3 Key Fantasy Football Facts About Every NFL Team's Offense
Below is a data-driven overview of how player usage and coaching tendencies will affect the 2017 fantasy football season. This year's version is an improvement over my 3 Key Tendencies of Every NFL Offensive Coordinator article from last year in three ways:
1. Every fact is intended to directly inform your opinion about the fantasy value of a particular player or players relative to ADP. Many of you ask me to publish rankings; I think you'll find even more value here. I've touched on nearly every fantasy-relevant player/situation, and you'll be able to discern my views on each simply from what I've chosen to include or omit. In the rare case you don't see a certain player addressed, you can safely assume I'm in line with consensus. Think of this as my 2017 fantasy football doctrine, but with a Pareto principle twist: For each team, instead of giving a general overview, I'm giving comprehensive analysis about exactly what matters most.
2. The scope has been expanded. Whereas last year's piece prioritized focusing largely on situational run/pass splits, pace, etc., this year's article zeroes in on tendencies regarding individual players: snap rates, average target distances, red zone market share, and much more.
3. A one-sentence bolded summary leads off each fact. This is for your scanning convenience. The fact is then explained in data-driven depth in the blurb that follows. Feel free to skip around to the teams with players or situations you're most curious about.
Note: The primary playcaller is denoted with an asterisk (*).
Head Coach: Bruce Arians* (6th year), Offensive Coordinator: Harold Goodwin (5th year)
Arians wants DJ with more touches than Le'Veon – Not including an injury-shortened Week 17 last season, David Johnson's 24.2 touches per game and 88% snap rate trailed only LeVeon Bell. In March, ESPN reported Bruce Arians thinks Johnson is "too young to overuse" and wants to give him 30 touches per game in 2017.
Vertical scheme makes Palmer a sleeper – For the past four seasons, Arians' offense has been top-five in pass attempts traveling 16+ yards downfield. While these types of throws are fantasy's most valuable, they also lead to inconsistent results. For instance, Carson Palmer's yards per attempt dropped from 8.7 to 7.1 and his TDs per game dropped from 2.2 to 1.7 from 2015 to 2016. What seems like age-related decline is more likely just natural statistical variance caused by Arians' scheme.
Scheme makes Larry consistent, others unpredictable – Because outside receivers run most of the vertical routes in Arians' scheme, they are subject to more weekly inconsistency than slot man Larry Fitzgerald. The average target distance of J.J. Nelson (17.7) and John Brown (14.0) last season was much farther than Fitzgerald's (8.3). Naturally, the amount of standard/PPR points Fitzgerald scored each week fluctuated by an average of just 45%/65% from its respective full-season average, resulting in weekly results far more consistent than Nelson (94%/103%) or Brown (112%/117%).
Head Coach: Dan Quinn (3rd year), Offensive Coordinator: Steve Sarkisian* (replaces Kyle Shanahan)
Sarkisian wants to play Freeman and Coleman together – Steve Sarkisian's outside zone running scheme is similar to the one that allowed Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to finish as top-15 fantasy RBs under Kyle Shanahan last season. When training camp opened, Sarkisian told ESPN he'd put Freeman and Coleman on the field together more, which is possible because Sarkisian won't utilize a fullback as much as Shanahan. Freeman's snap rate was 58% last season; Coleman's 41. Freeman handled 17.6 touches per game; Coleman 11.5.
Signs point to an increase in pass-play volume – Atlanta was already due for positive regression after 26th-place finishes in offensive plays (995) and pass attempts (536) last season, and Sarkisian's presence ups the odds of an increase. In addition to preferring to play more up-tempo than Shanahan, Sarkisian's limited fullback usage will allow Atlanta to get its wide receivers more snaps. Atlanta used 3+ wide receivers at the second-lowest rate in the league (47%). The snap rates of Julio Jones (77%), Mohamed Sanu (76%), and Taylor Gabriel (41%) last season leave major room for growth.
Hooper will get more chances in Year 2 – Sarkisian tends to flex his tight end out wide more often, which could allow Austin Hooper to make a big jump from last season's 1.4 catches per game. Hooper undeniably flashed upside, finishing fourth in yards per target (10.0) and fifth in average target depth (10.7) among qualified tight ends. He also ended 2016 trending upward in usage once veteran starter Jacob Tamme went down, playing on 64% of snaps from Weeks 8–17 after just 23% in Weeks 1–7. Hooper's snap rates in the postseason climbed each week: 54%, 60%, 76%.
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (10th year), Offensive Coordinator: Marty Mornhinweg* (2nd year; 1st full year)
Roman hire signals change to run-heavy philosophy – After leading the league in pass attempts in each of the last two seasons, Baltimore brass gave Marty Mornhinweg a mandate to commit more to the running game. The hire of notoriously run-heavy Greg Roman as an offensive assistant reinforces that mandate. In six seasons as an offensive coordinator, Roman has never had an offense finish above 29th in pass attempts.
Maclin is the favorite to be No. 1 receiver – Baltimore tends to make free-agent wide receivers primary receiving options at the expense of incumbents. Torrey Smith's team-leading 8.6 targets per game in 2013 fell to 5.7 in 2014 after Steve L. Smith signed and led the team with 8.4; then Steve L Smith's team-leading 10.4 targets per game in 2015 fell to 7.2 last season while new signee Mike Wallace finished right on his heels with 7.0. Before an injury-plagued 2016, June signing Jeremy Maclin led his team in targets per game in each of his past three seasons.
Harbaugh prefers a high-volume pass-catching back – In eight of John Harbaugh's nine seasons, Baltimore has finished top-10 in running back target rate, with an average ranking of 5.6 (of 32). Danny Woodhead's 6.3 targets per game with San Diego over the past two seasons would have ranked fourth among running backs last season, behind only LeVeon Bell, David Johnson, and Theo Riddick.
Head Coach: Sean McDermott (replaces Rex Ryan/Anthony Lynn), Offensive Coordinator: Rick Dennison* (replaces Lynn/Greg Roman)
Tyrod, J-Matt poor bets for efficiency in new scheme – Among qualified quarterbacks last season, Tyrod Taylor finished sixth in average pass distance (9.6) but 24th in actual yards per attempt (6.9). After working as Taylor's position coach in 2014 with Baltimore, Rick Dennison will attempt to use high-percentage West Coast concepts to coax more efficiency out of Taylor, which is likely one of the main reasons the team traded deep threat Sammy Watkins. But Taylor's yards per attempt drops from 8.8 to 6.3 without Watkins. Meanwhile, Jordan Matthews averaged fewer than 6 yards per target last season as an outside receiver in 2016—a position he may have to play often on a team that just signed another slot receiver, Anquan Boldin, and one that is expected to employ a fullback after giving $4.8 million guaranteed to Patrick DiMarco.
Update: Rather than play on a downgraded offense, Boldin has decided to retire.
