Vacated Targets & Predicting the Future in Fantasy Football
One of the main ways the fantasy community has described opportunities for pass-catchers heading into the season is by examining “vacated” targets. Based on the free agency moves or players cut during the off-season, there is a certain percentage of the previous year’s targets that now are unaccounted for. For example, with Jordy Nelson retiring, Jared Cook bolting for New Orleans, and Seth Roberts moving on to Baltimore, the Raiders are now left with more than 70 percent of their 2018 targets unaccounted for going into this season. That’s a ton of passing volume to project for new faces in new places (i.e. Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, and Josh Jacobs).
Although lost targets give us a piece of the projection puzzle, they honestly provide us little insight into where the targets will be distributed by each team. Lost targets are descriptive of what happened the previous season but not in the least bit predictive or prescriptive for the following year. This is essential to understand or we will just plug-and-play projections and infuse players with targets without considering the variance of passing outputs.
Hear me out: Vacated targeted is NOT a bad statistic by any means. For the recent offseason divisional breakdowns on the podcast, we’ve been referencing John Paulsen of 4for4.com’s Using Vacated Targets to Identify Opportunity. Highly recommend this as a bookmark and a quick reference for researching.
But what can knowing the amount of vacated targets actually tell us?
Establishing The Narrative of Vacated Targets
It’s easy to get lost in the haze of excitement when bright, shiny free-agents join a team or rookies are now in preseason with new laundry on. But the football we watch and analyze is not in a vacuum. Before we poo-poo all over vacated targets as a statistic, there is at least one glaring trend that emerges from some of the top vacated target teams: they almost all pivoted to targeting the RB position more.
You probably are able to notice that teams are increasingly passing the ball to the RB and that’s where the trends lie on a league-wide basis.
Over the last six years, pass attempts have remained relatively steady after emerging from pre-2000 years of ground-and-pound approach. While the talk of being a pass-happy league increased, defenses also adjusted. In 2017, we saw attempts down, efficiency metrics down and passing TDs cratered compared to the overwhelmingly positive trends over the previous 15+ years. WRs crashed and burned in fantasy circles in 2017 and you probably noticed if you went WR heavy (Allen Robinson anyone?) in your fantasy draft.
Former Footballers writer Nate Hamilton summed it up best: “It was a down year as a whole for pass-catchers as WRs caught their fewest TDs (84) over the last 10 years. The previous low (97) was in 2008. Thus, total PPR points (3085.4) were the lowest they’ve been in the last decade.” If you want a deeper look at 2017 and what defenses did to counteract a passing-centric league, this article from fivethirtyeight.com gave some great perspective.
So, how did offenses pivot in the passing game from defenses catching up?
Although passing attempts remained the same, teams siphoned a greater percentage of their targets to the RB position and they were successful doing it. It’s no shock that the teams that targeted the RB position the most in 2018 (NE, NO & LAC) have been ahead of the curve for years and are annually in the discussion to be Super Bowl contenders.
What Do Teams Do With Vacated Targets?
Let’s go back to that magical year known as 2017 and look at the offenses that had the highest percentage of “vacated” targets.
As the unknowns surrounding the Sean McVay regime began to take shape, the Rams lost a plethora of targets from Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, and Lance Kendricks. There was a league-high 56.4 percent of the team’s targets available. I went back and read a couple of different articles on the interwebs that stated Tavon Austin was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this turnover and that fantasy owners could count on the former 1st round pick to be involved as a major focus for the “in-over-his-head” coach. Woof.
The second-highest vacated target team was the Browns at 50.6 percent. They lost Terrelle Pryor to the Redskins and the party known as Gary Barnidge finally ended. (Good times.) Obviously, there was a great opportunity for someone amongst the pass-catchers to “step up” and assert themselves as an “alpha”. It was evident as Corey Coleman was talked up all off-season and RB Isaiah Crowell was inflated to be a 2nd round pick(!?!)
The Rams used a balanced approach as their RB1 (Todd Gurley), WR1 (Cooper Kupp), WR2 (Robert Woods), and WR3 (Sammy Watkins) all saw above 13% target share, an accomplishment shared only with the Steelers. Gurley went from a former Jeff Fisher failure to a McVay wonder finishing as THE RB1 and notably increasing his work in the passing game from 58 targets to 87. Despite running the most 3-WR sets in the league, the massive amount of vacated targets actually benefited the RB position the most as the Rams ascended from sixth lowest RB market share (15.6) to almost in line with the league average at 19.6 percent.
