Fantasy impact of offseason moves
Amendola, Fitzgerald, Johnson among those with improved supporting casts
It was a busy offseason in the NFL, and naturally that brings a change in fantasy fortunes around the league. Narrowing it down to some of the bigger moves as training camps near, let's take a look at the impact some of the movement will have on individual players for the 2013 season.
Welker to Denver, Amendola to New England
Few offseason moves made fantasy waves like Wes Welker's going west. Tom Brady's former security blanket is Peyton Manning's new toy, and the hole Welker left behind in New England is bigger than his 5-foot-9 frame.
Welker was the sixth-best fantasy receiver during his six seasons in New England, and unparalleled in PPR formats. His chemistry with Tom Brady produced five seasons with at least 110 catches, while Danny Amendola is tied for 86th in the past two seasons with 82 standard fantasy points.
Welker will make an impact in Denver, but on whom? And will Amendola even approach Welker's success in New England?
Calling Wes Welker the new Brandon Stokley in Denver might slightly undersell Welker's production. However, when trying to map out Welker's role and fantasy impact on other Broncos receivers, it's a good starting point. Stokley had 57 targets last year, all of which can be penciled in for Welker.[+] EnlargeRon Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsWes Welker might see his overall targets drop, but he'll still be very productive in Denver.
Part of what made Welker so prolific in New England was his short average target depth (7.7 yards downfield, sixth-lowest among 76 qualifying wide receivers). Both Decker (11.4) and Thomas (10.9) were targeted deeper downfield than Welker. Even Stokley had an average target depth of 10.1 yards downfield.
Welker's average target depth will likely increase, but Denver's tight ends are more in line for the hit than Decker and Thomas.
Joel Dreessen had the lowest average target depth (5.6 yards downfield) of any qualified tight end on his 57 targets last year. Jacob Tamme's average target depth was 8.8 yards downfield on 82 targets. Manning targeted tight ends 144 times, averaging 6.8 yards downfield per target. This is a little more in line with Welker's target distance than Decker or Thomas.
Dreessen and Tamme could cede shorter targets to Welker, especially considering the offense Manning is accustomed to running.
The Colts from 2008-10 with Manning ran 2,309 plays out of three-wide receiver sets, 326 more than any other team in the league. The Broncos ran 706 plays from those sets last season, third-most in the league. If Denver uses three-wide receiver sets more often (based on precedent), a reasonable estimate can be reached.
Stokley's 57 will go to Welker, plus a substantial amount (40 of 144) from the tight ends based on target distance and an increase in wide receiver-heavy formations. Even if Welker eats into Decker and Thomas only a little bit -- let's say 30 combined out of last year's 264 -- that leaves 127 targets for Welker, generally high-percentage ones at that.
As for the Patriots, they wasted no time securing Amendola's services, the only player with a shorter average target than Welker among those with at least 200 targets over the past four seasons.
The Patriots will still need that underneath presence. They targeted slot receivers on 38.6 percent of pass plays last season, highest in the league. With Rob Gronkowski's status uncertain and Aaron Hernandez no longer with the team, the slot receiver might play an even more prominent role.
Amendola is no stranger to that role, having worked with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in St. Louis. In fact, Amendola nearly matched Wes Welker's per-game production when lined up in the slot last season.
Lining Up in the Slot Last Season, Including Playoffs
Welker Amendola Rec per game 5.5 4.6 Rec pct. 66.0 66.2 Drops 13* 1 Drop pct. 8.9 1.3
If Amendola can replicate his 2012 drop percentage, it will go a long way toward earning Tom Brady's confidence, which would make fantasy owners very happy. Of course, the other side of per-game production is actually appearing in games.
Amendola played in 30 games in his first two seasons but missed five games last season with a dislocated clavicle. Welker missed three regular-season games in six years with the Patriots. Amendola's injury history is well documented, but Welker is not without his own risk.
Only five wide receivers ever have had 100 catches in a season at or after age 32: Reggie Wayne, Derrick Mason, Jimmy Smith, Ed McCaffrey and Jerry Rice. None of those five players worked out of the slot or over the middle as often as Welker, who also has a surgically reconstructed left knee from a 2010 torn ACL and MCL.
Carson Palmer to Arizona
It has to get better for Larry Fitzgerald, mainly because his quarterback can't really be worse.
The Cardinals are the only team in the past five years to have four different quarterbacks with at least 50 dropbacks in a season. As a team, the Cardinals posted a Total QBR of 21.4 last season, worst in the league.[+] EnlargeChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesLarry Fitzgerald should benefit greatly from the upgrade to Carson Palmer at quarterback.
Is Carson Palmer an elite quarterback? No. But is he better than Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Brian Hoyer or Ryan Lindley? Fitzgerald certainly hopes so. If last season's numbers hold, Palmer alone could be enough to move Fitzgerald from a tie for 40th among wide receivers to 24th, just ahead of Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace in standard formats.
Here are a few ways Fitzgerald's numbers benefit by merely replacing Arizona's 2012 QB du jour with some of Palmer's rates:
• Cardinals quarterbacks flat out missed on 23.2 percent of their throws. Palmer missed on 17.4 percent of his attempts last season, a number that would have afforded Fitzgerald eight more on-target throws, of which he statistically would have caught six for 67 more yards.
• Cards signal-callers were mediocre under pressure, completing 38.6 percent of passes. Palmer's presence (46.9 completion percentage under pressure, fourth-best in NFL), when applied to target rates, creates another three catches for 33 yards for Fitzgerald.
• Cardinals quarterbacks were 0-for-9 last year targeting Fitzgerald in the end zone. Carson Palmer completed 11 of 35 end zone attempts last year. After applying Palmer's rates to Fitzgerald's targets, he gets three more catches (all touchdowns) for 8 yards.
