Fantasy Football: 6 Offenses That Will Operate Differently With Fewer Wins in 2020
Game script matters a great deal in fantasy football, and how games unfold can have a big impact on how teams call plays. In general, teams that get out to an early lead often become more run heavy in the second half while teams that fall behind tend to throw the ball more.
Last week I examined the connection between 2020 win total over/under projection and the game script a team faced that season. I found that when teams were projected to lose 2.5 more games than they did the previous year -- according to win total lines at FanDuel Sportsbook -- they found themselves in a leading game script an average of 54 fewer plays than they did the previous year.
I already looked at teams that are expected to win more games in 2020 and how that may impact some of their key fantasy players. Now it's time for the opposite.
Let's dig into the offenses for the teams that are expected to lose at least 2.5 more games in 2020 than they did in 2019. The goal is to see how a change in game script affected the offense last year and seeing more negative game scripts in 2020 might impact their players in fantasy football for the upcoming season.
To be clear, "leading" game script is defined as when a team was winning by 10 or more points and "neutral" game script is when a game is within 7 points.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers were one of the most run-heavy teams in football last year regardless of game script. In leading game scripts, they ranked second in run ratio, and when in neutral scripts, they ranked fourth. So there will likely be very little drop-off in rushing attempts even if they aren't out in front as often in 2020.
The Niners also have one of the best tight ends in football in George Kittle. The 49ers targeted the tight end position on 30.4% of their passing attempts in neutral game scripts -- fifth-most in the league -- compared to 22.8% when leading. Kittle's target share rose four percentage points in neutral game scripts.
Wide receivers, on the other hand, were targeted on 48.1% of San Fran's passes in close games, compared to 53.3% in leading scripts. Deebo Samuel, in particular, went from a 20.6% target share when leading to 16.3% share when in neutral game scripts.
The only running back to see a major usage change based on game script was Tevin Coleman. Coleman's target share dropped 5.5 percentage points -- from 10.9% in leading scenarios to 5.4% in neutral scripts.
Oddly enough, fullback Kyle Juszczyk saw a slight uptick in targets in neutral game scripts, though it still resulted in just a 5.7% share in close games.
The major takeaways for the Niners are that running backs should still see plenty of rush attempts regardless of game scripts. However, Coleman could see less usage as a receiver if the Niners find themselves in more close games, though a Raheem Mostert holdout would change that. Also, Kittle could see even more looks in 2020, showing why he and Travis Kelce are in a tier of their own in fantasy football for tight ends,
New Orleans Saints
2019 Wins: 13 | 2020 Projected Wins: 10.5
Michael Thomas was the most targeted wide receiver in football in 2019. Despite that the New Orleans Saints targeted the wide receiver position on only 50.1% of their passes in neutral game script -- the seventh-lowest amount in the league.
The addition of Emmanuel Sanders does not necessarily mean Thomas' target share will take a meaningful hit. There is room for the Saints to shift more targets to the wide receiver position while still feeding their star wideout. In fact Thomas' target share increased 2.1 percentage points when in neutral game scripts compared to leading game scripts.
After Thomas, the wide receiver with the next-highest target share in neutral game scripts last year was Ted Ginn Jr., at only 10.7%. Sanders will without a doubt have a larger target share than 10%, but Sanders' upside may be capped in this offense.
One of the positions the Saints could take targets away from is the running back position. Running backs were targeted 26.8% of the time in leading game scripts last season and 27.8% in neutral game scenarios. Both of those marks ranked in the top five in the league last year. Alvin Kamara has been one best pass-catching backs since entering the league in 2017, but if Sanders is going to get more looks than Ginn did last year, the targets have to come from somewhere.
Jared Cook saw a target share of only 11.0% in neutral game scripts in 2019 and isn't likely to lose much of that already meh share. Backup tight end Josh Hill and do-it-all threat Taysom Hill made up 9.6% of the target share, and both could be candidates to see less work. Hill, in particular, saw his target share drop 3.7 percentage points when going from leading to neutral game scripts.
