How Game Script Affects Fantasy

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How Game Script Affects Fantasy

Fantasy football is a weekly game -- not a season-long one. Every week presents a new challenge, new matchups, and new situations to evaluate. One of my biggest pet peeves is just taking the top finishers at the year's end and acting like it’s the best determination of season-long fantasy value. Yearly scoring totals are a fine barometer of how valuable players actually were, but by and large, players score the majority of their fantasy points in specific pockets of games and situations.

Obviously, a lot of things go into how a player scores his points on a weekly basis. Usage is the most important factor along with matchups, but how the game actually plays out matters, too. As football fans, we know every game has a certain type of “flow.” And these game flows change every week. As a general rule of thumb, we’ll see teams throw more to try and catch up when they are behind on the scoreboard and sit on a lead and run the ball more to drain the clock.

Game script is the scoring margin at any point in the game and it has a massive impact on how coaches call plays.

For example, the Falcons trailed sixth-most often last season (57% of plays) and they were the second-most pass-heavy team when trailing (passed on 73% of plays). Not only was Atlanta behind on the scoreboard often, but they also threw the ball at an incredibly high rate and that is exactly why Matt Ryan led the league in pass attempts per game (41.0). The Falcons extra passing volume is why Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Hayden Hurst are all slated to be high impact weekly starters in fantasy.

Knowing how each game will flow has broad season-long purposes but it matters at the weekly level for DFS purposes as well. Vegas spreads are by far the best way to predict game script. Over the last two years, when Vegas predicts a team to win a game by 7 or more points -- the favored team actually wins an astounding 79% of the time. In games that are closer to pick ‘ems (team favored to win by 1 to 3 points), the favored team only wins 51% of the time. That’s basically just a coin flip. Oddsmakers are highly efficient at predicting outcomes and provide a fantastic, free barometer of how games will play out.

So, for our fantasy purposes, I went back through every team’s play-calling tendencies in four

buckets of game situations of the 2019 season. Keep in mind, these situations occur at any time during the game in all four quarters. We’re not just looking at the end result of games.

  1. Neutral situations (score +/- 7 points)
  2. Leading situations (when ahead by 3+ and 7+ points)
  3. Trailing situations (when behind by 3+ and 7+ points)
  4. Total snaps leading and trailing
  5. Garbage time (down by 10+ points in the fourth quarter)

This is everything I learned analyzing these situations, play-calling tendencies, and why it matters for fantasy:

Neutral situations (score in between 7 points difference)

Most pass-heavy teams

  1. Chiefs - 67%
  2. Chargers - 65%
  3. Dolphins, Giants, Bengals, and Falcons - 63%
  4. Bears, Patriots, Rams, Packers, and Browns - 62%
  5. Saints - 61%

Most run-heavy teams

  1. Ravens - 56%
  2. Colts and Seahawks - 48%
  3. Raiders - 46%
  4. 49ers, Titans, Bills, Vikings, Texans, and Washington - 45%
  5. Steelers - 43%

Notes

  • Chiefs HC Andy Reid is working with a massive advantage over the rest of the league with Patrick Mahomes. Passing to build a lead is the most efficient way to win in the NFL and no team throws more often when the game is within a score than Kansas City. Back in Mahomes’ 50 TD 2018 season, the Chiefs were the fourth-most pass-heavy team in neutral situations (64%). Mahomes has averaged 8.7 yards per pass attempt when the game is within a score over the last two combined years, which laps the league. Russell Wilson is second in YPA (8.2) in these neutral situations -- but it’s too bad his offense is stuck in the stone-ages. Seattle was the second-most run-heavy team in the league when the game was within a score in 2019 (48%) and they were first in run rate in these neutral situations in 2018 (53%). The best way to evaluate every team’s true game-plan is by seeing how they call plays when the game is close and the Chiefs will continue to push boundaries with their extremely pass-heavy approach.

