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.
The 7-9 finish was disappointing given the high hopes Indianapolis had coming into 2019, but then it’s hard to blame them after star QB Andrew Luck abruptly retired (ruining my dynasty team, by the way). All things considered, the Colts coaching staff did a remarkable job of keeping the team competitive despite losing their best player at the game’s most important position. It comes as no surprise then that head coach Frank Reich remains in charge. He also retains his two primary assistants, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
I think it’s fair to say that looking at the Colts over the last two years under Reich is a masterclass in the importance of the QB position. Most of the core players were unchanged between 2018 and 2019 with the notable exception of Luck’s retirement giving way to Jacoby Brissett. That one change was the driving reason for the drop from 1070 plays run in 2018 (3rd most in the league) to 1016 plays in 2019 (precisely league average). It also pushed Reich into calling a much more conservative offense, dropping from a 61.9% pass rate in 2018 (7th highest) to a 53.6% pass rate in 2019 (5th lowest).
However, while the change at QB significantly changed Reich’s method of playcalling, it didn’t change who Reich preferred to feature. The Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle led tight end group continued to feature prominently in the passing game as their 27.5% target share was the 4th highest mark in the league. The running backs, meanwhile, only logged a below-league-average 17.7% share while the wide receivers’ 49.7% share was the 8th lowest in the league.
Something worth noting with regard to the wide receivers though is just how thin the Colts have been at that position. The best weapon in Reich’s receiving corps these last two years has been an injured T. Y. Hilton. The next best? Probably Zach Pascal. Wide receivers have been something of an afterthought for targets during Reich’s tenure, but the scarcity of talent at the position may have something to do with it. One under-the-radar change that might have some impact is the signing of Mike Groh as the Colts’ new WR coach. His two seasons as offensive coordinator for the Eagles were underwhelming, but he was a smashing success as the Eagles WR coach during Philly’s Super Bowl run. Remember, Nelson “Stone Hands” Agholor actually posted a solid 65% catch rate under Groh’s direct tutelage. Perhaps a return to that position on the Colts’ staff could provide a similar boost to the undermanned unit.
Of course, if just changing the quarterback made that big a difference between 2018 and 2019, then what does blowing up half the skill positions do? The team was active in free agency and used some premium draft picks to shore up the questionable offense. The result is a new quarterback, a new running back, a new tight end, and a new wideout, all set to feature in prominent roles in 2020.
Let’s start with the basics. At 38 years old there’s disagreement as to how much of an improvement Philip Rivers will be over Brissett at quarterback. However, whatever you may think of Rivers he certainly won’t be a downgrade at the position. In terms of the weapons he has to throw to, replacing Eric Ebron with Trey Burton is a lateral move at best, but drafting wide receiver Michael Pittman is a huge boost to the receiving corps. Sure, he probably won’t be an instant hit being a rookie wideout with no team OTAs, but the Colts are so thin at the position that he’s still likely to assume a starting role this year. Perhaps the upgrades in the passing game will encourage Reich to pick up the pace like he did in 2018 as opposed to last year, or maybe lead him to raise the team’s pass rate.
On the flip side, it’s unlikely that Reich will suddenly go all the way back to his 2018 pass-happy scheme thanks to the team’s rookie running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor is a physical specimen with substantial college production to back it up. Paired with Marlon Mack in the backfield and running behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, how do you not just grind opposing defenses into submission? We can expect a small uptick in pass rate thanks to the substantial upgrades made in the passing game, but make no mistake; this offense will still be among the more run-heavy units in 2020.
When Reich does call for pass plays, it’s likely that we’ll see some small shifts in positional target shares. Pittman alone won’t suddenly make the wide receivers the centerpiece of the passing game, but any improvement over last year’s receiving corps will provide at least something of a boost. Similarly, Indianapolis’s sudden embarrassment of riches in the backfield makes it likely that the running backs will be featured a little more often. Neither group will likely make huge strides, but in order for both to make small ones that leaves the tight ends holding the short straw. Indeed, Trey Burton is not quite the threat Eric Ebron was and is coming off a troubling injury-plagued season. Without that red zone threat at TE2 across from Jack Doyle there’s a clear path for the tight end target share to make a little room for both the wideouts and running backs to see small increases.
Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
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