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NFL Week 8 Opening Drive: Red Zone Play Calling

Michael Waldo

It's Week 8 and that means we're nearly halfway through the fantasy football season!  Around this time each year, I like to take a step back and reflect on what things have gone right and what things have gone wrong in the early part of the year.  During this process, it's important to separate which events are controllable and which events are beyond your control.  Typically, things like injuries or league suspensions (i.e. playing Adrian Peterson in a Thursday lineup on FanDuel when he gets suspended on Friday) aren't something that you can readily manage on your own.  Sure, you can mitigate your risk by not selecting an injury prone player in the first place, but the beauty of weekly fantasy football is the fact that you don't have to worry about a player's long-term health outlook.  With that said, we know that freak injuries do happen, especially on an NFL field, so I'd like to focus more attention to the areas of the game that are in your control. 

There's a difference between failing to put together a good lineup and failing to put together a lineup that succeeds.  You can put together an outstanding lineup on paper but could easily come away empty handed on Tuesday morning.  Injuries are probably the most common reason your "good" lineup fails but there's a lot of other reasons too (i.e. Packers getting a big lead and pulling Aaron Rodgers in the 2nd half).  As you play in more DFS competitions, regardless of the sport, you'll find that there will be times when this will happen.  If you go through your process and identify the players with the best matchups or statistical indicators using your budgetary constraints, that's all you can do.   When it does happen, it's important to be able to accept the defeat and keep plugging away without changing your process.  Just because you aren't winning doesn't necessarily mean you're doing something wrong.   

So can your process be broken?  Absolutely!  But that's why you need to analyze the reasons for your failures before jumping to conclusions and making changes to your lineup construction methodology. Each week, I like to go through the top performers in the player pool to identify the players that had good weeks but I originally chose to avoid.  Conversely, I'll also look at the players on my team who I expected to do well but they failed to live up to my expectations.  I'll then try to determine the circumstances that caused the player to break out or fail (Did the opposing defense lose a key defensive player?  Did the coach change his offensive attack tendencies?  Was there an injury out the player's team that gave him more volume, etc).  It's essential to rationalize the performances of all players, learn from your mistakes, and improve upon while broadening your data sources.  Ask you yourself if you would have honestly been able to make any different personnel decisions at the beginning of the week with the information you had at the time.  Sure, hindsight it 20/20 and you can wish you would have played the optimal lineup but that's realistically not possible to do every week.  If you can't think of anything different that you could have changed, then your process is fine. 

This week I'll introduce a couple more useful tools to use when trying to identify player's with touchdown upside.  We spend so much time on digging into statistical trends, analyzing offensive schemes, and finding favorable matchups but we sometimes glaze over the most important thing of all.  While a lot of the advanced research is helpful, it does no good if your player doesn't see opportunities on the playing field.  Success in fantasy football is made possible by playing time but accomplished by everything else.  Similarly, success is the red zone is made possible by opportunity.  Below are two tables that rank the teams that run and pass the most in the red zone. 

Table 1: Red Zone Play Call Percentage By Team

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 7.42.00 PM.png

While you might watch the games, actually seeing the run versus pass tendencies of each NFL team is really eye-opening.  The interesting thing about the above charts are that the teams that pass the ball in the red zone tend to have better conversion rates than those teams that run the ball more frequently.  This isn't entirely surprising since usually it takes a team several attempts to punch the ball in on the ground while a team could easily score on a passing try on their first attempt.  Also interesting is looking at the teams who rank near the bottom.  Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay all boast running backs who rank among the league's best, yet the teams run the ball at the lowest rate in the NFL (although Forte does contribute through the air in the RZ).  The logical next step would be to identify which players you should target from teams who lead in passing and rushing, respectively.  To easily see this, I put together the leaders in RZ targets and RZ attempts in the table below.  Players with an asterisk play for a team that's ranked in the top 5 of their respective category in Table 1.   

Table 2: Red Zone Rush and Target Leaders

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 7.42.34 PM.png

The "RZ Opps %" column above calls out the percentage of targets that the given player receives on his team versus his teammates.  Ideally, a running back would receive the majority of red zone chances on his team while also playing for a team that ranks near the top in red zone rushing attempts.  Similarly, an ideal wide receiver would see the majority of the team's targets in the red zone while playing for a team that ranks near the top in red zone targets.  This is all pretty much common sense because more opportunities in the red zone are never a bad thing in fantasy football. 

So what if you could find a player leads in both red zone targets AND red zone rushes?  Running backs like Matt Forte and Ahmad Bradshaw appear on both of the lists above and would both be excellent plays from a volume perspective.  Is one better than the other?  This is where things get interesting.  Chicago leads the league with the highest percentage of passing plays in the red zone but that also means they are last in red zone rushing percentage.  For this reason, Forte has to battle against two other teammates for touches in the red zone since both Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett also rank near the top in red zone targets.  On the other hand, Indy's offensive attack around the goal line is a little more balanced and Bradshaw is the only Colt to appear on either of the lists above.  Dwayne Allen is obviously a threat but it's clear the Bradshaw is the number one option near the goal line for Andrew Luck and company.   Targeting players who are a weapon to score on both sides of the ball is invaluable for your fantasy team. 

With that said, players who are very good on one side of the ball can often be just as effective as those who are pretty good on both sides. For example, without many red zone receiving threats, Seattle's Russell Wilson is often forced to hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch around the goal line.  Consequently, Lynch has seen the most red zone carries in the NFL and he has been involved in exactly half of all of Seattle's plays around the end zone this season.  The usage has paid off and Lynch has 6 touchdowns through 6 games played.  The ultimate goal when selecting players using this tool is to find the option with the best chance of finding the end zone.

Reducing risk and putting probability on your side is exactly what we try to provide when we rank players each week.  Using deeper analytics like red zone analysis only strengthens this work.  When setting my lineups, I still like to use other forms of analysis to make my core lineup choices (i.e. matchups, offensive scheme changes, historical performance, etc) but red zone analysis is my go-to tie breaker when the choice is close.

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