The stat “red zone opportunities” gets thrown around a lot. Fantasy players love to say it, DFS analysts love to use it and even NFL coaches mention it. Here’s a dirty little secret: What we really want are opportunities inside the 5-yard line and at the 1-yard line. Targets and carries from the the “traditional” red zone of 20 yards out simply aren’t that valuable.
Understanding the value of an opportunity from a certain place on the field is all about touchdowns. And touchdowns are by nature highly volatile and difficult to project. But whereas in cash games we can afford to underweight touchdown priority in favor of opportunity, GPPs require us to pile up scores. In order to beat a field of 10,000 or 100,000 entries, we’re going to need to our guys to find the end zone a lot.
With that in mind, I wanted to explore exactly where NFL touchdowns come from. Once we understand that, we can better project scoring opportunities and gain more value from team tendencies.
2018 OFFENSIVE TOUCHDOWNS* 1,286 total
* 38.8% from 1-5 yards out
* 16.3% from 6-10 yards out
* 12.4% from 11-15 yards out
* 8.1% from 16-20 yards out
* 24.5% from all other places on the field
— Note: 16.0% of the 1,286 touchdowns came from exactly 1-yard out.
2017 OFFENSIVE TOUCHDOWNS* 1,121 total
* 38.4% from 1-5 yards out
* 17.9% from 6-10 yards out
* 9.9% from 11-15 yards out
* 7.5% from 16-20 yards out
* 26.7% from all other places
— Note: 16.1% from exactly 1-yard out
2016 OFFENSIVE TOUCHDOWNS* 1,229 total
* 43.2% from 1-5 yards out
* 16.8% from 6-10 yards out
* 9.4% from 11-15 yards out
* 6.9% from 16-20 yards out
* 23.9% from all other places
— Note: 16.5% from exactly 1-yard out
1. Look at how sticky these rates are from year-to-year. In such a small-sample sport like football, it’s difficult to find stats we can bank on going forward. But we can say with confidence that in 2019, roughly 40% of offensive touchdowns will come from 1-5 yards away from the end zone. We also can say with extreme confidence that around 16% of offensive touchdowns will come from exactly 1-yard out.
2. Yes, a majority of touchdowns come in the “red zone.” To be exact, 75.5% in 2018, 73.3% in 2017 and 76.1% in 2016. However, we can see the eye-opening descending value as we move further away from the end zone. It’s a bit more complicated than this, but simply put, an opportunity from inside the 5-yard line is worth around 2.4x in touchdown expectation than a carry from 6-10 yards out. An opportunity from inside the 5-yard line is worth a whopping 5.3x in touchdown expectation than a carry from 16-20 yards out.
Now that we are aware of the relative value of a field-position adjusted opportunity, we can attempt to apply it to teams and players. What is an offense most likely to do if it’s inside the 5-yard line?
The sample here is small, and personnel/coaching changes create volatility. But here are 2018’s most pass-heavy teams when inside the 5-yard line, via SharpFootballStats.com:
1. Dolphins (80% pass) – Head coach Adam Gase replaced by Brian Flores.
2. Vikings (63% pass) – Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo replaced in-house by Kevin Stefanski.
3. Falcons (63% pass) – Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian replaced by Dirk Koetter.
4. Packers (61% pass) – Head coach Mike McCarthy replaced by Matt LaFleur.
5. Texans (58% pass)
And here are the most run-heavy teams when inside the 5-yard line:
1. Titans (73% run) – Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur replaced in-house by Arthur Smith.
2. Redskins (71% run)
3. Rams (69% run)
4. Patriots (68% run)
5. Jaguars (65% run)
- The inside-5 run rates of the Titans, Rams and Patriots stand out as ones that should continue. The Titans are committed to building around Derrick Henry after his late-season tear. Todd Gurley is the Rams’ featured player near the goal line — or at least he was during the regular season. Sony Michel played a version of the LeGarrette Blount role of the Patriots, barely ever releasing into pass patterns but scoring six rushing touchdowns in three playoff games.
- The sample size on that Dolphins rate is very small as they were inside the 5-yard line only 10 times last year. They also have a new quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick) and offensive coordinator (Chad O’Shea) on top of new head coach Brian Flores. We could see a drastically different approach from the Dolphins in close, but as they tank, the scoring opportunities again project to be very low.
- Dirk Koetter was with the Falcons from 2012-14 as their offensive coordinator. During that time, Michael Turner (2012) and Steven Jackson (2014) were both among the league leaders in carries inside the 5-yard line.
When building any kind of prediction or projection model, understanding which stats are actually important should be our No. 1 priority. Instead of projecting who will get the ball at the 20- or 10-yard line, shifting our focus solely to who will get the ball inside the 5-yard line is an easy fix. On top of that, projecting how many opportunities a team will have inside the 5-yard line each game is difficult, but a worthwhile thought exercise each week.
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I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is adamlevitan) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.