As the summer officially begins, we’re kicking off this series of articles. For those unfamiliar with this series, we’re taking a look back at he 2017 season, adding data points and notes with an application in the form of potential regression analysis that can serve as bullet points that can go into our diagnosis of player and team expectations as we head into the 2018 season. Stareting our downhill journey to August drafts, we’re taking a look at scoring, drives and plays largely on a team level, while peppering in some individual player notes here as well.
In 2017, we were left to play in the kiddie pool because scoring was one thing that the NFL severely lacked. NFL teams averaged 21.7 points per game a year ago, their fewest per game in a season since 2009. In terms of offensive touchdowns, we had 108 fewer rushing and receiving scores than there were in the 2016 season, and the overall total of those scores (1,121) were the fewest we’ve had in a season since the 2007 campaign.
Touchdowns are the lifeblood for creating a high-scoring fantasy football environment and that offensive ineptitude of putting the ball in the end zone caused us to have our lowest-scoring offensive fantasy season over the past eight years. 42.8 percent of drives ended in punts last year, highest rate since the 1999 season. We can pick out our favorite specific set of ingredients that are baked into that scoring decline from the litany of quarterback injuries, universal offensive line incompetence, defensive play rising, impact of rule changes or anything else under the microscope, but betting on overall offensive scoring output rebounding is a probable wager to place. This was just a quick scratch of the surface and as we delve deeper into the position levels, we’ll highlight a few spots along the way that we can target to exploit with the scoring tide anticpated to rise.
Ram It with Efficiency
Despite league-wide scoring dropping, a few teams still delivered stat-stuffing seasons for us and no team out-kicked expectations higher than the Rams did in their first season under Sean McVay. The Rams led the league in offensive scoring at 29.9 points per game and did so in a manner of increased efficiency that had not been seen in a decade.
The 2017 Rams scored on 22.7 percent more of their drives than they did to end the Fisher Age of 2016. No team made as significant jump in scoring rate over the past decade than what the Rams did a year ago compared to their previous season. Of the other top-10 teams in the decade to make similar spikes in scoring rate and overall scoring output, nearly all regressed the following season across the board.
NFL Teams with the highest scoring increase per drive since 2007
Of the teams listed above, not one scored more efficiently following the season of their breakout and all but two teams scored fewer points per game the following season with the one clear exception across the board here being the 2013 Broncos, the best offense in NFL history.
The obvious card yet to be played is that the Rams defense has loaded up on talent and significantly improved on paper. While that defensive upgrade can theoretically create more scoring opportunities for the Rams offense, it will be hard for them to still run into all of the short-scoring opportunities the Rams had a year ago. Los Angeles ranked first in the league in amount of drives (27) and subsequent touchdowns scored (15) while starting on the opposition’s side of the field. Those scores accounted for 33.3 percent of the Los Angeles total touchdown output. Over the past decade, only one team (the 2009-2010 Bears) has led the league in drive started on the opposition’s side of the field and of those teams, none scored more touchdowns on drives started across the 50 than the year prior.
While the Eagles’ offensive spike in 2017 wasn’t quite as pronounced as the Rams’ worst to first run, it seems that you don’t go on a Super Bowl run out of the NFC lately without having a major spike in offensive output.
Philadelphia Per Drive Output 2016-2017
With a healthy roster, added pieces, and Carson Wentz making a significant stride in his second season, the Eagles became one the premier scoring offenses in the league last season and that spike could’ve been higher as Wentz missed the final three games of the season, the final two of which saw the Eagles score just 19 total points.
While their efficiency rose across the board, the Eagles were already above the league average in terms of scoring per drive in 2016. The main area where they succeeded in elevating themselves amongst the elite was they were able to convert a much higher rate of drives into touchdowns over field goals. That’s also the area of scoring efficiency that is the hardest to maintain elite efficiency at.
Since 2000, there have been 98 teams to arbitrarily score a touchdown on 25 percent of their drives or higher. 78 of those 98 teams notched a lower touchdown rate the following season with an average loss of -4.5 percent with 79 of those teams scoring fewer offensive touchdowns the next season with an average loss of -7 rushing/receiving touchdowns. Of those 98 teams, just 11 of the teams to do so in back-to-back seasons weren’t led by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. The Patriots and Saints once again found themselves in this group a year ago with the Eagles and Rams, but the latter two teams will need to prove their ability to maintain that level of touchdown efficiency for us to solely project into their probable outcomes.
