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Who are the NFL's most efficient fantasy football players?

A popular adage in fantasy football land is to chase volume, not talent. The goal isn’t to compile a team of the best real-life players; getting as much production as possible far outweighs real-life skills and flash. It would be nice to be able to assume that the league’s best talents will earn high-volume roles, but rational coaching can’t always be relied on when attempting to project touch and snap shares.

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We still live in a day where yearly NFL “leaders” at their positions are determined by total yardage. Television broadcasts consistently identify defenses as the best or worst against the pass or run by the amount of total yardage they’ve allowed; nevermind the efficiency associated with that total.

It takes a special player to be able to maintain efficiency with high-level volume. Just like we wouldn’t expect a spot-up three-point shooter in basketball to maintain elite efficiency with double the workload, it’s unfair to assume that football players would be capable of extrapolating their per-attempt marks with a major increase in volume. It’s unfair to assume a solid backup would be able to replace his team’s starter without a hitch, although picking up yardage efficiently is objectively good for football business.

Today we’ll imagine a league where players aren’t subjected to play-caller tendencies or preferences; the following article will take 2019 fantasy football efficiency rates and determine the league’s top players if all volume was created equal. Breaking down the plus traits of each player should help us better identify which underrated talents might be capable of balling out at a high level if a featured role ever comes their way. Note that the attempt thresholds used are purposely low; we’re attempting to uncover some truly efficient talents that simply didn’t have much opportunity in 2019.

Quarterbacks

Fantasy points per dropback is a useful metric that includes the average production from every play in which a QB is asked to pass. Completions, interceptions, sacks, etc. are all weighted in an effort to determine which signal-callers are capable of most-efficiently racking up points.

The sample group includes 44 QBs that had at least 100 dropbacks in 2019. Just 11 of those signal callers averaged at least 0.5 fantasy points per dropback:

  • Lamar Jackson (0.91): Only Ezekiel ElliottJosh JacobsDerrick Henry and Chris Carson have averaged more rushing yards per start than Jackson since 2018. Likely negative regression in pass TD rate be damned, the 2019 MVP is fantasy’s clear-cut QB1. The idea that Jackson isn’t a high-level passer is borderline insulting.

  • Ryan Tannehill (0.7): TanneThrill was a top-five QB last season in: adjusted net yards per attempt (No. 1), TD rate (No. 2), completion rate (No. 3) and QB rating (No. 1). Of course, the Titans’ run-heavy offense also only asked Tannehill to throw at least 30 passes in just four of 13 starts. Regardless, he ranked as the QB4 in fantasy points per game upon taking over as the starter in Weeks 7-17.
  • Drew Brees (0.59): The 19-year veteran averaged 22.5 fantasy points per game in 2019 if you’ll excuse his nine-snap effort against the Rams when he broke his hand. Only Lamar Jackson was more productive on a per-game basis.
  • Deshaun Watson (0.56): Only Patrick Mahomes (23) has averaged more fantasy points per game than Watson (21.6) since 2017. One of 12 QBs to ever average 30-plus rush yards per game, Watson’s ceiling remains sky-high despite the loss of his No. 1 WR.
  • Patrick Mahomes (0.56): The best QB in the Super Bowl era in career QB Rating (108.9), yards per attempt (8.6), adjusted yards per attempt (9.2) and adjusted net yards per attempt (8.6). Another season with 16 games could (again) break records, particularly if Mahomes continues to run the ball as well as he did in the playoffs.

