A ton of fantasy football analysis is centered on available opportunity. We discuss opportunity shares, targets gained and lost, and whether scoring rates in the air or on the ground are unsustainable.
Last year, Seattle Seahawks running backs scored a pathetic one rushing touchdown. Directly correlated, Russell Wilson led the league in passing touchdowns. Fifty percent of the Saints’ offensive touchdowns came on the ground. Each of the eight prior seasons they’d scored no fewer than two-thirds of their offensive touchdowns through the air.
The small sample of a single NFL season dictates we should expect regression for data points like these. Beyond the math, there exists the underlying reality of significant turnover every NFL offseason. Those two teams achieved those stats in part because of the personnel they had last year; their 2018 rosters feature key changes.
It’s not hard to understand Jimmy Graham’s 10 vacated receiving touchdowns -- eight of which came from six yards out or closer -- don’t necessarily represent available tight end opportunity. More likely, the expected bump in running back rushing touchdowns will fill some or perhaps all of that void. As the NFL continues to muddy the definitions of offensive skill positions, more frequently utilizing strategies like splitting tight ends and running backs out wide, there is value is ignoring positional splits and zooming out to the team level. It can be counterproductive to narrow focus too much, zeroing in on noise masquerading as signal.
Let’s take a look at team offensive production, specifically how many PPR points the running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends for each offense scored, and what percentage of that total the top producers -- regardless of position -- accounted for. We’ll highlight some key takeaways below the table.
Despite Le’Veon Bell sitting Week 17 and Antonio Brown missing the final two-and-a-half games of the season to a calf injury, no team saw a higher percentage of their total PPR scoring come from two players, and it wasn’t close. Bell and Brown scored more than 53 percent of the Steelers’ PPR points, while no other team’s top two producers broke the 50 percent threshold of their team’s total.
This isn't new. In 2016, Bell and Brown combined for five missed games, three for Bell's suspension and two more when they both sat Week 17. They still accounted for 49.5 percent of the team’s production that season, second in the league. We know they are elite, but the extent to which they soak up production when both are on the field creates difficulty in projecting the rest of the offense.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had a revelatory rookie season, and Anthony Amico makes a great case for why he is the perfect antifragile selection this year. But if Bell and Brown are able to stay healthy for 16 games, Smith-Schuster will need to hold off rookie James Washington and dominate the rest of the available opportunity to return value. Given the rate at which Smith-Schuster produced when Bell and Brown missed time in 2017, opportunity might be thin for Washington and players like Vance McDonald.
The two backs and Michael Thomas were 2017 focal points for a Saints’ team that has traditionally spread production around. In 2016, the top three Saints’ producers -- Thomas, Mark Ingram, and Brandin Cooks -- accounted for the 24th-highest percentage of their team’s total PPR scoring. Prior to Thomas’s 27.8 percent target market share in 2017, the highest share a Saint had accounted for in Drew Brees’ 11 seasons in New Orleans was Jimmy Graham’s 22.5 percent in 2011.
Over the offseason, the Saints made a concerted effort to improve at various ancillary positions. Willie Snead never really got back in the mix following his suspension in 2017, so the team let him go and added both Cameron Meredith and third-round draft sleeper Tre’Quan Smith. They pursued Graham before adding 37-year-old Ben Watson, who had a career year working with Brees in 2015. Watson’s not a world beater at this stage of his career but is at least an upgrade over what they got out of the position in 2017.
They also drafted running back Boston Scott in the sixth round and added former Raven Terrance West; either could get some run during Ingram’s suspension. Ted Ginn, who assimilated himself well last year, is still in town.
The team's 2017 success would suggest the Saints might not be quick to switch anything up, but we have to recognize how weird 2017 was relative to longer-term trends. Thomas in particular looks dicey to match his 149 targets, but he should at least be due for some better touchdown luck.
Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill are all being drafted as if they can repeat phenomenal 2017 performances. Of course, the team didn’t give $30 million in guaranteed money to Sammy Watkins this year to be a non-factor.
Only two teams saw a higher percentage of scoring from their three biggest producers, and only six had more production overall. There’s plenty of reason for optimism regarding Patrick Mahomes, but it won’t be easy for the total production to increase, especially since the Chiefs draw elite defenses in the Jaguars, the Chargers twice, and the Rams this year. Thus, Watkins is likely to take some production from last year’s big three.
Expect less concentration in the offense in 2018. My money’s on Hill taking the biggest hit given his similar air yards profile, and how difficult it will be to repeat his seven touchdowns of 40-plus yards.