Impact of Head Coaching Changes (2019 Fantasy Football)
While an NFL coach may not make a player better, they can put a player in a better position to succeed. A simple example of this would be a quarterback who has a better completion percentage throwing from under center versus the shotgun, but his coach continues to call plays that have the QB throwing out of the shotgun. That’s an example of a coach beholden to a scheme and not his player’s strengths. The best coaches find ways to accentuate their player’s strengths while scheming around their weaknesses. Below I dive into the eight new head coaches in the NFL this season (though with a couple of retreads) and what their effect will be on fantasy football.
All scoring based on PPR settings, scoring refers to per game averages and excludes any players who played 10 or fewer games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians
In five of 14 seasons with Arians as an offensive coordinator or head coach, his offenses have finished in the top 15 in pass attempts (PA). Four of those seasons came in his final six seasons coaching. What’s interesting are the quarterbacks under center in those seasons with top-15 finishes. It makes sense you would throw a lot with Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer as the starters, but he also had top-15 PA seasons with Tim Couch, Blaine Gabbert, and Drew Stanton playing significant snaps. Expect the Bucs to continue to rank in the upper half of the league in pass attempts.
After throwing 10 interceptions in his first four starts, Jameis Winston threw just four in the final seven starts last season. If Arians can help Winston maintain this sudden spurt of ball control Winston could be a QB1 in 2019.
Mike Evans finished the 2018 season as the WR9, on 138 targets, and should have no problem replicating those numbers in 2019. Arians peppers his lead WR with targets. Excluding the 2014 season when Larry Fitzgerald missed two games due to injury, he averaged 148 targets per season with Arians as his head coach. Based on Evans talent and Arians penchant for a bombs-away offense I see an overall WR1 scoring season coming Evans’ way. Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard should both see ample targets even as Evans remains the primary target.
The second wide receiver has been targeted more than 100 times seven times, with a high of 137 targets during Arians coaching career. Arians has coached one decent tight end during his pro coaching career, Heath Miller, who averaged 4.8 targets a game under his tutelage. While Miller was a good tight end, Howard can become an elite tight end and finished as the TE6 in per game scoring last season. If Adam Humphries (free agent) and DeSean Jackson (cut candidate) both leave Tampa Bay, that leaves behind 150 targets from 2018 up for grabs. Evans will see a healthy chunk of those targets, but a good portion will be left for Godwin and Howard as well.
The running back position is the only position of intrigue in the Tampa Bay offense. Five times during his career Arians offenses have been in the top half of the league in rushing attempts. He’s also shown he will use running backs based on their skill sets. Running backs that are better receiving backs will be used in the passing game while running backs who are better two down backs will be used that way. On the occasions where he’s had running backs that excel in both the rushing and receiving game, think David Johnson, he’s used them in both facets.
The issue in Tampa Bay is that none of the running backs on the roster have shown to be adept at anything, let alone multiple things. If forced to choose between Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones I would buy low on Jones based on his college tape, draft pedigree and hope that the Bucs don’t replace him in the upcoming NFL Draft. With the passing weapons that the Buccaneers possess expect them to remain a pass-heavy attack and I’m buying Winston, Evans, Godwin, and Howard.
Cleveland Browns: Freddie Kitchens
Freddie Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator for the Browns the final eight games of 2018 after Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired. Though his coaching history is extensive, his only offensive coordinator and play calling experience came in those eight games. The Browns went 5-3, were tied for the league lead in yards per pass attempt (8.72), fourth in passing yards per game (285), and fourth in total yards per game (395) in those final eight games. Under Kitchens guidance, Baker Mayfield thrived. Mayfield threw for 37 more yards per game, a full touchdown more per game and averaged four more fantasy points per game with him calling plays compared to when Haley called the plays.