The Browns, on the other hand, had the 9th-most passing attempts in the league (56 more than the Rams) and yet had no WR above a 10.8% market share, the worst in football. Think about that. A WR1 seeing that low of a market share is by no means fantasy-relevant despite the fact the opportunity was there for everyone’s favorite trifecta Rishard Higgins, Ricardo Louis, and the ghost of Kenny Britt. The Browns, instead, also focused on targeting the RB as Duke Johnson lead the team in targets with 93 and finished as a low-end RB1 in PPR leagues.
Now you might be saying to yourself, “McVay is an exception. And that Browns team was trash. 0-16. Isn’t he just cherry-picking an example from a couple of years back to prove a point?”
Let’s go further down the rabbit hole and examine last year’s teams with the most vacated targets.
Vacated Targets for 2018
Here are the top-8 teams in terms of vacated targets going into the 2018 season. They collectively (besides the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens) focused on targeting the RB position more.
While there were a plethora of targets on the table, unfortunately, these teams continued having bland WR distributions. Throwing to the RB became the easy alternative.
Dallas found out that Zeke’s passing game chops are elite as he finished with 95 targets after not capitalizing on that aspect of his game in his first two years. He was actually on a 120 target pace in the second half. Despite a mess in Arizona and Mike McCoy‘s stone age play-calling, the Cardinals threw to their RBs more. New England poured gasoline on the fire and made James White an RB1. Seattle, who has always de-emphasized throwing to their backs, ended up above league average utilizing Mike Davis, Chris Carson, and Rashaad Penny. Denver also came from the doldrums and found themselves lightning in a bottle with Phillip Lindsay while continuing to somehow use Devontae Booker.
When we see a large number of targets come available in an offense, it is tempting to artificially pump them into a weaker, perhaps less-discussed WR3-type and imagine we are constructing a WR1 mutant creation. For example, Kenny Stills had ample opportunity in Miami to become an alpha as the Dolphins had the second-most targets (290) available in the league. While Stills is a long TD waiting to happen, he did the exact opposite in targets massively shrinking his volume from 105 in 2017 to only 64 in 2018.
What happened? The opportunity was there but the Dolphins decidedly shifted their focus to the RB position. Miami went from throwing to RBs 16.7 percent of the time (7th lowest in the league) to 23.7 percent (10th most in the league) in 2018. That is a massive change in the distribution of the passing pie. Kenyan Drake, the RB1 in terms of targets, went from a measly 8 percent of the volume to over DOUBLE that at 16.8 percent. This was all despite the fact the Dolphins drastically shifted their passing strategy. The Dolphins went from having 4th most passing attempts in 2017 to the 3rd fewest in 2018.
What Did We Learn About RB Targets?
I wrote an article earlier this offseason highlighting The Pass-Catching RB and What We Know for 2019. Here are a couple of conclusions which can help us navigate the vacated targets conversation.
Overall passing volume had almost ZERO to-do with RB market share.
In fact, it seemed like the teams that were the most pass-happy were adamant about spreading the ball around to other positions. Check out the top-7 teams in terms of PAs and how often they threw to their RBs:
It’s possible to make massive shifts year-to-year throwing to the RB if your coordinator can adjust.
Remember back in 2017 when a major aversion was the fact Cam Newton barely knew how to throw to his backfield mates? Many lambasted the fantasy prospects of Christian McCaffrey when he was drafted claiming that his usage would be minuscule considering “Cam doesn’t know how to throw to RBs”. The Panthers had a 14.5 percent jump in their RB targets 2017, an unreal amount considering how unimportant this was to their passing game before. All CMC has done is grab 187 receptions in first 2 years in the NFL, the most ever for an RB in the league history. In fact, he’s tied with Odell Beckham Jr. for 3rd most for any pass-catcher behind only Michael Thomas & Jarvis Landry.
The Bears also have made a massive jump with Tarik Cohen recently. After having 86 targets total amongst Chicago RBs in 2016 before he arrived, Cohen outpaced that number by himself in 2018 with 90. He also ranked #1 in the league in yards per touch (6.9) and 4th in yards per reception (10.2) while giving new coach Matt Nagy a swiss army knife out of the backfield.
The Texans could do the same in 2019 with the addition of Duke Johnson Jr. Despite the glaring reality they’ve targeted RBs the least amount of any team in the league over the last five years, even a slight improvement is on the table.
Five RBs to Target in 2019
In order to give some actionable items, here are five RBs that could see major passing work when we analyze them alongside vacated targets for 2019.