  • If you’re going to do something different from the norm, you better do it well. No team in recent history has built a better contrarian offense than the Ravens. Baltimore was an astounding 56% run-heavy when the game was within a score last year while the league-average is 42%. You don’t need me to tell you this, but it bears repeating: Lamar Jackson is a cheat-code and his dual-threat ability opens up massive holes in the Ravens run game. In Jackson’s 24 career starts, his running backs lead the NFL in yards per carry (5.0), they rank second in both success rate and in first downs gained, and they are fourth in fantasy points per game.

  • Unlike the Seahawks, Bengals HC Zac Taylor and OC Brian Callahan seem like they “get it.” Again, teams should throw to build leads and then run the ball to salt the game away -- not the other way around. Unless you have Lamar Jackson. Even with a terrible offensive line and Andy Dalton at quarterback, only two teams were more pass-heavy than the Bengals were in 2019. Now with Joe Burrow under center, we want exposure to this entire passing offense. If Cincinnati remains this pass-heavy, Burrow is a glaring value at his 12th-14th round average draft position and it’s possible both Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green are undervalued. My money is on Boyd, though. Boyd ranks 19th in PPR points per game among wide receivers (14.8) over the last two years, which is one spot behind Amari Cooper (14.9). Green is now 32 -- he’s six years older than Boyd -- and has already missed time in training camp with a tweaked hamstring.

  • It’ll be interesting to see how the Chargers build their offense now that Philip Rivers is gone. Shane Steichen took over as their OC in Los Angeles’ final eight games last year after Ken Whisenhunt was canned in Week 8. Still, the Chargers remained pass first -- throwing second-most often when the game was within a score (65%). Now with Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert under center, LA is undoubtedly set up to be more run-heavy. In Tyrod Taylor’s three years as a starter in Buffalo from 2015-17, he averaged just 28 pass attempts per game -- which is fewer than Philip Rivers’ career-low in his rookie season (28.8 attempts per game). Still, I’m not overly concerned about Austin Ekeler’s receiving volume. In his three years in Buffalo, Taylor targeted his running backs on 21% of his passes, which would have tied Mahomes for the 15th-highest rate in the league last season. If the Chargers trail a bunch again like they did in 2019 -- they were behind on 55% of their plays (seventh-most) -- that would also bode well for checkdowns to Ekeler.

When leading (by 3+ points)

Most pass-heavy teams

  1. Dolphins - 59%
  2. Falcons - 58%
  3. Patriots, Lions, Chiefs - 57%
  4. Colts and Packers - 55%
  5. Washington, Giants, and Saints - 54%

Most run-heavy teams

  1. Titans - 62%
  2. Vikings - 60%
  3. Ravens - 59%
  4. Bills - 58%
  5. Steelers and 49ers - 57%

Notes

  • Now with Tom Brady gone, everyone knows the Patriots will be less pass-heavy in 2020. Last year, New England tied for third in pass rate (57%) when leading by three or more points and asking Cam Newton to throw this often when they are ahead on the scoreboard likely isn’t in the cards. How OC Josh McDaniels builds this offense with a totally different quarterback under center remains to be seen. But, one thing is for sure. The Pats’ figure to be much more run-heavy in 2020 and their defense is still talented enough to remain in positive game scripts. New England had a lead on 73% of their plays last year, trailing only the Ravens (84%), Saints (77%), 49ers (74%), and Chiefs (74%).

  • Baltimore absolutely waxed everyone last year, leading by at least a field goal on a league-high 60% of their plays. The next closest team was the Chiefs (53%). The Ravens held a touchdown lead on an absurd 47% of their possessions, which also absolutely dusted the league. For reference, teams have at least a touchdown lead over their opponents just 21% of the time on average. While the Ravens should remain highly efficient, I’m not sure they can sustain these types of blow-out leads for another season in 2020 and it should lead to a few extra pass attempts for Lamar Jackson. Last year, the Ravens were 13.7% more pass-heavy than usual when trailing, which was the third-largest difference in the NFL. If the Ravens regress just a little bit offensively and have to throw more, Mark Andrews has the TE1 upside and Marquise Brown could seriously push for a top-12 finish among wide receivers. Jackson-to-Brown led QB-WR duos in passer rating (134.4) and they are set to completely take over the league this year. Back in July, Jackson said “I feel like (Brown) is going to have a huge jump… He was hurt last year. He went out there and battled his tail off each and every game on a messed up foot. Now his full potential is going to show this year… My job is to get the ball out quicker because (Hollywood) is a lot faster with that foot 100 percent."

