Following the most eventful offseason of player movement in recent or distant memory, rosters are now essentially constructed. With best ball contests ramping up over the next few months, it’s time to examine trends in snaps pace and play volume, to forecast which offenses will, and which will not, be playing on fertile fantasy soil.
Teams like the Cardinals, Cowboys, Chiefs, and Chargers are essentially locks to finish near the top of the league in pace and play volume. Each offense’s approach is well-established, and all finished inside the top eight in situation-neutral pace and plays per game last year. Minor questions exist, from Dallas’ offensive line and receiver depth, to Kansas City’s new pass-catching corps, to if Kliff Kingsbury is just a well-dressed Chip Kelly — but we basically know what we’re getting.
The below teams offer less certainty, for the most part — beginning with a fast offense that will deal with a boatload of large leads as the league’s odds-on top team. As always, “situation-neutral” is meant to provide context, and refers to plays while the game is within seven points during the first three quarters (minus the final two minutes of the first half).
Up In Pace
You don’t need to have crushed 15 Natty Lights and been slammed through a flaming card table to know we want as much exposure to this offense as we can get. In addition to ranking top 10 in yards per play, top five in total yards, and top three in scoring, the Bills averaged the third-most overtime-adjusted plays per game. During neutral situations, Buffalo had the fourth-quickest snaps pace, the third-highest pass rate, and they threw on first down at a league-leading 63% clip.
The Bills were also at the top of the league in pace and pass rate in 2020, and there is little reason to expect they’ll change their approach now, even if they are forecast to control game script in almost every game they play. Buffalo deployed the eighth-fastest offense, with the seventh-highest pass rate, when leading by at least two touchdowns last year. The drafting of pass-catching specialist RB James Cook, after a failed pursuit of free agent third-down back J.D. McKissic, is more evidence that you’ve got a better chance of catching crabs at a Bills tailgate than seeing the team turn into a slow-paced, run-based offensive quagmire.
Heading into 2021, we knew the Bengals’ offense could be pure sex — but too often Zac Taylor’s incessant first-down runs felt like humping a pillow. Cincinnati still ranked seventh in both scoring and yards per play, despite easing Joe Burrow in after his ACL rehab. The Bengals did slowly increase their situation-neutral pass rate, jumping from 55% through the first month (20th), to 59% during the season’s final four weeks (eighth), and culminating with a 69% rate during their playoff run.
After Taylor’s offense repeated the elevated pace of his first season as head coach (seventh fastest) during Burrow’s 10 rookie-year games in 2020 (eighth fastest), the Bengals crawled to the 26th-quickest situation-neutral pace in 2021. Their plays per game cratered from the ninth most in 2019 and a league-high during the first 10 games of 2020, down to the 29th-most overtime-adjusted snaps per game last year. Burrow is fully back, the Bengals’ offensive line is rebuilt, and they have the league’s best wideouts. With only one way to go in the play volume department, Cincinnati is poised to offer a whole other level of fantasy opportunity.
It remains to be seen if the Broncos rank among the league’s fastest-paced offenses, but we will almost certainly see a boost relative to last season. Denver finished 25th in plays per game, a direct result of ranking 28th in snaps pace and 25th in both early-down pass rate and overall pass rate during neutral situations. They were a ground-based, slow-paced root canal of an offense, and their games were slogs because of it (third-fewest combined plays). Even the Broncos’ four contests involving the Chargers and Chiefs — among the league’s premier snaps and points catalysts — were relative snoozers, averaging a paltry 42.8 total points and a below-average 124.8 combined plays.
Enter former Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett, whose Green Bay offenses also moved glacially but threw at a far higher rate. The Packers ranked eighth, ninth, and 13th in situation-neutral pass rate during Hackett’s time in Green Bay. The slow pace was in large part a byproduct of control freak Aaron Rodgers‘ fetish for draining the play clock to dust while making sure he is heard. New Broncos passer Russell Wilson has long been a proponent of elevated tempo but had to deal with Pete Carroll gumming up the works. Now we’ve already had signals that the new Broncos’ offense “is going to be predicated on speed,” via OL Quinn Meinerz. Wilson may start slowly in Denver, as he acclimates to new surroundings and a gaggle of pass-catching talents — but the arrow is clearly pointed up from a pace and play volume standpoint.
After eight seasons under handoff aficionado Mike Zimmer, the Vikings’ often-plodding offense is in store for a pace and pass rate jolt with an entirely new scheme on tap. Incoming HC Kevin O’Connell spent the last two seasons as Rams OC, and he also was Kirk Cousins’ position coach in 2017. During neutral situations last year, the Rams threw on first down at a top-five clip. They were also top five in overall pass rate and no-huddle rate — and top 10 in snaps pace. While Minnesota was roughly league-average in those areas last season, they were not on Los Angeles’ level. In spite of Zimmer’s puritanical preferences, 2021 was a failed-defense-driven departure from the elevated run rates and depressed pace of prior Vikings seasons.
Minnesota’s 21st-graded defense allowed the third-most total yards and ninth-most points. Their games became voluminous for both sides, producing the fifth-most combined plays. The Vikings’ ultra-narrow touch distribution also simplified things for fantasy — and that has not gone away. We will, however, see more 11-personnel (hello, K.J. Osborn). The Rams led the league in 3-WR sets (86%), while the Vikings ranked 28th (47%). Throw in a still-questionable pass defense and an offseason trope about Dalvin Cook lining up more often as a receiver — something he did on 24 snaps last year (career-high) while Rams running backs did it nearly 100 times — and the environment in Minnesota has inarguably become more fantasy-friendly.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bruce Arians is gone, Chris Godwin is delayed, Ronald Jones is Andy Reid’s problem, Antonio Brown is orbiting Saturn, and Rob Gronkowski is motor-boating his way toward potential retirement. None of it will have a profound effect on the Buccaneers’ elevated tempo. Since Tom Brady’s arrival, Tampa Bay has finished second and third in situation-neutral snaps pace. Brady’s last decade in New England resulted in the first-, first-, second-, sixth-, second-, second-, fourth-, first-, first-, and third-fastest offenses.
Free agent Russell Gage is more than adequate to fill gaps at wideout, and selecting the draft’s premier pass-catching back in Rachaad White offers Brady an exponential upgrade on RoJo’s frying-pan hands. The Buccaneers are unlikely to see a meaningful downtick in situation-neutral pass rate, where they’ve ranked second and first under Brady. No offense was even in shouting distance last year, and it resulted in the Bucs averaging the fourth-most plays and their contests producing a league-high 130.7 combined snaps. Expect more of the same.
Down In Pace
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