backs paid off in 2017, and the market is betting on a repeat. But every indicator seems to point towards a major rebound for passing offenses in 2018. If you want to capitalize on these league-wide trends, get high-volume exposure to the passing game at every position on your roster, including running back. To find value, you can capitalize on the knee-jerk drop of wide receiver and tight end early in your draft to select true target hogs.
As always, volume is king in fantasy football. Draft accordingly.