Welcome to the Week 1 edition of Snaps & Pace, where we examine trends in play volume and game pace. It is meant to be a 30,000-foot view of upcoming contests, with the goal of identifying which matchups will – and which will not – be played on fertile fantasy soil. For a primer on why this is important, click here.
We always work with incomplete information when analyzing the game, but this is particularly true before a season kicks off. Teams hide their true intentions in press conferences and during the preseason – the Cardinals didn’t run a single no-huddle play, for instance. It is important to parse what we think we know with what is currently unknowable.
The Jets will allegedly use more tempo on offense, according to both new head coach Adam Gase and a few snippets of first-team preseason action. They went no-huddle on 48% of Sam Darnold’s snaps in their first two practice games before reducing it to 18% in the third contest. Gase did the same thing during the preseason while coaching the Dolphins, before scrapping the no-huddle when real games began. Taking a wait-and-see approach here is wise, especially with New York opening against the Bills defense in what should be a low-play-volume affair.
Fortunately there are more attractive game environments for firing our fantasy cannons, so let’s dig in.
UP IN PACE
San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The leading candidate for fastest-paced game on the main slate, this matchup features a gaggle of fantasy options who will benefit from additional play volume. Kyle Shanahan’s offense has moved quickly, both historically and with the now-healthy Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm. The 49ers’ situation-neutral snaps pace ranked 10th a year ago despite an injury avalanche, while opponents operated at the 10th-quickest rate and San Francisco allowed the 10th-most plays. After deploying the ninth-most pass-heavy offense during neutral situations in 2017 – and producing the sixth-most snaps per game – they threw at the 22nd-highest rate a year ago. Expect a rebound both in pass attempts and play volume.
Buccaneers games averaged the seventh-most combined snaps last season, as they ranked fourth in pass attempts while facing incessantly negative game scripts. Only the Cardinals had a higher percentage of offensive plays while trailing by more than one touchdown. Tampa Bay’s defense does not project to be appreciably better than the unit that allowed the fourth-most yards per play and surrendered more points than everyone except the Raiders. The Bucs will be throwing often because it’s easily what their offense does best, as well as to keep up on the scoreboard. They ranked sixth in plays per game last year (65.9) and fourth in situation-neutral pace. Count on Tampa Bay finishing in that range again.
Bruce Arians’ Cardinals ranked top-half in play volume in four of his five seasons, with the most recent offenses finishing second and fifth. His presence only adds to the fantasy appeal and target loads of Tampa Bay’s big three pass catchers. While George Kittle is a lock to be busy for San Francisco in any scenario, and Dante Pettis is indeed their top wideout, the elevated play volume also mitigates target ambiguity among their ancillary pass catchers. It is similarly good news for a newly narrowed backfield, and creates confidence in starting nominal No. 2 running back Matt Breida. If we’re debating starting a player in this likely back-and-forth affair (the point spread is a pick’em), chances are they deserve a green light.
Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville Jaguars
Last season, Chiefs games averaged the league’s third-most combined snaps (131.6), as opponents flailed to keep up with Kansas City’s slot-machine offense. The Chiefs were so otherworldly efficient that they didn’t need to average more than the 23rd-most plays per game (62.3) to post the third-most points in NFL history. They scored quickly due to talent, scheme, and their pace of play – which ranked sixth quickest during neutral situations. There is little reason to expect them to slow down with Patrick Mahomes in his second full season behind center. An uptick in pass rate may also be in the cards, especially during close games.
If the Jaguars can hang in there, and they are not huge home underdogs (+4), Kansas City’s pass frequency will spike. Despite the fourth-highest pass rate during one-score games (64%), the Chiefs threw only the ninth-most passes. Jacksonville will also throw more often this season. Nick Foles is the new big member of the offense after they cut offensive anchor Blake Bortles loose. They also imported John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator. Last we heard of DeFilippo, he was run out of Minnesota in December for not coaching like a caveman (aka – he called too many passes). At that point, the Vikings ranked 14th in plays per game and 10th in seconds per snap. Foles won’t average more than 40 pass attempts under DeFilippo like Kirk Cousins did, but he’ll be plenty busy.
A play volume boost will benefit the Jaguars more than the Chiefs, who clearly need it less. Kansas City’s opponents ran the second-most plays per game last year (69.3), and more Week 1 snaps will push Jacksonville’s uncertain pass-catching corps closer to fantasy viability. We know a slimmed-down and tuned-up Leonard Fournette will get all he can handle against last year’s worst-graded run defense, but there should be an opportunity overflow in the passing game as well. Which receivers are worthy of riding in fantasy, outside of Dede Westbrook, remains tricky – but there are targets to go around. As for Chiefs fantasy options, if you need to be told they’re useable even in a tough matchup against a somewhat diminished Jaguars defense, you may want to move out from under that rock.
