Fantasy impact of red-zone playcalling tendencies

Touchdowns are the lifeblood of fantasy scoring. Nothing gives a weekly matchup or player's season-long output a boon quite like finding paydirt repeatedly. Just look at David Johnson this year. His 20 total touchdowns paced the NFL and were a key factor in why he finished 34.4 fantasy points ahead of the next highest-scoring running back (Ezekiel Elliott, who had 16 total scores).

Unfortunately, as most seasoned fantasy players know, touchdowns are fickle beasts to project for any player on any team in any given year. T.J. Hernandez of noted this in his positional studies last year, as across the board touchdowns ranked among the least predictive stats for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends.

Yet, we can all agree that touchdowns are more easily scored the closer to the end zone a team gets. Red-zone scoring is like the meat and potatoes of any well-balanced NFL offense. There were 1,230 offensive touchdowns scored in 2016, with 919 coming in the red zone (74.7 percent).

What I'm hoping to offer in this brief study is a glimpse into the playcalling trends of NFL teams in the red zone, as well as what changed in 2016. On a player-by-player basis, red-zone usage is also difficult to predict. However, knowing a team historically throws the ball frequently as they approach the end zone could be a useful tie-breaker for drafters this summer.

What you'll find below are the red-zone playcalling percentages for all 32 teams from 2012 to 2015, and then in a separate table what they did in 2016. I'll try to shed light on big shifts in philosophy where applicable. (h/t to NFL researchers Careen Falcone and Evan Lazar for their mensch-like help in compiling all of this data.)

Red-zone playcalling tendencies from 2012-2015

I chose 2012 as the start of this study for a few reasons. First, it skips the 2011 lockout year (which was strange and featured many offensive outlier seasons). Second, it gives us the full career of top passers like Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, and third, a total of five years is a solid sample size for NFL data.

Other than Jacksonville leading the league in red-zone pass percentage, the rest of the teams in the top 10 aren't too surprising. Each team features an elite quarterback, which helps explain why they'd all pass near the end zone at least 57.7 percent of the time. Overall, 23 of the 32 teams preferred passing to rushing once in the red zone. The bottom teams are among the most run-heavy offenses overall in that span (Panthers, 49ers, Seahawks, Bills, Vikings), so it stands to reason that they'd stick with their bread and butter when it matters most.

It's interesting that the Patriots lean more heavily on the run than the pass when in the red zone. Given that Tom Brady is under center, most would probably assume the Pats would favor an aerial assault when threatening to score. However, as we see from this chart (and the one below), Bill Belichick and Brady aren't afraid of the ground game at all.

Washington's numbers are interesting as well, because this sample features both the height of the Robert Griffin III-Alfred Morris run-first offense under the Shanahans, as well as the beginning of the high-flying Kirk Cousins passing offense under Jay Gruden. It's worth noting that the team's red-zone pass percentage in 2015 was 56.7, signaling the beginning of a new era of offense in Washington.

Using this data as a baseline, let's now turn our attention to 2016 to see what changed, how it impacted the fantasy landscape, and what we can glean from this for 2017.

Red-zone playcalling in 2016

For this graph, I added one more column, percentage difference, that shows the increase/decrease in passing play percentage in the red zone in 2016 from the 2012-2015 sample.

Only five teams who were in the top 10 from 2012 to 2015 remained in the top 10 in 2016 (Lions, Jaguars, Packers, Steelers, Chargers). Of those who fell out, the two teams with the biggest drop (Cowboys, Broncos) both began new eras at quarterback, swapping out former elite passers in Tony Romo and Peyton Manning for young blood with Dak Prescott and Trevor Siemian. It wouldn't be surprising to see these teams rise a bit in terms of red-zone passing percentage next year. Overall, 25 teams favored the pass to the run in the red zone, up two from the previous chart, while the league average for passing percentage in the red zone rose by 1.4 points. This shouldn't surprise anyone who watches the modern era NFL.

While the Saints passing percentage fell a bit, Brees led the league in red-zone pass attempts (107) and his 28 touchdown passes in that space ranked second in the NFL (behind Aaron Rodgers, 31). This is also a reminder that even though the Patriots show a preference to run the football near the end zone in recent years (including 2016), Tom Brady is still Tom Brady when it counts. He had 20 touchdowns and just one interception in the red zone in 14 games this year. In 2014, he tied for the league lead with 25 touchdowns in the red zone despite throwing the ball on just 48.2 percent of his plays there. Oh, and before you think this was simply because of Brady's four-game suspension, think again. LeGarrette Blount actually averaged more carries per game in the red zone after Brady returned in Week 5 (4.58) than when Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett were under center (3.25). All this is just a reminder that this data is one small piece of the puzzle.

Let's hit a few more takeaways before calling this. The Seahawks saw the second-highest jump in passing percentage in the red zone, which seems to be a direct cause of the myriad running back problems they faced. Between injuries to Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise as well as the release of Christine Michael, one of the most traditionally run-heavy offenses was forced to rely on the right arm of Russell Wilson instead. This happened a bit last year as well, but we know the Seahawks still want to be able to run the ball and I'd expect their red-zone playcalling to even out in 2017. Meanwhile, the Ravens backfield was a revolving door all year, with Justin Forsett, Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon each taking stabs at a "lead" role (West was the closest to actually holding that title). As a result, the team's passing percentage rose significantly. If the team finds more of a featured back for next year, that could return to a more normal split.

Tennessee is going to be a team to watch in fantasy next year. In his career, Mariota has 33 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone. It's encouraging that the team allowed him to sling it near the end zone more frequently in his sophomore season, despite the free agent acquisition of DeMarco Murray and drafting of Derrick Henry. Rishard Matthews enjoyed a breakout season in 2016, especially in the red zone where he caught 12 of his 15 targets for seven scores. No other Titans wide receiver had more than four red-zone targets. If his connection with Mariota improves this offseason, Matthews could be a draft bargain as he currently lacks the name recognition to climb up very high in fantasy drafts. Of course, Mariota's health will need to be monitored, but his late-season injury could also cause him to slip in drafts as well.

I could go on forever here, but as I said in the top, I simply wanted to use this data to give you all a piece of the puzzle for 2017 fantasy drafts. Let me know your takeaways or hit me up with more questions on Twitter @AlexGelhar. Enjoy the Super Bowl and the beginning of the NFL "offseason." We'll be here all throughout providing analysis to help you get ready for fantasy this fall. Until next time.

Alex Gelhar is a fantasy writer/editor for Follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar and "Like" his page on Facebook here.

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