The Changing NFL Landscape, Part 2: Philosophical Differences
In part one, I discussed the steady increase of pass attempts, declining average target depth, and the correlated increase in completions in the NFL. In part two, I take a look at positional splits and ultimately discuss what I think this all means for fantasy football.
As a limited sample, I examined the top 100 running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, in terms of most receptions, using Pro Football Reference’s positional tags, for each season from 2000-2015. While this isn’t a perfect sample, it should be representative, as it accounts for a minimum of 89.5 percent of the total receptions in the league for each season. On first glance, the sample doesn’t appear to offer broad conclusions, but I think a deeper look gives us reason to believe a specific subset of players has benefited from the trends discussed in part one.
Let’s dive right into it. Note that the first three charts use an 1,800-catch spread on the y-axis, so fluctuations are comparable across positions.
There is clearly an upward slope in the WR chart, however it moves in line with the overall increase of completions discussed in part one. If we look at these numbers as a percentage of total completions – which we will below – the top 100 receptions leaders at the WR position account for roughly the same percentage of total completions over this sample.
For TEs, the upslope is more pronounced. The top 100 TEs account for an increase of about five percent of total completions over this span, although nearly all of that came before 2009, and is correlated with this next chart.
The RB chart is harder to parse. There is clearly a downslope in the first half of the chart, followed by what looks like a mild upslope in recent seasons.
The reason for the downslope is pretty simple – the league-wide de-emphasis of the fullback position. Fullbacks were once an important part of many teams’ passing games. In 2000 there were five fullbacks with 35 or more catches, including the top two receiving backs in the league, Richie Anderson and Larry Centers.1 By 2015, only two fullbacks had at least 20 catches (Kyle Juszczyk with 41 and Marcel Reece with 30).
Looking at the percentage of total completions for each position over the full time frame, it appears as if fullback receptions shifted to the TE position between 2000 and 2009.
Interestingly, each position has been pretty stagnant since 2009.
But there is another note about RB receptions to consider. Hybrid RB/TEs known as H-backs bridged the gap between the days of heavier FB usage and our present-day set-up. H-backs weren’t extremely prominent, but in the mid- to late-’00s there were some who were classified either partially2 or in full3 as RBs.
The decline of fullback and H-back production in the passing game continues until around 2012, which is the last year we see names like Charles Clay and James Casey in the RB list. Given that, I posit the stagnation observed in the chart after 2009 actually represents an increase in production for the type of passing-down RBs we might refer to more as halfbacks or tailbacks. The 2013, 2014, and 2015 PFR lists show an uptick in passing-game utilization for this type of back.
To that end, in 2015 six of the top seven backs in receptions were primarily receiving backs, and none came from backfields with a major injury.4 All six saw at least 70 targets while receiving no more than 110 carries.
It Might Be Time to Retire the Term “Third Down Back”
Taking it a step further, I compiled a subjective sampling of backfields that included a clear pass-catching back in 2015. To compile this list, I looked through each NFL team’s data and isolated RBs with a high ratio of targets to rush attempts, ignoring fullbacks. I then eliminated backs who had fewer receptions per game than a more highly utilized teammate, such as C.J. Spiller, who had 1.6 fewer receptions per game than Mark Ingram. In other words, I was trying to identify teams who utilized multiple backs in different roles, specifically where at least one served as primarily a “running” back and another as a receiving back.
I also omitted offenses where an early injury to a feature back forced a team into this type of split. That removed New England and Houston from the table. The opposite of this scenario happened in Dallas, where Lance Dunbar was a clear pass-catching back early, but his injury pushed Darren McFadden into more of a feature role. I left them in the table, because their preference was clearly to use Dunbar in this role. One last unique situation was Arizona, where David Johnson was more of a pass-catching back, certainly in comparison to Chris Johnson, but the latter’s injury thrust DJ into a feature role. I left them out, but only because DJ’s stats aren’t particularly informative. The points I’m making are: a) this criteria is very subjective, so consider this just a sampling; b) one could argue there are more good examples out there.
|Team||RB||Games||Snap %||Rec||Rec/Gm||PPR FPPG|
While it’s notable that 10 of the 12 pass-catching backs in this sampling finished in the top 30 RBs for either full-season PPR scoring or PPR points per game5, what we’re more concerned with is the snap count column.