Thomas' fantasy outlook remains the best for any wide receiver in football, but the upside of new addition Sanders could be limited in an offense that runs through Thomas and Kamara. Some combination of the running backs and tight ends are likely going to have to give up some opportunities to support Sanders, though Kamara figured to still be heavily involved.
Green Bay Packers
2019 Wins: 13 | 2020 Projected Wins: 9
The Green Bay Packers are projected to lose four more games than they did in 2019. That is the biggest difference in implied win total of any team heading into 2020.
Football fans everywhere have wondered why the Packers have refused to give Aaron Jones a bell-cow workload. Well, in 2020 we could see something much closer to that if the Packers see more neutral game scripts like we expect them to. Jones saw a 62.8% rushing share last season when in close games. That is 15.2 percentage points higher than his rushing share when the Packers were leading. Jones also saw a 13.9% target share in neutral game scripts, which is 5.2 percentage points higher than what he saw when the team was ahead.
Jones could finally be fully unleashed in 2020.
Jamaal Williams was the biggest loser in neutral game scripts. His rushing share dropped 4.2 percentage points, and his target share dropped 2.3 percentage points. Those negative trends and the arrival of A.J. Dillon could make Williams completely irrelevant in fantasy.
The Packers also targeted the wide receiver position 4.8 percentage points more often in neutral game scripts compared to when in leading game scripts, and they targeted the tight end position 3.5 percentage points fewer. Davante Adams missed four games last season and seems to be a bit of a value in fantasy drafts this year. His neutral game script target share was 22.8%. That is 5.4 percentage points higher than his target share in leading scenarios.
The Packers will most likely be passing more than they were in 2019, and Adams is the best target on the team. He could give the aforementioned Michael Thomas a run for the best wide receiver in fantasy football if Aaron Rodgers can put together another high-caliber season. Jones will almost surely see regression in the touchdown department, but going by his 2019 volume splits, he might see a larger workload if the Packers are in more close games.
2019 Wins: 14 | 2020 Projected Wins: 11.5
The Baltimore Ravens were the most run-heavy team in the league last year in neutral game scripts, running the ball 55.7% of the time in such situations. That isn't shocking news considering Lamar Jackson is on the team. Jackson's run share actually was 14.7 percentage points higher in neutral game script compared to leading game script. It is hard to believe that the year after breaking the all-time rushing record for quarterbacks, Jackson could potentially run for even more yards in 2020.
Running back Mark Ingram also saw a large increase in rushing share in close games. His share went from 25.4% in leading scenarios to 38.7% in neutral scripts. Gus Edwards should be hurt most by more neutral game scripts as his rushing share decreased 12.1 percentage points in the split. On top of that, the addition of J.K. Dobbins will likely push Edwards off the fantasy radar.
Running back targets as a whole dropped 4.7 percentage points in close games for the Ravens. Ingram was the biggest loser of the group, losing 2.1 percentage points from his target share.
Tight ends, on the other hand, increased 4.1 percentage points when the game was close, and their 45.5% market share was the highest team mark in the league for tight ends. Mark Andrews already saw his target share increase from 23.4% to 25.3% in neutral game scripts and with the trade of Hayden Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons, Andrews' share could be even higher in 2020.
With such a high target share being given to the tight end position, wide receiver targets were hard to find last year for Baltimore. The position was targeted only 41.4% of the time when the Ravens passed in neutral game scripts -- the second-lowest share in the league. Marquise Brown is a popular breakout candidate in fantasy football this season, but it should be noted that targeting wide receivers is not how the Ravens preferred to move the ball down the field in 2019.
Overall for Baltimore, there is potential for Jackson to make up any negative touchdown regression with even more rushing yards than he had in 2019. Ingram will likely be a rushing workhorse again, unless Dobbins comes out hot early in the season. Andrews' target share could get him up into the elite tier of tight ends alongside Kelce and Kittle.
