Death by a thousand paper cuts. That’s the recipe for success for Carson Wentz in the Indianapolis Colts‘ passing game.
Getting Wentz to dial back in average depth of target and average time to throw — where he ranked fifth-highest and ninth-highest, respectively, in 2020 — as Colts head coach Frank Reich did with Philip Rivers last year, will help alleviate pressure on the team's new signal-caller. Rivers posted his lowest aDOT and average time to throw since 2015, the last time he played in a Reich offense.
When Wentz last played in the Reich offense (2017), he delivered 29 passing touchdown passes, which led all quarterbacks through 13 weeks before an ACL injury ended his season. The Eagles' offense ranked 31st in neutral game script run rate (38%), first in air yards percentage (65%), third in aDOT (10.4), fourth in play-action usage (27%) and fifth in deep-ball rate (14.4%).
The offense’s main focus was predicated on Wentz’s big arm hitting deep balls. But it’s that exact reason why expecting a full-fledged return to MVP form based on the coaching reunion isn’t realistic. Wentz's offense in 2017 barely resembles what Reich has done in his three years with the Colts.
2021 TEAM PREVIEW
Since Reich joined the Colts in 2018, the team has put a greater emphasis on running the football behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. Indianapolis ranks above average in neutral game script run rate (43%, 12th) over that span, but at the same time, the offense’s aggressiveness to attack downfield has been severely limited.
The Colts rank outside the top 16 teams in deep pass attempt percentage (10.4%, 25th), play-action usage (24%, 19th), air yards percentage (53%, 21st) and aDOT (8.1, 23rd).
And the differences in rates don’t fluctuate dramatically when separating by any of the teams' past three starting quarterbacks — Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett or Philip Rivers — aside from Luck’s 2018 season that saw him dink and dunk his way to ranking second in the NFL in completions (23rd in yards per attempt).
The Colts passing game will operate close to the line of scrimmage in 2021, which might limit the weekly upside of the team’s pass-catchers and Wentz as a fantasy-viable option. But one component of the 2017 Eagles that Reich has stuck with is sheer play volume.
Philadelphia ranked second (67) and Indianapolis ranked eighth (65) in plays per game under Reich. More plays create more opportunities for the running backs, receivers and tight ends to post fantasy points, so there’s sneaky draft value for a plethora of Colts players not named Jonathan Taylor.
And the value of the Colts players (including Taylor) has only improved since the overreaction to the foot injuries sustained by Wentz and stud offensive guard Quenton Nelson. The initial report listed each player with an injury timetable of 5-12 weeks, but Chris Mortensen reported that both are trending to be available to open the season.
It’s not ideal that Wentz won’t have any preseason games to develop further rapport with his backs and receivers, so don’t draft him in any one-quarterback fantasy format. But buy the dip on all Indianapolis skill players, as Wentz will be fully healthy sooner rather than later and the price of acquisition for the backs, receivers and tight ends is just too cheap.
RB Jonathan Taylor
Fading Taylor in fantasy football has nothing to do with his talent.
After an up-and-down start to his rookie 2020 season, Taylor went nuclear to close out the year. From Week 11 through the wild card round, he was PFF’s second-highest-graded rusher (90.4), averaging north of 22 touches per game. He also ranked first in fantasy points per game (23.2) and fourth in expected fantasy points per game (18.3).
Finishing as the overall RB1 is within Taylor’s range of outcomes. The only question surrounds Taylor’s role with Marlon Mack returning and how he might operate as a pass-catcher in conjunction with Nyheim Hines.
Don’t give Taylor a massive boost as a receiver heading into 2021 with a much more mobile Wentz under center in place of Rivers. Mobile quarterbacks tend to target their running backs in the pass game less frequently, so temper expectations regarding Taylor’s ability to outperform his receiving production from a season ago (and Hines, for that matter).
Reich’s history of leveraging multiple backs ensures Hines will retain his role in the passing game.
Besides, Taylor ran just one more route than Hines (105 versus 104) with eight fewer targets (20 versus 28) over his last seven games. But the larger issue was that Taylor only once saw a snap share above 70%.
The Colts pseudo-bell cow deserves credit for producing nearly five fantasy points per game over expectation during his late-season run, but that’s not necessarily something fantasy gamers bank on for 2021.
Volume security needs to be held in high regard with first-round running backs, and Taylor’s 17.7 touches per game from last season (11th), along with the team’s heavy usage of other backs, indicates that anything north of 20 touches per game is an optimistic projection.
The path for Taylor to be a top-five fantasy RB1 exists, but there was originally no room for error when selecting him at No. 7 overall — his ADP on Underdog Fantasy prior to the Wentz/Nelson injuries.
Why make the middle first-round investment on Taylor and bank on his efficiency winning out over volume when you could make the same proposition with Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb at a cheaper price with more safety?
Both running backs are in extremely similar situations — strong offensive lines, part-time roles, etc. — with the main differences being Chubb has maintained efficiency every season, his draft cost is discounted and his strength of schedule to start the year is more favorable.
Taylor opens the year with the fifth-most difficult strength of schedule for running backs, including matchups against the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens — a far cry from the cakewalk of defenses he faced at the tail end of 2020 that fueled his strong fantasy finish.
