Fantasy Football: The Sky’s the Limit for Kyler Murray in 2020
As SB Nation’s Charles McDonald wrote last year, “Making life easier on the quarterback is the core principle of the air raid.” It’s no surprise therefore that the Cardinals lined up in shotgun nearly 90 percent of the time (second-most in the league) last season. Shotgun allows a quarterback to keep his head up and read the field extremely quickly, making a decision much faster than if he’s under center and dropping back.
We also shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that Air Raid aficionado Kingsbury used “10 personnel” (1 running back, 0 tight ends, 4 wide receivers) three times more often than the next closest team in neutral game scripts (when the point margin is within 7 either way). When including all plays, the Cardinals quadrupled the second-highest team in four-wide usage rate and ran it 10 times the league average.
Will the Cardinals keep up the blistering pace and sustain Murray’s fantasy production into 2020?
The Kingsbury Offense
These receiver-heavy packages were helpful for Murray because having a bundle of pass-catchers running routes gives a young, quick-processing quarterback a ton of options to move the ball. This also forces defenses to back off of pressuring a young quarterback behind a vulnerable offensive line.
Also helping keep production up and Murray clean is the Cardinals’ focus on pace. In 2018, Arizona ranked 20th in seconds between plays in neutral game scripts -- a below-average mark in terms of speed of play.
In 2019, however, they leapt up to a strong fourth in neutral game script pace. This speed boost helps push the offense to running plays quicker and therefore running more plays that fantasy points can be generated on.
Everything about the way that Kingsbury’s offense is built, down to the foundational elements of how they want to beat defenses, focuses on making the quarterback efficient, effective, and extensively utilized. And that is good for Murray, who proved in only his rookie year that he can thrive in that environment.
A Favorable Schedule
For quarterbacks’ fantasy value, we tend to want them playing in games where they are underdogs (so the offense can’t just run down the clock) but not such big underdogs that the defense can sit back in pass coverage and attack with pass rushers, neglecting the run. In effect, there’s a Goldilocks zone for how game script affects quarterback fantasy scoring.
Murray’s 2019 season is a perfect example of this, and the table below shows how the projected point spread going into the matchup helped indicate his production in those games. I divided the Cardinals’ 2019 games into three categories: favorites (ARZ spread is 0 or negative), underdogs (ARZ spread is +0.5 to +7), and big underdog (ARZ spread is +7.5 or more).
While these are all small sample sizes (since Murray and this offense are just entering their second year), there are some very clear trends.
In Arizona’s lone game as a favorite last year, Murray tossed an extremely limited 173 passing yards despite 43 attempts. That means he threw an average of just over 4.0 yards per attempt, clearly focusing on a control-based, efficiency plan (which his 69.8 percent completion rate also indicates).
As we get towards the underdog and “big dog” games, we can see that passing yardage creeps up, while passing attempts slink downward. Again, this means the yards per attempt leap up -- they need to throw further downfield to catch up in the game and not just sit on the ball -- but completion rate drops. As the Cardinals complete fewer passes (meaning they accrue fewer yards on a possession), they have to give the ball back to the opposition more often. That leads to fewer offensive snaps than an offense playing in ball control mode.
The major difference across these groupings, however, is the rushing production. There is a steady climb in rushing attempts and yards from “big dog” to “favorite,” doubling the attempts and tripling the yardage. Part of Kyler Murray’s skill set is his speed and mobility, and if you don’t need him to sit in the pocket and launch shots downfield, you can play with designed quarterback runs. Being a major underdog, however, removes his opportunity to maximize that dual-threat ability.
Why this matters is that the Cardinals’ schedule looks a lot better based on opening lines this season. Just based on the lines last year, Arizona had one game as a favorite, nine as a close underdog, and five as big underdogs.
Of the 16 weeks in 2020 that we have initial lines for, the Cards are favorites in five games, close dogs in eight, and big dogs in just two. Given the rushing floor we’ve seen Murray muster in his one game as a favorite, and the arm prowess he’s shown as a close underdog, this should be a welcome sign for fantasy managers.
Improved Team Talent
One can’t overstate how important it is for the Cardinals’ offense to have traded for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins this offseason.
Hopkins finished as 2019's 11th-best wide receiver in Total Net Expected Points (NEP) out of 53 to see 75 or more targets, and it basically cost the Cardinals just running back David Johnson. Johnson ranked 20th in Total NEP among the 64 running backs to rush 50 times and see 10 targets, but they still have Kenyan Drake, who came in 13th last year.
Hopkins’s presence allows veteran Larry Fitzgerald to ease into more of a secondary or tertiary role as he enters his age-37 (and possibly final) NFL season, rather than having to carry the passing offense on his back. It also allows third-year speedster Christian Kirk to develop his game with nuance rather than being forced into a top role yet again.
Most importantly, it gives Murray yet another dependable and talented target to add to in the receiver group. Even in a pseudo-down 2019 season for Hopkins and his former team, he still mustered the 16th-best True Catch Rate (percent of catches on only catchable targets), the 16th-best contested catch rate, and the 14th-most yards per route run, all while obtaining just the 72nd-most separation when targeted.
With two receivers who seemingly can’t drop a pass atop his receiver charts, Murray is poised to complete a lot of passes in 2020.
Oh, and the Cards selected one of the best offensive tackles in the draft in the third round in Josh Jones, who allowed just a 1.4% pressure rate across nearly 1,300 pass-blocking snaps in his final three years in college. No big deal.
Ceiling in 2020
Based on last year’s QB7 finish and the above improved factors, it’s hard to disagree with the optimism our model's projections give him. We afford Murray a projection of 4,178 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions on 551 attempts, as well as 80 rushes for 389 yards and 3 scores on the ground, which ends up the QB6
That said, our model’s confidence interval does have a high end for Murray that stretches him toward the QB3 spot, behind only Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. In an ideal world where everything hits for Arizona this year, Murray is one of few fantasy quarterbacks with top-three upside.
Still, Kyler Murray is coming off the board in fantasy drafts at the 43rd overall spot in ADP, according to Bestball10s, as a mid-fourth round pick and the QB3. That draft capital prices in his potential to reach the second echelon of fantasy signal-callers but doesn’t allow for any potential downside. Count me a Murray fan for 2020, but unless he falls to about the sixth round, I’d rather take some other options -- like Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson, who are going in that range -- instead.