New staff wants more receptions for Shady ... – Due to natural regression and the departure of the Rex Ryan/Greg Roman/Anthony Lynn regime, Buffalo can't be expected to match its league-leading 500.5 rushing attempts per season from the past two seasons. However, Rick Dennison has expressed the desire to increase McCoy's role as a receiver. Arian Foster averaged 4.5 targets per game when Dennison was Houston's offensive coordinator from 2010 to 2013; McCoy averaged 3.6 last season.
... but Shady is not as well-suited to the new rushing scheme – Dennison's outside-zone running scheme will carry over some concepts from the previous regime, but one change will be increased usage of a fullback—and in turn, more runs from under center—with the signing of DiMarco. The problem with that is McCoy averaged only 3.91 yards per carry on 114 under-center carries with Buffalo the last two seasons, more than a full yard lower than his 4.93 average taking handoffs out of the shotgun. Allowed freedom to dance in the previous scheme, McCoy averaged 4.94 yards per carry, including a career-high 5.41 last season, compared to 4.64 in six years in Philly. The new scheme will require McCoy to follow blockers more, which could expedite his inevitable negative regression in yards per carry.
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (7th year), Offensive Coordinator: Mike Shula* (5th year)
Rivera wants Cam to run less – After Cam Newton set career lows in carries per game (6.0) and yards per carry (4.0) last season, Ron Rivera has stated he wants Newton to run even less in 2017. Even if Newton were to set career highs in pass-attempt volume and efficiency, running less would be bad news for his fantasy outlook. Newton averages 0.91 fantasy points per rush in his career, but just 0.43 fantasy points per pass.
Early-down role is not being handed to McCaffrey – Carolina's league-low 4.3 targets per game to running backs since Shula took over will increase with Christian McCaffrey and a newfound emphasis on high-percentage throws. However, the coaching staff insists Jonathan Stewart will maintain his early-down role from last season that afforded him 16.8 carries per game despite averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. Stewart's job security has to be considered tenuous after McCaffrey proved he can be a workhorse by handling 26.9 touches per game over his last two years at Stanford.
J-Stew is the favorite for goal-line work – In addition to Stewart's 30-pound advantage over McCaffrey and what will likely be a less run-happy Newton, the coaching staff's past tendencies also suggest Stewart is the favorite for goal-line work. Stewart logged 38 inside-the-10 carries in 26 games over the past two seasons after handling only 26 in 44 games during the four seasons prior. Last season was the first time in their respective careers that more inside-the-10 carries went to Stewart (20) than Newton (8).
Head Coach: John Fox (3rd year), Offensive Coordinator: Dowell Loggains* (2nd year)
Fox has a history of riding a workhorse like Howard – Jordan Howard averaged 20.2 touches per game once he took over as the starter in Week 4. He was one of eight running backs to average 20+ touches over that span. Dowell Loggains may call the plays, but a workhorse back is a signature of a Fox offense. Since becoming a head coach in 2002, Fox has let a running back handle 20+ touches in an average of 8.5 games per season. Last season, fewer than one-third of the league's teams had a running back handle 20+ touches in at least eight of their games.
Meredith couldn't get loose without Alshon – With Alshon Jeffery and his 14.3-yard average target distance gone, Loggains will transition to a higher-percentage West Coast scheme featuring Cameron Meredith (10.2). Lost in Meredith's breakout season was a concerning downward trend in production when Jeffery wasn't soaking up defensive attention. From the time he became a full-time player in Week 3, Meredith suffered dips in targets per game (8.3 to 6.0), yards per target (9.8 to 8.3), and catch rate (70% to 60%) with Jeffery out.
Update: Meredith tore his ACL in the third preseason game and will miss 2017. Kendall Wright drew 8.7 targets per game in his one season with Loggains (2013)—a large uptick on the 6.0 per game Wright has drawn in his four seasons without Loggains.
Staff has shown a willingness to force-feed White – Sadly rivaling Victor Cruz as the receiver who looked the most like a shell of his former self last season, Kevin White couldn't take advantage of an 80% snap rate and a boatload of targets. White's 36 targets in four games would have ranked 11th over a full season, but he averaged a pitiful 5.19 yards per target—fewer than a Jordan Howard carry (5.21).
Update: Given Meredith's season-ending injury, White has a chance to be a target monster again; the quarterbacks are different, but the offensive coordinator is the same.
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (15th year), Offensive Coordinator: Ken Zampese* (2nd year; 15th with team)
Dalton has been kept on a leash in the red zone – In his first season as playcaller, Ken Zampese continued the tradition of Cincinnati's offense ranking 28th or lower in red zone pass-play rate in each season since 2014. Not coincidentally, the last time Dalton finished higher than the No. 15 fantasy QB was 2013, when he finished fifth. Dalton may need more than just the bump in red zone efficiency that the returns of A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert will provide.
Losses along O-line make it harder to go deep – Dalton threw 16+ yards downfield on 16.9% of attempts last season after doing so on 21.6% of attempts in 2015. Those passes produced just 3 TDs—down from 13 TDs the season before—while Dalton's overall yards per attempt fell from 8.4 to 7.5. Zampese should allow Dalton to take more shots with Green back and John Ross' 4.22 speed in the fold, but the loss of linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler coupled with Dalton's prevailing struggles against pressure could thwart those plans.
Mixon was drafted after Gio and Hill's worst seasons – Despite a 58%-42% advantage in snap rate last season in nine games before getting hurt, Giovani Bernard did little to distinguish himself from Jeremy Hill. Bernard's 3.7 yards per carry trailed Hill's 3.8; Bernard's 6.6 yards per target barely bested Hill's 6.4; Bernard received 14.0 touches to Hill's 13.1, but saw only 5 carries inside the 10-yard line to Hill's 10. Zampese has refused to divulge how he'll divvy up carries, but rookie Joe Mixon is capable of making both Hill and Bernard expendable.
Head Coach: Hue Jackson* (2nd year)
Hue wants more carries for Crowell – Despite beating himself up for it, Hue Jackson had no choice but to abandon the run last season. His offensive line chastity-belted every hole his running backs intended to enter. Isaiah Crowell averaged 6.3 yards per carry on 15.3 carries per game in Weeks 1–4, but sank to 2.5 yards per carry on 10.3 carries per game from Week 5—when guard Joel Bitonio's went down with a season-ending injury—to Week 12. The return of Bitonio and the signings of Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter give Cleveland one of the league's best lines, which should ensure Jackson is free to beat himself up about something else in 2017.
Duke Johnson playing WR – Jackson alluded to Duke Johnson spending time in the wide receiver room and word out of camp is he's practiced in the slot. An elevated receiving role would be a positive for Johnson after receiving only 26% of Cleveland's running back carries last season. If Johnson continues to take receiver reps, he could be a Crowell injury away from a Ty Montgomery-like role, albeit in an un-Montgomery-like offense.
Contract implies Britt, not Coleman, is the No. 1 receiver – While Jackson has stated he'd like Corey Coleman to assert himself as the No. 1 receiver, the front office gave Kenny Britt more money and years than Terrelle Pryor, Cleveland's No. 1 receiver last year, commanded on the open market. In the 10 games he spent active, Coleman averaged 7.3 targets per game to Pryor's 8.8.
