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The Queen’s Gambit: Hybrid Positional Utility (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Jeff Bell | @4WhomJBellTolls | Featured Writer
Oct 28, 2021
Cordarrelle Patterson

Cordarrelle Patterson is on the leading edge of a scheme evolution.

If fantasy football were a game of chess, Cordarrelle Patterson (WR-ATL) would be the queen. For much of football’s existence, the NFL and the fantasy football industry put players into silos based upon traits. Slot WRs, 3rd down backs, scouts have craved formulaic qualities to shuffle players into staid archetypes. This architecture created a vacuum as players like Patterson, and Tavon Austin (WR-JAX) saw high draft picks invested based upon skills and college production but found themselves stuck. NFL offenses struggled to unlock their abilities, often leading to special team roles and minimal usage.  But Patterson’s success threatens to break down those historical barriers and opens questions about a critical fantasy football fundamental: positional eligibility.

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RPO Evolution

Since Colin Kaepernick’s emergence and Super Bowl appearance in 2012, run/pass options have grown popular.  Kaepernick’s coach Jim Harbaugh spent seven years in college before taking over the 49ers’ job.  These concepts have changed the play at the position and opened up a new crop of QB talent. Traditionally players like Josh Allen (QB-BUF), Lamar Jackson (QB-BAL),  Kyler Murray (QB-ARI) may have found accuracy and size concerns challenging in previous eras. There is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” taking place. Has the league’s willingness to adopt these concepts aided the development of athletic QBs, or has a natural influx of these players allowed these concepts to grow in popularity?

The emergence of QBs like Jackson or Murray has led to scheme shifts that closely resemble the college game. The Cardinals offense run by Murray is deeply rooted in Kliff Kingsbury’s Big 12 history and ranked third in offensive plays per game in 2020, only to see efficiency explode and lead the league in points per play at .491 in 2021.  The Ravens offense that led the NFL in rushing yards at 191 per game in 2020 sport extensive collegiate experience as well. Passing game coordinator Chris Hewitt spent seven years with Greg Schiano at Rutgers, and wide receiver coach Tee Martin has spent the previous 12 years at various college stops. The Bills hired OC Brian Daboll off Nick Saban’s staff, and he has brought spread RPO elements that have aided in Allen’s development. 

Whether or not these QBs needed the RPO concepts to unlock their development or their skills opened the concepts, the impact on fantasy football is evident.  QB scoring has reached new heights.  But as more of these schemes arrive, are there opportunities for other positions to develop fantasy relevance?

Hybrid Backs

I dove into the hybrid role and Urban Meyer’s history with the position this summer for Footballguys.com.  The concept is relatively simple: it merges the spread offense that frequently features 1-3 (three WR) and 1-4 (four WR) sets with elements of the old Wing-T triple-option attack.  

Offensive personnel dictates defensive matchups; the Hybrid Spread utilizes a player who falls between a typical WR and RB archetype.  Personnel can force a defense into a nickel or dime coverage to match up against the WRs deployed, then utilize “Jet” motion (a WR crossing into the backfield at the snap) to fill the box and add an extra option within the RPO concept.

The classic player to picture in this mold is Percy Harvin.  He was a dynamic presence with the ball in his hands, but injury robbed him of his full utility.  Still, his career-best 2011 season saw him accumulate a line of 87 receptions, 967 receiving yards, 345 rushing yards, and eight touchdowns.  For context, that line provides 16.6 PPR points per game, in line with the 2020 seasons produced by Jonathan Taylor (RB-IND) and Tyler Lockett (WR-SEA).

Meyer has attempted to duplicate the role in his first year in Jacksonville.  He used a 1st round pick on Travis Etienne (RB-JAX), announcing him as a “slash,” the hopes of that role ended with a season-ending injury in the preseason.  Next up was Laviska Shenault (WR-JAX), but Shenault lacks the short-area quickness to fully succeed in the role, especially at the NFL level.  DJ Chark (WR-JAX)‘s injury forced Shenault into a more traditional WR role, and the duties have shifted to Jamal Agnew (WR-JAX) and Tavon Austin.  Agnew, in particular, exhibits attractive traits to excel in the role. A former all-pro kick returner, he’s still gaining comfort offensively after beginning his career as a defensive back.  In his past three games, he’s averaged four touches and 55 yards, on the surface modest numbers, but as he continues to gain comfort, it is an intriguing baseline.

