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How the NFL’s Passing Revolution Affects Fantasy Redraft Strategy

Last Season Was Historic

The 2018-19 NFL season may be best-remembered as the dawn of the so-called “passing revolution.” Sure, we’ve witnessed the NFL’s gradual shift towards efficient passing offenses over the last two decades, but last season was on another level.

Patrick Mahomes took the league by storm en route to NFL MVP honors. He posted a ludicrous 5,097-50-12 passing line, which ranks eighth all-time for passing yards and is tied for second all-time for passing touchdowns in a single season. He also participated in last year’s most exhilarating shootout against the Rams in Week 11. In that instant classic, both teams combined for a staggering 105 points (third all-time) and 827 passing yards.

However, Mahomes wasn’t the only quarterback setting records last season. Ben Roethlisberger actually out-gained Mahomes through the air with 5,129 passing yards (seventh all-time), and Matt Ryan amasssed 4,924 yards (17th all-time).

No One Saw It Coming

What’s perhaps most striking about these performances is that the public didn’t see them coming. None of those three record-setting quarterbacks was drafted among the top-12 fantasy QBs in last season’s ADP report. Ryan was drafted 13th, Roethlisberger was 14th, and Mahomes came in at 15th off the board on average.

Clearly, the Late Round QB crowd fared well last season. But, I want to dive deeper than that. So we missed on last year’s top QBs; that happens from time to time. But, if indeed we’re in the middle of a “passing revolution,” then we missed on way more than just that. The league is changing quickly, and it’s important to understand how these on-field schematic changes affect the distribution of targets — and fantasy points — among the league’s skill position players.

Brace Yourself For a Deep Dive

With that in mind, let’s examine this so-called “passing revolution” from top-to-bottom. I pored through statistical archives (thank the gods at pro-football-reference.com), I broke out the spreadsheets and I pushed Excel to its breaking point (literally — it crash on me several times). Then, I pumped out 10,000-plus words of analysis based on everything I found, which I’ll be rolling out across multiple series installments over the next several weeks.

What I found may surprise you — and make you re-think your entire draft strategy in 2019.

The Dawn of the Age of Efficiency

My first step was to compile league-wide statistics in the modern era, which I define as beginning in 2002 with the addition of the Houston Texans as an expansion team. However, the 2002-03 Texans were historically offensively challenged,1 so I began examining league-wide stats in 2003-04:

Okay — so that’s a lot to take in all at once. Let’s break down some of the key trends in the table above:

The 2018-19 season boasted the following statistical rankings since 2003-04:

  • Highest average yards per play
  • Highest average yards per pass attempt
  • Highest average yards per rush attempt
  • Second-highest total points scored
  • Second-highest total yards
  • Third-highest passing yards
  • Third-highest pass/run percentage
  • Sixth-highest pass attempts
  • Ninth-highest total plays
  • Ninth-highest rushing yards
  • Lowest rushing attempts

We already suspected that the 2018-19 season would rank highly in points scored, total yards and passing yards. Surprisingly, however, it only ranked sixth in pass attempts and ninth in total plays. In fact, league-wide totals in 2018 don’t look drastically different from previous seasons (2014 to 2016 in particular).

Last season was not a “passing revolution” in terms of play-calling; the league’s 57.11% pass/run percentage is squarely in line with the past five seasons. Instead, it was a revolution in offensive efficiency — albeit likely precipitated by the passing game. So, rather than calling 2018 a “passing revolution,” we should really be calling it the “efficiency revolution.”

The 2018 season boasted the highest yards per play (5.60), highest yards per attempt (6.89) and by far the highest yards per carry (4.42) of the last 15 years. That last statistic may surprise you a bit. In an era when offenses are increasingly pass-first,2 rushing is experiencing a profound improvement in efficiency.

Rush attempts hit an all-time low in 2018 while yards per carry simultaneously hit a staggering all-time high. This result may not have been expected, but it does still make sense. More NFL defenses have eschewed base packages in favor of dedicated nickel (the Patriots were perhaps the first to do so years ago), linebackers have gotten faster rather than bulkier, and the proliferation of Cover-3 has increasingly traded flats-coverage in order to defend against west-coast flood concepts.

One major consequence of these defensive changes is wider defensive-line splits through which a running back may traverse. Add to the mix zone-blocking schemes, mobile quarterbacks and RPOs, and it’s no wonder yards per carry increased so dramatically last season. Put simply, when defenses are selling out to stop the pass, it’s easier to run.

This discovery makes “bell-cow” running backs even more valuable — but you don’t need me to tell you that. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll tear apart running back splits and discuss how all this affects running back strategy in more depth.

Which Skill Positions Have Benefitted the Most?