The Browns also hired highly coveted Todd Monken, former Tampa Bay offensive coordinator, to be their offensive coordinator. Kitchens has already indicated that he’ll call the plays, but the addition of Monken was a great hire. Monken ran the “Air Raid” system during his college coaching career, the same offense Baker Mayfield played in during his time at Oklahoma. Last season Tampa Bay’s 39.1 pass attempts per game ranked fourth, and the combination of Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for over 5,300 yards and 36 touchdowns. In dynasty leagues, if you don’t already own Mayfield, he’s already reaching the point where he’s cost prohibitive, especially in superflex leagues. If you can acquire him for less than three first-round rookie picks in a superflex league I would pull the trigger.
Kitchens was also a boon for Nick Chubb’s production. Chubb was the fourth overall running back, scoring 18 points per game while averaging 85 rushing yards and 20 receiving yards during the final eight games of the season. There was some concern during the draft process that Chubb wouldn’t be able to maintain a three-down role due to a lack of receiving skills. That seemed prescient as he averaged less than one reception per game in his first eight games.
Once Kitchen’s took over that all changed. During that stretch, Chubb averaged two and a half receptions on a little over three targets per game. He’ll never be confused with Alvin Kamara as a pass-catcher, but the additional scoring provided as a receiver is a nice bonus for Chubb owners.
Jarvis Landry was on pace for 185 targets under Haley, which would have been the most in the league. Under Kitchens, his 6.88 targets per game would have led to 110 targets over a full season, which would have been 29th in the league. Landry averaged two fewer receptions per game, but his fantasy scoring only saw a dip of 1.62 fantasy points per game. Don’t be fooled by the minimal decrease in scoring. He was wildly inconsistent with four weeks as a WR4 or worse, one game as a WR2 and three weeks as a WR1.
Another area of concern for Landry is the move to a more explosive offense under Kitchens and Monken. A vertical offense doesn’t work to Landry’s advantage as he’s primarily a slot receiver, running nearly 60% of his routes from the slot in 2018. Landry is player you should sell off in all of your leagues.
Unlike Landry, David Njoku is a definite buy for me. Monken was able to utilize his second-year tight end, O.J. Howard, to the tune of a TE6 finish scoring 12.1 points per game last season. Howard 16.6 YPR led the tight end position, while Njoku’s 11.1 YPR was just 16th. Howard saw only one less red zone target compared to Njoku’s eight, even though he played in five fewer games.
The Browns have done a poor job of maximizing Njoku’s abilities. During his final college season in Miami, he averaged 16.2 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns. Based on how Monken used Howard in Tampa, I’m betting on him making Kitchens understand the weapon they have in the 6’4″ Njoku, who’s one of the most athletically gifted tight ends ever.
Green Bay Packers: Matt LaFleur
Matt LaFleur has just two seasons of offensive coordinator experience and one season calling plays. He was the quarterback coach for Robert Griffin when he won the “Offensive Rookie of the Year” award in 2012, Matt Ryan’s QB coach during Ryan’s 2016 “MVP” season and helped turn Jared Goff into a top-12 NFL and fantasy quarterback in 2017. Keep that in mind when considering his lone season as a coordinator in Tennessee. It did not go well, at least not from a passing game perspective. I put little stock in these results due to Marcus Mariota being unable to feel his throwing hand for most of the season. No coach in the world, any world for that matter, could run a successful passing offense with Blaine Gabbert as their starting QB. Nathaniel Hackett who had great success considering the lack of quarterback talent in Jacksonville joined the Packers as their new offensive coordinator.
Both Hackett and LaFleur have a strong history of running back success with Fred Jackson, Leonard Fournette succeeding under Hackett and Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry under LaFleur. LaFleur will call the plays during games. Aaron Rodgers is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time who grew increasingly frustrated with ex-head coach Mike McCarthy’s predictable and stale game calling.
LaFleur is born of the Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay coaching tree, two coaches often lauded for their innovative play calling and offensive scheming, and should be nothing if not innovative. Coming off a “disappointing” QB12 finish in 2018 I expect a fully engaged Rodgers to finish as top-five QB in 2019. After a successful 2019 season, I would cash out high on a then 36-year old Rodgers.
