Stats and studs - how the NFL is changing fantasy football

Stats and studs - how the NFL is changing fantasy football

Positional Analysis

Stats and studs - how the NFL is changing fantasy football

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

What’s wrong with the NFL?

As a daily swimmer in the sea of NFL stats, I sensed a problem last year. When the season ended, my suspicions were confirmed. The NFL varies year to year for rushing and passing production.  That is expected. That is normal.

What is not expected and not normal is when all-time lows develop for several positions. That matters – a lot – in fantasy football.

Let’s set the stage for what happened, then review the potential reasons why and then most importantly, what does it mean for this season? We’re stretching back to 2002 since that is when the NFL went to 32 teams and it is “apples to apples” when comparing yearly stats. In some cases, I reduced the number of years displayed to reduce the amount of data and pick up at the point of the modern pass-happy era.

While quarterback passing stats are totals across all positions, tight ends are not discussed since there are so few with significant fantasy value in any year. Fantasy points consider standard performance scoring with a reception point as the most common. The same results occur either way with or without that point.

Big Seasons, Big Games

Year QB 4,000 Pass Yd Seasons QB 300 Pass Yd Games RB 1,000 Rush Yds Seasons RB 100 Rush Yd Games WR 1,000 Rcv Yds  Seasons WR 100 Rcv Yd Games
2002 4 79 17 132 22 149
2003 2 60 18 150 14 129
2004 5 77 18 162 23 153
2005 2 67 16 139 18 136
2006 5 66 22 161 18 149
2007 7 81 17 142 19 141
2008 6 76 16 130 21 139
2009 10 100 15 116 20 133
2010 5 96 17 122 16 157
2011 10 116 15 129 17 156
2012 11 135 16 121 19 170
2013 9 118 13 94 24 178
2014 11 123 13 97 21 179
2015 12 123 7 93 22 178
2016 13 121 12 94 23 154
2017 8 103 9 86 13 116

Changes last season were notable, sometimes dramatic and even historic.

Quarterbacks –  The NFL is a “passing league” but there was a decrease in the number of quarterbacks with 4,000-yards seasons (8) and 300-yard games (103). Quarterbacks became more prolific around 2011 but the stats have since regressed. Elite passing games and season totals are down to pre-2011 levels before the league went “pass happy.” It appears the spike is on a downturn.

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Running Backs – Usually, there is an inverse relationship between rushing and passing.  But not last year. Players who rushed for 1,000 yards are near historic lows and the number of games with 100 rushing yards is at an all-time low. There was a steady decline since 2006 when there were about twice as many 100-yard games and 1,000-yard seasons by rushers. Elite rushing games and seasons are down for running backs. 

Wide Receivers –  Only 13 wideouts topped 1,000 yards in 2017 – an all-time low since the league went to 32 teams. After a four-year stretch with over 20 each season, it plummeted last year. And there have never been fewer 100-yard games by a wideout in the 32-team era.  That’s a 43% drop in 1,000-yard seasons from 2016 and a 35% drop in 100-yard games from 2017. Elite receiving games and seasons for wide receivers are dramatically down.

Why? And what does it mean for fantasy football? Trying not to get too deep into the numerical weeds, let’s further define where the NFL is overall and with their top players before discussing why and what it means.

Quarterbacks Overall

Year Carries Rush Yards Rush TD Pass Att Pass Comp Pass Yards Pass TD 300 Yard Pass Gm
2011 1,571 6,072 66 17,356 10,436 124,838 740 121
2012 1,578 6,528 65 17,736 10,809 125,532 751 126
2013 1,623 6,797 55 17,839 10,932 127,152 792 118
2014 1,647 6,646 47 17,840 11,182 128,500 802 123
2015 1,624 6,559 61 18,282 11,518 132,556 840 132
2016 1,522 6,003 65 18,259 11,509 130,585 779 118
2017 1,649 7,122 66 17,450 10,838 122,336 738 97

Overall, there was a decrease in the number of passes, completions, and yards. The number of 300-yard passing games dropped back to the levels before 2011 and it looked like there was just a productive bubble that peaked a couple of years ago for passing. Notable too was that the rushing yardage by quarterbacks is higher than at any time.

The amount of rushing touchdowns didn’t change much or even the number of rushes. Quarterbacks averaged about 4.3 yards per run for a record high. Before 2012, they had not broken 4.0 yards per run when all quarterbacks were considered. Overall, quarterback passing stats are down across the board and only their rushing yards have increased.

