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It's the time of year when offensive coordinators are replenished as the ineffective OCs get the ax and effective ones get promotions. That turnover creates a never-ending cycle of fantasy speculation -- speculation in which I will happily participate.
Below are some preemptive looks at new offensive coordinators in the AFC and what they might mean for fantasy football valuations in the coming months. Free agency and the NFL draft could, of course, void large swaths of this analysis. Nevertheless!
Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron
Brian Schottenheimer being dismissed after Seattle’s run-first, run-always offense once again faltered late in the season should -- in the reasonable mind -- bring forth a more pass-centric offense for the Hawks. The reasonable mind should remember that head coach Pete Carroll’s postmortem of the Seahawks’ failed 2020 season included deep regret that the team didn’t run the ball enough.
Carroll’s commitment to an antiquated run-first offense could be the greatest comedy bit since Andy Kauffman took up wrestling.
What Waldron will do as a play caller is very much up for debate, as he’s never called plays outside of a couple 2019 preseason contests. He comes from the Rams, where he served as the passing game coordinator in an offense hamstrung by Jared Goff’s limitations. Waldron oversaw an efficient if unspectacular passing game in LA, anchored by Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. You might not be old enough to remember the Rams’ passing attack as efficient, even proficient during the Sean McVay era: Only ten NFL teams averaged more expected points added per drop back from 2018-2020.
Waldron would do well to take the Rams’ play action concepts to his new gig in Seattle. No team utilized play action more often than LA in 2019, while only Buffalo and KC used play action more than the Rams in 2020. Russell Wilson’s 2020 completion rate on play action passes was 6 percent higher and his yards per attempt was a full yard higher than on non-play action plays. The Seahawks, for whatever reason, were 21st in play action usage last season. Wilson in 2019 threw ten touchdowns and zero picks while notching an outrageously high 9.5 yards per attempt on play action throws. Play action: It works!
A commitment to using play action more consistently could be a less-than-hateful development for DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, the latter being a potentially savvy 2021 fantasy pick after a second half of the season in which he was hardly usable in 12-team leagues.
The Seahawks are more likely than not to land on an offensive approach that straddles the line between their stunningly pass-heavy ways of last September and October and their reversion to an offense so conservative, the Supreme Court majority would think it’s a little much.
The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar has a word of warning on Waldron’s hire, and what the new Seattle OC will have to deal with: “With Carroll, areas for improvement may not be as important as areas he’d like to emphasize. And there’s a strong argument that what Carroll prefers to emphasize isn’t best suited to maximize his current roster. How Waldron deals with that will determine Seattle’s future.”
Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak
The Vikings’ exhaustive search for Gary Kubiak’s replacement ended with his son, Klint, as scientists study whether knowledge of offensive schemes is, in fact, genetic.
Kubiak, the team’s quarterbacks coach before being bumped to daddy’s job, will keep the Vikings’ offense in place -- continuity head coach Mike Zimmer reportedly prioritized. Apparently Kid Kubiak has a good rapport with Kirk Cousins and comes into the job steeped in his dad’s play calling language and concepts.
Minnesota’s inexplicable duds -- especially in the early season -- may have obscured an otherwise productive offense in 2020. Only the Chiefs, Bills, and Titans logged more offensive yards per game than the Vikings, and only four QBs who played at least half their team’s snaps had a higher yards per attempt than Cousins. It all adds up to an offense striving to keep the same identity, led by three guys -- Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook -- who will continue to dominate opportunity. Cousins’ career high 6.8 percent touchdown rate in 2020 -- 1.6 percent higher than his career rate -- is subject to that most irritating of mathematical realities: regression.
Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn
It’s easy to get swept up in the narrative of Anthony Lynn as the bumbling, timeout burning, hilariously conservative head coach who forced the Chargers to fire him after the 2020 season. But before he was a breathtakingly terrible decision maker in LA, he was the Jets’ running backs coach and the Bills offensive coordinator -- and a good one, at that.
It was in Buffalo in 2016 that Lynn led a Bills Offense that wrecked opposing defenses to the tune of 164.6 rushing yards per game -- the highest mark in the league that season. LeSean McCoy racked up 284 touches that season and totaled 1,623 yards. While it’s not entirely likely that D’Andre Swift profiles as a guy who will push for 300 touches in Detroit’s offense, consistent talk from head coach Dan Campbell and Lynn about getting Swift into space -- presumably in the passing game -- could propel the second year back into a more prominent role in 2021. Bills running backs saw a 17.3 percent target share under Lynn’s watch.
Lynn is going to have to make something out of absolutely nothing if the Lions lose both Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay this offseason. Surely the team will sign a wideout or two in free agency and acquire a pass catcher in the draft; unless those receivers are ready to step into a major role, it could be T.J. Hockenson who becomes the de facto WR1 in the team’s Jared Goff-led offense. Detroit’s preference to play hard-nosed, knee-biting football could be undermined by facing major deficits, forcing Lynn to adopt a pass-heavy approach. For now, the value in this offense looks to be in the backfield.
