Maybe fantasy managers had always assumed the veteran Taylor would get the starting gig over rookie Justin Herbert. So when the team made it clear this month that they would hand Herbert the visor and the clipboard, fantasy players didn’t scramble to adjust the ranks.
But should we?
Taylor, one of the preeminent Konami Code quarterbacks who finished with the sixth most quarterback fantasy points per game in 2015, has a good sized sample size from which to draw if we want to know what kind of pass catchers have thrived (and struggled) in offenses led by Taylor. The Chargers’ offensive system will be different from the Buffalo offense Taylor played in years ago, but it could be good to know -- actionable, even -- what sort of throws and what kind of players he excelled with as a starter.
Let’s start with Taylor’s adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) during his three seasons as Buffalo’s starting quarterback. AY/A, for the uninitiated, uses the following formula: pass yards + 20*(pass TD) - 45*(interceptions thrown))/(passing attempts). Easy peasy.
|Season||Tyrod Taylor AY/A||Rank|
The 2015 jumps off the above table because, coincidentally, 2015 was the one time Taylor supported a (very) productive fantasy receiver. It was Sammy Watkins -- before he became an advanced reptilian solar being -- who saw 96 targets from Taylor, turning that opportunity into 60 grabs, 1,047 yards, and nine touchdowns in 13 games. Long tosses to Watkins in an otherwise run-heavy Buffalo offense shot Taylor’s AY/A toward the top of the league and led both guys to solid fantasy campaigns.
Peruse Watkins’ peripherals that season and you’ll find he posted a hefty 11.51 yards per target (second among receivers) and an average depth of target of 17.77 (also second among wideouts).
Now let’s take a look at the Chargers wideouts’ yards per target and aDOT in recent seasons.
yards per target (rank)
average depth of target (rank)
|2017||9.48 (16th)||9.89 (63rd)|
|2018||9.57 (29th)||9.45 (99th)|
|2019||8.16 (45th)||10.29 (50th)|
yards per target (rank)
average depth of target (rank)
|2018||11.78 (3rd)||18.27 (2nd)|
|2019||10.38 (8th)||15.59 (6th)|
One of these guys looks like Watkins circa 2015 and the other -- not so much. Williams’ aDOT and yard per target have been near the top of the league in each of the past two seasons as his opportunity has been limited but downfield and explosive.
This isn’t to say Williams should be taken before Allen, or even that Williams will challenge Allen for target supremacy in LA this year. But considering Williams can be had in the 14th round of 12-team leagues -- nine rounds after Allen -- I would rather get seasonal league exposure to the Chargers’ deep threat than the guy gobbling up intermediate throws from a QB who hasn’t exactly been excellent with those kind of passes -- the kind Allen has lived on for years. Even if Allen continues to see some semblance of volume in 2020, that quality of said volume could see a marked drop.
I have LA attempting around 70 fewer passes (520 in total) this year than they did in 2019. If Allen maintains his 25.8 percent target share from a year ago -- a heady prospect -- that would give him 134 targets. That’s more than enough for him to finish beyond his ADP. If, however, his share of targets drops to 22 percent, he’s looking at around 114 targets. Probably that wouldn’t be disastrous for his fantasy usefulness; it wouldn’t be ideal either. And the nightmare scenario would be a 20 percent target share for Allen, which translates to 104 targets. I think that’s well within his range of outcomes, and Allen is not the sort of wideout who can turn six or seven targets per game into a solid fantasy season.
I wouldn’t feel awful about scooping up Allen if he falls to the WR30 range, where he could reasonably outperform his ADP even with a decrease in volume. Everyone is a value sometime.
While fantasy players in 10 and 12-team leagues likely won’t have a reason to start Williams barring injuries to the Chargers pass catchers, I think the big downfield threat is a fine flier who profiles as the sort of wideout Taylor has preferred in his career. Williams is a savvy pick in deeper leagues and leagues with a bunch of flex spots.
