Each summer, a lot of people spend an ungodly amount of time doing fantasy football prep work. They read articles, digesting the opinions of everyone, scour preseason box scores...okay maybe not that one. But the point is, a lot of this time is devoted to gauging the opinions of others. And that is extremely beneficial, especially when you're relying on the opinions of a source like we've got here at Footballguys.
But some owners want to invest a little bit more of their own thoughts into their fantasy preparation, and so they craft a set of rankings. They will generally make an overall top-50 or top-100 list, and then break out players by position. Again, it's a very helpful tool. But there is inherent bias in doing this without a set of numbers. So what do we do to combat that? We need a set of projections. The task can feel daunting, and it's no question a bit time-consuming. I'm here to help start you off.
First off, we've got several staff members who do detailed projections on every offensive player of note in the entire league. So using that as a baseline should give you a pretty good idea of where the consensus is. And that will be important, because it will help ensure that you don't stray so far outside the box that your projections become absurd (trust me - one year back in the day, I projected Tim Biakabatuka to lead the NFL in rushing yards).
The most important thing to take out of the exercise, however, is that you are looking to remove the bias that's inherent to just putting together a list. When you're writing a list, emotion comes into play. Maybe you have a favorite player, or the player is on your favorite team, or vice versa it's someone you loathe (I'm looking at you, Eli Manning). Doing a set of projections enables you to approach your draft preparations the way you should - trusting the numbers that are in front of you. It takes the guesswork and emotion out of your rankings. And most importantly, it gives you a baseline that provides immeasurable value when you're doing several different types of drafts.
So where do we begin? Well, for starters, it's not guesswork. We aren't throwing darts at a board, and we're not hoping for a player to put up better numbers than the analysis allows us to. Maybe you THINK you're really high on Player A, but after running the projections you realize there's simply no way you can rank him in your top-10 at a particular position. This isn't quantum calculus (or some other intelligent-sounding subject matter that's actually real), but there is math involved.
The first step is to make a master copy all the players you will be doing projections for. An excel spreadsheet works best, where you can go team-by-team. I find it easiest to do projections for entire teams at a time, for reasons I'll get to in a bit. After listing the players down the left side, you list the stat categories across the top. You'll want to include not only the categories that will earn you points (yards, touchdowns, interceptions, etc), but you'll want to include the "ratio" categories as well. For quarterbacks, these are yards per attempt and completion percentage. For skill position guys, they include yards per carry and yards per reception. While these numbers typically won't mean anything in the scope of your week to week point scoring, they are invaluable in terms of ensuring your projections "make sense" from a real-life perspective. It's great to project Le'Veon Bell to have 1,800 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. But if you are only giving him 280 carries, that means you are projecting him to average 6.4 yards per carry. The numbers need to make sense in an historical sense as well as making sense relative to the player's career norms and improvement / decline arc.
So once you've got your spreadsheet set up, it's time to dive in team-by-team. The first step in the projection process is simultaneously A) the most critical aspect of what you're about to do, and B) the most difficult one to predict. I'm talking about the number of offensive plays run by each team in a given season. It can vary so wildly from year to year, and a lot of it is kind of random. A team that ran 980 plays two years ago may have seen an offensive improvement last year, and ran 1,050. Or perhaps they ran 1,050 two years ago and last year they improved and ran 980. Wait, what? How can a team improve offensively, yet still run fewer plays? Well, if they had more big plays then it would stand to reason that they wouldn't need to run as many of them to chew up yardage. Eight 10-yard passes nets a team 80 yards. So does one 80-yard bomb. In the end, the second scenario is more efficient, but only took one play to do what the previous team took eight plays to do. Perhaps they have a better goal line rushing offense, and they score from the 5-yard line every time instead of taking three shots to push it into the end zone. Perhaps they score so much early on that they let the clock run down late in the game and don't run as many plays. There are any number of reasons why these things happen. Defense can come into play (better OR worse). It makes the procedure a bit maddening. One wouldn't fault you if you simply looked at David Dodds' offensive projections and used that as your total play expectation. Here's what I do:
First off, I take a look and see which teams have either a new head coach or a new offensive coordinator. If a team has a new hire at either of those spots, the number of plays run by the previous regime is mostly irrelevant. Sure, they'll tailor their gameplans to the personnel to an extent, but these guys all have their systems. So disregard those teams for the time being. For the teams that have had some continuity, take a look at 3-year trends. See if there is a consistency there. If there is, and there haven't been very many wholesale changes (a superstar skill guy, a new quarterback, a loss of a key player), then it's safe to assume you can stay in that ballpark. For teams that DID bring in a new hire, you'll need to do some research. What was he like at his previous job? Was it in college? What is he saying publicly? What are his players saying publicly (sometimes they can give away more info than the coaches ever will)? At the end of the day, it's a best guess estimate. It will guide the rest of your projections, yes, and you don't want to be too far off the mark with this one. But rule of thumb is that generally speaking, the better offenses will run more plays and the worse offenses will run fewer plays. The top 3 teams in the NFL in 2014 in offensive plays were the Eagles, Colts, and Saints. The bottom three were the Rams, Bucs, and Titans. The only teams in the top half of the league in terms of plays that weren't in the top half of the league in terms of points, were the Panthers, Jets, and Lions. And vice versa, the only teams in the bottom half of the league in terms of plays that finished in the top half in points, were the Bengals, Cowboys, and Packers.