Top Ten Fantasy Quarterbacks

Year Carries Rush Yards Rush TD Pass Att Pass Comp Pass Yard Pass TD 300 Yd Gm
2011 429 1,520 32 5,752 3,669 45,835 334 71
2012 523 2,429 33 5,937 3,753 44,990 295 69
2013 507 2,000 20 5,758 3,714 43,394 315 57
2014 443 2,051 14 5,841 3,830 44,683 318 61
2015 477 1,886 24 5,787 3,753 44,256 332 60
2016 442 1,991 24 5,791 3,758 44,112 302 54
2017 564 2,701 20 5,302 3,367 39,829 281 41

Those most coveted top-ten fantasy quarterbacks saw their passing attempts drop significantly last year – very much back in line with those during the era of the “stud running back”.  All of the stats were down across the board other than rushing attempts and yards that were much higher, but again, not their rushing touchdowns.

They threw about 500 fewer passes and rushed only about 100 more times. Their fantasy stats fell but were buoyed in most leagues with their additional rushing yardage.

Running Backs Overall

Year Carries Rush Yards Rush TD Target Catch Catch Yards Catch TD 100 Yard Rush Gm 100 Yard Total Gm
2011 12,071 52,007 324 3,324 2,396 19,201 71 129 224
2012 12,055 51,044 332 3,186 2,312 18,324 61 121 210
2013 11,914 48,789 344 3,502 2,575 20,001 83 94 194
2014 11,718 48,305 323 3,460 2,527 20,386 100 97 187
2015 11,580 47,367 293 3,645 2,705 22,582 111 93 193
2016 11,485 47,724 363 3,396 2,533 20,401 94 94 189
2017 11,768 47,356 307 3,708 2,755 22,439 105 86 178

The decline in rushing stats continues. The sudden spike in rushing touchdowns in 2016 dropped back to one of the lowest ever. There have never been fewer instances of backs rushing for 100 yards and even gaining 100 total yards has never been lower for the position in a 32-team NFL. There was a record high for running back stats as a receiver across the board.

Top Ten Fantasy Running Backs

Year Carries Rush Yards Rush TD Target Catch Catch Yard Catch TD 100 Yard Rush Gm 100 Yard Total Gm
2011 2,602 11,933 87 683 500 4,306 20 49 83
2012 2,942 14,238 101 519 381 2,953 11 61 93
2013 2,686 12,176 92 662 505 4,319 26 37 84
2014 2,614 12,457 91 663 508 4,243 26 47 86
2015 2,210 9,709 78 581 445 3,856 19 31 58
2016 2,640 12,285 111 615 467 4,127 20 48 87
2017 2,418 10,433 83 836 633 5,367 28 33 72

The shift away from rushing and towards receiving continues with the elite backs. Receptions have never been higher. 100-yard rushing games have never been lower and even the instance of totaling 100 yards in a game was one of the lowest.  Running backs simply must be receivers to end up as a top-ten back in fantasy terms. The total fantasy points for the top tens remained similar from past years thanks to those catches.

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The top ten backs in 2017 only rushed 14% more often than the next ten but had 44% more catches. Receptions are the difference maker.

Wide Receivers Overall

Year Carries Rush Yards Rush TD Target Catch Catch Yards Catch TD 100 Yard Catch Gm
2011 282 1,772 6 10,055 5,692 78,624 473 156
2012 260 1,586 3 10,493 6,046 80,823 491 170
2013 287 1,995 8 10,581 6,114 81,605 483 178
2014 307 1,921 10 10,571 6,334 82,721 485 179
2015 262 1,668 10 10,547 6,289 82,405 519 178
2016 286 1,936 11 10,836 6,490 83,087 498 154
2017 308 1,566 4 9,859 5,791 74,763 435 116

This is the area of the biggest surprise. The NFL evolved into a pass-heavy game and yet the wide receivers have never been less productive. There have never been (in a 32-team NFL) so few yards or touchdowns by the position. 100-yard games have declined 35% in two years and to a level below even the years when running backs were the kings.

The last two seasons were the first time that the average catch for wide receivers fell below 13 yards. Fewer passes, fewer receptions and they even gained less when they did catch it. Not an encouraging direction. The shift away from run-heavy attacks led the wide receivers to become fantasy stars for several years and held value much deeper in drafts than ever. That’s changed at least for now.