  • Dak Prescott (0.55): The only QB to post top-10 fantasy production in each of the past four seasons gets two upgrades with CeeDee Lamb over Randall Cobb and Blake Jarwin in place of Jason Witten. Prescott has a position-high 21 rushing scores since entering the league in 2016.
  • Russell Wilson (0.55): Gained just seven yards on designed runs last season after going for an average of 151 per season from 2012-2018. OC Brian Schottenheimer's presence means the passing volume (again) won’t be there. Russ always cooks, but it (again) won’t be easy.
  • Josh Allen (0.55): Stefon Diggs will greatly help, while only Todd Gurley (29), Derrick Henry (28), Aaron Jones (24), Christian McCaffrey (22), Alvin Kamara (19), Ezekiel Elliott (18) and Melvin Gordon (18) have more rush TDs than Allen (17) since 2018. Meh real-life QBs can still be fantastic fantasy football assets.
  • Matthew Stafford (0.55): Career-high marks in TD rate (6.5%), YPA (8.6) AY/PA (9.1) and QBR (73.1) in his first year with Darrell Bevell calling plays. Only Jackson, Watson and Prescott averaged more fantasy points per game among QBs.
  • Kirk Cousins (0.53): Set career-best marks in TD rate (5.9%), INT rate (1.4%), adjusted yards per attempt (8.7) and QB rating (107.4) in his first season with Gary Kubiak. However, his 444 pass attempts marked the first time in five seasons he hadn’t reached even 540 passes. Overall, he never threw 40 passes in a game and finished as the QB19 in fantasy points per game.
  • Jimmy Garoppolo (0.51): The 49ers asked Garoppolo to attempt fewer than 30 passes in 11 of 19 games in 2019. However, only Lamar Jackson had more games with at least four passing scores (four) than Garoppolo (three) last season, and further improved health should be expected next season considering the 49ers’ franchise QB suffered a torn ACL back in 2018.

Clearly, having some semblance of dual-threat ability is a borderline cheat code in fantasy land. Our next section reinforces the idea that players capable of racking up production in multiple facets of the game are capable of quickly and efficiently putting up big numbers.

Running backs

Fantasy points per touch represents the amount of production produced for every rush attempt or reception. Obviously, the presence of receiving-friendly backs is particularly useful in full or half point-per-reception formats.

The sample group includes 75 RBs that had at least 50 touches in 2019. Just 12 of those backs averaged at least one fantasy point per touch:

  • Austin Ekeler (1.19): Has played 65%, 68%, 72%, 74%, 75%, 78% and 95% snaps in seven career games without Melvin Gordon. The loss of Philip Rivers hurts, but this is still a proven, talented back with anyone’s idea of a three-down role. Ekeler’s ability to dominate as a true receiver is borderline unparalleled at the RB position.

  • James White (1.17): White has caught 40, 60, 56, 87 and 72 passes over the past five seasons. Unfortunately, this backfield remains crowded, and it’s hard to believe White’s receiving usage has anywhere to go except down without TB12 under center despite CMC’s dominance with Cam in 2018.
  • Darrel Williams (1.11): The Chiefs’ backup RB converted 56 touches into 308 yards and four scores in 2019. Still, even a part-time role in 2020 seems a bit unlikely after the Chiefs decided to 1) Use a first-round pick on Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and 2) Sign ex-Raiders RB DeAndre Washington.
  • Raheem Mostert (1.07): Kyle Shanahan has shown no fear in simply going with the hot hand, but this committee has been condensed after sending Matt Breida to Miami. Mostert is the favorite to lead the way inside of anyone’s idea of an elite rushing attack.
  • Chase Edmonds (1.07): Edmonds balled out when healthy in 2019 and has an underrated chance to push Kenyan Drake for snaps sooner rather than later. Still, standalone value is unlikely in an offense that consistently gave the starting RB a three-down role in 2019.
  • Duke Johnson (1.06): Duke (career 4.4 yards per carry, 7.1 yards per target, 6.5 yards per touch) has been more efficient than David Johnson (4, 7.2, 5.4). He hasn’t missed a game since entering the league in 2015 and is a true three-down back. And yet, Bill O’Brien is convinced The U’s all-time leading rusher is nothing more than a scat back.
  • Aaron Jones (1.03): Jones scored a league-high 19 touchdowns on a relatively mundane 285 touches. The Packers’ decision to draft RB A.J. Dillon in Round 2 is hardly ideal, although there’s a scenario where either 1) Jones and Dillon form a productive two-RB committee, or 2) Jones takes on more work as a true receiver after the front office surprisingly declined to address the position during the offseason.
  • Christian McCaffrey (1.02): CMC averaged a full 6 points more than the next-highest-scoring skill-position player in 2019 PPR leagues and now has a QB known for his willingness to check down.
  • Boston Scott (1.02): Scott came on strong at the end of 2019 and has theoretical three-down ability; it’s just hard to see a scenario where the Eagles trust him as a workhorse back for any extended period of time. Not adding an early-down RB before the season would help.
  • Mark Ingram (1.01): Ingram was the league’s seventh-most-efficient rusher in 2019 and found the end zone on 15 different occasions. There’s plenty of meat on the bone for multiple RBs to thrive inside the league’s most run-heavy and highest-scoring offense.
  • Kareem Hunt (1.01): Nobody averaged more broken tackles per touch than Hunt (0.42) in 2019. The PPR RB17 from Weeks 10-17, Hunt has the talent and pass-catching chops to return RB2 value with or without an injury to Nick Chubb.
  • Rashaad Penny (1): The Seahawks’ much-maligned 2018 first-round pick has actually been extremely efficient when healthy through two seasons. Overall, Penny's average of 5.7 yards per touch since entering the league ranks 12th among 66 players with at least 150 combined carries and targets over the past two seasons. Expect double-digit touches per game if he’s healthy enough to suit up in 2020.

