Coaching Trends: Passing Edition (Fantasy Football)

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I have long been enamored with the importance of coaching in football. Coaching trends from a playcalling perspective can shed light on how specific teams plan to attack defenses in 2020.

The following significant decision-makers have proven they love to air it out. These foundational playcalling blueprints can help us identify fantasy stars. Let’s dive in.

Don’t forget to check out the Rushing Edition.

Dirk Koetter – Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator

Dirk Koetter has been an Offensive Coordinator or Head Coach in the NFL for 13 consecutive seasons. He started out as the Jaguars Offensive Coordinator for five years from 2007-2011. He had little passing success during that time. However, let’s take a look at what has happened since.

Year Position Pass Attempts Rank Pass Yards Rank
2012 ATL OC 8 6
2013 ATL OC 3 7
2014 ATL OC 3 5
2015 TB OC 22 17
2016 TB HC 16 16
2017 TB HC 3 4
2018 TB HC 4 1
2019 ATL OC 1 3

Over the past eight seasons, Koetter’s teams have finished in the top half of the league in passing yards seven times and in the top seven overall six times. During his four years with the Falcons, his teams haven’t ever ranked worse than eighth in pass attempts and seventh in passing yards.

Last year’s Falcons finished 7-9 while ranking 20th or worse in all of these defensive categories: yards per game allowed, points per game allowed, Overall Defensive DVOA, and Pass DVOA. Matt Ryan, who ranked fourth in passing yards per game and led a Falcons offense that ranked fifth in total yards per game, should once again be asked to carry the load to keep Atlanta competitive. And Koetter should have no problem with it. That’s money for fantasy.

It also doesn’t hurt Ryan gets to throw to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, both of whom should benefit from vacated targets in this passing tree. Mohamed Sanu, a trusted and reliable veteran, was traded during the season last year. Before the trade, Sanu averaged six targets per game and 44.7 receiving yards per game over seven contests. And with Austin Hooper now in Cleveland, an additional 7.5 targets per game and 60.5 receiving yards per game are up for grabs.

Julio Quintorris Lopez Jones is a perennial great that ranked third in targets per game (10.5) and third in receiving yards per game (92.9) last season. He’s in play as the overall WR1. Meanwhile, the time is now for Calvin Ridley as he enters his third season. Ridley saw 7.2 targets per game and averaged 66.6 receiving yards per game on the season. But his numbers improved once Sanu was traded. From weeks 8-14, Ridley saw 8.2 targets per game and averaged 82.2 receiving yards per game. Ridley has a nose for the end zone as well as he has totaled 17 TDs through his first two seasons.

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Sean Payton – New Orleans Saints Head Coach

Sean Payton has been the Saints head coach since 2006, the same year Drew Brees arrived. Thus, we have 13 years of data to look at (Payton was suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season). The passing numbers in this large sample are absolutely insane.

Year Position Pass Attempts Rank Pass Yards Rank
2006 NO HC 5 1
2007 NO HC 1 3
2008 NO HC 1 1
2009 NO HC 15 4
2010 NO HC 2 3
2011 NO HC 2 1
2013 NO HC 4 2
2014 NO HC 2 3
2015 NO HC 2 1
2016 NO HC 2 1
2017 NO HC 19 5
2018 NO HC 23 12
2019 NO HC 13 7

Payton’s teams have never finished outside the top 12 in passing yards during this stretch and only finished outside the top seven once. Brees will be 41 this season, which is certainly something to consider. Still, he’s one of the best QBs of all time and his relationship with Payton is legendary.

Even if we see a dip in Brees’ ability, history tells us this is a passing game we want to invest in once again. After all, it was just last season Michael Thomas broke the All-Time NFL Record for receptions in a year (149) and ranked sixth in receiving yards (1,725) All-Time in a season. Thomas is a total stud.

The rest of the depth chart is solid as well. Emmanuel Sanders gives Brees a reliable WR2 for the first time in years, Alvin Kamara is one of the league’s best receiving backs, and Jared Cook is an athletic presence in the middle of the field.