Top Ten Fantasy Wide Receivers

Year Carries Rush Yards Rush TD Target Catch Catch Yard Catch TD 100 Yard Catch Gm
2011 69 502 2 1,360 866 13,453 94 55
2012 10 46 0 1,636 1,036 14,360 84 58
2013 29 198 0 1,587 949 14,137 102 57
2014 37 163 0 1,501 983 14,196 112 62
2015 4 31 0 1,627 1,046 14,463 109 62
2016 13 50 0 1,416 913 12,521 96 43
2017 22 87 0 1,505 953 12,673 70 41

The top wideouts held their own better than the rest of the position.  The targets and catches remained very strong, but the two areas of concern were touchdowns which fell to a low point and the decline in 100-yard games. It is evident that the last two seasons have seen fewer big games even from the elite though they still maintain good production overall.

One final piece of information before considering the why and what it all means.

50+ Yard Plays

Year TD Pass TD Rush Pass –  No TD Rush – No TD Total
2002 49 14 52 17 132
2003 68 22 34 21 145
2004 45 9 71 18 143
2005 62 16 53 19 150
2006 64 20 63 19 166
2007 58 20 47 11 136
2008 64 24 70 15 173
2009 67 25 68 20 180
2010 68 19 58 20 165
2011 76 11 65 18 170
2012 70 28 70 16 184
2013 69 16 74 21 180
2014 74 17 64 20 175
2015 75 12 55 19 161
2016 70 20 72 13 175
2017 72 25 70 21 188

Whoops. On the face of it, this makes absolutely no sense. Receiving stats are down other than for running backs. Rushing stats are down other than for quarterbacks. Almost all “big game” and overall stats are down and yet the number of plays that cover at least 50 yards have never been higher.

Wait,  what?

Consider that among all positions, there were a total of 142 50-yard receptions in 2016 (70 for a score and 72 non-scoring) and 140 times that a wideout recorded a 100-yard game (many that would contain a 50-yard catch). Last year, it still produced a total of 142 50-yard catches but wideouts saw a drop to only 116 100-yard games.   That says that although the same amount of 50-yard catches repeated in the NFL, wide receivers produced 24 fewer 100-yard games. There wasn’t enough production to top 100 yards despite all those 50-yard catches.

Why all the change?

It is troubling that wide receivers and running backs produced historical lows in some categories and that quarterbacks regressed to pre-2011 levels in most passing stats. The only increases have been quarterbacks rushing and running backs receiving – neither in their original job descriptions.

Okay, so stats are down. Not quite as badly in the positional top tens, but even there they have declined.

But, why? What caused production and “big games” (but not big plays) to drop so much? Here are eight potential contributors as to why production is down.

  1. Defenses caught up – Offenses act and defenses react. Adjustments are made. Much of the variation in total stats each year is a function of offenses improving and then defenses catching up.  When significant rule changes favor the offenses, they invariably do better the next year. Then the defenses figure out how to stop it. That explains declines but it doesn’t account for all-time lows. And then there are teams like the Saints that simply switched the way they played with great success.
  2. Injuries – Certainly a factor in seasonal success and failure. But that is true every year. It is also hard to quantify. Many players suit up and become decoys. Some just play with a limitation. It’s easy to point out critical players who were lost but overall, it really matters little. Aaron Rodgers, David Johnson, Odell Beckham and others were lost but it isn’t as if their replacements had no production. Every year star players go out. Every year some replacements play better than the original starter. We also had big years from Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Alex Smith,  Keenan Allen, Jarvis Landry and others including a bunch of rookie running backs that were surprisingly productive.
  3. Practice rule changes – This is a longer-standing issue from the changes made in 2011 that eliminated preseason two-a-day practices. Teams are allowed one full-contact padded practice per day and a walkthrough in the summer. There is another limit on full-contact padded practice during the season. Teams are allowed a total of 14 for the season with 11 of those practices conducted during the first 11 weeks  (a maximum of one per week).
    This is an issue according to coaches since there is less time spent in real-game conditions. The lack of hitting means the run game suffers since it is predicated on intense drills that focus on execution. This could be a culprit in why rushing numbers are down.