When leading (by 7+ points)

Most pass-heavy teams

  1. Dolphins - 60%
  2. Chiefs, Lions, Buccaneers, and Patriots - 57%
  3. Falcons - 56%
  4. Washington - 54%
  5. Browns and Jets - 53%

Most run-heavy teams

  1. Titans - 68%
  2. Vikings - 64%
  3. Ravens and Steelers - 59%
  4. Cowboys and Bills - 58%
  5. Chargers - 57%
  6. 49ers - 56%

Notes

  • Not only does Kansas City throw to get a lead, they keep their foot on the gas when they build it. Last year, the Chiefs were the third-most pass-heavy team in the league when they were ahead by 3 or more points and the second-most pass-heavy when ahead by 7 or more. And they were top-four in pass rate in both of these game situations in 2018, too. Mahomes, Edwards-Helaire, Hill, and Kelce all have top-2 upside at their positions because this offense is not only so efficient but incredibly pass-heavy.

  • It’s also hard not to love Atlanta’s offense because of how pass-heavy they are in all game situations. The amount of volume that will go around to Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Hayden Hurst this season should be ridiculous. In OC Dirk Koetter’s first year back with the team, the Falcons were top-6 in pass rate in all game situations: when the game was within a score (3rd-most pass-heavy team), when leading (3rd), when trailing (2nd), and in garbage time (6th). Every game that Atlanta plays this season should be filled with fantasy goodness because they throw a ton, give up a ton of points, and play fast. The Falcons ran plays at the fifth-fastest rate last year according to Football Outsiders’ pace stats.

  • The Titans (62%) and Vikings (59%) were first and second in run-rate when leading last year, ranking ahead of the Ravens (58%), Bills (58%), Seahawks (56%), and 49ers (55%). Tennessee was the most run-heavy team in the league when they were ahead for a damn good reason. Derrick Henry averaged 6.7 yards per carry! when the Titans were ahead last year, further proving that running backs don’t matter. Christian McCaffrey (5.6), Ezekiel Elliott (5.6), Nick Chubb (5.5), Aaron Jones (5.1) rounded out the top-5 in yards per carry when their teams were leading and I consider all five of these backs among the eight-most talented running backs in the league. But, again. This is all magic. Smoke and mirrors. Running backs… they don’t matter! Derrick Henry is an absolute freak of nature and the exception to every rule. And, if he gets even slightly more involved in the passing game -- as Ryan Tannehill alluded to in training camp -- his ceiling is the fantasy RB1. Henry isn’t as game script dependent as you might think, either. Around 45% of Dalvin Cook’s total fantasy output came when the Vikings were ahead last year -- which is more than Henry (40%). Mark Ingram was the most game script dependent back in the league last year as 59% of his total fantasy points came when the Ravens were ahead by at least a field goal.

When trailing (by 3+ points)

Most pass-heavy teams

  1. Rams - 78%
  2. Falcons and Saints - 73%
  3. Giants, Buccaneers, and Panthers - 71%
  4. Bears and Dolphins - 70%
  5. Chargers, Patriots, Packers, and Cardinals - 69%

Most run-heavy teams

  1. Colts - 45%
  2. Ravens and 49ers - 42%
  3. Seahawks - 41%
  4. Titans - 38%
  5. Bills - 37%

Notes

  • The Bears were the fourth-most pass-heavy team in the league when they were down by at least a field goal and it fueled a large part of Allen Robinson’s volume. A-Rob saw 75 targets when Chicago was trailing by three or more points last year, which was sixth-most among wide receivers. Like Robinson, both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley saw large chunks of their volume when the Falcons fell behind last year. 60% of Ridley’s targets came when Atlanta was trailing by three or more points, which was 10th-most among qualified wide receivers while Julio saw 82 targets in this situation (second-most among all WRs). DeVante Parker also got fed when Miami fell behind as 54% of his targets came in this bucket (14th-most).

