Offseason Lowdown

New offensive coordinator analysis: AFC

by Denny Carter
Updated On: January 30, 2021, 11:52 am ET

It's the time of year when offensive coordinators are replenished as the ineffective OCs get the ax and effective ones get promotions. That turnover creates a never-ending cycle of fantasy speculation -- speculation in which I will happily participate. 

Below are some preemptive looks at new offensive coordinators in the AFC and what they might mean for fantasy football valuations in the coming months. Free agency and the NFL draft could, of course, void large swaths of this analysis. Nevertheless!

LA Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi 

I’ll try not to get bogged down analyzing the myriad failures of Lombardi’s first go-round as offensive coordinator. His stint in Detroit was -- not to be dramatic -- an unmitigated disaster. Under head coach Jim Caldwell in 2014, Lombardi botched his chance to rip opposing defenses with Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Golden Tate in their primes. He was unceremoniously dispatched after a wretched start to the 2015 season, failing to center the offense around Megatron -- who, for the zoomers, was a big, fast wideout who humiliated opponents in the 2010s -- and turning Stafford into Alex Smith

“I felt a strong run game, a good play-action passing game would have given (Stafford) some protection and allowed those receivers to get downfield,” Lombardi said after he was fired. “I thought (that) plan would be successful. Obviously, for whatever reason, whether it was a poor plan or not executed, it certainly didn’t work out the way we were hoping it would.”

Here’s to hoping the hard lessons from his disastrous stint in Detroit are fresh on Lombardi’s mind as he takes over an offense headed by a signal caller, Justin Herbert, coming off one of the great rookie campaigns in NFL history. Let us pray. 

Lombardi’s comments on how he’ll coach the LA offense have, so far, been short of terrible for fantasy purposes. He told reporters this week that an uptempo attack would be “a part of what we’re building here.” While it’s hardly a commitment to running a fast-paced, aggressive offense, it seems Lombardi and new head coach Brandon Staley are at least considering the upside of such an approach. Herbert thrived in 2020 with the Chargers leading the league in offensive snaps per game (70.4), driven in part by a defense that couldn’t stop anyone. More of the same with an offseason of further development for fantasy’s eighth highest scoring QB in 2020 could make Herbert the target for drafters who fade the first half dozen quarterbacks off the draft board. Even if his touchdown rate dips below his 2020 rate of 5.2 percent, Herbert should offer a sky-high yardage floor if the Bolts embrace the uptempo offensive approach Lombardi alluded to during his introductory presser. 

A fast-paced offense predicated on plenty of drop backs for Herbert could also make Mike Williams and Hunter Henry undervalued fantasy prospects in 2021. In Herbert’s 15 starts, Williams led the team in air yards by a wide margin while seeing a 14 percent target share. That Williams’ path to every-week starter status in 12-team leagues probably still hinges on an Allen injury shouldn’t dissuade fantasy players from using a later round pick on Williams -- especially in best ball formats and deeper leagues with multiple flex spots. The prospect of Williams missing two games for every one of his acrobatic downfield catches remains. 

Herbert’s propensity for targeting tight ends was a curiously under-discussed trend in 2020. Chargers tight ends combined for nine touchdowns and a 24 percent target share, with Henry naturally leading the pack with a 16 percent target share while missing three games. Lombardi and Staley letting Herbert cook -- apologies to Seahawks truthers -- could easily make Henry a value option in a draft season that will see two or three tight ends go in the first two rounds. 

Both Lombardi and Staley have talked up an analytics-driven approach to fourth down play calling and (presumably) run-pass splits -- an offensive strategy that would mark a dramatic departure from the Anthony Lynn-era Chargers. Then there’s this: Lombardi this week compared Austin Ekeler to Alvin Kamara, which might not be the most stunning comp considering Kamara might be the only pass-catching running back better than Ekeler. Lombardi comes from the Saints, where he watched Sean Payton utilize pass catchers out of the backfield better than any team in the league. Lest we forget, before Kamara became a PPR deity, Darren Sproles eclipsed 100 targets in back-to-back seasons for the Saints, piling up a combined 161 receptions in 2011-12. In 2007, Lombardi’s first year as an offensive assistant under Payton, Reggie Bush racked up 98 targets in 12 games (8.17 per game). This is a needlessly drawnout way of saying Lombardi comes from a rich tradition of force feeding pass catchers out of the backfield. Ekeler should continue as a PPR cheat code in 2021. 

