Running backs are now wide receivers and quarterbacks, like Buffalo's Josh Allen, are now running backs
The schematic revolution of the NFL follows a natural flow: What college coaches are able to draw up on the field often gets copied in the professional game when it becomes easier than traditional methods of amassing NFL yardage. Screens, Texas routes and pre-snap motion to isolate the running back against slower linebackers have become a big part of generating offense for teams without great wide receivers. We saw the Patriots dismantle the Chargers in the divisional round with the same James White plays over and over again. White caught 15 of 17 balls for 97 yards. If you happened to be playing DFS or playoff fantasy football, he likely led you to victory in any league that awarded points for catches.
Because running backs who catch passes are more consistently involved in the game plan, they are more consistent fantasy football players. Game script dictates the use of running backs heavily. Backs such as LeGarrette Blount, for instance, are almost completely dependent on the game script to play a role in fantasy football. Of Blount's 154 carries, 98 came with the Lions tied or leading. Meanwhile, passing-down back Theo Riddick caught 39 of his 61 receptions when the Lions were trailing. Obviously, the goal is to find players who have both shares of that production, but when you see an NFL team poised to be an underdog, we've learned that you need to fade any backs with the usage pattern of Blount. In that way, what used to be the running back position has transitioned. Running backs have become wide receivers, anchored to the passing game for relevance.
While running back condenses in usefulness, another fantasy football position only grows stronger every year: quarterback. The people who waited on Patrick Mahomes last year found a top-of-the-line fantasy football quarterback. Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger were both usually found lower in the draft order, and each of them returned top-5 quarterback value on a per-game basis.
Most of the revolutionary tactics in football today are built around the concept of "positionless football." Positionless football means what it sounds like it means: anybody can play any position. Obviously, that isn't exactly true on an NFL field, because there is a big difference between "passable NFL quarterback" and "passable college quarterback," among other distinctions. Height and weight are often limiting factors, and you're not going to ask a player to do what he simply can't do.
However, the ability to be versatile in what you can do as an NFL player is a huge boon to today's football. The three-down linebacker who can cover underneath and tackle, the tight end who can push the pile and also catch the seam route with ease — these are some examples of what positionless football is striving to create.
Remember, the more players who can play out of different structures that a unit has, the more a team can hide its tendencies. Go back to the most recent Super Bowl. The Patriots finally got some real yardage on the Rams in the middle of the fourth quarter when they moved back to a two-back set, forcing the Rams to leave a third linebacker on the field. On the first play out of the set, they had Rob Gronkowski fake a block, then run right past edge linebacker Samson Ebukam to catch an 18-yard pass. That's positionless football in a nutshell. The defense is scared about Gronkowski's ability in the blocking game, and they play the tendency of offenses to run from a two-back formation. But instead, Gronkowski was able to trick Ebukam and create easy offense.
So why does this matter as far as quarterbacks? Because quarterbacks are now becoming more consistent than they ever have in an area that delivers more fantasy points than passing: rushing. Josh Allen had one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory as a pure pocket passer, getting sacked 28 times in just 320 drop-backs and completing only 52.8 percent of his passes while getting picked off 12 times. But Allen finished 20th in fantasy football production, even outscoring Baker Mayfield on a per-game basis, because Allen ran the ball. Of Allen's 89 rushes, Sports Info Solutions considered roughly half of them, 48, scrambles. On those scrambles, Allen gained an average of 10.75 yards per carry and added five touchdowns. Yes, that means that of Allen's 631 rushing yards on the season, roughly 81 percent of them came on plays that weren't designed runs.
Nine different quarterbacks added three or more rushing touchdowns last year, including renowned speedster Drew Brees. It's a number that has stayed more or less stagnant since 2016, though the names have changed over the years. The big-picture view is complex, because we're working with small sample sizes, but the lesson that Allen taught is quite instructive and boils down to three real things:
1) Quarterbacks are rushed to the field as soon as possible to begin their development. Not many teams want to invest in multiple quarterback solutions, and those that do often have to make a choice early like the Chiefs did with Mahomes and Alex Smith.
2) Because those quarterbacks play in less complex offenses, they often aren't quite ready for the show. They're not ready to set every pass protection against an NFL defense. They're not ready to react to pressure from multiple angles. They're not going to see things developing underneath as early as a seasoned leader. NFL offenses account for this in two ways. The smart coaches will bring the level of the offense down to the quarterback, which usually adds more running anyway to keep the defense honest. The coaches who are less adept at something like that will instead rely on...
3) Today's modern, successful college quarterbacks are more athletic than ever. Even a player like Mayfield, who isn't necessarily a stud athlete, ran a 4.84 40-yard dash and a 7-second flat three-cone drill. The days when Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde would statue up in the pocket are gone forever. More plays than ever are being made out of structure in college football, where a quarterback's legs can be the difference-maker between punting and continuing a drive. It's only natural that this playing style is becoming more prevalent in the NFL as more quarterbacks graduate to the league with those skills built-in from earlier development.
Because of all these points, and because of the NFL's emphasis on rushing the passer, the NFL meta that is being created is one that heavily rewards being able to play outside of structure late in the down.
Why does that change quarterback play to become more consistent? Simple: It's no longer easy to tee off on bad, stationary quarterbacks and rely on them to get hammered. Zach Mettenberger was going to make some bad pocket decisions and either hold the ball too long or get picked. Meanwhile, Allen is going to run the ball over you with his speed and power. Extra pressure is only going to make the NFL's younger quarterbacks run more. We saw it with Allen. We saw it with Deshaun Watson. We'll likely see it from Lamar Jackson as he heads into his first full season as a starter. And not many fantasy leagues, if any, count sacks as a negative play for a quarterback.
When the quarterback is an extension of the running game, someone who is relied on as part of positionless football, it makes even more of a joke of fantasy leagues that start just one quarterback. It's just too easy to find good value on a week-to-week basis. You're going to read hundreds of articles about not getting a quarterback early this year — they're going to be right, and the emphasis is important for first-time players.
Here's the lesson: Because of the way the NFL and college football have collided, you can have a good fantasy football quarterback who isn't even a good NFL quarterback. That's how little the numbers now mean. Quarterbacks who aren't star passers are now running backs, just as running backs who can catch passes are now wide receivers. We dance closer and closer to positionless football every season, and that's the main reason why there's not a good reason to select a quarterback early in fantasy.
(Top photo by Kevin Hoffman, courtesy of www.buffalobills.com)