Offensive Strategies & the Impact on Fantasy Football (2021)
Teams that opted to hire new offensive coordinators or head coaches this offseason will likely experience a drastic change with their play-calling in 2021. Personnel on NFL team rosters are always scrutinized and assessed in numerous different ways, however, the coaching staff is often understudied or ignored altogether. It’s ill-advised to play fantasy football competitively without a good understanding of the offensive schemes and tendencies used by each team. Drafting a player returning to their team with a new coaching staff can lead to a re-established role within the offense for that particular player, increasing or limiting previous output opportunities. Staying ahead of the competition with a decent comprehension of team coaching philosophies helps a tremendous amount in fantasy football.
There was a flurry of firings, hirings, and signings within team coaching staffs this offseason. As the NFL continues to evolve with the integration of high-school and collegiate play designs through some of the newer and younger innovative coaching minds, fantasy managers must keep up. Up-tempo, split-wide shotgun formations with zone-run blocking schemes are currently the hottest trend in the league. There are other offensive schemes based on more traditional gap blocking and power-running that tend to be more conservative and reactive, while some coaches prefer to run heavier 21, 22, and 13 personnel sets.
So which offensive scheme is the best for fantasy football? It’s very much dependent upon the roster construct of a particular team, ranging from the offensive line to the trust coordinators and coaches establish with certain players. I’ve decided to focus this article on more of the notable offensive play-caller acquisitions that transpired this offseason, breaking down the expected offensive schemes and which players stand to benefit the most or the least from these signings.
Arthur Smith replaces Dan Quinn as the Atlanta Falcons head coach in 2021, bringing with him an outside zone-blocking scheme that produced the second-most expected points added (EPA) per play in 2019 and 2020 as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. Expect a lot of pre-snap motion from Calvin Ridley (WR – ATL), Russell Gage (WR – ATL), and Kyle Pitts (TE – ATL) to draw the defense out of coverage, allowing Matt Ryan (QB – ATL) to have another chance to lead the league in air yards per game (185.2) as he did under Quinn in 2020. However, the linchpin in the offense will be 28-year old running back Mike Davis (RB – ATL), who signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal with the Falcons during free agency. The offensive line is young and lacks continuity, so there is concern about whether Davis can keep up his third-ranked juke rate (32.1%) displayed filling in for an injured Christian McCaffery in Carolina last season. Qadree Ollison (RB – ATL) and rookie Javian Hawkins (RB – ATL) have been impressive through OTAs and training camp thus far, while Cordarelle Patterson was signed to a one-year, $3 million deal to build up depth while diversifying the style of running backs rostered behind Davis.
Expect a lot of 21 and 22 personnel, especially with two legitimate receiving tight ends in Hayden Hurst (TE – ATL) and rookie Kyle Pitts. Pitts may be split out wide and in the slot to begin his NFL career, allowing him to slowly adapt to blocking stronger veteran defensive ends and outside linebackers. Davis could frequently receive a fullback or tight end as his lead blocker, sending them in pre-snap motion while running out of two back and two tight end sets. Ridley and Pitts should be extremely valuable in fantasy in 2021 as long as Ryan takes advantage of the condensed personnel to find the open receiver in space, which is a primary objective within Mike Shanahan’s version of the West Coast offense.
Few fantasy managers are excited about the prospects of the Detroit Lions offense in 2021. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the skepticism, especially with an improved offensive line that ranks 10th-best heading into the 2021 season, according to Pro Football Focus. Rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell (OT – DET) fell into the Lions’ lap at seventh overall, adding to the stalwart play of left tackle Taylor Decker (OT – DET) and center Frank Ragnow (C – DET). Securing the edges in an offense that rosters running backs D’Andre Swift (RB – DET) and Jamaal Williams (RB – DET) is a perfect recipe to successfully move the chains. However, it will be very interesting to see how new Lions’ offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn calls plays for a mostly immobile quarterback. Lynn’s previous experience as an OC was spent in Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor (QB – HOU) back in 2016, where the quarterback flashed shades of Lamar Jackson (QB – BAL) carrying 95 times for 580 yards and six touchdowns.
Jared Goff (QB – DET) certainly isn’t mobile enough to be Taylor or Jackson in Lynn’s offense but his previous success as a play-action passer with the Rams could form a potent aerial attack in an inside/outside-zone run blocking scheme. T.J. Hockenson (TE – DET) will be the team’s alpha target considering the short and intermediate routes that will open up when running play-action out of 11 or 12 personnel, while Swift and Williams should succeed with designed quick passes to put them into open space on the perimeter. A lackluster wide receiving corps could see rookie Amon Ra St. Brown (WR – DET) or Quintez Cephus (WR – DET) take charge and develop as young wideouts on a team in full rebuild mode under first-year head coach Dan Campbell. Swift (32.4) and Hockenson (58.1) are the sure-fire prospects from a fantasy perspective but fantasy managers will need to use a third-round or fifth-round draft pick to acquire these heavy-volume players.
