How Ken Whisenhunt Impacts the Chargers' 2016 Fantasy Outlook

How Ken Whisenhunt Impacts the Chargers' 2016 Fantasy Outlook

By TJ Hernandez (Associate Editor), last updated Aug 6, 2016

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TJ is a former full-time poker player who has been playing fantasy football for more than a decade. After online poker was outlawed, TJ ended his poker career and dedicated himself to fantasy football. His background in poker statistics and analytics translates to success in both daily and season-long fantasy football.

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Throughout the summer, I will be examining how play callers on new teams might impact the overall fantasy value of their respective offenses. 

Ken Whisenhunt might have the most relevant play-calling history of any coach in this series, as he was running San Diego’s offense just three seasons ago and most of the relevant skill positions from that 2013 roster remain intact. By considering Whisenhunt’s history in terms of pass/run splits and player touch shares, this study will focus on the aspects of the offense that are most impacted by play calling.

Because Whisenhunt has coached the Chargers so recently, his tendencies in San Diego will be highlighted in comparison to his entire history, rather than focusing on his history as a whole, as I’ve done with other play callers.

 

A Snapshot of Whisenhunt’s History

2015 was omitted from Whisenhunt’s history, as he only coached the Titans for seven games.

Win-Adjusted Rush Rate
Year Team Run % Pass % League AVG Run % aRush % aRush% Rank
2004 Steelers 61.1% 38.9% 45.1% 55.3% 1
2005 Steelers 57.2% 42.8% 44.9% 54.9% 1
2006 Steelers 45.1% 54.9% 45.1% 45.2% 15
2007 Cardinals 39.6% 60.4% 43.5% 39.5% 26
2008 Cardinals 34.1% 65.9% 44.6% 33.2% 32
2009 Cardinals 37.1% 62.9% 43.7% 35.5% 31
2010 Cardinals 34.4% 65.6% 43.1% 37.0% 29
2011 Cardinals 39.2% 60.8% 42.9% 39.2% 26
2012 Cardinals 34.6% 65.4% 42.3% 37.1% 28
2013 Chargers 45.8% 54.2% 41.7% 44.9% 11
2014 Titans 38.7% 61.3% 41.8% 43.1% 10
Rushing Rankings
Year Team Attempts Yards TD
2004 Steelers 1 2 6
2005 Steelers 1 5 5
2006 Steelers 14 10 8
2007 Cardinals 25 29 22
2008 Cardinals 32 32 18
2009 Cardinals 32 28 12
2010 Cardinals 32 32 24
2011 Cardinals 28 24 16
2012 Cardinals 32 32 21
2013 Chargers 6 13 25
2014 Titans 29 26 29
Passing Rankings
Year Team Attempts Yards TD
2004 Steelers 32 28 19
2005 Steelers 32 24 12
2006 Steelers 14 9 12
2007 Cardinals 2 5 4
2008 Cardinals 2 2 3
2009 Cardinals 3 12 10
2010 Cardinals 11 31 31
2011 Cardinals 15 17 13
2012 Cardinals 9 28 31
2013 Chargers 22 4 5
2014 Titans 24 22 22

I recently introduced a metric called Win-Adjusted Rush Rate (aRush%), which takes a team’s pass/run splits and adjusts for wins and losses. When looking at Whisenhunt's pass/run splits, I will reference aRush%, as it is a more accurate representation of a play caller's tendencies.

Whisenhunt’s play calling has been on both ends of the spectrum in terms of favoring the pass versus the run. On paper, Whisenhunt looks like one of the most pass-friendly play callers of the last 10 years, but proper context might change that perception.

While coaching the Cardinals, Whisenhunt was one of the pass-heaviest coaches in the league. In all three of his other stops, Whisenhunt has chosen to favor the run. Even in his only full season in Tennessee, when that team ran three percent below the league average, they were actually the 10th most run-heavy team when adjusted for wins.

In San Diego, Whisenhunt led an offense that ranked 11th in aRush%, running the ball 3.2 percent over the league average, when adjusted for wins.

When it comes to wins versus losses, Whisenhunt’s play calling changes as we would expect. Over his play-calling career, Wiz runs the ball about 13 percent more when his team wins, which is right around the league average.

A position-by-position breakdown will offer some insight into how Whisenhunt's play-calling tendencies translate into actionable fantasy information.

 

Quarterbacks

The following numbers reflect cumulative production of all quarterbacks.

