The Change In The Fantasy Landscape
The Change In The Fantasy Landscape
When I started this exercise, I will be honest, I am not sure if I really knew what I was trying to accomplish. I knew I was trying to find some sort of visual and numerical evidence that maybe running backs matter more then everyone thinks they do now. But, I did not know how to go about this or if I would completely waste my time, so it has been a slow process undertaken in my little bits of free time. Now I know what you are saying right about now. We know running backs do not matter. People a lot smarter than myself have done countless hours of research into the subject and the answer seems to be clear. If you do not know anything about me though, know these three things.
- I like to do my own research.
- I am stubborn.
- “Football” related numbers are my thing.
I went back and tracked the year 2000-2018 league-wide offense based on several factors in hopes to find some sort of correlation between running back usage and offensive efficiency that would demonstrate it in an easily accessible and fully sortable way. So full disclosure, I am very new to the world of spreadsheets. I would always write everything down because it just stuck with me better that way. Recently though, I became tired of the endlessly repeated math equations I was doing. It had not bothered me until I was doing it on such a large scale. So, I converted to the spreadsheet.
First of all, I had to figure out exactly how I wanted to go about this. As I stated above, countless amounts of research by people much smarter than myself has already been done. I am of the firm belief that elite running backs do matter to football and can change the game in a big way compared to their backups or a replacement level RB. I also wanted to see how different amounts of running back work affected overall offensive efficiency. It would turn into so much more for myself.
So I began to make a spreadsheet. Determining fantasy value on a league-wide spectrum was interesting. I wanted to focus on the general, season long, top and second level fantasy performances as a whole. I did not break down individual performances. Also, I did not account for injury as players get hurt every season and will undoubtedly get injured again in future years.
I broke the performances into a few categories. Firstly, we have heavy performances. Heavy rushing performances are any player that totaled 1000+ yards on the ground and 10+ touchdowns. Again, I did not break down individual performers as variation year to year will happen. If a quarterback were to run for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, that would be a heavy performance. A heavy receiving performance is essentially the same thing. Any pass catcher, regardless of position, that totals 1,000+ receiving yards and 10+ touchdowns. A heavy quarterback performance is any quarterback that totals 4,000+ passing yards and 30+ touchdowns.
Second Level Performances
Secondly, the second level performances. A second level rushing performance is any player that totaled either 1000+ yards OR 10+ touchdowns. Again, regardless of position, so as to account for any type of yearly variance. Second level receiving is again, essentially the same thing but for any positional player that receives either 1000+ yards or 10+ touchdowns. Second level quarterback performances are any quarterback that either throws for 4000+ yards or 30+ touchdowns.
The second step I needed to figure out was determining league-wide offensive efficiency. I wanted to break down the three main components of offense. Yards gained, points scored, and turnovers.
The goal in football on offense is obviously to score points. The goal for the defense is to stop that from happening and the path to both of those things lies between the goal lines, the yards. I also did not want to just break these three things down on a macro level and only look at season totals. I wanted to break them down on a per play basis. Some offenses run faster or slower than others. I did not want to look at what they do in the hurry up in comparison to clock-killing mode. Again league-wide variance will always change some things.
I will not bore you with the nuts and bolts of the equation but I used those three per play metrics (yards per play, points per play, and turnovers per play) to determine overall efficiency. I weighted the three factors as such.
- Yards per play (50% of the weighted value) – To score points, you must gain yards.
- Points per play (25% of the weighted value) – The goal of the offense.
- Turnovers per play (25% of the weighted value) – The antipoints per play.
You may say, should points be a larger factor into the efficiency? Maybe, but in my opinion, you must gain yards to score points no matter if that is 1 yard or 100. If a team scores a lot of points but does not gain many yards, Chances are they had some help from their defense and maybe a short field or two. Should they get full credit for that? In my opinion, no. The defense did a big chunk of that work. This will reflect in the final metric. At the same time, turnovers are the anti-point. I think they should equate the same as a point scored. Just in a negative way. Again, maybe I am wrong in my thinking, but you can decide that for yourself.
