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Unexpected Points: Miami, Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland

Tua Tagovailoa

Tua Tagovailoa

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

I spend untold hours during the NFL season sifting through expected points added (EPA) data, seeking real-life NFL difference makers that could translate to fantasy success.

Determining which offenses (and players) are most efficient has become commonplace in the fantasy analyst’s process -- a critical part of spotting trends and getting ahead of incoming fantasy value shifts. How can EPA (first introduced by a Bengals quarterback in 1970) help us with this? For the uninitiated, here’s a quick breakdown of what EPA measures and how it’s calculated, courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Expected Points Added (EPA) is a measure of success which defines the value of each play by the effect it has on the offense’s likelihood to score. For every play, EPA is attributed equally to both teams, and the metric is fairly reliable in identifying the best teams in football. It is common practice to discuss EPA on a per-play basis (EPA / Play), so that the stat is normalized for any disparity in total plays run. Foundationally, EPA is the difference in Expected Points before and after each play. Expected points is an estimate of how many points a team will score on a drive, given the current situation (Down, Distance, Time Remaining, etc.). Intuitively, as a team gets closer to its opposing end zone, the higher the expected points of the drive.

Below are some broad-brush takeaways from EPA data compiled during the 2022 NFL season, with observations on the Dolphins, Lions, Browns, and Ravens. I think the offseason fantasy football content consumer can connect the dots between these data points and how players should be valued in early best ball drafts and more traditional seasonal drafts coming up in the summer.

The Dolphins Were #Elite

Mike McDaniel‘s Miami offense likely would have been the league’s best if not for Tua Tagovailoa‘s brain injuries. It wouldn’t have been top-five or top-three. It (probably) would have been the best in expected points added.

From Week 1-3, before Tua’s first concussion, the Dolphins led all NFL offenses in EPA per play. From Week 7-16, they were fifth in EPA per play -- and that includes Tua’s Christmas Day meltdown against Green Bay following his second (third?) brain injury. McDaniels’ offense in 2022 showed to be as resilient as Kyle Shanahan‘s: Miami finished seventh in drop back EPA despite Tua’s injuries and Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson under center for stretches of the season.

It was Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle -- who accounted for 58 percent of the team’s targets and 68 percent of the air yards -- who reaped the benefits of McDaniel’s uber-efficient offensive system, predicated on high-percentage, middle-of-the-field throws and the occasional, well-timed deep shot. Their combined pass-game domination makes Waddle and Hill draftable together -- a rarity in fantasy.

For a guy known for his fluttering, duck-like long ball, Tagovailoa was quite effective on downfield passes in 2022. He led all QBs in yards per attempt on throws of at least 20 yards downfield, and his 54.5 percent completion rate on said throws was (by far) the highest in the NFL. I don’t know how this is possible (it could have something to do with Hill being the best receiver in modern NFL history). Whether it was Tua or the McDaniels offense, I -- along with the army of Tua skeptics -- tucked my tail between my legs after the 2022 season. I was wrong. Only Patrick Mahomes had a higher adjusted EPA per play than Tagovailoa last season, and a mere six quarterbacks had a better success rate.

Tua thrived in McDaniel’s offense and should be valued accordingly in 2023 fantasy drafts.

Our Lions Established The Roar

Led by muscular, highly-caffeinated Analytics King Dan Campbell, Our Lions were an elite offense in the second half of the 2022 season by any measure. Campbell’s commitment to maximize points -- separating him from his hyper-conservative peers -- helped Detroit lead the NFL in EPA per play from Week 9 to Week 18 last season.

They achieved this with Jared Goff at quarterback and with one of the league’s worst rushing attacks, which posted the 10th lowest EPA per play from Week 9-18. Operating in a fantasy-friendly system designed to set up easier throws for a QB lacking a rocket arm, Goff led all quarterbacks in adjusted EPA per drop back in the season’s second half. Combine completion rate over expected and EPA per play -- a more wholistic measure of a signal caller’s efficiency -- and Goff ranked third behind Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow in that ten-week span.

Goff was stunningly good through much of last season. In Detroit’s white-hot second half run, no QB had a higher expected completion rate. Combine that with a marked increase in adjusted yards per attempt -- Goff’s A/YA jumped from 6.6 in 2021 to 8 in 2022 -- and you get a quarterback who can be an every-week starter in 12-team formats. A full offseason for downfield burner Jameson Williams will add an entirely new element to the Lions offense in 2023, and give Goff a much-needed big play threat who could (should) open up things underneath for superb slot man Amon-Ra St. Brown.

This all changes, of course, if the Lions take a quarterback in the first round of the NFL Draft and ditch Goff as a long-term option.

The Good And The Bad For The Ravens

That no NFL team is interested in acquiring Lamar Jackson shouldn’t obscure how good he was in the first half of the 2022 season. Through the air and on the ground, a bulked-up Jackson was an EPA machine during the season’s first six weeks. Only the Bills, Eagles, and Chiefs posted a higher EPA per play during that stretch, and only six teams had a higher EPA per play than the Ravens before Jackson’s season-ending Week 13 injury against the Broncos.

That per play efficiency tanked in the season’s final six weeks with Tyler Huntley under center for Baltimore. The Ravens offense posted the league’s seventh lowest EPA per play during that span. Huntley, meanwhile, had the second worst EPA per drop back among qualifying quarterbacks in the season’s last month and a half. A mere six QBs had a worse completion rate over expected than Huntley, who was also among the worst starters of the 2021 season.

It’s tough to believe the Ravens, with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, are going to head into the 2023 season with Huntley as the unquestioned Week 1 starter. I suppose they could get Jackson back at some point. Maybe.

The Browns (with Jacoby Brissett) Were Shockingly Good

In fiddling with EPA data over the past few days, nothing made me do a triple take like the Browns’ per-play efficiency. With Jacoby Brissett under center for the season’s first 11 weeks, Cleveland ranked sixth in EPA per play and ninth in offensive success rate. They were good. Who knew?

The Browns offense curdled with Deshaun Watson and his $230 million in guarantees under center. Cleveland ranked 25th in EPA per play with Watson dropping back over the season’s final month and a half; they were barely better than the Jets and Saints. Watson was 25th in adjusted EPA per play in 2022, in line with Huntley and Mike White.

This could be interpreted a few ways: Cleveland’s offensive scheme -- rumored to change dramatically in 2023 -- did not fit Watson’s strengths; Brissett is actually good and could be a massive upgrade for Washington in 2023; or (and?) Kevin Stefanski knows what he’s doing.

Watson, with more three and four-receiver sets and more opportunity to ad lib like he did in Houston, will be set up well to exploit defenses afraid of Nick Chubb (as a licensed fantasy football analyst, I’m legally required to tell you he is the Best Pure Rusher In Football). Cleveland posted the NFL’s fifth highest EPA per rush in 2022. Before Watson took over, they were third. Stefanski’s offense has proven, at worst, highly efficient: The Browns are ninth in EPA per play since the start of the 2020 season, Stefanski’s first as head coach.

Brissett, meanwhile, was outstanding relative to expectation. Only three quarterbacks had a better completion rate over expected and only nine QBs had a higher EPA per play than Brissett from Week 1-11. I think he’s a good bet to beat out Sam Howell for Week 1 starting duties in Washington -- no matter what beat writers say -- and could be a fantasy boon for Terry McLaurin and the rest of the Commanders’ pass catchers.