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (7th full year; 11th with team), Offensive Coordinator: Scott Linehan* (4th year)
Coaches want to get Zeke more receptions – With former third-down back Lance Dunbar gone, running backs coach Gary Brown said the Cowboys "absolutely" want to get Ezekiel Elliott more involved as a receiver. Elliott had just 33 catches as a rookie, but wouldn't be the first talented back to make a Year 2 jump: LeVeon Bell went from 45 to 83 catches in Year 2 and David Johnson went from 36 to 80 catches in Year 2.
Note: Elliott has been suspended for the first six games of the regular season.
Dak has untapped upside – Dak Prescott finished as the No. 6 QB in fantasy last season despite ultra-conservative play-calling tendencies. Prescott not only had to overcome an offense ranked in the bottom-three in situation-neutral pace and pass-play rate, but also one ranked 26th in red zone pass-play rate and rate of pass attempts 16+ yards downfield.
Beasley could improve on his 75-catch season – Since Scott Linehan's arrival, Dallas has ranked in the bottom-three in pace every year, and in the bottom-three in pass-play rate in two-of-three years. Oddsmakers are forecasting a 3.5-win drop-off for Dallas, which could make replicating last year's league-low 50.6% pass-play rate difficult. An increase in pass attempts would help Cole Beasley build on last year's 75 catches; he was targeted 32.8% more when Dallas was trailing or tied.
Head Coach: Vance Joseph (replaces Gary Kubiak), Offensive Coordinator: Mike McCoy* (replaces Rick Dennison)
Dennison hire could mean Siemian's time is running out – In April, the Denver Post reported Mike McCoy plans to use more shotgun after Denver finished 31st in shotgun rate last season under Gary Kubiak. The shotgun-centric approach could hint that Denver will commit to Paxton Lynch over Trevor Siemian sooner than later. While Siemian's passer rating last season decreased from 96.2 under center to 77.3 in shotgun, Lynch's increased from 74.7 under center to 82.8 in shotgun.
Bubble screens won't be enough for DT – While McCoy's affinity for bubble screens has been talked up as a needle-mover for Demaryius Thomas, a decrease in downfield targets is actually what caused Thomas' recent dip in production. In 2012–15, Thomas was targeted 16+ yards downfield on 25% of his targets. He averaged 540 yards and 3.5 TDs per season on those targets over that span. Those numbers dipped to 300 yards and 1 TD on 17% of targets last season. Pivoting to the stronger-armed Lynch would theoretically help, but Lynch has to improve on his small-sample 5-for-20 passing for 108 yards on passes 16+ yards downfield from a season ago.
McCoy will up CJA's receiving usage, use Charles as a compliment – In late-July, Sports Illustrated's MMQB reported McCoy wants to limit Jamaal Charles to 8–10 touches per game. Around the same time, the Denver Post reported McCoy wants to get C.J. Anderson more involved as a receiver. McCoy's offenses have averaged 109 targets per season to running backs over his eight-year career, 22 more than Denver last season under Kubiak.
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (4th year), Offensive Coordinator: Jim Bob Cooter* (3rd full year; 4th with team)
Abdullah hasn't played on most valuable fantasy snaps – Since Jim Bob Cooter took over, Ameer Abdullah averages 2.0 targets per game and has 1 of Detroit's 17 carries inside the 10-yard line while active. Meanwhile, Theo Riddick has averaged 6.3 targets per game under Cooter and Zach Zenner has been running as the first-team goal-line back in training camp. Abdullah is a talented back, but being second in line in his own backfield for both receptions and TDs curbs his upside.
Front office moves signal Ebron is in for a larger role – Eric Ebron will be freed from some of his blocking responsibilities thanks to the signing of blocking tight end Darren Fells. In mid-July on Sirius XM, Ebron said he's "overly excited" about how he will be used this season. Ebron will likely get reps in the slot role that Anquan Boldin played last season after the team chose not to re-sign Boldin. Ebron is in for a jump in overall volume, which he already proved he could handle with 5+ catches in 6 of 13 games last season. He's also likely to see increased red zone usage after drawing only 6 red zone targets last season while Boldin drew 22.
Slow-down offense curbs rushing attempts – In an effort to hide its defense, Detroit played at the eighth-slowest pace in the league when in neutral situations and at the third-slowest pace when trailing by 7+ points. But a second consecutive top-three finish in pass-play rate mitigated any potential pace-induced loss in pass-play volume, allowing Detroit to finish sixth in completions (388). That same pass-happiness exacerbated the pace-induced loss of rushing volume, however, as Detroit finished dead last in rushing attempts (350).
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy* (12th year), Offensive Coordinator: Edgar Bennett (3rd year; 17th with team)
Maintaining 2016's elevated pass-play rate would give Rodgers career-high upside – McCarthy dialed up a pass on 63.7% of offensive plays last season, the highest pass-play rate of his 11-year tenure. Regression would be unsurprising, but a starting five at the skill positions of Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Martellus Bennett, and Ty Montgomery gives Green Bay arguably its most balanced group of pass-catchers in recent memory. Aaron Rodgers' 610 attempts last season were a career-high, but if he can match it in 2017, his numbers have room to grow. His 6.6% TD rate was near his career average of 6.4%, and his 7.3 yards per attempt was below his career average of 7.9.
Montgomery's playing time will come down to pass-blocking – After feeding his running back 20+ touches in 59% of games during Eddie Lacy's 2012–13 heyday, McCarthy has done so in 25% of games since. Ty Montgomery is yet to handle 20 touches in a game, and has eclipsed 11 carries in a game just once. Montgomery improved his physique in the offseason, and Mike McCarthy called Montgomery a "full threat" in camp, but qualified it by saying Montgomery needs to improve in pass protection. Keeping 12 clean could be all that stands between Montgomery and feature-back upside.
Frequent goal-line passing makes Cobb a sneaky regression candidate – Green Bay has thrown at or inside the 5-yard line more than any team in the league over the past two seasons, and one of every 2 passes Aaron Rodgers has thrown at or inside the 5-yard line in his career has turned into a TD. Including the postseason, the career 5-yard-line-and-in TD rates of Nelson (18-of-36) and Adams (6-of-12) are 50% each, but Randall Cobb's (15-of-22) is 68%. Cobb received only 2 of 32 Packers targets at or inside the 5-yard line last season (including playoffs), catching both for TDs. The last time Cobb and Nelson played a full season together before 2016, they tied for the team lead with eight targets at or inside the 5-yard line apiece in 2014.
Head Coach: Bill O’Brien* (4th year)
O'Brien's complex scheme has failed without a veteran quarterback – On the surface, it's easy to blame DeAndre Hopkins' struggles last season on Brock Osweiler. But a closer look reveals that O'Brien's offense, which relies on an intricate system of pre-snap reads, audibles, and option routes, has regressed each year as its quarterback has become less experienced. In 2014, Houston scored 23.3 points per game and averaged 5.2 yards per play with 10-year vet Ryan Fitzpatrick; in 2015, 21.1 points per game and 4.9 yards per play with seven-year vet Brian Hoyer; and in 2016, 17.4 points per game and 4.7 yards per play with four-year vet Brock Osweiler. Vying for this year's job are fourth-year man Tom Savage and rookie first-rounder Deshaun Watson.
