Fantasy Football: Do Offenses Have ‘Too Many Mouths to Feed’?

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I recently spent a weekend attempting to build a farm table for our back porch. It was the first table I’ve ever made and I was honestly shocked that it didn’t immediately fall apart or wobble. It was an 8-foot table made mostly of 2x4s and gumption.

Is this a DYI blog? Where is this guy going?

While spending Saturday cutting, sanding and staining the table, the conversation going on in the back of my head was mostly about pass-catchers. This is how you know its early August. The table was the perfect metaphor to examine a common fantasy football narrative given every year that I personally had bought into without much depth of insight or push back.

While taking a top-down approach examining each team’s targets for 2018, I wanted to know: Is it viable to say “there are too many mouths to feed” when analyzing an offense in fantasy?

Defining the Narrative

When we’re highlighting this narrative, it’s essential to define our terms and simply let the numbers speak for themselves. I’m not here to start a witch hunt anytime someone uses the phrase “too many mouths to feed”. However, I would love for us to walk down the road together and examine how much this narrative holds water and how we can respond heading into the 2018 season. Whether it’s a crowded group of pass catchers on the Browns, the Packers trio of rookie WRs, or the bountiful options the Buccaneers have, I’ve seen this thrown around more than enough to simply quench any talk of an NFL offense supporting more than 2 fantasy options. Let’s use the recently built table and the weekly, homemade “pizza party” my 2-year old has come to expect in explaining this metaphor.

The number of people sitting at the table– We’ll look at the number of fantasy-relevant pass catchers on a team. I will set the parameters as a team’s top targeted option at RB1, WR1, WR2, WR3, and TE1. As I’ll discuss below, there’s “another” person eating at the table that often goes unnoticed when deciding how targets are distributed.

The size of the pizza– We’ll examine the volume within an offense expressed by total team passing attempts. This should tell us if the narrative is simply a case for high octane passers (Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger) or classic conservative ground-and-pound teams like the Titans, Panthers, or Bears.

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The slice of pizza each person receives– The most important part of our data set will be the target market share for each viable pass catcher. We will use the target percentages found in the Ultimate Draft Kit under the Market Share Tab compiled by our own Mike “The Fantasy Hitman” Wright.

Only after examining this factors can we safely assess the evidence often offered to uphold this narrative.

There’s not enough volume in this offense.
This team has an alpha that limits the rest of the pass catchers.
The QB is holding back this offense.

How Much Volume is Needed?

Perhaps the best way to narrow this question down is by asking about how many fantasy relevant options can an offense support in a given year. The chart below shows the gamut of available target distribution in the NFL. The green represents a higher total while the red shows the low-end of target share percentages. Each team’s position ranked by order of targets. For example, although Odell Beckham Jr. is clearly the WR1 on the Giants, he ended the year with just 41 targets due to injury with 6.8% of the team’s pass attempts and the WR3 in terms of target share.

As you’ll notice, there is no direct pattern as the diffusion of targets seems to be immune from correlating to the total passing volume. In other words, whether your team throws for 560+ attempts or not, this does not dictate what percentage you can or cannot expect from a given position. It does not tell us where the volume will be distributed.

While obviously having a bigger “pizza” helps spread more around, the position with the highest correlation to the passing volume was the WR3 spot on our chart. This makes total sense given the fact that 2017 saw the 2nd highest 11-personnel sets (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs) run in league history according to Football Outsiders. “For the second straight year, every team in the NFL used 11 personnel on at least 40 percent of their snaps.” This tells us that there is more and more room for viable fantasy pass catchers to see a target because more and more of them are seeing increased snap counts.

In other words, although there are more people sitting at the table than a couple years back, the size of the pizza isn’t the overall deciding factor if people get fed.

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Do Elite WRs Stagnate Other Options?

Let’s take a look at a couple of the highest targeted players according to their market shares from 2017 and see if having a big eater at the table is severely detrimental.

The Texans had 2017’s target leader in DeAndre Hopkins who saw 33.1% percent of the teams pass attempts. While he was light years away from the rest of the team, there was still much room within the offense to see another fantasy star emerge as Will Fuller went bonkers before Deshaun Watson got hurt. Fuller had his own injury problems so his 9.5% share doesn’t tell the story of his intended piece of the pizza pie. The rest of the offense settled into a vanilla mix of bland options such as Bruce Ellington, Ryan Griffin, and an ineffective Lamar Miller. However, when we look at each week, there was no clear pecking order.

