Fantasy Football: 3 Things We Learned in 2020
Perhaps more than anything, fantasy football is a game of adjustments. Season-long fantasy doesn't end at the draft, and smart managers learn to take the trends and data that each week of games offers and apply it to their roster decisions moving forward.
The odd year of 2020 taught us a lot of things about the game of fantasy football and perhaps where it is headed in the future. This recap of the the 2020 season will look at some trends from the past fantasy season with an eye towards what to expect in 2021.
The Quarterback Rush
If you wanted a quarterback who finished top 12 in fantasy scoring in 2020, good luck getting there if they didn't have at least 150 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns on the season.
In fact, all of the top-12 quarterbacks hit at least one of those thresholds this past season. Even Tom Brady had three rushing touchdowns despite rushing for just six yards. Matt Ryan rushed for two scores. Kirk Cousins had over 150 rushing yards.
The trend that has been building for some time is undoubtedly here to stay. Quarterbacks who have a rushing component to their game, even if they are just adequate passers, are more valuable than more elite passers who are statuesque (i.e. Drew Brees).
Why? The simplest answer is in fantasy scoring. With 10 rushing yards equaling 1 point compared to 25 passing yards getting the same total, it's much easier and faster for these quarterbacks to gain fantasy points. Take Lamar Jackson's Week 17 output. He passed for just 113 yards with 3 passing touchdowns. He also rushed for 97 yards for almost 10 fantasy points. Jackson would have to pad his stats with an additional 250 passing yards to equal what he earned on just 11 rush attempts.
Jackson never got close to 300 yards passing in a game this year, but his 1,007 rushing yards made up for 2,500 passing yards. Add in rushing touchdowns counting for six points and most leagues count passing scores at four points, and the analysis is simple.
Digging deeper, it comes down to how these top-12 quarterbacks earn their fantasy points. Instead of spending their snaps racking up pass attempts and relying on a receiver for points, they are using more of those snaps on guaranteed points: rush attempts. A larger piece of their fantasy pie is tied to their rushing proficiency.
|2020 Ranks||Total Fantasy Points||% of Points From Rushing|
If we remove each category's outlier (QB1-12 is Tom Brady and his six rushing yards; QB13-24 is Cam Newton and his 12 rushing touchdowns), those numbers further separate to 9.0% of the QB1-12 from rushing stats and only 5.1% for the QB13-24.
With emerging quarterbacks such as Jalen Hurts and Joe Burrow not even making these lists, we have even more rushing upside in our selections next season. As we enter 2021 drafts, look for quarterbacks who derive at least 7-9% of their fantasy output from rushing stats. If you choose not to, you're simply playing catch-up with the rest of the league.
Return of the (Bellcow) Back?
Long gone are the days when we can look at a running back's rush attempts and decide whether they get a bellcow label. The evolution of the NFL has led to more of an expanded role for backs where we must look at opportunities (rush attempts and targets) to determine who deserves true bellcow status.
In 2020, 16 different backs totaled at least 225 opportunities (14 per game). This doesn't include Chris Carson, Nick Chubb, Miles Sanders, Antonio Gibson, Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon, and a whole host of others who had opportunities cut short by injury or coaches slow-playing their role. In all, 28 running backs averaged at least 14 opportunities per game -- almost enough for every team in a 10-team fantasy league to have three of them.
It has been proven in recent years that targets are worth about 2.7 times as much as a rush attempt in PPR formats, so if we are just counting rush attempts or even just rush attempts plus receptions, we are not encompassing the full predictive value of a running back. Knowing this, how can we better evaluate rushers going into 2021? It's clear we would love to have a complete back with 200 rush attempts and 70 targets, but there was a grand total of one of those in 2020 (Ezekiel Elliott, woof).
What then is the tipping point in how we evaluate rush attempts and targets? If we give a rush attempt a score of '1.0' and a target a score of '2.7,' we can give each of the 22 rushers with 200 opportunities an 'opportunity score' and see which backs might carry strong value heading into 2021.
|Player||Rush Attempts||Targets||Opportunity Score|
|Melvin Gordon III||215||44||333.8|
|Ronald Jones II||192||42||305.4|
Right at the top, we see Alvin Kamara with the highest score. Even with almost 200 fewer carries than Henry, the 107 targets grant him the highest potential value in this model. New Orleans' quarterback situation next year will go a long way to determining how early to draft Kamara next year.
We can probably add Mike Davis' and Christian McCaffrey's opportunities together for CMC next year. Lastly, one of the most fascinating offseason storylines will be what the Dallas Cowboys do with Elliott and his albatross of a contract. He clearly still has elite volume. Does the production improve next year with Dak Prescott healthy and an improved offensive line?
Add oft-injured backs such as Carson, Mixon, and David Johnson to this list and you have an idea of where the potential value lies next season.
Rookie Receiver Respect
Before the 2020 NFL season began, I cautioned fantasy managers about relying too much on hot rookie prospects in my 3 Things We Learned in the NFL Offseason piece:
"With no preseason games to develop rapport, get game-speed reps, and see rookies up against elite defensive talent, veteran quarterbacks and coaches are simply going to need more time to evaluate these promising first-year players once pads are on and the games begin."
You win some, you lose some I guess. And I lost out on rostering many of the stellar rookie wide receiver campaigns, as I was worried about the win-now mentality one must have in weekly fantasy football. I was concerned the time these rookies would need to get up to speed would cost valuable weeks when a roster spot could be better used by a veteran.
In the end, talent won the day, and rookie wide receivers showed they have plenty of it. By the end of the season, 8 of the top 50 wide receivers in total PPR points were rookies (16%) and 6 of the top 50 receivers in PPR points per game were rookies.
We all know about Justin Jefferson's record-setting rookie season of 88 catches for 1,400 yards and 7 touchdowns (WR6 in PPR formats). But Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, and Jerry Jeudy all finished with a target share greater than 20%. Five rookies had at least 1,000 air yards on the season -- a number that veterans like Chris Godwin, DeVante Parker, and Robert Woods did not reach.
Aiyuk, Higgins, Jeudy, Jefferson, Chase Claypool, and others were all week winners at some point throughout the season and were regular strong contributors.
Never again will I practice extreme caution on rookies if they have the talent, opportunity, and advantageous offensive scheme when they enter the league. The 2020 class of wide receivers were thought to be an overwhelmingly talented group, but the 2021 class is coming right behind them. That group has as many as five receivers projected to be selected in the first round in some early mock drafts.