I’m wary of drawing comparisons for how Lombardi treated Megatron in Detroit and how he might use Keenan Allen in LA since the similarities between Megatron and Allen end with both being human beings who play receiver in the NFL. Calvin Johnson -- who averaged four yards more per reception than Allen -- drew 128 targets in Lombardi’s offense, his fewest outside his rookie season. If Lombardi learns his lesson and Herbert continues to pepper Allen -- as he did throughout 2020 -- Allen should be among the safest wideouts in fantasy next season. Allen, after all, was seventh in expected fantasy points among wide receivers in Herbert’s rookie year, commanding a 27 percent target share despite missing two games and parts of others. He would have eclipsed a 30 percent target share with 16 healthy games. 

I agree with my younger and more handsome Rotoworld colleague, Hayden Winks, who predicted Staley and Lombardi would operate a pass-heavy offense and play to Herbert’s strengths -- the assumption of rational coaching, of course, being subject to reality. 

New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur 

The younger of the juggling LaFleur brothers has been under Kyle Shanahan’s tutelage since 2014 in Cleveland, most recently serving as the Niners’ passing game coordinator from 2019-2020. If he’s taken his longtime boss’s offensive approach to heart, he could be a boon for Jets skill position players, especially whoever gets the team’s lead-back role. 

Some would say it’s pointless to write about the Jets’ offense until we know if Deshaun Watson will get his (reported) wish and join the team. Others would agree. But I’ll give it a go. 

Shanahan’s offenses have traditionally leaned on the running attack in neutral and positive game script. The 49ers in 2020 had the 12th lowest pass rate in neutral and positive script, which was exceedingly rare for the injury-ravaged team. In 2019, the Niners sported the second lowest overall pass rate. In 2018, it was 10th lowest. You get it: LaFleur comes from a run-heavy tradition. That doesn’t mean the team won’t predicate its offense on Watson if he lands with the Jets, but with budding superstar left tackle Mekhi Becton, it’ll be well worth keeping tabs on who might lead the New York backfield in 2021. For now, La’Mical Perine, Frank Gore, Ty Johnson, and Josh Adams make up the team’s running back depth chart. After flashing in limited opportunity last year, Johnson -- signed through 2022 -- could be a name to monitor. 

Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing 

Downing gets the job vacated by Arthur Smith’s departure to Atlanta, where he’ll look to #establish with the Falcons. Downing, who has been the Titans’ tight end coach, inherits one of the run-heaviest offenses in the NFL, especially when game script is on the Titans’ side. Tennessee had the lowest pass rate in positive game script in 2019 and had the fourth lowest in 2020. Handing the ball to Derrick Henry when one has the lead is probably too tempting a formula from which to stray. I would expect Downing to maintain the Titans’ high-T offensive mentality in 2021.

This is Downing’s second shot as an OC after he was the Raiders’ coordinator in 2017. The Raiders that season had the league’s ninth lowest pass rate in neutral situations, averaging the third lowest offensive plays per game with a brutally slow-paced approach. Probably we can’t come to too many conclusions about Downing based on the Raiders’ 2017 personnel: young(ish) Derek Carr, completely washed Marshawn Lynch, and Michael Crabtree as the team’s WR1. Now he’ll work with Ryan Tannehill, Derek Henry, and A.J. Brown, who had flashes of utter dominance despite fighting through serious knee injuries in 2020. There’s little indication for now that Tennessee’s offense will change dramatically with Downing in charge. There likely won’t be enough pass volume to support more than one or two fantasy-relevant pass catchers in the Titans’ offense. 

Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady 

Brady comes into the Colts’ OC job with six years of coordinating experience in the CFL, where he coached before Frank Reich hired him. I think it’s a safe assumption that Reich will continue to call plays in 2021. That leaves little room for speculation of how Indy’s offense might change in the coming year. 

Whichever QB is under center for the Colts this season will have a quietly explosive surrounding cast, with Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines in the backfield and Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman catching passes, as T.Y. Hilton is as good as gone from Indianapolis. If the Colts’ infuriating three-man tight end rotation narrows this offseason, the position could prove valuable for fantasy purposes. Reich’s offense is theoretically friendly for tight ends, as evidenced by Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox (a restricted free agent), and Trey Burton (an unrestricted free agent) combining for a 27 percent target share in 2020. Indy tight ends had a collective target share of 32 percent in 2019. That’s … a lot. 

Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada

Canada, hired in what may be a blatant violation of the Rooney Rule by the Rooneys’ team, will take over the Pittsburgh offense after offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and line coach Shaun Sarrett were let go in January. 

Expect the Steelers to talk endlessly this offseason about establishing the run in 2021 after a season in which Pittsburgh had the second highest neutral pass rate (behind only Jacksonville). James Conner is going to test free agency and probably won’t be back with the Steelers, opening the backfield for a new lead back. Maybe that’s Anthony McFarland or Benny Snell -- whom Mike Tomlin praised vociferously late in the 2020 season -- or maybe it’s a rookie or free agent. Whoever gets the gig, expect them to get every chance to see volume in an offense that will look to atone for its pass-heavy sins of 2020 and run a more balanced offense, for better or worse. McFarland, by the bye, played under Canada at the University of Maryland and rushed for more than 1,000 yards. That familiarity might at least give McFarland a fleeting shot at being the guy, though no one would be shocked if the Steelers spend an early-round draft pick on a running back as a sacrifice to the Run Game Gods. 

Canada’s hire means the Steelers won’t have to learn a new offensive language in 2021. And there’s this from The Athletic’s Sean Gentille: “There’s going to be more motion and play action. No way around that; it’s why you hire Matt Canada.”

Gentille emphasized that Canada is considered an adaptable play caller, and the The Athletic’s Mike Kaboly said “Canada’s offense is all about creating confusion on the defensive side of the ball and allowing the offensive linemen to have better angles on blocks. His scheme should complement what Roethlisberger and the offense already do well.”

Ben Roethlisberger has already conceded to restructuring his massive contract to give it one more go with the Steelers. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s potential departure in free agency -- the team doesn’t seem all that into bringing back their slot receiver -- could create a narrow target tree for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, both of whom would benefit tremendously from another season with a pass-first approach. 

Gentille said Claypool could be further utilized as a rusher in Canada’s offense after he scored on two of his ten rushing attempts in 2020. Wideout Quadree Henderson, Gentille pointed out, had 631 yards on 60 rushes under Canada at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. I must include this disclaimer: Wide receiver rushing production is classic fantasy football fool’s gold. Don’t chase it. 

Jaguars offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell 

Urban Meyer’s exceptionally uninspiring offensive coordinator hire has a play calling history ten miles long (I printed it out, trust me). Five of Bevell’s offenses have finished the season as a top-ten scoring unit in his 15 years as an OC or head coach. Bevell’s offenses have been among the five run-heaviest in the league six times over his career, including three years in which his offenses ran the ball more than anyone. Drafting Trevor Lawrence probably doesn’t mean the Jags are going to #establish in 2021, but the trend is undeniable: Bevell is among the most conservative play callers in recent NFL history. 

Nevertheless, there is hope for the 2021 Jacksonville offense. Bevell’s 2019 Lions Offense was an aggressive, explosive unit that shredded opponents before Matthew Stafford suffered a season-ending back injury. Detroit had the league’s tenth highest neutral pass rate during Stafford’s nine-week run in 2019. Stafford was red hot, averaging 312.5 yards and throwing 19 touchdowns in eight games. With Meyer’s forward-thinking offensive tendencies, latter-day Bevell could plunge Lawrence head first into an aggressive passing attack. 

Bevell’s recent love affair with the long ball could be an excellent development for D.J. Chark. Headed into the 2020 season, Bevell's offenses averaged the sixth highest deep ball rate among current NFL play callers, per 4for4’s TJ Hernandez. Chark, a downfield ball hawk, had the second highest average depth of target among wideouts who averaged at least seven targets per game in 2020, according to Hernandez. Chark also led the team with a 20 percent air yards share. While he probably won’t see the volume necessary to become a fantasy WR1, his usage in a Meyer/Bevell offense with Lawrence under center could make Chark a no-brainer WR2 -- unless, of course, the team signs a superior free agent wideout. 

Unless James Robinson continues to operate as the preeminent workhorse back, he’s not going to return value in 2021. The chances of the Jaguars failing to upgrade their backfield this offseason are about the same as me embracing the Robust RB draft strategy. The team moving on from Chris Thompson should further boost Robinson’s early-offseason average draft position. Beware.