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Evaluation by Association

Ranking NFL offenses as units and identifying valuable fantasy assets from each

A man wished to purchase a donkey, and decided to give the animal a test before buying him. He took the donkey home and put him in the field with his other donkeys. The new donkey strayed from the others to join the one that was the laziest and the biggest eater of them all.

Seeing this, the man led him back to his owner. When the owner asked how he could have tested the donkey in such a short time, the man answered, "I didn't even need to see how he worked. I knew he would be just like the one he chose to be his friend."

What you read above is not a random farm story. It's one of Aesop's fables. The moral of this one is that you are judged by the company you keep. While we would all prefer to have judgement be completely merit-based, it can be (and often is) done on a much more superficial level.

The same can be said of player evaluation in fantasy football. If fantasy evaluation and production were purely talent-based, why would we be having David Johnson vs. Todd Gurley arguments when Gurley is the more talented, more pedigreed player?

Aside from talent, opportunity and situation are significant components to fantasy evaluation and to ultimate production. Great situations can often buoy lesser talents above blue-chip talents in fantasy football. That's why we're going to rank all 32 NFL offenses. From there, we'll identify the players that drive each team's ranking and also sleepers/value plays from each.

The Methodology

This is very similar to a two-part article I wrote last year called "Being a Fantasy Elitist." Part I dicussed why we should target players from elite offenses. In that article, we referred to Sigmund Bloom's Offensive Power Rankings to determine how the offenses would rank. Sigmund was gracious enough to allow me to take on the task of ranking the offenses this season. Using his same scoring system, I've separated the offenses into tiers. The quarterback slot is multipled by three due to the importance of that position, and the rest of the numbers are added together for the final score. For the offensive line values, I used my colleague Matt Bitonti's rankings.

The "Scripts" column refers to a combination of how the team is likely to fare and how quickly they should play this season. It can also factor in how their coaches tend to call plays. For instance, we've seen that New England doesn't necessarily stop calling pass plays or running no-huddle just because they have a lead. Run-heavy teams aren't likely to stay run-heavy if losing frequently; teams with bad defenses can put more pressure on the offense to play in "shootout" mode; on the pace side of things, San Francisco is likely to be a faster-paced team with Chip Kelly's arrival, while Philadelphia should be slower this season.

Cream of the Crop 

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
1 NO 5 3 5 4 5 5 37 NO and ARI only teams with four 5's but script may be the only perfect score in road games
2 ARI 4 5 5 5 5 4.5 36.5 Skill position players galore - who will D's leave open? Arians as aggressive as any play-caller
3 PIT 5 5 4 4 3.5 4.5 36 Brown good enough himself to merit high WR/TE rank; Roethlisberger injury submarines everyone
4 GB 5 3 5 5 4 3 35 Nelson's absence the big 2015 story but loss of LT Bakhtiari perhaps just as impactful; he returns

All of the elite players are being drafted where they are for a reason. These are also the offenses from which backups should be stashed. Players like DeAngelo Williams and Michael Thomas off mid-round upside. Others like Sammie Coates have huge ceilings. Even late-round tight ends like Jared Cook and Jesse James could surprise. Anyone touching a football that is handed or thrown to them by one of the men quarterbacking these teams is worth consideration.

Tiny Imperfections 

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
5 CAR 5 3 3.5 5 3 3 32.5 Opened things up in 2015; regression coming? Benjamin vs Funchess; neither is a WR1
6 IND 5 2 5 2 4 4 32 #2 on this list when Bloom did it last preseason; Luck's injury only thing that derailed them
7 NYG 4 1 5 2 5 5 30 McAdoo has given Manning a renaissance and made Beckham elite; Shepard gives a real WR2

The Giants haven't had a second receiver opposite Odell Beckham Jr. yet because Rueben Randle (even with his experience) isn't nearly the player Sterling Shepard is. And if the Giants settle on a primary ball-carrier, the fantasy results will follow simply due to opportunity. Make it a mission to get Indianapolis pass-catcher on your team. They all vary in price, but all are underpriced. If you miss T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Dwayne Allen, go ahead and reach for Phillip Dorsett. A shot taken on Devin Funchess in the double-digit rounds is far from a wasted pick. 

You Know Who You Want

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
8 NE 3.5 3 4 1 5 5 28.5 QB score counts 4 games of Garoppolo; but they won't take foot off gas when Brady returns
9 SD 4 3 4 2 4 3.5 28.5 Whisenhunt returns as OC and Benjamin adds deep threat; Rivers will sling it around often
10 DAL 3 5 3.5 6 2 2 27.5 OL is "off the charts" good so they get a 6; not enough around Bryant to bump WR/TE rating

Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, and LeGarrette Blount from New England; Keenan Allen, Philip Rivers, and Antonio Gates from San Diego; Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, and Tony Romo in Dallas. Like the title of the tier says, you know who you want from these units. But while this tier may be limited in quantity of players, it's not limited in quality of offense. Don't forget about fringe players who could emerge into nice roles either, such as Martellus Bennett, Alfred Morris, or James White.

Spread it Around

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
11 WAS 3 1 4 5 4 4 27 Gruden makes lemonade out of Dalton and Cousins; everyone benefits
12 DET 4 2 4 2 4 3 27 Options aplenty at WR/TE but no true elite #1; probably will pass more than any team in 2016
13 SEA 5 2 3 1 3.5 2 26.5 No Lynch of course but would still pass as infrequently as anyone if defense/script allows

Unlike the last tier that had skill players who are focal points of their offenses, this tier will spread production around. When that's the case, there aren't many high-end fantasy picks. But don't forget about potential difference-makers in the middle rounds such as Marvin Jones, Tyler Lockett, and DeSean Jackson.

