The Tennessee Titans have been a team at the forefront of my curiosity the past couple of weeks. An organization which saw a 31-year-old quarterback play the best ball of his entire career, a workhorse running back bulldoze over opponents on his way to 400+ touches (playoffs included), and a rookie wide receiver put together an extremely impressive first season with insane efficiency have captured the imaginations of many fantasy owners. Will Tannehill and the offense as a whole regress significantly? If the efficiency suffers, will the volume increase for the passing game? What can we expect in 2020?
Red Flag #1 - Passing Volume
Typically the top-scoring quarterbacks in fantasy rely on passing yards to accrue points, which come from pass attempts (duh). Over the last three seasons, there have been five instances where a top-5 fantasy quarterback finished in the bottom-half of the league in pass attempts and/or passing yards. Those five outliers include 2017 Carson Wentz (2nd in NFL in touchdowns, first in TD%), 2017 Cam Newton (750 rushing yards, six touchdowns), 2018 and 2019 Deshuan Watson (400+ rushing yards each season, 5 and 7 rushing touchdowns, respectively), and 2019 Lamar Jackson (1206 rushing yards, seven touchdowns). Outside of the four dual threats and extremely efficient Wentz, the rest of the sample set finished no worse than 9th in passing yards and 13th in passing attempts in their top-5 season.
The chart above simply reiterates the findings from Fade the Noise analyst, Blake Hampton. Looking at a number of variables, he found that Passing Yards per Game and Attempts per Game had the highest correlation to fantasy points per game for quarterbacks.
Seeing as Tannehill averaged 27 pass attempts per game in Weeks 7-17, his pace puts him at 432 pass attempts over 16 games. This would have ranked 26th in the NFL in 2019. The Titans went 7-3 in Tannehill's regular season starts, then beat both New England and Baltimore in the playoffs while ratcheting down the pass attempts to only 7.5 per game in two wins. No, Tannehill will not be attempting less than ten passes a game in 2020, but I don't see why the Titans would not continue with their blueprint of riding Derrick Henry to as many victories as possible. Tannehill is unlikely to finish in the top-half of the league in pass attempts or passing yards, and lacking substantial rushing upside means he is unlikely to be a top-fantasy quarterback in 2020.
Red Flag #2 - Passing Efficiency (Yards Per Attempt)
If Tannehill will not be throwing the ball 30-35 times per game, he would need to rely on efficiency to put up fantasy-relevant numbers. This is precisely what happened in his ten game stretch as the starter in 2019, as he was first in the NFL in yards per attempt (Y/A) for the season (9.6). Tannehill's 9.6 Y/A was tied with 2018's Ryan Fitzpatrick as the highest number to finish a season since 2015. On average, the top-5 quarterbacks in Y/A yearly put up a 8.3 Y/A, a number Tannehill easily eclipsed. There have been nine quarterbacks to produce at least 8.3 Y/A from 2015-2018, and all nine saw a decrease in their Y/A the following season, by an average of 1.1%.
Red Flag #3 - Passing Efficiency (Touchdown Percentage)
In his wildly productive 2019 season, Tannehill finished second in the NFL in touchdown percentage (TD%) at 7.7%. Since 2015, 75% of the quarterbacks who finished top-5 in TD% saw a decrease the following season, with an average difference of -1.6%. The falloff the next season was even more drastic in those with a TD% of at least 7%, as they finished an average of 2.9% lower in that category. Assuming Tannehill's TD% drops anywhere between 1.6% - 2.9%, and he is only attempting ~432 pass attempts, Tannehill may be looking at anywhere from 21-26 touchdowns instead of the 33 he was on pace for last season.
Red Flag #4 - 2019 Strength of Schedule
While strength of schedule is somewhat overblown when looking ahead and trying to project players, it can be useful when comparing past production against stronger foes. In Tannehill's ten regular season starts, only three came against defenses ranked in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency (Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and New Orleans). In those games, the Titans quarterback only averaged 215 passing yards, compared to 279 yards against bottom half defensive squads. This trend continued into the playoffs, as Tannehill averaged 123 passing yards against the 1st, 4th, and 14th ranked defenses.
Tanny No Longer the Manny?
The fact Ryan Tannehill will regress efficiency-wise in 2020 is not a surprise. However, it is worrisome that nearly every passing category could see significant regression and the path to increased volume to offset that is not clear. I do not believe Tannehill will be worthless for fantasy, though. His yards per attempt against top defenses last regular season would have still ranked top-5 in 2019, and his touchdown to interception ratio was strong, even against the good defenses (13:1, including the three postseason games as well). Additionally, the 2020 schedule appears to provide several favorable matchups, with six games against defenses expected to be in the bottom-7 of defensive efficiency. Overall, I worry the regression in efficiency and lower volume (especially compared to top-fantasy quarterbacks) will leave Ryan Tannehill in the mid-QB2 range in 2020.
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