Fantasy Football: Week 3 Personnel Tendencies

In fantasy football, we look at a ton of factors when retrospectively dissecting at one week and projecting the next. We analyze a player's opportunity in the form of attempts and targets, their matchup against the opposing defense, as well as their game script by betting odds, and a whole lot more. One thing we don't do a lot of, though, is looking at a player's opportunity or matchup through the lens of personnel groupings.

By personnel grouping, I mean which type of offensive package his team is deploying on a play-by-play basis. Are they rolling out big sets with frequency, or are they more likely to spread it out with three to four wideouts?

For those who might be a bit unfamiliar, personnel groupings are commonly referred to in numbers like 21. The first of the two figures, the "2", refers to the number of running backs (including fullbacks) on the field, whereas the second, "the 1", indicates the number of tight ends in the formation. So, 21 personnel is very traditional in that you get a fullback, a running back, a tight end and two wideouts. Today, that traditional set isn't as popular as it once was with a trend toward 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three receivers) for purposes of efficiency in the passing game.

You can find this personnel grouping information in a neat, sortable format over at Sharp Football Stats. You can see how frequently a team uses (or opposing team faces) each grouping and what kind of success they have found in doing so. You can even narrow it down to the run and pass game efficiency.

Going forward, this article will serve as a dive into the previous week's rates to find a few valuable pieces of data for season-long fantasy owners and DFS players to consume and make decisions on. But this being the initial installment, we will take a complete view of the first three weeks to uncover what these four teams' personnel usage means for key and/or under-the-radar fantasy assets.

Let's see what we can find.

The Cardinals Flying Four Wide

The personnel grouping that first sparked this article is Kliff Kingsbury and the Arizona Cardinals' 10 personnel, or maybe more commonly known as four-wide sets. A staple of the air raid offense Kingsbury brought from his time at Texas Tech, the Cardinals have used 10 personnel 61% of the time through three weeks. The next-closest team, the Los Angeles Rams, have gone with one back and four receivers on a measly 12% of total plays. Sean McVay and company's 24 such instances are a whole 104 shy of the Cardinals' 128.

Of course, this is great for Arizona receivers. Three -- Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and Damiere Byrd -- have logged at least 91.8% of the team's offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Reference, while rookie KeeSean Johnson has been in on 55.0% of snaps. Johnson has yet to make a mark worthy of fantasy value, having turned 16 targets into just 9 catches, 90 yards and 0 touchdowns. However, Fitzgerald, Kirk and Byrd check in as WR13, WR29 and WR67 in PPR scoring. Byrd has yet to notch a score, yet he was able to produce a WR46 performance in Week 2 (just outside WR3 and flex consideration).

In fact, it would take only one 39-yard touchdown from Byrd to give Arizona three receivers in the top 50 in PPR formats. Now, that's a hypothetical, but it's probably safe to say that the Cardinals' offense -- 24th in our power rankings -- will only get more efficient with time. Kyler Murray has played just three NFL games, including two against top-15 defenses and the other against a historically tough defense (Baltimore) on the road. This week, they face another above-average defense in the Seattle Seahawks, but even if the Cards have just another decent game against them, better things are to come in the four games after -- all of which are against bottom-11 overall defenses.

The reason I don't confine the defensive outlook to pass defenses only (all four of those upcoming opponents struggle against the pass) is because the run game, even in a pass-happy offense, has some sneaky upside for David Johnson.

Despite running behind Pro Football Focus' 30th-rated line, Johnson is the RB8 with 49 total touches to his credit. And, yeah, he's had his share of work in the passing game, but in four-receiver sets, the Cardinals' run game boasts a 54% success rate and 4.8 yards per carry on 28 attempts. That success rate is five percentage points above the league average in 10 personnel, seven percentage points higher than the overall league average and two percentage points beyond their 52% rate in 1-1 personnel.

In other words, when they spread it out, Johnson finds holes and capitalizes. We expect him to continue to take advantage of the space and pace Arizona's receiver-friendly system provides; our projections have DJ as the RB6 in Week 4 and RB8 over the rest of the season.

Dallas' Dominance With 11

Like with Kingsbury's team out west, the Dallas Cowboys have a new offensive system of their own under coordinator Kellen Moore. Through three weeks of action, they are fourth in points per game after ranking 22nd in the same category a year ago. Dak Prescott has their attack ranked second both overall and in the passing game, per our metrics.

Among many things, a noticeable shift toward 11 personnel and away from sets with just one wideout has helped to increase Dallas' offensive efficiency. After deploying one back, one tight end and three receivers at a 66% clip last year, Dallas has done so 73% of the time this year, and when we take game script out a bit, we see that jump to 76% when the margin has been a touchdown or less.

At the same time, Dallas has gone from a combined 7% to 4% in 22 and 13 personnel to date, shifting from two- and three-tight end sets. It seems they have finally admitted defeat in pairing a usable tight end with Jason Witten, instead spelling him with Blake Jarwin.

Mainly, Moore has opted to have guys like Michael Gallup and Devin Smith on the field alongside Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb. And it's yielded results. Dallas' 58% success rate in 11 personnel is 12 percentage points above the league average. Their 59% success rate on passes is tops in the league while their 58% run success rate sits behind only four teams.

As expected, Ezekiel Elliott -- currently the RB11 -- is on track to finish as a top fantasy back, but other pass catchers have become relevant behind Cooper.

