5 NFL Red Zone Trends to Monitor for Week 1
As a league the NFL amassed a total of 1,286 offensive touchdowns in 2018. That number was up considerably from the 1,113 in 2017, and while passing scores increased by 106, rushing touchdowns saw a higher percentage increase (15.5%) than passing (14.3%).
The jump in fantasy production is even greater as ball-carriers and pass-catchers racked up 2,634 standard points (six points per touchdown), while passers threw for 3,388 points (four points per touchdown). But that takes into consideration all lengths of touchdowns, including those outside the 20-yard line, where only 24.7% of scores came from last year.
On the flip side, 580 passing touchdowns and 389 rushing touchdowns came from inside the red zone, accounting for 75.3% of offensive scores. For passers, those came on 1,328 completions and 2,329 attempts; for rushers, 2,113 attempts.
At a higher level, teams converted on 59.1% of their trips to the red zone, meaning somehow, some way, someone usually scored during that possession.
All that is to say that red zone opportunities are valuable for fantasy football players. In season-long leagues and daily games alike, we want to target guys with touchdown upside because of the amount of points you get on that one play compared to the 60 rushing or receiving yards you need to add up to that touchdown.
The question is, why are we talking about this if it is such a logical approach? The reasoning is simple: touchdowns are pretty hard to predict. Certain players are off the field in certain situations and packages, while others might be called upon as go-to guys in the red zone because of their size or versatility.
That's why we're here. Throughout the season, we'll dive into the data to uncover valuable red zone trends that either point us toward one player or suggest we avoid another. Let's get down to it.
First and foremost, let's take a look at how teams balanced their attacks in the red zone last year. Here are each team's pass and run rates, as well as their success rates in both areas, per Sharp Football Stats.
|Team||Pass Rate||Pass Success||Run Rate||Run Success||Team||Pass Rate||Pass Success||Run Rate||Run Success|
For reference, the league averaged a 54%-46% split in favor of the pass, with teams averaging a 42% successful pass rate and 50% successful rush rate. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the league's heaviest pass team and were above average in success rate in the red zone. The Buffalo Bills were the closest squad to 60% rushing in the red zone despite falling seven percentage points lower than the league-average success rate.
Before accounting for any changes in head coach, offensive strategy or even personnel, the data suggests that teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns should throw more inside the 20 this season after falling below the league average in pass rate, with the combination of an above-average pass success rate and below-average rush success rate.
Our models have Carson Wentz, Philip Rivers and Baker Mayfield projected to throw for the fourth-, eighth- and fifth-most touchdowns this season, ranking 8th, 18th and 6th, respectively, at the position.
In the inverse, we could expect the Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys to rely more heavily on the run than the pass when in close. Only the Texans were under 50% in rush success rate.
The Texans are looking to two new additions -- Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde -- to fill the void left by the injured Lamar Miller, so their running back situation is dicey. But as for Green Bay and Dallas, our numbers are high on both Aaron Jones and Ezekiel Elliott. They check in at RB17 and RB4, but Jones has first-round potential and Elliott -- last year's leading rusher -- is a threat to end the year as fantasy's RB1 with his contract situation now newly resolved.
Red Zone Ball-Hogs
In fantasy football, everyone usually knows who the top studs are by average draft position or even name alone. Sometimes, though, big names -- because of offensive scheme, defensive focus or a number of factors -- don't always produce big numbers around the goal line. 2017 Julio Jones is a perfect example of this as he put together a 1,444-yard receiving campaign only to score three touchdowns. Only one of those came in the red zone, where Jones hauled in 5 of 18 balls thrown in his direction.
But for all the griping fantasy owners out there, the process was right because the workload was there. Jones commanded a 25.7% target share in the red zone, and while some would argue for more looks for the elite wideout, he saw regression hit in 2018, turning 17 red zone targets (a 21.8% share) into 10 catches, 100 yards and 5 tuddies.
There's no doubt about it, Jones is an elite fantasy player. However, there are even more elite red zone players than he -- a fact that's evident from the 23 players ahead of him in red zone target share last year.