As we discussed with the 2015 Carolina Panthers and the Falcons entering last season, a lot goes into creating a league-leading efficient offense and rolling all of those factors over into the following season is a lot easier said than done. Natural regression should be accounted for when projecting both teams. But don’t mistake this as something to completely turn you off to either team in 2018, however. Not all regression is something to run away from. Both the Eagles and the Rams can still have strong seasons offensively in 2018 that are more than usable for our fantasy purposes but projecting their league-leading efficiency marks over a small sample to be their year-over-year norm isn’t as stable of a bet as it is for a team and their surrounding players such as it is for New England or New Orleans.
More Scores in the ATL
Speaking of that expected regression for the 2017 Falcons, their scoring deterioration from 2016 hit harder than expected given their output in totality. Another example in showing how fragile sustaining high-scoring efficiency truly is. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will shoulder most of the most perceived blame for Atlanta’s 2017 fall back to earth, but their offense was still good a year ago. The Falcons were eighth in the league in offensive yardage (364.8 yards per game), third in yardage gained per possession (35.3 yards), fifth in yards gained per play (5.9) and yet ranked 20th in the league in offensive touchdowns a year ago (33). Over the past decade, offensive yardage has a R-Squared of .7025 in relation to offensive touchdowns, meaning 70.25 percent of all those scores can be explained by yardage gained. Under that umbrella, the Falcons finished with six fewer offensive touchdowns than expected by yardage gained a year ago. That -6 mark ranked tied for 26th in the league, ahead of only Cleveland, San Francisco, Denver and the Giants, four teams that combined to win just four more games than the Falcons did all of 2017. In fact, the Falcons were the only team in the bottom-10 of the league in expected touchdown differential to post a winning record a year ago. In the upcoming red zone notebook, we’ll delve further into the areas that sank the 2017 Falcon touchdown output, but feel free to buy into this offense reaching the end zone more in the 2018 season.
Caution on the KC?
Led by a career-season from Alex Smith, another team that was hyper-efficient a year ago was the Chiefs. In fact, they were better per drive than any team that Andy Reid has coached over his 19-year career.
The Chiefs ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring rate per drive in 2017 while ranking sixth in yards and points point per possession a year ago. This is arguably one of the most talented offensive groups Reid has had on paper, but regardless of how much excitement we feel for the potential of this offense and how good of an aesthetic fit all of these surrounding pieces are for Patrick Mahomes, he’s going to have a high bar to hit in his first full season as an NFL starting quarterback. Warren Sharp also tagged the Chiefs offense with the having the second toughest schedule in the league.
The thing about it is, though, even if you’re expecting the Chiefs to take a step backwards, Mahomes is the safest buy here. Mahomes isn’t being drafted as a starting caliber player in standard leagues while all of his playmakers are -with Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill all occupying costs in the opening three rounds – leaving you room to squeeze on the potential ceiling of those players hitting their cost while pricing in some of the potentially unstable floor of this offense.
Kelce is the safest of the skill players by default of playing the softest fantasy position. It’s hard to fathom him being a true disappointment in the context of the tight end landscape even if he were to come in under his overall ADP.
Hunt is a three-down back, which are in short supply, so he still should be highly regarded even if Kanasas City comes back to the pack in 2018. His biggest concern comes from rushing volume. The most carries a Kansas City running back outside of Hunt had on the season was just 18 from Charcandrick West as Hunt handled 272-of-314 (86.6 percent) running back carries, the highest share in the league. With Spencer Ware returning and Damien Williams and Kerwynn Williams on board to push West, that share of the workload won’t roll over and Hunt may hit a few dead spots along the way, but as the most complete back on the roster in a system that has continuously churned valuable fantasy production from its lead back, Hunt is still a fine starting point for your backfield.
Hill carries the most concern of that group due to potential volume loss but is undoubtedly an electric player. His 7.0 targets per game ranked just 28th at the position a year ago and that was without Sammy Watkins on the field. Hill’s efficiency was incredible in 2017, becoming the first wide receiver with over 100 targets in a season to catch at least 70 percent of them while averaging over 15.0 yards per reception. Hill also caught all seven of his touchdowns from 30-yards and out. Those big plays are what you’re drafting him for and still hold value in ongoing Best Ball leagues that are drafting now, but his weekly volatility could be heightened in 2018 with the change at quarterback and the addition of Watkins.
Grounding the Saints
New Orleans finished second in the league in PPR points generated for their skill players in 2017, the 12th time in as many seasons that Drew Brees has been with the Saints that they have finished either first or second in the league in that category. Let that sink in for a moment. Despite maintaining their dominance in fantasy output as a team, they did so in a unique fashion over how they’ve previously generated their output, leading the league in fantasy points generated solely from rushing production at 21.6 points per game.