Once you've got a pretty good handle on the number of plays and the philosophies of the coaches, it's time to break out those plays in terms of passes vs. rush attempts. The average team ran 1,024 plays from scrimmage last year, and were sacked an average of 37 times per team. That leaves roughly 987 plays per team. The average number of pass attempts was 559, and rush attempts was 428. These are all statistics that are easily attainable, either on Footballguys or Pro Football Reference. Take a look at the lists, sort them by statistic, and get a clear sense of each team's focal points. In terms of how to divvy those plays up, use the team's prior few seasons and the team's offseason plans as a guide. One thing you do NOT want to do, is you do not want to listen to the coaches who say they want to run the ball more. That's not to say there won't be teams who truly run it more. It's just that roughly 31 of the league's 32 teams say that they want to run it more, and if you allow that to creep into your projections, you'll be projecting the entire league to return to the days before the forward pass. Look at what they DO, not what they SAY. Did they draft a running back high in the springtime? Did they bring in a free agent back to revitalize a sluggish running game? Did they allow a marquee receiver or tight end to leave town (I'm looking at you, Saints). This is why it's so key to take these projections team-by-team rather than player-by-player. You can't just run down the list and give 280 carries to this guy, and 320 to that guy, and 180 to another guy. You need to get a clear picture of what the teams are doing on the TEAM level, in order to get a sense for what the individuals will even be in position to do. One item that is often overlooked is whether a team now has a rushing quarterback. Marcus Mariota will run more frequently for Tennessee than any quarterback on the Titans did last year. Regardless of the team's philosophy previously, when a team gets a new quarterback and that guy uses his legs, it will change the entire complexion of the run/pass distribution. Figure out what you previously thought the breakdown was going to be, then give him X number of rushing totals above what you thought the previous guy would have done. Now subtract that total from the passing totals, because that's going to happen.
Now that you've got your totals, you'll need to divvy up the opportunities (we're still not getting into production just yet, just the opps for now). If the quarterback is Eli Manning or Andrew Luck, you can be sure that they are going to get just about all of the quarterback work. Give some table scraps to the backups, but for the most part these guys are going to be horses for their teams. In fact, I rarely project injuries. What I do is, I divide the total number of pass attempts per team by 16. I give the backup that many pass attempts, and the rest to the starter. And like I said, in the cases of Luck or Manning, I'll then take a few more away from the backup and give them back to the starter. Obviously, most backups in the league play at some point whether it's as an injury fill-in for a week or two, or in garbage time when a game is out of hand. So they'll need to get some negligible work in no matter what. And we want to account for that work, because otherwise the starting quarterbacks are all going to have an extra handful of points that will unfairly skew their projected point total, and in turn, skew their relative positioning when we turn these projections into cold, hard, rankings.
From there, we've got historical trends for most of the quarterbacks in the league so we can fill in the rest of the stats. We have a general sense that Drew Brees is going to complete over 65% of his passes, and that Geno Smith will not. And again, if say a passer underwent offseason surgery, or his team added a big-time free agent, or lost a big-time free agent, or the team brought in a coach that's a quarterback guru, the completion percentage can change. Sometimes significantly. I'm not telling you how much that number will change; that's not what this article is about. I'm just telling you, you've got to account for a potential change. The league-average completion percentage in 2014 was 62.6%, so let that be your guide. Once you have a good idea of how many passes he'll complete, you'll finally start looking at the stats that will get you points. How many yards, touchdowns, and interceptions will he throw? Again, using historical trends for the player and coaching staff, expected improvement / decline of the player in question, and team additions / subtractions, you can determine whether you want to move the needle on his yards per attempt up or down. The league average here last season was 7.2 yards per attempt (keep in mind that these totals include the backups as well). You won't want to move it way out of whack with the player's career norms, because this number rarely goes up or down more than a yard at most (and even that is a hugely significant difference). But if you think he has improved, and the team around him has improved, go ahead and bump it up. Do the same for the backup, although with such a smaller sample size, you'll want to keep these stats pretty much in line with historical career trends no matter what). What you end up with, then, is a clear picture of the team's overall passing game. Believe me, that is one of the toughest parts of the entire exercise. Once that's accomplished, it's time to distribute the passing targets.
