Updated: Apr 21
To chase the elusive we have to begin from the ground up almost reverse engineering the way we build projections. We go to the team level and survey the land. As opposed to air, let's start on the ground!
Which teams ran the ball the most inside the red zone?
We’ll explore the trends that unravel pertaining to coaching staffs and team philosophies by looking at rushing attempts, touchdowns and success rates. Another relatively new exercise is to separate the QB production in the red zone (What an age we live in) Uncertainty and ambiguity still resides in the majority of backfields bur for now we can get ahead of the market and have a spectacular feel for the high leverage work available in an offense before the musical chairs kicks off.
The Ravens to nobody's surprise led the NFL with 108 carries in the red zone last year and the stats mirrored those of 2018. Along the same vein newcomer Mark Ingram was in his comfort zone inside the opponents 20 yard line in 2019 finishing top 10 red zone carries and 5th at the goal line. Mark Ingram’s 8 touchdowns at the goal line ranked behind only Ziek and Dalvin Cook.
Last off season the Ravens had the most vacated rushing volume in the red zone available. They proceeded to bring Marky Mark in who’s always been efficient in the red zone, commanding some of the highest volume in that area of the field on an annual basis. With the power of hindsight Mark Ingram was an easy outlier to spot in 2019. He saw limited snaps but an abundance of high leverage work.
Baltimore offers remarkable upside in close borne last year by the Ravens having multiple players top 25 in red zone rush attempts last year. Despite playing just 15 games and sitting out several 4th quarters, Lamar Jackson ranked 24th in red zone carries and that leaves room for growth actually since it was a decline from his starts in 2018 per game. Lamar more than compensated by leading the NFL in passing touchdowns (Including in the red zone) Lamar will undoubtedly experience a decline through the air in the red zone next season however his rushing production could increase. In 2019 Lamar barely cracked the top 25 so far as volume but he and Ingram both finished top 13 in red zone rushing yards.
The oddity in Baltimore was the 3rd man to account for. Mark Ingram made the most of his underwhelming volume (Further lending to how prolific the weapons in this running game can be) But Ingram was outside the top 20 in team share of red zone carries handling just 38.5% of them. They say three’s company and I can only imagine that phrase came to pass via fantasy football because inside the top 35 of red zone carries we find a third Raven! Gus Edwards.
I owned some Gus the bus in fantasy this year yet he failed to ever garner relevance; which poses a classic Chewbacca living with Ewoks thought experiment. Only two players had more than 15 carries in the red zone last year and scored only one touchdown. Gus Edwards is one of those culprits. He was the only player in the NFL to have more than 6 touts inside the 10 yard line and the only guy with more than 3 carries at the goal line without a score. If his role shifts to Justice Hill that efficiency will undoubtedly rise.
Other than then Jerome Bettis being ashamed of somebody with such poor efficiency in close effectively stealing his nickname without earning it, I only have a few takeaways. I’m hoping Justice is served in 2020 or the Ravens draft a back. Otherwise I expect much of the same from the Ravens in the red zone and projections could paint their weapons with some of the highest TD totals.
Veering towards the passing game but staying with the RBs; One way to protect against some of the imminent regression coming from Lamar with his arm in the red zone is to improve on their RB target share in 2020. They saw just 16% of the teams targets (Half that of the Patriots backs) and well that was a spike compared to their overall RB target share (Lamar will have low target numbers directed to backs every season) But inside the red zone the benefit of using them in the passing game increases and Mark Ingram is the best example of that, he had 5 receiving touchdowns in 2019, as many as he had in the previous eight seasons combined! Only Austin Ekeler had more touchdown receptions at the running back position, and he had over 60 more catches than Ingram!
Marky Mark’s touchdown efficiency in the passing game is unrepeatable but the same is not true in the running game. His success in the rushing touchdown department at the goal line in Baltimore has been a continuation of his career success. Now in concert with the advantage Lamar Jackson provides his running backs Ingram has it made compared to 99% of RBs his age. Ingram’s future is written in pencil and he’ll stand out in touchdown regression lists but should Ingram be set for the Raven’s lead back duties in 2020 he could have one more big season in him. Although his price could be hard to stomach.
It was a meteoric jump for the Vikings last season in the run game as a whole. Volume and efficiency. All of which followed into the red zone where the Vikings running backs dusted the league in close ranking 1st red zone attempts and touchdowns. They had over 20% more RZ carries by their backs than any other team.
