By Alex Levin
With the draft complete and the bulk of the free agency rush over with, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2020 season! And with that, I’m back with year 2 of my Opportunity series.
For those who didn’t see this series last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill rankings. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.
As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.
Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.
Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.
Los Angeles Chargers
Last Year’s Accuracy
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.
Such a disappointing season after two promising ones to start head coach Anthony Lynn’s tenure. As the song goes though, two out of three ain’t bad so Lynn will retain his post. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will remain on the staff as well. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was not so lucky. While his offense was still able to churn out yards like we’re used to seeing, it also ended drives with turnovers at the second highest rate in the league. Whisenhunt was replaced halfway through last season with interim OC Shane Steichen, who will drop the “interim” from his title entering 2020.
Anthony Lynn does have an offensive background himself, but he has consistently deferred to his offensive coordinator for playcalling duties since landing with the Chargers. This included Steichen even while only acting as the interim OC, which incidentally is the only playcalling experience he’s had so far in his career (fun fact; Steichen was three years younger than the QB he called plays for last year). With that eight game stretch being all the data we have on the Charger’s new OC, that’s what we’ll take a look at.
For the half of the season Steichen was in charge, the Chargers offense picked up the pace a little bit; they ran 517 total plays in the last eight games under Steichen versus 453 in the first eight under Whisenhunt. The 1034-play pace wouldn’t have set the world on fire or anything, but the uptick in game speed is noteworthy nonetheless. Also noteworthy was the change in offensive balance. In the first eight games of the season, Whisenhunt’s playcalling was uncharacteristically pass-heavy at a whopping 70.6% pass rate. Perhaps it was simply the result of Melvin Gordon’s holdout, but once Steichen took over the team returned to a more typical 60.2% pass rate. Still a little higher than the 58-ish% from the previous two years, but in the same ballpark at least.
With the change in offensive balance also came a reshuffling of target shares. Under Whisenhunt, the wide receivers continued the trend from the previous two years by commanding 55.2% of the targets. The 28%/14% balance between the running backs and tight ends was a little extreme compared to before, but an early injury to Hunter Henry likely played a significant role in that. Under Steichen however, the wideouts were heavily de-emphasized as their target share was reduced to a scant 43.6%. Those missing targets were split between the other positions as the running back target share increased to 33.0% and the tight end target share increased to 18.6%.
An interesting note about the shift in target shares was an increase in “no target” throws under Steichen (while not strictly defined as throwaways in this case, there is a strong correlation between the two). Under Whisenhunt, only 2.3% of throws did not have a target. That number increased to 4.8% under Steichen. Perhaps not coincidentally, the team interception rate also increased from 2.3% to 4.5%.
While the goal of this series is primarily to focus on the coaching staff and scheme, the most significant change looking toward 2020 is that longtime franchise QB Philip Rivers is no longer a Charger. Rookie Justin Herbert was drafted to be the eventual successor, but veteran Tyrod Taylor was brought in to be the bridge QB. Perhaps Herbert will take over at some point midseason, but Taylor is very likely to be the day one starter so we’ll assume that he’ll start at least a good chunk of the season. Obviously a changing of the guard at football’s most important position will always have an impact on team performance, but this change is particularly drastic. The Chargers have ditched Rivers’s more aggressive style of play for Taylor’s uber-conservative style.
So what does Taylor’s conservative play mean? First of all, it means the newly upgraded offensive line is going to struggle to keep the sack rate down. Quite frankly it’s amazing they managed to keep the sack rate as low they did given their lack of talent up front, so the jump in sack rate could be a big one. It also means that the target share shift under Steichen last year will likely become permanent; the wideouts will likely continue to be targeted at one of the lowest rates in the NFL while the running backs should be featured, in particular breakout star Austin Ekeler.
It also means that the run-pass ratio is likely to even out a bit. Philip Rivers is many things, but a scrambling QB is not one of them. Taylor, on the other hand, is pretty lethal with his legs. Taylor’s ability to turn pass plays into scrambles should bring the run rate up a fairly noticeable amount. Even if Taylor gives way to Herbert at some point during the season, Herbert’s athleticism should allow him to continue that trend.
Assisting with the shift to a more run-heavy offense will be a defense bolstered by several big name free agents and a 1st round rookie linebacker. Perhaps the upgrades will also result in improvements on mediocre turnover and plays allowed numbers. If the defense can get the ball back into the offense’s hands more efficiently, then Steichen might be able to beat the 1034 play pace he set during the last eight games last year.
Alex Levin – Redraft
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