Game Theory

Projecting NFL win share leaders on offense, defense in 2020

Inspired by the idea of wins above replacement in baseball and real plus-minus in basketball, I created a metric that measures the contribution of each player, position group and side of the ball for every snap in an NFL season. I'm calling it win share to reflect the fact that 11 players are working together on the field for each team at any given time, meaning that the "share" part is a really big factor -- and the interconnectedness took a lot of time to model out.

The metric is built around the number of times a player impacts first downs and touchdowns that lead to wins or losses, either by creating such first downs and touchdowns on offense or by preventing them on defense. On-ball impact (like when a wide receiver is targeted directly) and off-ball impact (like when a wide receiver draws coverage away from other players on the field, resulting in a better matchup for a different pass catcher) are both measured. Win share adds up all of the positive on- and off-ball plays and subtracts the negative ones in order to help attribute a value to each player and phase of the game, as represented by the number of wins each player is responsible for on an individual level in a given season. Personnel on the field, game situations and matchups are all factored in, to the degree that it's possible.

Now the important part: Who will lead the NFL in win share in 2020? Below, you'll find the top five projected win share leaders among quarterbacks, non-quarterback offensive players and defensive players, listed along with their projected win shares for the 2020 NFL season. I have added some notes about units, too. Let me know what you think! You can reach me on Twitter @cfrelund.

QUARTERBACKS

Rank
1
Patrick Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · 5.5 wins

The Super Bowl LIV MVP has earned 25 touchdowns on deep passes and 76 total passing touchdowns since 2018 (both are the most in the NFL over that span, per Next Gen Stats). Win share factors in how much is asked of a player, so it's worth noting that some question marks in Kansas City's defensive backfield could lead to high-scoring Chiefs games. That means a heavy workload for Mahomes and his counterpart (the Chiefs project to score a lot, meaning opponents will have to pass a lot). Mahomes forecasts to lead the league in passing yards in my model (4,790, with the best chance to reach 5,000 yards of any QB). He also projects to have the most passing touchdowns (37).

Rank
2
Lamar Jackson
Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · 5.3 wins

The reigning MVP's 36 passing touchdowns led the NFL last season, and 24 of those came against the blitz (10 more than anyone else had vs. the blitz), per NGS. Jackson set a single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,206) and his 6.9 yards per rush paced the league. In other words, teams had to pick their poison against Jackson. The Ravens' defense improved this offseason with the addition of Calais Campbell, and their corners rank as the league's third-best unit at the position in my model. This means it's possible a little less will be required of Jackson in 2020. I should point out that the more complementary the team is as a whole, the more wins it earns. So it's not a knock on Jackson that he ranks second among QBs; it's more a reflection of the Ravens' overall strength as a team.

Rank
3
Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · 5.2 wins

Russell Wilson is the only quarterback to throw 30-plus passing touchdowns in each of the past three seasons, and his 8.4 yards per attempt when facing four or fewer pass rushers ranked third in the NFL last season, per NGS. Despite a sub-par offensive line, Wilson's receivers caught a league-high 32 deep passes. So, why isn't he higher on this list? Well, all of these win share totals are the median projection, which are representative of what is most likely to happen. But there are a range of most likely outcomes, and Wilson could easily end up at the top of this list. My model flags the Seahawks' ability (or lack thereof) to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks as a potentially big problem. Wilson might be asked to do even more in order for Seattle to be victorious, which would push his win share up. 

Rank
4
Kyler Murray
Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · 5.0 wins

While the Cardinals' streak of seasons with a record of .500 or worse extended to four last year, the team (Murray in particular) gave fans reason to hope that a turnaround could be imminent. Despite being sacked 48 times (tied for most in the league), Murray showed steady improvement and was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year after throwing 20 TD passes and finishing second to Lamar Jackson in rushing yards among QBs with 544. The Cardinals fielded four or more receivers on 33 percent of plays last season and they were the only team to use this personnel configuration more than 10 percent of the time, according to NGS. Interestingly, their new WR1, DeAndre Hopkins, leads the NFL in boundary metrics since 2016 with 117 targets, 39 receptions and 620 yards. Boundary metrics measure targets that are within two yards of the sideline, which means coach Kliff Kingsbury will be able to dial up plays that utilize even more space for Murray and the offense to work with in 2020. 

Rank
5
Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans · 4.9 wins

To say that Watson's ability to complete passes forecasts to decrease without receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was dealt to the Cardinals this offseason, is an understatement. The good news is Will Fuller returns healthy. Watson has completed 43.2 percent of deep-passing attempts with Fuller on the field compared to just 34.3 percent with him off the field since 2017, according to NGS. The QB's demonstrated production even in very unfavorable circumstances (Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times in 2018 and 44 times in 2019, which was sixth-most) using both his rushing and passing skills drives his top-five win share. Keeping Watson away from pressure will be a huge key to the Texans' offensive efficiency, as he has the fourth-highest passer rating when not under pressure since 2017 (112.9), per NGS. 

NON-QB OFFENSIVE PLAYERS

Rank
1
Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · 1.65 wins

After pacing the league in snaps played among running backs last season (1,004), McCaffrey again figures to be a high-volume contributor. Given new offensive coordinator Joe Brady's past play-calling tendencies, McCaffrey should continue to see a heavy workload, and the efficiency of his results could improve in the new scheme. McCaffrey's versatility and pass-catching ability are a great strategic fit not only for Brady's offense but also for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's quick-passing efficiency. And his 5.0 yards per rush on inside runs last season (second-most among backs who attempted at least 75 inside runs) really stood out to me.

