Lessons and Narratives Heading into the Regular Season

Updated: September 2nd 2018

I want to give the reader a few final tips before the NFL season begins next week.  The article includes a key concept in determining potentially undervalued players and also examines some narratives thrown on the fantasy community.  You can use these in your final RSO auctions or evaluating potential roster additions and trades prior to week 1.  Here is hoping everyone has a great upcoming season.

Lesson:  Using Projected Offensive Shares

Finding an edge in fantasy football can be a struggle these days.  There are so many expert rankings and projections out there for the casual fan.  Let me give you a tip to show where one may find fantasy upside utilizing available player projections.  Passing in the NFL is a zero sum game.  What I mean is that all of a quarterback’s passing must be distributed to players on his team.  A quarterback who throws for more yards than another quarterback means his skill players necessarily accumulate more total receiving yards.  A simple concept but how does that help us?  The table below helps us with the question by examining the projections of skill players for three selected teams; San Francisco, Kansas City, and the New York Giants.

Notice right off Jimmy Garoppolo is projected for 400 more passing yards than Eli Manning with equivalent touchdowns and completions; and almost 500 more passing yards than Patrick Mahomes with another touchdown plus over 20 more completions.  Now take a look at the top projected skill players for each quarterback (the RB1, WR1, WR2, and TE1).  Interestingly, San Francisco’s top receiving targets mostly come at a significant discount and lower projection when compared to Kansas City and New York’s top players despite Garoppolo being projected for more passing totals than the other two quarterbacks.  The highlighted projected shares in the last columns can help us understand why.  The top 49er targets are projected for a far smaller portion of Garoppolo’s completions, yardage, and touchdowns than the equivalents from Kansas City and New York.  The San Francisco reception share is at least 15% less, the yardage share at least 17% less, and the touchdown share at least 19% less than the other two teams.

Table 1. Projected Offensive Shares from Fantasy Pros 8/27 Consensus Projections

What are the implications of these differences in shares among teams?  Most importantly, top targets on teams with low projected shares among them offer more upside as a group.  For example, the group of Goodwin, Garcon, Kittle, and McKinnon could reasonably earn another 10% of Garoppolo’s passing totals and still be well under the projected share of Kansas City and New York’s top players as a group.  Each player has the chance to increase fantasy production without decreasing other top player’s production.  Conversely, teams with projected passing shares highly concentrated in its top skill players offer little room for growth as a whole.  Teams like Kansas City and New York already have about 4/5 of the projected passing game production tied up in its top skill players.  There is not much room to add to that portion.  WR3s, WR4s, RB2s, TE2s, and other sub-package skill players will have roles in the offense which limit further production of the top players.  This does not mean that top players on these highly concentrated teams will not exceed projections, just that any increase must necessarily come at the expense of another primary target on the team.

The specific example above may not apply if you do not agree with projections about the quarterbacks in question but the key concept holds for whatever projections you do rely upon.  When you are looking for potential skill player upside beyond projections, examine projected offensive shares of key players for a team.

Narrative 1:  Wide receiver X was ranked Y in 2017.  He should finish around Y again in 2018.

The Reality:  2017 was a down year for passing across the NFL partly because of injuries to starting quarterbacks. Yardage and scoring should increase significantly in 2018.  Quarterbacks and wide receivers which remain stagnant in fantasy scoring will move down the rankings in 2018.

NFL passing has been trending upward for some time.  Rules making it harder for defenses to defend the pass and analytics demonstrating the value of the passing game have resulted in increased passing over the last decade.  That trend came to a crashing halt in 2017.  Total passing yardage in the NFL dropped 7.1% from 2016 to 2017 and was the lowest since 2010.  We saw the fewest passing attempts since 2011 and the lowest yards per attempt since 2010.  This down passing year contributed to total scoring for the league decreasing 4.6% in 2017.  Is this a new trend starting?  I highly doubt it.  A number of short term factors influenced the problems in passing across the league.  Green Bay (-25%), Indianapolis (-31%), and Arizona (-12%) all posted considerably less passing yardage thanks to injuries to quality starting quarterbacks for example.  The injury rate should subside in 2018, especially among the better quarterbacks, increasing passing yardage in the NFL.

The decreased passing transferred to wide receivers in fantasy.  Jordy Nelson and T.Y. Hilton, for example, went from WR1s in 2016 to unreliable fantasy assets largely due to Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck missing action.  The sliding of top wide receivers necessarily moved others up the rankings.  Golden Tate finished 2017 with almost identical fantasy output as 2016 but moved up the rankings four spots.  The chart below details the phenomenon in a more general way.  A player scoring 12 points per game in 2017 was a fairly decent flex option in most leagues ranking 28th in per game scoring.  That same player was barely usable as a bye week fill-in for the 2016 season ranking a whopping 14 spots below the same 2017 player.  Remember that 2017 was an anomaly in the passing game when valuing players for 2018.

 

Table 2.  Wide Receiver Fantasy Points per Game (PPG) Scoring in PPR Leagues, 2016 vs. 2017

 

Narrative 2:  Quarterback X targeted position Y a lot on his old team.  He will do so again on his new team.

The Reality:  Quarterbacks throw to players based on personnel talents and coaching scheme, not because of individual preference for a certain position.

Let’s examine two quarterbacks this narrative has been thrust upon, Alex Smith and Kirk Cousins.  The story goes these quarterbacks like throwing to tight ends and will continue to do so with their new teams.  There is no doubt Alex Smith utilized the tight end position extensively in his career with both San Francisco and Kansas City.  Both teams finished highly in tight end target percentage on multiple occasions.  However, we must look at who he was throwing to.  Smith had Vernon Davis, a top-6 overall draft pick who is one of the top athletes to ever enter the league, in San Francisco.  The Chiefs ranked 5th or better in tight end target percentage each of the last four years but that was with the super being known as Travis Kelce as the TE1.  Washington has also targeted tight ends heavily under Cousins, ranking top-10 in tight end target rate each of the last three seasons.  That was with Jordan Reed, one of the most dynamic receiving weapons at the tight end position, and the afore-mentioned Vernon Davis (when Reed is not healthy) primarily manning the tight end spot.

Kansas City ranked next to last in Smith’s first season with team, however.  Anthony Fasano was the TE1 that season.  This story plays out over and over again with quarterbacks and coordinators adjusting for personnel.  Tom Brady throws significantly to tight ends when he is Rob Gronkowski, not when the TE1 is Michael Hoomanawanui.  Greg Olsen has been a key target of Cam Newton’s for years, not so much for Ed Dickson last year when Olsen was injured.  One may expect Smith to heavily target Reed (at least when he is on the field) because he is a tremendous receiver, not because he happens to play tight end.  We should not expect the lumbering Kyle Rudolf to become a focal point of Cousins’ in Minnesota simply because Cousins previously targeted tight ends at a high rate.  Players matter.


Bio:  Bernard Faller has degrees in engineering and economics.  He currently lives in Las Vegas and enjoys athletics, poker, and fantasy football in his free time.  Send your questions and comments (both good and bad) on Twitter @BernardFaller1.

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