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone
Like a lot of the league’s new offensive coordinators who look a lot like the team owner’s grandsons, Ragone will not call plays. Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith, presumably hired to implement the offense he used (rather successfully) in Tennessee, will do the play calling in Atlanta this season.
Smith’s Titans, of course, were consistently among the most run-heavy units in the league. Tennessee was 30th in neutral pass rate in each of that past two seasons under Smith's watch. If the Titans were in position to run the rock, they were going to bludgeon the opposition with a heavy dose of Derrick Henry.
You may have heard that Henry won’t be the centerpiece of Smith’s Falcons Offense in 2021. Probably we won’t know who the lead back will be until the spring -- after the NFL draft. There’s no chance Todd Gurley returns for a second season in Atlanta, and there’s no universe in which Ito Smith profiles as an every-down back in a Falcons Offense that will be far more run heavy than we’re used to. With Arthur Smith’s run-establishing obsession, it wouldn’t be a shock for the Falcons to use their first round draft pick -- perhaps after trading down -- on a running back instead of Matt Ryan’s heir apparent. That back -- perhaps Najee Harris or Travis Etienne -- would immediately become one of the most sought after runners in fantasy football.
Smith and Ragone are expected to lighten Ryan’s load in 2021, putting the aged veteran in position to be an efficient passer rather than a volume passer. Smith revived Ryan Tannehill’s once-fledgling career with balanced play calling and an emphasis on play action. The Titans were top-five in play action usage last season, and Tannehill produced a whopping 2.8 yards per attempt more on play action throws compared to straight drop backs. Deshaun Watson and Tom Brady were the only QBs to post a higher yards per attempt on play action passes in 2020.
Look for Smith and Ragone to craft an Atlanta offense that will throw less but produce more efficiently, especially in the red zone, where the Falcons were horrific in 2020, converting just 53 percent of red zone possessions into touchdowns (27th in the NFL). The Titans, meanwhile, scored a touchdown on nearly 75 percent of their red zone visits -- the league’s second highest rate. Smith’s Titans in 2019 posted the NFL’s highest red zone touchdown rate (77.4 percent), an incredible 10 percent higher than any other offense.
Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen
Steichen oversaw Justin Herbert’s historic rookie campaign as LA’s offensive coordinator in 2020 before Nick Sirriani nabbed him for the Eagles staff in January.
Steichen’s time as the Bolts’ offensive coordinator was sketchy at best, despite Herbert’s masterful season. The team was 19th in early-down pass frequency last year -- an indicator of offensive aggressiveness. Steichen stuck with the run despite the Chargers being an abysmal rushing team, finishing the 2020 season 31st in rush DVOA. That Herbert bailed out the offense time and again shouldn’t obscure Steichen’s suboptimal choice to establish the run on first and second down.
Before Herbert, Steichen was keen on spreading out defenses with three and four receiver formations and running the ball at a heavy clip. That could (should) continue in 2021 if Steichen is calling plays (that’s still unclear) and if Jalen Hurts is the team’s opening day QB. An emphasis on the rushing attack would make Miles Sanders the focal point of Philly’s offense. Adding a pass-catching back to the mix -- Tarik Cohen has been rumored as a player who could land with the Eagles in a Carson Wentz trade to Chicago -- would make Sanders a more game script dependent option in 2021.
If Hurts lands the starting gig for Philadelphia, look for the Steichen-led Eagles Offense to be among the run heaviest in the NFL.
49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel
It remains Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but promoting the team’s run-game coordinator to offensive coordinator could be a sign that the Niners are not about to forsake their conservative, run-heavy ways. It was McDaniel, after all, who oversaw one of the league's most successful run offenses in 2019 (second in rushing yards per game) -- success the team couldn’t possibly replicate while facing deficits throughout the lost 2020 season.
49ers coaches and players -- and those who analyze NFL schemes -- have credited McDaniel for designing and implementing some of the league’s most complex run concepts over the past couple seasons. McDaniel’s ascent to OC probably means free agent fullback Kyle Juszczyk will stay put in San Francisco. Juszczyk and McDaniel are longtime friends going back to Yale, and Juszczyk -- the league’s highest paid fullback -- has proven to be a critical element of the team’s advanced rushing concepts.
As the guy most likely to get first crack at the Niners’ RB1 job, Raheem Mostert could be the most direct beneficiary of McDaniels taking over as coordinator. Fantasy managers shouldn’t forget about Jeff Wilson, who last month re-signed with the 49ers. In each of the past two seasons, Wilson has looked every bit like an every-down back when the team has suffered a rash of backfield injuries that leaves Wilson as the last man standing. He will be a prime target for Zero RB drafters this offseason.