The NFL Is a Passing League: What Does That Mean For Fantasy Football?
By: Nick Zylak
It’s a passing league now.
Whether you like it or not more teams are throwing the football.
This fact is evident from watching the game over the years, however we don’t make assumptions on this site. Before we dive into the true objective we first need to confirm that there has been a trend away from the ground game and more towards the passing attack.
So, the first thing we need to do is to verify that there has been a collective shift.
Are some teams shifting towards the passing game while others are staying with the ground and pound approach?
As you may have been able to suspect the answer is yes. 2017 was a down year for passing production (I'll touch on this in future articles and videos), however the long term trend for both passing yardage and passing TD's has been going up significantly. Below are graphs depicting the total passing yardage and passing TD output for every team from 2003 until 2017. It clearly shows the upward trend.
What we now want to determine is if there is in turn less rushing, or if total yardage is just on the rise.
Sure enough, there has been a decline in rushing yardage. As you can see the opposite trend is present in the rushing yardage data. There is a clear, actually amazingly clear, downwards shift as depicted by the trend line.
But this all makes sense. There have been rule changes in recent years that have made it more difficult for corners to cover WR’s. Changes to personal fouls for defenseless receivers, as well as changes in the enforcement of illegal contact have made the job of CB’s harder and harder. As a result QB’s have taken advantage by honing in on personal mismatches (at least the good teams), not only with WR’s but with RB’s as well.
The more teams become efficient in the passing game, the more they have moved away from the ground game.
Alright now that we’ve gotten that out of the way we can look at the actual myth we are testing. The passing league narrative. The narrative is essentially as follows:
Since the game is shifting away from the run and more towards the pass, the value of RB’s will decrease, and the value of WR’s will increase. In other words...teams are passing more, so we should be targeting the best pass catchers as a result.
The narrative also sees itself in the framework of the RB Zero strategy. The RB Zero strategy has many components but one of them is taking advantage of this shift. The strategy avoids drafting RB’s in the early and middle rounds since their role with the team has been on the decline. You then stack your team with WR’s early since they are the position seeing the positive trend. There is a lot more to the strategy than just this aspect but this is at least a component of it.
When you think about it, the logic is simple. Why would we want to spend high draft capital on a position that has seen less usage in recent years (don’t think this trend won’t continue...because it will).
However all we have confirmed at this point is that QB’s are passing more and there has been a decline in rushing as a result. We haven’t made the connection to fantasy. These graphs (below) depict the total points scored by the top 40 RB's and WR's over the last 17 seasons. Total WR production has a slight positive slope (again...boy was 2017 an outlier) whereas RB production has an extreme negative slope.
So, to be clear, WR’s are posting larger numbers AS A WHOLE. What's changing is where this production is coming from. The evolution of the slot position has introduced a new aspect to the receiving game. Guys like Larry Fitz, Edelman, Tate, Agholor, Baldwin and Landry have made a living exploiting matchups out of the slot. Coaching staffs (again at least the good ones) have finally started to realize how little teams top corners shift to the slot to guard a teams best WR. Because of this we see a teams worst starting corner, or even linebackers and safety's lined up across from an offenses shiftiest and quickest weapons.
I can't state enough how important this point is. Teams are NOT hyper focusing on their number one WR for this increased production. They have begun to exploit the best matchups, which tends to be slot receivers and RB's on a teams weaker coverage defenders. That's what the below graphs show. Even though the total production from the top 40 WR's has gone up over time, the production is coming from the back half of that range. WR's 21 through 40 have become more and more fantasy relevant.
If you’re still not convinced I’ve got one more to show you. The following graph depicts four ranges of WR (top 40 for this study) production. The ranges are top 10, 11-20, 21-30, and 31-40. As you can see the production of the top two groupings has decreased over time wheras the bottom two groupings has increased.
Like I said before it’s not only WR’s who are receiving this increase in targets. TE’s and receiving backs are becoming a larger part of the offense. The production isn’t being funneled to each team’s top WR so we need to stop thinking these guys are going to break records each year...except maybe AB...but he's not human.
What’s happening is that there are more replacement level options for us to use. There are going to be more and more guys we can use as fill-ins during a bye week or as an injury replacement. Even if your stud goes down, it's becoming more and more likely that there is someone on free agency who can pick up the slack.
Think of it like this. Let’s imagine we have a rare coin. Let’s also imagine that the value this coin is entirely due to its rarity and not what it’s made of. Now let’s imagine that we find a storage locker full of millions of these coins. What’s going to happen to the value? Obviously it’s going to decline.
Well the same thing is happening to the WR position. The evolution of the passing game has resulted in more WR’s being fantasy relevant. Therefore decreasing their value.
Now I know what you're thinking so I'll stop you before you ask...Of course I have a measurement for value! You don't think I'd let you go before showing you another graph...and...well...providing an actually useful conclusion.
So, here's how I have determined value. Assuming a 12 team league with standard roster construction (2WR, 2RB and a FLEX) we can assume that the 31st ranked WR and RB each season can give us an accurate representation of the average bench player. This would account for the top 24 of each position being started and that half of the teams would start a RB and half would start a WR in their FLEX. What we can then do is determine how many fantasy points each player gives us over this "bench player". This is what determines value. If you provide more points over a "bench" or "replacement" player, then you are more valuable.
The above graph represents how many points over replacement the RB scored over the parallel WR each season. The RB 1 is compared to the WR 1, RB 2 with WR 2 and so on for each of the top 10 since the year 2000. If a color on each bar is above 0 then that means the RB was more valuable to have in that season. What we see is that in nearly every single season, at nearly every single spot, having a high end RB is significantly more valuable.
I know that everyone see's 2015 so I'll just address that. It was the aberration of all aberrations. The outlier of all outliers. A data point so egregious, that I'm honestly still shocked it happened. I'm sure most of you remember the death of the RB position and the birth of the globalized RB Zero strategy. I just need you to remember that it isn't something you can expect to happen again any time soon.
So what does this mean for us going forward? To me it means that the shift towards the passing game isn't having the same effect as it might seem. If anything it has an inverse affect. It has become increasingly more important to hit on the elite RB's to win in leagues because 1) you can find more and more mid range production at the WR position and 2) since featured backs are becoming much less common, it's increasingly valuable to have them on your team.
I do want to make one thing clear. This isn’t an article debunking the RB Zero strategy, and this doesn’t mean that you can’t draft WR’s early. It just means that you shouldn’t disregard the RB position, and you shouldn’t expect the stud WR’s to post never before seen numbers just because the NFL has become a passing league. The production has been spread out to all members of the offense…even the RB.
* All data used in this study were found using Rotoviz Screener. I highly recommend using it if you want to do research of your own.
** All of the totals are taken from weeks 1-16. Week 17 is far different from any other week and isn't fantasy relevant so I didn't want to include it.