O'Brien wants to scale back Miller's workload – Since O'Brien took over, only two teams have given a running back 20+ touches in more games than the Texans (29). But after Lamar Miller ranked sixth in the league in touches per game (21.4) last season, O'Brien said he wants to cut down Miller's workload to keep him fresh late in the year. Houston has averaged the seventh-fewest targets to running backs per season (91.3) since O'Brien took over. Miller had a career-low reception-to-rush ratio of 0.116-to-1 last season.
Fiedorowicz and Griffin split snaps and targets – After targeting tight ends only half as much as the average team in O'Brien's first two seasons, Houston's 129 targets to tight ends ranked second in the league last season. Previously lacking in experience compared to former veteran receivers Andre Johnson, Nate Washington, and Cecil Shorts, Ryan Griffin (drafted in 2013) and CJ Fiedorowicz (2014) have become the team's most experienced pass-catchers. Especially with Will Fuller slated to miss time, O'Brien figures to ride his tight ends again. The situation is muddled, however, after Fiedorowicz (5.9) finished with only a modest lead on Griffin (4.6) in targets per game, and both posted what are likely unsustainable top-12 targets per snap rates.
Head Coach: Chuck Pagano (6th year), Offensive Coordinator: Rob Chudzinski* (2nd full year; 3rd with team)
Chud said Turbin will continue to siphon scoring chances from Gore – Chud allowed an increasingly eroded 33-year-old Frank Gore to handle 20+ touches eight times last season, but grew fond of using Robert Turbin in scoring position. Inside the 10-yard line, Turbin's 17 touches were only five fewer touches than Gore's 22. In June, Chud told beat writer Zak Keefer to "count on" Turbin having a larger role in 2017. Last year, Gore handled 301 touches in his age-33 season. Since the 1970 merger, only 10 running backs have handled even half as many in their age-34 season.
Doyle's numbers have room to grow – Chudzinski, a known tight end savant, coaxed undrafted Jack Doyle into 59 catches on 75 targets last season, which was good for a position-leading 78.7% catch rate. Collectively, Indianapolis tight ends caught 12 TDs, which was second only to San Diego (15). Given that Indianapolis is paying Doyle $8 million this season, he's likely to play on more than the 68.3% of snaps he did last season, which gives him room to improve on his borderline fantasy TE1 finish.
Hilton's numbers take a hit without Luck – Despite spending a lot of time in the slot, T.Y. Hilton's fantasy ceiling depends on downfield throws in Chudzinski's vertical scheme. Hilton led the league last season in not only receiving yards (1,448), but also in receiving yards on targets 16+ yards downfield (719). When Andrew Luck (shoulder, questionable for Week 1) has missed time, Hilton's points per game have dropped 31% in standard and 23% in PPR.
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (1st full year; 3rd with team), Offensive Coordinator: Nathaniel Hackett* (1st full year; 3rd with team)
Coaching staff wants to hide Bortles – The Jaguars have ranked in the top seven in pass-play rate in each of Blake Bortles' three seasons, but after Bortles reverted back to ghastly mechanics last season, ESPN reported in June that the Jags "want to help Blake Bortles ... by running the ball on every play." Bortles has relied on volume to produce in fantasy more than perhaps any other quarterback. He could be in for a dip in fantasy production even if he is able to showcase real-life improvement.
Past tendencies suggest a heavy load for Fournette – The Jaguars have been 26th or below in run-play rate in Bortles' career, largely due to negative game script stemming from an 11-37 record over that span. But Jacksonville's Vegas win total of 6.5 would trump their 3.7 average from 2014–16. Marrone and Hackett may be eying a repeat of their third-place finish in run-play rate together with Buffalo in 2013. Over the past five seasons, running backs drafted in the first round have averaged 273.1 touches in their rookie season. Whispers of Chris Ivory stealing short-yardage work are unlikely to increase in volume.
ARob's new coaches have shown less inclination for deep passing – In percentage of throws 16+ yards downfield, Jacksonville ranked first in 2015 and ninth in 2016. But the Marrone-Hackett combo ranked 21st and 12th, respectively, in their two seasons with Buffalo. Allen Robinson, who led the league with 118 targets on throws 16+ yards downfield over the past two seasons, may actually benefit from higher-percentage looks. The main culprit of Robinson's poor numbers last season was him catching 13 of 51 passes on targets 16+ yards downfield for just 275 yards and no TDs.
Head Coach: Andy Reid* (5th year), Offensive Coordinator: Matt Nagy (1st year; 5th with team)
Kelce is yet to tap into full upside – Andy Reid knows how to cover up his personnel's weaknesses. With Alex Smith at quarterback, that has meant a slow-paced, underneath attack emphasizing yards after the catch. Kansas City has been a bottom-five team in situation-neutral pace and ranked last in rate of throws 16+ yards downfield for three seasons and counting. Travis Kelce's average target distance last season (7.0) ranked 36th among tight ends, and 60% of his career yardage has occurred after the catch. Whenever Patrick Mahomes is ready, Kelce's numbers could explode in a more downfield-oriented attack.
TyFreek's role gives him a high floor – Tyreek Hill will still return punts, but not kickoffs, which accounted for 26.4% of his 53 returns and 1 of his 3 return TDs. As a full-time wide receiver, Hill should eclipse his 6.9-targets average from the final eight weeks of 2016. Because his low average target distance (8.0) allows him to maintain a high catch rate (73.5%), even a small uptick in targets could mean a weekly floor of 5–6 catches, which makes him one of fantasy's most enticing floor/ceiling options.
Slow pace capped Ware's upside last season – For just the fourth time in Reid's 18 years of coaching, he didn't have a running back handle 20+ touches in at least six games. That could have had more to do with the slow-paced offense than Spencer Ware, who still averaged 17.7 touches per game. Ware's job is not as secure as it was last season, however, after Kansas City drafted Kareem Hunt in the third round—the first time they've drafted a running back that high since Knile Davis in 2013.
Update: Ware is expected to miss 2017 ater suffering a knee injury in the third preseason game. Hunt becomes the starter, and given his draft pedigree and the lack of depth behind him, he should have more job security than Ware and will likely receive an even larger workload.
Head Coach: Anthony Lynn (replaces Mike McCoy), Offensive Coordinator: Ken Whisenhunt* (2nd year of second stint; 3rd with team)
Coaches don't want Gordon's workload as high as last season's – In late-July, ESPN's Eric Williams reported to Mike Clay that San Diego coaches "don't want Melvin [Gordon] around 300 carries" after Gordon was on pace for 312 carries before a season-ending injury in Week 14. We should take him seriously. In Buffalo last season, Anthony Lynn gave LeSean McCoy 60% of the team's running back carries, which is a far cry from Gordon's 80% share in the 12 games before he got hurt.
