By Pat Thorman, Establish the Run
Special to Yahoo Sports
As we enter fantasy football draft season, it’s useful to take a 30,000-foot view of trends in snaps, pace, and overall play volume. The offseason brought changes to personnel and coaching staffs around the league, and shifts in tempo can affect which offenses will play their games — and which will not — on fertile fantasy soil.
Let’s look at four offenses trending up in pace before examining some with potential play-volume concerns.
UP IN PACE
An offense that relies on a 38-year-old quarterback with significant wear on his tires, three surgically reattached elbow tendons, and a bird-nest beard is not a comfortable environment to invest in. The payoff, however, should be significant. While the Steelers consistently finished top-10 in points and yards per play before Ben Roethlisberger’s injury, they weren’t known for pushing the pace. The story was different in 2018.
Finally rid of prickly OC Todd Haley, Roethlisberger’s longtime quarterbacks’ coach Randy Fichtner essentially handed the reins to his passer. And pass he did. Pittsburgh leapt from the typical 60-62 percent situation-neutral pass rate that kept them in top-10 range, to a league-high 65% rate. Their situation-neutral snaps pace jumped from ranking in the mid-to-low 20s to the league’s 11th quickest.
The Steelers cranked out the fifth-most plays per game in 2018 under Fichtner while averaging the sixth-most yards per snap and scoring the seventh-most points. Last year’s spectacular crash of the Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges clown car is causing many to forget the fast-paced, high-octane attack Roethlisberger piloted less than two years ago. Fortunately for us, this has suppressed the draft cost to acquire pieces of a potentially voluminous offense.
The buzz surrounding the Cowboys is noticeably louder than at this time last year when we saw signs of an offensive quickening. Their situation-neutral snaps pace had edged up from 30th and 31st in 2015 and 2016, to 19th and 21st the following two years. In 2019, they emerged as the league’s second-quickest offense under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
Over the last five seasons, Dallas’ no-huddle rate has gone from 16th to 23rd, to 13th, to 11th, and finally up to the eighth-highest mark last year. These seemingly uncharacteristic steps forward in tempo helped the Cowboys finish with the sixth-most plays per game in 2019, which unlocked an offense that led the league in yards per game.
With head coaching anchor Jason Garrett finally cut loose, the addition of the arguably best rookie wideout in CeeDee Lamb, and the subtraction of catch-and-fall artist Jason Witten, the 2020 Cowboys project to be as explosive as ever. Throw in a questionable Dallas pass defense and their game environments would project to be up-tempo even without the Cowboys’ newfound affinity for pace pushing.
Speaking of offenses that are likely to be forced into faster-paced game scripts by a suspect defense, the Panthers appear to be the arbitrage Cowboys. Carolina isn’t quite as explosive as Dallas, but their defense will almost certainly be worse despite heavy draft day investments, and they face the sixth-hardest schedule based on 2020 win total projections. Add to that a fresh coaching staff and we have a recipe for elevated pace and play volume.
New offensive coordinator Joe Brady ran an up-tempo spread at LSU, with plenty of the quick passes that helped Teddy Bridgewater succeed during his time as Saints starter. Bridgewater finished 13th quickest among 37 quarterbacks in PFF’s Time to Throw, and his passer rating on attempts that occurred in 2.5 seconds or less was 108.4, versus 87.6 on all other throws.
The Panthers won’t average the 71.7 plays per game that LSU’s offense did, but they do have the weapons and scheme to make a competent ball distributor like Bridgewater successful. With a quickened offensive approach and tempo-inducing game scripts, the Panthers stand a strong chance of producing the elevated fantasy opportunity required for DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, and Ian Thomas to pay off their relatively affordable best ball draft costs.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
During Zac Taylor’s first season in charge of the Bengals, Cincinnati leapt to ninth in plays per game. Their flaccid offense had finished 30th and dead last during the prior two seasons. After spending two years with Sean McVay’s up-tempo Rams, Taylor helped boost the Bengals situation-neutral snaps pace to the seventh quickest around. Now, his toys are improving.
Top-pick rookie passer Joe Burrow steps in behind a theoretically rising offensive line and a gaggle of impressive weaponry — second-round wideout Tee Higgins joins A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and John Ross, with all-purpose stud Joe Mixon in the backfield. The rookie QB will take the reins with recent experience in an up-tempo system.
Burrow’s LSU Tigers ranked second in the nation in yards per play (7.9) and ripped off 71.7 plays per game. Their quick-running spread offense would have produced even more volume had opponents challenged the undefeated National Champions more frequently. While Cincinnati’s defense has improved, too many blowout wins won’t be an issue for what is quietly shaping up as a potent and likely voluminous offense.
1. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts added a quality veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers, traded up for a dynamic running back, and drafted a wideout in the second round. Indianapolis will likely improve on their 2019 season, as BetMGM has them slated to win 1.5 more games and they have the easiest schedule based on 2020 win total projections. While that may be a good thing for Colts fans, the concern lies in better game scripts leading to reduced overall fantasy opportunity.
