By Alex Kurpeski
We all know that one guy in our fantasy league. You know, the guy who starts off every draft by taking a stack of players from the best offense in the league. “This team is gonna be f*cking unstoppable bro!” he says through a mouthful of three-layer dip and Tostitos scoops. Usually, some fellow league mate with a brain-based further in reality than “the guy” will chime in with a “Yeah, but what are you gonna do when your whole team is on bye?”. To which “the guy” will respond with some derogatory remark made even more colorful with the flavor of some disgusting cuss words.
However crude and impractical “the guy” may seem, his point — no, not the one made in the derogatory statement — is not too far off-base. If you’re looking for a guaranteed success in fantasy, why not chase the entirety of the league’s top offense? At the very least doing so guarantees that your team will have a solid floor. Though how often can an offense support a top-12 campaign from the QB, RB, WR, and TE while also boosting two other receivers to WR2 and/or WR3 (top-36) finishes? That question is what brings us to the topic of this article, which is focused on the factors that must go right in order for an NFL offense to produce a full starting lineup of top tier skill players. With teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, and Atlanta Falcons possessing the talent on offense to do so, let’s take a look back in our history books to figure out just what it takes for a team to support a full stack for fantasy.
Since 2002 there have only been two teams to pull off this impressive feat in PPR scoring formats: the 2004 Indianapolis Colts and the 2013 Denver Broncos, both quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. There were a few teams who came relatively close to accomplishing this feat, including the 2009 Vikings (led by Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson), 2014 Broncos (a squad consisting of many of the same players from the 2013 team), 2016 Saints, 2018 Steelers, and the 2019 Cowboys, though each of these teams barely missed the threshold at either the WR3 or TE spot by a few spots. Taking a look at the two teams that pulled off “perfect” fantasy seasons, there’s one clear overlap: the presence of Peyton Manning. Unfortunately for us, Manning is now long retired, though there are a few current passers who should play in similarly structured offenses this season. Let’s take a quick overview of the 2004 Colts and the 2013 Broncos to determine just why these teams managed to pull-off historically prolific fantasy campaigns across the board.
2004 Indianapolis Colts
QB Peyton Manning — QB2
RB Edgerrin James — RB6
WR1 Marvin Harrison — WR5
WR2 Reggie Wayne — WR9
WR3 Brandon Stokely — WR16
TE Marcus Pollard — TE12 overall
Flex Dallas Clark — TE13 overall
QB Peyton Manning — QB1 overall
RB Knowshon Moreno — RB4 overall
WR1 Demaryius Thomas — WR1 overall
WR2 Eric Decker — WR9 overall
WR3 Wes Welker — WR21 overall
TE Julius Thomas — TE3 overall
Flex Montee Ball — RB45 overall
Both of these offenses were directed by highly respected offensive coordinators, with Tom Moore — considered by many to be the most influential passing game coordinator in NFL history — calling plays for the Colts and an up-and-coming Adam Gase doing so for the Broncos. In both of these seasons, Manning set numerous records for single-season passing totals, while also winning the MVP award. The structures of these two offenses were relatively similar, as they both focused on using three-wide sets in conjunction with a capable route-runner at the tight end spot, effectively spreading the field to prevent double coverage at any part. Both teams featured Vertical Passing schemes descended from the “Air Coryell” style of offense that opened up the field for Manning, providing him with ample opportunity to throw deep. With four capable receivers and a pass-catching back (both James and Moreno were proficient in this area), these systems basically ensured that Manning would have an open look on virtually every drop back. Let’s take a brief overview of each aspect from these teams to determine just what went right for them.
With the NFL’s emphasis on using running backs — i.e players who can catch the ball and pass protect — most teams currently feature lead backs who can replicate the statlines of James and Moreno from these seasons. During the 2004 season, James tallied 2,031 combined rushing and receiving yards for 9 total touchdowns, adding 51 receptions as well. With Manning and the receivers staving off stacked boxes, James had relatively free roam to do as he pleased on hand-offs, making Indy’s play-action attempts nearly unstoppable. A former first-round pick who had been drafted as the successor to future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, James was no ordinary back, having run a 4.38 forty-yard dash as a 6’0, 220 lb back.
