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Targeting Players Based on Game Script

By Kirk Hollis | 8/24/22

Most experienced fantasy football managers understand the concept of game script, but many don’t consider it enough when putting together their team on draft day.

For those not fully familiar with the term, game script or game flow ultimately refers to the score differential at any point in the game and this margin often determines fantasy output for players at all positions.

When an NFL team gets up 21-0 in the second quarter, there is a tendency from that point on to utilize the run and avoid mistakes that would allow the other team to get back in the game. It’s a “positive game script” for the team in the lead.

Example: If the Vikings are up 21-0 early in the 2nd quarter, Dalvin Cook would likely benefit the most moving forward. Flipping that script, however (Vikings down 21-0), puts Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen in line for a big second half as the Vikings are looking to play catch-up by throwing the ball more and thus rack up catches and yards as a by-product.

Utilizing game script likelihoods is something I would highly recommend as a draft modality, but like all considerations, ground rules are needed. Here are a few of those ground rules to keep in mind:

1. Running Backs on Winning Teams Carry Less Risk than Losing Teams

Teams that often play with a lead are great teams to target when searching for fantasy running backs. These are typically teams with well above average quarterbacks and/or outstanding defenses that create lots of turnovers. Elite NFL QBs that can stake their teams to big early leads include the likes of Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr, Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray. Being a running back on one of the teams with these quarterbacks doesn’t correlate precisely with fantasy success (read on), but it’s a great place to start.

Conversely, running backs on teams that fall behind early get quickly into a “negative game script” and become high risk for falling flat, fantasy-wise. The exception to that would be a high-volume reception friendly RB who will accumulate catches and yards no matter what. Those players, however, are few and far between.

2. QB-RB Correlation Doesn’t Matter Much if the Defense is Poor

This is something we touched on above. In order for running backs to thrive, they need their teams to establish a lead and be able to hold on to it. When teams are unable to do that, it creates a “shoot-out” game. From a fantasy perspective, shoot-out games are great for QB, WR, and TE production as offenses continue to be aggressive throughout the game in an effort to out-point opponents.

That said, RB production is typically minimized in a shoot-out, at least from the standpoint of carries and yards. There is some benefit in terms of greater touchdown opportunity, but altogether you would prefer to have top tier running backs who play on teams that play from ahead and create defensive stops.

D'Andre Swift

3. Take Note of Team Defense Projections Before You Draft

So, which defenses last season allowed 24 points or more per game to opponents?

There were 10:
  • New York Jets: 29.6
  • Detroit Lions: 27.5
  • Los Angeles Chargers: 27.0
  • Atlanta Falcons: 27.0
  • Jacksonville Jaguars: 26.9
  • Houston Texans: 26.6
  • Las Vegas Raiders: 25.8
  • Washington Commanders: 25.5
  • Minnesota Vikings: 25.1
  • New York Giants: 24.5
Let’s analyze this a bit. The only elite quarterbacks whose defenses don’t support them well based on these numbers are Justin Herbert and perhaps Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins.

In the case of Herbert, it underscores why he is so valuable in fantasy football. He produces elite offensive numbers – yes - but he does so often in conjunction with his defense also giving up lots of points. This creates a lot of “shoot-outs”. The Chargers, realizing this about themselves, sought to beef up their defense this offseason with the additions of Khalil Mack and Derwin James. That could create better game scripts for Austin Ekeler this season, although his usage on passing downs makes him somewhat bulletproof when it comes to those scripts.

The data above also suggests that RBs like Breece Hall, D’Andre Swift, James Robinson, Brian Robinson Jr., and Saquon Barkley carry some risk. They play on teams that get behind early, thus limiting their touches moving forward.

The data is also the reason why Swift is valued above Josh Jacobs by most re-drafters. Detroit plays from behind (a lot), but Swift is built to still score points in spite of that as he averages roughly 5 catches a game and had two receiving scores in 2021. Jacobs, on the other hand, is involved frequently in “shoot-out” scripts which create fewer opportunities. As a receiving back, he catches about 3.5 balls a game and had no receiving TDs in 2021. In the case of Swift vs. Jacobs, probable game scripts become the primary reason for their difference in value.

4. Continuing with the Need for Defense-Based Projections…

Just as there are ten teams who allowed 24 points or more per game in 2021, there were also six teams who gave up less than 21 points. They were:
  • Buffalo Bills: 17.0
  • New England Patriots: 17.8
  • Denver Broncos: 18.9
  • New Orleans Saints: 19.7
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 20.8
  • Tennesse Titans: 20.8
Diving more deeply into this, you have three teams who stand out that prefer a game script that involves plenty of rushing backed by good defense. Those three would be the Patriots, Titans, and Saints. All three ranked in the top eight in rushing attempts last year and projecting numbers for guys like Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara have this game script in mind.

In the case of the Patriots, they prefer the same script, but utilize such a diverse committee of runners that value ceilings for all of their running backs are capped.

Similarly, the Bills get into positive game scripts for running backs, but Josh Allen’s unique role in that offense as both passer and rusher limits the ceilings of Devin Singletary and James Cook.

Further, one reason that fantasy football fans were so excited about Javonte Williams when Russell Wilson signed, was that Wilson would have the ability to lead Denver to points early and then a stingy defense could work on holding that lead while Williams took advantage of the positive game flow. The re-signing of Melvin Gordon changed that some and the fact that AFC West games may end up all being “shoot-outs” no matter how good the defenses are, cools expectations for Williams some.

As for Tampa Bay, their data projects lots of rushing opportunities, but they had the second fewest carries in the entire league last season. Translation: Tom Brady does what Tom Brady wants to do. He is thus the kryptonite to all theories regarding game scripts.

5. So, Who are Candidates to Become Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson?

Say what? Why are we talking about Bortles in the summer of 2022? Because constant negative game scripts made Blake Bortles the QB4 in fantasy football in 2015 as he amassed nearly 4,500 yards and 35 TDs based on always playing from behind.

That year, Robinson was the largest beneficiary of game scripts as a wide receiver having his career year on a really bad NFL team. Bortles won a lot of games for fantasy managers in in 2015 (he was also top-10 in 2016), but few remember him as fantasy elite. Candidates for this season to be Bortles-like based on scripting would be:
Throw in corresponding wide receivers like Elijah Moore, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Christian Kirk, and Brandin Cooks and you’ve got a good list of guys whose numbers will benefit from the negative game scripts affiliated with their teams. That makes them all solid draft targets even if TD numbers aren’t what they might be on a better team. Then again, Bortles threw for 35 TDs in 2015, so even that’s called into question.

One person who won’t be this year’s Allen Robinson? That would be Allen Robinson given that for the first time in his career, he’s playing for a team with the likelihood of positive game scripts. Good for him.

This gives you another angle to chew on heading into your drafts these next couple of weekends. Fantasy football, after all, is about more than just who are the most talented players. It’s about the narrative established within the actual games in which they play. So, draft away and best of luck as you consider all facets of fantasy football strategy.

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