Fantasy Football Intelligence: The Game Has Changed

We’ve all heard older fans lament that “the game has changed”, often in reference to the physicality or rules changes that hinder defenses. Some of us have been around long enough to remember a game without instant replay.

Changes come to the fantasy game too. Here are two trends that are having a great impact on fantasy this year, and are likely to continue unabated.

Quarterback Play

The running quarterback was an anomaly just ten years ago. Old time guys like Fran Tarkenton or even Steve Grogan in New England were notable for their mobility, but they were an exception, and they were never a threat to Chuck Foreman or Sam “Bam” Cunningham’s role as the team’s leading runner.

Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick were drafted in 2011. Robert Griffin III followed the next year. Their athleticism and running abilities were next level and there were days when they were the best running back on their teams. Conventional wisdom was that they would run themselves into injury (they did) and that teams invested too much money in their franchise quarterback to expose him to serious injury and a shortened career. You can argue that the logic played out with those quarterbacks.

Nevertheless, we’ve hit a tipping point. Whether it is the prevalence of spread offenses, the success Philly had running RPOs, better athletes playing QB or simply seeing what Lamar Jackson was able to accomplish, teams are now far more comfortable with quarterbacks who are also running backs. Eleven starting quarterbacks, 1/3 of the league are legit run threats (Murray, Jackson, Wilson, Mahomes, D. Jones, Tannehill, Prescott, Wentz, J. Allen, Watson and Newton). Another ten can scramble and contribute some on the ground, some may develop into even more (Bridgewater, Darnold, Minshew, Burrow, Herbert, Rodgers, Mayfield, Tagovailoa, Goff and Garoppolo). Pocket passers are now a minority (Brady, Ryan, Roethlisberger, Carr, K. Allen, Foles, Cousins, Brees, Stafford, Rivers and Lock).

In a standard scoring league, a QB who averages 40 yards on the ground is like having an additional TD pass or 100 yards added to your pocket passer. Not to mention the red zone peace of mind one gets from a regular rushing score. Some of the pocket passers still grab the occasional one yard plunge (we saw Brady do it for 18 years), but every member of the first group above is a legitimate scoring threat on the ground from ten yards in and many, such as Allen, Murray and Jackson, are their team’s first option on the ground. Kyler Murray has six rushing TDs already this year; Cam Newton’s record (14) is in jeopardy.

As recently as this season, we devalued QB due to the depth at the position. Going forward, we see the more predictable rushing yards (as opposed to passing TDs) providing much needed floor for our QBs. I say “much needed” because 250 yards and 2 TDs from your QB generally kept you in the game. That’s not as much the case anymore. This year seven QBs are averaging 2.5 scores per game or more – Russell Wilson is averaging four. The top three (Wilson, Murray, Prescott) in 2020 all have a higher fantasy average than Jackson did at this time last year, and #4, Justin Herbert, is tied. QB1 Wilson is averaging 30.6 points, QB12 Jackson is 21.3, a gap of 9.3. Last year QB1 Jackson averaged 25.8 through seven weeks, QB12 Winston averaged 19.1, a gap of 6.7.

The takeaway for fantasy owners? The best way to protect your floor is by having a QB who contributes on the ground. Rushing QBs help your ceiling too – again 40 yards of scrambles equals an extra TD or 100 yards and a rushing TD counts 1.5x more than a passing TD in many leagues. That is a lot of production for Brady, Ryan or Brees to offset with their arms. In the case of the top QBs, it is almost like having an extra spot in the lineup. Next year, QBs will be taken earlier. Given the injuries to early round RBs, don’t be surprised to see Wilson, Murray, and Mahomes find their way to the early rounds.

This year, if you need to replace an injured star or you need a bye week fill in, look for someone in the group that offers you some rushing game floor unless you love a pocket passer’s matchup.

Defense

I grew up in the time of The Steel Curtain, the No Name Defense and the Purple People Eaters. I’m too young for the Monsters of the MIdway and the Fearsome Foursome. The old saying was, “Defense Wins Championships.”

The new saying is, “The last team with the ball wins.”

The 2000 Ravens was 20 years ago and The Legion of Boom had a fairly short run before Brady and Butler scattered them to the wind.

The reasons are many – rules changes designed to help offenses, rules changes to reduce contact, fewer padded practices, more player movement through free agency…however we allocate responsibility, defense isn’t what it used to be. With rare exception, defenses aren’t expected to shut down the opponent, rather they are needed to make a few key stops or get a big turnover when needed so the team can win 27-24. The average NFL game this year has over 51 points scored. While this is about 7% higher than last year and we may be able to ascribe it to the lack of home field advantage, the number is over 20% higher than 2000 when the Ravens defense dominated the league.

Fantasy defenses have generally been a later round consideration because they are difficult to predict from year-to-year. A defense and special team’s ability to generate TDs is as much (or more) a function of luck and the opponent than it is the skill of the players. Sacks are somewhat easier to predict, but still as dependent on the QB and line you are facing as the personnel you line up. This is why many fantasy experts adopt a streaming or platoon strategy and choose their defense after the top five or more have come off the board.

While one or two teams surprise each year, most of the time we know who the bottom feeders of the league will be in terms of offensive production and turnovers. This season, we identified the following “C” teams in August:

Carolina, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, LA Chargers, Miami, NY Giants, NY Jets and Washington

Carolina and Vegas have been somewhat better than expected, the Chargers have a good young QB and the Dolphins are on the right track, but if you used those teams to plan your defensive match-ups for the year, you’d be in pretty good shape. We examined the schedule and ended up with the Colts as our defense for the first six weeks; it worked out very well. The same exercise last year yielded the Patriots, who put up a record setting pace for the first eight weeks playing a series of hapless offenses. The Patriots fortunes changed mid-season when they started facing better QBs and it was time to move on, just as it was this week when the Colts hit their bye. They have a decent matchup with Detroit in week eight, but then face Ravens, Titans, Packers, Titans for the next month and should not be in your lineup. Last week I was able to grab Buffalo in anticipation of this week’s matchup with the Jets as well as possibly next week’s game with New England. In a small roster league, the strategy is to stream defenses and roster them at least a week ahead so as to avoid waiver competition. In larger roster leagues, where teams carry multiple defenses, identify the “C” level teams pre-draft. Study the schedule and come up with two or preferably three defense pairs.

The defense pairs should not include any of the top three defenses, or even top 5 if you can, but you also should avoid the bottom defenses. You need a reference that lists the schedules by team, not by week, so you can see each team’s full schedule at a glance and overlay them. Find the mid-level or under-rated defenses that play the most “C” teams. Identify whose schedules compliment each other and create the best weekly match-ups.

You may need to make changes to your strategy in-season, but you will do well chasing the mistake prone teams. Employing this strategy allows you to select skill players while others vie for the “top” defenses. Defense doesn’t necessarily win championships anymore, but defensive matchups do, especially in fantasy.

Here’s one for the pocket quarterbacks.

 

 

 

Lee Benjamin

Lee Benjamin has been a football fan since Jim Plunkett was under center for the Patriots and his first ever fantasy football pick was a young Jerry Rice. He’s won more championships during Tom Brady’s career than Tom Brady, though unfortunately, they pay a lot less. His blog, Fantasy Football Intelligence, is published regularly on the WTPL, WTSN and Frank-FM sites. Lee spent over 25 years in New England media. He now resides in South Florida and enjoys freelance writing about sports and politics.