Accounting for NFL Schedule Uncertainty in the COVID-19 Era

Accounting for NFL Schedule Uncertainty in the COVID-19 Era

Just to be clear, an uncertain NFL schedule for the 2020 season is the least of society's many problems right now. Even I, football-crazed monster that I am, was so distracted by the more immediate concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic that I kind of forgot about how it all might impact the NFL — and thus my work — throughout the year.

Of course, there are only so many things one can do to fill time during a pseudo-quarantine, and it wasn't long before the best-ball drafts and dynasty startups came calling my name. Initially, I figured there was too much uncertainty surrounding the whole situation to even bother trying to figure out if/how the pandemic should impact my drafting strategy.

That's not to say we have anything approaching real certainty in the current moment, but it does at least seem clear that the lead up to the 2020 campaign will be anything but normal. While free agency and the draft are taking place on the originally scheduled dates, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to an indefinite ban of team offseason activities, which otherwise would've begun April 6 for teams with new head coaches and April 20 for all other teams.

Given the recent progression of events, I have a really difficult time imagining NFL practices taking place within the next couple months. The Bengals will be able to draft Joe Burrow on April 23, but it's hard to say if his first practice with the team will occur in June or August or later.

The league office has been optimistic, with Tom Pelissero reporting that the 2020 game schedule will be released no later than May 9, and NFL executive Jeff Pash saying he expects a full 16-game season that starts at the usual time in September (Pash did kind of admit he isn't actually sure about all that).

The NFL and NFLPA are now trying to figure out some kind of plan for a "virtual" offseason... whatever exactly that means. In the meantime, teams with new head coaches have been permitted to distribute electronic playbooks and other tech/video tools to help players. Soon enough, all teams will be able to send out playbooks and begin some form of online/phone discussion between coaches and players.

April 15 Update: The NFL and NFLPA have reached agreement on a voluntary offseason program beginning April 20. The league is also saying that no team will be able to do on-field work until every team is able to do so. Here are some of the details, via Nick Shook and Tom Pelissero of NFL.com:

Club facilities will only open in accordance with NFL protocols and federal, state and local rules and regulation, Pelissero added. Only if all 32 facilities can open will any of them open; otherwise, all will remain closed during the period.

The virtual period will consist of three consecutive weeks of classroom instruction, workouts and non-football educational programs using videoconferencing technology. An extra voluntary veteran camp will be available for new coaches, with the virtual period ending no later than May 15, per Pelissero.

Teams are permitted to send players workout equipment and monitoring devices – e.g. kettlebells, resistance bands, Apple watches, etc. – provided the cost for any individual player doesn't exceed $1,500, Pelissero added.

So, it's not like players and coaches are sitting at home doing nothing, but there are still a few different groups that may be impacted in a way that needs to be accounted for in early best-ball drafts and dynasty startups.

Rookies

This is the one that should be obvious, as rookies face a drastic transition in competition level and thus stand to benefit most from lining up against other NFL players in practice. Many also have the challenge of going from simplistic schemes to extremely complicated ones, suddenly expected to execute plays and formations that they've previously used only on Madden.

Sure, the pro game and college game have converged in a sense, both favoring formations with three or more wide receivers. The difference? Many college teams exclusively use these formations, while even the most spread-happy of NFL teams puts a fullback or a second tight end on the field at least 10 percent of the time. The Bengals didn't roster a fullback last year and led the league at 76 percent frequency of 11 personnel (3WR, 1 RB, 1TE), but even they still used 12 personnel (2 WR, 1 RB, 2 TE) on 18 percent of snaps.

Given the likelihood that the ongoing pandemic reduces the number of practices before Week 1, it feels appropriate to push rookies down a few spots lower than usual for best ball drafts. In any case, we've seen plenty of rookie running backs churn out big numbers in recent seasons, but at the other fantasy positions it's been rare for first-year players to venture beyond QB2, TE2 or WR3 territory. 

With that in mind, my current Top 100 for best ball drafts includes just one non-RB rookie — Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb at No. 96. It might sound harsh to have a player as talented as Jerry Jeudy outside the top 100, but even in a normal season it's no better than a 50/50 proposition for a highly drafted wideout to develop into a fantasy starter as a rookie.

Among the 18 WRs drafted with top-20 picks from 2010 to 2019, 11 finished their debut campaigns with fewer than 650 yards and five touchdowns (per PFR's play index). Even a generous assessment would determine only half produced at a level that warranted fantasy-lineup consideration in standard leagues, with Brandin Cooks (53-550-3 in 10 games) and arguably Kendall Wright (64-626-4) meeting that threshold.