New England Patriots
2019 Wins: 12 | 2020 Projected Wins: 9.5
Cam Newton brings a whole new style of offense to the New England Patriots in 2020. However, there is one big similarity to the Pats' offense and the Carolina Panthers' attacks Newton ran in the past -- targeting running backs.
The Patriots targeted running backs on 29.7% of their passes in neutral game scripts, the second-highest rate in the league in 2019. In 2017 and 2018, Newton targeted the running back position 25% and 26%, respectively, in close games. As such, James White will still likely be a focal point of the offense with Newton at the helm, and his target share rises 3.8 percentage points -- to 17% -- in neutral game scripts.
The Pats' targeted the wide receiver position 4.4 percentage points fewer in neutral game scripts than they did when leading. Surprisingly, Julian Edelman saw his target share fall from 29.1% when the team was ahead to 25.4% when they were in a close game.
In terms of running the ball, the Pats utilized Sony Michel much more in neutral game scripts than they did when they were leading, which is a bit surprising. His rush share rose 9.9 percentage points -- to 63.1% -- when New England was in a neutral scenario. Rex Burkhead was the main back giving up touches to Michel as Burkhead's rush share fell 8.9 percentage points (to 10.4%) in neutral game scripts.
The Patriots tried out multiple players to catch passes from Tom Brady last year. Mohamed Sanu, N'Keal Harry, Antonio Brown, and Josh Gordon all took snaps for the team in 2019. Hopefully Newton will have some more consistent wideouts to throw to, which could increase their usage in neutral game scripts. Michel could not only benefit from more neutral game scripts based on his 2019 usage, but he may also get a boost from the threat of Newton's running ability.
2019 Wins: 10 | 2020 Projected Wins: 7.5
The Houston Texans are the only team on this list to run fewer than 100 plays last year while in what I've defined as a leading game script. They ran only 51 plays when up by 10-plus points. They are also the only team to run more plays in a trailing game script (down by 10-plus points) than any of the teams I covered in my previous article about teams expected to win more games in 2020.
Because of that, I compared their neutral game script plays to their trailing game script plays. Not only are they unlikely to see a ton of plays in leading scripts in 2020, they will probably see even more plays while trailing, given that they are projected to lose 2.5 more games than they did last year.
The Texans targeted the tight position with 25.2% of their passes when they were behind last year and 20.8% of the time when they were in a close game.
The position that lost targets when transitioning to a trailing game script was the wide receiver position. Houston's wideouts went from a 72.7% share to a 65.2% clip. DeAndre Hopkins was the biggest loser. He saw a drop of 5.5 percentage points to his target share, but, obviously, he is no longer with the team.
Jordan Akins was the biggest beneficiary in trailing game scripts as he saw an increase of 4.0 percentage points to his target share in the split.
David Johnson came to the Texans in the trade, and it isn't likely that he is going to see the same workload that he was used to with the Arizona Cardinals. Johnson handled 61.3% of the Cardinals running back targets when trailing a year ago. In 2019, Duke Johnson had that role for the Texans. He saw 72.2% of the running back targets when Houston was in a trailing game script.
As a whole, the Texans also targeted the running back position in a trailing game script less often than Arizona did. Running backs had a target share of 21% for the Cardinals in the split, compared to 18% for the Texans.
David Johnson's workload is in question heading into 2020. The team will have to decide who they like better catching the ball out of the backfield between he and Duke -- particularly when they are behind. David Johnson may be a low-ceiling option in fantasy this season with Duke stealing passing work.
There are many wide receivers on the team who will be fighting for targets in trailing game scripts, a split where the Texans decreased their wide receiver target share last season. Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, and Randall Cobb won't be fantasy studs week to week, but none of them are super expensive in fantasy drafts right now -- probably because it is difficult to figure out who will provide the most value.