Blue Chip Passing Attack
Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by TJ Calkins. Follow him on Twitter @tjcalkins. He was #2 in MFL best ball ROI in 2015. … And is the commissioner of the prestigious Elite Lemonade League.
Today we’re going to break down Chip Kelly’s passing attack. We will find the value it presents and where it presents itself by using Chip’s three seasons in Philly to find the proper targets to attack and how to make the Jim Tomsula discount work for you.
First thing worth noting is Chip has never had a QB who anyone would call elite, and if we’re pulling no punches, Bradford would be the only one we could, as a consensus, call anything above sub-par. Chip was able to pull viability out of the likes of Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez, so there’s absolutely no reason to fade the 49ers starter in 2016 due to a lack of resume, or quite frankly their lack of ability. The only legitimate reason we’re fading the 49er QB as of this moment is that we don’t yet know who it is. While both Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick can be had for free or nearly free, the risk is real you could acquire an asset who yields zero return in both one-year and dynasty formats. While this risk is real, it also can be ignored. By all beat writer accounts, Gabbert has a nose in front of the competition. He is the buy I recommend at this juncture and here’s why.
Volume, Volume, Volume.
In 2013, the Foles/Vick/Matt Barkley combo attempted 507 passes. Yes THE Matt Barkley played in three real live NFL football games. 2013 was the one season where the passing attack didn’t have a high volume finish, with only 31.7 attempts per game, and when looking at the next two seasons, becomes the outlier.
In 2014, the Foles/Sanchez combo attempted 620 passes or 38.8 attempts/game, which would slot in at third in the league if compared to full season players, behind only Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.
In 2015, that wonderful attempts/game number actually ascended in slight fashion, with the Bradford/Sanchez combo combining for 623 attempts, or 38.9 attempts/game. This again would slot fourth in the league when compared to full season players, behind only Philip Rivers, Brees and Tom Brady.
A similar volume in 2016 would make it difficult-to-impossible to imagine a scenario where the 49er QB finishes outside the top half of the league in fantasy points. Thus making Gabbert one of the best QB values in fantasy football.
Projecting Volume Into Target Distribution
With a slight detour down narrative street, knowing Chip has never had a QB play a full healthy season, it’s within the realm of possibility these gaudy numbers could be even higher if he can stumble upon a 16-game starter. It’s also safe to assume Chip found his sweet spot of comfortability in passing attempts in 2014/2015 when we examine just how dissimilar the target distribution was in those two seasons, while the gross volume remained the same.
From 2013-2015, the only constant in target % to a positional group in a Chip offense that remained similar all three seasons, was to TEs.
TE target % by season, per Pro Football Focus (PFF):
2013 – 23
2014 – 23
2015 – 24
This is good news for Vance McDonald. Without going too deep into player evaluation, it would appear McDonald is miles ahead of his TE peers in SF and could be in for quite a season. His only competition comes in the form of slow plodders Garrett Celek and Blake Bell. I project him to do what Zach Ertz did in Philly. Ertz posted lines of 58/702/3 in 2014 and 75/853/2 in 2015. When we add in that Brent Celek also posted 320/340/1 and 27/398/3 in those two seasons, the Celek numbers would appear to be the rock bottom floor for Vance while the Ertz numbers seem to be the more reasonable projection. Consider this and the cost for Vance and he approaches must-buy territory.
WR may seem more difficult to project for 2016 on the surface, but when digging a little deeper, the answer appears in flashing lights as bright as wildfire screaming through the Sept of Baelor.
Chip’s most effective football players are the ones who see the snaps – and, in turn, get the targets. That may seem like an over simplification, but when we look at targets to positional groupings by season and cross reference the players in each group with what each brings to the table, there’s no other conclusion to reach. While the mostly false narrative of Riley Cooper playing ahead of better players says otherwise, here’s how it breaks down:
The first thing to touch on is the WR positions in Chip’s offense. For simplicity’s sake, we will call the top outside receiver his “X.” (This may seem to be the norm but there are players on record calling his outside positions “left” and “right”)
In 2013 and 2014, there was a legitimate X receiver in place on the Eagles. In 2013, it was DeSean Jackson parlaying his X role into an 82/1332/9 line. Fast forward one year, with DJax gone and Jeremy Maclin sliding into the role, the position went for 85/1318/10. This established a clear baseline for what Chip wants and gets out of his X. One year further down the road, after Maclin’s departure and an unspeakable downgrade in the available options for replacement, no outside receiver caught more than 27 balls. To put that fall-off in perspective, WRs saw 61 percent of targets in 2013 and 60 percent of targets in 2014, then Chip’s lack of personnel forced a massive plummet to only 47 percent in 2015.