Below is the link to the spreadsheet I put together. This ended up being a much larger project than I first started out to complete, There are around 55-60 sortable categories to play around with. See how the different factors affect each other. Play around and have fun with it. Also, the color key for the spreadsheet and the images in this piece.
Now for some of the things I learned…
Lesson One: Running Game
So, as I mentioned above, my original goal was to try and find some proof that running backs do still matter. If I were to tell you that I came away with a concrete answer that I was satisfied with, I would be lying. What I did come away with were some pretty interesting observations.
So as we all know, the NFL has become a passing league. Seemingly, the perception is that the difference is far more drastic then it actually is in reality. As you can see in the image below, the amount of non-pass attempts (any play not resulting in a pass attempt, to account for the year to year variance of quarterbacks that scramble) has gone down since the year 2000. If you look at the averages though, from the year 2000-2004, the amount of non-rushing attempts is only 606 more than the average from the year 2015-2018. I have 2019 projected at 14,749.25 non-passing attempts which is slightly higher than 2018’s 14,553 (second lowest since 2000). Of note, even though it was the second fewest attempts, the yardage totaled in 2018 was the highest since 2012 and only outproduced in nine of 13 years between 2000 and 2012.
How did the league accomplish this? Well, it got a lot more efficient. 2018 was a banner year for efficiency. You can see above that it was the only year that the league averaged over 4 yards per attempt. In total, 0.166 yards per attempt more than the total average from 2015-2018 and 0.451 more yards per attempt than 2017. That doesn’t seem like a lot but when you take into account the fact that in 2018, the league totaled 397 fewer attempts and 2,431 more yards, it absolutely is impressive.
Both totals (4.04 yards per attempt and 59,597.6 yards) increase based on projections for 2019. It is also interesting to note that 2018 was the sixth straight season that the non-passing yardage totaled less than 33% of the total yards gained. 4.531% fewer than in 2003 (37.026%, the 19 season high). 2019 is projected as the first season since 2012 to exceed 33% (33.536%).
In this next image, we will see the effect that the change in rushing offense has had on running game fantasy production. (If you remember from above, a second level performer is any player that totaled either 1000+ yards or 10+ touchdowns. A heavy performer is any player that did both of these.) We all know that you should draft those stud running backs very high in drafts. This has not really changed much but what has changed is the amount of these players there are year to year.
As a result, a premium has been put on the position. You can see below that the number of heavy performers was just three in 2018, the second fewest since the year 2000 and 1/3rd of the amount seen in 2000 and 2002. Only two of these players were on fantasy rosters in 2017 and 2014, the same amount I have projected for 2019.
So with the lack of heavy rushing performers and RBBC (running back by committee) being an ever-growing trend, should we not see an increase in second level performers? It is a logical thought, but not the case. Second level performers have decreased just about as drastically. For the past four seasons, we have seen single-digit second level performances.
Prior to 2015, this had only happened once since the year 2000 and is a far cry from the 20 we had in 2006. Another thing I did in the exercise was to break down the per team numbers in different sized fantasy teams. You can see above that I combined the second level and heavy performers. Between 2000 and 2012, this number never dipped below 16 and only once failed to reach 18+.
Per Team Breakdown
On the right is the per team breakdown for 10, 12, and 14 team fantasy leagues. You can see that in the early 2000s, the average hovered right around two of these performers per team in a 10 team league (Right around 1.69 per 12 team and 1.45 per 14 team league). There were enough running backs to go around. Since 2013 though, there has only been one season that all league sizes listed were lucky enough to have one or more total rushing performers. In 2017, no league size was lucky enough to even have one of these such performers per team, the only time that has happened since the year 2000.
The takeaway is that elite running backs matter, especially in fantasy and the premium on them has not reached tight end level yet but it is approaching that level year by year. 2019 is projected for the second-fewest total second level and heavy rushing performers with just 8.518. 2.482 fewer than 2018 but still higher then what we saw in 2017. 2017 was a terrible year for fantasy running backs and this was the theme. Only seven such performers were in the league that season.
