This article is part of our East Coast Offense series.
NFL Projections Observations
QB (click position for by-position projections)
Quarterback is deeper than ever and with fewer outliers at the top. As a result, the position is more condensed than ever, and has less differentiation than in years past.
For example - our top QB, Aaron Rodgers, is projected for 378.35 fantasy points, and our No. 23 QB, Blake Bortles for 321.35 fantasy points. That's 57 points over the course of 16 games or roughly 3.5 points per game.
Moreover, almost no one in a one-QB league will keep Bortles in all year, so if you're using Bortles, you're probably also mixing and matching him with other QBs like Eli Manning, Andy Dalton or Derek Carr. Assuming you use a rotation of players, you'll bridge that 3.5 PPG gap even further vs. the owner who starts Rodgers 14 or 15 times. The reward, then, for drafting a top QB might be as little as two fantasy points per game. Accordingly, one should wait forever before taking one, and most probably will. Maybe in Round 5 or 6, Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson start to make sense.
It's 2003 all over again. Running backs used to dominate fantasy football, and now they do again. We've projected eight backs for 250-plus carries and 40-plus catches, another for 200 carries and 77 catches (Alvin Kamara), another for 229 carries and 42 catches (Dalvin Cook), another for 272 carries and 39 catches (Leonard Fournette), two for 211 carries and 44-plus catches (Jerick McKinnon and Devonta Freeman), another for 221 carries and 38 catches (Joe Mixon) and another for 233 carries and 42 catches (Kenyon Drake.) All told, 18 players crack the 200 and 30 threshold, and there are only 32 teams in the league.
Teams are throwing more to backs, and dual-threat playmakers also prevent predictability in play calling, i.e., a one-dimensional power runner is usually in the game only on running plays.
The difference between the top back - Todd Gurley (287.6 half-PPR points) and the No. 37 back, Nick Chubb (141.3 half-PPR points) is massive - 146 points on the year, more than nine points per game. Accordingly, the running backs will be flying off the board like they did 15 years ago.
Teams spread the ball around more than in the past, so 110-catch seasons are growing increasingly rare. There's a top-tier of receivers on whom you can count, and the reliability goes way down after the first 10 or 15 players. There's plenty of depth, but the upside is more modest than it used to be, and WR is a hard position to time, week to week, i.e., it's easy to leave points on your bench if you're forced to toggle between secondary and tertiary options. The saving grace is other teams will also be in this position - there simply aren't enough reliable every-week options.
Ten players are projected for 200-plus half-PPR points. The difference between the top player, Antonio Brown (243.5 half-PPR points) and No. 37, Nelson Agholor, (154.9) is 88.6 points, about 5.5 points per game. As with QBs, fantasy owners will mix and match for optimal opponents, but it's harder to do successfully with WR (smaller per-game sample) than QB, so you'll narrow the gap only slightly. Keep in mind, that unlike Todd Gurley, the top RB, Brown is an outlier. Michael Thomas (our No. 5 WR) is projected for 211.6 half-PPR fantasy points, only 56.7 (3.5 per game) more than Agholor. In this respect, it's more like QB, but with much wider game-to-game variance.
There's a big-three, a three-man second tier, a two-man third tier and everyone else. Players from the lower half of the top-20 will emerge at some point, and in a 1-TE 12-team league, it's not hard to find someone competent enough.
The difference between Travis Kelce (182.6 half-PPR points) and No. 13, Austin Hooper (117) is 65.6 or roughly 4 points per game. But the difference between No. 4 Evan Engram (154.9 points) and Hooper is only 37.9 or roughly 2.5 PPG. And most people who draft the No. 13 tight end will mix and match to close this gap.
Bottom line, based on the projections at least, RBs are largely going to determine who wins your league. They're the biggest difference makers, and among the easiest players on whom to count when opportunity arises. They're also the most injury-prone players, but there's no way around taking on that risk to win your league. Keep in mind only one of the 12-teams will win, so you only had an eight percent chance to begin with, i.e., risk is but a secondary consideration to reward.
Yesterday on the SXM show, Jeff Erickson and I were discussing Tom Brady's value for 2018, and he mentioned they no longer have Brandin Cooks. Initially I dismissed Cooks as a major factor - while he was great on a per-play basis (9.5 YPT), he had only 114 targets, i.e., he was a significant factor, but hardly a dominant No. 1 receiver without which the team couldn't live. But as Erickson pointed out, maybe Cooks' presence forced teams to defend differently — a player with 4.33 speed and seven catches of 40-plus yards causes defenses to keep safeties back and keep an eye on more of the field. In short, there might be a second-order effect of Cooks, beyond the obvious numbers he racks up, that makes him a difference-maker to the offense. (Then again, Brady passed for more than 500 yards in the Super Bowl against a stout Eagles defense despite losing Cooks to a concussion in the first quarter.)
Beyond the specific example of Cooks, we can see that in a complex system like an NFL team, the effects of losing one player here or adding a player there cannot be deduced simply by adding or subtracting the stats of the particular player and his replacement.
The Giants drafting of Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick instead of one of the available quarterbacks also falls into this category for me. On the surface, you'd never take a back with such a high pick, but that's largely due to a simplistic way of evaluating the position.
I made the case for Barkley (and against taking a non-obvious QB) on the blog, but I omitted three factors I think are important.
First, there's a quirky rule the NFL has that awards you a new set of (four more) downs if you advance 10 yards on your previous set. That need not be the case - we could just as easily conceive of a league where you needed 15 or 20 yards for a first down, but in the NFL it's 10. That means a team that averaged three yards per play (the worst offensive team in the NFL last year, the Colts, averaged 4.6), but had no variance and always went for it on fourth down would score on all its drives. Such an offense would outperform last year's Saints (6.3 YPP, first) because the Saints did have to punt on occasion. So it turns out per-play efficiency is not the only variable, but also consistency in achieving success defined by the first-down rule.
While running plays average roughly four yards per, and passing plays closer to seven (not including sacks and turnovers), passing plays are more likely to yield zero yards (incompletions) or go for big plays, while runs are more consistently going to get you something positive. Accordingly, teams that run the ball well and complete short passes to skilled receiving backs at high rates are likely to be more consistent than teams that rely on big plays to boost their per-play averages.
Secondly, it's well known in baseball that hitters do better when the count is 1-0 than 0-1, or 2-1 than 1-2. Might there also be a YPP advantage for QBs when it's 2nd-and-5 or 3rd-and-2 rather than 3rd and long? The success on running plays and short receptions (which have a higher rate of completion) to backs might set up the entire team for success when they do decide to throw. There are simply more plays in the playbook for 2nd- or 3rd-and-short than there for 3rd-and-long.
Finally, the presence of an elite back requires the defense to account for him, something that's difficult if he can run through defensive backs and beat linebackers in coverage. The stress the top back puts on the defense might free up other options even if the ball doesn't go his way.
There are other secondary and tertiary effects that generating first downs and longer drives has - it could wear down the defense for later in the game. It could also rest your own defense and keep it fresh. In a complex system, it's not easy to see all the long-run consequences of adding a significant component to the offense.
The NFL as a whole seems to be embracing the running game and the versatile running back as a key component of success. Not only did the Giants take Barkley, but the Seahawks and Patriots also took backs in Round 1, while the Bucs and Browns each took one early in Round 2. Moreover, the best per-play offense last year, the Saints, thrived with a run-heavy approach, the second-best, the Chiefs, also leaned heavily on their rookie back, Kareem Hunt, last year and the third, the Patriots, threw to their backs often and took Sony Michel with the 31st overall pick.