News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Targeting the best at each position in broken tackles

The 2020 NFL season is uncharted territory with no preseason games slated to be played. As we try to adjust our fantasy football projections and draft rankings, the most recent season with any similarities to the current offseason was the 2011 offseason, which featured a lockout lasting until the end of July.

Looking back at 2011, there were some important takeaways. First, we saw an unprecedented amount of passing offense. Three quarterbacks threw for 5,000 yards (Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matthews Stafford), and Eli Manning threw for over 4,900 yards. At the time, those four yardage performances ranked first, second, fifth and sixth all-time. Since that season, we have seen 15 quarterbacks throw for more than 4,900 yards and seven quarterbacks throw for more than 5,000 yards.

The 2011 season saw the highest explosive pass play percentage (14.80%) of any in the past 10 years. That year also coincides with a new collective bargaining agreement that dramatically reduced the amount of padded practices teams could have. The result? Total missed tackles have been on the rise ever since. Heading into 2020, NFL defenses are coming off their worst season dating back to 2010 in terms of total missed tackles.

The major takeaway: We are going to see a lot of offense in 2020, particularly passing volume. With defenses unable to properly prepare for an offensive onslaught, I'm looking for skill position players who are particularly adept at adding to their pain by breaking tackles: running backs, wide receivers and tight ends who excel in forcing missed tackles, creating yards after the catch and creating yards after contact.

Let's take a lap around these positions to see who stands out relative to ADP (per July BestBall10s).

Running Backs:

James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers | ADP: 72.42

James Conner was a disappointment in 2019 because of injuries. That's the main consideration when it comes to his fantasy draft stock entering the 2020 season, but some are overlooking how effective Conner was in the passing game when he did play in 2019.

Most missed tackles forced on receptions in 2019
Christian McCaffrey 26
Leonard Fournette 24
Austin Ekeler 22
George Kittle 20
James Conner 19
Dalvin Cook 19

Conner's 19 missed tackles forced on receptions tied for the fifth-highest total among all players in 2019. Conner’s missed tackles per reception (0.56) ranked No. 1 in the league among all running backs who had at least 10 receptions.

RB missed tackles per reception in 2019
James Conner 0.56
Adrian Peterson 0.47
Ito Smith 0.45
Josh Jacobs 0.45
Damien Williams 0.43
Kareem Hunt 0.40

Conner's ability to shed tackles helped him achieve a YAC per reception of 8.8, which ranked 11th among running backs with at least 20 receptions in 2019. Though it was a decrease from his 2018 number (10.1), his average of 9.6 YAC per reception over the past two seasons is fourth-best among running backs with at least 40 receptions.

RB YAC per reception since 2018
Dalvin Cook 10.6
Austin Ekeler 10.4
Kareem Hunt 10.0
James Conner 9.6
Kerryon Johnson 9.4

Conner has not found the same success breaking tackles or creating yards after contact as a rusher — his missed tackles forced per attempt (0.15) and yards after contact per attempt both rank outside the top 35 running backs since 2018 among running backs with at least 100 carries.

Still, passing volume separates running backs in today's NFL, especially those with a line on early-down and goal-line work, as well. Conner is being extremely underrated in fantasy football drafts despite the fact that he can contribute as both a rusher and receiver — that’s rare to find in the third or fourth round. 

Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders | ADP: 18.80

Josh Jacobs was the king of elusiveness in 2019, taking home the highest PFF elusive rating (103.6) among all running backs and finishing second behind only quarterback Lamar Jackson (133.0) among all players with at least 100 carries. It puts Jacobs in an elite tier of running backs considering his elusive rating is the second only to Alvin Kamara’s 2017 campaign (108.5) since 2010.

RB League Leader in Elusive Rating since 2010
Josh Jacobs (2019) 103.6
Nick Chubb (2018) 103.3
Alvin Kamara (2017) 108.5
Jay Ajayi (2016) 76.2
Marshawn Lynch (2015) 80.4
Marshawn Lynch (2014) 94.3
Donald Brown (2013) 73.8
C.J Spiller (2012) 94.6
Jonathan Stewart (2011) 79.8
LeGarrette Blount (2010) 87.5

It would surely benefit the Las Vegas Raiders to get Jacobs more involved in the passing game. His missed tackles per reception (0.45) mark was second to only Conner among running backs with at least 20 receptions. Like Conner, after shedding tackles, Jacobs would go on to churn out more yardage, ranking sixth in YAC per reception (9.6) among 48 qualifying running backs.

