Fantasy Football: Projecting Offenses and Who Owns the Targets in 2019

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Before the 2018 season, I wrote Do Offenses Have ‘Too Many Mouths to Feed’?  in an attempt to take a top-down approach examining each team’s targets and examine the common narrative. Here were a couple overarching points:

  • The diffusion of targets seems to be immune from correlating to the total passing volume. In other words, whether your team throws for an above-average amount (560+ attempts) or not, this does not dictate what percentage you can or cannot expect from a given WR, RB or TE. Passing attempts generally speaking does not tell us where the volume will be distributed.
  • Elite WR1s such as DeAndre Hopkins (who saw an insane 33% target share) do not stagnate other passing options. The rest of the passing pie is more than enough for others to step up and see a meaningful amount of upwards of 100+ targets. The problem is often injuries (Will Fuller, Keke Coutee, Demaryius Thomas) or the lack of a 2nd option “stepping up” to see major volume.
  • There is a Myth of Vacated Targets. Although lost targets from 2018 due to free-agency, retirement or an Antonio Brown-sanctioned trade give 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. In theory, it feels like these targets are 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 within a newly constructed offense. In other words, 2018 stats can look very different from the way a 2019 offense functions.

Over the next few weeks, I will analyze each of the major pass-catching positions (RB, WR, TE) based on market share and how teams have changed in distributing targets gathering 5 years of data. For now, here is a look at how 2018 offenses targets were distributed and a few league-wide insights.

Reviewing the Data

Whether it’s a crowded group of pass catchers, a team like the Giants where OBJ’s departure creates a void or the bountiful options the Buccaneers have, it might be easy to simply say “there are too many mouths to feed” and end the argument there. There are a number of factors to consider when projecting for 2019:

The number of pass catchers– 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, RB2, WR1, WR2, WR3, and TE1. As I’ll discuss below, there’s “another” person eating into the “passing pie” that often goes unnoticed when deciding how targets are distributed.

The size of the passing pie– We’ll examine the volume within an offense expressed by adjusted team passing attempts. We adjust the total passing attempts by taking out spikes, throw-aways, and targets to positions like the QB or the once-in-a-blue-moon offensive lineman.  This gives us a better picture of how many targets actually were on the field to work with. When we adjust, some teams like the Packers lost 25 attempts off their total and the Seahawks, who placed DEAD LAST with 427 pass attempts, should be seen throwing an absurdly low 400 when we adjust. 

Each player’s percentage of the passing pie– 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 these 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.

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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 team target percentage while the red shows the low-end of target share percentages. 

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 550+ 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 total helps spread more around, the position with the highest correlation to the passing volume was the WR2 & WR3 spots on our chart. This makes total sense given the fact that 11-personnel sets (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs) are more common now than ever. According to Sharp Football Stats, 23 of the 32 teams in the league ran 3-WR sets on OVER 50% of their snaps. That’s 72% of the league! 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. Gone are the days of exclusively lining up in I-formation or double-TE sets.

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, RB2, or WRs 1-3, and the TE1. This is your team’s 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.

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 Bills, Broncos, Lions, and Redskins, which all saw 30+ percent of the targets to the guys 6th or beyond in their target pecking order. On the other hand, the Falcons had only 8.6% of its targets going to “others” and the 2nd highest market share for a group of WRs. Between Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley this trio saw 67.4% of the team’s targets. A low “other” rate for Atlanta was mostly due to a continued bill of health.

Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What does this tell us?

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 Washington Redskins passing distribution went completely haywire as they went through 4 different starting QBs and the WR core had a slew of injuries. Jordan Reed took the lead dog role but even his 17.2 target share was filled with some empty fantasy stat lines. 

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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 and the “other” elite passing options, and the myth of vacated targets. 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. 

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

Stayed tuned as RB, WR, and TE projection articles are released this next month.

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