Los Angeles Chargers
The aforementioned departure of Anthony Lynn as the head coach for the Los Angeles Chargers has ushered in a new era of offensive schematics under new offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi. Fantasy managers with Austin Ekeler (RB – LAC) shares will be delighted to discover that as the New Orleans Saints offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach in 2020, Lombardi utilized more of the 21 and 22 personnel associated closely with Mike Shanahan’s wide-zone blocking scheme. Even more enticing from a PPR perspective is Lombardi’s running back target share involvement, which ranked first in 2020 and has ranked first every year he’s been a coach or coordinator in the league, including his time as an offensive coordinator for Detroit back in 2014 and 2015. Ekeler will be given instant space as he navigates the line of scrimmage horizontally, typically to search for a running lane to open up outside of the hash markers. The 26-year old running back is finally healthy after suffering a string of untimely and unfortunate lower-body strains and will get a revamped offensive line with rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater (OT – LAC) headlining the newcomers in the trenches.
Joe Lombardi is the OC of the Chargers. Here is his NFL resume as an offensive coach, and where his team ranked in targets to RBs in that time
2007-2013 – NO QB Coach/Offensive Assistant – 1st
2014-2015 – DET OC – 1st
2016-2020 – NO QB Coach – 1st
Draft Austin Ekeler
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) August 7, 2021
Justin Herbert (QB – LAC) burst onto the scene after being thrust into the starting quarterback role during his rookie season and will likely be delivering fewer deep ball targets and opting for more intermediate routes to Jared Cook (TE – LAC), Keenan Allen (WR – LAC), and Ekeler. Mike Williams (WR – LAC) remains the big-bodied target on the perimeter but could see more usage as a split-end receiver, running more slants and shallower crossing routes that align with the scheme of Lombardi’s offensive philosophy. The Chargers are a fantasy goldmine in 2021 and are also dark horse contenders for winning the AFC, as they currently have +3000 odds to win the Super Bowl.
New York Jets
The team with the most significant changes across its offensive philosophy, personnel, and coaching staff has to be the New York Jets. 2020 was a disastrous year under former head coach Adam Gase, as Sam Darnold (QB – CAR) was in and out of the lineup, averaging a putrid 2.5% touchdown rate across 12 starts. With Darnold involved in a trade to the Carolina Panthers this offseason, Jets’ general manager Joe Douglas made it clear that he is fully invested in turning things around from a forgettable 2-14 season under Gase. Tapping into the Bay Area pipeline to fill the vacated head coaching role, Douglas opted to hire Robert Saleh for his first head coaching opportunity. Saleh, a former defensive coordinator for the 49ers, brought Mike LaFleur into the fold as the Jets’ offensive coordinator. LaFleur, brother of Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, worked alongside Saleh and under 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan as the team’s passing game coordinator in 2020.
Through the 2021 NFL Draft alone, four instant impact rookies were drafted to the Jets offense, signaling a massive change in personnel for what is likely to be a cloned version of Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast offense. This means a zone-blocking scheme similar to the pre-snap motions used by Gary Kubiak (now Klint Kubiak) in Minnesota, Sean McVay with the Rams, and Kyle Shanahan, the son of Mike Shanahan, legendary coach and creator of the modified west coast offense his son has seemingly perfected.
Tevin Coleman (RB – NYJ) is a veteran with experience in the scheme and has been supported by Saleh publicly. However, Michael Carter (RB – NYJ) has been impressive in OTAs and training camp and could see an immediate role as the second option in a running-back-by-committee approach. Corey Davis (WR – NYJ), Elijah Moore (WR – NYJ), Jamison Crowder (WR – NYJ), and Keelan Cole (WR – NYJ) will likely be the primary wide receiver targets. Chris Herndon IV (TE – NYJ) has disappointed but Ryan Griffin (TE – NYJ) and Tyler Kroft (TE – NYJ) provide fairly good depth at arguably the team’s weakest position.
Nick Siriani steps into the Eagles head coaching vacancy left by Doug Pederson and inherits a competitive offensive roster. Despite the highest-paid contract belonging to Lane Johnson (OT – PHI), a healthy offensive line tends to make all of the difference in a team’s outcome. In fact, Philadelphia has multiple top-tier linemen returning at full strength, including Andre Dillard (OT – PHI) at left tackle and Brandon Brooks (G – PHI) next to Johnson on the interior. Jalen Hurts (QB – PHI) was limited to four starts in a tumultuous rookie season but finished the season as the quarterback with the ninth-most carries (63), averaging 5.7 YPC and finding the end zone four times with his legs.