This, much like Vance McDonald, is borderline epic news for Torrey Smith and his outlook. The way Jim Tomsula and his staff used Torrey in 2015 was nothing short of criminal, and the amount of correction that we are going to see in 2016 can’t be understated. Through the entire spring, Torrey was an ~11th round pick in best ball formats, and my ownership was over 60 percent on him before some of the industry’s greatest minds wrote about him, stopping the insanity and moving his ADP up by four rounds. WR1 numbers are attainable, if not bordering on likely when looking at the X output of 2013 and 2014.
You may then wonder, can Chip only support one WR with his system? The answer is based on the capability of the WRs on his roster. In 2014, the only year when Chip had two WRs as plus matchups in terms of ability, Jordan Matthews posted 67/872/8 from the slot in addition to Maclin’s 85/1318/10. The next-best secondary WR line in Chip’s tenure was Riley Cooper’s 47/835/8 in 2013. He played outside WR while sub-middling talent Jason Avant could only muster 38/447/2 from the inside. These lines compared with future years’ distribution puts in perspective the way the targets changed to be funneled to the better players, regardless of position.
Here’s how this worked in number of targets to each WR/G, per PFF:
Before diving into what this means for the 2016 49ers and who to highlight, I want to touch on where these targets went in 2015 as we already know that there wasn’t a jump in TE targets.
They went to the best players.
RBs were the best skill position group on the 2015 Eagles and the target % showed that with abundant clarity. After RBs saw just 16 percent of targets in 2013 and 10 percent of targets in 2014, that number spiked to 28 percent (!) in 2015. I’m leaving this short and sweet on the RBs as I see Mike Davis as the only 49er RB with even the potential to carve out a fantasy worthy passing game role. Also, I strongly believe the RB target percentage numbers end 2016 far closer to the 2013/2014 numbers than they do the 2015 numbers based on personnel.
Simply The Best
Jumping back to secondary WR options for the 2016 49ers, the personnel list isn’t exactly a who’s who of household names at the moment. After Torrey Smith, who is all but locked into the X role, the names on the fantasy radar include DeAndre Smelter, Bruce Ellington, Eric Rogers, Quinton Patton and Aaron Burbridge. My personal favorite of this group by a large margin is Smelter.
Smelter is a massive 6’2′ 226 lb. Georgia Tech product with 11” hands, which were the largest of any WR in the 2015 draft. While a triple option school wouldn’t seem to be the likeliest WR factory, GT is the alma mater of both Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas.
Smelter is a candidate to play both inside and outside, however playing inside would afford the highest potential for fantasy points when considering that JMatt is his closest physical comp to previous Chip WRs in addition to the 67/872/8 line JMatt posted as a rookie, and this will be Smelter’s red shirt rookie year after recovering from an ACL in 2015. Smelter’s competition for this role would come from former CFL player Eric Rogers and middling talent Bruce Ellington. While Eric Rogers is getting kind words written about him by many in the community, I envision his role to be a specialized one, much like Josh Huff’s was in Philly.
If Smelter gets the nod to start outside, Cooper’s 47/835/8 line in 2013 should be well within reach for a superior talent. There is even less talent in terms of competition on the outside. Competition comes in the form of Patton and Burbridge, which bodes very well for Smelter’s rock bottom floor in 2016.
Despite my personal evaluation of Smelter, we simply don’t know which WRs are going to step up and win the second outside job and the slot job. What we do now know for certain is that if the job winners can consistently win their positional matchups and move the offense, they will be funneled targets, and those targets come in volume.
Indeed volume is the key to the output of Chip’s passing game. While the target distribution by both position and player is open for interpretation, the cheapest and safest target of his passing game is the QB. There’s sufficient evidence to pay both the dyno and one-year prices for Gabbert in any and every league and format.
Make a mental note to thank Chip come January.