When trailing (by 7+ points)

Most pass-heavy teams

  1. Rams - 83%
  2. Saints - 80%
  3. Buccaneers - 75%
  4. Dolphins and Steelers - 73%
  5. Lions and Giants - 72%

Most run-heavy teams

  1. Ravens and Colts - 41%
  2. 49ers - 40%
  3. Titans - 38%
  4. Seahawks - 37%
  5. Raiders - 36%

Notes

  • I’m all-in on the Rams this year and a lot of it has to do with how pass-heavy HC Sean McVay is when trailing. Last year, Los Angeles led the league in pass rate when trailing by both a field goal (78%) and by a touchdown or more (83%). After winning 11, 13, and 9 games over the last three years, the Rams 2020 win total on DraftKings Sportsbook sits at 8 -- well behind division rivals 49ers (10.5) and Seahawks (9.5). Jared Goff’s pass attempts per game have risen in three-straight years (31.8 > 35.0 > 39.1) and he’ll likely push over 600 pass attempts again if the Rams find themselves in more negative game scripts this season. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are PPR WR1’s going in the fourth-round of drafts while Goff has top-10 upside in the double-digit rounds.

  • The Steelers were tied with the Dolphins as the fourth-most pass-heavy team in the league when trailing last year, despite not having Ben Roethlisberger basically all year. Pittsburgh’s passing volume is set to spike way up this season. In 2018 when Roethlisberger was healthy, the Steelers were the most pass-heavy team when the game was within a score (66.4%) and when trailing (81.5%). Over his last five years in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger averaged 38.7 pass attempts per game -- which would pace for about 620 pass attempts over a full 16-game season. Wheels up on JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson.

Garbage time (down by 10+ points in fourth-quarter)

Teams that had the most garbage time in 2019

  1. Dolphins - 64%
  2. Bengals - 62%
  3. Falcons - 55%
  4. Giants and Jaguars - 54%
  5. Panthers and Jets - 46%
  6. Browns - 45%
  7. Washington - 44%
  8. Cardinals - 42%
  9. Raiders - 38%
  10. Seahawks - 36%

Notes

  • Daniel Jones’ rookie season should make you excited for this year in fantasy but it does need a little bit of context. The Giants were consistently in garbage time last year and Jones’ passing volume certainly benefited. 21% of Jones’ pass attempts came when the Giants were behind double-digits in the fourth quarter, which was the second-highest rate behind Andy Dalton (23%).

  • Matt Ryan was the true king of garbage time last year, though. Ryan ranked third in the NFL in garbage time attempts (95), he was second in yards (667), and first in TDs (6). Those fantasy points still count and Atlanta should continue to trail a bunch late in games. I agree with Tom Brolley that the under on Falcons 7.5 wins looks sharp.

  • Leonard Fournette has been a hot-button debate topic in fantasy all summer. One thing is for sure, though: Fournette was a garbage-time hero last year, racking up the NFL’s fourth-most targets (23) when the Jags’ were down big in the fourth quarter. If Fournette comes off the field in these situations this year, it could be detrimental to his floor in fantasy. In Week 1-5 before HC Jay Gruden was fired in Washington, Chris Thompson led all players in garbage time targets with 17.

Graham Barfield blends data and film together to create some of the most unique content in the fantasy football industry. Barfield is FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and formerly worked for the NFL Network, Fantasy Guru, and Rotoworld.

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