For now, let’s take a global look at which skill positions have benefitted the most in the receiving game during this passing/efficiency revolution, which began in earnest around 2010. In the graph below, I’ve reported PPR share percentages (based solely on receiving statistics) for tiers at each of the three fantasy skill positions:

First off, let me clarify this whole PPR (Rec. only) thing. I contrived this clunky, odd-sounding metric in order to isolate PPR scoring based solely on receiving statistics for each position. To do that, I gathered all players’ raw statistics; exclude rushing stats, 2-point conversions, fumbles, etc.; and then manually calculate each player’s season-long PPR points-total based on receiving stats alone.3

Then, I ordered players by their end-of-season PPR position ranks (based on total PPR scoring) and grouped them into the fantasy tiers you see above. Finally, I summed each fantasy tier’s PPR (Rec. only) scoring and divided it by the entire league’s PPR (Rec. only) total for the given season — which finally yielded each fantasy position tier’s PPR (Rec. only) share percentage, or PPR (Rec.) % for short.

For running backs, this means that all rushing statistics have been excluded from analysis. Put differently, running backs’ PPR (Rec.) share reports those tiers’ percentage of league-wide PPR fantasy points scored even without recording a single rush attempt all season.

Whew; that was kind of dense. Apologies, folks. I’ll try to keep it lighter from here on out. Alright, first let’s highlight the biggest winners since 2010.

RB1 Revolution

In 2010, fantasy RB1s accounted for 1235.1 total PPR (Rec.) points. In 2017, that number suddenly swelled to 1563.9; then in 2018, it climbed even higher to 1793.7. That resultant increase represents a 45.2% improvement in raw PPR (Rec.) scoring, which is historically unprecedented.

It’s worth emphasizing that this increase in RB1 PPR (Rec.) scoring is incredibly recent. Before 2017, RB1 had reported a subtle decline over the previous seven seasons. But, something drastic happened in 2017 and 2018: the fantasy marketplace was flooded with talented rookies with major receiving chops. Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey and Tarik Cohen all entered the league in the last two seasons. Those kinds of players now carry the torch for the new wave of fantasy RB1s.

WR1 Resurgence

When WR1 rebounded last season after miserable showings in 2016 and 2017, the WR1 population merely surged back to pre-2016 levels. In fact, WR1 has historically demanded around a 12.0% PPR (Rec.) share since 2010. With that historical average set in perspective, last year wasn’t so-much of a rebound and more likely just statistical regression to the mean.

While WR1 PPR (Rec.) share may not have broken any kind of historical ceiling last year, WR1 nonetheless differentiated itself in a different — and perhaps more valuable — way.

In 2018, WR1 set nine-year highs for PPR (Rec.) share difference over WR2, WR3 and WR4. Last season’s group of WR1s boasted a 3.5% share edge over WR2s, a 5.1% lead over WR3s and a 6.2% advantage over WR4s. That means that WR1s were more valuable relative to their position in 2018 than at any time over the last nine years, a trend that supports a roster construction we’ve been recommending.

Top-3 Tight End Renaissance

Now on to top-3 tight ends. Admittedly, perhaps the “top-3” tier for tight ends is a bit arbitrary, but it felt right to me when I sliced up the data. In 2019, everyone is looking to draft Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz or George Kittle. After that, there’s a big drop-off to Eric Ebron, O.J. Howard, Hunter Henry, Evan Engram, Jared Cook or David Njoku. And current ADP reports support that significant drop-off in value.

Back to the task at hand: Top-3 tight ends and WR1s share similar arcs over the past nine seasons. Both groups experienced a depressed period from 2016 to 2017, and both rebounded substantially in 2018.

However, there is one glaring difference between these two groups of fantasy players. While WR1s returned to form, top-3 tight ends returned to glory.

This group’s 2018 increase in PPR (Rec.) share broke a six-year slide since 2011. Prior to last season, we would have written off 2011 as an outlier year when Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Aaron Hernandez took the world by storm. Now, the trio of Kelce, Ertz and Kittle has risen up to their predecessors’ elite level of performance.

This “fantasy tight end renaissance” brings with it enormous implications for fantasy redraft strategy, which I’ll break down in detail in a future installment.

What to Expect in Part 2

In this series’ next installment, I’ll aim my focus squarely on fantasy RB1s. In this intro article, we examined PPR (Rec.) scoring, but running backs do run the ball, too, after all. So, I’ll be breaking down rushing vs. receiving splits over the last 17 years, and I’ll highlight potential RB1 “buy” and “sell” options based on those historical trends and current fantasy ADP.

But, don’t think I’ve forgotten about all other running backs, tight ends or wide receivers. They’ll each get their own breakdowns in forthcoming installments. Until then, follow me @racollinsworth and @RotoViz on Twitter for regular updates, and also check out the awesome work my co-contributors are doing here at the site.

Image Credit: Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Patrick Mahomes.

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  1. *ahem* David Carr *ahem*  (back)
  2. save for the Baltimore Ravens playing contrarian  (back)
  3. Readers looking to do similar analyses can easily accomplish this task using the RotoViz Screener, by combining receiving expected points (reEP) and receiving fantasy points over expected (reFPOE).  (back)

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