Best Ball 2021: Using Target Depth to Identify Value Post NFL Free Agency
Jake Tribbey uses ADoT to identify fantasy football value for Underdog Fantasy’s Best Ball Mania II tournament. See what all the bark is about in our Underdog Fantasy review and click here to sign up with the promo GRINDERS for a FREE $25 Best Ball Mania II ticket and your chance at the top $1.1 million dollar prize!
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With 53 active players on 32 teams, there is far too much roster activity in the NFL for any non-robotic being to keep track of. Thankfully, fantasy football players only need to care about roughly 15 guys, unless you’re an absolute freak and play IDP.
The dodges, dives, dips, ducks, and dodges of NFL skill position players are meticulously tracked by multiple data companies, the one you are likely the most familiar with being PFF. At some point in the last few months, they released their target depth data as a part of their Elite sub, and now I’m here to combine that with vacated targets, QB ADoT, coach/coordinator changes, Best Ball ADP, and of course, recent free-agent signings to help readers form a clearer picture about this ever-changing fantasy landscape. Let’s try to make sense of some numbers.
The Big Picture
Abst = Absent (player is no longer with team)
NPass % = Pass % in Neutral situations (game is within 7 points)
Deep tgts = 20+ yards
Mid tgts = 10–19 yards
Short tgts = 1–9 yards
B-LOS tgts = Behind Line Of Scrimmage
There is a lot going on here, so let’s start with the most significant free-agent news: QB Changes.
The Lowly Lions
After losing 58% of their 2020 targets, the Detriot Lions made a blockbuster move in trading Matthew Stafford for LA QB Jared Goff. Combine that with a completely new coaching staff and we have a recipe for disaster in Detriot this season.
Why? Well, all we need to do is look at Goff’s career-low 6.7 average depth of target (ADoT) from 2020, but that’s not even the worst of it.
Likely the final straw for Ram’s coach Sean McVay, Goff failed to push the ball downfield on one of the plays the Rams rely on most: play action.
In each of the last four seasons, Goff ranked top-4 in play action attempts. From 2017–2020, his ADoT on play action went from 10.2 (11th in 2017) to 11.8 (5th) to 8.4 (22nd) to the likely-McVay-breaking-number of 6.6 (32nd last season).
The few deep throws Goff attempted weren’t great either. Per PFF’s QB annual, Goff’s throws of 20+ yards were deemed ‘on frame or accurate’ at a 16.6% lower rate than the NFL average. That’s by far the worst in his career.
Now he’s on the team that’s tied with the Houston Texans at DraftKings Sportsbook for the lowest odds to win the Super Bowl.
That’s not even the least of Goff’s problems.
The Lions have a massive hole in deep targets, losing an astonishing 79% of their 20+ yard targets from last season. Goff didn’t have the willingness or accuracy to have any effectiveness throwing deep last year, and he won’t have receivers talented enough to make up for his deficiencies on deep throws this year.
Translation: very minimal upside for Goff in 2021 Best Ball drafts, even at his incredibly low ADP of QB31.
The Sun Shines on LA
The other side of that trade is where things get very intriguing for fantasy purposes. At QB10 on Underdog Fantasy, Stafford is actually priced pretty close to his floor given how we’ve seen him perform in his career under significantly worse offensive coaching.
Since 2012, Stafford has played 8 full seasons as the Lion’s QB. Detriot registered a top-10 offense in PPG just once in that time frame while Stafford himself finished as a top-10 fantasy QB in 5/8 of those seasons. Back in LA, Ram’s head coach Sean McVay has orchestrated a top-10 offense in 3 of his 4 years as head coach. This is a huge upgrade for Stafford any way you slice it.
Even better, Stafford offers much more downfield passing aggression thanks to one of the higher ADoTs (9.4 in 2020) of any starting QB, which brings us to the next big winners in LA: Robert Woods and Tyler Higbee.
Disclaimer: The Desean Jackson signing clouds this a bit, but given his injury history and age, I believe these younger, healthier players will see the majority of the benefits.
Almost unbelievably, the player returning to LA with the most targets of 20+ yards is Tyler Higbee. His 10 deep targets ranked t-7th among 2020 TEs, and with Gerald Everett now in Seattle, Higbee may just be 1-year late to the breakout everyone thought was coming in 2020. At TE13 on Underdog, the prospect of Higbee seeing any additional deep targets from a Stafford-led offense makes him a screaming value in later rounds plagued by TE uncertainty.
No LAR receiver did more damage in the 10–19 yard range than Robert Woods in 2020, as his 33 intermediate targets ranked 1st on the team by double-digits.
When it comes to intermediate passing, Stafford is as consistent as they come, ranking inside the top-15 in intermediate attempts every year of his career. The Rams clearly want to attack that area of the field as Goff actually ranked in the top-5 in intermediate targets in both 2019 and 2018, but sharply fell off in 2020 with just 94 total 10–19 yard pass attempts (ranking 17th), which was the lowest of his career. Expect Stafford to lift LA’s 10–19 yard attempts, and more likely than not, their 20+ yard attempts (see Goff slander above) back to where they were in 2018 and 2019.
Long Live Jameis Winston
Any tournament DFS player is aware of the massive power of Jameis Winston. He’s inarguably the most volatile presumptive starting 2021 QB, and given the low-ADoT, low-turnover style of Drew Brees that we’ve grown accustomed to, it’s fair to say New Orleans is looking at major style change offensively.
Sure, Taysom Hill could siphon off some goalline TDs, but with most offseason rumors suggesting Jameis is the presumptive starter, that’s who I am going to assume will run the show in NO this season.
While the draft could certainly change my take, I actually don’t think Jameis is the biggest free agency winner in this offense. I think it’s Tre’Quan Smith.