Allen has never been the primary red zone target – In each of Allen's four seasons, San Diego's most targeted player in the red zone has been a non-wide receiver. Last season it was tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. The year before it was Gates and running back Danny Woodhead (Gates and Ladarius Green led the team at the time Allen went down). In 2014, Allen finished second, but was 7 targets behind Gates. The closest he came was 2013, when he finished two behind Woodhead for the team lead. It's simply been a matter of too many mouths to feed; Allen has converted TDs in the red zone at an above-average rate (28.9%).
Gates' role has shown no indication of being scaled back – In three games without Antonio Gates, Hunter Henry averaged 6 targets. In 13 games with Gates, Henry averaged 3.2 targets. Both were heavily targeted in the red zone (Gates 18, Henry 16), but Henry is due for more TD regression after scoring 8 TDs on 57 total targets; Gates scored 7 on 93 targets. Gates played on a higher percentage of snaps in Henry's first season (62.5%) than he did the season before (61.9%). In six games with Gates post-bye, Henry played on 47% of snaps—9 percentage points fewer than in seven games with Gates pre-bye. Gates may be in his twilight years, but Whisenhunt has given no indication darkness is imminent. Henry's ADP has been inside the top 12 of TEs; Gates' outside the top 20.
Head Coach: Sean McVay* (replaces Jeff Fisher/John Fassel), Offensive Coordinator: Matt LaFleur (replaces Rob Boras)
Gurley will be used more as a receiver – With Jeff Fisher no longer chaparoning what Todd Gurley called a "middle-school offense," Gurley has a good shot to rebound in a Sean McVay offense that will utilize him more in the passing game. Gurley finished fourth among running backs in snaps last season (741), but 14th in targets (58). NFL Network's Gregg Rosenthal reported Gurley was being moved "all around the offensive formation: in motion out of the backfield, outside the hashes ..." while ESPN's Alden Gonzalez noted the Rams want to use Gurley "more frequently on third downs."
McVay has elevated a passing game before – McVay's ascension to playcaller in 2015, his second year as Washington's offensive coordinator, coincides with Kirk Cousins's transformation from a below-average starter into his current, "you like that!" version. Before McVay started calling plays, Cousins had a completion percentage of 59% and a TD-to-interception ratio of 18-to-19. But with McVay able to devise a scheme which allowed Cousins to avoid throwing into tight windows, Cousins increased his completion rate to 68.3% and his TD-to-interception ratio to 54-to-23. Especially since Buffalo plans to switch to a short-passing scheme this year, being traded to LA may not significantly lower the fantasy value of Sammy Watkins.
McVay has shown no issue with giving extensive time to a rookie tight end – Rookie tight ends don't usually make a first-year impact, but Jordan Reed's 11th-place finish among tight ends in targets per game (6.6) happened while McVay was Washington's tight ends coach in 2013. Rookie second-rounder Gerald Everett, McVay's first pick with the Rams, has already drawn Jordan Reed comparisons, and given the Rams' wide-open competition for targets, Everett has an underrated shot at outproducing fellow rookies O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, and David Njoku, who all have higher ADPs.
Head Coach: Adam Gase* (2nd year), Offensive Coordinator: Clyde Christensen (2nd year)
Landry's targets fell amidst Gase's conservative scheme – In Gase's first year with Jay Cutler in Chicago, the Bears fell from second in pass-play rate the year before to 26th; in Gase's first year with Miami, they fell from third to 27th. Nothing figures to change now that Gase is reunited with Cutler. Jarvis Landry's 131 targets were 35 fewer than the season before. I'm not buying Cutler's previous penchant for targeting Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery will shift targets from Landry to DeVante Parker—underneath route-runner Matt Forte had 130 targets mostly from Cutler in 2014—but Landry will need to match his career-high 8.8 yards per target to maintain fantasy WR2 status.
Gase has a history of committing to a workhorse like Ajayi – Coming into last season, Gase had let a running back handle 20+ touches in 50% of all games he'd ever coordinated at the NFL level, a rate well above league average. From Week 6 on, Jay Ajayi never handled less than 18 touches and averaged 22.7 per game over that span. Miami was 10-6 last season, but spent more than half of its plays trailing, so the team shouldn't have too much trouble replicating its 44.5% run-play rate, which was sixth-highest in the league.
Coaching staff implied Thomas will be the primary red zone target – Miami's red zone pass-play rate last season (49.1%) ranked 27th in the league—perhaps because Gase had no go-to guy he felt confident in. No Miami player got double-digit red zone targets; six players were in the 5–9 range. Gase trading for his former starting tight end in Denver, Julius Thomas, was likely done with the intent of making him the team's top red zone threat. Thomas' career red zone TD rate (45.3%) is more than double anyone else's on Miami's roster. USA Today reported Clyde Christensen thinks Thomas can be a "10-TD guy."
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (4th year), Offensive Coordinator: Pat Shurmur* (1st full year; 2nd with team)
Shurmur's scheme is pass-heavy enough to support all of Diggs, Rudolph, and Thielen – Minnesota's pass-play rate increased from 57.4% to 66.1% after Shurmur took over last season in Week 9. Under his West Coast, dink-and-dunk approach, only one of Shurmur's teams has ever finished with a below-average ranking in pass attempts in his eight years as offensive coordinator/head coach. Cordarrelle Patterson averaged 5.1 targets per game once Shurmur took over, and his departure could allow Adam Thielen to build on his 6.2 targets per game under Shurmur while not cutting into the shares of Kyle Rudolph (8.7) and Stefon Diggs (8.6).
Red zone target allocation curbs Diggs' and Thielen's TD upside – Sam Bradford's average pass distance of 6.6, 34th in the league, will pay dividends in PPR leagues—Minnesota finished third in pass completions last season (414)—but may cap the standard-league upside of Diggs and Thielen. The average target distance of both Thielen (10.8) and Diggs (8.9) ranked outside the top 60 wide receivers, and neither wideout could make up for it in the red zone: Rudolph's 24 targets were more than Diggs (12) and Thielen (10) combined.
Update: Thielen has operated predominantly in the slot during the preseason while Diggs was operated exclusively as an outside receiver. This would increase Diggs' target distance, and in turn, his big-play upside. Thielen's target distance will decrease, but he becomes a better bet for volume and week-to-week consistency.
Shurmur used a used a goal-line specialist last season – The Vikings will shift to more of a zone blocking scheme this season, which plays to the strengths of second-round pick Dalvin Cook. By most accounts, Cook is a better zone runner than Latavius Murray, so we shouldn't be taking Zimmer's offseason rave reviews of Cook lightly. Murray was likely signed to specialize in his relative strengths: pass protection and short yardage. Last season's power back, Matt Asiata, saw his overall snap rate decrease while his red zone usage increased once Shurmur took over. Cook is the favorite to handle most of the work between the 20s, but could have his fantasy upside capped similar to Ameer Abdullah.