The Saints rushed on 44.3 percent of their plays last year, 10th in the league overall and their second-highest rate over the 12 years that Brees has been their starting quarterback. That shift in offensive approach caused New Orleans to suffer a major play loss, losing 105 offensive plays from their 2016 total and the equivalent of 1.6 games worth of offensive output based the previous 11-year average for this offense.
Being able to run at the rate they did in 2017 is a recipe that New Orleans no doubt wants to replicate with Brees at 39-years old, but the Saints leading on 52.6 percent of their snaps again will be tough. Of the 26 teams to lead for half of their offensive plays over the this decade, the average loss the following season for rate of snaps led was a drop of -11.3%. That’s a big deal because the Saints also weren’t as run heavy as you’d believe. New Orleans may have ranked 10th in the league in overall rushing rate, but they ranked 21st in the league in rushing rate when games were within one possession in either direction.
Brees was still just as good of a quarterback as ever, leading the league with a 72 percent completion rate, completions per game (24.1) and yards per attempt (8.1) for full-season passers. He just ran into a season in which the Saints had a ton of leads and was bitten by touchdown variance. His 23 passing scores were his lowest in a season since 2003.
2017 TD Splits
The Saints had a dead even split in rushing and passing touchdowns at 23 each. Over the past decade, 64.8 percent of the offensive touchdowns scored have been via passing and in 2017, that number was at 66.1 percent. There have 28 other teams over that span to have a 50/50 split or less in the passing touchdown department and those teams saw an average increase of +5.6 passing scores the following season.
That bodes well for increased touchdown potential for not only Brees, but also for hopeful breakouts of Jimmy Garoppolo and Mitchell Trubisky while expecting a recoil for Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee passing game. The Tennessee rushing touchdown split was not only the highest in the league last year, it was 9th-highest rate over the past decade. The eight teams with a more lopsided rushing touchdown split than the Titans had a year ago over that span came back and had an average passing touchdown rate of 60.1 percent the following season. Mariota threw a touchdown on just 2.9 percent of his pass attempts in 2017 after posting touchdown rates of 5.1 percent and 5.8 percent over his first two seasons. While leagues are fighting over who will be the guy to own in this backfield between Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis at the top of drafts, the plays to make within this offense are on the cheaper passing components of Mariota, Corey Davis, Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews before even accounting for the incoming scheme change that also benefits this passing game over the “exotic smashmouth” system in place the previous two seasons.
Finding More Rushing Scores
Inversely, no team relied on the pass to reach the end zone last season like Seattle did. In fact, Seattle’s 89.5 percent passing touchdown rate was the highest rate of the past decade. Of the 25 teams prior to 2017 to score at least 80 percent of their scores through the air over that span, just four threw more passing touchdowns the following season while the average loss of passing scores from the other 21 teams was -7.6 passing touchdowns. Inversely, 22-of-25 teams rushed for more touchdowns the following season with an average increase from teams at +5.2 rushing scores.
Seattle ranked fifth in the league in offensive plays run inside of the opponent’s 5-yard line but managed just two rushing touchdowns in that area of the field, with both coming from Russell Wilson. Jimmy Graham caught seven touchdowns from four yards and in, who is no longer with the team. Just two quarterbacks have had back-to-back years as the QB1 in overall scoring over the past 20 years, to tack on. It’s not hard to find natural touchdown regression for Wilson this upcoming season, but Wilson has finished as a top-10 scoring fantasy option at his position in all six of his seasons in the league, so don’t run too far from him.
In that same bucket with Seattle is Philadelphia, Miami and Cincinnati. We’ve already talked a bit how the Eagles could naturally score fewer offensive touchdowns altogether in 2018 than they did in 2017 and here’s an additional marker for how their passing scores could decrease. The Eagles were second in the league in offensive touchdowns a year ago, but just 24th in rushing scores. Jay Ajayi has found the end zone on the ground just three times over his past 26 games on the field including the postseason and didn’t even garner a single touch inside of the 5-yard line a year ago on either the Eagles or Dolphins, but shouldn’t be expected to be a zero in that department over the 2018 season, especially with the departure of LeGarrette Blount.
Miami was tied with Seattle for the fewest rushing touchdowns in the league a year ago with four, which was the fewest number of rushing touchdowns the Dolphins have had in a season over their entire 52 years as a franchise. The Dolphins ran just five total rushing plays inside of the opponent’s 5-yard line all season, the fewest in the league and tied for the fourth-fewest in a season over the past 20 years.
