Running Backs Who Will Benefit from Vacated Targets (Fantasy Football)
Over the last few years, analyzing vacated target numbers for each NFL team became an off-season exercise I chose to partake in out of pure curiosity. I wanted to see if there was any correlation or anything predictive about where the targets were heading for offenses that had to be completely remade each year. I stumbled upon a glaring conclusion that seems to have stayed relatively sticky year-to-year in Vacated Targets & Predicting the Future in Fantasy Football: teams with high vacated target totals end up siphoning a higher percentage of their targets to the RB position.
I published Vacated Targets & the RB Position in Fantasy Football earlier this month detailing how these teams deployed their RB units in 2019. Now, we turn the page from what was descriptive of 2019 to find out what could be predictive for 2020.
For 2020, here are the top-8 teams in terms of vacated targets1:[lptw_table id=”164476″ style=”default”]
More than just who is leaving town and what is available, we need to look at how much of the passing pie of each offense was distributed to the RB position. Market share is simply showing the percentage of a team’s targets that went to the RB unit.[lptw_table id=”164477″ style=”default”]
For the next part of this series, let’s take these teams and pinpoint a few RBs who could be the main beneficiaries of seeing more work in the passing game in 2020.
Todd Gurley– ATL (Most Vacated Targets)
If you’ve listened to the show recently, you know how pessimistic some of the Footballers are on Gurley this year. Mike has him ranked all the way down at RB24 and discussed on the Fire + Ice episode that he’s completely out on him in 2020. While Gurley’s pass-catching efficiency hit rock bottom last year, the opportunity to catch passes was still there in Los Angeles. He tied for the 4th most routes run at the position but the Rams chose not to get him the ball in space. Luckily, OC Dirk Koetter’s return to Atlanta showed a slight improvement in RB market share at 16.9%, up from 14.5%, the 3rd-worst mark in the league in 2018. With the most vacated targets in the league, Gurley might have a higher floor than many realize. Devonta Freeman averaged almost four receptions a game in his four years as the starter. Fantasy owners can believe what they want about the deterioration of his knee and his overall explosiveness. But if Gurley sees upwards of 70 targets (the total Freeman saw in only 14 games and 65% of the total snaps), he can be a top-15 RB when we add in his goal-line prowess. For more detail on the entire Atlanta Falcons team, check out the Target Practice article.
David Johnson (HOU- 2nd Most Vacated Targets)
I know, I know. You might think he’s an old busted as well. Changing teams is a difficult narrative to overcome but let’s focus on the player first. If he’s given the opportunity and the snaps, DJ can be an asset for fantasy rosters. Remember this guy is a former receiver and graded as PFFs best wide receiver in the NFL a couple of years ago. For four years in a row, the Texans rank in the bottom-5 in passes to the RB position. Deshaun Watson can redirect that narrative in the same way we saw Cam Newton shift the targets toward Christian McCaffrey despite never throwing to the RB out of the backfield. Duke Johnson will eat into some of the third-down work but this organization acquired David Johnson for a reason. It shouldn’t shock anyone to see DJ with 60-70 targets if he is the workhorse back. Ryan Weisse highlighted the Houston Texans in our Target Practice series.
Le’Veon Bell (NYJ- 4th Most Vacated Targets)
Wait a second? This is the third washed-up veteran in a row that you’re telling me to target? Bell was horribly inefficient last year and depending on the day of the week, it seems like Bell and Adam Gase might end this thing in a bloody brawl. However, let’s look at what available and the competition for targets on this team. Jamison Crowder seems assured of reaching 110+ targets as a safe, albeit unspectacular slot option. Breshad Perriman enters in after being force-fed deep targets from Jameis Winston over the last month of the season en route to a free-agent contract. He also took four years just to break out and now is on his fourth team in the NFL. Denzel Mims is a rookie and recently injured in practice. Tight-end Chris Herndon can be a weapon… if he’s on the field. Regardless of Sam Darnold’s development during his third year in the league, Bell might have ample opportunity coming his way as his only backfield mates of note are the Infinity Stone himself Frank Gore and rookie Lamical Perine. Bell looks like he’s recommitted himself to offseason workouts and remember, he still caught 66 balls last season, the 7th most at the RB position. Fellow writer Lauren Carpenter gave a full rundown of the Jets team target distribution if you want to give that a read.
Nyheim Hines (IND- 7th Most Vacated Targets)
Hines looks like a forgotten man this offseason as Jonathan Taylor‘s super-human build and insane college production has him sky-rocketing up draft boards. I’ve seen him go as early as the 3.02 in some leagues as I discussed recently on the Footballers DFS Podcast. I won’t deny his talent but simply laud for the type of opportunity that could emerge in the midst of a muddied backfield. Hines received a target once every 3.91 routes run in 2019, the eighth-best mark in the league almost identical to Patriots RB James White. With Philip Rivers now at the helm, expect more short aDOT throws to the RB position. Over the last six years, the Chargers had the 3rd highest market share to the RB position in the NFL. Hines can develop as an Austin Ekeler-lite after seeing his targets drop from 81 to 58 last season. Matthew Betz broke down the Colts’ pass-catchers in our Target Practice series.
Antonio Gibson (WSH- 8th Most Vacated Targets)
The Gibson hype train is starting to build and our own Mike Wright is the conductor driving this thing! Ron Rivera embellishment has also been at the forefront of the news cycle as he compared him to Christian McCaffrey. Hyperboles aside, Gibson is the type of weapon that needs to be on the field and have touches manufactured. For an RB, that means in the short-area passing game out of the backfield or lined up in the slot. My favorite comparable is Alvin Kamara but we need to realize the Washington offensive line is among the worst in the league. The impact Gibson can have is with targets and this team (whatever they end up being called) has a ton left out on the field currently. Aside from Terry McLaurin, it’s not crazy to envision a scenario where Gibson ends up having the second or third most targets on a bad team. Chris Thompson‘s 378 routes run led the RB group by a wide margin and after five seasons in a row as the predominant PPR option out of the backfield, he moved on to Jacksonville. Gibson is one of the Footballers’ favorite late-round RB targets and I give my stamp of approval on that… for what it’s worth.
Darrynton Evans (TEN- 13th Most Vacated Targets)
One of my favorite late-round fliers this offseason in deep leagues is rookie Darrynton Evans. He was drafted in the third round out of Appalachian State ahead of other RBs from larger schools (Zack Moss, Joshua Kelley, Anthony McFarland Jr.) because of his home run speed and ability to force missed tackles. He also profiles as a solid pass catcher so he’s more than just an insurance policy for Derrick Henry. Henry has averaged 18.5 targets per season despite the uproar from fantasy Twitter to throw him the ball more. The Titans likely will be unable to flourish again as an offense with a lowly 448 total passing attempts and a paltry 381 pass routes run by their RBs combined, the fewest in the NFL. Dion Lewis’ 32 vacated targets are up for grabs and if Evans is slotted in as the Titans RB2, I expect him to be closer to 50 targets.
1 The vacated target numbers pulled from this exercise were from John Paulsen’s chart courtesy of 4for4.com