Like James, Knowshon Moreno was a first-round selection who many experts had pegged to be the next big thing. Though Moreno didn’t surpass the 1,000 rushing yard threshold until the 2013 season, he’d been a serviceable lead back for Denver since the team had taken him with the 12th pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. At 5’11, 220 lbs with 4.4 speed, Moreno’s profile was relatively similar to James, though his injury issues held him back from achieving the same ceiling. In his breakout campaign, the fifth-year back did the majority of his damage as a receiver, reeling in 60 passes for 548 yards and three touchdowns. Though Moreno barely broke 1,000 yards as a rusher (1,038), his RB1 finish was largely due to his touchdown production (13 total — 10 rushing, 3 receiving) and his high catch volume.
Both Moreno and James were largely products of their respective systems, as neither back saw very many stacked boxes due to the high-flying passing attack led by Manning. Likewise, their successes as pass-catchers were largely a result of drawing either favorable coverage matchups against less athletic linebackers and safeties or no coverage at all thanks to the attention given to the receivers and tight ends from their offense. Both players also happened to be playing behind elite offensive lines, with the Colts featuring a pair of top elite linemen in the prime of their career (Jeff Saturday and Tarik Glenn) and the Broncos line consisting of five solid players in the prime of their careers (Chris Clark, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, & Orlando Franklin). Though James saw a much higher volume of touches out of the backfield (334 — 7th-most in the NFL) compared to Moreno (241 — 13th-most in the NFL), this was due to the fact that he saw an 86.3% backfield share while Moreno’s was much lower at 56.9% despite the fact that the 2013 Broncos ran the ball 34 more times than the 2004 Colts. The presence of 2012 second-round pick Montee Ball — who saw a 26% touch share — definitely limited Moreno from finishing with a higher finishing spot, though his RB4 finish was better than James’s RB6 finish despite the fact that Moreno scored 10 fewer total points than him.
Here’s where the money was made for these two offenses. Both the 2004 Colts and the 2013 Broncos finished top-five in the NFL in total passing attempts, while also buoying a pair of WR1 finishes (Marvin Harrison & Reggie Wayne for Indy, Demaryius Thomas & Eric Decker for Denver). Unlike the close runner-ups for this distinction, both teams featured a WR3 who finished as a WR3 or better (Brandon Stokely for the Colts, Wes Welker for the Broncos) and a TE1 finish (Marcus Pollard for Indianapolis, Julius Thomas for Denver). Both offenses relied heavily on distributing the ball evenly to their weapons, as evidenced by their respective target distributions.
The key to production for the pass-catchers on these offenses was the balance of targets, as no player received a share higher than 27%. Though Marvin Harrison’s 26.6% target share for the 2004 Colts was significantly higher than any of the pass-catchers from the Broncos, the barely charitable percentage share for players outside of the core playmakers (Harrison, Wayne, Stokley, James, & the two tight ends). The ‘13 Broncos also happened to throw the ball much more frequently than the ‘04 Colts, passing on 59% of their plays compared to the Colts, who threw the ball 55% of the time, with 148 more passing attempts as a team. The 2013 Broncos averaged almost 10 more passing attempts per game compared to the 2004 Colts, largely due to the team’s reliance on the no-huddle offense, originally engineered by Moore.
Both of these teams featured three receivers with 100+ targets, with a rather distinct overlap in the roles of each player. Both Harrison and Thomas were the clear-cut No. 1 receiver for their respective teams, running a wide variety of routes and acting as the first option for Manning in the passing game. Decker and Wayne were the biggest receivers on their respective teams, equally adept at stretching the field vertically and moving the chains with possession catches. Welker and Stokley were rather typical slot targets, whose primary means of production came on short passes to the middle of the field, racking up yards after the catch whenever they got their hands on the ball. At the tight end position, Pollard and Clark as a unit combined to fill the same role that Thomas did for the Broncos, with the Colts duo scoring many of their fantasy points off of touchdowns (5 for Clark, 6 for Pollard) just as Thomas did (12). If we combine the point totals for both Clark and Pollard from that 2004 season, they would have finished as the TE4 with just over 190 points.