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (18th year), Offensive Coordinator*: Josh McDaniels (6th year of 2nd stint; 14th with team)
White's target share last season was an outlier – Bill Belichick's running back usage can seem unpredictable at times, but he actually has clearly defined roles for his backs. Belichick has stated James White is firmly entrenched in the sub-back, or passing-down back, role. The issue for White is that injuries caused the Patriots to target running backs at a top-six rate in each of the past two seasons, but the team had been ranked 20th or lower in 5 of 6 seasons prior. Adding Brandin Cooks and getting a healthy Rob Gronkowski creates a plethora of receiving options which may put a dent in White's target share.
Update: White's target outlook improves a bit with the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman.
Gillislee or Burkhead will have 10+ TD upside – New England's power-back role, most recently occupied by LeGarrette Blount, has produced 10+ rushing TDs in four of the last five seasons. During that span, New England has not ranked lower than fourth in offensive snaps from inside the 10-yard line. Despite Rex Burkhead being acquired first, Mike Gillislee was the frontrunner for the power-back gig, while Burkhead is more likely to take over Brandon Bolden's special teams role and serve as a backup in both running back roles. However, Gillislee has hit a snag with a lingering hamstring injury in camp. Whoever plays the power-back role will have massive upside.
Offseason moves signal an effort to maximize Brady's efficiency – After ranking an average of 17.8 (of 32) in run-play rate over McDaniels' first four seasons, New England shot up to fifth last season. However, a non-suspended Tom Brady, the acquisition of Cooks, as well as that of Gillislee—who, unlike Blount, is proficient in the shotgun—should allow the Patriots to return to their pass-happy ways. Only four teams last season used three-wide sets at a lower rate than New England, but no team was more efficient when doing so. Brady finished third in fantasy points per game last season (21.4) despite finishing 15th in pass attempts per game (36.0).
Head Coach: Sean Payton* (12th year), Offensive Coordinator: Pete Carmichael (9th year; 12th with team)
Ingram is still the favorite for touches – Since Mark Ingram became New Orleans' No. 1 back in the 2014 season, Payton has given a back 20+ touches in a game 6–7 times per season. But in the four seasons prior, Payton did so only three times per season. Ingram's share of the team's rushing attempts when active has been in decline for three straight years, but he has been effective over that span, so the workload reduction is likely an attempt to keep him healthy. Payton has gone on the record as saying Adrian Peterson will "complement" Ingram. Ultimately, both backs are likely to be used interchangeably on early-down and goal-line situations. Peterson's age (32) and limitations in the shotgun/passing game leave Ingram as the favorite to finish 2017 with more touches.
Thomas and Snead are the favorites to inherit more targets – Brandin Cooks averaged 123 targets per season over the last two years, but newcomer Ted Ginn's career-high in targets is 97. Ginn bested Cooks in target distance 13.8–12.8 last season, which means the agile Cooks does a bit more work underneath than straight-line speedster Ginn. The average target distances of Michael Thomas (8.2) and Willie Snead (7.5) were lower than that of Coby Fleener (9.5), so the former two should be considered the favorites to pick up additional targets in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
Fleener is due for TD regression – Fleener may be in for an uptick in TDs after finishing last season second on the team with 16 red zone targets, but only scoring twice. Those targets aren't likely to go away: a Saints tight end has been targeted at least 16 times in the red zone in every season since 2011. (For context, 16 red zone targets would have tied for 20th in the league last season.)
Head Coach: Ben McAdoo* (2nd year, 4th with team), Offensive Coordinator: Mike Sullivan (2nd year of 2nd stint; 11th with team)
Ellison, Engram additions signal less snaps for Shepard – The 2016 Giants offense slumped to 25th in total yards (5,291) and 26th in points scored (310) while becoming the first team ever to go three-wide on over 90% of snaps. But this offseason, Giants brass gave $8 million guaranteed to blocking tight end Rhett Ellison before spending a first-rounder on pass-catching tight end Evan Engram. Both moves suggest an uptick in two-tight end sets, meaning fewer snaps for Sterling Shepard; Brandon Marshall will play in two-wide sets because his size makes him better suited as a run-blocker and outside receiver. Shepard needed 1,005 snaps, the sixth-most snaps at his position, and an unsustainable 6-of-12 red zone TD rate to finish as the PPR WR36 last season.
Marshall increases TD upside of Eli and OBJ – The Giants were top-six in red zone pass-play rate (61.1%) despite targeting receivers 6-foot-1 and under on 82% of those passes. The jury is out on whether or not Marshall is done, but the red zone is where he'll likely make his biggest impact. Since 2014, only four players have been targeted in the red zone more than Marshall (57), and the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder has posted a stellar 33.3% TD rate. Marshall could also help in the red zone by drawing coverage away from Odell Beckham, who has scored 69% of his career TDs from outside the red zone, in a way that Rueben Randle or 2016 Victor Cruz could never do. Eli Manning's 26 TDs and Beckham's 10 TDs last season were both three-year lows.
Vereen's presence caps Perkins' upside – After Ben McAdoo gave his running backs 20+ touches in a game nine times in 2014, the team went out and signed passing-down specialist Shane Vereen in 2015 and have had a 20-touch back just four times since (although Vereen missed 11 games last season). Paul Perkins averaged 16 touches per game over the final four weeks of last season, which may be a best-case scenario in 2017 if Vereen is healthy. The additions of Ellison, Marshall, and a corresponding rise in double-tight end sets should improve the Giants' run-blocking, however, after last season's 3.5 yards per carry.
Head Coach: Todd Bowles (3rd year), Offensive Coordinator: John Morton* (replaces Chan Gailey)
The plan is for Powell and Forte to split work 50/50 – John Morton wants to use Matt Forte and Bilal Powell interchangeably, "instead of pigeonholing them into specific roles," according to a report from Rich Cimini of ESPN. Last season, receptions accounted for 31% of Powell's touches, but only 12% of Forte's, meaning Powell has more to lose fantasy-wise if those splits even out.
ASJ benefits from Gailey's departure – The Jets tight end group may finally emerge from its Chan Gailey-induced exile after combining for just 26 catches in two years of Gailey's predominantly four-wide receiver/zero-tight end offense. Morton, a proponent of the West Coast offense, uses the tight end more conventionally. A sobered-up, slimmed-down Austin Seferian-Jenkins has earned praise all offseason and could be a sneaky pickup when he returns from his two-game suspension.
Anderson isn't suited to be No. 1 – Morton's West Coast scheme will emphasize quicker, shorter passes than Gailey's—the opposite of what best suits de-facto No. 1 receiver Robby Anderson. Last season, Anderson's average target distance was 15.8, which was fifth in the league. Targets are up for the taking.
Head Coach: Jack Del Rio (3rd year), Offensive Coordinator: Todd Downing* (1st year; 3rd with team)
Crabtree and Cooper dominate targets – After Michael Crabtree (145 targets) and Amari Cooper (132) were responsible for 45.8% of Oakland's targets in 2015, they accounted for another 47% of the team's targets last season. While Jared Cook and Cordarrelle Patterson may get targets at the expense of Seth Roberts and Clive Walford, Crabtree and Cooper have two of the highest target floors in football. Cooper's continual failure to surpass Crabtree in targets is likely because he receives more defensive attention but is less able to get away from it; Cooper travels to the slot roughly one-third as much as Crabtree.