Corey Davis as the lead receiver under LaFleur in Tennesee saw a 26.4% target share last season, eight highest for wide receivers, finishing as the WR33 in points per game. This bodes well for Davante Adams since it shows that LaFleur has enough sense to ensure his stud wide receiver sees a high target volume. Coming off a season where he led all wide receivers with 22 fantasy points per game look for Adams to continue his top-five WR fantasy scoring ways.
Aaron Jones is the player that should benefit the most with LaFleur taking over. Both Shanahan and McVay showed a propensity for using their running backs in the passing attack while LaFleur learned at their feet, and he continued that trend with the Titans. Dion Lewis had 59 receptions and averaged 4.2 targets per game last year.
In Jones, LaFleur has a more explosive, athletic, stronger version of Lewis. Jones led the league with 5.5 yards per rushing attempt, and his 7.2 yards per reception on 26 catches bested Lewis’s 6.8 YPR. Mike McCarthy refused to commit to Jones as his #1 running back, or the running game on a whole last season while ranking last in the league with 20.8 rushing attempts per game. While the Titans’ 28.5 (ninth most) rushing attempts per game was partly due to the QB situation it’s reasonable to assume that the Packers will run significantly more under Matt LaFleur.
Jamaal Williams won’t be a hindrance to Jones’ breakout in 2019 and beyond. Williams can only succeed when force-fed carries. Jones is just the better all around back and will flourish with LaFleur.
New York Jets: Adam Gase
When reviewing Adam Gase’s coaching history, there is a clear line of demarcation. There is what he did with Peyton Manning and then the rest of his career. With Manning under center, Gase looked like a genius and led top-four passing and scoring offenses as well as top-15 rushing attacks during his two seasons in Denver. His lone season in Chicago ended with the Bears throwing for the 10th fewest yards in the league. Things got no better during his time as a head coach in Miami.
During those three seasons, Miami’s best finish was in 2016 when they threw for the seventh-least amount of yards. The passing offense got worse every season under Gase, and Miami had the second-fewest passing yards last season. Outside of Peyton Manning, the finishes for his quarterbacks in fantasy are downright terrible: QB20, QB27, QB27, QB29.
Sam Darnold is a much better talent than Jay Cutler, Ryan Tannehill, and Matt Moore, so I’m willing to bet on his talent long-term. After Gase is fired in two seasons, Darnold will still be just 23 years old. I’m buying or holding Darnold with the understanding that the next couple of seasons could be a bit rocky.
Gase has produced multiple successful running backs during his coaching tenure. He’s been able to produce four top-12 running back seasons, and last season Kenyan Drake finished as the RB19. But these finishes come in spite of Gase, not because of him. Jay Ajayi finished as the RB14 in 2016 only to be traded away halfway through the 2017 season for a fourth-round pick.
Kenyan Drake was a certified bell-cow after the Dolphins traded away Jay Ajayi in 2017. He finished the season with five RB1 weeks and two RB2 weeks during the final nine games. Instead of getting Drake more touches in 2018 Gase made him the 1B in a committee with Frank Gore and Drake had double-digit carries in only five of 16 games. There’s also the minor detail of never getting Damien Williams any touches, the same Damien Williams who looked like one of the best running backs in football with the Chiefs.
One thing that Gase is adept at is involving his lead back in the passing attack, with an average of 55.5 targets going their way under Gase. I’m tentatively buying Elijah McGuire based on the belief the Jets will part ways with Isaiah Crowell this offseason and McGuire’s receiving skills. If McGuire is the lead back, he should be a top-20 running back in 2019.
Tight end Chris Herndon is another player I’ll buy, even if he’s facing a suspension. Herndon was able to finish as the TE17 on 56 targets last season. Gase’s TE1 averages 70 targets per season, with Martellus Bennett seeing 80 targets and Julius Thomas reaching 90 targets under him. With additional targets, Herndon should be able to work his way into TE1 range.