We’ll take a look at the receiver position next.

Wide receivers

The sample group includes 102 WRs that had at least 25 touches in 2019. Just 10 of those receivers averaged at least 2.8 fantasy point per touch:

  • Mecole Hardman (3.48): Hardman set the NFL record for most yards per target as a rookie and *should* find more snaps in 2020 at the expense of Sammy Watkins and/or Demarcus Robinson. Betting on game-changing talent within a top-three offense seems wise; nobody had a higher Playmaker Rating, which weights big plays and scores per touch.
  • A.J. Brown (3.47): His average of 12.5 yards per target in 2019 has only been topped by Kenny Stills (12.8) among all rookies with at least 50 targets in the Randy Moss era (1998-2019). Brown is a YAC monster and has plenty of room for target growth.
  • Kenny Golladay (3.45): Functioned as the PPR WR11 with Matthew Stafford under center in 2019. Both Golladay and Marvin Jones ranked among the league’s top-15 most fantasy-friendly WRs when weighing deep-ball and red-zone targets. Golladay is truly one of the league’s better talents at the WR position.

  • Breshad Perriman (3.16): An early-career bust, Perriman has been reborn over the past two seasons as a field-stretching talent with the Browns and Buccaneers. It turns out 6-foot-2 and 212-pound receivers capable of running a 4.3-second 40-yard dash are difficult to cover. Overall, only A.J. Brown (20.2) has averaged more yards per reception than Perriman (18.9) among 165 players with at least 50 catches over the past two seasons.
  • Darius Slayton (3.04): Golden Tate (8.4 targets per game) worked ahead of Sterling Shepard (8.3) and Slayton (6.1) with Daniel Jones under center, but the rising-second year WR’s field-stretching role and raw talent makes him the preferred fantasy option entering 2020.
  • Mike Evans (2.94): Posted 11-198-2, 8-190-3 and 12-180-1 performances in 2019, but otherwise cleared five catches just once. Evans’ six-year 1,000-yard streak to start his career has only been matched by Randy Moss, and TB12 is far from washed as a downfield passer, but Godwin’s slot-heavy role makes him the near-consensus top-ranked Bucs WR.
  • DeVante Parker (2.92): Looked close to unguardable down the stretch against the league’s best corners. Parker was 2019’s PPR WR36 with Preston Williams in the lineup and the PPR WR2 without. OC Chan Gailey’s last six No. 1 WRs — Dwayne Bowe (157 targets), Steve Johnson (141, 134, 148) and Brandon Marshall (173, 128) — were heavily fed.
  • Adam Thielen (2.92): Thielen missed game action due to injury for the first time in 2019 but returned with strong playoff performances against the Saints (7-129-0) and 49ers (5-50-0). There’s little to no competition for a featured pass-game role; OC Gary Kubiak’s No. 1 WR has historically averaged 138 targets per season.
  • Tyrell Williams (2.91): Williams is the only player in the league to average at least 10 yards per target in each of the past three seasons. There's reason for optimism ahead of 2020 considering the still-barren depth chart, as well as the reality that he missed two games with a foot injury that seemed to bother him for the entire season. Still, Bryan Edwards wasn’t drafted inside of the top three rounds to sit on the bench.
  • Terry McLaurin (2.81): Finished the season with 4-57-1, 5-130-1 and 7-86-0 lines with Dwayne Haskins under center. Locked in as the featured No. 1 pass-game option after Washington added essentially zero competition in the offseason at WR or TE.

