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 Rams
Last Year’s Accuracy
Though 2019 was a somewhat disappointing year for the Rams, Sean McVay remains firmly entrenched as the head coach. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was not so lucky. Despite his defense actually improving over 2018, Phillips was not renewed after his contract ended. The Rams instead bring in former Broncos LB coach Brandon Staley to be their new DC. Also of note, the Rams will actually employ an offensive coordinator this year after McVay filled the role himself last year. Kevin O’Connell joins the staff after operating as the Redskins OC last year.
Of course, regardless of who holds the title of offensive coordinator, this is still McVay’s offense. Pinning down exactly what McVay’s offense is, however, is more challenging than you would expect. One major aspect of the Rams offense has changed each of the three years since McVay took over back in 2017.
In 2017, the Rams broke out riding Todd Gurley in the running game. Their offense operated at a measured pace, producing only 1000 plays over the course of the season. Predictably, their offense was tied for the 7th highest run rate in the league (45.4%). When they did pass, their wide receivers commanded the lion’s share of the targets at 62.0% while their running backs garnered 19.5% and their tight ends only saw 17.0%.
In 2018, McVay picked up the pace substantially as the Rams jumped up to 1060 plays run. The team was still a run-heavy outfit compared to league average, but did increase their pass rate slightly to 56.7% after Gurley started to run into knee issues as the season wore on. The increase in passing volume did not heavily affect target splits as all three position groups changed only about 2%.
In 2019, the downfall of both Gurley and the offensive line led to a complete makeover to minimize the running back position. The team suddenly jumped up to a 62.0% pass rate, 8th highest in the league. They even minimized the role of running backs in the passing game as their 9.8% target share was by far the lowest in the league, a full 4% lower than the next lowest team. With the tight ends seeing the field more to bolster the floundering offensive line, they claimed the entirety of the target shares that the running backs lost. This led to the tight ends posting the 7th highest target share in the league for the position.
Oddly, the wideout target share seems to be the only constant since McVay took over. In the last three years, the Rams wide receivers have commanded target shares of 62.0%, 63.6%, and 62.2%.
So now that Gurley and Brandin Cooks are gone, what comes next for McVay’s offense? The Rams immediately went out and replaced their two lost stars with their first two picks in the draft. Drafting running back Cam Akers in particular drives home the idea that McVay simply didn’t trust last year’s rookie back Darrell Henderson, which contributed to the running backs’ low usage. It’s unlikely that Akers will be able to match Gurley’s production, but if he can just be most of what Gurley was then the backfield should see a resurgence in usage, both on the ground and through the air.
Of course, those added targets must come from somewhere. This is where things get tricky. As mentioned above, McVay shifted to more 2TE sets toward the end of the year thanks to a battered and bruised offensive line. Assuming the line is now healthy and at least able to return to decency, does McVay return to his famously preferred 3WR sets? He has talked up Josh Reynolds as being the reason he was willing to trade Cooks, and a 2nd round pick for Van Jefferson was not a small investment. On the other hand, those 2TE sets worked very well at the end of the year and the Rams do boast a trio of solid tight ends in addition to the one they just drafted. At the end of the day, McVay will probably continue to primarily rely on 3WR sets but shouldn’t almost exclusively operate out of that formation like he has in the past. The end result of this is that both the wideouts and tight ends should see some drain in target share in order to feed the regrowth of the running backs’ share.
One last point worth noting is that the Rams’ defense is slowly bleeding talent. Sure, they’ve been able to sign a few solid replacements, but it doesn’t change the fact that this defense just isn’t as good on paper as they have been the last few years. Hopefully Staley has enough to work with to keep the defense performing, but if he has growing pains as he adjusts to his new role it could put a damper on the Akers-led backfield resurgence. The Rams almost certainly won’t fall back to their 2019 run-pass ratio, but they might struggle to return to their 2018 form.
Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
Ride or Dynasty