There’s merit to targeting security among players in the first round, and Taylor just doesn’t have that attached to his profile, especially as a second-year running back. PFF’s Kevin Cole found the market’s outlook on second-year running backs is often overinflated because of the assumption that the player will continue on a linear trajectory. The true value is chasing the second-year running backs who disappointed in their rookie seasons, such as Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
And that’s the bottom line with Taylor: There are just better bets at the running back position after he comes off the board in the middle of the first round. Joe Mixon and Najee Harris seem like sure-fire volume bets to be strong returns as workhorse second-rounders seeing 300-plus touches.
Taylor is a great real-life running back who was overvalued in fantasy, but his draft price has since been corrected. His August ADP on Underdog is RB11 (17th overall), which is close to lockstep with my half-point PPR rankings. That’s a price worth paying regardless of how effective Wentz is upon his return.
There’s an argument to be made that Taylor’s floor as a pass-catcher heightens substantially with Wentz recovering from a foot injury, as the ex-Eagles quarterback may feel less inclined to scramble. And whether it’s Wentz, Jacob Eason or Sam Ehlinger under center early on, Reich is going to put the rushing game at the forefront of his offense. Last season, Indy ranked sixth in run-rate on early downs (48%).
Taylor should get fed more than usual out of the gates, which should equalize his drop-off in efficiency. Without Nelson and Anthony Castonzo’s 2021 replacement at left tackle, Eric Fisher, blocking upfront, don’t expect Taylor to rush for over 6.0 yards per carry again.
Hines should also stay heavily involved as a check-down option who can provide spiked fantasy weeks when the Colts face a negative game script. Hines finished as a top-five PPR running back thrice in 2020 (same as Taylor) and ended with the third-most targets (75) at the running back position. He’s free at RB45 ADP.
WR Michael Pittman Jr.
Pittman's rookie season was derailed by a serious calf injury, but that wasn’t enough to stop him from demonstrating his receiving prowess at the NFL level.
He caught seven balls for 101 yards in Week 10 and commanded a season-high nine targets in the Colts' lone playoff game, hauling in five for 90 yards. Pittman was a fiend with the ball in his hands, ranking third-best among wide receivers in yards after the catch per reception (7.4).
WR leaders in YAC/reception in 2020 (min. 40 targets)
1. Deebo Samuel (12.2)
2. Mecole Hardman (7.7)
3. Michael Pittman Jr. (7.4) pic.twitter.com/MDSTLzfTrR
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) June 23, 2021
Veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (potential bust candidate) is coming off his worst season to date after posting a career-low yards per route run (1.68) mark. Plus, he'll turn 32 years old this season. Just three players finished as top-40 fantasy wide receivers (Hilton was WR41) last season above age 30: Adam Thielen, Cole Beasley and Marvin Jones Jr.
Needless to say, the WR1 role is up for grabs in the Indianapolis offense.
Pittman’s path to alpha status might be rocky to start because his team's schedule does him no favors. The Colts have the most difficult schedule for wide receivers through their first five games. The big-bodied wideout is likely to draw tough cornerback matchups against Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard and Marlon Humphrey, which does not bode well for his fantasy upside early on.
WR Parris Campbell
Campbell is the perfect wide receiver to target in Round 13. Injuries have plagued his NFL career, but reports suggest he is ready to go for 2021. He should take over as the team’s starting slot receiver, which would be tantalizing for fantasy football purposes. Wentz loves the slot — he owns the fifth-highest target rate to the slot over the past two years. Wentz also targeted the slot at the fifth-highest rate in his time spent with Reich in Philadelphia.
Before Campbell’s injury last season, he looked like he was on the cusp of a second-year breakout. Campbell commanded a career-high nine targets in his lone game at full health. As a rookie, he forced five missed tackles on just 18 receptions.
Campbell’s ability to create yards after the catch (he led his draft class in total YAC) should fit in nicely with a Colts offense that utilizes short throws and screens. Indianapolis finished with the sixth-highest screen rate last season and should continue to feature the quick-passing game despite featuring a different quarterback under center.
Even if Wentz is out to start the year, Campbell will still see his fair share of short targets that will take advantage of his YAC-ability. Reich dialed back Rivers’ aDOT and average time to throw to last season, so anticipate plenty of short, quick throws with an inexperienced quarterback under center.
today's a great day to send a 2021 mid-to-late 2nd rookie pick for Parris Campbell
he's switching his jersey to No.1 this year. injuries begonepic.twitter.com/46oRQFXRtz
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) May 12, 2021
TE Mo Alie-Cox
The 6-foot-5, 267-pound tight end projects to have a larger role on offense this year with last year’s starting tight end Trey Burton no longer with the team.
Alie-Cox was ridiculously efficient on limited opportunities, finishing the 2020 season ranked fourth in yards per route run (2.07), second in catch rate (86%) and ninth in PFF receiving grade (76.6) at the tight end position.
He's a former basketball player — like many breakout tight ends before him — so it wouldn’t be shocking for him to become a legitimate fantasy tight end in his fourth season.
The Colts’ tight ends should get more involved, as well, due to a pretty unproven group of wide receivers rounding out the team’s depth chart.
Also, the Reich/Wentz combination in 2017 deployed 12 personnel (25%) at the seventh-highest rate and helped produce one of Zach Ertz’s best fantasy seasons.