We’ll end with a look at the league’s most-efficient tight ends.

Tight ends

The sample group includes 54 TEs that had at least 15 touches in 2019. Just 12 of those backs averaged at least 2.25 fantasy point per touch:

  • Jared Cook (3.4): Set career-high marks in yards per reception (16.4), yards per target (10.8) and TDs (nine) in his first season with the Saints. Continued efficiency will be needed considering the 33-year-old TE had fewer than five targets in eight of 15 games.
  • Mark Andrews (2.77): George Kittle was the only high-usage TE to average more yards per route run than Andrews (2.89) managed in 2019. He’s an elite talent who had a team-high 98 targets while spending 62% of his snaps in the slot or out wide last season.
  • Foster Moreau (2.76): The Raiders’ 2019 fourth-round pick caught 21-of-25 targets for 174 yards and five scores during an impressive rookie campaign. Unfortunately, the presence of Darren Waller and Jason Witten will likely (again) leave the Raiders’ backup TE with fewer targets than his demonstrated talent deserves.
  • Darren Fells (2.74): Deshaun Watson’s TE1 converted 48 targets into 341 yards and seven TDs in his first season in Houston. Unfortunately, Jordan Akins splits targets and snaps alike with Fells, leaving him as a low-ceiling, TD-dependent option ahead of 2020.
  • Demetrius Harris (2.69): The former Chiefs TE was fine enough with the Browns in 2019, catching 15 of 27 targets for 149 yards and a trio of scores. Harris possesses the sort of size (6-foot-7 and 235-pounds), speed (4.57-second 40-yard dash) and basketball background to take a lonely fantasy analyst from six to midnight in a hurry, although placement in the Bears’ TE-filled offense likely won’t lead to anything resembling consistent fantasy production in 2020.
  • Will Dissly (2.6): Only George Kittle (2.47) and Mark Andrews (2.47) have averaged more yards per route run than Dissly (2.43) among 123 TEs with at least 100 routes over the past three seasons. The problem: Seattle also employs Greg Olsen and Jacob Hollister at the TE position. The ceiling is the roof for Dissly with a featured role, although health is incredibly far from guaranteed.
  • Kyle Rudolph (2.36): Longtime Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph (39-367-6) was more productive than Irv Smith (36-311-2) last season, but Rudolph (48 targets) was barely more involved on a per-pass basis than Smith (47); it's tough to expect much from either as long as they're splitting snaps and all but certain to work behind Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook in this run-first offense.
  • Ryan Griffin (2.32): Griffin was fine in relief of Herndon in 2019, but it's not like the Jets' talented third-year TE lost his job. Overall, Chris Herndon joins Andrews, Gronkowski, Henry, Heath Miller, Aaron Hernandez, Fant, Jordan Reed, Ertz and Kittle as the only rookie TEs to average at least eight yards per target since 2000. Don’t expect Griffin to unseat Herndon if the Jets’ talented TE can stay on the field.
  • Eric Ebron (2.29): The often-criticized TE scored 14 TDs way back in 2018 before having his 2019 season derailed by Andrew Luck’s retirement and injuries. One of Ebron or Vance McDonald could put up big numbers in a Pittsburgh offense that has routinely attempted to get Big Ben a talented plus-athlete option at the position for years; the problem is both will likely split snaps to start and work behind the team’s plethora of talented WRs.
  • Dawson Knox (2.27): Knox showed out at various points in 2019 as both a blocker and receiver, but a position-high nine drops and the presence of three highly capable WRs in this Bills offense makes it unlikely he rises inside the top-three of Josh Allen’s pecking order. Still, the talent is there.

  • Blake Jarwin (2.26): Overall, Dak Prescott‘s most-efficient receivers (min. 50 targets) during his career have been Brice Butler (10.5 adjusted yards per attempt), Amari Cooper (10.3) and Jarwin (9.1). Jason Witten’s 83 vacated targets could go a long way here.
  • Maxx Williams (2.25): The ex-Ravens TE caught on with the Cardinals in 2019 and split snaps with Charles Clay throughout the season. The problem with expecting a further boost is the presence of Dan Arnold, along with the reality that the Cardinals love to lean on four-WR-heavy formations.
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