The Change At The Top
Here are 2012, 2015, and 2018 breakdowns of the RB5, RB10, and RB15 using the FFStatistics consistency data.
So, as you can see above, even though attempts have gone down, efficiency has gone up. In 2012, only the RB5 averaged over 15 points per game. All three of the backs in 2015 averaged right around 15. In 2018, one averaged over 20 per game, one over 15 per game an the third was under 15 despite finishing with a higher percentage of his games in the top 12 weekly among the position. Nick Chubb sat a lot early and came on strong late after the trade of Carlos Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars. As a result, random running game variance.
Lesson Two: The Passing Game
Secondly, I learned some pretty interesting things about passing game trends. Again, this has become a passing league right? Now let us look at the numbers and break it down.
So, when looking at the passing attack between 2000-2018, we can clearly see that the volume has increased pretty steadily until the last two seasons. Even though the passing attempts have been down the past two seasons, it still has not dipped below 17,000 league-wide passing attempts, outside of 16,526 attempts in the 2008 season. In total, 10 of the last 11 seasons, the league has thrown the ball 17,000+ times a season. Also, in three of the past five seasons, the total has eclipsed 18,000 attempts.
Prior to 2007 though (2000-2006), the league only totaled over 17,000 attempts once. The volume has unmistakably grown but it has had relatively no negative effect on efficiency through the passing game as you can see below. 2019 projects to have 17,210.26 passing attempts. This would be the third season in a row under 18,000.
In fact, 2018 was the most efficient season we have seen from the passing game with a 6.889 yard per attempt average. The only time the league has eclipsed the 6.8 mark since the year 2000. The projects show 6.889 yards per passing attempt in 2019. The league has become incredibly efficient as a whole. This was 0.369 yards per attempt more than the total average from the sample. Also, 0.321 yards more than 2017.
As a result, the passing yardage total was the second-most yards in the sample (2000-2018). Again, you might say that is not a lot of yards. What you may fail to notice was that even though the passing attempts only went up by 183, the yardage production went up by 6,867 yards. The projection model has the total at 118,234.71 yards passing making up 66.469% of the total offense in 2019.
When we break down the passing/receiving games league-wide, as far as fantasy performances go, you can see the trend. Though again, it is not as drastic as people. So, you can see the averages for second level and heavy receiving performances per year. We know from above, in the rushing section, that the shift might be a little less obvious. When you look at the total, it appears the change is far more intense than it actually is.
Let us look at the averages for years 2000-2004 (16-second level, 5.6 heavy performers). Both of these have changed but they went in opposite directions. 19.25 is the second level average for 2015-2018 to go with five heavy performers. The second level increased (+3.25 per season average) and the heavy performances decreased (0.6 per season average). As a result, an increase in the total of 2.65 receiving performers a season.
Totals And Per Team Breakdown
This is an increase, but of just 0.26 per 10 teams (0.22 per 12 teams, 0.19 per 14 teams) when broken down into the yearly averages. The total average jumped from 21.6 per season up to 24.25. Not the dramatic increase as I believed is perceived around fantasy communities. With the increase in passing yardage and the efficiency that the league has displayed, you would think that the amount of fantasy-relevant pass catchers would take a far greater leap than just 2.65 per year. This tells me that the amount of fantasy-relevant pass catchers, especially in deeper formats has increased and allowed for more and more reliable roster spots to be filled.
Only one season since 2004 has the amount of the second level and heavy performers combined to total fewer than two per 10 teams only once since 2004. This led to nearly two of these such players per 14 teams (1.78) and 2.08 per 12 teams. You may not notice the difference as much in a smaller format but in larger ones, you now have a better chance of making a solid bye week or injury replacement. I have the league projected for 21.575 total second level and heavy performers in 2019.
The Change At The Top
Here are 2012, 2015, and 2018 breakdowns of the WR5, WR10, and WR15 using the FFStatistics consistency data.