The Vikings predetermined offensive overhaul is responsible and that's displayed the clearest by their rush to pass ratios. They ran the ball 61% of the time inside the red zone! The highest rate in football and it looks like opposite day comparing it to their 2018 numbers. Nevertheless, It worked? The Vikings produced 3 times as many rushing touchdowns in the red zone in 2019 compared to 2018 (18 vs 6)
A healthy Dalvin Cook could be construed as the catalyst but in the red zone specifically it's not that simple. When we ask what the cause and effect is beyond Dalvin we have to talk about the coaching. Mike Zimmer's defensive mentality is synonymous with a run first attack on offense and Kevin Stefanski was the other house hold name on this staff. Stefanski is a widely respected offensive mind and he was the runner up to Freddie Kitchens last offseason for the Browns head coaching job (He’s now the bride in Cleveland) His success and leadership are widely known however! Both Zimmer and Stefanski were at the helm in the 2018 when this was a team leaning of Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs.
The difference/addition to the gang this offseason was Gary Kubiak who they gave the title of assistant coach and offensive advisor but I think we all knew his mandate was to revive the run game. Again, Dalvin Cook being healthy and dominating early in the season is top of the list but the influence of Kubiak has been felt (Mostly by Dalvin Cook owners)
Dalvin did miss time this year (Drink!) But he still managed to be 5th in red zone carries and tied for the league lead alongside Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones with 14 red zone rushing touchdowns. Dalvin started cooking the closer to the goal line Minnesota got in 2019 leading the NFL in touchdowns inside the 10 yard line and at the goal line!
Eye popping figures. The scoring was on a level that it could facilitate the classic back to earth narrative; Regression. That efficiency will be extremely hard to replicate but there could be a compensatory factor. Volume. Dalvin had just 50% of the Vikings carries in the red zone! That ranks 18th in team red zone share and even at the goal line Dalvin had 63% of the Vikings carries, ranking outside the top 10. Remarkable he was able to lead the league in these categories with missed and split time in the red zone and at the goal line.
He wa sforced to split touches with Alexander Mattison resulting in Mattison ranking 22nd league wide in red zone rush attempts! Minnesota was the only team with multiple players that high (Sort of like certain WR stats from MIN last year) Mattison was able to compile but he couldn't score in 2019 and not for a lack of efficiency either. Mattison finished Top 10 in football in red zone rushing yards yet he wasn’t usable in fantasy all season. It would be astonishing if not for one fact: A-Mat had only one red zone rushing touchdown. Gus Edwards was the only other RB inside the top 30 for red zone rush attempts OR red zone rushing yards to have less than two touchdowns. AKA buddy had the worst red zone conversion rate in the NFL. His red zone efficiency was catastrophic but for Dalvin owners, I don;t think he's going away. Mattison has invested draft capital and he’s young. From Alexander's fantasy lens improvement is possible but the high leverage volume can’t possibly rise absent injuries.
New York Giants
The Giants have a new coaching staff coming in 2020 and one of their top priorities should be to take advantage of one of the NFL’s best running backs (You know the one you spent a 2nd overall pick in the draft on) The best place to start would in the are of the field you score points! In Saquon Barkley’s two seasons the Giants have criminally had 72 or less carries in the red zone and less than 10 rushing touchdowns in both years. Having Saquon in addition to not having a top 3 quarterback makes it hard to fathom how the Giants ranked 3rd to last in red zone carries in 2019.
Maybe they were just a bad team? I assumed they probably just weren't in their opponents red zone often enough and that's driving their numbers down. Not the case! For some reason the G-men became one of the pass heaviest teams when they reached their opponents 20 yard line (You know the team who drafted a RB at 2 and traded away OBJ)
The Giants passed 64% of the time in the red zone which was the 3rd highest rate in the NFL. It gets worse and even less sensible! Inside the red zone the running backs have just a 15% share of the targets- bottom 10 in football. Despicably inexplicable. How a team with Saquon and no passing weapon to key in on the red zone was a top 3 pass heaviest unit in the red zone is beyond me. Than proceeding to distribute those passes to everybody but Saquon? All I can say is wherever Pat Shurmur lands... I'm avoiding that RB like the plague and factoring the data into his TD projections. As for the Big Apple we have to expect Judge will shift the mentality.
New York Jets
New York, coaching… Adam Gase (Sigh) As of now he is set to be the head coach of the Jets in 2020, even receiving a vote of confidence. I think he’s the worst coach I may have ever seen call plays in this revolutionized era. Nothing he’s done since Peyton Manning's season that propelled his career has been anything but pathetic. How he got and kept the dolphins job for 3 years is almost as perplexing as how he got the gig in New York. But I've done this dance before so I'll spare everybody and stay on track! https://www.truenorthffb.com/post/thecuriousgaseofadam
I bring up Gase because no matter the subject, his team will be basement dwellers. Red zone trips, efficiency and of course the running backs usage in close.The Jets produced the least red zone rushing attempts for their teams running backs with 33 carries inside their opponents 20 yard line. Oakland ranked 17th... The Jets had half as many as the Raiders. The minuscule total from the Jets in 2019 was close to 50% of their total from the year before. In other words before Gase arrived.