You can do this one of two ways - you can either look at a more detailed approach, studying how many targets each player on the team received, whether their share is expected to increase, their catch percentage, etc. And from there, getting a sense of how many targets and receptions they can expect to receive. Player A received ___% of the offensive looks last year. If he gets that same percentage and the team throws X number of passes, he will now see Y targets. From there, his reception total becomes a math equation. From THERE, you'll want to look at his historical yards per reception (league average was 11.5, but keep in mind that running backs and tight ends generally catch the ball closer to the line of scrimmage and usually have much lower YPC totals than their wide receiver counterparts), weighing the last three seasons more than the seasons prior, and the most recent season even more than the last three (since those are his trending stats). The simpler way to figure out the reception totals is to look at how many catches he had the year before. If you don't think a whole lot will change with regard to his role in the offense or the team's philosophy as a whole, then adjust his receptions up or down based on how many more or less pass attempts you think the team will throw this year.
You'll need to take into account receptions for all players of note, as well as a few players of little note. You might want to give A.J. Green 110 receptions when you do your projections, but you've got to remember that the 5th and 6th wide receivers of most teams are going to get a few negligible receptions, as will the backup tight ends and fourth-string running backs. You'll probably even want to account for those guys BEFORE the superstar players, because then you'll know what kind of a pie you're working off of.
Once you have accounted for receptions and factored in yardage based on historical norms, it's time to check your math. This is probably the most frustrating part of the exercise. You project each guy's receptions total, you divvy up the yardage based on what they've done, and you notice that your math doesn't work. You've projected your skill guys to catch 350 balls for 4,500 yards, but you've only got your quarterbacks completing 350 passes for 4,100 yards. How do you justify adding 400 yards to the quarterback totals? Maybe you don't. If you did your quarterback projections accurately and you believe in them, then you'll need to remove some of that yardage. But wait, if you take away yardage from these players, then suddenly they won't be at their career norms. Something's got to give. It's a bit of a trial and error type of process, at least for me. And this is the very reason why projections are so valuable to me. They force me to look at teams in an unbiased light. Maybe I THOUGHT I was high on a particular player, but when I run the numbers, I realize there's no way he'll be able to achieve the expectations that I had unless his quarterback suddenly improves by leaps and bounds. Maybe I didn't like a particular quarterback coming into the season, but when I run the numbers of the talent around him, I suddenly realize he's got a floor of 4,200 yards and 28 touchdowns simply because the other guys are going to perform to at least a certain baseline even if they all have down seasons.
It's a time-consuming process, but a very rewarding one, once you've broken down a team's passing situation. The receiving touchdowns are obviously based on statistical trends as well, but touchdowns can be somewhat of a fluke and more difficult to project. The key is to not overthink this part. Look at the opportunities players got, use the articles you've read, and try to determine as best you can whether those opportunities will remain and who they will be going to. It's obviously the single highest-scoring play in the game, so you don't want to address it all willy-nilly, but there isn't really a tried-and-true method to project these things within 1%, so don't try to. Just spread the wealth as you best see fit, of course using the stats as your guide the whole way.
It's then time to move onto the running game, which is significantly easier to predict. Look at the total number of rush attempts, paying special attention to whether the team has a running quarterback. The last thing you want to do is get through your projections, only to give Marshawn Lynch 400 carries and only a handful of rush attempts to Russell Wilson. Take care of the quarterback first, since their rush attempts typically don't fluctuate too wildly from year to year. Then look at the wide receivers on the roster, and see if any of them have had rush attempts in the last three seasons. If they have, or they have a significant amount every year, account for that with a handful of them in your projections. And finally, calculate the expected run distribution for the top three running backs on the roster. The starter will obviously get the lion's share, well over 50% in most cases. But how that gets distributed is entirely up to you. Is the player approaching 30 years old and need more breathers? Is he approaching thirty and the team wants to run him into the ground since they won't need him much longer? Is there a quality backup in place to take some pressure off? Is the starter a bad blocker and/or pass-catcher who will come out of the game on third down? All of these questions get factored into the equation, and once you are comfortable with your answers, you've got your breakdown.