    The lack of contact practices also impacts pass protection. The less effective the protection is, the greater the chance for sacks, errant passes, fumbles and interceptions. And while it seems counterintuitive, the reduction in full-contact padded practices are thought to make for more injuries, not fewer with players less in shape and “hardened.”

  4. Focus on head injuries – The NFL’s attempt to address concussions could have several tangents. First, enforcing more stringent rules about not returning to the game or extending the time needed to be cleared would impact a players production. And with the referees on a “helmet watch” for head-to-head hits, some defenders are intentionally going lower. Lower body/knees can suffer for running backs and receivers, and quarterbacks could be open to more knee and rib cage hits.
  5. Preseason roster changes – Though an unlikely culprit, one change that went through last season was extending the time teams retained 90 players during the summer. The reduction to 75 players was eliminated and teams held all 90 until the single bloody cut-down. Teams focused on sifting through more players during the summer instead of focusing on the core set of starters. Again – unlikely but the only significant rule change last year.
  6. Thursday games – Somewhat harder to quantify since it can have lasting effects. The level of play was lower in many of the Thursday night games. In some cases, offenses benefitted because the defense played worse than usual. In instances when a player was injured, it is easy to say it was because his body did not have enough time to recover from a Sunday game but is impossible to prove. Notable is that a decline in stats has gone on for two years and the NFL changed from a 14 to an 18 game schedule for Thursday/Saturday night games. But even 18 games is only 7% of the total played.
  7. International games – 2016 stepped up to four games and 2017 experienced five. Each one was a mess. Not one was won by fewer than 17 points last year. Two were shutouts. In each game, only one team would show up and steamroll their opponent. But those were only five of 256 games and half of the teams played better than usual.
  8. Changes in offensive coordinators – The NFL churns offensive coordinators regularly and 2017 was actually not a bad year for changing offensive schemes. There were eight teams with a completely new offensive coordinator last year but there were 11 in 2016 along with four teams that fired theirs during the season. And if it is, be scared since there are 16 new coordinators and at least 12 of them feature entirely different offenses for 2018. It matters but less so in the way the game is played than in win-loss records.

Why the drop? Perhaps the sum of a thousand things. But more likely it is just the continued evolution of the NFL. The drop in production could be temporary though it looks more like a new trend is in place. Aside from an interesting look at what is happening in the NFL, what does this mean for fantasy football?

Here’s what we know:

  1. Quarterbacks are throwing less and rushing more, at least for those difference makers. The Top 10 are at a seven-year low in fantasy points but are only around 10% lower than their peak in 2011.
  2. Running backs are rushing less and receiving more. Particularly for the elite backs. Rushing stats continue their downward spiral and the unusual spike in rushing touchdowns (363) in 2016 disappeared with a record low last season (307).  Completions to the Top 10 running backs not only was a record 633, but that was 125 more than the second highest 2014 (508).  It was 166 more than last year (467) for a  26% gain in just one season.
  3. Wide receivers are doing less across the board. There are fewer wideouts that can significantly boost your weekly score than any time since the league went to 32 teams.

What does it mean for fantasy football?

The sky is falling? Is this the End of Days?

No. I don’t think.

It doesn’t matter what happens inside a position. Production could decline in half and you’ll still want Antonio Brown and Andre Hopkins the most. Within a position, the relative values of players remain intact. What matters is how it compares against the other positions that you start. And that ties directly into when to draft a particular position to create the optimal fantasy team.

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Consider just two years ago, how running back and wide receiver scoring compared for the highest-ranked 60 players for each. Three years ago represents the peak of wide receiver fantasy scores.

2015 Running Back vs. Wide Receiver top fantasy scorers

Wide receivers were outscoring running backs from the start and the delta between the two remained fairly consistent through the top 60 players per position. The first several rounds had a healthy batch of wide receivers taken because they offered better advantages. Compare that to the difference just last year.

2017 Running Back vs. Wide Receiver top fantasy scorers

Running backs returned to prominence for the top dozen and even though the wideouts outscored them eventually, the difference was smaller. Notable too is how quickly running back value declined through their top 20. Waiting on the position meant missing on more points than waiting on the wide receivers. The two positions are closely related since they are likely the only ones that you must start multiple players.

We’ll see what the trend does this season. But waiting on running backs is more costly now that in the last five years. We’re rightfully seeing running-back heavy drafting in the first few rounds.