Cordarrelle Patterson, on the other hand, has taken a similar role to completely different heights.

A Delayed Breakout

Poetically, the Vikings selected Patterson in the 2013 NFL draft as a replacement for Harvin.  Patterson proved to be a disappointment, failing to fully fit into the Vikings’ needs at WR in an offense built around Adrian Peterson (RB-FA). His physical talents have always been evident and used on special teams to the tune of 11th all-time at 7,360 yards and the all-time leader with eight return touchdowns.  Unfortunately, outside of a select handful of specific league formats, that history has meant little for his fantasy production.  Enter Arthur Smith.

Patterson’s emergence has seemingly come out of nowhere, but a trail to breadcrumbs around Smith’s history is interesting in hindsight.  In 2010 Smith started his coaching career with college roots as a defensive intern with Ole Miss in a disappointing 4-9 season.  The primary reason for the letdown was the departure of “do everything” back Dexter McCluster, who led the 2009 team to a 9-4 record behind 1,689 scrimmage yards.  That would not be the last time Smith and McCluster would cross paths, as they shared the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the Titans.  

Throughout his time as TE coach and OC with the Titans, Smith would experiment with hybrid utility with Jonnu Smith (TE-NE) as his vessel, lining up in the backfield and wide in addition to his primary TE role.  As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and the Falcons offense entered the season desperate for playmakers. 

Patterson has answered the bell, and his performance has been nothing short of electric.  At 19.3 PPR PPG, he stands at RB7 AND (platform dependent) WR7.  His snap counts have risen weekly, from 30% in week 4 to 59% in week 5 to 73% in week seven, coming off a bye.  But his usage is the most exciting factor, he’s taken 109 snaps out of the backfield, and 79 lined up wide.  This usage has caused him to sport eligibility tags ranging from RB, WR, or RB/WR.  

It is not the first time we have seen dual eligibility; for years, McCluster sported the flexibility or RB/WR, and in 2011 CJ Spiller famously earned WR eligibility after starting multiple games at the position.  But as spread concepts continue to merge with RPO capable QBs, it opens up questions about how to treat players who frequently line up both in the backfield and wide.

The Grand Question: Why Does Eligibility Matter?

“WR is Deep” is a common fantasy refrain, and it makes sense given how often we see teams in three and four WR packages.  But as a practical matter, we can illustrate the difference.  

PPR per game scoring shows a noticeable tier break at RB19, and RB20 exists, with a 15 ppg average at 19 and plummeting to 12.7 ppg at 20.  Looking at the players in that band, the difference in the role is evident, as lead backs like Joe Mixon (RB-CIN) and David Montgomery (RB-CHI) sit just above the threshold.  Just below are committee backs like Zack Moss (RB-BUF) and Antonio Gibson (RB-WAS).  Applying that 2.3 ppg difference to Moss’s RB20 12.7 ppg vs. the next group expands the range all the way to RB33 at 10.4 ppg.  That’s right; there are 14 RBs closer to RB20 than the difference between RB19 and 20.

This idea has been part of the genesis behind ZeroRB theory; outside of the players who have the lion’s share of the backfield work, production is replicable at a lower cost.  When WRs enter the conversation, the value shifts even further.  A total of 22 WRs hit the top RB threshold in PPR. Another 15 currently fall between the spread of RB 19 & 20. A combined 37 WRs fall above the current RB20 threshold.  RB eligibility increases the value of a “flex” player.  Contextually, Nyheim Hines (RB-IND) finished at 12.1 PPR points per game in 2020, good for RB28 (a fringe startable option) compared to WR40 (unlikely to see many flex positions). 

What Is The Answer?

Dual eligibility has long been a staple of other fantasy games, including baseball and basketball.  Platforms like ESPN and Sleeper have already used the dual parameters.  As a fantasy industry, conversations on thresholds to determine player eligibility should be taking place.  Factors could be official depth chart designations or positional snap shares (data from PFF).  Patterson stands as just one test case but functioning in a copycat league, and with the continued development of spread and RPO schemes, a wave of players who threaten long-held standards could be on the horizon.  

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Jeff Bell is a featured writer at FantasyPros. To read more from Jeff, check out his archive and follow him @4WhomJBellTolls.

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