QB Per Game Averages
Completions Attempts Yards TD Int FP Comp % AY/A
20.1 33.1 238.9 1.39 1.11 15.0 60.5% 6.5
QB Per Game Averages, By Season
Year Player Completions Attempts Yards TD Int FP Comp % AY/A
2004 Steelers 14.1 22.2 184.4 1.13 0.81 12.4 63.7% 7.7
2005 Steelers 14.1 23.4 189.8 1.25 0.88 14.0 60.0% 7.5
2006 Steelers 19.4 32.6 250.3 1.44 1.44 15.8 59.6% 6.6
2007 Cardinals 22.3 36.9 264.3 2.00 1.50 17.8 60.3% 6.4
2008 Cardinals 26.0 39.2 302.9 1.94 0.94 18.9 66.3% 7.6
2009 Cardinals 24.4 36.9 261.8 1.63 1.06 15.9 66.1% 6.7
2010 Cardinals 17.8 34.9 202.9 0.63 1.19 9.9 50.8% 4.6
2011 Cardinals 19.2 34.4 247.1 1.31 1.44 15.0 55.8% 6.1
2012 Cardinals 21.1 38.0 211.4 0.69 1.31 11.0 55.4% 4.4
2013 Chargers 23.6 34.0 279.9 2.00 0.69 19.0 69.5% 8.5
2014 Titans 18.7 32.1 233.6 1.25 1.00 15.2 58.3% 6.7

Quarterback talent has been a mixed bag for Whisenhunt, but his most successful quarterback season came in 2013 with Philip Rivers. This was also the best fantasy season of Rivers' career, and it wasn’t a function of volume: It was the second-fewest pass attempts that Rivers has thrown in the last five seasons. In fact, when adjusted for wins, that San Diego offense had the second-lowest pass rate of any Whisenhunt team since his time in Pittsburgh. But even with Keenan Allen in his rookie season and Vincent Brown as the number two that year, Whisenhunt was able to coax Rivers to his highest completion percentage and second highest touchdown rate of his career in 2013 by maximizing the talents of other weapons, like Danny Woodhead and Antonio Gates.

 

Running Backs

Total RB Per Game Averages
Touches Receptions Total Yards PPR FP % of Team Touches
27.7 4.2 127.3 21.6 59.5%
Total RB Per Game Averages, By Season
Year Team Touches Receptions Total Yards PPR FP % of Team Touches
2004 Steelers 36.0 2.7 161.3 24.9 68.1%
2005 Steelers 33.1 2.9 153.9 24.6 68.1%
2006 Steelers 30.5 4.6 150.2 25.7 62.5%
2007 Cardinals 26.9 4.0 117.1 18.8 56.7%
2008 Cardinals 24.3 5.1 107.0 21.1 51.2%
2009 Cardinals 26.6 6.1 134.4 25.7 56.3%
2010 Cardinals 21.8 3.1 102.3 15.9 57.5%
2011 Cardinals 24.2 3.0 116.6 19.7 55.6%
2012 Cardinals 22.8 3.1 82.3 14.4 53.0%
2013 Chargers 34.9 7.0 170.0 29.8 64.7%
2014 Titans 23.5 4.5 105.5 17.6 57.4%
RB1 Per Game Averages
Touches Receptions Total Yards PPR FP % of RB Touches
15.6 1.3 68.8 11.0 54.4%
RB1 Per Games Averages, By Season
Year Player Touches Receptions Total Yards PPR FP % of RB Touches
2004 Jerome Bettis 17.1 0.4 65.8 12.1 44.4%
2005 Willie Parker 18.2 1.2 94.7 12.4 51.6%
2006 Willie Parker 23.0 1.9 107.3 18.2 75.4%
2007 Edgerrin James 21.8 1.5 89.1 12.7 80.9%
2008 Tim Hightower 11.1 2.1 39.8 9.7 45.6%
2009 Beanie Wells 11.8 0.8 58.5 9.0 44.1%
2010 Tim Hightower 10.9 1.3 54.5 8.3 50.0%
2011 Beanie Wells 18.2 0.7 78.5 12.6 65.9%
2012 LaRod Stephens-Howling 9.1 1.2 33.1 6.2 35.1%
2013 Ryan Mathews 19.4 1.6 90.3 13.2 55.6%
2014 Bishop Sankey 10.6 1.1 43.9 6.1 45.2%

As I mentioned earlier, running back volume has varied under Whisenhunt. Similarly, his decision to favor a running back committee or lean on a primary workhorse has fluctuated over the years. San Diego’s backfield deserves special consideration, though, mainly because of how unique Woodhead’s role is in this offense.

