Teams Establishing the Pass in the Red Zone
We want the good stuff, the high-value stuff, the opportunities for touchdowns near that sweet, sweet end zone.
Knowing which NFL teams establish the pass inside the 20 yard line can sometimes serve as a tiebreaker between two players with similar statistical profiles. A team’s red zone pass rate should hardly be the deciding factor for how we view a player’s fantasy prospects, though it can help us tell a story about a guy’s path to touchdown upside.
Even in PPR formats, touchdowns matter. They matter a lot, in fact. Below are teams that most frequently passed the ball in the red zone last season, with analysis in tow.
My guess is that you did not lose consciousness upon reading the above numbers and realizing teams with good quarterbacks tend to throw the ball more inside the 20 yard line. You are upright and conscious and, like me, you’re wondering how the Titans and Texans and Saints are among the above teams.
Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid‘s offense is perennially at or near the top of the NFL’s red zone pass rate, even without the greatest QB to ever play. With Patrick Mahomes, Reid has aired it out near the end zone paint, and that did not change in 2022. In fact, the trend accelerated, with Mahomes averaging 7.24 red zone pass attempts per game. Kirk Cousins was a distant second with 5.83 red zone passes per contest.
Things get even juicier for fantasy purposes inside the ten yard line for Reid’s offense. Mahomes in 2022 logged 73 pass attempts inside the ten -- otherwise known as the green zone -- or 20 more than any other quarterback. Twenty-nine of Mahomes’ 41 touchdowns last season came inside the ten, as he peppered Travis Kelce and KC running backs on short tosses.
This is how, you might guess, Jerick McKinnon and the rest of the Chiefs backfield kept getting away with it, much to the chagrin of DFS GPP bros who know about a little something called regression. That receiving touchdown regression never came for McKinnon in 2022: Nine of his 56 receptions went for touchdowns, with all nine coming on his 11 green zone targets. Chiefs running backs last year combined for a remarkably high 17 inside-the-ten targets. Kelce, meanwhile, led all pass catchers with 19 green zone looks, seven more than he saw in 2021 and six more than he had in 2020.
Kansas City last year was sixth in first down pass rate inside the 20. They are more committed than any team in establishing the pass as the field shrinks near the end zone. Whichever KC running back takes on the primary pass-catching role is likely going to keep getting away with it because Reid’s backs are targeted heavily in the green zone by design. There is no accident here.
The Vikings may be a preeminent Super Bowl pretender under Kevin O’Connell, but they completely ignored the run last year in the red zone. So we have that going for us, which is nice.
The Vikings, Bucs, and Chiefs were in a tier of their own in red zone passing last season. Cousins was second behind Mahomes in both attempts inside the 20 and inside the 10. Twenty-three of his 29 touchdown passes came inside the red zone as O’Connell aired it out. It paid off nicely for Justin Jefferson, who tied Kelce for the league lead with 19 targets in the green zone -- ten more than he saw in 2021. Continued commitment to passing where it counts for Minnesota will play a factor in keeping Jefferson’s statistical ceiling somewhere north of the stratosphere.
This could also pay off handsomely for T.J. Hockenson, who last year was third among all tight ends in red zone looks (18). Five of his six regular season touchdowns came on those red zone opportunities. Profiling as the safest tight end selection outside Kelce and Mark Andrews, Hockenson might have some unrealized touchdown upside in his range of outcomes.
Running the ball on a meager 37 percent of your red zone snaps, of course, limits opportunity for Dalvin Cook -- or whoever serves as the team’s lead back in 2023. Cook last season averaged just 1.4 red zone rushes per game, well behind league leaders Jamaal Williams and Joe Mixon. The Vikings last year had the ninth highest first down run rate, for whatever that’s worth.
Maybe Damien Harris’ chances for a double-digit touchdown season aren’t as clear cut as first thought. Unless, that is, you buy into all the talk of Josh Allen becoming a quarterback first and a football player second (translation: Sean McDermott is freaked out by Allen’s bull rushes near the end zone).
Buffalo was fifth in red zone pass attempts in 2022 and Allen accounted for 15 of the team’s 36 rushes inside the ten yard line. He led the Bills with 11 rushes inside the five yard line. In 2021, Allen had three fewer inside-the-five rushes than team leader Devin Singletary. If you think the Bills can coach the red zone aggressiveness out of their star QB, I suppose Harris could see a glut of high-value carries in 2023. Count me skeptical.
Tampa Bay Bucs
You can all but guarantee Tampa will backslide in red zone pass rate in the post-Brady era. Hyper-conservative head coach Todd Bowles will want to establish the run like it’s 1957, and for good reason, with Kyle Trask and Baker Mayfield likely to rotate as starting quarterback depending on who is playing slightly less-bad at the time.
A more balanced or run-first approach in the red zone would be decidedly bad news for Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Evans, for one, has an astounding 24 touchdowns on 36 green zone targets since the start of the 2020 season, when Tom Brady arrived in Tampa. It’s downright frightening how inconsistent Evans could be for fantasy purposes without a healthy serving of inside-the-ten passes from Brady. It would not be surprising to see the Bucs among the teams with the three or four lowest red zone pass rates in 2023.
Green Bay Packers
Jordan Love‘s path to touchdown-based upside in 2023 could get a lot easier should Matt LaFleur continue his aggressive style inside the 20. Not only have the Packers been among the pass-heaviest teams in the red zone since LaFleur took over as head coach, but last year Green Bay ranked eighth in first down pass rate inside the 20. LaFleur knows what’s up. He’s an analytics nerd at heart.
Aaron Rodgers was fourth in red zone pass attempts in both 2020 and 2021, peppering Davante Adams at a healthy clip and scoring touchdowns in the process. If Packers coaches truly trust Love the way they say they do, Love could inherit a fantasy-friendly system that forces the pass where it counts the most. A big-bodied target like rookie TE Luke Musgrave -- widely expected to function as the team’s primary pass-catching tight end this season -- could be a beneficiary of continued passing in the red and green zones.
Sean McVay continued winging the ball inside the 20 even as Matthew Stafford missed time and the team fell apart after Cooper Kupp -- their only good player -- suffered a season-ending injury in Week 10.
The Rams have been pass-heavy inside the red zone during the entirety of McVay’s head coaching tenure. It might be why the team has been so effective when they get near paydirt. Raw red zone pass attempts were way down for the Rams in 2022, but only four teams had a higher red zone pass rate and only nine teams had a higher first down pass rate inside the 20.
Way back in 2021 -- if you’re old enough to remember -- Stafford logged a league-leading 64 attempts inside the ten yard line, throwing 26 of his 41 touchdowns in the green zone. That worked out for Kupp, who in 2021 led all pass catchers in red zone targets (46) and green zone looks (22). Kupp was force fed inside the 20 -- a key part of the formula that made him that year’s runaway WR1. LA’s entire red zone offense was based on strategizing ways to get Kupp open in the short areas of the field. If that continues in 2023, Kupp should be one of the safest wideout selections in fantasy.
Cam Akers and the rest of the Rams’ running backs would naturally miss out on high-value red and green zone carries if McVay continues throwing the ball near the end zone.
The Rams in 2021 had a lowly 16 running back rushes inside the five yard line. For context, five running backs that season had more than 16 carries inside the five. McVay has never been one to try to slam it into the paint from a few yards out, and there’s not much reason to believe that will change in 2023.