The Saints lost 33% of their total 2020 targets, but crucially, they lost 61% of their deep targets due to the departures of Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook. Since old-man Brees couldn’t throw very far, New Orleans also attempted the 2nd-fewest deep passes (36) of any team last year. Jameis Winston in his last year as a starter attempted 99 deep passes (1st).
Granted, that was in a Bruce Arians offense that loves to push the ball downfield, but even before Arians took over in TB, Jameis ranked 8th in 2016 with 69 deep attempts, and 12th in 2015 with 65. If you take any full season Jameis has played, you can infer at least a 50% increase in deep attempts for New Orleans this year, and it looks like a big chunk will go to Tre’Quan Smith unless somebody else emerges in that role. With an ADP of 189 on Underdog, drafting Tre’Quan has minimal risk and a potentially massive reward.
Fitzmagic Lies in Challenging What Seems Impossible
There wasn’t a 2020 QB more conservative than Washington’s Alex Smith. Smith’s laughable 5.4 ADoT ranked a full 1.2 yards under the 2nd-lowest ADoT of retirement-bound Drew Brees (6.4).
With just 56 total deep attempts by Washington QBs in 2020 (10th-lowest), it’s fair to say the immense talent of WR Terry McLaurin was going underutilized. McLaurin’s 20 deep targets ranked t-26th among WRs, behind Tim Patrick, AJ Green, Marques Valdes-Scantling, and Nelson Agholor.
Enter Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Fitzmagic has made a career of throwing ‘YOLO’ deep balls, ranking in the top-10 in QB ADoT in 4 of the last 5 seasons. McLaurin, on the other hand, has never played with a top-10 QB by target depth. We’ll see how the two pair together starting with their NFL Week 1 matchup.
It’s good news and bad news. The bad news is Fitz targets TEs at a below-average rate, especially when they line up traditionally in-line (in a 3-point stance next to an offensive tackle). Of the 46 QBs who threw at least 10 passes to players lined up in-line, Fitz ranked 38th with just 15.
The good news? That’s not too far off from what we saw from Alex Smith (who loves targeting TEs) and Dwayne Haskins, but more importantly, Logan Thomas lined up in the slot at nearly 2x the rate he was in-line. While Fitzpatrick’s 2020 slot target % also lands close to the rates of both Alex Smith and Dwayne Haskins, he does stand out in a very crucial Logan Thomas metric: TE slot targets. Fitz’s 44 targets to TEs lined up in the slot was 12th last year (despite playing just 9 games), and that’s certainly good news for Thomas and his 565 slot snaps in 2020, especially if WAS doesn’t draft a WR on day 1 or 2.
On a final note, among the 9 teams with QB changes or presumed QB changes, Washington actually had the highest neutral pass rate at 60%. With the same coaching staff intact for 2021, that 60% neutral pass rate and a very likely increase in deep targets make Terry McLaurin a strong value as the WR11 on Underdog. I’m not as bullish on Logan Thomas, but I do believe his modest TE9 price tag still offers value.
Tua Few Deep Targets to Go Around
If you find the vacated targets by depth data as interesting as I do, you may have noticed one of the teams with the fewest departing deep targets signed free agency’s best deep threat. Can fantasy football darling Will Fuller find success in this offense?
Well let’s start with the obvious, Fuller’s skillset is redundant for Miami given the presence of fellow-deep-threats Devante Parker and Preston Williams. Even worse, the Dolphins attempted the 5th-fewest deep targets in 2020 with 50, and 21 of those were from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
With a 10% deep ball rate, Tua ranked 33rd among 44 QBs with at least 10 deep attempts and 26th in overall ADoT. It’s safe to say Fuller won’t see the deep targets he did in Houston.
What about other areas of the field?
Fuller has shown promise in the intermediate area, registering a 121.8 passer rating in the 29 times (t-27th) he was targeted from 10–19 yards last season. However, his 35% share of short targets in 2020 spells concern for those who think he will add more work underneath. Among the 140 WRs with at least 20 targets last year, Fuller’s 35% short target share ranked t-116th. His NGS separation numbers don’t suggest massive future improvement here, as Fuller has consistently ranked middle of the pack in terms of average separation generated.
With a QB who doesn’t love to throw deep, tons of competition for deep targets, and a minimal likelihood he will separate underneath or even run many underneath routes, I’m not touching Will Fuller until at least the 7th round of Underdog drafts.
Marshall Faulk, Derrick Henry, or Mike Davis?
Atlanta’s 19% vacated target share ranks 18th, but interestingly, their 36% vacated B-LOS share ranks 5th and their 28% vacated short targets rank 11th thanks to the departures of both Todd Gurley and Brian Hill.
Even better, new Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith will be calling the plays after spending the last 2 seasons as the Titans’ offensive coordinator.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll recognize that the Titans’ star rusher from the last two seasons (Derrick Henry) has seen more carries than any other RB. Arthur Smith seems to like to commit to a single rusher, and unless they draft an RB on day 1 or day 2, that guy is going to be Mike Davis?
While the 2020 Titans did rank bottom-5 in both B-LOS and short targets, Matt Ryan has consistently ranked in the middle of the league in RB targets over the last 5 seasons, with 18% of his targets going to rushers in that time span. I would expect the Falcons 2021 RB target share to be slightly less than Ryan’s 5-year average, which should still place them in the top 20–24 in RB targets.
The real kicker here is just how good Mike Davis is. This man forced the 7th-most missed tackles in 2020 despite recording the 20th most rushing attempts among RBs. Davis also ranked 3rd in PFF’s elusive rating (among RBs with 100+ rush attempts), ahead of everyone not named Tony Pollard or Nick Chubb.
His price on Underdog? RB32.
Zero RBers rejoice, Mike Davis and his rock-bottom ADP are here to save you.