Examining Fantasy Football's Most Ignored Position
The 2014 fantasy football season is four months away, which means we have the entire summer ahead of us. There’s still plenty of time to relax, enjoy the weather, and prepare. However, for one of America’s newest hobbies, it’s never too early to start thinking about strategy.
For the savvy fantasy player, thoughts never wander too far from the game. He asks himself questions like: Who’s this season’s best breakout candidate? What rookies will be home runs? Who should I target for a trade? And all are great questions to keep in mind as the season approaches.
Researching answers to the above questions is a great way to get a leg up on your opponent, but there’s still one question a lot of fantasy football players don’t ask enough. Not asking this question would be similar to looking for a job but not asking – or at the very least being curious – about the guy you would be working for. Since the boss dictates what tasks you’ll be performing at said job, it seems silly to not have it on your mind. For fantasy football purposes, that question: Who is the offensive coordinator?
It’s really baffling how that question is ignored in so many fantasy football circles. Sure, savvy players always ask that question, but even those who are experienced seem more interested in things like schedule, teammates, and history. Those are good things to focus on, but if you’re not closely looking at who will be calling plays, you’re overlooking what could be the most important position in fantasy football.
Just how important is the offensive coordinator position? It might seem like a silly question, but it does make a big difference. Sure, if you’re Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson, or Calvin Johnson, it’s not going to matter who is calling plays because you’re going to get yours. But, for guys who aren’t the best at their position, or for guys who have potential in the right situation, an offensive coordinator can mean everything.
There are some great examples of how an offensive coordinator took a guy from mediocrity to fantasy stud in one season. Norv Turner is notorious for doing this in several spots during his career, and 2014 should be no different. Let’s take a look at a few guys who blossomed under Turner in his first year as offensive coordinator:
||Points Prior||Points w/Turner||Total Increase||Per Game Increase|
|2006 49ers||Alex Smith||38.3||190.3||152||7.63|
|2002 Dolphins||Jay Fiedler||248.7||155.86||-92.84||-1.37|
|2013 Browns||Browns QBBC||205.62||275.58||69.96||4.37|
As you can see, there are almost across-the-board improvements. While a lot of these guys got more chances, so it’s natural for their totals to improve, their per game increases are just as staggering. Look at the difference Turner made for the 2006 49ers. Alex Smith’s points per game increased by almost two touchdowns, and Frank Gore’s increased by more than two touchdowns. Ricky Williams was a stud before Turner got there, and after his arrival, he became the best fantasy running back in the game. Williams’ increase was almost 100 points with nearly 1,900 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Fiedler went down by just over a point that season, but he was hurt and relied upon much less because of Williams’ dominance. The fact that his per game points only went down by -1.3 is a testament to Turner.
The 2013 Browns are a great example that it can sometimes not matter who’s playing in Turner’s offense. The Browns used a hodgepodge of backup quarterbacks in 2013, and their fantasy output still improved by over a touchdown per game. It’s also no coincidence that Josh Gordon became the best fantasy wide receiver in the game with an improvement the equivalent of two touchdowns per game. This year should be a very good one for fantasy players who own Minnesota Vikings. While Adrian Peterson is always going to get his, he should see more action in the passing game. Cordarrelle Patterson is no doubt going to be Turner’s favorite toy, and whether it’s Christian Ponder or Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback play in Minnesota should improve immensely. It may very well be worth a flyer if you’re taking the late-round quarterback approach.
Are You Jimmy Raye?
A new face calling plays can mean the difference between getting your name in the record books or being labeled an emotional underachiever. Vernon Davis is a great example of that. He’s now a top five fantasy tight end, but in the past, he didn’t seem to quite live up to his potential. From 2006 through 2008, Davis was seen as a physical freak of nature that was sure to pay off big for owners who drafted him. Unfortunately for them, that never panned out. In those three seasons, Davis combined for just 103 receptions for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2009, there was a coaching change that transformed everything for Davis.