Excluding last season, when Miami had receivers injured and in and out of the lineup most of the season, the WR1 for Gase averages 142 targets per season, while the WR2 averages 108 targets. Robby Anderson is a buy coming off a season where he finished as the WR37 on just 93 targets. Assuming the Jets draft or sign another wide receiver to be the WR1 I can live with the increase of 15 targets coming Anderson’s way.
Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury
Kingsbury amassed a 35-40 record with Texas Tech and was fired after the 2018 season. Texas Tech’s sub .500 record under Kingsbury had nothing to do with his offense, as they averaged 38 points per game during his 75-game run. The first order of business for Kingsbury is to improve the Arizona offense and offensive line. Last season the Cardinals ranked last in the league in passing yards, pass attempts, rushing yards, and points scored.
According to the Football Outsiders, the Cardinals had the seventh-worst Adjusted Sack Rate and gave up the fifth most sacks in the league last year. Josh Rosen absorbed 45 of those sacks and underwhelmed with 2,278 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions on his way to a woeful QB33 overall season. Though Kingsbury’s offenses throw the ball a lot, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t value protecting his QBs. Per PFF “Texas Tech only allowed a sack on 3.7% of dropbacks, which was the fourth-lowest rate of any NCAA team. QBs were knocked down (hits+ sacks) 9.5% of the time, the eighth lowest rate”.
As a disciple of the “air-raid offense” having both played in the system as a college quarterback and running the offense as both a college coordinator and head coach, expect the Cardinals to throw a lot going forward. Texas Tech finished in the top in passing yards all six years that Kingsbury was their head coach. In five of six seasons, Texas Tech finished in the top 25 in FBS scoring and top 16 in three of those seasons. He also successfully molded quarterbacks including Patrick Mahomes, Johnny Manziel, and Case Keenum during their college careers. Mahomes had 5,052 passing yards in 2016.
Kingsbury was brought to the desert to install his offense and to get Rosen right. Based on Kingsbury history of success with quarterbacks, his penchant for throwing all over the field and a belief in Rosen as a talent I’m buying him in every possible superflex league that I can.
Christian Kirk is another strong buy coming off a productive, injury-shortened rookie season. Kirk averaged 10.5 fantasy points per game last year on just 5.7 targets per game and will see an increase in targets in 2019 with the Cardinals throwing more often (“air-raid offenses throw upwards of 60% of offensive plays). Even though Larry Fitzgerald decided to come back for at least another season, Kirk will break out. In the 13 games Kirk was able to play last season, he either saw the same amount or more targets than Fitzgerald six times.
If you’re able to unload Fitzgerald for anything of value, do so quickly. Fitzgerald will turn 36 years old before next season kicks off, and is coming off a WR29 season where he was dealt with a bad hamstring all year.
Did you know that David Johnson was an RB1 last season? Well, he was. He was the RB11 last year with a 15.4 per game average. Johnson had only four games all season where he scored less than double-digit fantasy points, despite former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy (fired after week seven) appearing to have no idea how to utilize his skill-set. During his introductory news conference, Kingsbury had this to say about Johnson.
“Our deal is little more balanced. David Johnson is a tremendous asset. He’s a guy who can come out of the backfield, go between the tackles, you can motion him out, he’s a mismatch in space”.
Even though Johnson may be considered “old” at 27, he has just 687 carries in his career and should have plenty of tread left on his tires. Look for Johnson’s usage to increase in the passing attack and be closer to the 120 targets he saw in 2016 compared to 76 he saw last year.
Ricky Seals-Jones is an interesting post-hype sleeper. Dynasty Twitter had high hopes for him entering the 2018 season after he flashed a bit towards the tail end of the 2017 season. Unfortunately, he failed to produce, with just three TE1 weeks out of 15 games. He was only able to convert 34 of his 70 targets into receptions last year, which is a laughably bad 49.3% catch rate.