Rivers is no stranger to slow-moving offenses, as his Chargers finished with bottom-10 play totals each of the last two seasons, and operated at the league’s slowest situation-neutral pace in 2019. The Colts ranked 25th in pace a year ago and a middling 18th in plays per game.
Indianapolis may have been managing the burden on then-starter Jacoby Brissett and should throw more often with Rivers under center. That isn’t saying much, considering they ranked 30th in situation-neutral pass rate in 2019. A dominant offensive line that returns all five starters, likely improved game scripts, and an impressive one-two backfield punch are simultaneously positive for the team and concerning for fantasy volume.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
Gone are the days of the Phil Rivers pre-snap plod, as he appeared to be herding 10 children into a pool while imploring them to slow down. Whether Tyrod Taylor, whose Bills never rose far above mid-pack in play volume or pace in his three years as the starter, will be the catalyst to spur the Chargers out of their slumber is highly questionable.
As discussed above, Los Angeles is one of the league’s slowest offenses. Even at their most efficient, the Chargers have not been able to consistently support their many weapons, causing uneven production and unpredictable fantasy outlooks. Whether Taylor or arguably over-drafted rookie Justin Herbert will even sniff Rivers’ efficiency level is another open question.
Los Angeles has the seventh-easiest schedule based on 2020 win totals, they have an undeniably ascending defense and, with Taylor behind center, almost certainly will not repeat their top-two ranking in situation-neutral pass rate. Both portend more clock-draining handoffs or Taylor rushing attempts. Without a concerted effort to increase tempo — something the held-over coaching staff has shown zero interest in — this offense will again feature a mountain of sexy names and a molehill of fantasy opportunity.
3. Green Bay Packers
We aren’t here to mock their train-wreck draft, although everyone piling on the Packers does offer a nice preview of an A.J. Dillon three-yard handoff. The larger worry here is, after a 13-win season added confidence in a more ground-based approach, the signal coming out of Green Bay is clear. It’s saying, “Slow down.”
Last year, under new head coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers dropped from third in situation-neutral pass rate (65%) to 10th (61%). Indications are they’ll be dropping further in 2020. In LaFleur’s previous stop with the Titans, he coordinated an offense that finished 30th in situation-neutral pass rate, 29th in plays per game, and 23rd in snaps pace.
Green Bay ranked mid-pack in pace categories last year, and there’s a solid chance they’re forced to reverse course after outperforming their Pythagorean expectation by over three wins. However, with LaFleur hoping to focus on the running game and play-action passes, we are staring at a potential further reduction in volume. While that won’t affect the outlook of target hog Davante Adams, it complicates projections for the gaggle of ancillary weapons who are more vulnerable to a fantasy opportunity crunch.
4. Arizona Cardinals & New York Giants
Here we have two offenses awash in fantasy hope, and for good reason. At times last season, they offered mouthwatering tastes of what they could produce, often while operating at an elevated pace. Theoretically, neither team projects to have a strong enough defense to enable their offense to take their feet off the gas very often. How that materializes, however, is an open question.
The Cardinals opened the season with a month of hair-on-fire pacing before promptly slamming the brakes. They ranked first, by a mile, in no-huddle rate through four weeks (41%) before cutting back the rest of the season (24%). Their seconds-per-snap rate in September (24.9; 1st) was starkly slower after that (27.2; 8th).
Most importantly, their plays-per-game average the first four weeks (71.5; 2nd) plummeted to 25th (61.0) as they went from the second-highest situation-neutral pass rate (69%) to the 19th (56%). It resulted in better outcomes on the scoreboard after a winless September, and how run-heavy they’ll remain in 2020 — even with DeAndre Hopkins — is a play-volume concern.
The Giants' outlook boils down entirely to a coaching regime change. If they were to simply repeat their eighth-quickest situation-neutral snaps pace from last season, the play volume would likely rise along with an improving offensive line and healthier weapons for year two of Daniel Jones’ career. Sadly, it isn’t so simple.
New Giants head coach Joe Judge spent eight years with the up-tempo Patriots. However, we don’t get a warm feeling when he says, “You’ve got to be able to run the ball, and [Garrett] has done that successfully in Dallas throughout the course of his career.” Yes, the same Garrett — who was dragged, clapping and screaming, out of the slow-paced, run-based Dallas dark ages — before he was finally thrown overboard. Now, he brings that boring, vanilla approach to New York.
While a low-volume offense is little threat to Saquon Barkley’s workload, the Giants have no alpha among several other intriguing weapons. Projecting how a potentially limited number of targets break down isn’t fun for fantasy — something we can see developing in the desert if the Cardinals don’t pick their later-season pace back up.
It’s no reason to run, screaming, from these offenses — but it is a concerning question worth monitoring.
Pat is an analyst at Establish The Run. He’s a FSWA award winner and focuses on how pace and snaps impact statistical output, providing subscribers with weekly in-season rankings and analysis.
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