On brand in 2018 Adam Gase’s Dolphins ranked dead last with 35 attempts in the red zone and just 4 touchdowns inside the red zone as a team. The year before Miami’s offense again ranked dead last with 30 carries in the red zone! Yes, Adam Gase's backs rank dead last 3 years straight regardless of who's signing his checks. By the by! If you thought the Dolphins were a RB desert in 2019; under Adam Gase circa 2017 the Dolphins scored 2 rushing touchdowns in the red zone... 2!
We have to follow the Jets in the mid rounds of the draft and even through free agency to monitor what they plan to do at RB. The run game currently consists of a poisonous marriage between Gase and Lev Bell. I expect Bell to be there barring a miracle from the Jets perspective and while he's technically in line for tons of positive regression via big plays and touchdowns, I won't be biting and it could turn inedible for fantasy owners during the season. What does Gase have on people for the bribery and extortion he’s obviously leveraging to get and keep these jobs!! But I digress
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams will be more of a deep dive when we hit Todd Gurley during this series. He’s among the leaders in touchdowns over expectations and possibly the RB I've taken the most flak over. The Rams are the topic of discussion though and 2019 was business as usual in the red zone cemented as one of just seven teams to run the ball more than they passed inside the opponents 20 yard line.
Ram’s nation ranked 3rd in running back carries inside the red zone and their 17 touchdowns were the 2nd most. What a let down! In 2018 the Rams were tops in football with 120 attempts by their running backs inside the 20 and they led the NFL with 26 touchdowns in close! In 2017 they were 3rd in carries and had 15 rushing touchdowns in the red zone. Avoiding a Gurley rant here but it's important to note how robust the run game was in the red zone despite Gurley's contributions declining significantly particularly referring to volume.
Evidently Sean McVay does not want to lean on Jared Goff the closer to their opponents end zone L.A. gets. The Ram’s team success is proving to be heavily tied to the offensive line and success of the run game inside the red zone and boy! Did the two collided this year (2.9 YPC in the red zone)
In 2019 Todd Gurley saved his fantasy owners by performing admirably in the red zone. Admirably is a far cry from historically dominant though. That’s what Gurley was for 2017 and 2018 fantasy owners and for this Rams backfield of the future remember it was thanks in large part to the exorbitant volume offered by his situation! That was not afforded to him last year and we saw a decline in carries, production, and touchdowns. Decline was a generous way to put that but where Todd god lost most in 2019 and where the Rams stand to see the biggest spike in 2020 is the use in passing game in the red zone. The overall and red zone market share to the RB position in LA was inexplicable last year and Gurley's cheat code role for fantasy football evaporated as a result.
Gurley led the NFL for both the 2017 and 2018 seasons in goal line carries and he scored 22 touchdowns at the goal line over that span! In 2019 his 6 scores at the goal line look good on the stat sheet but not on his football card (Kids still collect those right!) Touchdowns at the goal line were cut almost in half because of his workload. Todd Gurley had zero targets and just 55% of the goal line carries for L.A. (Compared to 80% from 2017 and 2018) Hope you headed... Took head? Heeded ummm https://www.truenorthffb.com/post/todd-gurley-a-comparative-case-study
New England Patriots
The trend continues for the Pats. No, NOT their playoff success!! Oh, man that felt good. What continued was New England’s reliance on the run game in the red zone. This past year they ranked 4th in team rushing attempts and 4th in touchdowns. 2018 the Pats ranked top 3 in both categories in the red zone and we're bearing in mind there's been no mobile quarterback to account for (Aside from vulture Tom's sneaky sneaks)
Another trend, this one on the fantasy front is that we seemingly chase the touchdown upside in New England every season and annually we suffer from a well defined timeshare. 2019 was no different and the Patriots leader in red zone volume was fairly ineffective... And he’s got a bum knee. Sony seems stable and cemented as the goal line back and he sits top 10 in red zone volume since being drafted by the Patriots 2 years ago. Sony Michel had the 7th most red zone carries in the NFL this year. He had the 8th most in 2018. Perfectly illustrating the upside that exist at the RB position in New England… in theory.