Now, just like with the receivers and their historical norms, take a look at the history of the backs, paying special attention to the last three seasons and even more the most recent season. The improvement or decline of the offensive line over the offseason will pay a particularly strong role in skewing the yards per carry average up or down here. The reason why this is so much easier than the passing stats, is because you don't need to cross-check these totals against completions or yardage. It's just straight-up, how good do you think this guy will be this year? The league average yards per carry is 4.2 in 2014, so use that as your guide as to whether a guy is above or below that mark. In terms of projecting touchdowns, you'll of course want to keep league-wide trends in mind and make sure you aren't giving a team too much of an improvement or decline unless you really and truly believe it. If Team A scored 39 touchdowns last year and you've got them throwing 35 touchdowns this year, you probably shouldn't project them for 15 rushing touchdowns too, unless you expect an incredible amount of improvement in terms of their scoring ability. A lot of times, it can make you re-think positions on entire franchises. Perhaps you did have them throwing 35 touchdowns. But you really believe the running back who scored eight times on the ground last year is due for a bigger role around the goal line. You think he'll get into the 10-12 range. Well that would give the team 47 total touchdowns, and that's not even factoring in the backup running backs or the quarterback rushing scores yet. So maybe now you have to re-think your position, because you don't really believe that this team is going to score nine more touchdowns than they did a year ago. So now maybe you improve the running back total up to 12 touchdowns, but now you reduce the passing touchdowns all the way to 28. You just knocked seven touchdowns off of the quarterback's total! Obviously that's an extreme case, and you hope it doesn't happen very often (ever), but it goes to show you how much bias you can inadvertently put into a ranking without realizing the bigger picture. Now that you've taken those seven touchdowns away from the quarterback, you've got to account for that by taking seven touchdowns away from the receivers and tight ends. All of a sudden, your projections for this team have completely shifted and it has made an enormous impact overall on what will eventually become your rankings.
We're almost there. Now you've got passing, receiving, and rushing projections for all of the players on every team in the league. It was a daunting task, but it's YOURS. If you broke out your spreadsheet the way I suggested early on, you should have a set of numbers for each player. If you put these into an excel spreadsheet, you can now tailor this document to fit whatever scoring system you happen to be drafting for. Simply put in a formula in the cell at the far right, after all of the projections, that tallies up your league scoring system. Apply that formula to every cell below it on the entire page, and voila, you've got a point total for that league based on your own set of projections. Don't know how to do formulas in excel? It's actually much easier than you might think. A simple Google search should provide the info you need. If you listed the stats across the top of the page in this order - Rush Yards in Column B, Rush TD in Column C, Receiving Yards in Column D, Rec TD in Column E - and your scoring system was of the standard variety, then your formula would look something like this in Column F: =B2*0.1 + C2*6 = D2*0.1 = E2*6. Once you've typed it out, press enter, and that gives you the player's point total for that particular league. If it's PPR, you would add an additional calculation to account for the number of receptions times 1 being added to the rest of the numbers. The beauty of the thing is that you don't need to make a brand-new list every time. Just keep populating the spreadsheet, and your rankings make themselves. Obviously, I glossed over the excel formula aspect a bit there. I'm more than happy to explain the process outside of the article via email, if this run through was a bit too generic.
Now, a few things will stand out at you once you're done. The first is how different those rankings are from the original ones you did. You took out the bias, and all of a sudden there are players jumping up 10-12 spots that you didn't think had any chance of being on your rosters. You believed in them more than you even realized.
Another thing you might want to do is to review any situations that you really and truly think are out of whack. Look at the projections of others. If a lot of people whose opinions you trust have Player Z falling on his face, then maybe you want to go back and take a second or third look. Look at historical stats. Do you have too many players projected to reach 1,000 yards based on recent history? Do you have every quarterback in the league throwing more touchdowns than interceptions? Keep in mind, that won't happen! Do you have too many teams projected to score 50+ touchdowns? Unless there are wholesale rule changes, only a couple of teams will reach that mark. These are the things you'll need to review once you're finished (or I should say, once you THINK you're finished!).
Use it as a work in progress, a living breathing document that you are constantly tweaking and updating throughout training camp. New free agent signings, injuries, and locker room fights can and will always cause changes on the totals. We're fond of saying that things move quickly around here, but this gives you the ability to roll with it.
Now get to work on that spreadsheet!