Fantasy Football is a volume game, and recognizing team-level shifts can be a big piece of the puzzle for identifying under- and overvalued players. In August, it's easy to think that every offense will look a lot like they did the year before, or that any shifts are already accounted for, but the reality is.
That means two things: 1) We should expect change; 2) As we try to project change, as I'll do here, we have to understand we're looking at potential upside or downside. In cases where a shift seems inevitable, we're mostly just guessing what that shift might look like. But simply understanding teams that have the potential for significant volume shifts can go a long way on Fantasy Draft Day, particularly if there is upside or downside that isn't priced into Average Draft Positions.
Let's start with a few benchmarks to ground those of you who don't spend your summer projecting football teams. The league average last year was 558 passes per team; over the past four years it's 557. Over the past four years, four teams — one per year — have thrown more than 650 passes, and four have thrown fewer than 450. So the range between a very high-volume passing offense and very low-volume one is about 200 passes.
And in truth, it might be smart to think of that range as even narrower. Roughly two-thirds of all teams have fallen between 500 and 600 pass attempts — 6.5 teams per year have been above 600 and 4.75 per year have been below 500. If you're expecting a team to be on either side of the 500-600 attempt range, you're essentially locking them into a top-five or bottom-five outcome. And typically any time you do that there's more room to move toward the league average than further to the extremes.
Let's jump into it.
Who could throw more?
Pittsburgh Steelers; Difference between 2019 totals and Ben's 2020 projection: +99 pass attempts
Pittsburgh is a great place to start given the numbers I just gave in the intro. In 2018, with Ben Roethlisberger healthy, they threw 689 times, fourth most in NFL history. They were a team you could feel comfortable projecting for more than 600 attempts again in 2019, but Roethlisberger's injury pushed them all the way down to 510.
Thus, the Steelers dropped 179 pass attempts from 2018 to 2019. That's an incredible shift, and one we'd expect to rebound in 2020, even if we don't think Roethlisberger will throw at the same rate as 2018. I have them at 609 passes in 2020, which may still be aggressive, but they were at 590 and 596 in 2017 and 2016, so it seems likely this will be a pass-heavy team if Roethlisberger is healthy.
Adding close to 100 pass attempts would be huge for everyone in the passing game. I have JuJu Smith-Schuster at a relatively modest 23.5% target share for a legitimate No. 1, but there may be some who think he's not that. He comes out 10th in my PPR projections on 143 targets. Roughly 600 pass attempts would be such a deviation from 2018 that beyond Smith-Schuster, there's enough volume to project more than 100 running back targets and an average of more than 80 apiece for Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Eric Ebron.
It's easy to see that whoever your favorites are in this offense, they probably have plenty of volume upside. My projections have Smith-Schuster above his ADP, plenty of running back targets for James Conner to smash if he's the clear workhorse back, and plenty of secondary targets for at least one of Johnson, Washington or Ebron to be strong Fantasy contributors given their ADPs. Roethlisberger also looks like a solid late-round quarterback option.
Washington Football Team; +74 pass attempts
In 2019, Washington became just the second team since 2006 to run fewer than 900 plays. After Jay Gruden was fired, Bill Callahan instituted a run-heavy system even when trailing, and Washington started playing some of the fastest games by real-life time in the modern era. They basically ran the clock out on their own season.
Fast forward to 2020, and Ron Rivera and Scott Turner take over after running an up tempo style with a bad Panthers team in 2019. Carolina threw the second most pass attempts in the NFL last year, and while I don't expect Washington to jump over 600 attempts, I have them going from 479 to roughly league average at 553. There's still upside beyond that.
Such a jump in passing volume would provide sneaky upside in this offense, especially if Dwayne Haskins takes a step forward in Year 2. Or, if Alex Smith really does see the field, he's his old self. Really either situation would be an upgrade for Terry McLaurin specifically, but also ancillary pieces like Antonio Gibson and Steven Sims.
Indianapolis Colts; +72 pass attempts
Say what you will about Philip Rivers at this point in his career, he's likely to positively influence the Colts' passing volume, even if just because of his lack of mobility. In Frank Reich's first year in Indianapolis and Andrew Luck's last, the Colts ran the third most plays in the NFL at 1,070, and they threw the second-most passes at 644. Last year, they ran just 1,016 plays and threw 513 times.
I expect Reich to be less conservative in 2020 than he was at times with Jacoby Brissett under center last year. That said, I also have the Colts as one of 2020's surprise teams, and I expect they'll be in positive game scripts and running more as a result of leading. I have them jumping back to 1,040 plays and 585 passes, above league average in both areas but also comfortably above league average in running back rush attempt rate (Rivers' lack of scrambling should keep their overall rushes down a bit).
But I'll cop to being a little unsure about what such a pass volume jump could mean. The Colts were pretty unconcentrated with their targets last year, and while T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle seem like the obvious benefactors, I think Parris Campbell, Michael Pittman, and even Zach Pascal will all see decent shares of the targets. Then there's the running backs, where I have Nyheim Hines seeing 79 targets and being a solid value, but I also have Rivers splitting up 76 targets to the early-down backs Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack. That's a ton of running back targets, but I'm buying into Rivers checking down a ton at this stage of his career.
But even as I'm spreading things around, there's obvious upside here. And if Rivers finds a few favorites, like he always seemed to with the Chargers, a healthy Hilton or Doyle or even someone like Campbell or Hines could become very useful.
Minnesota Vikings; +39 pass attempts
The Vikings threw just 466 times in 2019, in large part because they ran a lot of plays with leads. They had the sixth-best average game script of any team, per Player Profiler. Over at Rotoworld, Hayden Winks wrote this offseason they had the biggest discrepancy in pass rate when their win probability was greater than 75% versus when it was below 25%.
