Tracking 11-Personnel & Other WR Usage Trends (Fantasy Football)
11-personnel feels like an outdated argument. It’s akin to the person who discovers the YouTube video of a SeaShanty and shares it with all of his friends as you declare: that’s so early January of 2021.
Listen, I get it: most teams run out three WRs. Nevertheless, teams that increasingly run 11-personnel don’t always translate that to fantasy success. There are other factors that shift a team’s focus on 11-personnel year-to-year.
But before we dive into the list of teams, remember we can’t simply plug in 2020 numbers in 2021 situations. The NFL is fluid especially teams with coaching changes. I detailed earlier this offseason why offensive lines matter with coaching changes and will be wrapping up all of the offensive line movement next week detailing every single team. For more on the fantasy impact of these changes, I reviewed all seven new head coaches and 13 new offensive coordinators in a recent article including some fantasy forecasts and fun facts with some of those coaches.
Let’s take a look at the teams that shifted the most in their offensive philosophy and approach to 3+ WR sets in 2020.
Note: These percentages were any personnel sets of three WRs or more (3+). If you see a team not listed, it’s likely they stayed with five percentage points of the previous year.
Five Biggest Increases in 3+ WR Sets
Baltimore Ravens– It may not have felt like it but Baltimore had to subtly switch up part of their gameplan in 2020. The efficiency that Lamar Jackson showed in his 2019 MVP season came crashing down and the ineffectiveness of their secondary WRs was felt. What’s weird is that although the Ravens lined up in more 3+ WR sets in 2020, their receivers actually ran 198 fewer routes according to Pro Football Focus. Lamar Jackson dropped from a nearly 69 percent early downs passer to only 64 percent. He also struggled to throw it deep completing just 36 percent of his passes over 20+ yards and only six TDs on such attempts. In 2020, his WRs committed only one “drop” on deep targets and hauled in a league-leading 11 TDs. While it was clear Baltimore wanted to acquire a veteran WR in free agency, look for them to address the position with one of their early picks in the draft
Buffalo Bills– What a difference a year makes… Buffalo had three total snaps of four or more WRs on the field in 2019. In 2020, they paced the league in those sets with 16 percent of their plays. OC Brian Daboll gets a ton of credit for reinventing Josh Allen as a high completion percentage passer but the production Buffalo received from their WR3 & 4 (Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis) is probably just as important. In Pass-Catching Trends and What They Mean from 2020, I detailed how the growing trend of WR3s seeing 75+ targets for competent passing offenses will continue. With the type of success Buffalo had in 2020, you have to imagine they’ll roll with much of the same gameplan even with John Brown leaving town. However, the Bills have been linked to taking an early-round RB in many mock NFL drafts so if they do go after a high-end RB like Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, or Javonte Williams, it wouldn’t shock me for their 11-personnel numbers to drop.
Kansas City Chiefs– Kansas City’s offensive philosophy, at least for fantasy purposes, seemed to focus on funneling almost all their targets to two main guys: Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. In that sense, their 11-personnel numbers are a bit deceiving as Kelce played like a top-5 WR in 2020. He never left the field but the Chiefs still employed three WRs at a higher rate than 2019 to hide some of their offensive line injuries and ineffectiveness running the ball for spurts. Demarcus Robinson quietly had the 36th most routes run among WRs with 488, which was 27 more than Davante Adams. With Patrick Mahomes leading the league with 316 passing yards per game, there was no reason not to put the ball in the hands of your best players over and over.
Minnesota Vikings– It may not feel like the Vikings should show up on this list as only 37 percent of their plays ended up with 3+ WRs. That ranked dead last in the NFL. But that looks like leaps and bounds different from 2019 when they lined up 3-wide or more on only 28 percent of their plays. to put that figure in perspective, the Vikings ran four total plays without a TE on the field in 2019. This team is committed to the run and so it’s not a shock to anyone. There’s room in the offense to support two top-10 fantasy WRs (Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen) and if combine the production from Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, and Kyle Rudolph, you have a respectable line (78/899/7) that essentially functions as the 3rd passing target.
Philadelphia Eagles– This represents the largest jump (from 41 to 61 percent) among 2020 teams. The Carson Wentz-led Eagles were known for deploying two TE sets but with Zach Ertz struggling with injuries and just getting plain old, things shifted. On top of that, Philadelphia played in so many negative game scripts that it forced them to throw at a much higher rate than many of us would’ve anticipated before the season. The combination of Wentz and rookie Jalen Hurts had the 10th most pass attempts in the league. But who were they throwing to? Tell me if you had Greg Ward Jr. and Travis Fulgham leading the Eagles WRs in receiving on your 2020 bingo card. It was a complete mess as the Eagles were the only team to have six different WRs run at least 130+ routes each on the season. Hurts for fantasy will be fine but he averaged on 17 completions per game so whoever he throws to likely won’t be super fantasy relevant.
Teams That Decreased in 3+ WR Sets in 2020
There were a lot more teams that decreased in our threshold in 2020.
Arizona Cardinals– It may seem small but Arizona went from all the rage in 2019 with their “Horizontal Raid” offensive system that routinely utilized 4-WR sets to running 3-WRs just 67 percent of the time. They actually threw the ball even more in 2020 but this year it was with some efficiency and Kenyan Drake converted seven goal-line rushing TDs to give the offense some life compared to 2019’s laughable red-zone woes. The offense also had an alpha (DeAndre Hopkins) it didn’t have in 2019 as the ancillary WRs (Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, & Andy Isabella) were mostly non-existent aside from a small stretch from Kirk. With A.J. Green now in the mix on the outside, I expect the three WRs to continue in the same range but definitely not near the extreme that 2019 gave us.