As it turns out, in 2015 there were a number of pass-catching backs who actually led their respective backfields in playing time. Entering the season, you would have been hard-pressed to find fantasy owners who believed players like Riddick and Woodhead would lead their backfields in playing time. ADP certainly didn’t suggest this was a possibility. What’s very notable about both of these players, as well as Vereen, is they led in playing time while also seeing more targets than rush attempts.
If we take a quick look at the PPG outcomes within each team, there is a variety in the sampling. Some teams had a lead back who performed well, but the pass-catching back still retained value (e.g. Bucs, Jets). Others saw the pass-catching back lead the team from a fantasy perspective (e.g. Chargers, Lions, Browns). There were, of course, also backfields where there wasn’t much value to be had across the board. But the playing time splits in those offenses still say something about the overall trend in the NFL.
I mentioned in part one that there has been discussion about an overcorrection coming this off-season after Zero RB was such a successful draft strategy in 2015. RotoViz editor Kevin Cole showed how bad last season was for top running backs.
Illustrating what we all knew: 2015 was historically awful for early-round RBs. So few top-5 PPR weeks vs prior yrs pic.twitter.com/hfXUfno9pR
— Kevin Cole (@Cole_Kev) December 29, 2015
This information may lead some to recognize a resurgence is due for early-round RBs in 2016, relative to what will almost certainly be their declining draft value. This points to investing in earlier-round backs, as taking advantage of a market overcorrection is a sound strategy.
It’s clear we should expect better results from top-end RBs; 2015 was an anomaly. But prior to 2015 there were already issues with top-end RBs, and there were proven reasons the Zero RB strategy works.
When focusing on that strategy, the mid- to late-round RBs are an important piece of the discussion. The increasing fantasy viability of pass-catching RBs will increase the pool of Zero RB candidates, and thus advance the viability of the draft strategy. In other words, if the strength of mid- to late-round RBs is increased, the early RB picks are further devalued, and drafters are further incentivized to wait at the position.
The trends I’ve discussed suggest the landscape has only shifted further toward Zero RB since Shawn Siegele penned his seminal piece on the subject during the 2013 season.6
The dramatic increase in completions discussed in part one is both a case for increased stability of the WR and TE positions, as well as an argument in favor of pass-catching RBs that can often be had in the mid- to late-rounds of drafts. On the flip side, the continued reduction in rushing attempts is an argument against investing heavy draft capital in the position, injuries and other considerations aside.
No part of me believes the entire fantasy football community can shift as far as it needs to in order to make Zero RB no longer the obvious decision in PPR drafts. Any shift that has already occurred is mitigated somewhat by the data shown here, and the fact that the strategy is even stronger than it was in 2013. I would argue increased usage of pass-catching backs will only become more pronounced in future seasons as additional offenses shift to utilizing their passing down backs on more than just third down.
Perhaps contrary to this, I do see Kevin Cole’s data as an argument for considering one RB in a high round. I think there is some merit to trying to exploit that market overcorrection, if indeed it manifests itself as a significant decrease in early round RB ADP relative to other seasons. Because of this apparent contradiction, my personal draft strategy at the moment is to consider one value RB in the first two rounds, depending on relative value, and then use a Zero RB philosophy for a number of rounds before targeting pass-catching backs in the later rounds in offenses that could potentially see a shift in backfield usage patterns in 2016.7
Regardless of whether you follow that strategy exactly, if you believe the NFL is continuing to evolve the way I’ve suggested it is, you should be willing to acknowledge there is still an opportunity gap for forward-thinking fantasy football owners to exploit with respect to receiving backs.
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- The other three were Bob Christian, Greg Comella, and William Henderson. (back)
- e.g. Jermaine Wiggins‘ 69-catch 2005 season is split down the middle in PFR’s database, with eight games and 36 catches falling into the TE list and eight games and 33 catches falling into the RB list (despite receiving zero rush attempts in his career). (back)
- Chris Cooley accounted for over three percent of the 2005 RB sample alone, when he led all “RBs” with 71 receptions despite not receiving a rush attempt that season. (back)
- They were, in order, Theo Riddick, Danny Woodhead, Duke Johnson, Shane Vereen, Darren Sproles, and Charles Sims. (back)
- courtesy of FF Today (back)
- If you haven’t read it in a while, I suggest reading it again. I’ll admit I didn’t fully grasp it until my third or fourth read-through. (back)
- Trying to identify those backfields will be a goal of mine as the offseason rolls on. (back)