But, he is entering his third season, and tight ends are notorious for taking a few seasons to become fantasy relevant. Kingsbury has also shown during his time with Texas Tech that he will target the TE position, so much so that tight end Jace Amaro led the Red Raiders with 106 receptions during the 2013 season. Perhaps Kingsbury can unlock the fantasy potential inside of Seals-Jones.
Kingsbury’s history of utilizing players with varying skill sets is exciting for fantasy. Whether it be a slot receiver like Keke Coutee, an outside receiver like Antoine Wesley, or a tight end like Jace Amaro he gets his best players the ball. Look for Kirk and Johnson to get a ton of touches and targets and to produce as long as Kingsbury is in Arizona.
Denver Broncos: Vic Fangio
Fangio has 39 years of coaching experience, the last 23 in the NFL as a defensive coordinator, but never on the offensive side of the ball. Based on his lack of offensive experience it’s more pressing to examine the impact new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello will have on the Denver offense.
Scangarello’s last stop was a two-year stint with the 49ers as their QB coach, which means the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree has sprouted yet another branch. Scangarello was able to coax a QB22, 15.4 fantasy points per game season out of Nick Mullens last year, which bettered more heralded quarterbacks such as Matt Stafford, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, Eli Manning, and Case Keenum. Before coaching Mullens up, Jimmy Garoppolo averaged 19.47 over eight full games to end the 2017 season and the first three games of 2018 under him. Garoppolo credits Scangarello for much of his early success. In case you forgot the offensive weaponry in San Francisco, it consisted of George Kittle and a Dante Pettis breakout that began in Week 12. That’s it. The fact that Mullens produced as well as he did with such a limited cast of weapons is a testament to Scangarello.
The Broncos were also able to steal offensive line coach Mike Munchak away from the Steelers, in perhaps the most underrated coup of the hiring season. Munchak is widely hailed as the best offensive line coach in all of football and has helped turn multiple running backs into elite fantasy players. Le’Veon Bell is considered one of the top running backs in fantasy football, but he may owe a portion of his success to Munchak’s offensive lines. During Munchak’s time in Pittsburgh, Bell averaged 23.36 fantasy points per game. But Bell is far from the only running back to find success in Pittsburgh. During the 2015-2016 seasons,
DeAngelo Williams started 14 games in place of Bell and averaged 21.73 points per game. This past season Bell sat out in a contract dispute and his replacement James Conner’s averaged 21.5 points per game, good enough for seventh overall. When Conner missed three games, Jaylen Samuels stepped in and averaged 16.93 points per game, which would have been good enough for the 11th-highest points per game over a full season.
Mike Munchak’s offensive lines produce RB1s. It’s what they do. Not only that but Munchak’s lines protect the quarterback. Pittsburgh ranked in the top three in fewest sacks allowed in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton are both buys. Both players had productive rookie seasons while the Broncos struggled to 19th in passing yards and 24th in scoring offense last year. With no Emmanuel Sanders, likely finished in Denver after tearing his Achilles towards the end of the 2018 season, or Demaryius Thomas to compete with any longer I expect both Sutton and Hamilton to take significant steps forward in 2019. As a deeper stash, Tim Patrick would be the beneficiary if either Sutton or Hamilton miss time and is worth adding in deep leagues. Case Keenum had an uneven season on his way to QB18 finish and can likely be had on the cheap, even in superflex leagues.
He scored just two fewer fantasy points per game in 2018 compared to his QB14 finish in 2017, though it felt like a steeper decline. If he can be acquired for a mid-late second round rookie pick, he’s worth acquiring. Phillip Lindsay won’t come cheap after his RB13 2018, but if you can find him for a decent price, you might want to pounce on it based on what running backs have done behind Munchak lines in the past. If you still believe in Royce Freeman, he’ll get to run behind that same line and could find himself with extra practice reps in OTAs due to Phillip Lindsay’s wrist injury that ended his 2018 season in Week 16 and is expected to sideline him for the next three-to-four months.