If we’re looking at some teams with the potential to replicate this success in 2020, the first factor that must go in their favor is health. No player from either of these offenses missed more than three games. Essentially, a serious injury ends any hope of running a “perfect lineup”. Secondly, we must look at the talent on a team’s offense. Both the 2004 Colts and the 2013 Broncos featured an elite QB (Manning), a blue-chip running back (James & Moreno), a true number one receiver (Harrison & Thomas), a big-bodied WR2 with solid speed (Wayne & Decker), a prototypical slot receiver (Stokley & Welker), and an athletic tight end with tremendous hands (Clark/Pollard & Thomas). Lastly, these teams must have an offensive line capable of giving the passer time to throw on a down-to-down basis, while also serving as a capable road grading unit when the ball is in the hands of the running back. With these qualifications having to be met, there’s only one current unit that comes to mind.
Why The Dallas Cowboys Are Suited For Perfection
Dallas featured one of the league’s top passing attacks in 2019, finishing second in the league in passing yards-per-game (296.9) while also finishing top-five in rushing yards-per-game (134.6). With a pair of thousand-yard receivers (Amari Cooper & Michael Gallup), a consistently prolific QB (Dak Prescott), and a perpetual RB1 finisher (Ezekiel Elliott), this offense has many of the necessary pieces in place for a “perfect” finish in 2020. After selecting former Oklahoma standout CeeDee Lamb with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and opening up a full-time starting role for dynamic tight end Blake Jarwin, the team also has their prospective WR3 and TE1 in the cut.
We’re well aware that the team features one of the league’s best offensive line units, anchored by Zach Martin, La’el Collins, and Tyron Smith. Under offensive-minded head coach Mike McCarthy (the play-caller for various Green Bay Packers offenses that came close to perfection) and rising OC Kellen Moore (the son of Tom Moore, offensive coordinator for the 2004 Colts), this team may be poised for perfection in 2020.
In order for this offense to complete the quest for perfection, a variety of factors will have to go off without a hitch. Obviously, everyone will need to stay healthy for close to 100% of the season. That factor alone will likely be what derails most of these potential stacks from achieving perfection. Looking beyond the surface level, I have little concerns that Prescott can deliver as a QB1 in fantasy, as the former fourth-round pick has finished as the QB11 or higher in each of his four professional seasons. Like Prescott, Elliott’s track record suggests that we should not have to worry about him reaching RB1 status so long as he stays healthy.
Though Mike McCarthy has been known to frustrate fantasy managers with committee approaches at the position in the past, even he knows that the team must “feed” Zeke if they hope to succeed. As much as I like Tony Pollard as a change of pace option, Elliott is clearly the lead dog. Supporting three receivers may seem like a lot to ask, but the Cowboys offense will almost certainly have the volume in the passing game to lead Cooper, Lamb, and Gallup to top-36 finishes. I think in this context it really helps to have three players who are so close in terms of their ceiling and floor, so as long as this trio can stay on the field they should each get their own.
As for Jarwin, he could be walking into a very favorable situation, assuming the team intends to use him in a non-platoon role. With Jason Witten’s departure, the tight end position now has 83 targets to fill from last season. Even if Jarwin were to absorb half of those targets he would finish with around 82, definitely enough to propel him to a TE1 finish.
It’s easy to see what could go wrong here. If any of these guys get hurt the dream of perfection is dead. If Dak Prescott somehow loses his starting role to Andy Dalton with poor play the dream is dead. If Mike McCarthy decides to get cute with his running back rotation and use Tony Pollard and Elliott as a platoon the dream is dead. If Lamb or Gallup absorb too many targets from each other the dream is dead. Lastly, if Blake Jarwin defers to a blocking role or cedes a significant amount of snaps to Dalton Schultz the dream is dead. It’s more likely than not that one of these things will happen, though we can hope for the best.