In 2013, San Diego’s running backs accounted for almost 65 percent of all team touches, a number that would have led the league in 2015, and the most of any Whisenhunt backfield since Jerome Bettis and Fast Willie Parker were sharing touches in Pittsburgh. Ryan Mathews was technically the lead back that season, amassing 311 total touches, but it was Woodhead who finished as an RB1 in PPR leagues.

Not only did Woodhead rank second among all running back in receptions that year, but he led all backs in red zone targets and all players in red zone receptions, scoring seven of his eight total touchdowns from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Win-adjusted rush rates show that Whisenhunt will adjust his approach to managing his backfields, but given a duo both worthy of a significant role, Whisenhunt has shown the ability to maximize the output of more than one running back.

 

Wide Receivers

WR1 Per Game Averages
Targets Receptions Rec Yards Rec TD PPR FP % of Team Targets
8.9 5.2 71.0 0.52 15.5 26.0%
WR1 Per Game Averages, By Season
Year Player Targets Receptions Rec Yards Rec TD PPR FP % of Team Targets
2004 Hines Ward 6.8 5.0 62.8 0.25 13.2 30.9%
2005 Hines Ward 7.6 4.6 65.0 0.73 15.5 30.4%
2006 Hines Ward 9.0 5.3 69.6 0.43 14.9 24.4%
2007 Larry Fitzgerald 11.1 6.7 93.9 0.67 19.9 28.6%
2008 Larry Fitzgerald 9.6 6.0 89.4 0.75 19.4 24.7%
2009 Larry Fitzgerald 9.6 6.1 68.3 0.81 17.8 26.1%
2010 Larry Fitzgerald 10.8 5.6 71.1 0.38 15.0 31.3%
2011 Larry Fitzgerald 9.6 5.0 88.2 0.50 16.8 28.6%
2012 Larry Fitzgerald 9.8 4.4 49.9 0.25 10.9 25.8%
2013 Keenan Allen 7.0 4.7 69.7 0.53 14.8 19.4%
2014 Kendall Wright 6.6 4.1 51.1 0.43 12.1 18.4%
WR2 Per Game Averages
Targets Receptions Rec Yards Rec TD PPR FP % of Team Targets
6.2 3.8 49.6 0.25 10.3 17.5%
WR2 Per Game Averages, By Season
Year Player Targets Receptions Rec Yards Rec TD PPR FP % of Team Targets
2004 Antwaan Randle El 3.9 2.7 37.6 0.19 7.5 18.0%
2005 Antwaan Randle El 4.3 2.2 34.9 0.06 15.5 18.4%
2006 Santonio Holmes 5.4 3.1 51.5 0.13 8.7 16.7%
2007 Anquan Boldin 8.3 5.9 71.1 0.75 17.5 17.0%
2008 Anquan Boldin 10.6 7.4 86.5 0.92 21.8 20.4%
2009 Anquan Boldin 8.5 5.6 68.3 0.27 14.3 21.7%
2010 Steve Breaston 6.7 3.6 55.2 0.08 9.9 15.7%
2011 Andre Roberts 6.1 3.2 36.6 0.13 7.7 18.2%
2012 Andre Roberts 7.6 4.3 50.6 0.33 11.5 18.8%
2013 Vincent Brown 4.5 3.1 42.1 0.53 10.6 12.9%
2014 Nate Washington 4.5 2.5 40.4 0.13 7.3 14.3%

You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach that has had a pair of more consistent primary wide receivers than Whisenhunt. For the majority of his play-calling career, Whisenhunt had the luxury of leaning on Hines Ward and Larry Fitzgerald, so the fact that his number one receiver has dominated targets comes as no surprise. 

Upon his arrival in San Diego, the target share for his primary receiver began to wane, but in 2013 Allen was just a rookie, and Wiz still fed Allen almost 20 percent of the team’s targets. It’s also worth noting that in 2013 and 2014, Whisenhunt’s number one receiver was the number one in name only, as tight ends acted as the primary pass catchers on those teams.

Without a dominant presence at tight end, Whisenhunt’s number two receiver has accounted for a healthy 18.3 percent of team targets, a target share that would have ranked 30th among receivers in 2015. Over his last two stops, his second receiver has accounted for just 13.6 percent of targets, which would have barely cracked the top 50 among wideouts last season.

