When setting your DraftKings NFL lineup it is important to identify which players have the highest potential to score touchdowns. One way to identify touchdown potential is understanding a team’s run/pass tendencies close to the goal line. Knowing which teams favor the run or the pass can help you make a decision between two similar players or identify untapped value.
Consider two potential Week 1 discount options – Packers’ rookie Jamaal Williams and Panthers’ veteran Jonathan Stewart. These running backs are attractive for similar reasons. Both Stewart and Williams are probably the secondary back in a time-share situation, but behind starters who leave ample room for doubt. Both players excel in short-yardage work, while the starters ahead of them are better as pass-catchers or open-field runners. Finally, both Stewart and Williams have appeal as high-upside potential touchdown vultures. But in the hunt for touchdowns, only one of these players actually makes sense.
Jamaal Williams checks all the boxes for a cheap value play. The Packers will probably start converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery at running back, and other Packers running backs will be considerably discounted. Furthermore, the Packers drafted three RBs in the 2017 draft – hardly a display of confidence in Montgomery. Williams, the first of those three RBs selected, is alternately described as a “bruiser” or a “power back” – terms the fantasy community reflexively translates into “goal line option.” Williams, it appears, is a perfect storm of value on DraftKings – a potentially discounted price, backup to a starter with big question marks and the possibility of goal line carries.
Here’s the problem: Mike McCarthy’s Packers don’t run the ball in the red zone. Even during bruising power-rusher Eddie Lacy’s Pro Bowl 2013 season, the Packers rarely ran the ball in the red zone compared to the rest of the league. In each of the last five seasons, the Packers have ranked at the bottom of the league in percentage of rushing attempts in the red zone. Put differently, an unusually small proportion of the Packers’ plays in the red zone are rushes, while an unusually high proportion are pass attempts. Inside the 5-yard line, the Packers are even more extreme. League-wide, 56 percent of all plays inside the 5 were rushes last season; the Packers ranked dead last, at only 37 percent. There might not be many chances for Williams to vulture touchdowns after all.
The Packers aren’t the only team with clear play-calling preference inside the red zone, and understanding each team’s tendencies can translate to DraftKings value.
Perhaps the clearest counter-example to the Packers is Stewart’s Panthers. Since the beginning of coach Ron Rivera’s tenure in Carolina, the Panthers have ranked in the top 10 for percentage of rush plays inside the 5-yard line. Each season, they ran the ball on at least 63 percent of all such plays. In two of the last three years, more than 70 percent of their plays inside the 5 were rushes. While many of those rush plays were called for QB Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart managed multiple touchdowns in each season that he remained mostly healthy. Stewart, now 30 and with more than 1,500 career rush attempts, is generally expected to lose carries to rookie Christian McCaffrey. Of the two, Stewart is clearly more suited to short-yardage work, while McCaffrey is expected to get more touches and more total yards from scrimmage.
When salaries are finally announced this August, Stewart will probably cost more than Williams, but managers looking at either player will use similar reasoning. Daily gamers will look to both as a source of low-cost touchdowns. The difference is, Stewart plays for a team that rushes in the red zone, while Williams does not.
Which teams rush vs. which teams pass?
The Bengals have been the most run-heavy red zone team in recent years. Over the last three years, they led the league in rush percentage inside the 20, inside the 10, and inside the 5. The Panthers ranked second at each distance. This helps RBs Joe Mixon and Jeremy Hill, while it diminishes the upside of whichever receiver takes the starting role opposite A.J. Green.
The Seahawks also have a strong preference for running in the red zone. Even during 2016, when injuries decimated the Seahawks’ backfield and no RB appeared in more than nine games, their preference for red zone rushing held. Although they attempted more red zone passes than in previous seasons, they remained among the league leaders in rush percentage. In addition to boosting their running backs’ value, this preference hurts TE Jimmy Graham. Assuming the Seahawks’ backfield is healthier, Graham is unlikely to match last season’s 20 red zone targets.
Three other teams — the Vikings, Eagles and Bills — stand out as run-focused in the red zone. However, all three have undergone recent coaching changes, so the data on them is less reliable. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is the longest tenured of the group, with three seasons in Minnesota under his belt. The Bills hired Sean McDermott this offseason, but his background is as a defensive coordinator. McDermott hired Rick Dennison to run the offense. While Dennison was the offensive coordinator for the Broncos they approached league average in their pass-run red zone split.
|Team||RZ run % (last 3 years)||Inside the 10||Inside the 5|
The Packers have been the most pass-heavy red zone offense, but the Lions are not far behind. Lions coach Jim Caldwell has only been in place for three seasons, but their offense has been stable and productive and featured a lot of passing since Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator.
The Chargers have a recent history of favoring the pass, but they also hired a new head coach this offseason: Anthony Lynn, who spent much of his career as a running backs coach. Lynn has demonstrated a strong tendency towards red zone rushing throughout his career, so expect the Chargers to shift their scoring strategies now that he is in charge.
Several teams showed a general preference for passing near the end zone but had a single outlier season when their play calling shifted dramatically. Teams like the Steelers and Titans seem to prefer passing in the red zone but will adapt as needed in the case of injury (Ben Roethlisberger in 2015) or after signing a marquee talent (DeMarco Murray in 2016). Other teams that typically favor passing, but had an outlier season include the Ravens, Broncos and Bears. The Broncos hired a new coach and offensive coordinator this offseason, but the coordinator has a history of leading pass-heavy red zone offenses.
|Team||RZ pass % (last 3 years)||Inside the 10||Inside the 5|
I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is arikleen) 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.