In the five seasons prior to 2017, NFL quarterbacks enjoyed a passing heyday never before seen in the sport. Leaguewide passing numbers exploded, and overall scoring hit new, historic heights. It was like the league had reached fantasy football nirvana.
But last year, the pendulum finally swung back in the other direction: QBs collectively threw for nearly 7,000 fewer yards and 60 fewer touchdowns than that of the five-year average, passing yards per attempt dropped, and passer rating dipped. Rush yards increased year to year in 2017, but teams notched 63 fewer touchdowns on the ground. Put together, scoring took a nosedive, with teams falling short of the five-year average for total points (11,706) by 588 points. This offensive downturn was apparent even as early as Week 1, when NFL teams averaged more than two fewer points per game than any opening week in the past six years.
The good news (at least when it comes to fantasy football) is that in the NFL’s opening weekend, offenses started off the season with a bang and scored 765 points, which is third-most for the opening weekend in history. Teams threw for nearly 1,000 more yards in Week 1 than last year and scored 18 more touchdowns. One week is a small sample size, but that scoring output puts this year on pace to shatter the league record for points scored in a season, set back in 2013. Is the Week 1 offensive explosion here to stay?
There are a few reasons to believe the uptick in scoring is a sign of things to come. Last year, subpar quarterback play was the root cause of the offensive downturn. That lacking quarterback performance was the result of a confluence of factors, including a shortage of quality starters, a wide gap between the college game and the pros, a lack of practice time under the new CBA, a drop in the quality of offensive line play, a boom in interior defensive line play, and a rash of major injuries to big-name starting passers, receivers, and running backs.
So what’s changed? Well, poor offensive line play and a lack of practice time are still issues, but coaches appear more willing than ever to address a few of the other catalytic factors to declining quarterback play. In Week 1, we saw plenty of college-offense concepts melded into pro-style schemes—RPOs, read options, jet sweeps, and other pre-snap deceptions—all designed to get the defense thinking, slow the pass rush, and ultimately lighten the mental load on the quarterback by simplifying reads. These concepts can help mitigate the protection issues less talented offensive lines present, and to add to that, we saw plenty of quick passing during the weekend too. This year, getting the ball out in less than two seconds will be crucial for teams around the league—both in running their offense efficiently and keeping their quarterbacks clean—and there was a focus on it right out the gates.
Perhaps more important, though, is that a few of the league’s most important and prominent offensive playmakers have returned from injury, including Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr., David Johnson, and Dalvin Cook.
Rodgers had another scare in the Packers’ Sunday Night Football win against the Bears, but he came back into the game in the second half and led his team to an incredible comeback win. Luck’s return changes the outlook for the Colts offense, too, which finished third-to-last in scoring in 2017 but looked markedly more dynamic in a Week 1 loss to the Bengals. Same goes for Watson, who looked a little rusty in the opening loss to the Patriots, but still boasts elite upside. Beckham’s impact on the Giants offense can’t be underestimated, nor can that of Johnson or Cook for their respective teams. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Ravens offense, which struggled mightily last year, suddenly looked a whole lot more efficient in a 47-3 blowout of the Bills. They had a healthy Marshal Yanda at right guard and a spry Joe Flacco (who played through a nagging back injury most of last year) under center.
But it’s not just the quarterbacks returning from injury that have helped to change the landscape of the quarterback position. Almost overnight, thanks to a talent-packed draft, a few trades, and the most extraordinary free-agency QB class ever, the league suddenly feels flush with quality—or at the very least, promising—quarterbacks. Nearly every team has a startable option at the position: The Browns, who’ve been searching for an answer for, well, forever, might have two starting-caliber QBs with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield. The Jets went with Darnold in Week 1, and the 21-year-old held his own after an embarrassing pick-six on his first throw as a pro, and completed 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick at a cool 9.4 yards per attempt and a 116.8 rating. Alex Smith’s move to Washington is going just fine (21-for-30, 255 yards, two touchdowns), Patrick Mahomes II looked like a future superstar in his first (real) start for the Chiefs (15-for-27, 256 yards, four touchdowns), Andy Dalton threw with confidence (21-for-28, 243 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 109.7 rating), and even veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick lit up the Saints (21-for-28, 417 yards, four touchdowns). The quarterbacks who struggled in Week 1—Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcus Mariota, Nick Foles, Watson, Eli Manning—all have a strong chance to bounce back next week.
Nothing drives scoring more than the quarterback position, and the league’s actually, kind of, sorta, maybe sitting pretty right now at that spot. That’s … rare. And that’s why the new rules emphases—particularly the controversial “body weight” rule—aren’t going anywhere. Officials threw 15 roughing the passer flags this weekend, and five stemmed from a defender landing with his full body weight on the quarterback. Those calls can extend drives, and, as we saw on Sunday in the Steelers-Browns tilt, change the outcome of games. The new focus on that already established rule is sure to drive defenders (and fans) crazy, but it came as direct response to Rodgers’s collarbone injury last year—an implicit recognition from the league that their product is simply better when the best quarterbacks are in the game. If there’s one thing the NFL rules committee is consistent on, it is altering, emphasizing, or thinking up new rules to increase scoring.
Week 1 isn’t necessarily instructive on how the rest of the season will go down: The Ravens and Bucs are almost certainly not going to score 45-plus points a game, and the Jets aren’t going to post blowouts every week. But if the Jets—or the Buccaneers, Colts, Browns, 49ers, Texans, and even the Packers—are better on offense this year thanks to changes or injury returns at the quarterback spot, it could provide not only a boost for established fantasy players on those teams, but it also could increase the breadth of fantasy-relevant players and open up the doors for investing in the offenses we’d typically avoid.
No one wants to add a third- or fourth-receiver option in a bad offense; last year, amid the offensive downturn, waiver wires were often pretty barren. This left managers to choose from, say, then-Colts no. 2 Donte Moncrief (he finished WR81 in PPR), or (before Jimmy Garoppolo took the helm) 49ers slot receiver Trent Taylor (WR68). This year, the changes in those offenses make guys like Dante Pettis (two catches, 61 yards, one touchdown), or Ryan Grant (eight catches, 59 yards) potential starters in PPR leagues. Last year, Mike Wallace was the Ravens’ top fantasy option at receiver and finished as WR38 in scoring. This year, with a newly efficient Flacco, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead are all potential fantasy-relevant factors. Hell, Flacco (QB24 last year) might be, too. With Brett Hundley under center in 2017, it became tough to start even fantasy juggernaut Jordy Nelson. But with Rodgers’s return, Green Bay is back to being one of the most potent scorers in the NFL, boosting not just Davante Adams’s value (five catches, 88 yards, and one touchdown), but that of secondary and tertiary options like Randall Cobb (nine catches, 142 yards, and one touchdown) and Geronimo Allison (five catches, 69 yards, and one touchdown).
It’s still way too early to make the call. But all signs point to a vastly different NFL in 2018. In real football, an uptick in scoring is going to make Sundays more exciting, and could shake up the league in ways that no one expects. In fantasy, it’s going to make the waiver wire a lot more interesting.