Invest in the Seattle passing game and the Oakland running game in fantasy
Every year, there seems to be a passing attack we’re neglecting that proves to be a league-winner. Last season, it was Jacksonville, with all of Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns blowing far past their respective ADPs. The season before that it was Andrew Luck’s’ Colts and before that Peyton Manning’s Broncos. The same could be said of a far-too-neglected rushing attack surprising fantasy owners. Last season, Devonta Freeman shocked fantasy owners on his way to becoming the No. 1 fantasy runner. Before that it was Le’Veon Bell, as a mid-thir-round investment and before that, the mostly undrafted Knowshon Moreno.
This season, I’m taking all of my chips and pushing them into the middle of the table on Seattle’s passing game and Oakland’s rushing attack.
Seattle Passing Offense
In each of the last four seasons, the Seahawks have ranked in the bottom five in team pass attempts. In spite of this, Russell Wilson, has ranked second, third, eighth and 11th in fantasy production in each of his four seasons in the NFL. Indeed, he’s been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the game, ranking first, ninth, fifth and fourth in PFF QB Rating. This is just as a passer; in the last four seasons, Wilson has ranked third, first, sixth and third in rushing fantasy points at the position. It’s no surprise then that Wilson has also ranked second, second, fourth and third among all quarterbacks in fantasy points per dropback.
The value doesn’t just start and end with Wilson, however. Last season, among all WRs to play at least 25 percent of their teams’ snaps, Doug Baldwin ranked first in fantasy points per target, while Tyler Lockett ranked fourth, and Jermaine Kearse ranked seventh. No other team had even two wide receivers in the top 15. Over the final eight weeks of the season, last year, Baldwin was the No. 2 fantasy wide receiver in PPR leagues, only behind Antonio Brown, whose 240 fantasy points were the most a wide receiver has ever totaled in his team’s final eight games. Over the final eight weeks of the season, Lockett was the No. 21 wide receiver for fantasy, while Kearse was No. 33.
According to current ADP, Wilson is being drafted as the fourth quarterback off the board, while Baldwin, Lockett and Kearse are going 25th, 35th and undrafted among wide receivers, respectively. All except for Lockett are going well below their fantasy finishes last season. I also wrote about why we might be sleeping on Jimmy Graham (who was just activated from the PUP last week), for other reasons, here – though a recent interview with Graham did not leave me feeling optimistic.
The key with the Seattle passing game this season is whether they continue their rapid-fire pace from the second half of last season. Betting against Seattle being one of the least-prolific passing offenses in the NFL seems like a bet against history, but here’s why that might not be the case.
Longtime workhorse Marshawn Lynch has retired. The running back they drafted in the third round of this year’s draft, C.J. Prosise, is a converted slot receiver who Pete Carroll has said will be used primarily on third downs as a pass-catcher out of the backfield – a role that has never really existed before in the offense (Seahawks running backs as a team have ranked in the bottom three in receptions in each of the last three seasons). This bodes well for Wilson and offensive pace in 2016.
Carroll might have even implied that a goal of the team was to continue with their pace from the second half of 2015. He said, “Our rhythm throughout camp, we stayed connected to what we did in the second half of the year… We went in determined to do that, and right from the get-go when we got back here on the field we were at it with tempo and timing and all that and stood strong throughout the whole camp.”
We already went over the team’s fantasy numbers in the second half last year, but now let’s delve into what the team’s second-half pace actually looked like. As seen in the graphs below, there was a large uptick in plays per game and pass attempts per game, despite an even larger uptick in positive gamescript.
|First Half of Games — 2015|
|Sample||Plays per Game||Pass Attempts per Game||Rushing Attempts per Game|
|First Half of Games — 2015|
|Sample||Trailing by 4 or more points||Up by 4 or more points||Up by 7 or more points|
Even if there’s a natural regression in efficiency, at current ADP, if Seattle’s 2016 pace matches that of 2015, buying into this offense could be a big difference-maker.
Oakland Rushing Attack
Last season, Oakland’s offensive line ranked second in pass-blocking and 10th in run-blocking. This season, they’ve added Kelechi Osemeli who, in each of the last two seasons, has graded among our top-five run-blocking guards. We have the Raiders offensive line projected as the second-best unit in the league in 2016.
Beyond just having one of the best offensive lines in the league, Oakland’s leading rusher is likely to be in one of the most attractive spots for fantasy, solely based on usage. Head coach Jack Del Rio in his nine prior seasons (to 2015) as an NFL head coach has seen his offense rank 10th, 15th, eighth, third, second, 18th, 12th, third and fourth in rushing attempts, respectively. In 2015, his offense ranked a lowly 29th in rushing attempts. I suspect there will be a regression to the mean in 2016.
As PFF Fantasy writer Pat Thorman laid out here, Oakland should be in line for more touches, given a projected improvement in game flow. He writes, “The Raiders [ran the ball] only 73 times in the [fourth quarter last season] (second-fewest). Oakland trailed on 66.2 percent of fourth quarter snaps (eighth-most). With [Vegas projecting a] 1.5-win increase from 2015, and [the team owning] a 59.4-percent fourth-quarter run rate while leading, we can expect more late-game handoffs.”
Del Rio has also seemingly never been a fan of a committee backfield. Since 2010, Del Rio’s lead runner has averaged 77.4 percent of the team’s running back attempts, 74.2 percent of the running back snaps, and 69.0 percent of the running back targets. Just last season, Latavius Murray ranked fourth in snaps, third in rush attempts (266) and 19th in targets (49). He ranked in the top two among all running backs in percent of team running back snaps, carries and targets. Despite a truly Matt Forte-ian workload, Murray somewhat disappointed fantasy owners, finishing as the No. 19 running back in PPR leagues on a points-per-game basis. In fact, since 2002, of the 92 cases of a running back amassing at least 260 carries and 35 receptions in a season, Murray’s 2015 season ranks dead last in fantasy points scored.
Murray was especially disappointing as a pass-catcher, ranking 54th of 57 qualifying running backs in yards per route run. Among all 38 running backs to see at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, Murray earned our fourth-worst passing grade. Meanwhile, DeAndre Washington, the running back Oakland drafted in the early fifth round this season, led all draft-eligible running backs in targets last year with 56. There’s more reasons to hype up Washington beyond this.
Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie said in March he was looking to add a running back. Shortly after, Del Rio implied the spot for lead back in this offense was up for grabs, saying, “We’re looking for talent. How it shakes out is up to (the players).” In June, Washington was mixing in with the first-team offense in minicamp. Immediately after the draft, McKenzie said of Washington, “He’s more than just a third-down back; he’s a complete back… We think he’s the total package as a runner.”
I’ve been mostly ignoring Murray in my early drafts, while being very aggressive on Washington — careful not to go a single draft without grabbing him (no exaggeration). The aforementioned Pat Thorman, however, has recommended the safer approach, grabbing both running backs in your fantasy drafts, as they’re both fairly cheap (late fourth-round pick for Murray , mid-11th for Washington). Thorman has finished in the top six in each of his two years doing the FantasyPros Experts Accuracy Challenge – against more than 120 experts each year. Last week, San Francisco Chronicle Raiders’ beat writer Vic Tafur poured cold water on my Murray fade by saying, “[Murray has] been cruising through camp” as the No. 1 back. As per usual on these matters, it looks like Thorman is probably right.
This season, I’m going to end up with a huge ownership stake in Wilson, his pass-catchers, Murray and Washington. I can’t promise you this strategy will pay off, but I will say I already feel nervous giving it away while I still have quite a few drafts to complete.