Four Splits That Matter For Fantasy Football

·9 min read



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Our valuation of players -- or in some cases, entire teams -- can be far too inflexible this time of year. I'm as guilty of this as any fantasy manager. I prefer black and white: It makes things easier on the old brain.

Unfortunately for the old brain, a lot happens in an NFL season, creating myriad scenarios with sample sizes both large and small that should be incorporated into how we value a player -- whether we're into said player at his ADP.

Below are four situational splits that have changed the way I view CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, Joe Burrow and his wideouts, and Justin Fields in 2022. While there could (and maybe should be) considerable pushback against how important these splits really are, I think they're worth considering in the days before your fantasy drafts.

CeeDee Lamb With and Without Amari Cooper

At some point the Cowboys' total lack of depth behind CeeDee Lamb might be a concern for the third-year pro who is, by all accounts, ready to break out (he said as much to me and Pat Daugherty at the Super Bowl last February, lodging a minor complaint about his usage and the team's run-first philosophy near the end zone).

James Washington broke his foot in Dallas training camp and could miss as much as ten weeks. That leaves rookie Jalen Tolbert and Noah Brown as the Cowboys' No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, respectively. Michael Gallup, recovering from an ACL tear, could miss the season's first month -- or more.

It's all a far cry from having Amari Cooper line up opposite Lamb in the Dallas formation. Cooper is no one's idea of a dominant pass catcher, but he's career-prime Calvin Johnson compared to Brown and Tolbert. Despite the fantasy community's daydreams of Lamb as the team's unquestioned top wideout, it was Cooper who was -- by almost every measure -- better than Lamb over the past two seasons. Cooper posted a higher expected points added (EPA) per target and a higher success rate than Lamb in both seasons. In 2021, it wasn't even close. Cooper notched 0.43 EPA per target; Lamb's per target EPA was 0.15, per Sports Information Solutions. Lamb averaged 1.1 PPR points per game more than Cooper last season.

More concerningly, Lamb's EPA dropped off a cliff when Cooper was off the field since the start of the 2020 season, according to SIS data. And more man coverage against the Dallas passing offense could spell trouble for Lamb's upside: Last year, he was 26th in yards per route run (1.78) against man coverage among receivers who saw at least 50 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Lamb's 2.22 YPRR against zone coverage was eighth highest among receivers in 2021.

The urge to become more bullish on Lamb with Dallas having no one behind him is understandable. More targets, more receptions, more yards and touchdowns for Lamb. We've been there and seen this. But I think we've reached the point where Lamb becomes an easy focal point of every secondary that will face the Cowboys until Gallup is back to 100 percent, and I'm not sure he's an alpha pass catcher who can overcome that sort of unfavorable environment.

With an ADP of WR7, Lamb is likely being drafted at his fantasy ceiling -- maybe above it. I'd prefer Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown to Lamb.

Ezekiel Elliott Before And After His 2021 Knee Injury

We'll stay in what should be a fantasy-friendly Dallas offense with the running back who is only being drafted by baby boomers: Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott over the past two years has been terribly inefficient. He's been brutal to watch in an otherwise tantalizing Cowboys offense. What's worse, Zeke played through a partially torn PCL through the final three months of the 2021 regular season, refusing to take a backseat to Tony Pollard while playing through excruciating pain. We know two things about Elliott: He loves to eat cereal in the most disgusting way possible and he's tough as nails.

Here's a dose of bad news for the analytics nerds who have been digging Elliott's fantasy grave since 2019 (our hands are covered with blisters from so much shoveling): Zeke was sorta kinda good in the first month of the 2021 regular season. His statistical drop off after the knee injury was severe, of course.

zeke1
zeke1

I suppose it shouldn't come as a shock that the Cowboys' rushing offense was among the NFL's best -- fourth in expected points added per rush through Week 4 -- when Zeke was healthy. Afterward, as Elliott gutted it out for a miserable final 14 weeks, the team's EPA per rush fell to 21st. Only seven teams had a lower rushing success rate than the Cowboys from Week 5 on.

Workload matters, whatever we think of a player. Elliott was 11th in expected PPR points over last year's first month. No running back had a higher fantasy points over expected on rushing attempts over that stretch.