Diving into the share we saw in 2019 Sony Michel receive just over 50% of the Patriots total red zone rushing attempts and the year before he saw just under 50%. It's truly amazing New England can lift a back into the top 10 in red zone volume while seeing less than half the teams work! And the monopoly on total touches for Sony is far less when we remember how often the Patriots target their backs in the passing game and how they're all not named Sony Michel.
The top fantasy RB season on the back of touchdowns is a mirage. New England produces numbers few other teams do when it comes to running back touchdowns it’s just spread out and volatile. I don't believe in many rules of thumb in fantasy football but drafting the most expensive Patriots back in fantasy drafts will leave you with sorrow and heartache historically. The play for fantasy will always be to add as many of them as you can and play the market. Stack and compile them in best ball and deep dynasty leagues- Bet on high variance later in the draft with Patriots backs in re-draft.
Chasing touchdowns is usually a mistake and the Patriots have shown us that over the last few years. In this series we want to look deeper because saying he could have have a huge TD season because he's seeing top 10 volume is counter-intuitive to our objective here in chasing touchdowns- Even if that sounds counter-intuitive! The issue being no RB's fantasy totals are more contingent on scoring than Sony Michel and good luck chasing those games.
The chase goes back to 2016 and LeGarrette Blount's touchdown station season. He led the NFL in touchdowns and in red zone carries in 2016. His goal line carries ranked 1st in football and his 12 scores at the goal line were tied for the most with David Johnson (Yeah, the last time chasing the TD guy in New England paid off- DJ was the shit)
In 2016 Blount saw a higher share of the work than anything we’ve seen since in Foxborough. His 69% share of Patriots carries in the red zone and his 75% of carries at the goal line were both astronomical figures. In the three seasons since, a Patriots running back hasn’t eclipsed 50% of the carries in the red zone or at the goal line! We touched on the last 2 years where Sony has crept into that 50% range but In 2017 neon Dion Lewis led the Pats with just 34% of the red zone carries meanwhile Mike Gillislee! Led the team with 38% of the goal line carries followed by sexy Rexy Burkhead at 33%.
The Sony Michel role is a solidified one for the Patriots it's just not 2016 Blount time. Do you know who else has a solidified role and is also insulated against the impending Patriots off season chaos? James White! His skill set lines up so well with what New England does in close. 2019 saw Patriots running backs have the highest target share inside the red zone (32%) And water is wet!
The last three years in a row New England backs have enjoyed a 30% or more share of the teams passing attempts in the red zone. Year after year the running backs in New England enjoy some of the most volume and touchdowns in football in the money zones, the problem is- roles are extreme and that caps the fantasy value of everybody involved. Fantasy drafts have failed to recognize this and even our cheat code in 2019 fantasy drafts failed miserably. Damien Harris (Remember him?) He broke the trend this year of the cheapest RB in New England being the best pick in our fantasy drafts.
Doug Peterson is the RBBC king. Its infuriating for fantasy because he annually runs an offense that leaves us wallowing in what ifs. Look no further than the red zone rushing production in Philly. Top 5 this year in red zone rushing volume and the Eagles attempts have been as sticky as any statistic you’ll find.
In Peterson’s tenure these are the carry totals for the Eagles in the red zone:
84, 84, 89, and 81
If you’re religiously superstitious skip this stat: Eagles ranked 6th, 6th, and 6th in team rush attempts in the red zone heading into their top 5 season in 2019. We want Eagles backs after seeing that and knowing their coaching staff and their offensive line provides a high ceiling for efficiency and touchdowns in close too.
Before we go spending our 2nd round picks on Miles Sanders (Even though I am doing just that) We do have a couple small wrinkles to iron out.
I had the illusion that Carson Wentz had hung his running game up for good in the red zone after his injury a while back but Carson Wentz marked his career high by hitting double digit rush attempts in the red zone for the 1st time in his career.
Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard will be a visit on the running back segment of this series and that is the other wrinkle (Hopeful we have some Jordan Howard clarity by then) Howard had yet again a good success rate in the red zone but he should be elsewhere. Meanwhile Miles Sanders had very little success in close and that could have been all that kept him from utterly exploding in the 2nd half of 2019. For now we know this is a potent running back situation for fantasy when we look at rushing production in the red zone.
San Francisco 49ers
I assumed the Vikings had the biggest jump in red zone rushing production this year. The Vikings may win out in volume but the 49ers uptick in scoring would be a more powerful finishing move in mortal combat. San Francisco ranked T-3rd with 18 rushing touchdowns in the red zone. Skyrockets in flight from 2018 when they had only 5 rushing touchdowns in close.