Kamara was banged up last season. Healthy again, he’s a solid first-round investment in fantasy who has specifically caught 81 passes in each of his three NFL seasons. Sanders and Cook are reliable veterans that will benefit from playing with Brees and in Payton’s system, making them solid mid-round investments as well.

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Mike Tomlin – Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach

This is a fun one because it’s a bit of a surprise, especially with recency bias altering our minds thanks to what we had to witness last season with Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline. The stereotype in Pittsburgh has long been they play good defense and run the ball. However, in recent years, the numbers do not bear that out.

Year Position Pass Attempts Rank Pass Yards Rank
2014 PIT HC 6 2
2015 PIT HC 16 3
2016 PIT HC 9 5
2017 PIT HC 6 3
2018 PIT HC 1 2
2019 PIT HC 26 31

Prior to last season and Big Ben’s injury, Pittsburgh had a five-year stretch where they ranked in the top half of the league in pass attempts and top five in passing yards every year. Roethlisberger is now 38 and coming off an injury and Antonio Brown is long gone. Still, these numbers are extremely noteworthy.

Just two seasons ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster turned 166 targets into 111 receptions, 1,426 receiving yards, and seven TDs. Entering his fourth NFL season, JuJu will only be 23 years old for the majority of the year. One of the best WRs in football, Smith-Schuster is a textbook bounce-back candidate now that he’ll be trading out Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges for Big Ben.

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Diontae Johnson showed extreme promise as a rookie, tying JuJu in targets per game (5.8) and finishing only 3.5 receiving yards per game behind him (42.5). Meanwhile, James Washington showed significant improvement in his second season, leading the Steelers in receiving yards on the season (735). Both Johnson and Washington are intriguing mid-rounders, but I greatly prefer Diontae.

At the Tight End position, the Steelers recently signed Eric Ebron to a two-year contract worth $12 million. It may feel like Ebron has been around forever, but he will only be 27 years old entering his seventh NFL season in 2020. Just two years ago playing with Andrew Luck, Ebron posted 750 receiving yards and 14 total TDs. He’s still got it and this is a very intriguing landing spot.

Bruce Arians – Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach

Prior to 2009, Bruce Arians coached teams finished in the bottom half of the league in passing yards all five times. However, since then, he’s been able to find sustained success through the air.

Year Position Pass Yards Rank
2009 PIT OC 9
2010 PIT OC 14
2011 PIT OC 10
2012 IND OC 7
2013 ARI HC 13
2014 ARI HC 14
2015 ARI HC 2
2016 ARI HC 9
2017 ARI HC 15
2019 TB HC 1

In ten seasons since 2009, Bruce Arians coached teams have finished in the top half of the league in passing yards all ten times. And we should once again have a recipe for passing success in 2020: an average defense and an average running game should mean the onus will fall on Tom Brady to carry the Buccaneers.

Which brings us to one of the most fun topics of the offseason, entering the 2020 season at 43 years of age, is Tom Brady’s ability falling off a cliff or was he just stuck with an awful supporting cast in New England last season? Brady only ranked 15th in passing yards per game (253.6) and tied for 16th in TD Passes per game (1.5) in 2019. However, outside of Julian Edelman and James White, Brady really didn’t have much to work with.

Now in Tampa, Brady is blessed to be working with arguably the league’s best 1-2 punch at WR in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Evans has posted over 1,000 receiving yards in all six seasons of his career and Chris Godwin just put the entire league on notice in his third season, turning 121 targets into 86 receptions for 1,333 yards and nine TDs.

Both players are fantastic and are worth high investments. However, my choice between the two is Chris Godwin. Brady and Julian Edelman had a mind meld and connection for years that was one of the league’s best. Edelman has historically been a slot WR, where Godwin lined up on 63.4% of his snaps in 2019. Plus Arians has a long history of slot WR success that includes Hines Ward, Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and of course now Godwin.

And if you know me, you know I’m not ready to give up on O.J. Howard yet. Howard was an incredibly talented prospect who showed flashes of talent with limited opportunities in his first few NFL seasons. He’s only entering his fourth year in 2020. An admittedly risky selection after a horrible 2019 season, Howard makes sense as a later round gamble thanks to Tom Brady’s greatness and Bruce Arians’ pass-happy scheme.

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