To Establish or Not To Establish?

·9 min read

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In trying to strike a Goldilocks kind of balance between underthinking and overthinking fantasy football drafting, I’ve managed to cross off some extraneous elements that once guided my overwrought thought process.

I don’t care about a player’s schedule. I don’t really care about a player’s athleticism. I’m trying to train my brain not to freak over small sample sizes. I’m trying not to drink offseason coach speak like it’s a Gatorade cooler in the middle of the Sahara. Things of that nature.

One factor I want to emphasize is how NFL offenses operate with the lead. It’s when teams are ahead that we see how coaches want to run their offenses; it can be revelatory for fantasy managers seeking some understanding of how players might be affected by a run-first or pass-first play caller.

Below is a look at teams’ pass rates while leading by at least one point, per Sharp Football Stats. Things have changed for many of these offenses, as you may have read on the outstanding NBC Sports Edge news page. Head coaches and coordinators have come and gone, players have retired or been traded or signed somewhere else. The context required to analyze these pass rates is tremendous. I’ve taken my best crack below.

pass rate 2021
pass rate 2021

The 49ers South

Mike McDaniel, widely seen as the NFL’s top run game coordinator, is expected to install a Shanahanian offense in Miami. Eventually, half the league will stem from the Shanahan tree and everyone will run it up the middle on third and three and kick field goals from the one-yard line. It’ll be fun.

When asked by Rich Eisen in February if he planned on copying and pasting the Shanahan system onto the Miami roster, McDaniel said “the template is that there is no template.” “We’re going to be whatever our talents allow us to be,” he continued. “It’ll definitely look similar to what I was a part of back in San Francisco but there will be different twists.” Take that for what it’s worth (not much).

King Shanahan passed the ball on a meager 45 percent of his Niners’ plays when they held the lead in 2021, a drop from his 48 percent mark in 2020. Shanahan in 2021 happily presided over an offense that sported the NFL’s third-lowest early-down pass rate; the Niners had the league’s lowest pass rate over expected (-31 percent) on third and short. I’d expect something similar from McDaniel, who -- like Shanahan with Jimmy Garoppolo -- has a game manager quarterback who will be charged with not blowing it, and nothing more.

NFL analyst Greg Cosell said recently that he expected the newly-signed Sony Michel to lead the Miami backfield in carries while Chase Edmonds slots in as the primary third-down back. Then there’s Raheem Mostert, whose never-ending health issues offer little hope of a season-long run as Miami’s top ball carrier. If the Dolphins’ offensive line improvements lead to more stable, productive play from Tua, we should expect an unapologetically run-heavy approach from McDaniel in 2022. Fantasy managers are going to want whoever emerges as the team’s early-down banger.

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Kneecap Biters Love The Run

Detroit’s 50 percent pass rate while holding a lead is a bit deceiving. First, the Lions hardly ever held a lead in 2021. Second, every other measurement points to Dan Campbell’s team as one of the most run-committed in the NFL. Only the Titans had a lower early-down pass rate than Detroit last season, and only four offenses had a lower pass rate over expected than the Lions.

Campbell, who took over play calling in November, clearly tried like hell to hide Jared Goff, and for good reason: Goff was 22nd in success rate per drop back and 26th in adjusted EPA per play. Detroit had a wildly low -12 percent pass rate over expected on third and short, a trend that translated to first downs.

An improved Lions team should be excellent for D’Andre Swift if he can handle a major workload. It could conversely be not-so-great for late-season target hog Amon-Ra St. Brown. ARSB, as the zoomers know him, did much of his damage in lopsided Detroit losses in the season's final month and a half (with T.J. Hockenson and Swift on the shelf). It was hardly all doom and gloom though. The Lions (sorta) showed a willingness to drop back and trade blows with the Vikings in their Week 13 win over Minnesota, as seen below. St. Brown caught 10 of 12 targets for 86 yards and a touchdown in the victory.


Arthur Smith’s 2021 Was An Aberration

The Falcons’ 2021 pass rate while leading was stunningly high considering head coach Arthur Smith was an avid run establisher as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. Maybe it had something to do with not having Derrick Henry in the Atlanta backfield. Smith’s run-establishing ways could, however, be seen in Atlanta’s -10 percent pass rate over expected on first downs.

I’m not sure how much we can read into how the Falcons operated with the lead in 2021 considering they had the league’s fifth-worst point differential (-146) and lacked a true bellcow back. They may have drafted someone who can fill that bellcow role in BYU RB Tyler Allgeier, who last year racked up 1,606 yards and 23 touchdowns on 276 carries. One would think Smith will establish it whenever possible with Marcus Mariota under center.

