The Queen’s Gambit: Hybrid Positional Utility (Fantasy Football 2021)
If fantasy football were a game of chess, Cordarrelle Patterson (WR-ATL) would be its queen. For much of the existence of football, the NFL and the fantasy football industry have siled players based on their characteristics. Slot WRs, 3rd backs, scouts have formulaic qualities that are sought after to mix players into stilted archetypes. This architecture created a vacuum as players like Patterson and Tavon Austin (WR-JAX) saw high draft picks invested based on skill and varsity production, but got stuck. NFL offenses have struggled to unlock their abilities, often leading to special team roles and minimal usage. But Patterson’s success threatens to break down those historic barriers and raises questions about an essential fundamental of fantasy football: positional eligibility.
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Evolution of RPO
Since Colin Kaepernick’s emergence and Super Bowl appearance in 2012, run / pass options have become popular. Kaepernick coach Jim Harbaugh spent seven years in college before returning to the 49ers. These concepts changed the game to the position and opened up a new crop of QB talent. Traditionally, players like Josh Allen (QB-BUF), Lamar Jackson (QB-BAL), Kyler Murray (QB-ARI) may have found accuracy and size issues difficult in previous eras. There is a bit of “chicken or egg” going on. Has the league’s willingness to embrace these concepts help the development of athletic QBs, or has a natural influx of these players allowed these concepts to gain popularity?
The emergence of QBs like Jackson or Murray has led to schema changes that closely resemble college play. The Murray-led Cardinals offense is deeply rooted in Kliff Kingsbury’s Big 12 history and placed third in offensive games per game in 2020, only to see its effectiveness explode and lead the league in points per game to .491 in 2021. The Ravens offense that led the NFL in rushing yards to 191 per game in 2020 also has extensive college experience. Passing coordinator Chris Hewitt spent seven years with Greg Schiano at Rutgers, and wide receiver coach Tee Martin has spent the past 12 years at various college stops. The Bills hired OC Brian Daboll as Nick Saban’s staff, and he brought widespread RPO elements that aided Allen’s development.
Whether or not these QBs needed the RPO concepts to unlock their development or their skills opened up the concepts, the impact on fantasy football is evident. The QB score has reached new heights. But as more and more of these patterns come in, are there opportunities for other positions to develop fancy relevance?
I immersed myself in the hybrid role and story of Urban Meyer with the post this summer of Footballguys.com. The concept is relatively straightforward: it merges the spread offense which frequently features 1-3 (three WR) and 1-4 (four WR) sets with elements of the old Wing-T triple option attack.
The offensive personnel dictate the defensive clashes; The Hybrid Spread uses a player who falls between a typical WR and RB archetype. Staff can force a defense into a five-cent or dime blanket to match the WRs deployed, then use the “Throw” motion (a WR crossing the backfield at the snap) to fill the box and add an option. additional in the RPO concept.
The classic player to imagine in this mold is Percy Harvin. He was a dynamic presence with the ball in his hands, but an injury robbed him of any usefulness. Still, his career best season in 2011 saw him rack up a line of 87 receptions, 967 receiving yards, 345 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. For context, this line provides 16.6 PPR points per game, in line with the 2020 seasons produced by Jonathan Taylor (RB-IND) and Tyler Lockett (WR-SEA).
Meyer attempted to replicate the role during his freshman year at Jacksonville. He used a 1st round pick on Travis Etienne (RB-JAX), announcing it as a “slash”, hopes of this role ended with a late season injury in the preseason. Next, Laviska Shenault (WR-JAX), but Shenault doesn’t have the short zone quickness to fully succeed in the role, especially at the NFL level. DJ Chark (WR-JAX) injury forced Shenault to take on a more traditional WR role, and the tasks passed to Jamal Agnew (WR-JAX) and Tavon Austin. Agnew, in particular, exhibits attractive traits to excel in the role. A former professional kick returner, he is still more comfortable offensively after starting his career as a defensive back. In his last three games he’s averaged four touches and 55 yards, on modest numbers on the surface, but as he continues to gain comfort, it’s an intriguing baseline.