Mike Singletary and Jimmy Raye’s tenure as 49ers couldn’t have gone much worse, but one thing they got right was taking advantage of the mismatch Davis posed to defenses. Anyone who paid attention to the 49ers that year heard Raye say time and again that Davis was going to be a huge part of the offense. At season’s end, Davis made a run at matching his total career numbers by collecting 78 catches for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns. The touchdown mark tied him with Antonio Gates for the most touchdowns in a season by a tight end in NFL history.
|Rec.||Yards||TDs||Total Points||Points Per Game|
Whether or not Singletary and Raye were good coaches does not matter to the fantasy player. All that matters is who is going to benefit most from the change and how can that change benefit your team. Even bad coaches can be good for fantasy football.
As always, there are a lot of new faces on the sidelines who will be calling plays in 2014. With these new faces comes a whole new batch of opportunities for the fantasy players to exploit. Each coach brings in a new perspective and offensive philosophy, which will benefit some (or all) of the offensive players on his team. There’s usually one player in particular who benefits most from a new offensive coordinator. Let’s take a look at 2014’s newest batch.
|Team||New OC||Player To Benefit|
|Dolphins||Bill Lazor||Ryan Tannehill|
|Ravens||Gary Kubiak||Joe Flacco|
|Bengals||Hue Jackson||Gio Bernard|
|Browns||Kyle Shanahan||Johnny Manziel|
|Titans||Jason Michael||Delanie Walker|
|Chargers||Frank Reich||Ladarius Green|
|Giants||Ben McAdoo||Eli Manning|
|Redskins||Sean McVay||Jordan Reed/Roy Helu|
|Lions||Joe Lombardi||Matthew Stafford|
|Vikings||Norv Turner||Cordarrelle Patterson|
|Buccaneers||Jeff Tedford||Josh McCown|
Miami – Bill Lazor comes from Philadelphia where he helped turn Nick Foles into the NFL’s highest-rated quarterback. He’s been a quarterbacks coach for most of his career, and Tannehill will no doubt be the offense’s focus. Lazor comes from a coaching tree that includes Dan Reeves, Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren, and Chip Kelly. While this will be his first full-time job as an offensive coordinator, he’s been groomed his whole life for the opportunity, and Tannehill should be the primary beneficiary.
Baltimore – Gary Kubiak relies heavily on a zone-blocking scheme that uses play action to open up deep passes down the field. Flacco and Torrey Smith will benefit greatly from the offense. Whoever the Ravens running back is in 2014 should improve upon 2013’s abysmal numbers, but who that will be is anyone’s guess right now.
Cincinnati – It will be hard for the Bengals offense to improve over what Jay Gruden did for them the last few years. Hue Jackson has had three other NFL stops as an offensive coordinator with nearly nothing to work with at any of them. These will be by far his best pieces, so expect a bigger focus on the running game. The guy did resurrect Darren McFadden’s career for a year.
Cleveland – While there’s no guarantee Johnny Football becomes the Browns starter from day one, there’s little doubt he’ll get his chance as a rookie. Kyle Shanahan obviously comes from a very good offensive bloodline, and he did some amazing things with Robert Griffin III in his rookie season that included leading the NFL in interception percentage and yards per attempt. If Josh Gordon somehow plays, Manziel could be in for a very promising rookie year.
Tennessee – While this is Jason Michael’s first crack as an offensive coordinator, he spent a lot of his coaching career as a tight ends coach. Delanie Walker had a respectable season last year, but most of that came with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s quick trigger under center. It’s hard to predict what a rookie coordinator will do, but Walker has the athleticism to exploit matchups and Michael will obviously know how to use him.
San Diego – Philip Rivers will no doubt be first-time coordinator Frank Reich’s main focus, but improving on his 2013 success seems unlikely. With Reich’s NFL experience and time as a quarterbacks coach, the best hope for Rivers is a repeat of 2013. Father Time is slowly closing in on Antonio Gates, so look for Reich to incorporate Ladarius Green more into the offensive game plan. He’s got exceptional athleticism, and it won’t be long before the Chargers exploit that.