Player Total Targets # of Weeks as Target Leader # of Weeks 2nd in Targets
DeAndre Hopkins (WR1) 172 14 1
Bruce Ellington (WR2) 57 1 5
Stephen Anderson (TE1) 52 -- 2
Will Fuller (WR3) 50 -- 3
Lamar Miller (RB1) 45 -- 1
Braxton Miller (WR4) 29 -- --
Ryan Griffin (TE2) 26 1 2
C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE3) 22 -- 1
Tyler Ervin (RB2) 11 -- 2

In other words, the presence of Hopkins did not negate the other options on the team from receiving meaningful targets. There were 8 weeks where the 2nd passing option saw 8+ targets. The problem was not having too little pizza at the table, just that everyone’s appetites were too small to receive more.

The Steelers are a perfect example of a team with extreme market shares for their WR1 (Antonio Brown) and RB1 (Le’Veon Bell). These two combined for 45.5% of the target share and yet there was still enough targets to allow Martavis Bryant and Juju Smith-Schuster to each see a 13.4% share. Smith-Schuster was hyper-efficient with his share turning 79 targets into a line of 58-918-7 finishing the season as the WR17 in standard and WR22 in PPR. There was more than enough to make Juju a star.

The Saints had the highest combined market share as Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas saw over 50% of Drew Brees‘ passing attempts. How did the rest of the team fare? Mark Ingram saw 70 targets and Ted Ginn Jr. saw a respectable 13% as his deep-threat niche seems set. Coby Fleener was a disaster as he saw the fewest targets (30) in the league among the TE1 position. But for the 3rd WR spot, Willie Snead regressed and the recently released Brandon Coleman was a non-factor outside of some red-zone TDs. What can we glean from this? It means that off-season additions such as Cameron Meredith and Ben Watson have a solid shot at eating slices of pizza that was left on the table.

Eating the “Other” Piece of the Pie

One of the biggest takeaways from charting each team’s distribution is the number of targets declared in the “other” category. This includes the remaining targets that did not go towards a team’s pass-catching RB1, WRs 1-3, and the TE1. This is your team’s 5th or 6th option, the backup TE, the running back that gets 3 or 4 touches a game. All of those targets add up and often to players who we forgot about. Did you know Cordarrelle Patterson saw 42 targets (aka 1 less than Josh Gordon & 1 more than OBJ) last year for the Raiders?

Whether through injuries, a lack of elite options or vanilla play calling, there were a few teams with alarming market shares for this category including the Giants, Ravens, and Browns, which topped out at 42 percent! On the other hand, the Steelers along with the Dolphins were extreme outliers. Miami saw only 18.6% of its targets going to “others” while their rate for their WRs was off the charts. Between Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, and Devante Parker, this trio saw 60.4% of the team’s targets, highest in the league.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

What does this tell us?

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It means that the ambiguous, often forgotten “others” is a fluid category which changes year-to-year based on specific situations within a team. For instance, the New York Giants passing distribution went completely haywire for Eli Manning and company in 2017 once Odell Beckham Jr. went down in Week 5. Evan Engram took the lead dog role and submitted the best PPR season since 1989 for a rookie TE while the rest of the pass catchers lived in a muddled land of blah. Roger Lewis anyone? However, in 2016, with Beckham commanding 169 targets and a 28.3% share, the offense saw rookie Sterling Shepard (17.6%), a washed-up Victor Cruz (12%), and Will Tye (11.7%) all post respectable target shares. These were better overall team numbers than this year’s bunch despite 2017’s island of misfits have way more opportunity with OBJ down.

Let’s take a look at one more angle of this “too many mouths to feed” narrative to see what is left of our pizza pie.

The Myth of Vacated Targets

One of the main ways the fantasy community has described opportunities for pass catchers heading into the season is by examining “vacated” targets. Based on the free agency moves or players cut during the off-season there is a certain percentage of the previous year’s targets that now are unaccounted for. While this essentially is just showing how much of the pie is available to eat, it is not indicative of exactly how those vacated targets will be distributed.