Cordarrelle Patterson, on the other hand, played a similar role at completely different heights.
A delayed escape
Poetically, the Vikings selected Patterson in the 2013 NFL Draft to replace Harvin. Patterson turned out to be a disappointment, failing to fully meet the Vikings’ needs at WR in an attack built around Adrian Peterson (RB-FA). His physical talents have always been evident and used on special teams at the 11th all-time at 7,360 yards and the all-time leader with eight touchdown returns. Sadly, outside of a handful of specific league formats, this story meant little for its fantastic output. Enter Arthur Smith.
Patterson’s emergence seemingly came out of nowhere, but a breadcrumb trail around Smith’s story is interesting in hindsight. In 2010, Smith began his coaching career with college roots as a defensive intern with Ole Miss in a disappointing 4-9 season. The main reason for the disappointment was the departure of “do it all” fullback Dexter McCluster, who led the 2009 team to a 9-4 record behind 1,689 yards of scrimmage. It wouldn’t be the last time Smith and McCluster would cross paths, as they shared the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the Titans.
Throughout his tenure as TE and OC coach with the Titans, Smith experimented with hybrid utility with Jonnu Smith (TE-NE) as his vessel, lining up in the backfield and offshore in addition to his main role of TE. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the Falcons’ offense has entered the desperate season for playmakers.
Patterson answered the bell, and his performance was nothing short of electric. At 19.3 PPR PPG, it sits at RB7 ET (platform dependent) WR7. His number of shots increased every week, from 30% in week 4 to 59% in week 5 to 73% in week seven, after a goodbye. But his use is the most exciting factor, he took 109 shots out of the backfield and 79 in a row off. This use led him to sport eligibility labels ranging from RB, WR or RB / WR.
This is not the first time that we have seen dual eligibility; for years McCluster has sported Flexibility or RB / WR, and in 2011 CJ Spiller achieved WR eligibility after starting several games in that position. But as spread concepts continue to merge with RPO capable QBs, it raises questions about how to deal with players who frequently line up both in the backfield and off.
The big question: why is eligibility important?
“WR is Deep” is a common fantasy refrain, and it makes sense given how often we see teams in three and four WR packages. But on a practical level, we can illustrate the difference.
The PPR score per game shows a noticeable level break at RB19, and RB20 exists, averaging 15 points per game to 19 and dropping to 12.7 points per game at 20. Looking at the players in this group, the role difference is evident, as leaders like Joe Mixon (RB-CIN) and David Montgomery (RB-CHI) sit just above the threshold. Just below are committee full-backs like Zack Moss (RB-BUF) and Antonio Gibson (RB-WAS). Applying this 2.3 ppg difference to Moss’s 12.7 ppg RB20 versus the next group extends the range to RB33 at 10.4 ppg. That’s right; there are 14 RB closer to RB20 than the difference between RB19 and 20.
This idea was part of the genesis of the ZeroRB theory; apart from the actors who carve out the lion’s share of the groundwork, the production is reproducible at a lower cost. When WRs enter the conversation, the value shifts even further. A total of 22 WRs reached the upper RB cutoff in PPR. Another 15 are currently between the spread of RB 19 and 20. A total of 37 WRs are above the current RB20 threshold. RB eligibility increases the value of a “flexible” player. Contextually, Nyheim Hines (RB-IND) finished at 12.1 PPR points per game in 2020, good for RB28 (a marginal start option) compared to WR40 (unlikely to see many flexible positions).
What is the answer?
Dual eligibility has long been a staple of other great games, including baseball and basketball. Platforms like ESPN and Sleeper have already used the double parameter. As a fantasy industry, conversations about thresholds for determining player eligibility should take place. The factors can be official depth chart designations or instantaneous positional actions (data from PFF). Patterson is just a test case, but works in a league of copiers, and with the continued development of propagation and RPO schemes, a wave of players who threaten long-standing standards could be on the horizon.
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Jeff Bell is a star writer for FantasyPros. To learn more about Jeff, check out his archive and follow it @ 4WhomJBellTolls.