Breece Hall And The Jets

I don’t think there’s any question about the Jets’ offensive game plan for 2022: They’re going to establish the run as hard as possible, whenever possible, for as long as possible. Last season the Jets had a negative pass rate over expected at almost every down and distance. They didn’t draft Breece Hall to sprinkle him into the offense alongside Michael Carter. They took Hall so they could run him into the ground.

The only success Gang Green had in 2021 is when they held a lead and Zach Wilson turned into a handoff machine. If you don't believe me, check out how New York's offense operated in the team's Week 16 win against Jacksonville.

jets pass rate
jets pass rate

It would require a massive Year Two leap for Wilson to engender confidence in the Jets: In 2021, he was dead last in adjusted EPA per play and completion rate over expected. There was no silver lining to Wilson’s rookie campaign.

Improvements to the Jets’ offensive line and a trio of wideouts who should instill some fear in opposing secondaries could -- maybe -- open more running lanes for Hall.

The Bengals Concede To The Pass

The Bengals slowly but surely became an aggressive pass-first team in 2021. Now take a moment to thank your favorite deity. Two months of conservative play calling yielded to a more fantasy-friendly offense in the team’s Super Bowl run, generating enough pass attempts for both Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins to make fantasy managers (mostly) happy.

Over the season’s final five weeks, Cincinnati posted the NFL’s tenth highest early-down pass rate and were rewarded with the league’s sixth-highest EPA per drop back on those early downs. I’m glad Zac Taylor finally listened to the sages on Fantasy Football Twitter. There’s no going back now. It’s the Joe Burrow Show, and Chase and Higgins could both be WR1s in fantasy because of it.

Joe Mixon, by the bye, ran the tenth most pass routes among running backs in 2021 (18.75 per game) and saw the fifth-most RB targets over the season’s final month -- when Cincy ramped up its early-down pass rate.

The Ravens Are Who We Thought They Were

The Athletic's Mike Sando said last week that the Ravens' 2022 draft picks "could signal Baltimore doubling down on its run-heavy offense,” a departure from Baltimore’s uncharacteristically balanced offensive approach in 2021. The Ravens had the league’s 12th highest pass rate over expected last year, an unthinkable outcome headed into the 2021 season, and one that sent Mark Andrews into stratospheric fantasy territory.

The return of Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards along with the team’s offensive line and tight end heavy draft likely signals a return to run-first normalcy for the Ravens. This is the team, after all, that had the NFL’s third-lowest early-down pass rate in 2020 and the lowest (by far) in 2019. Last season, without a viable running game and an injury-marred defense that bled passing yards to any and all opponents, the Ravens had the 11th highest early-down pass rate, in line with the Packers and Bengals.

Jackson, for his part, didn’t exactly thrive in such an environment: His adjusted EPA per drop back fell to 18th among quarterbacks, below the likes of Carson Wentz and Ryan Tannehill. It was a fall from grace after Jackson had the 11th highest adjusted EPA per drop back in 2020 and the highest (by far) in 2019. If Baltimore runs a balanced offense in 2022, it’s not because they want to, but because they have to.

It’s tough to be bullish on any one Ravens back with the assumption John Harbaugh and company will revive the glory of their run-dominant ways. In 2020, Edwards out-carried Dobbins 144 to 134 while Dobbins missed one game. Neither guy will dominate carries in this offense. They should have a good shot at ample touchdown production if 2020 was any indication. That yea, Baltimore ran the ball on 60 percent of their red zone plays (fifth highest), a rate that fell to 45 percent in their more balanced 2021 campaign.

Brady's Bucs, Bears, Beets, Battlestar Galactica

Probably you aren’t shocked to see the Bucs leading the NFL in pass rate while ahead. Even when leading by six points or more, Tom Brady’s Tampa offense in 2021 passed 60 percent of the time. New head coach Todd Bowles has made noise about running the ball more often in 2022 -- standard fare from a tough-nosed, defense-oriented coach -- but as long as Brady is upright and un-retired, this is his offense.

Tampa’s commitment to establishing the pass will continue to prop up Mike Evans, Chris Godwin (when healthy), Rob Gronkowski (if he returns), and Leonard Fournette, who in 2021 was third in RB expected receiving fantasy points. Only the Bills and Chiefs had a higher early-down pass rate than Brady’s Bucs in 2021.