RB YAC per reception in 2019
Boston Scott 11.5
Dalvin Cook 11.3
Austin Ekeler 10.3
Tevin Coleman 9.8
Ronald Jones 9.7
Josh Jacobs 9.6

As a rusher, Jacobs led the league in total missed tackles (69) and missed tackles forced per attempt (0.29) among running backs with at least 100 carries. His yards after contact per attempt ranked fifth (3.5) among 44 qualifying running backs.

RB missed tackles per attempt in 2019
Josh Jacobs 0.29
Alvin Kamara 0.25
Devin Singletary 0.24
Austin Ekeler 0.23
Nick Chubb 0.22
Chris Carson 0.22

If Jacobs ultimately sees an expanded role in the passing game, which is common for second-year running backs, he will absolutely smash his current ADP as RB11 and the 14th overall player off the board in BestBall10s.

Wide Receivers:

A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans | ADP: 42.88

Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers | ADP: 117.73

Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers | ADP: 128.56

Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs | ADP: 136.90

Four members of the 2019 rookie draft class top the rankings from 2019 in forced missed tackles per reception (among wide receivers with at least 25 receptions). This is a great reason to nudge these guys up a half-round in your personal rankings or to break ties at any point in fantasy drafts — young playmakers who have proven ability to make things happen after the catch. 

WR missed tackles per reception in 2019
Deebo Samuel 0.32
Mecole Hardman 0.31
A.J. Brown 0.31
Diontae Johnson 0.31
Demarcus Robinson 0.28

In fact, all four hold up when we factor in the 2018 rookie WR class. Samuel (18), Diontae Johnson (18) and A.J. Brown (16) all finished in the top four in total missed tackles, while Mecole Hardman (8) finished 23rd. Hardman made up for it by leading the NFL among all positions in YAC per reception (11.5), followed by Brown (8.9), Samuel (8.5) and Johnson, who ranked 21st (5.3) among wide receivers with at least 30 targets.

It's easy to imagine any of these players taking the next step in Year 2, especially after an offseason with little defensive preparation.

Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos | ADP: 70.69

The one non-rookie wide receiver to call out for his exemplary tackle-breaking ability is Courtland Sutton. He owned the highest forced missed tackles per reception among wide receivers who saw at least 60 receptions in 2019 (0.22), along with forcing the fourth-most missed tackles (16) among wide receivers.

This was a massive step forward for the Denver Broncos’ No. 1 wide receiver after he forced just six missed tackles during his rookie season. His YAC per reception also increased, going from 4.0 to 5.0 in his second season.

Expect Sutton to continue improving entering his third season as the true alpha wide receiver who has established rapport with second-year quarterback Drew Lock

Tight Ends:

Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans | ADP: 153.75

Jonnu Smith did not only break tackles in 2019, but he may have broken PFF’s elusive rating scale. His 1,023.1 elusive rating is the highest that a tight end has ever earned and was the highest among all players in 2019.

Smith earned that grade by finishing third in missed tackles forced on receptions (14) and No. 1 overall in missed tackles forced per reception (0.4) among tight ends with at least 30 receptions. His YAC per reception also ranked second (8.1).

TE missed tackles per reception in 2019
Jonnu Smith 0.40
Gerald Everett 0.35
George Kittle 0.23
Jordan Akins 0.22
Travis Kelce 0.15

Smith also forced five missed tackles on just four rushing attempts. Rushing attempts for a tight end are rare, but with Smith’s size-speed combination — 6-foot-3, 248, 4.62-forty time — the Tennessee Titans would be wise to feature him with as many touches as he can handle.

Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams | 213.63

Gerald Everett ranked second in missed tackles per reception (0.35) in 2019 in addition to ranking second overall in the metric just behind Smith since 2018. His 18 total forced missed tackles rank fifth-most at the position over that time span — 13 of them came in just 11 games last season.

His tackle-breaking ability did not support his YAC per reception (4.9) in 2019, which ranked 21st out of 40 qualifying tight ends with at least 30 targets. But this seems like an anomaly, as every tight end in 2019 who had at least a missed tackle per reception rate of 0.15 among qualifiers averaged a YAC per reception of 6.7.

Everett’s draft price is suppressed due to the breakout of Tyler Higbee last season. But based on his ability to create plays on his own, he could be the one who actually breaks out in 2020 — and at a massively discounted draft price. 

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