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2021 Takeaways and Injury News

Joe Burrow

Joe Burrow

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

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It’s Week 17 and Championship Week for most fantasy leagues. Injuries and practice participation will be vital to setting lineups as we’ll have more time to gauge workloads. And, even better, there’s no Thursday night game to shorten a week of practice for a couple of teams. However, it leaves me with nothing to preview for tonight. So, instead, I laid out a few questions for myself about takeaways from the 2022 season. I’ll give you some of my thoughts and all of the notes from yesterday’s practices.

Takeaways from 2021

The loudest conversation this season has been about fourth-down attempts. Has the “analytics influence” gone too far?
Nah, I say let the nerds run the show from their parent’s basement in Des Moines. While it’s certainly altered how play-callers make decisions, my problem isn’t with the attempt. It’s with how we frame the result. Plus, it’s not like there’s been a takeover by the spreadsheet overlords.

fourth down play rate by week

fourth down play rate by week

The rate of plays run on fourth down has shifted every week at the league level. Every coach has noted analytics as being part of the decision. Not the driving force. However, we hear the in-game commentary.

“Well, I’m sure the data says you should run a play here.”

“Analytics would probably say the team should go for two.”

Well, sure, the models may point in that direction, but the coach decides. And, ultimately, they’re the ones to bear the burden. But it doesn’t stop the commentary. And yet, some of the plays with the most significant in-game impact are the ones discussed the least. But, to quantify “in-game impact,” let’s first talk about win probability added.

Win probability added (WPA) measures a single play and its effect on a team’s chances of winning. Variables like which quarter, down and distance, and the score factor into the significance of a single play. It helps quantify coaching decisions and is ideal for framing discussions on fourth downs. For example, Nick Foles’ two-point conversion to Damiere Byrd to take the lead increased Chicago’s win probability by 20.6%. I used a +/- 10% arbitrary threshold to set a baseline and charted the results to see if the math holds all the answers.

WPA per week

WPA per week

Fourth-down plays netting a positive change in WPA accounted for 52.5% of the sample. So, a slight edge. And that’s with my self-imposed filter. However, judging a decision by its success or failure can’t be our only metric for grading the decision. If I were a coach, I’d simply call the play that would result in a touchdown every time. But, the NFL isn’t ready for my creativity, and its focus on results would slow down my process anyway.

One more thought, though. Look at the play descriptions I added to the chart. I struggled to remember most of the early-season plays. All were the largest shifts in win probability (good or bad) on fourth down for that week. But the focus has usually been on when progressive ideas fail and re-establishing the notion there’s an acceptable way to lose. Regardless, I see the added aggression as a positive as it forces a bigger discussion on past and current coaching tendencies.

Is this bad for the discourse on analytics?
Not at all. If anything, it’s been eye-opening. Sure, we’ve got media pundits that don’t know what goes into analytics, but we’ve seen positive strides taken to educate those willing to listen.

I’ve been an adjunct math teacher for over 10 years, and the comment I typically get from students is how easy I relate the content to them. The same problem exists here. Not everyone is unwilling to listen, but they don’t want to get beat over the head with a TI-82 (that’s a calculator for those not in the know). It’s why messaging is essential.

John Harbaugh’s done an excellent job explaining their two-point decisions. Brandon Staley’s expounded on the Chargers’ modeling efforts to inform their game plan. Ultimately, it comes down to separating the results from the process, which is hard for fans to do.

Let’s switch to fantasy drafting real quick. Do you see any draft strategy changes coming?
I’ve heard rumblings and already seen the 2022 ADP polls, but I can’t see any seismic shift. Landmines littered the Top 24 of every draft regardless of position. Two takeaways from this season, though.

  • Identify Backup Running Backs Early – Injuries and the pandemic have brought new names into the spotlight this year, and next year’s rookie class will add more. Drafting handcuffs, or other people’s handcuffs, is always tossed out as advice, but we get the handcuffs wrong. Going through each backfield and finding the backups could get you the next Elijah Mitchell. Well, maybe not, but it makes in-season roster moves easier, as you’d already know each player’s skill set and projected role. We can’t always trust depth charts, so I’ll be digging into each committee next season before I start drafting.
  • Be Aggressive at Quarterback – I’m looking at preseason ADP and comparing it to current ranks, and the late-round strategy looks bleak for 2022. Kirk Cousins and Joe Burrow are the only quarterbacks outside the Top 12 to make it into the QB1 discussion. We had four last year. I’m certainly not advocating for early-round QB, but let’s meet in the middle. Rushing quarterbacks aren’t a secret anymore, and offensive tendencies have been and will continue to be studied all offseason. We’ll need a much larger crop of mid-tier quarterbacks to keep quarterback ADP in check once we get into the summer. The second-year quarterbacks may show signs of life, but there may be too much uncertainty with each to warrant drafting them.

Lastly, who’s on your radar as a favorite player to target next year?
Tyler Boyd, but hear me out before you laugh. I’m assuming I’ll get priced out of drafting either Ja’Marr Chase or Tee Higgins. I’ll take my shots on both and take Boyd multiple rounds later. My guess is they’ll land where folks were drafting the Rams’ wide receivers this year. His target share is up to 18.6%, and Cincinnati’s passing rate is on the rise to close out the regular season. If I can get a discounted piece of a productive offense, I’ll take it.

Injury Slants

The league adjusted the return-to-play protocol on Tuesday evening, allowing players without symptoms to return to work. The change doesn’t require a player to test negative, they just can’t appear sick, but it aligns with the latest CDC guidelines. Most teams are back to full strength with a few exceptions as a result. It makes our roster decisions a bit easier in such a critical week, but there are still injury storylines to follow over the next few days.

As always, let’s start with the players either injured during or announced out for Week 15. Most missed practice yesterday, and some are unlikely to play this week. However, we’ll be watching for any change in their status over the next few days.

A lengthy list, but John Daigle has you covered with waiver wire additions, and the blurb team will have constant injury updates as we head into the weekend. There are a couple of other injury situations to watch out for, but we did get some good news yesterday.

Elijah Mitchell hasn’t practiced, even in a limited fashion, since Week 12. His availability would give Kyle Shanahan some more options in the running game as he tries to figure out what to do with their passing offense. Regardless, his return is a welcome sight for real and fantasy purposes, which is also true for Detroit’s RB1.

Swift’s return might be fool’s gold for fantasy managers looking for help at running back. Last week, Swift got in limited practices but didn’t play a snap in Week 16. He’d be tough to trust in Week 17 unless he gets in multiple full sessions ahead of their matchup against the Seahawks. To make matters worse, Detroit might still have Tim Boyle under center with Jared Goff battling a knee injury. With Jamaal Williams and Craig Reynolds still getting snaps, it’ll be tough to project Swift for much production. Last up, we’ve got the Giants.

Their offense just can’t get right this year. Saquon Barkley expects to play, but he’ll be taking handoffs from Jake Fromm and Mike Glennon on Sunday. And Kadarius Toney now has another injury to add to his list of ailments from his rookie season. Hopefully, they can all get to the offseason “less”-scathed and field a better offense in 2022.