 

Tight Ends

Primary TE Per Game Averages
Targets Receptions Rec Yards Rec TD PPR FP % of Team Targets
3.6 2.3 26.6 0.20 6.1 9.3%
Primary TE Per Game Averages, By Season
Year Player Targets Receptions Rec Yards Rec TD PPR FP % of Team Targets
2004 Jerame Tuman 1.3 0.6 5.6 0.19 2.2 5.7%
2005 Heath Miller 3.3 2.4 28.7 0.38 7.6 13.9%
2006 Heath Miller 3.4 2.1 24.6 0.31 6.5 10.7%
2007 Leonard Pope 2.6 1.8 18.3 0.38 5.8 7.2%
2008 Ben Patrick 1.8 1.1 10.4 0.00 2.1 4.6%
2009 Ben Patrick 1.8 1.3 16.2 0.22 4.3 4.9%
2010 Ben Patrick 1.2 1.0 8.2 0.00 1.8 3.5%
2011 Todd Heap 3.6 2.4 28.3 0.10 5.8 10.7%
2012 Rob Housler 4.5 3.0 27.8 0.00 5.8 12.0%
2013 Antonio Gates 7.1 4.8 54.5 0.25 11.6 21.0%
2014 Delanie Walker 7.1 4.2 59.3 0.27 11.6 22.4%

As alluded to in the wide receiver section, Whisenhunt has been without a prominent tight end for most of his play-calling career. Prior to 2013, no tight end under Wiz had ever accounted for 14 percent of team targets. Given a dominant tight end threat on his last two teams, Whisenhunt has targeted the position on 21.7 percent of passes, which would have been fourth best among all tight ends in 2015. 

 

What This Means for 2016

Whisenhunt’s career in San Diego makes up just a small portion of his play-calling career, but that small sample size suggests that his flexibility as a play caller fits harmoniously with the Chargers’ roster.

Perhaps the most notable feat of Whisenhunt’s career was his ability to maximize Rivers’ efficiency. The primary weapons that allowed for that spectacular 2013 season remain largely in place. This is noteworthy because Rivers has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in recent history, highlighted by his stellar figures in career touchdown rate (5.3 percent) and adjusted yards per attempt (7.68), both of which rank fifth among active quarterbacks.

Although Rivers’ primary weapon from 2013, Gates, is closer to 40 than 30, Allen has become one of the best receivers in the game since Whisenhunt last coached this team. One of the few constants in Whisenhunt’s past has been a dominant primary wide receiver, and Allen should be able to roll out of bed and see over a quarter of San Diego’s targets under Wiz.

Meanwhile, Travis Benjamin was signed to be the wideout opposite Allen (Stevie Johnson will likely operate primarily from the slot), and will presumably command a target share similar to Nate Washington's 14.3 percent in 2014 as a situational deep threat for Wiz.

As for Gates, he doesn’t have as robust of a role in the Chargers’ offense as he did in 2013. After returning from a four-game suspension, Gates accounted for just over 16 percent of the team’s targets last season, his lowest target share since 2012. Since passing volume is likely to come down under Wiz (and due to natural regression after Rivers led the league with 662 attempts, 80 more than he’s ever thrown) and Allen is likely to dominate targets, Gates’ absolute ceiling is likely around 100 targets.

In his only season under Whisenhunt, Gates accounted for just over 15 percent of the team’s red zone targets, which were dominated by Allen and Woodhead. Even if Rivers is as efficient as he was in 2013, Gates’ most likely outcome is a borderline TE1, and 2015 could be the year that he finally falls out of the fantasy starter ranks.

Whether Wiz has been on the headset or not, Woodhead has carved out a role for himself and dominated backfield receiving and red zone touches in San Diego. As John Paulsen points out, even though Woody had a better fantasy season in 2015, he was a more consistent fantasy back in 2013 under Whisenhunt. There’s no evidence that Woodhead’s role should change and if he continues to be drafted outside of the top 20 running backs, he will present one of the best values all summer.

Even with Woodhead’s huge role in the passing game and near the goal line, there’s room for Melvin Gordon to excel in a Whisenhunt-led offense. In his last season in San Diego, Whisenhunt’s running backs compiled 559 touches, a total that would have led all backfields last season. 

Whisenhunt’s play calling has been somewhat susceptible to game flow, and the Chargers are projected by Vegas to win three more games than they did in 2015. If that win total proves true and Gordon improves even marginally from his rookie season (which shouldn’t be hard to do), he could approach 225 carries, even in a timeshare. Like Woodhead, Gordon could emerge as one of the better draft values of 2016 as a classic post-hype sleeper.

 

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