Leonard Fournette (JAX- 3rd Most Vacated Targets)
I get it… you probably have a sick feeling in your stomach if you owned Leonard Fournette last year and you only got eight total games of play. Whether through on-the-field or off-the-field issues, he may have lost his luster and has slipped in drafts. Regardless, he was on pace for 44 receptions last year and now with T.J. Yeldon out of the picture and no other capable pass-catcher on the roster at RB, I think Fournette could approach 60-70 targets in 2019. Nick Foles doesn’t hyper-target RBs but roughly 21% of his attempts went to Philly RBs last year. He’s usually only seen as a two-down back but there’s room for him to add passing work in 2019.
Josh Jacobs (OAK- Most Vacated Targets)
The 1st rookie RB drafted this year finds himself amongst a carnival of sorts with the Antonio Brown saga, Jon Gruden’s motivational tactics, and the filming of Hard Knocks. Jacobs has a legitimate shot to make some noise with a QB in Derek Carr, who loves checking it down. Teammate Jalen Richard has been used as a safety valve in the passing game more out of necessity than sheer talent. While it might take a bit for him to adjust to the NFL, it would be smart to bake into Jacobs’ price tag (3.10 ADP) that there’s room to see a healthy amount targets in this offense even in Year One. From 2012 to 2018, 11 running backs were drafted in the first round and seven of them finished their rookie season as a top-10 fantasy back. In other words, there is a ceiling available with the team with the most vacated targets heading into 2019.
Jaylen Samuels (PIT- 4th Most Vacated Targets)
These aren’t your mamas Steelers any more. No more Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and heck, Jesse James too? The Steelers led the league in pass-attempts in 2018 and yet Big Ben had room to grow in targeting the RB. While James Conner deserves a late first, early second-round pick due to volume and the way Mike Tomlin has used his RBs in the past, Samuels seems to be the forgotten man in Pittsburgh. As a rookie, he showed the kind of major upside to carry a workload with 19 rushes for 142 yards against New England in Week 12. He only stayed more involved after that as he averaged five receptions a game from Weeks 12 to 16. Samuels has standalone value in PPR leagues and opportunity to be a bell-cow if something were to happen to Conner.
Peyton Barber (TB- 5th Most Vacated Targets)
Listen, I get it. Barber is not the sexiest name to bring up by any means. Drafting him in the 8th or 9th round to fill out your team’s 4th or 5th RB spot does not bring much joy to the human heart. But with new HC Bruce Arians in town, there is some optimism surrounding the Bucs offense. Chris Godwin has received the majority of buzz and rightfully so as I think he has a Path to a WR1 Fantasy Season. But perhaps the pivot might be the incumbent RB starter Barber, who logged 254 touches in 2018, 12th most at the RB position. DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, and Jacquizz Rodgers are gone leaving a plethora of targets available. There has also been talk of Jameis Winston learning how to “check down” more this year. If Barber remains the team’s RB1 and ends up with 50 targets, you might’ve lucked into a suitable RB2.
Justice Hill (BAL- 2nd Most Vacated Targets)
Hill is one of my favorite late-round RBs to “shoot my shot” as he comes into the league with major receiving profile from college. While the Ravens are the easy favorite to lead the league in rushing attempts aided by QB Lamar Jackson, I’m not convinced on off-season acquisition of Mark Ingram, who is approaching the wrong side of his career arc. Hill ran a 4.4 at the combine and possessed some “lightning in a bottle” abilities while in a prolific offense at Oklahoma State. Jackson was pretty porous as a passer and definitely stifled the WRs as well as the RBs in 2018. With fellow rookies Marquise Brown and Mikes Boykin as the main targets at WR, Hill could easily take advantage of this situation and see 70+ targets if he secures the 3rd down role.
Devin Singletary (BUF- 8th Most Vacated Targets)
Buffalo continues to be a quagmire for fantasy as the Bills have the most ambiguous backfield in the NFL. Shady McCoy could be cut, T.J. Yeldon has been slipping in camp, and Frank Gore is Frank Gore. Instead, rookie Devin Singletary looked like the best back in preseason Week 1. According to Graham Barfield’s yards created metric, Devin Singletary ran behind the worst offensive line of this RB class. He still had massive production with over 125 yards and two rushing TDs per game over the last two years. The offense didn’t feature him as a receiver at Florida Atlantic but he did accumulate 51 receptions in three years. QB Josh Allen looks downfield often but could find that out-letting to Singletary is beneficial as well.