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Every week following the slate of NFL games, I’ll be collecting some interesting notes to put in an “advanced metrics” notebook. Obviously there are no games to look back on yet, so heading into Week 1, here are five advanced-metric-related situations I’m monitoring early this year.
If we identify a change in these situations or even a continuation from how things played out last year where others are expecting regression, we can gain an edge in our fantasy decision-making while remaining ahead of the market.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats for this piece come from Sports Radar.
1 - The Tennessee Titans’ play-action efficiency
Derrick Henry is rightly lauded with praise as a focal point of the Tennessee Titans’ run to the AFC Championship game last year. Just as important, perhaps even more consequential, in that endeavor was the absurd efficiency of the Titans play-action passing game.
We all know the Ryan Tannehill-led Titans’ aerial attack was nearly unrecognizable from what it was during the moribund Marcus Mariota era. The catalyst was Tannehill’s absurd efficiency on play fakes.
The Titans led the league with 15.2 yards per attempt on play-action throws from Weeks 7 to 17 with Tannehill under center. They were one of only four teams to hit double-digits and were a full three yards ahead of the second-place team.
The primary beneficiary of those massive gains on play-action throws was then-rookie breakout, A.J. Brown. The hulking wideout led all pass-catchers with 436 receiving yards on play-action plays while gaining 244 yards after the catch.
Obviously, projecting or even hoping for a repeat of such wild efficiency would be misguided. If you’re optimistic about the Titans passing offense as a whole and Brown, in particular, rolling over some of that momentum in Year 2 together, you need to believe in a volume boost for the unit. Tennessee dictated game scripts to their opponents at will to end 2019. Seeing them forced into more neutral or even negative game scripts will help offset worries.
The Titans might not be forced into such a situation in Week 1 when they travel to Denver. Brown will likely find himself drawing shadow coverage from a familiar foe in new Broncos No. 1 corner, A.J. Bouye. Last time they met, when Bouye played for the Jaguars, Brown hung 99 of his 135 yards on the veteran corner.
2 - The Pittsburgh Steelers’ passing play percentage
It goes without saying that the Steelers were an extremely different team without Ben Roethlisberger in the fold last year. Not just from a results perspective, either, as Pittsburgh completely flipped their offensive philosophy to adjust for their new quarterback hell.
In 2019, the Steelers threw the ball on 42 percent of their plays when the team had a lead of least three points, the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL. That makes sense. As soon as Pittsburgh had any hope of securing a win it was best to just sit on the ball and not allow Mason Rudolph or Duck Hodges to throw them out of it.
However, this was a clear flip from their prior approach. In 2018, The Steelers boasted a 55 percent passing rate when they led by three-plus points, sixth-highest in the NFL. Pittsburgh also ranked fourth in 2017.
It’s reasonable to expect that Ben Roethlisberger will be a slightly compromised form of the player he was in 2017 and 2018. He’s 38 years old and coming off a major injury. It wouldn’t be a shock if he’s 85 to 90 percent of his old self, but even that’s a big upgrade on what Pittsburgh rolled out in 2019.
What’s clear is that based on their history, when the Steelers have their quarterback and skill-position group stocked with quality options, they want to push the ball through the air. Both points are in place in Pittsburgh this coming season.
3 - The Detroit Lions’ vertical passing game
It was a hire that was met with some derision but Darrell Bevell brought one clear change to the Detroit offense in his first season on the job. The biggest difference between the Lions of 2019 and the previous iterations: They were throwing the ball and they were doing it extremely well when Matthew Stafford was on the field.
In the first nine weeks of the season, Stafford was completely on fire as a vertical passer. Detroit led the NFL in yards per completion (13.4) while trailing only the deep-passing-addicted Bucs in air yards per completion (8.6).
To put that in context with how different that was from the previous coaching staff’s approach, Stafford posted 1,759 completed air yards when he played a full 16 game season in 2018.
Last year, he checked in with 1,609 in just eight starts.
If the Lions get right back to throwing deep as often and as effectively as they did under Stafford’s watch ... we’ve probably underestimated this offense. In this scenario, Kenny Golladay can meet his aggressive ADP, T.J. Hockenson (TE15) will look like a complete steal, Stafford will push for a top-10 finish, Marvin Jones will have an awesome weekly ceiling and someone out of this backfield will tempt you every week.
4 - Odell Beckham Jr.’s route distribution
Much has been made of the health aspect that derailed the 2019 version of Odell Beckham Jr. but let’s not excuse the deplorable coaching. The inability to adjust to what this offense was, not what Freddie Kitchens and co. wanted it to be, really stood out.
The Browns overused Beckham as a vertical receiver, never assigning him enough layup routes despite the offensive line’s inability to pass protect and his own compromised state. In 2019, just 34 of Beckham’s targets came on routes classified as a flat, slant, screen, or crossing pattern (25.5 percent of his targets). That was compared to 46 (37.1 percent) targets on such patterns in 12 games with the Giants in 2018 and 49 (29 percent) in his excellent 2016 season. As Eli Manning declined, the Giants wisely gave Beckham more layups to produce on his own. The Browns just never altered their original plan for the gifted receiver.
The Vikings under Kevin Stefanski made things simple for Kirk Cousins and will likely take a similar approach for Baker Mayfield. A revitalized plan for Beckham’s route assignments will lead to improved raw stats for both players.
5 - Logan Thomas’ routes run over his snap rate
Every year there is a tight end to come out of almost nowhere and put up at least strong TE2 numbers. What if that player this year is converted college quarterback and now Washington tight end Logan Thomas?
Thomas has taken a strange journey to get to this point in his career where he’s been heaped with praise from the new Washington coaching staff for being a standout pass-catcher in camp. The 29 year old started his career as a project quarterback with the Cardinals but converted to tight end along the way. One thing he’s carried with him throughout was supreme athleticism, posting a 4.61 40-yard dash time and 112.1 broad jump.
Given the void of quality pass-catchers in Washington beyond Terry McLaurin, Thomas could be a deep sleeper breakout pick. Monitor his snap rate, sure, but pay more attention to where he lines up on the field, such as in the slot, and how often he’s running routes. No one cares about his blocking work.
If Thomas runs a pass route on even 60 percent of Dwayne Haskins routes, he needs to be on your radar.