Minnesota likely wasn't the sixth-best team in football last year, but their games played out that way. And they arguably got worse this offseason, letting key pieces like Everson Griffen and Stefon Diggs go. That should mean worse game situations, which should mean more passing, even if I'm still projecting them as a comfortably run-first team at 505 pass attempts in 2020.
If the Vikings get significantly worse and their pass rate rises considerably, it's not hard to see the upside case for Adam Thielen, and probably one of the promising youngsters Justin Jefferson or Irv Smith would see a strong target rate as well.
Tennessee Titans; +30 pass attempts
Much like Minnesota, Tennessee threw at a very low rate, specifically down the stretch. After A.J. Brown became a full-time player in Week 10, the offense was hyper-efficient and paced for fewer than 400 passes over a full season as a result. That would be a ridiculous number to hit over a full season, and as Hayden notes in the above linked article, the Titans were the only team with a bigger run lean in situations where their win probability was greater than 75% than the Vikings.
In other words, to throw as few times as they did last season, they'll need to be incredible again. Brown averaged 14.1 yards per target during that stretch as the clear No. 1 receiving option, efficiency that is bound to regress but was the biggest cause of Tennessee's would-be-record 7.3 yards per play during that time frame. If Tennessee isn't gaining 7.3 yards per play in 2020, they are likely running more plays overall, and specifically they aren't likely to be leading so frequently meaning a higher pass rate.
I still have Tennessee at what I would argue is a conservative 478 pass attempts for 2020, but that's enough of a jump that if Brown is a legit No. 1 with a target share over 25% — the league leaders each year are typically right around 30% — Brown can see 130 or so targets. I made the case earlier this offseasoneven in PPR, but especially in half-PPR or non-PPR.
Who will throw less?
Los Angeles Chargers; -98 pass attempts
We don't know who will be under center for how many games for the Chargers, but they look likely to start the season with Tyrod Taylor. Taylor has always been a fairly conservative passer, scrambling at a high rate and also taking sacks at a high rate. His 16-game pace as a starter is roughly 100 fewer pass attempts than Philip Rivers, and Rivers threw the second most passes of his career in 2019, meaning even if he was still in Los Angeles the Chargers might have been expected to lose some pass attempts this year.
I have the Chargers coming in at 499 pass attempts. The biggest hit for me is to Austin Ekeler, who racked up 108 targets last year. Scrambling quarterbacks tend to check down to their backs at a lower rate, and as good as I believe Ekeler is, those are very valuable touches he could lose. LeSean McCoy carved out a solid receiving role alongside Taylor in Buffalo, but in those three seasons he averaged 61 targets, a far cry from 108. I have Ekeler at 87, but I'm not sure I can really defend that. It's mostly just me deferring to how good he was in 2019.
Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry and Mike Williams all also take hits, and their ADPs reflect that. One positive is this was a pretty concentrated passing offense last year, and there doesn't figure to be a strong fifth option outside these four names. Still, if they drop close to 100 pass attempts in 2020, we're talking about a considerable shift in the upside for all of these guys.
New England Patriots; -79 pass attempts
If Cam Newton is under center, it's another clear shift from a stationary passer to one with a high rush rate. Even if Newton doesn't run as much at this stage of his career — and I'm not convinced he won't — the Patriots figure to also play slower as they'll be less comfortable with their offense overall without Tom Brady calling the shots.
As good as Julian Edelman was last year, the 153 targets he saw seems beyond his ceiling for 2020. He's 34 now and has played just three 16-game seasons in his career, so he's not someone I'm taking in drafts. Newton, on the other hand, looks like the biggest quarterback value of 2020.
Atlanta Falcons; -62 pass attempts
This is a pretty short and sweet one, because I'm still projecting the Falcons to lead the league in pass attempts at 622. The 684 they totaled in 2019 was tied for sixth-most in league history, and though I still anticipate with Dirk Koetter calling plays they'll be very pass-heavy, it's just a matter of how extreme you're willing to go in a projection that has to consider all outcomes, including things like what happened to the Steelers in 2019 with a quarterback injury that sent their pass rate plummeting.
Even with this substantial decrease, I have both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in my top 10 PPR receiver projections and Hayden Hurst as a top 10 projected tight end. This looks like a concentrated passing game on top of the high volume, and it's one of the best to target in 2020 drafts.
Carolina Panthers; -45 pass attempts
I noted above how the Panthers under Ron Rivera threw at a very high rate last year, but I still have them as a fairly pass-happy team under Matt Rhule and Joe Brady. That's because of the offenses those two employed in college, the personnel Carolina has — including a lead running back who is the best pass-catching back in the league — and the reality that Carolina is likely to trail in plenty of games.
At 558 pass attempts, where I've projected them in 2020, there's enough to go around for D.J. Moore and McCaffrey to both be well above 130 and Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson and Ian Thomas to average more than 80 apiece. I'm warming up to Samuel, but Moore remains my biggest target in this offense, outside McCaffrey, of course.
Miami Dolphins; -40 pass attempts
The Dolphins shot up from 455 pass attempts in 2018 to 615 in 2019, and were a fantastic example of how that type of shift in team volume could create unexpected Fantasy value. DeVante Parker had a career season, Mike Gesicki saw a ton of volume even if he didn't always make good on it, and earlier in the year Preston Williams had a strong stretch as a Fantasy-viable WR option.
Fast forward to 2020, and with a new offensive coordinator and the possibility of a rookie quarterback taking over at some point, I'm not sure you can expect more than 600 passes again. I do still have the Dolphins throwing more than league average, but with Williams presumably healthy and the team volume likely to dip, I am mostly avoiding Parker in drafts.