Cincinnati Bengals: Zac Taylor
Taylor is another descendant of the Sean McVay coaching tree most recently as a quarterback coach for the Los Angeles Rams after coaching the wide receivers in 2017. He also coached quarterbacks in Miami from 2013 to 2015, adding the offensive coordinator role to his duties November 30, 2015. Ryan Tannehill showed steady progression under Taylor, starting as a terrible quarterback and finishing as a middling quarterback under his tutelage. Tannehill finished as the QB20 (excluding QBs with less than 10 games played) averaging 16.1 fantasy points per game in their final season together in 2015. That season he passed for a career-high 4,208 yards, tied his career low with 12 interceptions and his 24 passing touchdowns tied for the second most of his career.
Taylor spent a season as an offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bearcats when they ranked 123rd out of 128 FBS schools in points scored. Brian Callahan, who coached QBs in Oakland last year will serve as the Bengals offensive coordinator. Being brutally honest I’m not sure what Taylor has done to deserve a head coaching job. He’s hung around Sean McVay, and he’s young. That’s all I could come up with. Bengals owner Mike Brown even cited Taylor’s age in a statement announcing the hiring.
“And he’s young. He embraces new ideas and new ways to do things, which will be a good thing for us. I believe our team will be exciting and fun to watch with him at the helm.”
Based on his lack of experience calling plays it’s hard to discern what effect he’ll have on the Bengals fantasy pieces. One hopes that during his time with McVay he learned the value of leaning on one running back in the rushing and passing attack, which would mean good things for Joe Mixon. Mixon asserted himself last season with seven RB1 weeks and two more RB2 finishes. If you were buying on Mixon yesterday, nothing’s changed today.
A.J. Green will turn 31 in July and missed significant time due to injuries for the second time in three seasons last year. Last year’s WR17 finish in average points per game was the worst of his career. Green has had a stellar career, but he’s reached the age apex for wide receivers, and with a new coaching staff in town it’s time to get him off your roster.
Tyler Boyd broke out in his third season finishing as a top-20 receiver, but averaged 4.62 fantasy points less a game when Green didn’t play. While those splits are concerning, it likely had more to do with the Bengals poor coaching than Boyd. The Bengals ranked 24th in passing offense last year, which was actually an improvement on their 27th ranked passing offense in 2017. Not surprisingly Andy Dalton had the worst fantasy season of his career with a QB25 finish after never being worse than QB18 prior to 2018. Dalton presents a value in superflex leagues.
Miami Dolphins: Brian Flores
Flores is coming off calling a great defensive game that completely shut down the Los Angeles Rams on the way to New England’s sixth Super Bowl victory. He’s expected to name Chad O’Shea, the wide receiver coach for the Patriots as his offensive coordinator. O’Shea has never called plays or been an offensive coordinator.
Dolphins’ ownership has made it clear that they are in full rebuild mode. Ryan Tannehill has at most one year left in Miami and is worthless in all formats, including in superflex leagues. Frank Gore is a free agent and will turn 36 in May. DeVante Parker has failed to live up to his draft capital and can be cut with no dead cap hit.
O’Shea spent the last decade of his life in New England helping the Patriots get the best out of castoffs like Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, and Wes Welker and turn them in them into productive real life and/or fantasy players. With that in mind, I’m buying the few talented offensive weapons on the Dolphins roster with the expectation that O’Shea will utilize their talents fully.
Mike Gesicki’s rookie season average of 2.9 fantasy points per game has likely depressed his cost enough that he can be acquired for a third-round rookie pick. At that price, it would be foolish not to acquire him. In best ball leagues, Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson are both buys, though due to their boom/bust profiles I’ll pass on both in typical dynasty formats. Last but certainly not least, buy all of the Kenyan Drake shares you can. He averaged 12.5 points per game finishing the year as an RB2 despite just 7.5 carries a game. With the lack of offensive firepower on the Dolphins, O’Shea would do well to make sure that he gets the ball in Drake’s hands 12-18 times a game.