The NFL Is a Passing League: What Does That Mean For Fantasy Football?
By: Nick Zylak
It’s a passing league now. As it was a passing league last year, and the year before that. Whether you like it or not more teams are throwing the football.
This fact is evident from watching the game in recent years, but let’s first confirm what looks to be as clear as the nose on your face.
2017 was a down year for passing production. It saw the lowest yardage output through 16 weeks since 2010 and the lowest passing TD’s since 2012. However, the long term trend for both passing yardage and passing touchdowns has been going up significantly. Below are graphs depicting the total passing yardage and passing touchdown output for every team from 2003 until 2017. The trend is upward.
Over the same period, there has been a decline in rushing yardage. There is a clear, actually amazingly clear, downwards shift as depicted by the trend line.
This all makes sense though. There have been rule changes in recent years that have made it more difficult for corners to cover wide receivers. Changes to personal fouls for defenseless receivers, as well as changes in the enforcement of illegal contact, have made the job of cornerbacks harder and harder. As a result quarterbacks have taken advantage by homing in on talent mismatches (at least the good teams do), not only with wide receivers, but with running backs as well.
The more teams have become efficient in the passing game, the more they have moved away from the ground game.
So what’s the story with the passing league? The narrative is that since the game is shifting away from the run and more towards the pass, the value of running backs is decreasing, and the value of wide receivers is increasing. In other words...teams are passing more, so us fantasy players should be targeting the best pass catchers as a result.
The narrative is also in the framework of the RB Zero strategy, which has many components and attempts to take advantage of this shift. One part of RB Zero directs you to avoid drafting running backs in the early and middle rounds, since their role has been on the decline, and stack your team with wide receivers early, since it is the position trending upwards.
The logic is simple. Why would we want to spend high draft capital on a position that has been less productive in recent years (don’t think this trend won’t continue...because it will).
But really, all we have confirmed at this point is that quarterbacks are passing more and there has been a decline in rushing as a result. We haven’t made the connection to fantasy. The graphs below depict the total points scored by the top 40 running backs and wide receivers over the last 17 seasons. Total wide receiver production has a slight positive slope (again...boy was 2017 an outlier) whereas running back production has an extreme negative slope.
Wide receivers are posting larger numbers AS A WHOLE, that is clear. What's changing is where this production is coming from. The evolution of the slot position has introduced a new element to the receiving game. Guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Julian Edelman, Golden Tate, Nelson Agholor, Doug Baldwin and Jarvis 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 a team’s top corners shift to the slot to guard the other team’s best wide receiver. We often see a team’s worst starting corner, or even linebackers and safeties, lined up across from an offense’s shiftiest and quickest weapons.
I can't say enough how important this point is. Teams are NOT hyper focusing on their number one wide receiver for this increased production. They increasingly exploit the best matchups, which tends to be slot receivers and running backs going up against a team’s weaker coverage defenders. That's what the following graphs show. Even though the total production from the top 40 wide receivers has gone up over time, the production is coming from the back half of that range. Wide receivers 21 through 40 have become more and more fantasy relevant.
If you’re still not convinced then 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.
It’s not only WR’s who are receiving this increase in targets. Tight ends and receiving backs are becoming a larger part of the offense. The boom in receiving production isn’t being funneled to each team’s top wide receiver, so we need to stop thinking these guys are going to break records each year...except maybe AB...but he's not human.
The bottom line 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 this way. You have a rare coin. The value of this coin is entirely due to its rarity and not what it’s made of. Now imagine that we find a storage locker full of millions of these coins. What’s going to happen to its value? Obviously, it’s going to decline.
The same thing is happening to the wide receiver position. The evolution of the passing game has resulted in more wide receivers 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’m finishing this without you seeing another graph, and well, providing an actually useful conclusion.
Here's how I determined value. Assuming a 12-team league with standard roster construction (2WR, 2RB and a FLEX) we can assume that the 31st ranked wide receiver and running back each season gives us an accurate representation of the average bench player. This covers the top 24 of each position being started, and assumes that half of the teams would start a running back and half would start a wide receiver in their FLEX.
Knowing the value of the bench player allows us to determine how many more fantasy points each player gives us over the replacement player’s performance. This is what determines value. More points than the replacement player? Then more value.
The chart is a comparison of the number of points over replacement between each running back and the parallel wide receiver each season. Here RB1 is compared to WR1, 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. Also if you are wondering how the graph looks for standard scoring (because apparently some cavemen still use that)…it’s even more pronounced. Running backs are MUCH more valuable.
So what happened in 2015? 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. It signaled the death of the running back position and the birth of the globalized RB Zero strategy.
Could 2015 happen again? Absolutely! It happened naturally just a few years ago so of course it could happen again. However, that can’t be how we think. Just because something can happen, doesn’t mean that it’s likely. Over the past 18 years it was the only instance where so many running backs got injured or busted at high draft capital positions. Of the top 7 running backs drafted just one finished inside the top 20. Four of the top 8 running backs in PPR scoring had less than 908 rushing yards (just for reference, none of the top 12 did so in 2016 and just Alvin Kamara did so of the top 9 last season). Danny Woodhead actually finished 3rd in PPR scoring with 336 rushing yards! That wasn’t a typo. It actually happened. 2015 could happen again, but if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t let an outlier change my views on an entire position.
So what does this mean for us going forward? To me it means that the shift towards the passing game isn't having the effect it at first seems. If anything, it is having an inverse effect. It has become increasingly more important to hit on the elite running backs 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. I’m not debunking the RB Zero strategy, and this doesn’t mean that you can’t draft wide receivers early. It just means that you shouldn’t disregard the running back position, and you shouldn’t expect the stud wide receivers 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 running backs.
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* 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.