Week Player Rank
1 Michael Gallup WR15
1 Amari Cooper WR16
1 Randall Cobb WR25
1 Blake Jarwin TE10
2 Devin Smith WR24
2 Amari Cooper WR30
2 Michael Gallup WR35
2 Jason Witten TE7
3 Amari Cooper WR7

Those are a lot of usable weeks for fantasy owners, both at wide receiver and tight end. And it's not a shock that Elliott's the RB8 in the last two games even with a blowout of the Miami Dolphins in Week 3.

You're playing Elliott and Cooper without hesitation, while Cobb and Gallup -- when he returns from injury -- present weekly options for a third receiver or flex spot. Witten is startable in deeper leagues and is a solid streaming option in shallow ones. Jarwin and Smith are more DFS dart throws, but one thing is certain: this is not the Dallas offense we have come to know.

San Francisco's Smashmouth Success

It's amazing to think about, but in the same year Arizona and Dallas are spreading it out more in the passing game, the San Francisco 49ers are sticking to team #establishtherun. They are atop the league with 114 carries and are 11th at 4.6 yards per carry, which has produced three of fantasy's top-30 running backs in Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson and Matt Breida. With Tevin Coleman injured since the opening week, the three have split opportunities to much success.

Unlike most teams, though, San Francisco has taken the traditional pound-it-out approach. They boast league-highs in both 21 personnel (36%) and 22 personnel frequency (16%), meaning they set up with a fullback or two backs more than 50% of the time. Star fullback Kyle Juszczyk has been in on 54.6% of snaps, and his involvement has only increased with each week. He had a 63.3% share in Week 3 against Pittsburgh, when the Niners smacked up the Steelers for 168 rushing yards and two scores on 40 carries.

In that matchup, San Fran coach Kyle Shanahan used two backs and one tight end on 37 of 73 plays (51%) and two backs and two tight ends 17% of the time. They enjoyed a 68% rushing success rate in the first package and 20% in the lesser-used one. However, when we step back to include all three games, they own success rates of 58% and 52% (4.5 and 5.0 yards per carry) in those two personnel groupings. Those are 10 and 9 percentage points, respectively, above league average for those personnel groupings, and that doesn't tell the entire story.

The Niners have found success in the passing game in those bigger sets.

PersonnelPass RatePass SuccessAir Yards Per Attempt

In those two sets, Jimmy Garoppolo has passer ratings of 131.3 and 100.4, and he has thrown two of his five touchdowns out of 21. George Kittle, whose skill-set allows Shanahan to use so much tight end-dependent packages, has yet to catch a touchdown, but the opportunities are there if you are (as you should be) a believer in air yards.

That's good to keep in mind for Kittle owners, and it's probably safe to ignore for Jimmy G, but with all the success the 49ers have had, don't expect there to be a shift. In all -- but especially positive -- game scripts, San Francisco won't be afraid to line up one of the three backs behind Juszczyk. And while it is difficult to peg down which back will have the big week, one will always be worth a shot in DFS tournaments. That, and if one or more of them get injured, you can expect those valuable looks to go to the others. Our models give a slight edge to Breida for the rest of the season following the Niners' Week 4 bye.

The Patriots' Power Game

Yes -- there are teams that emphasize the run outside of San Francisco. The New England Patriots are running the ball at a top-10 rate (44%) this season, and they've found success on 48% of those attempts. But the Pats' power game may have taken a hit as fullback James Develin landed on injured reserve with a neck injury suffered back in Week 2 and did not play in the team's Week 3 win over the New York Jets.

As many have noted, Develin has been a big reason for the recent success of the Patriots' run game, and while they have experienced some inconsistency this year, a lot of that comes from injuries on the offensive line. Last year, New England doubled up on backs on 40% of plays and ranked third and second, respectively, in frequency of 21 and 20 personnel.

James White and Sony Michel did share some time in those formations, but Develin played on 35.57% of snaps in 2018, and on seven occasions, he logged at least a 40% snap share. Six of those were winning efforts, including four by double digits. In those seven weeks, the Patriots were in 21 personnel 36% of the time and 22 a league-high 10% of the time. They ran the ball at the third-highest clip (51%) in those same games.

Through the first two weeks of the season, with Develin at least partially involved, New England went to the ground 48% of the time, compared to 37% in a positive game script against the Jets. They also leaned on three- and four-wideout sets 76% of the time versus Gang Green. They deployed two backs just 21% of the time in Week 3, and Develin's replacement, Jakob Johnson, played only two snaps. That is fewer than three running backs and tight end Ryan Izzo. Oh, and James White didn't play.

The power game we know is no longer there -- or at least it wasn't in Week 3. Instead, when the Patriots trot out two backs, it will likely be some combination of Michel, White and Rex Burkhead. They will, in all likelihood, throw a lot of balls to White and Burkhead but lean less on Michel. Sell Michel in season-long fantasy if you can, and keep an eye on White and Burkhead moving forward.

Out wide, this shift favors Phillip Dorsett as the team's third receiver. Dorsett led Patriots receivers with 70 snaps last week, and New England was in 11 personnel 59% of the time. He finished as WR18 and tallied 15.5 FanDuel points at $5,000. His price is up to $5,900 on FanDuel, but he could fly under the radar for a second straight week. And in season long, he is under-owned at 33.2% in ESPN leagues.