Senior analyst Michael Fabiano breaks down the fantasy history & potential of the AFC West’s coaches & offensive coordinators
These days, there’s no shortage of information to prepare for your fantasy drafts. Heck, there might even be too much info! Well, I’m going to add to the madness by looking at how offensive coordinators and head coaches have run their offenses and what it might mean for the 2021 season. After all, the coaches and OCs are the minds behind the chess game that is the National Football League. Some coaches like to run the football, thus producing a ton of fantasy points at the running back position. Others prefer the air assault, making fantasy heroes out of quarterbacks while loading up wide receivers and tight ends with oodles of targets and chances to score points in the passing attack.
Well, this article will break it all down for you.
We’ve already looked at the AFC East, AFC North, and AFC South, so let’s continue the series with the AFC North. What you’ll find below are each team’s current head coaches and offensive coordinators. I’ll discuss which positions have thrived or failed based on past statistics and fantasy finishes during their respective tenures in the league.
Head coach: Vic Fangio (2019-present)
Offensive Coordinator: Pat Shurmur (2020-present)
Shurmur has been a head coach or offensive coordinator in 12 seasons, and he’s never had a top-10 quarterback. His best finishers have been Nick Foles (QB11, 2013), Case Keenum (QB14, 2017), and Eli Manning (QB17, 2018). The same scenario is likely this season, as Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock will battle to open as the starter. I like Bridgewater in this competition, but neither quarterback is worth more than a late flier.
The running back position has had far more success, as Shurmur has had five top 10s and 10 top 20s. Of course, the list of players to accomplish these feats is impressive, including Saquon Barkley, LeSean McCoy, Steven Jackson, Melvin Gordon, and DeMarco Murray. Shurmur has mostly preferred to use a featured back in the past, but he has also used committees. In 2015 with the Eagles, he shared the workload between Murray, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles. He did the same thing with the Vikings the following season, sharing the workload between Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata when the team lost Adrian Peterson. The Broncos are likely to open this season with Gordon atop the depth chart, but a committee with second-rounder Javonte Williams is almost a guarantee. Neither back is more than a flex starter in most redrafts.
Shurmur’s offenses have seen just two top-10 fantasy wideouts, Adam Thielen (WR8) in 2017 and Jeremy Maclin (WR9) in 2014. What’s more, just four receivers have ever hit the 1,000-yard mark. The last to do it was Odell Beckham Jr. (2018). Maclin is also the lone wideout to score double-digit touchdowns under Shurmur, though receivers have had at least eight scores seven times. With a crowded core of wideouts, including the likes of Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, don’t expect anyone to return elite value.
At tight end, Shurmur has produced four top-10 finishers among Zach Ertz (2015), Kyle Rudolph (2016-2017), and Noah Fant (2020). The return of Sutton from an injured knee will split the target pie up more this season, but Fant will remain a top-10 tight end.
READ MORE: Denver Broncos Fantasy Team Outlook
Kansas City Chiefs
HC: Andy Reid (2013-present)
OC: Eric Bieniemy (2018-present)
Reid has been around for what seems like forever, so let’s focus on his time in Kansas City with Bieniemy. Mahomes has finished no worse than QB7 in the last three seasons, and he missed two games that year. He’ll be the first field general picked in 2021 drafts. In all, Reid has been the coach for a total of 11 top-10 finishes among quarterbacks.
Reid’s running backs have been fantasy-friendly for the most part, as he’s coached 12 top-12 finishers in his career. Another six players ranked between RB13-RB22. Over the last three years, however, Kansas City hasn’t had a top-10 fantasy back. Kareem Hunt would have hit that mark in 2018, but he was released after 11 contests. Clyde Edwards-Helaire finished as the RB22 as a rookie, but he was on pace to be a top-12 back in the first six games before the team signed Le’Veon Bell. He has the skills to be a productive back in this offense, so he’ll be a top-30 pick in most fantasy redrafts.
The wide receivers haven’t been as fruitful under Reid, however. While his offense has been beneficial to the likes of Tyreek Hill and Terrell Owens, that duo makes up for 50 percent of the top-20 fantasy wideouts Reid has coached in his career. Two of the other five came from DeSean Jackson. Since he and Bieniemy took over in Kansas City, the team hasn’t had a wideout other than Hill finish better than WR50 in fantasy points. That doesn’t bode well for Mecole Hardman or any other Chiefs receiver not named Hill.
