News & Analysis

The fantasy options most hurt by their division

By Daniel Kelley
Mar 27, 2018

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Dec 17, 2017; Seattle, WA, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) pressures Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during the second quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Angela Lansbury was nominated for a Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Emmy every year from 1985 to 1996 for her work in Murder, She Wrote. She won exactly zero times.

Between the women of Cagney & Lacey, China Beach, and Picket Fences, Lansbury was a dominant actress in an era of slightly more dominant actresses, and to this day, she is the record-holder for most Emmy nominations without a win.

The truth is, in just about everything, your ability matters, but your level of competition matters at least as much. The Patriots have been great for a long time, but their streak of dominating the AFC East has undoubtedly been helped by the rest of the division being, by and large … not so great. Drew Brees would be a worldwide sensation if his career hadn’t entirely overlapped with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. A lot of people think LeBron will stay in the Eastern Conference if and when he leaves the Cavaliers, just because the road to the Finals is so much easier in the east.

In the NFL, a team plays the teams in its division twice apiece — six times over the season, 37.5 percent of the year. If a division is miserable at, say, defending the run, then a running back in that division can see a big boost in production and look better than he actually is. And of course, the same is true the other way.

Today, we’re looking at some 2017 fantasy options whose full-season numbers were hurt by the division they played in.

Quarterbacks

Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson’s per-game averages in and out of the NFC West, 2017
Attempts Completions Yards TDs INTs Rush Yards Rush TDs Fantasy points
In division 33.5 20.2 204.2 1.5 0.3 28.2 0.2 17.7
Out of division 35.2 21.8 275.8 2.5 0.9 41.7 0.2 25.5

Among players who played a majority of the year, no player saw a greater negative impact in intradivisional games than Wilson, who put up 7.8 more points outside the NFC West than inside. The bad news for him is that this is only going to get worse in 2018, with the Rams’ secondary being one of the most improved units in the league, the 49ers nabbing Richard Sherman away from Seattle, and Patrick Peterson still lurking in Arizona. Combine that with the fact that Wilson’s offensive line remains among the league’s worst (and gets the Aaron Donald/Ndamukong Suh Combo of Sadness) and he’s lost Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson to free agency, and his fantasy prospects are as low in 2018 as they’ve been in years. (To be fair, he’s still a QB1. He’s just a scarier one.)

Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

Philip Rivers’ per-game averages in and out of the AFC West, 2017
Attempts Completions Yards TDs INTs Rush Yards Rush TDs Fantasy points
In division 34.7 21.7 249.0 1.7 1.2 0.2 0.0 15.5
Out of division 36.7 23.0 302.1 1.8 0.3 -0.3 0.0 19.0

Wilson’s pain is Rivers’ gain. Rivers averaged 19.0 fantasy points last year when playing outside the AFC West, 15.5 in the division. That difference by itself isn’t remarkable, but it gets much worse if you focused only on his games against Kansas City and Denver (leaving Oakland out of it) — he averaged 12.5 fantasy points a game against just the two above-average pass defenses. But with Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib both leaving the AFC West to go to the Rams, Rivers’ road gets slightly easier in 2018. It’s like if suddenly the Cagney & Lacey ladies decided to submit for supporting actress.

Running backs

Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

Mark Ingram’s per-game averages in and out of the NFC South, 2017
Carries Rush yards TDs Fumbles Receptions Receiving Yards TDs Fantasy points
In division 13.7 57.7 0.3 0.0 3.3 25.5 0.0 10.3
Out of division 14.8 77.8 1.0 0.3 3.8 26.3 0.0 16.1

Ingram had a six-game stretch in the middle of the season where he put up eight rushing touchdowns and 724 yards from scrimmage. That stretch included five games outside of the NFC South and, right in the middle, an outing against Tampa Bay. He put up 79 yards from scrimmage in that game (his lowest total in the group) and didn’t find the end zone, his only scoreless game in there. That’s not indicative of anything significant — if he had that game every week, he’d put up 1,232 rushing yards on the year and find the end zone eventually, and the Buccaneers graded out 26th in the league in run defense in 2017 — but it really illustrates how timing impacted Ingram’s season.

Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

Jordan Howard’s per-game averages in and out of the NFC North, 2017
Carries Rush yards TDs Fumbles Receptions Receiving Yards TDs Fantasy points
In division 14.3 59.0 0.3 0.0 1.2 6.8 0.0 8.6
Out of division 19.0 76.8 0.7 0.1 1.6 8.4 0.0 12.6

A more interesting way to look at Howard (and the Bears) from last year is actually to break them down by games against the AFC North and otherwise. The Bears went 1-11 outside of the AFC North last year (with their lone win coming over Carolina), but swept the AFC North. Howard’s numbers reflected that as well: He scored six touchdowns and averaged 135.3 yards from scrimmage against those teams, but scored three touchdowns and 58.8 yards from scrimmage against everyone else. My Bears-fan friends are going to petition the league for an emergency realignment. The bad news for Howard is his intradivisional numbers might not improve in 2018, with the Packers and Vikings both coming off seasons in the top four in PFF run-defense grades and adding defensive interior pieces in free agency.

Wide receivers

Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings

Adam Thielen’s per-game averages in and out of the NFC North, 2017
Receptions Receiving yards TDs Fantasy points
In division 5.8 60.5 0.0 6.1
Out of division 5.6 91.3 0.4 11.5

Thielen put up six double-digit fantasy days (in standard scoring) in 2017. All six came outside the NFC North. It wasn’t as much a result of tough defenses (the Packers struggled mightily in pass coverage, while the Bears and Lions were slightly above-average) as it was a difference in who succeeded when for the Vikings. Thielen averaged 11.5 fantasy points a game outside the division compared to 6.1 inside, while running mate Stefon Diggs averaged 10.3 and 8.4, respectively. That should all balance out in the wash, so don’t read too much into Thielen’s relative struggles in the NFC North.

Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos

Demaryius Thomas’ per-game averages in and out of the AFC West, 2017
Receptions Receiving yards TDs Fantasy points
In division 4.0 38.0 0.0 3.8
Out of division 5.9 72.1 0.4 9.6

Much of the research we’re doing here today can be boiled down to the West divisions. Just like Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers highlighted the quarterback listing, Thomas (and Emmanuel Sanders, Keenan Allen, and Paul Richardson) show up highly on the receivers hurt by their respective divisions. Thomas didn’t have to face the Broncos, like Rivers did, but it’s even worse for him, with two games a year against a Chargers team that features 2017’s No. 1 (Casey Hayward), No. 10 (Trevor Williams), and No. 14 (Desmond King) corners. Having Case Keenum (or a rookie?) at quarterback in 2018 can only help, but facing the Chargers twice a year should continue to be a problem.

Tight end

Vernon Davis, Washington

Vernon Davis’ per-game averages in and out of the NFC East, 2017
Receptions Receiving yards TDs Fantasy points
In division 1.7 20.3 0.0 2.0
Out of division 3.3 52.6 0.3 7.0

Davis was held to 20 or fewer yards seven times in 2017. Five of those games came against the NFC East — the only time he topped that number was Week 7 against the Eagles, when he caught 4 passes for 67 yards. In the other five games, he totaled 6 catches on 11 targets for 55 yards. All three of his 2017 scores came outside of the division. That was made even stranger by the fact that the Giants in particular last year were miserable against tight ends, allowing 100-plus yards and/or a touchdown to the position in 12 of 16 games — and one of the other four was against an Arizona team that didn’t have a quality tight end or quarterback for much of the year. Without any great reason to attach more meaning to this, I’m chalking up Davis’ struggles in the NFC East to a fluke and not taking away any meaning from it — though he has Jordan Reed’s theoretical return to health keeping his fantasy value in check anyway.

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