Fantasy Football Red Flags: What Can Week 1 Usage Tell Us?

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The start of the NFL season is just around the corner! During the first few weeks of the year, it’s critical to keep an eye on players surrounded by uncertainty. Usually, these are players where we don’t know what their role in the offense will be. The Fantasy Footballers always suggest to use your last draft pick on a player that you can learn a lot about in Week 1: either there is a clear path to fantasy production, or they are not involved in the team’s game plan and you can move on and sign someone else from the waiver wire. Isiah Pacheco is a great example; we’re all going to learn if the camp hype train is real or not!

In the 10 Tips & Tricks Episode, Jason gave ‘the rip cord’ tip, which references the statistic that RBs who see low usage in Week 1 have – on average – dour season-long performances. In this article, we’ll dive deeper into different statistics, positions and metrics of performance so that you can identify red flags early in the season. All data, which goes back to 1999, is from nflfastR.

One last thing: I wrote an article last year about not overreacting to Week 1. That’s mostly concerned with players that ‘go off’, but probably don’t have a path to stardom moving forward (Sammy Watkins, anyone?). This article will be the opposite: identifying when low usage in Week 1 can be predictive.

Usage and Total Points

Volume, or the number of opportunities a player has in an NFL game, is central to fantasy production. Each position has crucial ‘usage metrics’: carries, targets, and opportunities (or carries + targets) for RBs, targets for WRs and TEs, and passing attempts for QBs are the main statistics.

These plots show the average season-long fantasy points split out by player usage in the first week of the season.

  • Running backs clearly exhibit a strong relationship: the more carries in Week 1, the more points they score over a season (on average)! This relationship is less strong with targets, but just as strong with opportunities (carries + targets). One natural ‘breakeven’ point is 10/100: RBs with 10 opportunities in Week 1 average 100 points through the entire season. RBs who score below 100 points are generally not hugely fantasy relevant (RB38 and below last year), so single-digit opportunities in Week 1 is a huge red flag.
  • Wide Receivers and Tight Ends both see their expected season-long points climb with the number of targets in Week 1. For both positions, the climb is steepest from 1 to 10 targets; after that, there’s a bit more noise, and a shallower climb. The ‘breakeven’ point (scoring 100 points) is 5 targets for WRs and 6 targets for TEs.
  • Quarterbacks are an interesting case. There’s a big jump up from 1 to 20 passing attempts, which likely represents the back-up QBs that get in during Week 1. From 20 passes onwards, though, the climb is pretty shallow, and there’s plenty of noise. That means that low passing volume isn’t necessarily a huge red flag for QBs, which makes sense: passing volume can be very game-script dependent, so a small passing sample might not be indicative of future game plans.

Usage and Points Threshold

Here’s the same chart, but with the probability of exceeding 100 points (or 150 points for QBs) on the y-axis.

  • The picture remains dour for RBs with low usage in Week 1: backs with 10 or less opportunities usually do not exceed 100 points. The probability really drops off under 5 targets. By the same token, once they hit 15 targets, the probability of hitting 100+ points basically tops out at about 80%. Again, this is indicative of the fact that really good Week 1 performances might not be as informative as really dire ones!
  • WRs and TEs have a similar picture. The probability of 100+ points climb with Week 1 targets, although it starts to top out / slow down around 10 targets for WRs and 8 targets for TEs.
  • Again, Quarterbacks tail off at about 20 passes in Week 1. From here, there’s no clear increase in the probability of scoring 150+ points, again likely due to the effect of game script on passing attempts in that first week.

Usage and Games Played

Finally, we know that availability is an ability in fantasy. Football is a physically grueling sport, and it’s challenging to make it through the entire season. In addition, it might not be injuries that sideline a player; they might simply be ‘schemed out’. Here are the same charts, but with the number of games played on the y-axis:

 

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I’m not going to iterate through all of the positions in this chart. I think the main takeaway is that, although higher usage does correlate with more games played, the difference doesn’t seem all that large. Across most of the positions, the average difference between low-usage players and super high-usage players is only 2 or 3 games.

This is interesting, and it means that players might not necessarily make your start/sit decisions easy for you. That is, players might still be involved in games: not a healthy scratch, not dropped to the practice squad, but still active for NFL contests. We’ve already seen how low usage players score a lot less, but they will still be playing, which means it’s up to you to make the decision to go with another starting option on your fantasy team.

Conclusion

Waiver adds and trades are extremely important in the first few weeks of the season. Of course, whenever you add a player to your roster, you (usually) have to drop one! It can be difficult to move on from players that you were very excited to draft but, hopefully, this article gave you a sense of when it’s safe to move on.

Specifically, players seeing low usage – carries and opportunities for RBs, targets for WRs and TEs – have much lower season-long scoring totals on average. They are much less more likely to hit a ‘fantasy relevant’ threshold, or scoring enough points to be pertinent in the fantasy landscape. Quarterbacks are the exception to this: don’t worry as much if your QB doesn’t pass the ball much in Week 1. It’s more likely to be a function of game script than a season-long play calling trend!

The last point to note is to consider the converse: we saw that all of these charts eventually tailed off on the ‘high usage’ end. There’s not a huge difference in season-long performance when comparing ‘high’ usage players vs. ‘super high’ usage players. Keep this in mind; it’s more about getting above a threshold of high usage to demonstrate that a player is a significant part of an offense than getting some massive workload in the first week of the season.

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Any other red flags? Message me on Twitter.

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