Los Angeles Rams at Carolina Panthers
During Sean McVay’s two seasons in Los Angles, the Rams have finished first and third in situation-neutral snaps pace. When games are close, they are moving quickly. Currently just a field-goal-favorite, we can project the Rams to keep their foot on the gas in what should be a tight matchup. Last season, they finished with the fourth-most plays per game (66.3) and passed at the 12th-highest rate during neutral situations (58%). With a tight target concentration and potentially elevated play volume, there should be little hesitation to start Rams weapons despite a solid Panthers defense.
Carolina produced a respectable 63.2 plays per game last season (15th), even as they operated at the 26th-quickest situation-neutral snaps pace and lost their quarterback. The Panthers’ 58% pass rate while games were close ranked 15th, and it stands a good chance of rising. Cam Newton’s passing game weapons are ascending, while a preseason foot sprain and his surgically repaired shoulder are fresh in everyone’s mind. We should expect fewer designed runs and more throws from the 30-year-old signal caller. It might not be ideal for Newton’s own fantasy output, but more passing lends itself to more plays.
This is an attractive game to stack, not only due to potentially elevated snap volume and the presence of fantasy deity Christian McCaffrey, but because – outside of the Rams’ backfield – we can project a fairly narrow touch distribution. Even if we want to throw a dart at a Los Angeles running back, the possibility of a close, back-and-forth contest with extra snaps can offset some of the unknown workload of Todd Gurley, Malcolm Brown, and Darrell Henderson. There should be zero hesitation to deploy the Rams’ top three wideouts or the Panthers’ top two and Greg Olsen.
SLOW PACED SLOGS
Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals
Lions games averaged the fifth-fewest combined snaps last season (122.6), as they operated at the fourth-slowest seconds-per-snap pace during neutral situations and led the league in reducing TV viewers’ will to live. If you expect Matt Patricia to significantly alter Detroit’s slothy approach, you may have forgotten they hired handoff fetishist Darrell Bevell as offensive coordinator. In Bevell’s 12 seasons as an OC, his teams’ situation-neutral pace ranked in the top half of the league only twice. During the other 10 seasons, they averaged a 25th-place finish. An improving defense will only encourage Detroit to employ the same plodding pace that helped hold opponents to the league’s fewest plays per game last season (58.9).
The Cardinals are expected to unleash Kliff Kingsbury’s up-tempo, Air Raid offense now that he’s done dishing out vanilla preseason plans. While things can’t be as bad as last year, when their games averaged the eighth-fewest combined snaps (122.9) and Arizona oozed only 56.4 offensive plays per game (2nd fewest) – volume worries remain. The Cardinals had the fourth-worst run defense DVOA last season, while allowing the most rushing yards and attempts. PFF ranks their run defense third-worst for 2019, and it earned the second-worst preseason grade. Starting cornerbacks Robert Alford and Patrick Peterson are shelved to start the year, so the Lions won’t struggle to hog possession via the air or the ground.
Kerryon Johnson is the clear standout, as the Lions look to pound a suspect Arizona run defense that saw opponents hand off at the league’s highest situation-neutral rate last year, and may be without inside linebacker Haason Reddick. Lions receivers aren’t staring at a major target load – last year Matthew Stafford attempted his fewest passes since 2010, even without Bevell – but efficiency should make up for it against a depleted secondary. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are squarely in play. A grinding clock and lack of play volume will not be fantasy-friendly for Cardinals pass-catchers mired in a seemingly ambiguous rotation. Arizona’s offense offers a pile of unknown and a mountain of upside, but at least for Week 1, volume concerns call for a fantasy scalpel instead of a shovel.
Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns
The Titans averaged the third-fewest plays per game a year ago (58.6). If that sounds familiar, it’s because they’ve been allergic to play volume – finishing 30th, 29th, 22nd, 27th, and dead last during the past five seasons. Their situation-neutral snaps pace ranked 23rd in 2018, which was actually their quickest effort of the previous five years (28th, 32nd, 25th, and 29th). Tennessee’s 50% run rate while games were within seven points was third highest, and although they hired a new offensive coordinator, it’s hard to project a spike in passing coming via a former tight ends coach who spent the previous eight seasons in their organization. It is possible change is coming, but for now, we must expect more of the same – and Titans games averaged the third-fewest combined plays last year.
Browns games averaged a league-high 134.1 combined snaps in 2018. Of course, they played four overtime contests and were a completely different offense after the midseason exorcism of Hue Jackson. Cleveland averaged the second-most plays per game through Week 8 (70.3) and the fourth fewest after that (57.6). They fell from the second-quickest offense in seconds-per-snap, to the 21st quickest. There is understandable excitement stemming from the addition of Todd Monken to the coaching staff, but Freddie Kitchens will again be calling plays. While there’s a ton of fantasy juice to squeeze if the late-season, uber-efficient version of the Browns do pick up the pace, and they opened their first two preseason games with the no-huddle, their desired tempo remains an unknown.