Packers wideout Davante Adams led the way at 41.9%, having converted 16 of 31 red zone targets for a dozen touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Michael Thomas were among the other elite wideouts at the top, but tight end Zach Ertz slid into the top five with a 31.4% red zone target share in 2018. He saw just four fewer targets than Adams and 10 more than Jones. George Kittle and Travis Kelce were the only other tight ends above a 25.0% share.
Alvin Kamara, with 26 red zone targets, wasn't far off Ertz' mark as he led all backs with a 26.5% target share inside the 20. James White (25.0%), Ezekiel Elliott (23.9%) and Christian McCaffrey (22.9%) round out the NFL's top scoring threats out of the backfield, and only White is considered a non-elite player among them.
Unlike most others, Elliott and McCaffrey also find themselves near the top of the list for the percentage of their team's red zone rushing attempts. At 59.1% and 57.5%, respectively, they sit sixth and seventh behind David Johnson (74.4%), Saquon Barkley (69.4%) and James Conner (68.0%) in the very top tier.
With Cam Newton -- a virtual lock for top quarterback in the red zone -- sidelined for a large chunk of the year, it was Lamar Jackson ranking first of all signal callers with a 38.1% rush rate and four touchdowns to his name. Deshaun Watson had five touchdowns on a 31.3% rate, followed by Josh Allen at a whopping seven touchdowns via a 30.9% share of the red zone rushes in Buffalo.
Rushing aside, Patrick Mahomes dominated the passing game with the most attempts (103), yards (488) and touchdowns (35) inside the opponent 20. The now-retired Andrew Luck was second in scores at 33, with Russell Wilson (24) a distant third. Drew Brees had the highest completion percentage (72.04%) en route to 22 touchdowns and precisely zero red zone picks in 2018.
Basically, all but three or four of these 15-plus players are the elite of their position, and as such they are typically priced up for weekly DFS contests. Because of their red zone dominance, they're the building blocks of cash game and tournament lineups alike.
The Lamar Jackson Factor
We briefly alluded to Jackson above, but his potential commands a deeper look because of the part he could play in this year's fantasy landscape. He's not only a hot topic of draft season, either. Jackson's an early buy candidate and could finish as high as a top-three quarterback in his second NFL season. Our models have him as the QB11 in standard leagues, and for Week 1 he slots in as our second-best play at quarterback behind, ya know, last year's MVP Patrick Mahomes. His $7,400 should move closer to -- if not beyond -- $8,000 in due time.
One of the handful of reasons for so much optimism? Jackson's red zone usage was above and beyond what I think we all could've expected. In rushing alone, his 38.1% share is nearly five percentage points higher than Cam Newton's position-leading 33.3% back in 2017. We also saw him eclipse Newton's marks for rushing share inside the 10 and inside the 5, where Jackson scored a total of three touchdowns.
Greg Roman is the Baltimore Ravens' new offensive coordinator, so Jackson's red zone usage could change along with the new scheme, but don't expect Roman to completely shy away from using his speedy quarterback around the goal line.
The OC's well-known for his working with dual-threat quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor, who he helped to combine for 21 touchdowns in his five seasons calling plays on their sidelines. Kaepernick had just a 16.3% rushing share in the red zone in 2012, but that number's held down by him playing part of the season. As for Taylor, his numbers look more similar to Jackson's, and his success is more recent (2015-16). In his two years under Roman, he ran for 11 scores across two seasons, including eight rushing touchdowns in the red zone, where he put up rush shares of 18.9% and 27.8% in consecutive seasons.
Our own J.J. Zachariason has identified Roman's impact through the air, as well, meaning even if Jackson gets a lesser share of goal line carries, he should have more opportunities to be a part of a score in either part of the offensive game plan. And it's based on that projected improvement, we have him projected for 23.69 total touchdowns -- 6.75 on the ground -- in 2019.
The Rams' Receiver Conundrum
Like pumpkin spice latte addicts deciding on which Starbucks to pick up their drink at, the Los Angeles Rams have what we would call a very "first-world problem" for football purposes: they simply have too many really good receivers.