Reid’s offenses have benefitted from having talented tight ends, none more so than Travis Kelce. He’s finished first in fantasy points in each of his last five seasons. Reid has also coached other top-10 tight ends like Brent Celek, Chad Lewis, and L.J. Smith.
READ MORE: Kansas City Chiefs Fantasy Team Outlook
Las Vegas Raiders
HC: Jon Gruden (2018-present)
OC: Greg Olson (2018-present)
Gruden has coached Rich Gannon to three top-3 finishes at the position, but those are the lone ranks better than QB12 he’s produced in his career. Derek Carr is coming off a QB13 finish last year, and it’s the best he’s had under Gruden since he took over the reins. Carr will remain on the QB2 radar, but last season might have been his ceiling.
Running backs have thrived in Gruden’s offense, however. Ricky Watters had three top-6 finishes from 1995-1997, and others like Josh Jacobs (2020), Earnest Graham (2007), and Charlie Garner (2001) have ranked in the top-10. Backs have finished RB15-RB23 on six other occasions. Gruden has preferred to use a featured back over the years, but that scenario is unlikely to continue since the Raiders added Kenyan Drake. Now with Jacobs and Drake in the backfield, it’s tough to see either being more than an RB2 this season. Jacobs is the more attractive of the two, but neither is worth a top-30 selection.
Gruden’s system has produced a total of seven top-10 fantasy finishes among wideouts, while another five have finished WR12-WR20. However, the best receiver he’s coached in his second tenure with the Raiders is Nelson Agholor. He finished WR34 last season. The Raiders don’t have a true No. 1 wideout on their roster, and Gruden’s current trend with receivers puts a cap on the value of John Brown, Henry Ruggs, or Bryan Edwards.
The tight end position has thrived under Gruden in recent seasons. Darren Waller has produced a pair of top-three finishes in the last two years, and Jared Cook ranked fifth at the position in 2018. Waller will remain a top-three tight end in redrafts this season.
READ MORE: Las Vegas Raiders Fantasy Team Outlook
Los Angeles Chargers
HC: Brandon Staley (2021)
OC: Joe Lombardi (2021)
Staley comes from a defensive background, so let’s focus on what Lombardi will bring to the offense. He learned a lot from Sean Payton and working with Drew Brees as the quarterbacks coach in New Orleans (2009-2013, 2016-2020), though his first stint as an offensive coordinator with the Lions (2014-2015) didn’t work out. Matthew Stafford put up an average of fewer than 16 fantasy points per game under Lombardi, and that was with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate both in the prime of their respective careers. Lombardi said the Chargers want to run an aggressive offense with Justin Herbert at the helm, and the signal-caller will remain a top-10 fantasy quarterback in most redrafts.
Lombardi has compared Austin Ekeler to Alvin Kamara, so don’t be surprised to see a major role for Ekeler this season. Remember, Payton liked to target his running backs (Kamara, Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles) a ton in the passing game. During Lombardi’s one-plus seasons in Detroit, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick combined for 111 receptions. If Ekeler avoids injuries, he should see plenty of targets and bring back top-15 value.
At wide receiver, Megatron finished as the WR16 in his one full season under Lombardi. However, he missed three games and averaged a solid 17.4 points per game. He also averaged 16.6 points in the games Lombardi coached in 2015 before being fired. Tate had a WR11 finish in 2014 but averaged just 10.2 points under Lombardi in 2015. The Bolts don’t have a dynamic duo at receiver, so look for Keenan Allen to continue to lead the team in targets by a mile. He has a nice rapport with Herbert, and it showed in 2020.
Lombardi’s offense in Detroit saw Eric Ebron targeted almost six times per game during the 2015 season. Herbert liked to throw to his tight ends last season (24 percent target share), but that is likely to decrease somewhat with Hunter Henry no longer on the roster. Veteran Jared Cook will replace him, but he’s more of a late-round No. 2 option.
READ MORE: Los Angeles Chargers Fantasy Team Outlook
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!