New York – Ben McAdoo comes to the Giants organization after spending the last eight seasons with the Packers as an offensive assistant. The Packers likely have the best quarterback in the game, so it’s hard to use Green Bay as a comparison, but look for McAdoo to try and clean up Eli Manning’s play with a focus on reducing turnovers. In the eight years McAdoo was in Green Bay, their quarterbacks combined for a collective 253:99 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That wasn’t solely because of McAdoo, but he obviously was a part of an offense that knew how to protect the football, which is Eli’s biggest problem right now.
Washington – Believe it or not, Redskins new offensive coordinator Sean McVay just turned 28 years old. In fact, he’s so young that in January, 17 Redskins players were older than him. The good thing about young coaches is that they bring in new ideas. The bad thing is that their head coaches usually limit them in some ways. There’s no doubt that Jay Gruden will have a heavy influence in the Redskins’ play-calling, so seeing a closer split of carries between Roy Helu and Alfred Morris is likely, similar to what he did in Cincinnati in 2013. Gruden also likes to get his backs some targets, so Helu and maybe even Morris are most likely going to see more passes coming their way. In Gruden’s three years in Cincinnati, his backs averaged 52 catches per season. McVay is a former tight ends coach, so Jordan Reed should be more of a focus as well. He looked to be on the verge of a breakout season in 2013 before injuries set in.
Detroit – Joe Lombardi spent the last seven seasons in New Orleans working with an offensive genius for a head coach, and a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. He and new Lions head coach Jim Caldwell will have Matthew Stafford focusing his attention on fundamentals, timing, and accuracy. All of this is good news for Stafford, who has done nothing but underwhelm the last two seasons. Bringing in a trustworthy possession receiver like Golden Tate and drafting the best tight end in the draft, Eric Ebron, won’t hurt Stafford’s production either.
Minnesota – Norv Turner has already stated that he’s implemented 10 plays in the Vikings playbook specifically for Cordarrelle Patterson. It will be interesting to see how the quarterback situation works out in Minnesota, but no matter who’s under center, expect a heavy dose of Patterson, a la vintage Percy Harvin. Patterson will be catching, running, and returning the ball. Could he have a breakout season similar to 2013 Josh Gordon? Time will tell.
Tampa Bay – After a decade at Cal and a two-year respite, Jeff Tedford comes to Tampa to run Lovie Smith’s offense. Tedford has a pretty impressive resume of offensive players in the NFL, including Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, Shane Vereen, Keenan Allen, and Marvin Jones. Tedford obviously knows how to develop talent, but how that translates to working with millionaires and egos has yet to be seen. Tedford coached seven future NFL quarterbacks in a 20-year span, including two Super Bowl champions in Rodgers and Trent Dilfer. Smith has already said Josh McCown is the starter, and in drafting Charles Sims, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tedford is making sure his new quarterback has all of the pieces around him to succeed. Whether it will be McCown all season or a combination of he and Mike Glennon has yet to be seen.
Seven of those 11 names are first-time NFL coordinators. Three others were doing a different job last year. So, outside of Turner, none of these moves are lateral. The tendencies of these coaches, what players will benefit, and who will suffer is anyone’s guess. Kubiak and Tedford haven’t called plays in years and a lot has happened since the last time they did, and Jackson hasn’t had much success when given the chance. That’s not a great vote of confidence for any of them, but for fantasy reasons we only care about targeting guys who will benefit most from the changes.
Pay attention to those coordinators. Search out the beat writers and the quotes the coaches give them. Offensive coordinators aren’t shy to tell you if they really like a player, and beat writers will witness which guys are getting the ball in practice. In the end, none of us know who’s going to benefit most, because we’re not in the locker room, but if you pay close attention to the guys calling the plays, you can get an idea of who’s going to get a chance to succeed.
Gary Althiser is a diehard 49ers and San Francisco Giants fan. He feels weird talking about himself in third-person, but if you want to find him, he usually spends his free time on Twitter irrationally arguing about Alex Smith, or sobbing after NFC championship games. @NFLGary