Now, for Sean McVay that is a big-time luxury, and it's one that kept their offense ticking with Cooper Kupp sidelined for a large portion of 2018. But in fantasy football it causes quite the conundrum. Which of the three do you take in your last-minute drafts, and who is likely to pop off in any given week?
The big issue muddying the L.A. waters further is Kupp's return because it means that we have two totally different seasons to attempt to project off. Back in 2017, McVay's first year at the helm, a healthy Kupp finished as the team's top fantasy wideout and was the WR27. On top of his team-high 94 targets and 176.9 PPR points, the then-rookie tied for third in the NFL with 23 targets inside the 20. He caught 13 with 5 for touchdowns, while Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods combined for 19 red zone targets, 13 catches and 10 touchdowns (7 from Watkins).
Last year, Kupp drew 12 red zone looks in eight games, including seven inside the 10. With that, he contributed three scores -- a total just one shy of both Woods and Brandin Cooks. It's no secret that Woods took over a lot of Kupp's responsibilities as the team's primary slot receiver, and that seems to have helped his numbers. But due to his success, will he play more slot, or will he return to his outside, stretch-the-field role opposite Cooks?
Playing the odds, the most likely outcome is a return to the status quo of Kupp in the slot. He has proven himself a top slot receiver and has become the go-to guy short for Jared Goff. In 2017, he led the way in short left and short middle directional target share (according to Sharp Football Stats), and in the red zone, Kupp was targeted 38% short left, 23% short right and 21% short middle. His 10 targets to the short left were the most of any one player in any one directional area of the red zone.
There is no denying the talent of both Woods and Cooks, but for easier touchdowns in the red zone, Kupp's connection is even more undeniable. Assuming he's back to form -- reports suggest so -- look for him as a Week 1 bargain against the Carolina Panthers. Kupp is the cheapest of the Rams' dynamic trio, given a price of $6,800 on FanDuel, but his touchdown upside makes him an upside play and a pivot from Chris Godwin at just $100 more.
This year, former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury takes over on the heels of a historically awful season for the Arizona Cardinals' offense. Really, there's no way to go but up, but if the preseason is worth anything, fantasy footballers could hesitate to start or roster Cardinals out of the gate.
After four preseason games, the Cardinals' offense had just six touchdowns to show, with five through the air and one through the ground game. Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray didn't throw a single touchdown pass, and in a very small sample, he completed one of his four passes at or inside the 20. The only encouraging thing to note is that the Cardinals only had five red zone snaps with Murray behind center.
As always, everything in the preseason should come with a grain of salt, though we do have a rather significant sample (75 games) from Kingsbury's years as a college coach. The air raid believer saw his teams rank 39th, 42nd, 4th, 3rd, 30th and 24th in offensive touchdowns per game in his six-year tenure at Texas Tech. They also finished top 10 in red zone scoring attempts per game in four of those six seasons.
As far as tendencies go, things were naturally pass-heavy, with the offense throwing at least 55.99% of the time in each season. They ranked in the top 10 in pass play percentage every year and were 12th, at 58.41%, over the last three years.
We can, however, take it a step further and narrow our scope to the red zone, a place where Tech arrived 355 times under Kingsbury. They converted a touchdown at a 63.1% clip, with 120 passing scores to 104 rushing. Only 24 of their 128 rushing scores came from outside the red zone, whereas 104 touchdowns came via the air and outside the opponent's 20-yard line. For what it's worth, quarterbacks (like Mahomes, Mayfield and others) turned in 35 of those total rushing scores.
The key takeaway? Contrary to the overall pass-happy philosophy, there should be plenty of chances for Murray and David Johnson to capture points on the ground in the red zone.
Brett Oswalt is not a FanDuel employee. In addition to providing DFS gameplay advice, Brett Oswalt also participates in DFS contests on FanDuel using his personal account, username BrettOswalt. While the strategies and player selections recommended in his articles are his/her personal views, he may deploy different strategies and player selections when entering contests with his personal account. The views expressed in his articles are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of FanDuel.