With the absence of a mobile quarterback in the bay, the majority of the work was split among the backs. Split, being the operative word. The running backs had the 3rd most touchdowns as a unit but the distribution is unreal. Matt Breida accounted for a grand total of zero scores inside the red zone meanwhile 3 other running backs had 4 or more RZ scores. The role in the red zone rotated and 3 guys all had cracks at the gig (How bad is Tevin Coleman)
Unlike the Rams for instance the 49ers backs theoretically came with value in the passing game down in the redzone. The touches are among the league lead for San Fran backs. Their use in the passing game actually accelerates once they get close looking at the 22% total market share to the RB position; inside the red zone that climbs to 28% (T-5th) The volume isn't as thrilling as the market share suggests but the efficiency can make up for it! They ranked 6th in success rate and 3rd in the NFL in yards per attempt when targeting running backs in the red zone.
Tevin Coleman is very cuttable and Matt Breida is very capable. Durability, ya ya ya but a duo of Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert is an explosive outside scheme nightmare for defenses and the Raheem for a dream was lights out in the red zone last year. Jeff Wilson also exists (More than we can say for that RB Shanahan "pounded the table for" a couple years ago) When we discuss players in this series Jeff Wilson's name will certainly come up.
New Orleans Saints
Before 2019 the previous two years were a spectacular transition to the run game by the Saints exemplified by their gaudy red zone numbers on the ground. That came to a halt in 2019. The team dropped from 118 red zone carries to just 72 this year and if you didn't have to pause there to push your jaw back up from the dropped position; the failure was even more palpable when looking at touchdowns. They ranked bottom 10 in football as a team with only 9 rushing touchdowns inside the red zone compared to 2018 when the Saints had 25! They ranked behind only the Rams that season and In 2017 they were tied for the league lead with 19 red zone RB touchdowns.
And this is a multi faceted nuclear fallout we're examining here. Beyond the rushing volume and having 3 times fewer rushing scores the other drop off was the use in the passing game for running backs.
New Orleans were T-8th with a 26% target share inside the red zone and the yards per attempt was completely out of character. 26% of a teams passes going to the RB position in the red zone is normally above average, it's just not for the Saints or the owners of their backs in fantasy. In 2018 New Orleans running backs had a 34% share, in 2017 they had 38% share of the red zone targets. Ranking top 12 in YPA both seasons on that high of MS% makes it all the more impressive.
Alvin Kamara and Latavius will be broken down at a later date but I do want to convey that we have come to anticipate multiple running backs for fantasy in this offense. The offensive line, Drew Brees aging and Sean Peyton's willingness to have just overhauled his offense the way he has over the last 3 years all leads us to believe this backfield should return to form in 2020. The anticipation last year was connected to their upside. The upside was connected to their touchdowns. The touchdowns are connected to the red zone! (I hope everybody was singing there)
The difference between the Saints and the Patriots situation is chalked full of nuance but there's a handful of reasons they're hard to compare for fantasy purposes and none less obvious than the Saints lead back being a top 5 fantasy pick. The upside in the red zone both on the ground and in the passing game warrants that.
This season Kamara was outside the top 20 for carries in the red zone and Latavius was just behind him. It was a cliff drop from last season, when Alvin Kamara had the 2nd most in the NFL and Mark Ingram ranked 18th. At the goal line it’s more severe. Kamara was tied for 8th this year with 8 goal line carries. Latavius Murray had just 3! Putting him outside the top 50. Last year Alvin Kamara was tied for 4th in goal line carries, meanwhile Ingram ranked 7th! Positive regression is imminent in 2020 and necessary as Drew Brees winds down his career.
The Jags were middle of the pack this year for run volume in the red zone but had 50% less rushing touchdowns than the next lowest team in football. Their 3 Touchdowns in the red zone is quite the anomaly. Leonard Fournette has an uncertain future- speaking of which the quarterback position is an unknown. If Minshew were to win the job we’d have to project for him to contribute in the red zone with his legs. Jags have a vacant offensive coordinator position as well.
What’s we know fa sho! Is the offense could go through the run game in the red zone no matter how the off season shakes out and there's regression to the mean coming. In 2018 we keep in mind Blake Bortles was the quarterback... regardless the Jaguars as a team ranked 2nd in the NFL with 100 carries as a team inside the red zone! They also tied for the most rushing touchdowns with 19 scores on the ground (About an 85% decline in 2019!)
Part of the turnaround will depend on an increase in their pass-rush ratio in the red zone because Jacksonville passed 62% of the time in close last year. That was tied for the 7th highest passing rate. The RB market share slid from 2018 to this past season inside the red zone for Jaguars runners as well but they still saw 20% of the targets in close and had the 6th best success rate when targeted. Whoever the lead back in Jacksonville is in 2020, comes with a big ceiling.