And those earlier, more valuable running backs are catching more passes than ever – maybe some of those that the wide receivers now lack.

What does the decline in passing mean to my fantasy team?

While passing may have peaked in 2015 and continued with even more decline in 2017, quarterbacks still play a big role in your fantasy scoring.

Top 12 Fantasy Quarterbacks – 2015 vs. 2017

Those two years have a remarkable similarity which continues out through all the starters. The difference between the top two or three and the rest of the starters is always notable. And then the decline from one quarterback to the next remains minimal. And that’s true for any year.

While scoring may have declined, the top three always yield a distinct benefit. How that translates into your league depends on how much their scoring is higher than the rest of the positions. You likely start just one and rarely lose much waiting to grab one. And that’s assuming you can correctly predict what each player will produce and that they are not injured.

Unless quarterbacks are awarded high yardage points and six point touchdowns, there just isn’t the bang for the buck by grabbing an early starter because running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends all decline far faster than quarterbacks. And again – you just need one to start.

Quarterbacks – rushing vs. passing

Rushing yards have never been higher for quarterbacks. That is less notable since they should be valued according to their projected fantasy points regardless of how they are accrued.

Those elite fantasy quarterbacks that don’t rush much – Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger,  and Drew Brees – are all over 36 years old except for Stafford (30). The older stars play in the pocket.

Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott were top fantasy starters with over 300 rushing yards (or at least a pace for that) and were all under 30 years old last season. The next wave of quarterbacks likes to run.

Alex Smith ran for 355 yards last year. He’s 34 years old and oddly rushed far more in his last five years than his first seven. Aaron Rodgers was lost for 2017 but ran for over 300 yards in the previous two years. The “pocket quarterback” that has elite fantasy success is getting rarer.

New quarterbacks are not all runners. Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes rushed in college though that is not their calling cards. Jared Goff, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Mason Rudolph rarely rushed the ball. How that impacts their career in the new NFL will be interesting to see. Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson have no problem taking off on a scramble.

Should a decline in big games change how I draft?

Yes.

It is true that a decline in points scored by any position only “moves their graph line lower” and doesn’t change how they relate to each other. More important is how positions compare to each other. With every pick you make, which one helps you build the optimal team?

Having players that turn in big games is critical for winning fantasy matchups. Having a deep, solid team sounds great but take a look at the past champions in your league and you’ll see those teams had one or more of the hot players that were turning in many high-point games.

Using The Huddle Expert League results from 2015 (the high point of scoring) and 2017, consider how often the top players exceeded the listed thresholds for fantasy points in a standard performance scoring with a reception point.

2017 2015
Top 12 QB
Games > 25 pts 57 65
RB games > 20 pts
Top 24 113 91
Top 12 79 60
WR games > 20 pts
Top 24 104 137
Top 12 66 88

Those top-12 quarterbacks witnessed a decline in big games but only about 12%. Over the course of a season, the difference is not that significant. No need to change how you draft them.

Running backs increased from their 2015 levels for both the Top 12 and the Top 24. That was a 20% gain for the Top 24 and a 25% gain for the Top 12. Once again – getting a top 24 running back has not been so advantageous in many years.

Wide receivers declined. There was a 25% drop in both the Top 12 and Top 24. More notable, in 2015, the Top 24 wideouts turned in 137 big games while the running backs only managed 91. That’s a difference of 46 more big games by wideouts (33%).

Last year, it was 113 big games by the running backs and only 104 by the wide receivers. The running backs scored about 10% more big games than the wideouts. That a difference of nine more big games by the running backs and a swing of 55 big games between 2015 and 2017. That is a major shift in a short timeframe.

Once again – running backs are turning in more big games even if their rushing stats are in decline. And they once again carry better fantasy value through the top-24 players.

There are fundamental changes in the NFL with how they use their players and how successful they are. We are only two years removed from a peak, but the decline in certain kinds of production is more rapid than the ascent. There is a lot of information here to digest and this is more about understanding the fantasy positions. And less about specifics like recommending Jimmy Graham, Jay Ajayi or Will Fuller (though I do).

This will be a critical year. There are the improved catch rule and a renewed attempt to get the helmet out of the tackling process. Both will have some impact on the NFL and fantasy football. But not nearly as much as the change in how offenses are using players. We’ll see where the changes lead to next.

Now to head off to my draft…

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