Good Days and Bad

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
14 ATL 2 4 3.5 4 3.5 4 25 WR/TE like HOU and DAL (Stud and…?); Ryan overrated; O fragile if Jones goes down
15 OAK 3 3 4 4 3 2 25 L. Murray opportunity > talent; will Crabtree relax after getting paid? D should be much improved
16 JAX 3 3 5 1 3 3 24 2015 passing exhibition out of design or necessity; will necessity repeat in 2016?
17 NYJ 2 3 4.5 3 5 2 23.5 Weapons great and OC Gailey as fantasy-friendly as it gets; defense could limit shootouts
18 TB 3 5 3 1 2 3 23 Who else catches the ball besides Evans; best RB duo in NFL here offers value with both players

This tier has very capable offensive players and teams, but they may struggle to provide consistency. Stick with stalwarts like Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, and the Jets receiver duo here. Don't be allured by secondary options.

Potential to Surprise

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
19 CLE 1 3 4 5 4 3.5 22.5 Might be ranked higher with McCown over Griffin; pass-catchers nearly given a perfect 5
20 BAL 2 2 2 4 4 4 22 No skill guys good enough to grab jobs; OC Trestman a boon for whoever gets on the field
21 MIA 2 2 3 3 3.5 4 21.5 Gase factor could be huge; poor D could lead to shootouts/garbage time
22 CIN 2 4 3.5 4 2 2 21.5 Loss of Hue Jackson hurts; pass-catchers would be higher rated with full season of Eifert
23 HOU 1 3.5 3.5 3 3.5 4 20.5 Elite RB and WR but just one of each and not much behind; played fast as anyone in 2015

In A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, and Lamar Miller, this tier has three first-round fantasy picks. But ultimate, the offensive playcallers and skill players don't have quality quarterbacks to guide them to fantasy consistency. The aforementioned "big three" of this tier are likely to be solid performers, but there isn't a lot of gold to be mined here unless an offense as a whole surprises us (a la Jacksonville last season).

Cleveland would be my choice of a team to emerge from this tier and surprise. Watch out for Joe Flacco to outperform ADP as well.

Mixed Bag

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
24 CHI 2 1 4 3 2 4 20 Could be plenty of garbage time here; and they may need it; White a big x-factor here
25 KC 1.5 5 3.5 2 3 2 20 Smith doesn't make fantasy stars; Reid as conservative as needed; will play slow if they must
26 BUF 2 3.5 3 4 2 1 19.5 Pass-catchers would be higher if we knew they'd use Clay; Rex Ryan scripts never fantasy-friendly
27 SF 1 2 1 3 5 4 18 Can Kelly's scheme and pace uplift the most uninspiring personnel group detailed here?

There are 4s and 5s throughout this tier, yet all teams score low due to erratic quarterback play. There's a player or two to be had here (Alshon Jeffery and Jeremy Maclin to name a couple), but these units are likely to have their down games, which can drag down even the most attractive and skilled fantasy option.

Buffalo is the only team here where I see multiple fantasy options being attractive at current ADP -- LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor.

No Thanks

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
28 MIN 1.5 5 1 4 2 1 17.5 Sad to see Norv Turner muzzled by Mike Zimmer but that's what gives them their best chance
29 PHI 1 2 2 5 2 3 17 Lost pace when Kelly left but lost scheme too; WRs weak and nothing behind Mathews at RB
30 TEN 2 4 2 2 1 2 17 Mularkey wants to stifle Mariota with "Exotic Smashmouth" but will they be ahead for that?

I could have named this the "Adrian Peterson Only" tier. If one of the Tennessee backs had the backfield alone, they might be worth starting, but playing from behind is not usually conducive to fantasy success for rushers.

Take a shot on Tajae Sharpe late or Ryan Mathews if you employ a "Zero RB" approach, but the rest is rather uninspiring.

Too Much to Overcome

Rank Team QB RB(s) WRs/TEs OL OC Scripts Total Comments
31 DEN 1 2 4 1 3 1 14 Kubiak known for O but will sit on the ball if he has to; defense will let him; QBs will force him
32 LA 1 5 1 1 1 1 12 Fisher's teams play slower than anyone; no skill guys other than Gurley; rookie QB; Yuck

Sure, Todd Gurley, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and C.J. Anderson are here, but do you really want to stick your neck out for those guys when similar options from high-octane offenses won't need as big a piece of a very small pie to accrue similar statistics? Hearkening back to the article-opening fable, these players might be good, but we've seen who they're hanging out with. Do we want to risk the bad apples bringing these guys down?

Putting Concept Into Practice

Simply saying "draft players on good offenses" isn't enough. Let's look at some examples of players on better offenses being drafted after players on middling-to-bad offenses. While ADP is listed, it's worth noting that in each of these examples, I like the players listed first to outproduce those listed second, irrespective of price.

Quarterbacks

Running Backs

Both require injury to reach potential. Mark Ingram has injury history and could be more likely to break down than C.J. Anderson. Even if both go down, the Indianapolis offense is more fruitful for fantasy success. If you don't like Hightower, Chris Johnson (169) and James Starks (141) both play in better offenses than Booker does.

Wide Receivers

Tight Ends

This strategy applies more to mid-to-late round running backs and wide receivers than "onesie" position types like quarterbacks and tight ends, but at the very least, it's something to consider when breaking ties early in the draft or deciding between two quarterbacks and trying to determine who has more upside. Keep the offensive power rankings in mind when comparing two or three players against each other. Best of luck in your drafts. And remember, you are the company you keep!

Questions, comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this piece are always welcome via e-mail hester@footballguys.com