There's no indication that the team is anywhere close to moving on from their well-compensated starting back. Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy recently called Elliott a “keystone” player in the Dallas offense, and Jerry Jones -- Zeke's fiercest advocate -- said Elliott “has to be the focus” of the Dallas rushing attack. No amount of fantasy football wishcasting about Pollard as an RB1 matters as long as McCarthy and (especially) Jones remain Zeke truthers. Jones and McCarthy have and will continue to find reasons to feature Elliott in the backfield. I take no pleasure in reporting this.

If Elliott can return to the form we saw in the early part of 2021, the Cowboys will have every reason to continue treating him like a workhorse. That doesn't mean Pollard won't be involved as a pass catcher and a talented offensive weapon in an offense lacking depth.

NBC Sports' Matthew Berry is rightfully perplexed by Elliott's depressed redraft ADP. I get it: Zeke is the team's default option inside the ten, as Mr. Berry points out. In the fourth round of 12-team leagues, I think Zeke fits well into rosters with two or three top wideouts based on workload alone. A return to his September 2021 production could make Elliott one of fantasy's most critical picks in 2022.

Bengals Establishing The Pass

The frustration of the extremely balanced Cincinnati offense for the 2021 season's first three months faded into oblivion with the team's shift to a massively pass-heavy attack over the regular season's final five weeks and into the postseason.

If you don't believe me, or have simply chosen to forget Zac Taylor's determination to establish the run, check this out.

bengals
bengals

The team's long-awaited commitment to a pass-first offense -- which makes some sense with the league's best receiver tandem -- coincided with a statistical explosion that carried fantasy managers to championships. Shoutout to Zac Taylor for realizing what he had been missing.

A continued commitment to a pass-heavy offense could change the way we look at both Joe Burrow and Tyler Boyd. Perhaps Burrow, a screaming touchdown regression candidate after his scorching 6.5 percent touchdown rate in 2021, can rival his high TD total with more passing volume, even if his touchdown rate dips. Burrow's pass attempts per game jumped from 31.5 in the season's first 14 weeks to 35.7 after Cincinnati's commitment to the pass. That's not nothing. It might be something.

Leaning on the team's wildly productive passing attack could also make Tyler Boyd far more relevant than we first thought. With Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase hogging all of Burrow's targets, you might have to squint to see where Boyd fits in. Boyd quietly led the team in pass routes per target from Week 14 to Week 17, before the Bengals rested their starters in Week 18. He drew just five fewer looks than Higgins over that four-game span.
Boyd could be a pleasant little PPR surprise for drafters seeking receiver depth in the second half of fantasy drafts this summer. Pray to your favorite deity that Taylor remains all-in on a Burrow-led offense.

Justin Fields With And Without Pre-Snap Motion

Playing for a head coach who seemed determined to undermine the offense at every turn in 2021, Justin Fields stood little chance of posting even passable numbers as a rookie. Matt Nagy and his staff were that bad.

It wasn't all horrible for Fields though. In 2021, he was far better when the Bears deployed pre-snap motion, not quite a surprise considering motion helps a quarterback better determine the coverage he's facing and make the necessary adjustments.

With motion last year, Fields completed 55 of 78 attempts (70.5 percent) for 609 yards (7.8 YPA), two touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 96.6. When Chicago did not use pre-snap motion, he completed 104 of 192 passes (54 percent) for 1,261 yards (6.5 YPA), five touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a passer rating of just 63.7. Fields also excelled on play concepts that utilized his mobility. Fields, in what was by far the best outing of his rookie campaign, was 4-for-4 for 40 yards on designed rollouts and piled up 103 yards and a score on ten rushing attempts against the Niners. Only four quarterbacks posted a higher EPA that week.

An accomplished passer in college, Fields proved he's a stellar runner in the few times he was deployed as such in 2021. Taysom Hill was the only QB to average more yards after contact per rush attempt than Fields. He was fourth among quarterbacks with 394 yards gained on scrambling attempts last year, and only Josh Allen and Tyler Huntley finished with a higher yards per rush than Fields (5.8).

The Bears entering 2022 with what could be the NFL's worst offensive line doesn't inspire much confidence that Fields can overcome his team's glaring shortcomings and impress Chicago's new brass. But more pre-snap motion and designed runs should make Fields good for fantasy managers looking to leverage the cheat code that is quarterback rushing production.