A talented backfield headed by Miles Sanders (RB – PHI) and notable fifth-round rookie Kenneth Gainwell (RB – PHI) could feature the 12 and 13 personnel Siriani ran as the Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator. Siriani’s offenses ranked top-ten twice in the three seasons he spent in the OC role with the Colts. The addition of Heisman-winner and freakishly talented wide receiver DeVonta Smith (WR – PHI) out of the University of Alabama adds the electricity needed to unlock an underrated offense led by a true dual-threat quarterback. Zach Ertz’ (TE – PHI) return alongside Dallas Goedert (TE – PHI) offers one of the deepest tight end rooms in the league, which could see Siriani implement a lot of heavy tight end sets (12 personnel, 13 personnel, 22 personnel) and tap into the depth at running back, including Boston Scott (RB – PHI), Kerryon Johnson (RB – PHI), and Jordan Howard (RB – PHI). Jalen Hurts’ ADP (90.6) is falling after reports of inconsistency at training camp but he’s a quarterback I’d like to take a chance on in fantasy due to the premium rushing upside he offers on a weekly basis. Chemistry with Smith shouldn’t be dismissed either, as the two are both proven playmakers and spent a season together at Alabama.
Shane Waldron traded allegiances within the NFC West, leaving Sean McVay for Pete Carroll up in Seattle. The Seahawks also signed Gerald Everett (TE – SEA), a player Waldron is very familiar with who can fill a massive need on Seattle’s offense. Everett outpaced Tyler Higbee (TE – LAR) in targets (62) and saw at least 60 targets in consecutive seasons while splitting time with Higbee as the primary receiving tight end. Now, he steps into an offense with DK Metcalf (WR – SEA), Tyler Lockett (WR – SEA), Chris Carson (WR – SEA), and D’Wayne Eskridge (WR – SEA), an exciting rookie wideout who can be used in pre-snap motions that play into the zone-run blocking scheme Seattle used under former OC Brian Schottenheimer.
The offensive line was an issue in 2020, ranking 30th in pass protection efficiency offense and 23rd in explosive pass offense, according to Sharp Football Analytics. The interior of the offensive line was beefed up with the signing of Gabe Jackson (G – SEA), which should buy Russell Wilson (QB – SEA) more time in the pocket. The defense remains one of the most susceptible to the pass, meaning the Seahawks could become a more pass-centric offense with the additions of Eskridge and Everett, allowing their zone-run blocking scheme to flourish. Tyler Lockett (63.4) and Chris Carson (28.4) both have favorable ADPs to take advantage of in upcoming fantasy drafts, as they could become even more efficient within a refreshed offense in 2021.
Arguably the biggest trade of the offseason happened late in free agency when the Atlanta Falcons sent perennial All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones (WR – TEN) to Tennessee. Former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith swapped places with Jones, taking a promotion to become the head coach of the 2021 Falcons, while Jones joins forces with A.J. Brown (WR – TEN) and Derrick Henry (RB – TEN) to form a fiercely stacked tandem to gear up for a potential Super Bowl run.
Titans tight end coach Todd Downing was promoted from within to replace Smith as the offensive coordinator, meaning the offense could stay relatively play-action heavy, running a lot of 11 and 12 personnel that yielded a QB7 finish for Ryan Tannehill (QB – TEN) in 2020. Jones will only make Tannehill that much more potent in fantasy lineups, as he and Brown form an incredible route-running pair that will create mismatches at every level of a defense. A pedestrian offensive line will need to improve their play if they want Henry to sustain 5.4 YPC, which is what he averaged on a massive 378 carries in 2020. Jones and Brown stretch the field vertically, which will force fewer stacked boxes, creating more opportunities for Henry to find the lane and burst into the second level in the team’s preferred outside zone scheme.
Henry will require top-three draft capital, with Brown (25.1) and Jones (38) going as early third and fourth-round wideouts. Tannehill is my favorite Titan based on his ADP (96.5) because he’s going to have two elite wideouts to target and has the luxury of arguably the most dominant running back in the league lining up behind him after producing a 2,000-yard rushing campaign during 2020. Tannehill also offers rushing upside, scoring seven touchdowns on the ground while earning the second-highest true passer rating (121.1) behind only MVP winner Aaron Rodgers (QB – GB). The loss of Jonnu Smith (TE – NE) does little to concern me, especially since Jones and Brown are an elite duo and will be open on slants and other in-breaking routes for Tannehill to frequently target.
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