NFL teams win in the margins. Countless hours are spent identifying the slightest advantage to get the upper hand come Sunday. One area where this leverage can be found is in the use of various personnel packages and schemes. Personnel packages are the configuration for how many running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers are on the field for a particular play. The most common package is the 1-1 (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). The type and frequency of personnel packages that coaches use can inform both how they view the strengths of their team, and the types of plays they call. For fantasy, this information can be useful to identify opportunity and usage for skill position players, which correlates directly with fantasy success.
An example of the usefulness of this information is contrasting personnel with snap counts. Snap counts have become increasingly popular as a metric for identifying opportunity and fantasy breakout success. “WR Player X was on the field for 60% of the snaps and received four targets, so he can have 6-7 targets if he can increase his snap count 20-30%.” This makes sense in a vacuum, but not all teams offer the same opportunity for that player.
Using the Texans as an example, Bill O’Brien called 1-1 personnel 56% of plays in 2018, one of the lowest figures in the league. DeAndre Hopkins is on the field for 99.1% of the snaps, which leaves the remaining receivers only 57% of available plays (not all passes mind you) to be on the field. This has significant implications for whether other receivers can have consistent opportunities and success. Note: For reference, there are 11 offensive players on the field, six of which are offensive lineman and the QB. Personnel packages only reference the remaining five skill position players. The package number (e.g., 1-1, 2-1) represents the number of each position on the field. The first number listed is the amount of RBs, the second number is TEs, and then the remaining amount leftover up to 5 is WRs.
But wait! The Texans were riddled with injuries this year, which could change their personnel usage. This certainly could be a factor since coaches may adjust to more tight end-heavy formations (e.g., 1-2) if they have injuries to receivers. But this does not seem to be the case with Bill O’Brien because he has run 1-1 personnel 55%, 55%, and 56% over each of the past three seasons, respectively. This speaks to an offensive philosophy much more so than an in-season adjustment. So, with this in mind, Will Fuller and Keke Coutee might have more situational usage and a capped ceiling on fantasy production because they are not on the field when personnel is using multiple tight ends or running backs. Fuller will continue to rely on big plays with limited targets, and Coutee may suffer from not receiving enough snaps and targets to capitalize on being a PPR possession receiver. These factors suggest that while Deandre Hopkins’ role is secure, expectations for fantasy output of other wide receivers should be tempered and these players potentially avoided at current draft position.
In contrast to Houston, Sean McVay’s system in L.A. is an outlier and example of a scheme that opens up additional opportunity for wide receivers. McVay, by far, runs the most 1-1 in the league in 2018 with 87% (9% more than 2nd place Packers). This means that three receivers are on the field essentially every play, and offers an opportunity for the third receiver that is practically never available in the league. This, along with the innovative scheme applied, is how each of Woods, Cooks, and Kupp were able to be top contributors for fantasy. The success of this scheme projects for these pass catchers to continue a high level of production, albeit limiting the potential for a dominant option among them to emerge. It also speaks to the potential ceiling for TEs on the Rams, since Higbee and Everett rarely share the field, consistently split snaps, and are the sole TE available for needed blocking assignments. This limits both their upsides.
Lastly, an example of how this data can be used to evaluate running back opportunity. Shanahan and the 49ers have a substantially higher 2-1 personnel usage than the rest of the league at 41% (29% more than 3rd place). This is a package of 2 RBs, 1 TE, and 2 WRs. This is consistent with past seasons, where Shanahan used a 2-1 38% in 2017 (most in the league) and 30% as the Offensive Coordinator for the Falcons in 2016 (2nd most). While we traditionally think of RBs taking turns in the backfield, Shanahan’s system significantly inflates the number of snaps, thus opportunities, available for his RBs since two are on the field so often.
Even in a year marked by injuries and poor offensive success (27th ranked Offensive DVOA), Shanahan had multiple fantasy relevant players (e.g., Breida, Mostert, Wilson Jr.) at the position. And notably, Shanahan drove the success of the Freeman/Coleman tandem in 2016 with this scheme. This addresses a significant question about the role of McKinnon and Breida entering the 2019 season. The RB usage in this scheme can support both players being viable fantasy options. All signs indicate McKinnon will be the leader of that tandem and has back end RB1 upside, but Breida will be on the field for a high number of snaps and has potential to be a worthy flex option or bye week fill in.
These examples illustrate how player personnel can speak to the mindset and offensive philosophy of a coach. It informs potential opportunity for players, which in turn projects to fantasy success. The examination of coaches and their tendencies leading into a season can help find players and situations worth investing in, and others to be avoided.
Acknowledgments: Personnel Grouping data was obtained from Sharp Football Stats and DVOA information from Football Outsiders. Please visit Sharpfootballstats.com and footballoutsiders.com for additional data and excellent content.