Just adding Palmer at last year's production, Fitzgerald gets an extra 12 catches for 108 yards and three touchdowns, which takes him from 71-798-4 TDs to 83-906-7 and adds 28.8 fantasy points in a normal league and 40.8 extra points in a PPR league.
The methodology isn't flawless, but it gives a small idea of what Palmer can do for Fitzgerald -- to say nothing of the pair of guards Arizona drafted to shore up a terrible offensive line.
A new offensive line in Tennessee
Chris Johnson is not a power runner, ranking last among qualified running backs with 1.2 yards after contact per rush last season. Johnson can't break tackles consistently, leaving the Titans' offensive line under pressure to give the speedster the space he needs to be effective.
Last year, the Tennessee line had mixed results. The Titans averaged 3.6 yards before contact per rush between the tackles, almost a half-yard more than anyone else in the league. However, Johnson was hit behind the line of scrimmage on 19.2 percent of his rushes (53 of 276), worse than 30 of the 43 other qualified rushers last season.
Whether the inconsistent production was the line's fault or a byproduct of Johnson's hesitant running (or both) is open to debate, but the Titans' line was plagued by inconsistency in personnel.
The Titans were one of three teams in 2012 that failed to get at least 700 plays out of an offensive guard (Bears and Seahawks). The closest was 35-year-old Steve Hutchinson, who logged 665 plays before retiring in the offseason.
The Titans invested heavily in improving their interior offensive line. They used the 10th overall pick on guard Chance Warmack from Alabama and picked up center Brian Schwenke from Cal in the fourth round.
Warmack is no stranger to opening up holes for big rushes. Alabama rushers gained at least 10 yards every 5.5 rushes between left guard (Warmack's position) and left tackle last season. Alabama averaged 4.2 yards before contact per rush in that direction.
The Titans also opened the checkbook for former Bills guard Andy Levitre, who signed a five-year, $39 million deal. Levitre's résumé includes time at tackle, center and guard for the Bills, who averaged 4.7 yards per rush with Levitre on the field and 4.1 yards per rush without him.
The average with Levitre would have ranked seventh-best last season, and the average without would have ranked 19th. Just as important, Levitre made all 64 starts in his four years.
The Titans will have holes to run through. The only question remaining is whether Johnson or Shonn Greene will be running through them.
Percy Harvin to Seattle
There are a couple basic ways Percy Harvin's move to the Seahawks will help both him and Russell Wilson.
Seahawks wide receivers averaged 3.7 yards after the catch per reception last year, 28th in the league. Harvin more than doubled that average in 2012, averaging 8.5 yards after the catch per reception. That's the highest average in the past three seasons. Seattle had one 30-yard play on a throw fewer than 10 yards downfield last season (Harvin alone has three in the past two seasons).[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonPercy Harvin has reason to smile with a more accurate quarterback to throw him the ball.
Statistically, the Christian Ponder-to-Wilson upgrade also appears substantial. Wilson missed (over or underthrown) on 14.4 percent of his total attempts, trailing only Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. Ponder ranked 18th in that category (19.5 percent).
Another interesting angle is what Harvin might be able to do with more deep targets. Harvin received so many targets near the line of scrimmage out of necessity. Ponder missed on 55 percent of throws deeper than 20 yards downfield (30th of 32), almost twice as often as Wilson (28 percent). The only quarterback to miss on a lower percentage of throws than Wilson was Brees.
In his career with Ponder, Harvin has one catch on six targets for 39 yards (6.9 yards per target) and a touchdown on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield. When Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb or Joe Webb targeted Harvin downfield, they were 12-of-29 for 433 yards (14.9 yards per target) and four touchdowns.
Ponder targeted Harvin downfield every 24.0 attempts, while Favre/McNabb/Webb tried it every 8.7 attempts. Wilson isn't afraid to throw downfield, either, averaging a 20-plus-yard attempt every 6.7 passes. Harvin's new situation might result in more chances downfield with a quarterback twice as likely to put those passes on target.
Saved by the Bell?
Le'Veon Bell gained 921 yards after contact in 2012, most among players from schools in BCS conferences. Bell gained more than half of his rushing yards after contact, a quality the Steelers hope will translate to the NFL. If it doesn't, Bell is going to be in a real tough situation.
The Steelers' offensive line averaged 1.7 yards before contact per rush, the lowest average in the league and a full yard below the league average. When rushing inside the tackles (Bell's specialty), the Steelers were even worse.
Pittsburgh averaged 1.6 yards before contact on rushes inside the tackles, one of only two teams below 2.0 and two full yards below the league-leading Tennessee Titans (3.6). The Steelers' only offseason addition was former Jaguars backup tackle Guy Whimper, and Pittsburgh was one of six teams to not draft an offensive lineman.
A closer look at Bell's stats doesn't help his case. Bell gained 632 rushing yards and seven touchdowns against four opponents that ranked 90th or worse in rushing among FBS schools (Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Nebraska and Indiana). Bell averaged 5.0 yards per rush against those schools, which would have ranked fifth among NFL running backs last season.
Bell also faced four defenses in the Top 25 in rush yards allowed last season (Notre Dame, Ohio State, Northwestern and TCU). Bell averaged a full yard fewer per carry and had one touchdown against those defenses, a closer representation to the caliber of tackling he'll face this season.
Bell's 4.0 yards per rush against the better competition would have ranked 23rd among NFL running backs, one spot ahead of now-teammate Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer had the fifth-best yards after contact per rush among qualified running backs (2.1), a quality that didn't stop him from ranking 41st among running backs in fantasy points.
Manage expectations around Bell, who shares Dwyer's physical running style and might eventually share his production. He'll likely get rushes right away, but he's no Alfred Morris.
John Parolin is a member of the ESPN Stats and Info group.
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