Cooper's upside is dependent on fixing red zone woes – Over the past two seasons, Cooper has been targeted on just 13.7% of Oakland's red zone passes, a significantly lower rate than Crabtree (23.2%) and even Seth Roberts (19.9%). Perhaps it has something to do with Cooper having converted just 2 of 20 career red zone targets into TDs; his 10% TD rate lags way behind Roberts' 31.1% rate and Crabtree's 23.5% rate over that span. Cooper has reportedly bulked up in hopes that maintaining better leverage prompts Derek Carr to throw to him in close even when he looks covered.
Past tendencies suggest Lynch could be a workhorse but his backup won't be – Latavius Murray handled 20+ touches six times in 2015 and five times last season. The team obviously likes Marshawn Lynch more than Murray, so that number will go up if Lynch can handle it. In the two games Murray missed last season, DeAndre Washington (12.0 touches per game) and Jalen Richard (10) formed a committee, suggesting the two would be used in a committee if Lynch goes down.
Head Coach: Doug Pederson* (2nd year), Offensive Coordinator: Frank Reich (2nd year)
Pederson, Wentz want fewer pass attempts – Despite having an aggressive quarterback willing to fit the ball into tight windows in Carson Wentz, Pederson was forced to play relatively close to the vest last season. Philadelphia was 18th in overall pass-play rate (59.4%), 20th in red zone pass-play rate (53.7%), 26th in rate of attempts traveling 16+ yards downfield (15.8%), and 27th in situation-neutral pace (31.5 seconds between plays). Despite upgrading at receiver in the offseason, Wentz could throw less in 2017. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wentz felt too much was resting on his shoulders last season and he reportedly developed a sore elbow from throwing more than he'd ever had in his career. Pederson promised to "take a little bit off" Wentz's plate this year, according to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia.
Ertz, Agholor benefit from J-Matt's vacated slot role – It's only a two-game sample, but Zach Ertz averaged 15.5 targets per game when Jordan Matthews was out last season. And after averaging an abysmal 5.73 yards per target as a predominantly outside receiver to start his career, numerous camp reports corroborate that Nelson Agholor has apparently found his calling card in the slot. Agholor is unlikely to command anywhere near Matthews' 8.4 targets per game from last season, so Matthews' departure should solidify Ertz's target share, which was previously in limbo due to the arrival of Alshon Jeffery.
Game script dependency makes Blount an inconsistent weekly play – Pederson gave Ryan Mathews single-digit carries last season in over one-third of the games Mathews didn't exit early due to injury. Unlike Mathews, however, LeGarrette Blount was chosen by the Pederson regime, so it's conceivable he gets a chance to handle a larger workload. But since Blount doesn't catch passes, he's ultimately going to be game script dependent. Per TJ Hernandez, when Pederson's team is down 7+, his drop-off in run-play rate is larger than all but one active playcaller.
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (11th year), Offensive Coordinator: Todd Haley* (6th year)
Offense opens up for Big Ben and AB with Martavis on the field – No team has thrown 16+ yards downfield at a higher rate than Pittsburgh over the past two seasons (23.7%). In his career, Martavis Bryant owns a 4th-of-155 ranking in TD rate (14.8%) and 28th-of-155 ranking in yards per target (14.2) among players with at least 20 such targets over that span. Todd Haley opens up the offense when Bryant plays: Ben Roethlisberger's attempts per game go from 35.5 to 40.5, with corresponding jumps in passing yards per game (275.7 to 336.6), yards per attempt (7.95 to 8.39), and TDs per game (1.78 to 2.11). Antonio Brown also benefits, going from a per-game receiving line of 7.1-94-0.74 on 10.1 targets in 26 games without Bryant to 8.9-114-0.76 on 12.5 targets in 21 games with Bryant.
Steelers running backs handle the league's heaviest workload – Over the past four seasons, Haley and Mike Tomlin have let their running back handle 20+ touches in a game 75% of the time, 35 percentage points above league average. LeVeon Bell's 96% snap rate last season was 12 percentage points higher than any other running back; DeAngelo Williams led all running backs with an 86% snap rate in his three weeks as the starter; and even Fitzgerald Toussaint had a 20-touch game in the 2015 playoffs. That makes Bell's backup, who is expected to be either James Connor or Toussaint, fantasy football's highest-upside roster stash.
Update: Toussaint was let go on final cuts.
Two-point attempts give Steelers' passing game hidden value – After attempting a 2-point conversion 24% of the time in 2015, the Steelers again led the league with a 19.7% 2-point attempt rate last season. And they always pass. Over the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has thrown on all 20 of its 2-point tries. DFS players will want to note that 60% of the Steelers' 2-point attempts have come at home.
Head Coach: Kyle Shanahan* (replaces Chip Kelly)
Hyde's true role is still a question mark – Everyone from team beat writers to general manager John Lynch has questioned the fit of Carlos Hyde in Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. Those questions became amplified after MMQB's Peter King reported Shanahan forced the team to override its draft board to select rookie Joe Williams. More recently, rumblings have taken a 180, with Hyde earning unanimous praise. Talk of Williams unseating Hyde was unfounded—the quicker Williams compliments the more powerful Hyde—but there is precedent for a committee. In his first year as Atlanta's offensive coordinator in 2015, Shanahan started rookie Tevin Coleman in Week 1 over incumbent Devonta Freeman, giving Coleman 20 touches to Freeman's 13.
Unlike other coaches, Shanahan sees Garcon as a focal point – Garcon averaged 9.6 targets per game with Shanahan from 2012 to 2013—higher than both Garcon's average of 7.8 targets per game over the three years prior and 6.9 targets per game in the three years since. Shanahan seemingly has similar plans after signing Garcon for $20 million guaranteed; the first-year coach filled out the depth chart with one-dimensional role players Jeremy Kerley, Marquise Goodwin, and Aldrick Robinson.
Update: Kerley was released on final cuts.
Aside from No. 1 receiver, Shanahan's scheme spreads it around – Shanahan's offense is shaping up a lot like the one he ran in 2014 with Cleveland. The quarterback is again Brian Hoyer, who threw for only 237.6 yards and 0.9 TD per game that year. Jeremy Kerley is a veteran slot receiver of Andrew Hawkins' ilk (7.5 targets per game); Goodwin and Robinson profile similarly to the speedy duo of Taylor Gabriel (4.5) and Travis Benjamin (2.9); and Garcon would play the target-hogging role of Josh Gordon (9.4). Backfield touches were split between veteran Ben Tate (14.4 per game), and rookies Terrance West (13.0) and Isaiah Crowell (9.9). In that scenario, only Garcon emerges as a fantasy option.
