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 play calling 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.
Last Year’s Accuracy
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.
This kinda felt like a sinking ship the moment Cam Newton walked onto the field to start the season despite clearly still being under the effects of last season’s lingering injuries. To Ron Rivera’s credit, he did manage to last all the way through twelve games despite benching Newton after two. At the end of the day though, when your entire team’s success rests on the shoulders of a single injury-prone player then this is bound to happen sooner or later. Enter Matt Rhule. Carolina brings in Rhule as their new head coach after watching him turn Baylor’s program around in just three short years despite following in the wake of a massive scandal. Rhule brings with him his defensive coordinator from Baylor Phil Snow, and hired LSU WR coach and passing game coordinator Joe Brady as his new offensive coordinator.
As you may have noticed, every coach I just named came from the college ranks. There isn’t any notable pro-level history prior to their last college stops to draw from either; the three coaches combine for seven total seasons of NFL coaching experience in any capacity, with Snow being the only one to get above having “assistant” in his job title (Lions’ LB coach from 2006-2008). That means the only resource we have is what they were able to accomplish at the college level.
Starting with the head coach, Rhule strongly favors an old-school smashmouth approach to offense. At Temple (his previous stop before Baylor), Rhule ran a lot of 22 personnel, physically imposing his will on the defense. Realizing that style of offense wouldn’t work quite as well in the heart of spread-happy Texas, he modified his scheme to contain more spread elements, namely in the form of utilizing 3- and 4-WR sets. Despite the spread look though, Rhule’s offense still ran the ball, posting run percentages of 47.3%, 50.9%, and 53.2% in his 3 years at Baylor. In fact, switching to the spread look arguably made it easier for Rhule to up the run rate as he was able to put more weapons on the field at once. Specifically, he often expected his QB and wideouts to get involved in the running game on sneaks and jet sweeps.
When Rhule’s offense did pass, it was predictably WR-heavy; his wide receivers at Baylor owned reception shares of 73.6%, 76.0%, and 76.5% from 2017-2019, respectively. When his offense wasn’t throwing to wide receivers, it focused on running backs instead, hitting them up for 21.9%, 20.9%, and 20.9% of Baylor’s total receptions over those three years. These weren’t just simple screens and wheel routes either; Rhule expected his backs to be able to run full route trees and would frequently send them out just like any other receiver.
One important thing to note is that while Rhule definitely had an offensive scheme he liked to run with, he didn’t call plays as a head coach at Baylor, preferring instead to leave that to his offensive coordinator. This brings us to his new OC, Joe Brady. Naturally, Brady is even harder to find data on than Rhule thanks to his breakneck ascension through the coaching ranks (he was a graduate assistant at Penn State as recently as 2016). In fact, Brady has never actually been in charge of an offense at any level before now. The closest he came was being the passing game coordinator for last year’s FBS national champion LSU team where he shared playcalling duties. It is worth noting that LSU posted a run rate almost as high as Rhule’s Baylor team (47.3%) and their wide receivers and running backs recorded almost as high of shares of the total catches (70.4% and 19.7%, respectively), but it’s difficult to say how much influence Brady had on those numbers.
You might have heard, but Rhule loaded up on a few receivers in free agency. This fits the mold of what he did at Baylor. Throw in Christian McCaffrey’s all-pro skillset and you have to imagine that Rhule is pretty happy with how this offense shaped up. As noted above though, this concentration of wideout talent does not necessarily guarantee another year of lopsided run-pass ratio. Both Rhule and Brady ran pretty run-heavy offenses at their last stops, so it follows that they are likely to continue to do so this year. The one major stumbling block is that the defense was all kinds of bad last season, something that usually leads to higher pass rates. However, there should be some improvement after an all-defense draft. It’s unlikely that they suddenly become an elite group, but a jump up into the middle of the pack would not be unreasonable.
With all the new blood at wide receiver, it seems pretty logical that the wideouts will be featured in the passing game much like they were on Rhule’s Baylor team and Brady’s LSU team. And knowing McCaffrey’s talents, it’s unlikely that the running backs see any major reduction in target share. In order for both these things to happen, that means the tight ends are likely to see a major dip in target share. Not terribly surprising for a unit that just lost its starter in Greg Olsen. Whatever promise new starter Ian Thomas has shown doesn’t quite hold up against the talent the Panthers have accrued everywhere else.
One thing that will be interesting to see is what tempo the offense adopts. Rhule was known for a very slow pace while at Temple and his Baylor team continued to run far fewer plays than its opponents. Brady, meanwhile, comes from an LSU team that just torched opponents with their tempo last season. Brady will be calling the plays, but given Rhule’s general coaching philosophy it seems likely that he will enforce a slower tempo to allow his defense to get some rest between drives.
The last note worth mentioning is how much the Panthers’ sack rate spiked last year. After having consistently been right around 6% for years, it jumped to an astounding 8.4% despite the additions of a couple of big name linemen. Amplified by the high volume of plays and lopsided run-pass ratio, Carolina allowed the most sacks in the league last year at 58. They upgraded at left tackle this year by trading for Russell Okung, but that same trade left them hurting at guard, an issue that was exacerbated when they lost their other starting guard to free agency. Perhaps Carolina is hoping that they can plug and play replacement level guards behind their bigger name tackles and center. Two things that will likely help the line out a ton is the upgrade at QB with Teddy Bridgewater and forcing defenses to focus more on defending the run. Hopefully that’s enough to get the sack rate back under control.
Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
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