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.
Last Year’s Accuracy
For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.
For the fourth time in head coach Bill O’Brien’s tenure, the Texans made the playoffs but failed to advance past the divisional round. Of course, that also means O’Brien has brought the Texans to the playoffs four times in six years. Nothing to sneeze at there. As a result, O’Brien will return in 2020 along with his offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will remain with the organization as a senior adviser, but Anthony Weaver will be promoted to call the shots on defense after a severe defensive regression.
Under O’Brien’s playcalling, the Texans had been trending toward being a more run-heavy team in recent years (41.9% in 2015 to 45.4% in 2018, about 1% per year). Tim Kelly dialed it back a bit in his first year calling plays, though was still well within O’Brien’s range. In fact, O’Brien’s influence on Kelly was pretty clear as most of the hallmarks of O’Brien’s offense were still intact. The passing game continued to be very wide receiver-centric as they received a 62.4% target share, 5th highest in the NFL. The running backs, meanwhile, continued to be heavily de-emphasized in the passing game as their 14.8% target share was the 5th lowest in the NFL.
One of the hallmarks that didn’t transfer was the high play count that O’Brien historically strives for. It wasn’t due to a change of speed on the offense as Kelly continued to operate a slightly-faster-than-average offense much like his boss used to, and with similar success. The issue appears to fall more on the shoulders of the defense (hence Weaver’s promotion). While the defense was able to produce a fair number of turnovers, they were also bottom-5 in plays per drive and TOP per drive allowed. This kept the offense off the field, preventing them from racking up plays like we’re used to. Poor defensive play likely also forced the offense to pass to keep up more often, which would explain the run rate regression.
One last thing worth mentioning was the effect of Laremy Tunsil. Penalty issues aside, having an anchor at left tackle proved to be a boon for QB Deshaun Watson as his sack rate dropped by 2.5% between 2018 and 2019.
One thing is sure looking ahead to 2020; Weaver will have his work cut out for him. After a rough year defensively in 2019, the Texans lost a handful of key defensive players to free agency. They did bring in a fair number of new faces, but day 2 rookies and backup-caliber veterans aren’t typically considered immediate impact players. Maybe their fortunes improve if J.J. Watt can stay healthy for a change, but as it stands it doesn’t look like the defense will see any substantial improvement this year. If the defense is once again letting opposing offenses run amok, it’s difficult to project an increase in play totals. Similarly, we shouldn’t expect the run rate to jump back up either.
One thing that might jump a bit is the running back target share. The acquisition of David Johnson for DeAndre Hopkins in a questionable trade leaves a target vacuum at wide receiver while upgrading the backfield. However, that doesn’t automatically mean the Texans running backs will suddenly become a feature piece of the passing game. Lamar Miller was a talented pass catcher out of the backfield, yet he only led the running backs to 16.4% and 13.2% target shares in his two healthy years. Besides, the Texans attempted to replace Hopkins with Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks. Obviously those two combined still aren’t at Hopkins’s level of talent, but they could mop up most of his vacated targets. A small bump to the running backs’ target shares can be expected, but don’t expect anything drastic.
Lastly, it will be interesting to watch this year how losing his primary crutch affects Watson. Obviously it always hurts to lose someone as talented as Hopkins, but there are examples of quarterbacks improving when they can’t just chuck it up to their star receiver anymore. This year will be a test to see if Watson is truly an elite NFL talent or simply a product of a good situation. We’re going to assume the former for the purposes of our projections, but it’s a caveat worth keeping mind.
Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
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