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The thing about tight ends in fantasy football is that it doesn’t matter how good a guy is unless he’s running pass routes. Because without routes, there are no targets. And without targets, you’re sometimes left with a big, fat zero in your lineup: the stuff of Sunday night shower cries.
In his 12 games last year, Henry ran an eye-popping 32.6 routes per game and saw at least seven targets in seven of those 12 games (he was targeted on nearly 19 percent of his routes). Henry saw a 13.1 percent target share despite the missed games. That’s tremendous opportunity for a tight end, but can it continue into the Chargers’ post-Rivers era?
Henry drafters -- taking him as the tenth tight end off the board -- might point to Charles Clay’s success with Taylor at QB in 2016. After all, Clay led the Bills that year with 87 targets (18.95 percent target share), winding up as the TE15. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t exactly bad for a tight end who wasn’t drafted in most leagues.
Context, as per usual, is important: Clay emerged as Buffalo’s top target getter that year largely because Watkins, who was on pace for 104 targets, played in just eight games. Robert Woods, then the Bills’ WR2, missed four games. That left Clay at the top of the pass catching heap purely by default.
With the presence of Allen and Williams, and the potential for Ekeler to vacuum up shorter throws in the LA offense, I’m not sure where Henry’s opportunity is going to come from this season. An excellent pass catcher like Henry won’t be useless in fantasy, but if you’re taking him as your plug-and-play starter, you might find yourself flirting with the waiver wire if the Chargers’ lack of pass volume comes to fruition.
There are worse things than rostering a running back who sees north of 18 percent of his team’s targets. That’s what Ekeler drafters had in 2019 when he scored 77.2 percent of his fantasy points through the air. In an offense that threw the ball nearly 600 times, it worked, and worked well.
Again, we run into a volume problem. Eighteen percent of the Chargers’ targets this year would net him around 90 targets, which is hardly terrible, but would be 18 fewer opportunities than he had last season. Here’s the scenario that might produce pit stains on the shirt of Ekeler drafters: the runner seeing 15 percent of LA’s targets. That would come out to fewer than 80 targets.
The Bolts’ insistence of using Ekeler out of the backfield, from the slot, and even on the outside could very well counteract the offense’s (likely) loss of pass volume from 2019. But a look at Taylor’s history with one of the game’s best pass catching back, LeSean McCoy, says there’s at least some reason to be concerned.
Here’s how McCoy was used in Buffalo’s passing attack during Taylor’s time as the team’s starter.
|Season||Games played||Targets||Target share|
You might be yelling at your laptop or mobile device right now, insisting Bills-era McCoy was not used the way Ekeler is used. You’d be right. Shady was regularly seeing more than 250 carries during Taylor’s run as Buffalo’s quarterback. He never saw fewer than 15.7 carries per game in his three seasons with the Bills. Ekeler seeing 250 carries would be the strangest thing to happen in 2020. I think we can all agree on that.
The Bills’ 2017 season offers hope that Taylor can and will check down to a superb pass-catching running back like Ekeler. The best-case scenario for Ekeler would be a lost Chargers season in which the offense is forced to embrace a (relatively) pass heavy game script while facing perpetual deficits. If you’re taking Ekeler in the second round of PPR leagues, you might pray to your preferred deity that the Bolts go under their Vegas win total of 7.5.
The Justin Herbert Factor
If and when the Chargers turn to Herbert in 2020, I'm not sure he represents a massive change in the pass catchers' prospects. Herbert might not have the rushing prowess of Taylor, but he wasn't exactly a traditional pocket passer in college. In 43 starts at Oregon, Herbert averaged 5.4 rush attempts per game. He was particularly run-minded when the Ducks faced negative game script, notching 7.4 rush attempts per game in Oregon losses over his final two years.
Then again, if LA transitions to Herbert, it probably means Taylor has struggled mightily or their season is circling the proverbial toilet. That could very well mean passing volume for the offense -- the potentially missing ingredient in all this analysis.