Titans are a tough sell in this matchup, especially with their projected lack of play volume. Derrick Henry’s passing game involvement remains in question, at best, and it is hard to see him pile up the requisite handoffs to overcome Tennessee’s severe disadvantage in the trenches while his team is likely trailing. Their passing tree has widened from last year with the additions of Adam Humphries, Delanie Walker, and A.J. Brown (or Tajae Sharpe), making a general lack of targets even harder to mitigate. The Browns shouldn’t feel the turned-down volume quite as much, but considering the Titans’ above-average defense, we should stick near their main horses this week in fantasy. This primarily puts us on game-script-aided Nick Chubb, as well as Odell Beckham. David Njoku, Jarvis Landry, and Rashard Higgins are dicier plays considering matchup and/or the game’s low-volume outlook.
Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles
Washington produced the sixth-fewest plays per game last season (60.4) and their contests averaged the sixth-fewest combined snaps (122.7). They operated at the league’s slowest situation-neutral pace, and a new quarterback with a diminished offensive line won’t convince the same coaching staff to play faster. Their best chance to beat the Eagles is to minimize the number of possessions and pray for weird things to happen. Last year, Washington handed off at the fifth-highest rate during neutral situations (48%), and between Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice, it’s clear how their offensive bread will again be buttered: slowly.
Things aren’t nearly as dire in Philadelphia, where the Eagles are locked-in Super Bowl contenders and once again have an intact offense. They will almost certainly operate more quickly than last season, when they finished 30th in situation-neutral pace and fell from third to eighth in plays per game. They did throw at the 10th-highest rate while leading by more than a touchdown, and are favored by nearly double-digits in this matchup. Still, with a revamped backfield and still-dominant offensive line, just how pass-heavy of an approach they take with the again-healthy Carson Wentz remains to be seen. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Philadelphia gets out to a commanding lead on their clown-show division rival and flip on the early-season cruise control.
Fear of Philadelphia’s positive game flow, while notable, shouldn’t scare us too far off — certainly not when it comes to their backfield. The script sets up well for Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard. Whether Wentz gets enough pass volume to spread things around to his many weapons thickly enough is another story. Sticking with the main cogs – Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery – might be wiser on a full slate than jamming in thinner plays like Dallas Goedert, Nelson Agholor, or even DeSean Jackson. Well, maybe a little DeSean Revenge Game narrative is okay. As for Washington, you’d need to be totally desperate or Trey Quinn’s mom to feel good about starting Skins when there’s a good shot they fail to reach 60 plays.
TILTED PLAY VOLUME
There will be plenty of likely blowouts in which the underdog is still projected to run a lot of plays. Usually an up-tempoed favorite will be involved. Often, as will be the case in Philadelphia, we can only project the better team to enjoy copious play volume. There are a few more of those types of matchups this week, and while it may seem intuitive, we should still be careful looking too far down the depth chart when opportunity is sparse.
The Ravens have consistently run a lot of plays in recent years, and although their pace had been fast, that has changed with the introduction of Lamar Jackson and Greg Roman to their offense. Baltimore was fairly stingy with opponent snaps even while their offense operated quickly, but those days are likely gone. Even if they are not, the Dolphins are not a legitimate litmus test. No stranger to allowing outsized play volume while producing little of their own, Miami doesn’t have a single viable fantasy option in Week 1. We will be tempted to stack up Ravens for an almost certain blowout in the Fish Tank, but running it back with a Dolphin looks about as effective as cooling the ocean with ice cubes.
Speaking of doomed plans, the Bengals will drag their trash offensive line to Seattle for what shapes up as a play volume dumpster fire. Cincinnati has ranked 29th and dead last in snaps the last two years, and despite a coaching change, things aren’t looking up in Week 1. In addition to a decided advantage in the trenches on defense, the Seahawks will hand off constantly (2018 league-high 53% situation-neutral run rate), and they’ll be in no particular hurry to do it (seventh-lowest 2018 seconds-per-snap rate). It probably goes without saying this week, but digging too deep for Bengals in fantasy will at least leave a hole in the ground for you to crawl into.
The Giants-Cowboys matchup likely falls into the “tilted play volume” category as well, although New York stands a better chance of slapping together several fantasy-viable performances than Cincinnati or Miami. The more probable outcome, however, is the Cowboys utilize their ascending defense and quickening offensive pace to pile up play volume – and a handful of additional Giants snaps won’t go far with a dried husk of a once-mediocre quarterback. Fantasy gamers in search of an early-season edge will be all over the Cowboys DST and offensive pieces – including ancillary option Michael Gallup, who will have play volume on his side.