The picture only gets uglier, as one might expect, if we expand the draft criteria from Top 20 to Top 64 — a change that puts DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel and A.J. Brown in the data set. Even with last year's standouts included, we're looking at a 77-player list where 21 guys reached 700 yards and seven made it to 1,000. Only 25 averaged double-digit PPR points, and just four of those averaged 15-plus.

I won't even bother with detailed numbers on rookie tight ends; just know that John Carlson's 627 yards in 2008 represents the third-best total this millennium. Things have gone slightly better for rookie QBs as fantasy contributors, with three in the past 20 years cracking 20 fantasy points per gameRobert Griffin, Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson — and nine others landing between 17.1 and 18.0 (usually low-end QB1 territory).

Players with New Coaches/Coordinators

Our second concern group is headlined by players that are changing teams, but it also includes — perhaps to a slightly lesser extent — those on teams that have hired new head coaches and/or offensive coordinators. The list this year consists of Carolina (both), Chicago (OC), Cleveland (both), Dallas (HC), Denver (OC), Houston (OC), Jacksonville (OC), LA Rams (OC), Miami (OC), Minnesota (OC), NY Giants (both) and Washington (both).

Among those teams, there are a few where I wouldn't worry as much — Chicago, Houston, LA Rams — because they're only changing coordinators and it's really the head coach that runs the offense. (Well, actually, I am kind of worried about those offenses, but it has nothing to do with the likelihood of an abbreviated spring/summer practice schedule.)

Then we have Dallas, where Mike McCarthy is replacing Jason Garrett in the head job but OC Kellen Moore presumably will maintain the foundation of his successful 2019 offense. Last but not least, the Vikings should have a reasonably easy transition from Kevin Stefanski to Gary Kubiak in the OC position, considering the latter was intimately involved last season under the title of 'assistant head coach and offensive advisor'.

That leaves us with the Panthers, Browns, Broncos, Jaguars, Dolphins, Giants and Redskins as the teams that are likely to be overhauling their offensive scheme/playbook this offseason. Miami, in particular, could be a double whammy, potentially relying on a bunch of rookies and other fresh faces (HB Jordan Howard, LG Ereck Flowers, C Ted Karras) to install a new offensive system. The chaos could work in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick making more starts, as opposed to Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jordan Love or whichever other QB the Dolphins draft. Fitzpatrick has already spent five years playing in Gailey's offenses, including a career-best 2015 campaign with the Jets.

Players Returning from Major Injuries

This one feels quite a bit more speculative, as we don't really know if the start of the regular season will be delayed. Still, it's at least worth accounting for the possibility, one that would give players like Jarvis Landry (hip) and Rashaad Penny (knee) more time to recover from surgery without missing games. 

If nothing else, they'll probably be missing out on less practice time, simply because there will be fewer NFL practices (if any) taking place this spring and summer. On the other hand, social-distancing measures may prevent some players from doing the usual rehab work with close supervision from team trainers and physicians.

Given the competing rehab/practice factors along with the distinct possibility the regular season begins at its usual time anyway, I haven't yet taken the step of moving injured players up or down my rankings based on any expectations for an altered NFL schedule. It's something to monitor in the coming months more so than anything that demands immediate adjustment.

In addition to Landry and Penny, players potentially facing lengthy rehab schedules this offseason include T.J. Hockenson (ankle), Chris Carson (hip), Will Dissly (Achilles), Preston Williams (knee), Alshon Jeffery (foot), Ben Roethlisberger (elbow), Mohamed Sanu (ankle), Evan Engram (foot) and Ryan Griffin (ankle).

Other Notes

  • The 2011 lockout provides precedent for a year without offseason programs. The lockout spanned mid-March to late July, ending just in time for the start of training camp and allowing all games besides the Hall of Fame Game to be played out on the usual schedule. Long-term trends working in favor of offenses continued that season, including post-merger highs for points per team game (22.2) and yards per team game (346.8) — both records that were broken again in 2012. In terms of injuries and the corresponding missed games, a study from Football Outsiders didn't find anything conclusive but did suggest, "It's more likely that the extra rest [in 2011] was helpful than harmful." The raw number of injuries was up a bit from 2010, but players missed fewer games. Neither number was anything out of the ordinary relative to historical averages and trends.
  • Second-year players may not be impacted as much as rookies, but I do think a reduced practice schedule will hurt young veterans more than older guys. Like so many other things in this world, the value of NFL practice time likely is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility. In other words, Joe Burrow's fifth NFL practice likely will be more important than his 500th.
  • A slew of NFL offenses stand out for maintaining continuity from last season in both coaching and player personnel: Kansas City, New Orleans, Baltimore, Buffalo, Vegas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and maybe Philadelphia (TBD). This list — mostly comprised of 2019 playoff teams — makes me wonder if an abbreviated offseason might expand the disparity between the haves and the have-nots?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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