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (8th year), Offensive Coordinator: Darrell Bevell* (7th year)
Rawls is slated to benefit most from Seattle's renewed commitment to the run – To the dismay of self-appointed offensive coordinator Richard Sherman, Bevell's offense's run-play rate at or inside the opponent's 5-yard line decreased 12.6 percentage points from 2015 (66.7%) to 2016 (54.1%). It wasn't just in scoring position either; starting from Russell Wilson's rookie season in 2012, Seattle's' overall run-play rate ranks have been 1, 2, 2, and 4, before jumping to 18 last year. Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell have both stated in the offseason that they want to get back to running more. But after injuries decimated Seattle's backfield last season, it's more likely that Seattle acquired Eddie Lacy as depth rather than to play a featured role. In the team's first preseason game, Rawls started while Lacy didn't get any first-team reps.
A return to health gives Wilson top-three upside – Another reason the Seahawks' run-play rate decreased last season was that Bevell couldn't call many designed runs for an injury-marred Wilson. Wilson's averaged 4.5 rushing attempts per game last season, down from 6.4 the season before. In both seasons Wilson has averaged 6.4 or more rushing attempts per game, he finished as a top-three fantasy QB (2014, 2015).
Wilson's worst receiver is no longer running with starters – Bevell's most egregious sin last season had nothing to do with a pass-versus-run decision; it was his decision to let Jermaine Kearse play 78% of the team's offensive snaps and come within a few targets of Jimmy Graham. Wilson's adjusted yards per attempt when targeting Kearse was a laughably abysmal 3.6—not even half as much as Wilson's averages when targeting Graham (10.5), Doug Baldwin (9.2), Tyler Lockett (8.7), or Paul Richardson (7.5). Richardson has been running ahead of Kearse in camp. Note: Richardson suffered an AC sprain on Aug. 13 and is out indefinitely.
Head Coach: Dirk Koetter* (2nd year, 3rd with team), Offensive Coordinator: Todd Monken (2nd year)
No guarantee James Winston throws more – After starting the 2016 season with a 67.4% pass-play rate over the first three games, Koetter dialed things back to a 55.1% pass play-rate the rest of the way en route to a second straight 24th-place finish in that category. This all despite a run game that finished with 3.57 yards per carry average, fourth-worst in the league. The additions of DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard have drawn predictions of a pass-game volume explosion in some circles, but it's worth considering their presence could help Koetter call rushes even more; Jackson's deep speed forces the defense to keep its safeties farther back, while Howard is an even better blocker than pass-catcher.
DeSean Jackson is a known quarterback-stat enhancer – No matter if Winston's attempt volume increases or not, he's likely to continue going deep on a high number of his attempts. Koetter's offenses have ranked sixth and third in rate of throws 16+ yards downfield over the past two seasons, respectively. Winston's efficiency should improve because Jackson is a huge upgrade over Vincent Jackson. Over the past two seasons, DeSean Jackson's yards per target on targets 16+ yards downfield (18.9) destroyed Vincent Jackson's (7.5). DeSean Jackson's previous quarterback, Kirk Cousins, has averaged nearly 1 yard per attempt more in his career with DeSean Jackson (8.42) than without him (7.49).
Koetter alluded Evans' targets declining – Regardless of whether the additions of Jackson and Howard result in Koetter calling passes at a higher rate than last season or not, both new additions will allow Koetter to relieve Mike Evans of having to lead the league in targets again (173). Koetter alluded to as much in a July press conference, stating he does not expect his players to be worried about touches or targets.
Head Coach: Mike Mularkey (2nd full year; 4th with team), Offensive Coordinator: Terry Robiskie* (2nd year)
Everything is in place for Mariota to throw more – Critics of Mularkey's exotic smashmouth last season ended up with an exotic foot in their mouth. Tennessee finished third in rushing yards per game (136.7) and fourth in yards per carry (4.59) last season. The Titans should still be able to run efficiently—their offensive line is one of the league's best and ranked fourth in adjusted line yards (4.33)—but after spending first- and third-round picks on wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, as well as signing Eric Decker in free agency, it would be foolish not to expect the Titans' 47.2% run-play rate, which was third in the NFL, to dip. An increase in pass attempts would be good for Marcus Mariota's fantasy prospects; among 30 quarterbacks with 240+ attempts last season, Mariota finished eighth in passing fantasy points per attempt. And despite owning the NFL's top red zone passing TD rate over the last two seasons (35.1%), the Titans ranked only 25th in red zone pass-play rate last season (50.3%).
Plan is still for DeMarco to open the season as a workhorse – In this space last season, I expressed optimism for DeMarco Murray because he would return to an under-center, downhill attack in Tennessee after being miscast in a shotgun-based, lateral-running system in Philly. While Murray did rebound, increasing his percentage of carries under center from 14% to 81%, a surprisingly positive development was Murray averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the shotgun on 56 carries. Murray handled 20+ touches 11 times last season, and if he can aid the Titans' transition to a more pass-heavy approach by continuing to play well in the shotgun, there's no reason to not to believe Mularkey when he says Murray will continue to be the team's workhorse.
Offense has room to grow as whole – Mularkey has increasingly taken to a slow-paced attack. The last three teams he has presided over as the head coach or offensive coordinator have finished with situation-neutral pace rankings of 18th (2012 Jaguars), 25th (2015 Titans), and 32nd (2016 Titans). This has caused the Titans to rank 27th and 22nd in total offensive plays over the past two seasons, respectively. The one thing all of those teams have in common is bad offenses, so Mularkey may up the pace with good pieces around Mariota. That could offset some of the likely decline in run-play rate.
Head Coach: Jay Gruden* (4th year), Offensive Coordinator: Matt Cavanaugh (replaces Sean McVay)
Gruden wants to throw less – Upon taking over play-calling duties for the first time since 2014, the first thing Gruden told (formerly) Fat Rob Kelley was: "we’re going to be running the ball more, you gotta drop some weight." Washington ranked 29th in rushing attempts last season with 379 despite a sixth-ranked run blocking unit (4.57 adjusted line yards) and a ninth-ranked 4.47 yards per carry. Washington's 607 pass attempts far exceeded the 551 they averaged in Gruden's first two years. With DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon's combined 18 years of experience giving way to the talented but unseasoned Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson, a less pass-happy approach can't be ruled out.
Better red zone receivers increase Cousins' TD upside – Garcon and Jackson accounted for one-third of Washington's 73 red zone targets last season, but they caught a combined 2-of-24 for TDs. Even if Washington attempts fewer passes, Kirk Cousins could see his TD total climb with the bigger-bodied Pryor and Doctson on the outside. "I do like to have bigger receivers in the red zone ... to be able to throw some fades," Gruden told the Washington Post in early August. Cousins connected for a TD on just 25 of 606 attempts (4.1%) last season after going 29-of-546 (5.3%) two seasons ago.
Gruden's past tendencies indicate a backfield committee is imminent even if Kelley starts – Whether Kelley or rookie fourth-rounder Samaje Perine wins the starting running back job may be irrelevant. Washington's depth chart this year is reminiscent of the team's 2015 edition, when Gruden used a committee approach featuring incumbent Alfred Morris (12.6 carries per game) and rookie Matt Jones (11.1). For what it's worth, Kelley has been firmly ahead of Perine throughout camp.
All average target distance and slot percentage stats via Player Profiler. Adjusted line yards via Football Outsiders.