Rank
2
Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · 1.61 wins

Henry averaged 4.2 yards after contact last season (most in the NFL among players with at least 100 rushes, per Pro Football Focus). Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith created the right set of circumstances for his players to optimize their performance in 2019 and he figures to do the same thing this season despite losing an above-average right tackle in free agency (Jack Conklin). When I modeled the Titans' 2020 season without Conklin to help determine the change in opportunity for the rest of the offense, it was surprisingly not as much of a downgrade as I expected. The personnel they field (use of tight ends) and the impact of Isaiah Wilson (their first-round pick this year) helped soften that blow. Henry projects to lead the league in rushing yards again this season (1,380) in my model.

Rank
3
Saquon Barkley
Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · 1.54 wins

While Barkley's projected win share would be higher if Nate Solder -- who opted out of the 2020 season -- were playing right tackle, Barkley's use in the passing game bolsters his total. The Giants' exceptional back has forced 42 missed tackles on 143 career receptions, per PFF. He averaged 5.1 yards per rush on inside runs in 2019, which was the most in the NFL (minimum 75 inside runs), according to NGS. Looking at new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's tendencies from his time in Dallas, it's very likely that Barkley will be relied on even more than we've seen in the past. 

Rank
4
Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · 1.5 wins

En route to setting the NFL single-season receptions record in 2019, 54 of Thomas' 149 catches and 662 of his 1,725 yards came against press coverage (both were league highs). NGS has some really interesting route information that helps show just how ridiculous Thomas was last season. Looking at crossing, out, slant and hitch routes, Thomas had no lower than a 78.6 percent catch rate on any of them. The low was on hitch routes, while the other three ranged between a catch rate of 87.9 and 89.7 percent. Here's the scary thing for opposing defenses: Thomas now has free-agent addition Emmanuel Sanders to help draw defensive pressure away from him. 

Rank
5
Dalvin Cook
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · 1.3 wins

Cook scored 10 touchdowns on rushes outside the tackles in 2019, which tied for the most in the NFL with Derrick Henry. When I track Cook with computer vision and look at rushes when one or more defender had a square-hipped touch (a proxy for when a tackle could have occurred) over the past two seasons, he averaged nearly an additional 0.75 yards per rush after being touched, which ranks eighth among backs in that span. The Vikings' reliance on play-action passing means Cook's importance receives a boost in terms of win share, and with some questions in the passing game due to the departure of proven wideout Stefon Diggs, Cook's impact could be felt more than ever.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS

Rank
1
Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · 1.8 wins

No defensive lineman got more attention on passing plays than the Rams' No. 99 last season, and it wasn't close. The next-closest defensive lineman was double (or more) teamed a whopping 17 percent less often than Donald. To put this in perspective, think of 20 percent as a high rate ... so Donald's 40 percent is ridiculous. Despite that, he managed to pressure quarterbacks on 14.5 percent of his pass rushes in 2019, per NGS (highest among interior defenders, minimum 300 pass rushes). Donald's 0.88 seconds to cross the line of scrimmage was also the quickest among interior defensive linemen last season. His 267 QB pressures since 2016 paces the NFL. 

Rank
2
Stephon Gilmore
Stephon Gilmore
New England Patriots · 1.52 wins

Gilmore allowed a passer rating of just 47.4 last season (fourth lowest in the NFL, minimum 50 targets), according to PFF. And his completion percentage allowed (49.0) was the sixth lowest in the NFL. With key Pats defenders like Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung opting out, Gilmore will be relied on to blanket receivers and create the time necessary for the defensive front to pressure opposing passers. My model rated him No. 1 among cornerbacks in win share last season.

Rank
3
Myles Garrett
Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · 1.50 wins

Garrett pressured quarterbacks on 17.1 percent of dropbacks last season, which was the highest rate recorded by any player since 2016. And the Browns clearly missed him when he wasn't on the field in 2019. They were able to earn a 32.9 percent pressure rate with Garrett last season; that rate fell to 21.5 percent when he was absent. There are only three players with a pressure rate of 12-plus percent in each of the last three seasons: Donald, Von Miller and Garrett. His impact this season will go a long way toward determining if Cleveland ends its playoff drought. 

Rank
4
Chandler Jones
Chandler Jones
Arizona Cardinals · 1.4 wins

Jones generated a sack on 3.6 percent of pass rushes last season, which was the second-highest rate in the NFL (minimum 300 pass rushes), and my model projects the Cardinals to be a high-scoring offense in 2020. This means the opposition will likely be forced to pass a lot against Arizona and only heightens Jones' value, especially when you factor in how Jones can help the team's defensive backs by putting heat on quarterbacks. There will be a premium placed on pressure (and sacks) for the Cardinals. 

Rank
5
Khalil Mack
Khalil Mack
Chicago Bears · 1.35 wins

Last season was not Mack's best. His 10.5 percent pressure rate and 49 total pressures were his lowest marks in those categories since 2016. Mack receives attention similar to Aaron Donald, as he has ranked in the top five in double (or more) teamed passing snaps over the past two seasons. However, the return of Akiem Hicks from injury forecasts to help Mack be more impactful. The Bears' defense has pressured opposing quarterbacks on 31.1 percent of dropbacks with Hicks on the field since 2016. Chicago was only able to generate a 23.3 percent rate with Hicks off the field during that span. My model agrees with Mack's assertions about bouncing back in 2020.

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