Let’s go back to last year and look at the offenses that had the highest percentage of “vacated” targets. The Rams lost a plethora of targets from Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, and Lance Kendricks as the Sean McVay regime began to take shape. There was a league-high 56.4 percent of the team’s targets available. I went back and read an article that stated Tavon Austin was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this turnover. The second-highest was the Browns at 50.6 percent which lost Terrelle Pryor to the Redskins as well as the party known as Gary Barnidge finally ending.

Although these lost targets gave us a piece of the projection puzzle, they gave us little insight into how the targets would be distributed by each team. Lost targets are descriptive of what happened the previous season but not in the least bit predictive or prescriptive for the following year.  This is essential to understand or we will just plug-and-play without considering the variance of passing outputs.

Obviously, there were great opportunities for Los Angeles and Cleveland pass-catchers to “step up” and eat at the big kids’ table. The Rams used a balanced approach as their RB1 (Todd Gurley), WR1 (Cooper Kupp), WR2 (Robert Woods), and WR3 (Sammy Watkins) all saw above 13% target share, an accomplishment shared only with the Steelers. The Browns, on the other hand, had the 9th-most passing attempts in the league (56 more than the Rams) and yet had no WR see above a 10.8% market share, the worst in football.

Apart from Duke Johnson being treated like a WR, the rest of the Browns had plenty to pizza to eat but no-one separated themselves from the group. Ricardo Louis actually led the WR corps in targets somehow and the rest turned to a 0-16 mess. The vacated targets argument gave us no indicator how Hue Jackson and his anemic offense would utilize their pass catchers. Maybe we should’ve seen them coming because they used them exactly how we’d envision the Browns using them.

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Here are a couple other interesting teams related to vacated targets in 2017:

The 49ers lost the 3rd-most targets (218) in the league and yet I could not find one article detailing Carlos Hyde being an obvious choice for seeing the 2nd-most targets on his team. Marquise Goodwin was barely mentioned as a major winner and he decided to lead the team in targets with 105, 22nd at the WR position.

The Chargers lost the 4th-fewest targets heading into the season as Keenan Allen was returning from a major injury. One writer finished his blurb for this team with “There are a lot of mouths to feed.” Instead, Philip Rivers gave Melvin Gordon the highest target total of his career and Allen was a target monster while Tyrell Williams finished at a distant second with 69 targets. We can say that the issue wasn’t the volume as the Chargers threw the 8th-most pass attempts in the league. It was simply no-one stepped up.

The Buccaneers were another team thought to have a surplus of options as the same writer said: “…the team suddenly has a lot of mouths to feed“. The fear was additions of O.J. Howard and DeSean Jackson would cap the target totals of the rest of the team. Instead, all Tampa Bay did was decide to decrease the involvement of their pass-catching RBs and evenly distribute the ball. The Bucs were the only team with all 3 WRs and TE1 to see above 13.3% market share. In fact, they had enough volume to support two fantasy relevant TEs. Combined, Cameron Brate and Howard saw 116 targets for 74 catches, 1,023 yards, and 12 TDs.

In summation, vacated targets give us a descriptive picture of the previous year’s volume which in theory is now up for grabs. Yet, the way these targets are distributed takes on a whole new context as the pie can be portioned in a completely new way. Removing people from the dinner table assumes that those seats will be filled not that those exact same seats will be served with the exact same slice of the passing pie to someone else.

Conclusion

I get it. You’re hungry. Or you’re sick of this metaphor. Or you want to build a table.

Regardless, the narrative of an offense having “too many mouths to feed” seems to be flawed when we only examine it through the lens of passing volume, other elite passing options, and the myth of vacated targets. Apart from having the gift of prophecy and the ability to fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, projecting a team’s target distribution isn’t an exact science. When factoring in impending injuries, movement in the pecking order and player ineffectiveness, it’s clear there is some fluidity for seemingly ancillary options to gain more targets. Teams like the Packers can employ their WR3s such as Geronimo Allison or rookie J’Mon Moore to have meaningful fantasy contributions. It’s possible that the Browns have 4 or 5 relevant starters regardless of Jarvis Landry seeing 145 targets.

If we see a pass catcher “step up” and essentially steal a piece of pizza intended for the nebulous “other” seated at the table, then there is more than enough for an NFL offense to support 3-to-4 viable fantasy options on any given team.

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In case you were wondering, the table turned out fine. My son approved.