As we approach the end of June and change over into a strong push into 2021 fantasy draft season, we are going to start exploring some of the data points from the most recent NFL season and see what kind of notes and lessons we can take away in application to the upcoming season. The goal is that come late-August, we have covered all corners of the fantasy Earth from a team, player, position, and game theory stance to accurately calibrate our draft strategy for this upcoming season.
To start things off, we are going to take a top-down, team-level look at how teams performed per possession a year ago.
League-wide Scoring and Touchdown Rates per Drive Over the Past 10 Years
|Year||Drive/Gm||oTD/Gm||Score %||TD %|
*All NFL Drives excluding ones that ended in kneel-downs
There is no secret that the NFL has become more of an offensive game and nothing illustrates the league-wide efficiency in scoring like the table above. Offensive possessions per game have fallen on average in each of the past three seasons, but offensive touchdowns per game and scoring and touchdown rates per drive continue to climb well over where they were a decade ago.
2020 WAS SPECIAL UNDER UNIQUE CIRCUMSTANCES
While we were already trending upwards, the 2020 season broke the dam. It was the highest-scoring season in league history and it came tethered to the sharpest scoring efficiency ever. NFL offenses were matriculating forward in scoring prowess prior to last season, but as you can see above, that rise was more gradual than the jump we saw a year ago. Teams scored on over 40% of their possessions for the first time ever while offenses scored a touchdown on over 25% of their drives. Think about that from a 10,000-foot view. Offenses scored a touchdown on average over once per every four possessions while they scored any points at all on two of every five drives.
Of course, there were unique circumstances surrounding COVID protocols that impacted the climate of the 2020 season. With minimal crowd impact this season, NFL passing performances on the road this past season were at an all-time high and even better than home teams in many key areas. On the road, teams posted a 94.4 passer rating, averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt, a 4.8% touchdown rate, and a 2.1% interception rate. That road passer rating and touchdown rate were all-time highs. For comparison, at home this past season, teams had a 92.8 rating, 7.2 Y/A, and a 2.3% interception rate, but did have a 4.9% touchdown rate.
Offensive holding was called just 1.8 times per game, the lowest rate since penalty data has been tracked since 1995 and only the second season over that span that mark was below 2.0 offensive holding calls per game. Quarterbacks were sacked 1,135 times (4.4 per game), which were 141 and 146 times fewer than the previous two NFL seasons.
It is hard to fully quantify the impact the pandemic had in the total numbers from 2020 since that tide was already rising, but the conditions definitely accelerated the efficiency offenses were having. We have seen some immediate recoil following previous efficiency spikes in 2016 and 2018 without those unique parameters in place, so with the 2021 season having some return to normalcy, we should anticipate some pullback in 2021 from the 2020 scoring efficiency. Now let’s see if offensive holding does not exist again this season.
Year-Over-Year R-Squared Correlation Per Drive Over the Past 10 Seasons
In terms of predictability or scoring rates per drive, drawing anything rolling over from the previous season offers next to no value. Over the past decade, only roughly 19% of a team’s scoring rate per drive can be explained by the output from the season prior while that falls just below 17% in touchdown rate per drive and 12% of offensive touchdowns scored per game. When looking at just the teams at the top and bottom of the league those seasons in the major categories, those marks take significant hits, Top-10 teams in scoring efficiency fare better than bottom-rung teams, but there is no tangible correlation to latch onto for either end of the spectrum. The fluctuation and volatility of scoring efficiency is strong across the league. With that noted, let us dive into some notes from the 2020 season and find some notes we can apply to the upcoming season.
2020 Team Per Drive Rates
*Drives excluding ones that ended in kneel downs
Despite there not being reliable year-over-year correlations per team, we can take away a few top-down notes and trends to apply to the 2021 season.
Over the previous decade, 61.5% of the teams that were below the league average in scoring rate per drive came back the following season and scored more offensive touchdowns than the season prior with an average increase of 10 touchdowns per season per team. On the flip side, an identical 61.5% of the teams above league base rate, scored fewer touchdowns the following season, with an average loss of nine touchdowns per game among those teams. We talk a lot about regression to the mean and when doing top-down projections, this is a great place to start in terms of scoring expectancy.
Teams to Score on 50% of their Drives Since 2000
For a couple of seasons we have highlighted the “50% Club” which are teams that scored on over 50% of their offensive possessions. The 2007 Patriots were the lone team to do it over the 2000-2009 seasons and we had a few teams join that club over the next several seasons, but now we have had an explosion of entrants over the previous three seasons. Of the 18 teams here, 11 have come from the previous three years with five teams coming from last year alone.
Every team that has ever scored on over half of their offensive possessions has come back the next season and seen a decrease in their rate of scoring possessions per drive. The average decrease has been a 7.9% loss the following season. Among the previous 13 teams in the 50% club prior to last season, 11 of them scored fewer offensive touchdowns the following season with an average loss of 9.9 fewer offensive trips to the end zone the following season.
This is a key point to remind everyone that all regression is not something to run and hide from. A roughly 8% loss in scoring rate per drive would not drive any of these offenses to the bottom of the league and you still would want attachment to them, but this is why you cannot just take what some of the numbers and edge that the individual pieces of these offense were able to post a year ago and treat them as absolutes in draft slotting for this season.