So, as you can see above in the consistency charts, and as we learned from the spreadsheet data, the difference between the WR5, WR10, and WR15 in recent years has not been all that big of a difference. But, when just compared to a season as recent as 2012, the difference is more evident but still not a massive difference outside of the WR5. In 2012, the WR5 averaged less than 20 points per game, and even though the WR10 and WR15 were both down slightly, they still were near 15 points per game. Thus, the second level and heavy performers have not increased by a huge margin but when compared to offensive passing as a whole, it shows us that there have to be more fantasy relevant pass catchers for deeper formats than ever.
In fantasy, we are almost getting to a point with quarterbacks where we are with running backs. Do they matter? Let me restate that this is for fantasy. We all know that they matter very much for your favorite team in real life. We are currently being spoiled with the most depth at the quarterback position we have ever seen. Or teams are just throwing more and getting better at utilizing their QB’s talents. Either way, it means that there is more value than ever late at the position.
Both of these options are demonstrated below in the two spreadsheet images. Also, the number of points scored league-wide. You will notice that the points scored have gone up by a considerable margin. The averages for 2000-2004 and 2015-2018 have a substantial difference of 990 points. Expect more of the same in 2019. Every quarterback metric has grown consistently since the turn of the century.
Totals, Per Team Breakdown, And Skill Position / Quarterback Ratio
- Totals – You can see why quarterback used to be the most valuable position in fantasy as there were seven or fewer second level and heavy producers in 10 of 11 years from the year 2000 to 2010. Every year since then we have seen double-digit performers, peaking in 2015 (17), one higher than 2018 (16).
- Per team breakdown – Only three seasons since the year 2000 have we seen an average of 0ne or more combined (second level and heavy) quarterback performances in all three common league sizes. 2015, 2016, and 2018. 2019 projects for more of the same.
- Ratio – This demonstrates how many combined skill position performers per combined quarterback performance. 2018 was the slimmest margin we have seen since 2000, yet it was the most offensively explosive season in real life. The ball is being spread around more than ever but also quarterback play has gone bananas.
A Change At The Top
Here are 2012, 2015, and 2018 breakdowns of the QB5, QB10, and QB15 using the FFStatistics consistency data.
As you can see above, quarterback point scoring has steadily increased just over the past seven years. Consistency fluctuates as it normally will to an extent but the averages have grown in size and also closer to each other. There will always be those studs, but there are more relevant fantasy QBs than ever. Stream away and feel good about it especially if you put some time into the matchups and do not just look at the numbers.
Lesson Three: Find Out What It Means
Here is the fun part for you, the reader. The spreadsheet link at the top is sortable and you can find out these and a lot more by checking it out. Here are a few more things that are pretty interesting.
Second level combined performers have not drastically dropped since the year 2000. Heavy performers have taken a much more significant hit percentage wise and even though the averages have steadily increased in the favor of the receiving game, the difference between the rushing and receiving heavy performers seems to fluctuate more frequently than the second level performers.
How It Has Affected Your Fantasy Teams Depth
You can see here that the amount of skill position combined performers has, for the most part, stayed steady but in the last two seasons, the numbers have seen 19-year lows. The worst year being the aforementioned terrible 2017 season. This trend stays true in 2019, according to projections. On the right, you can the combined rushing/ combined receiving ratio. We have not seen a ratio of one or more combined rushing performers per combined receiving performer since 2006 and only three times since 2000 (1.277).
Fantasy VS. Reality
Below is a demonstration to show how the amount of combined fantasy performers has correlated with overall league efficiency. Pretty interesting how the drop in skill position performers has essentially had a positive effect on efficiency. More value late in drafts folks.
Lesson Four: Draft Accordingly
Take what you will from the exercise. Parts of it are up for interpretation but parts of it are also concrete. I know I learned a lot from this and had a good time doing it. There are some valuable insights for upcoming fantasy drafts as well so adjust your process and draft accordingly.