As we prepare for the 2020 season, there are tons of hot takes swirling around the internet. Some are baseless tweets and articles meant to stir up conversation and clicks. Others are bold predictions that do have some foundation in reality, even if it’s a long shot. I plan to make this article somewhere in the middle.
Football is set up for small samples with only 16 games in a season and roughly 55-65 offensive snaps per game. In football, even a player with “a lot” of volume may only participate in a fantasy relevant play on 20 of those snaps. Contrast that with baseball where each hitter on a team sees 600 at bats in a season!
For this exercise I will highlight a player or situation on each team in the NFL using a nugget from 2019. You need to decide for yourself whether the information should dictate your position or whether it’s just a fun statistical oddity chalked up to sampling bias.
Dallas Cowboys – The face lift that Kellen Moore gave Dallas last year cannot be overstated. They went from 0.063 expected points per dropback to 0.193 (3rd best in NFL) per Ben Baldwin. Dak Prescott had 1617 more air yards in 2019 compared to 2018, an increase of 40%! Some are not sure if 2019 was the start of a trend of an aberration, but it is not a fluke. Moore fundamentally changed how the Cowboys approached their play calling and he did it by unleashing the passing game.
New head coach Mike McCarthy has already said he doesn’t want to step on Moore’s toes and will let him run the offense. Prescott, Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb should all very fantasy relevant in addition to Ezekiel Elliott. But make no mistake this is not the ground and pound scheme we had become used to.
New York Giants – There is a lot of optimism around Daniel Jones, but I am wary. The rookie had a few flashy games that buoyed his season, but overall it was very hit or miss. He built his game on a ton of very inefficient volume, ranking 30th in yards per attempt out of quarterbacks with over 200 attempts. Of course, a rookie can be excused for struggling but his college yards per attempt never broke 7.0. This is a theme.
Enter a new regime and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett who led a stone age attack in Dallas. From 2011 to 2018, Garrett’s Cowboys ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in 1st and 2nd down pass rate at under 50%. Contrary to popular belief, this often puts quarterbacks `in a worse situation having to pass on 3rd and long. That combined with Jones’ poor yards per attempt will make things challenging for him to sustain drives.
Philadelphia Eagles – Since 2000 only ten running backs have seen at least 150 carries and 50 receptions as a rookie. Three of them would go on to become fantasy monsters: LaDanian Tomlinson, Matt Forte, and Saquon Barkley. The rest of the list is littered with nice players such as Reggie Bush and Kareem Hunt. And oh, what could have been with Jahvid Best and Steve Slaton if not for injury.
Miles Sanders is one of these ten backs and not only did he see that exclusive volume, he also is tied for the best yards per touch of the group with Barkley at 5.8. The Eagles have given us every indication that Sanders is their feature back, so the volume should increase on top of the excellent efficiency he had as a rookie.
Washington Football Team – I am very excited to see the new WFT offense. In 2019, they ranked dead last in the NFL in early down passing. Typically, this sets the stage for an ugly offensive scheme. Scott Turner was brought in to design the new offense. While coaching the Panthers in 2019 he dialed up passes on about 54% of early downs, good for 10th in the NFL. And his quarterback was Kyle Allen.
Washington released old school running back Adrian Peterson this week, signaling complete buy-in to this new offensive approach. Three of the four running backs on the initial 53 man roster have at least one 20 reception season in college. If nothing else, there will be a large boost in passing volume for Washington given their personnel and coaching changes.
Atlanta Falcons – Last year Devonta Freeman proved to have lost a step. His rushing success rate over average was in the bottom half of the NFL at 41%. The team let him go and he has yet to find a home. Enter Todd Gurley coming to Atlanta as another running back some fear has lost a step. His success rate was about league average in 2019, at 47%, which was down from a high of 56% in 2018. He performed better than Freeman but was no longer a difference maker.
With the team context similar as a pass first offense with a questionable offensive line, there is some hope Gurley can muster an effective season. But he may no longer be the explosive player who dazzled as a fantasy superstar from 2017-2018.
Carolina Panthers – D. J. Moore is a popular pick to take a major leap in 2020, but how good was he in 2019? Well, he was very good in a very important part of the field. His catch rate at 5-10 air yards was about 80% which is well above league average, entering Michael Thomas territory. That mark is higher than Chris Godwin, DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams. He was also over average in catch rate anywhere over 3 yards down field.
With such tremendous success in that 5-10 air yard range, he profiles as an extremely high volume receiver in what should be a very pass-centric offense. One issue with Moore for fantasy has been getting in the end zone but Carolina also is due for some receiving touchdown progression in 2020. New offensive coordinator Joe Brady should also help bring about a perfect storm in Carolina.
New Orleans Saints – Mecole Hardman is a popular pick as an efficient rookie in an explosive offense who is set to take a leap. There’s no lie in that thinking as Hardman was incredibly efficient on his 41 targets in 2019, earning 3 fantasy PPR points per touch. However, Tre’Quan Smith was on a 47 target pace as a rookie and earned 3.6 fantasy points per touch.
2019 was a tough year for Smith as he was injured and only played in 11 games. He still managed to be hyper efficient with the ball, earning 3.9 fantasy points per touch on his 18 looks. The Emmanuel Sanders signing throws cold water on Smith in the short term but don’t forget that his rookie season was incredibly promising. He could be a deeply discounted Mecole Hardman type of player.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – For the past three seasons, Jameis Winston has had an average depth of target over 10. Those high flying ways are likely to end with Tom Brady taking over. Brady has never had an average depth of target over 10 going back to 2009 and has only had one season over eight yards since 2015. This offense will likely look very different from what we have come to expect.
Mike Evans is a great receiver but he has thrived with Winston’s approach, excelling at balls that travel 8-15 yards in the air. He has been below average on balls with 0-7 air yards. Conversely, Chris Godwin had a catch rate well above the NFL average on balls anywhere between 5 and 20 air yards. A new scheme in Tampa should emphasize efficiency over explosiveness, which would mean a re-distribution of targets.
Join the conversation on Twitter!