Bengals Run Game and Play Volume Rebounding
The last of those four teams is the Bengals. Cincinnati managed just six rushing scores a year ago after rushing for double-digit touchdowns in each of the past six seasons with an average of 14.8 scores on the ground over that span. It was their fewest number of rushing touchdowns as a team in a season since 2008.
The Bengals also were a team victimized by their offensive incompetence overall as they ran the fewest offensive plays in the league last year (57.9 per game), their third-fewest per game average over their 50-year history and their fewest in a season since 1969. For context, the Bengals ran -1.5 games worth of offensive snaps than what they’ve averaged per game over their 14 previous seasons under Marvin Lewis. Given their correction to their offensive line depth and entering the season with a clearer backfield layout than the one they had entering a year ago, it’s easy to find rationale for more volume and scoring opportunities for the Cincinnati backfield in 2018.
Motoring in the Midway
Ranking just ahead of the Bengals in plays per game was the Bears at a lowly 58.3 offensive plays per game, which was just a shade worse than their 30th ranking in that department in 2016 (60.4 plays per game), their second consecutive season led by Dowell Loggains. Loggains and the archaic John Fox have since departed in favor of Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich. Nagy took over the play-calling duties in Kansas City in Week 13 a year ago. Prior to Nagy calling plays, the Chiefs ranked 28th in the league in offensive plays per game (60.5). From that point on, they ranked 17th in plays per game (63.8) and fifth over the final month of the season at 68.3 plays per game. Helfrich comes from the Chip Kelly umbrella of tempo and misdirection. During Helfrich’s eight years at Oregon, they ranked among the top eight in the country in scoring seven times, the top five in total yards six times and the top-10 in rushing yards six times.
Motor-Less City in Detroit
The Lions certainly want to run the ball more in 2018 and have nowhere to go but up in terms of rushing effectiveness. The Lions has ranked 32nd, 30th, 31st and 28th in rushing yardage per game over the past four years and 30th or lower in rushing rate in each of the past three seasons.
Their offensive line was ravaged in 2017, as Matthew Stafford was sacked on a career-high 7.7 percent of his drop backs while the Lions generated just 0.79 yards before contact for their running backs, which ranked 31st in the league. Second-year left tackle Taylor Decker missed eight games with a shoulder injury while free agent signees T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner dealt with a plethora of ailments as they missed three games each while being questionable on the team’s injury report for a combined six other games on the season in which they still suited up.
This season Detroit has arguably their best offensive line on paper in some time as they get all three of those players back healthy to start offseason as well as drafting Frank Ragnow in the first round to start at left guard, while sliding last season’s left guard Graham Glasgow -their highest graded run blocker in 2017 per Pro Football Focus – over to center. The team then proceed to bring in LeGarrette Blount in via free agency and then used the 43rd overall on running back Kerryon Johnson. To take it even further, the team rescinded the 5th-year option on Eric Ebron in favor of a group that consists of Michael Roberts, Luke Willson, Sean McGrath and Levine Toilolo. Ebron blocked on just 26.9 percent of his offensive snaps last season, the lowest rate for all 99 tight ends with over 100 plays on the season while Roberts blocked the 5th-highest rate (81.5 percent), McGrath ranked seventh (80.2 percent), Toilolo 21st (73.6 percent) and Willson 44th (62.3 percent) out of those same 99 players.
The signal to run the ball is strong in Detroit, but the issue here is that if they are able to finally generate a run game, what potential impact will this have on the overall volume for the Detroit offense and their passing attack? The Lions retained offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who has helmed one of the slowest offenses in the league despite being one of the pass-heaviest.
*Weeks 8-17 when Cooter took over as OC/ Pace Stats from Football Outsiders
Despite having a pass-first and only offense, Detroit has been a bottom-dwelling team in terms of offensive pace and play volume. The Lions threw the ball at the second-highest rate of any team a year ago, but Matthew Stafford still threw 29 fewer times (565 total), his lowest total in a season since his second year in the league in 2010 when he played just three games. In thanks to a career-high 7.9 yards per pass attempt and a 5.1 percent touchdown rate (the fourth-highest of his nine-year career), Stafford was able to fight off the volume loss of a year ago. Stafford has now thrown for over 4,000 yards now in seven consecutive seasons. Stafford is the player this offense is going to run through and has the makings of a stable commodity, but the Detroit passing game still stands to face a potential impact if Cooter and this offense continue to move at a snail’s pace to go along any increased rushing productivity.
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