We saw this with the Baltimore assets from a year ago. We knew there was obvious regression for their offense in 2020 compared to 2019, but still drafted those players at their apex while we have penalized a number of their skill players now in 2021 for that expected regression. Both Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews particularly standout as players we knew would regress a year ago, did so, and have fallen to “buy the dip” status this season. On the other hand, some players on these top-teams from a year ago are receiving weighted cost based on their most recent output.
The Bills led the NFL in scoring rate per drive last season (54.6%). The Bills punted on just 26.6% of their drives in 2020. That was the lowest rate in the league and the fifth-lowest mark since drive data was tracked from 1999 on.
Of the previous 20 teams to lead the league in scoring rate per drive, none of them came back and scored at a higher rate per drive the following season. Those teams had an average loss in scoring rate per possession of 7.4% while those teams averaged over a half of touchdown fewer per game. Just five of those previous 20 teams came back and led the league in scoring rate per drive the next season, but the good news is that just four of those 20 teams fell outside of the top-10 in scoring rate per drive. There are solid odds that we just saw the best fantasy seasons per game from Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs that we may see from their careers, but there is still a floor here. Particularly from Allen, who showed even prior to his passing breakout that he was capable of producing QB1 fantasy output.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
There would certainly be a major downgrade for this offense should the schism between Aaron Rodgers and the organization remain at a standstill late in the summer, but even if Rodgers is back on board the Packers will have a hard time operating at the elite efficiency they did a year ago.
The Packers scored on 53.7% of their drives, the seventh-highest rate for an NFL team since 2000. They also scored a touchdown on 42.9% of those drives, which trails only the 2007 Patriots (43.7%) over the same span while there has been just one other team (the 2019 Chiefs) to score a touchdown on at least 40% of their offensive possessions. Those other two teams scored 26 and 20 fewer offensive touchdowns the following season while shedding 9.1% and 9.5% on their rate of scoring drives in total.
Rodgers himself will be a mark to have some recoil. He set career-highs in completion rate (70.7%), touchdown passes (48), and touchdown rate (9.1%).
Another easy mark is tight end Robert Tonyan. Hyper-efficient tied to the league’s MVP, just seven of the 59 targets Tonyan received were incomplete as that 88.1% catch rate was the highest ever for a tight end with more than 50 targets in a season. Not to be outdone on just pulling in targets, Tonyan’s 18.6% rate of receptions resulting in touchdowns trails only Julius Thomas in 2014 (19.4%) among tight ends who have caught 20 or more passes in a season. In usage categories, Tonyan averaged just 3.3 receptions per game (16th) and 36.6 yards per game (15th).
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Chiefs are the prime example that all regression is not a detriment. After a full blitzkrieg on defenses in the 2018 breakout for Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City’s scoring rate per drive has declined in each of the past two seasons, but they still have been a top-five offense overall in scoring per drive in those seasons. They are the first team ever to score on over 50% of their drives in three straight seasons.
I have brought up that even if Travis Kelce paces the tight end position in fantasy for a sixth straight season that he will unlikely provide same the positional leverage that he did a year ago, but completely running the other way solely from the word regression attached to this offense has not paid off the previous two years, either.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
What a difference the GOAT makes. Tampa Bay went from scoring on 39.6% of their drives in 2019 all the way up to 51.8% in 2020 while they went from scoring a touchdown on 25.1% of those drives in 2019 all the way up to 34.9% a year ago.
Their ability to increase their scoring rate per drive came from the most obvious area. In 2019, Tampa Bay turned the ball over a league-high 21.9% of their drives. League average outside of them was 12.0%. It was the highest turnover rate per drive since the 2006 Raiders (25.1%). Last season with Tom Brady replacing Jameis Winston, the Bucs turned the ball over on just 9.6% of their possessions. That rate was seventh in the league and the first time Tampa Bay was in single-digit percentages per drive since the data was tracked.
The easiest path to see the Buccaneers regressing some in 2021 is that they were the healthiest team in the NFL last season by a wide margin, but returning every piece of their offense from a year ago while tacking on Giovani Bernard gives them plenty of established depth to remain a top offense overall.
AT THE BOTTOM
Regression works both ways and even in the highest-scoring season in league history, there were teams that struggled to efficiently score points.
The Eagles and Jets were the only teams to score on fewer than 30% of their offensive possessions in 2021. Since 2000, there have been 209 teams to score below that arbitrary threshold per drive. 151 of those teams (72.2%) came back the following season and increased their scoring rate per drive, with an average increase from those teams of 7.3%. Those teams also averaged 8.0 more offensive touchdowns per season than the season prior.
In the touchdown department, we still had five teams (Washington, Bengals, Broncos, Giants, and Jets) score a touchdown on fewer than 20% of their drives. Over the previous decade, 99-of-136 teams (72.7%) to fall into that bucket came back and increased their touchdown rate per drive by an average increase of 5.6% and 10 offensive touchdowns per season. Inversely from above, these teams gaining those averages will not vault them into elite offensive status, but any unaccounted-for bounce back in the range of outcomes from skill players on these teams can be of value.