I am not a fantasy football guy. The only two times I ever had a fantasy football team, both for work, I selected the Chicago Bears defense first, either Matt Forte or Brandon Marshall second, and Jay Cutler third. As I understand it, though, in fantasy football there is an advantage to having a player accumulate a high number of touches. Total yards are good. That makes sense in a video game kind of way, I guess.
Actual football is different. Each team only really gets three “free” touches per drive, and there are only so many drives per game. Giving the ball to one player means another player doesn’t get a chance, unless that first player delivers. Teams have to earn the chance to keep trying. What this means in brutal terms is that if my team needs only three tries to make it 10 yards and another team needs five, then my team probably wins. This seems obvious, and it should be, because football is about efficiency. It’s about moving the chains, not padding personal records.
For the Bears, it’s also about giving Justin Fields more opportunities to take snaps and settle into the offense.
This is why as a fan, I care little for a gaudy number of total yards for a running back or receiver. Teams that force-feed a small number of players the ball are going to succeed only if those players produce based on a per-attempt basis, not as an aggregate total. Consider David Montgomery from 2021. He had 849 yards, but it took him a whopping 225 attempts to get there. By contrast, Devin Singletary only beat Montgomery by 21 yards (870 total), but he only needed 188 attempts to do it. All things being equal, those extra attempts were able to be distributed to other players who were likely able to get additional yards over and above what Montgomery managed.
As a simple illustration of this concept, I pulled 2021’s data for every player with at least 50 pass targets and every player with at least 100 rushing attempts (and yes, some of these end up being duplicates, but for these purposes I am tracking them separately). I then sorted these by team and looked for teams who had five players who represented at least 50% of their total offensive players with the attempts represented. This is, admittedly, messy. There are players like Ameer Abdullah who (in part because he played on two teams) didn’t accumulate the requisite number of touches on the ground for one team (only 44 for the Panthers) and whose receiving targets (49) sort of get lost in the shuffle. Again, this is not a major study–as a Bears fan I just can’t bring myself to dive deeply into the last three years of NFL offenses without needing to lie down for a little while.
The following teams get left out of this overview because they don’t have at least 50% of their offensive plays represented by just five players on these two boards: New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Tennessee Titans. That’s an interesting list, to be sure, and it is worth exploration at a later time.
However, for the others it’s possible to look at the top five players they have in terms of “play share” and then assess them in terms of how many yards per attempt the offenses managed and how many first downs per attempt the offenses managed when going through their five favorite players.
Here are the ten most productive offenses in terms of first downs per attempt, in order: Kansas City*+ (36.3%), Cincinnati*+ (35.2%), Tampa Bay*+ (35.2%), Buffalo*+ (34.8%), Los Angeles Chargers+ (34.7%), Los Angeles Rams*+ (34.4%), Green Bay*+ (33.9%), Baltimore (33.8%), Dallas*+ (33.4%), and Arizona* (33%).
Starred (*) teams represent playoff participants and crossed teams (+) represent teams with a top ten scoring offense after all defensive scoring was removed. Of note, Arizona was actually the 11th scoring offense, missing 10th by just 1 point; meanwhile, the Chargers had a winning record but missed the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Patriots made the playoffs, and they had the 11th-most efficient Top 5.
How about in the other direction? Here are the worst teams in the NFL when it comes to efficiency funneled through their five favorite players: Atlanta- (27.7%), Pittsburgh* (28.1%), Chicago- (28.6%), Detroit- (28.7%), and Washington- (29.2%). The (-) indicates a team with a losing record. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers stand out, and whether it has to do with the truly astonishing number of carries by Najee Harris (307) altering the ratios or something else, my guess is that the playoff run of a team that was 21st in scoring points and 20th in preventing points is going to be messing up statistical models for some time.
What this tells me as a fan is that I truly do not mind if my team force-feeds the ball to a player, so long as that player is able to move the chains. This one number explains why Chicago struggled last year. Of the 139 players with at least 50 passing targets, Chicago’s most efficient receiving players only ranked 86th and 87th in terms of earning first downs per target (Montgomery and Mooney, respectively), with the departed Allen Robinson ranking 95th while Cole Kmet was an abysmal 106th.
Meanwhile, of the 52 players with at least 100 rushing attempts, David Montgomery was a pedestrian 23rd and Khalil Herbert was 31st. Add in conventional inefficiency (Montgomery was 43rd in yards per rush attempt and Darnell Mooney was 74th in terms of yards per target), and it’s clear why Nick Foles said the offense just wasn’t working.
If Luke Getsy is going to have any success with Justin Fields, it is not going to be because Darnell Mooney gets a thousand yards, but rather because he hits the 40%+ first-down rate that thirty-nine other receivers with 50 or more targets managed last year. If Cole Kmet (31%) manages to hit Dalton Schultz levels of efficiency (41%), he will go from being slightly below average as a tight end to one of the top ten in the league, and doing so will keep the offense on the field.
For the next fifteen games I want to find out who can move the chains. If Byron Pringle repeats his performance from 2021 (where he was second in the entire league with 53% of the times he was targeted leading to a first down), he will be worth his contract and more. On Sunday, every target that moves the chains keeps the offense on the field and gives everyone another three chances to get better and to improve the stat that matters most–team wins.