Cleveland Browns– The offensive gameplan for Cleveland was dictated by having arguably the best offensive line in the game per Pro Football Focus. This was a major area of focus with new head coach Kevin Stefanski as I detailed in the offensive line/coaching change article. In terms of WRs, the injury to Odell Beckham Jr. certainly was a blow to the passing game as Baker Mayfield and the Browns had the 5th fewest passing attempts in the league. Who needs to pass when you can control the game clock and win 11 games due to the 3rd most rushing yards on the backs of Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. In fact, in Week 16 versus the Jets, due to several WRs quarantining due to some of the WR corps exposure to COVID-19, the Browns essentially used 3-TEs for the entire game and had to start Ja’Marcus Bradley (who?) and Marvin Hall at WR. Cleveland found a winning formula and it likely will continue with 12-personnel and an emphasis on protecting Mayfield in the pocket.
Green Bay Packers– This one might’ve shocked you as it’s wild to think that in a season with Aaron Rodgers throwing 48 passing TDs, the Packers actually decreased their 3-WR sets to a mere 55(!) percent. But honestly, when you think about the efficiency in their offense, it wasn’t due to spreading it out and depending on their WR2 (Marquez Valdes-Scantling) or WR3 (Allen Lazard), although both had brief moments of glory. Robert Tonyan emerged as a TD monster and Davante Adams was utilized as a dominator all over the field including the slot. Matt LaFleur knows what he’s doing winning 13 games in back-to-back seasons. There is room in this offense for a strong WR2 to step in if Green Bay drafts one early. But as we’ve seen recently, this management has a different idea of how they’d like to use their draft capital.
Los Angeles Rams– I’ll give Sean McVay credit… he has utilized the Bill Belichick approach where the gameplan could change week-to-week depending on their opponent. Jared Goff went from 45+ passing attempts one week to 20 the week after as the team decided to pound the rock on the ground with 2-TE sets. There was a debate all offseason in regards to Tyler Higbee and the team saw an increase in 12-personnel with 130 more snaps than 2019. You can also chalk up a dip in 3WR sets to Cooper Kupp being banged up for much of the year and the lack of confidence playing rookie Van Jefferson. With Matthew Stafford now at the helm and Gerald Everett out the door, you could see 2021 become more of the offensive gameplan that McVay would be comfortable with setting up play-action passing with a dynamite ground game led by Cam Akers.
New England Patriots– This one was obvious all year long as the “passing game” (if you could call it that) sunk to embarrassingly low depths. The headline is Cam Newton‘s eight passing TDs and the fact they threw the 2nd fewest pass attempts and ranked 27th in points scored. It was rough. The lack of depth at WR was astonishingly pitiful as the likes of Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd tried to make up for N’Keal Harry‘s ineptitude. Heck, their 11-personnel rate looks to drop potentially even lower with the signing of TEs Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to kick things back ten years in Bill Belichick glory days.
New York Giants– With Saquon Barkley‘s injury, the Giants had to all but abandon the run early on in the season. They were dreadfully inefficient and the trio of Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard, and Darius Slayton played in only seven full games together. With the offensive line struggling as well, Daniel Jones was left to try to make something happen but predictably ended up turning over the ball 21 times (ten INTs and 11 fumbles) despite missing two games. With Kenny Golladay added in, the Giants conceivably could move Shepard to the slot where he’s most adept. However, Kyle Rudolph was also signed so how they make everyone in this offense happy (looking at you Evan Engram in a contract year) is a conundrum.
For more on the Giants’ outlook, check out Fantasy Reaction: Kenny Golladay Signs with the Giants.
Seattle Seahawks– It was a tale of two halves… From Weeks 1-9, Seattle’s passing offense was on a tear and it looked like Russell Wilson was on his way to his first MVP. He averaged 37.1 pass attempts and 317 passing yards per game. From Week 10 on, those averages fell to 32.6 attempts and a lowly 208.9 passing yards per game. While D.K. Metcalf (t-2nd) and Tyler Lockett (4th) both were top-5 in routes run on the season, the next highest on the Seahawks depth chart was David Moore who ranked 82nd with only 302 total routes run. For context, that’s in the range of 4th string guys such as Daesean Hamilton, Chris Conley, and James Washington. Don’t expect much to change in 2021 as 2-TE sets with newly acquired Gerald Everett and Will “Big Montana” Dissly likely will be the norm.
Tennessee Titans– Who was the Titans’ #3 WR last year? Adam Humphries was barely on the field and if Kalif Raymond popped into your head, congratulations. Seriously, the Titans and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith ran most of their plays in 2-TE sets with Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser supplying ample blocking for Derrick Henry to run behind. This was a concerted effort to utilize play-action to perfection. Smith’s offenses in Tennessee relied on efficiency, zone-run schemes, and play-action passing. Ryan Tannehill, despite being 30th in total pass attempts, had the 4th most play-action dropbacks in the NFL. With Corey Davis and Smith leaving town, there is some concern if the offense can continue to support such low 11-personnel numbers. I’d expect their rate to creep up in 2021 although I couldn’t tell you who benefits. As of now, free-agent signing Josh Reynolds is the only other WR of note on the roster besides game-breaker A.J. Brown.