Vacated Targets & the RB Position in Fantasy Football
Perhaps you’ve heard the Footballers reference vacated targets a time or two on the podcast this year. Vacated targets are a major part of projecting offenses following free agency and the NFL draft as the passing pie of each team is being considered.
Last year, I stumbled upon a trend within teams that were among the league leaders in vacated targets after the 2018 season. In Vacated Targets & Predicting the Future in Fantasy Football, there were a couple of glaring takeaways worth mentioning again…
- Vacated targets are descriptive of what happened the previous season but not in the least bit predictive or prescriptive for the following year. This is fantasy football analysis at its core… we know what happened last year but copying and pasting that data into this year and expecting it to project with clarity is not advisable nor statistically honest.
- The majority of teams with huge vacated target totals siphoned a greater percentage of their targets to the RB position.
- Overall passing volume has almost ZERO correlation with RB market share. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re the Titans or Buccaneers, total pass attempts do not dictate whether a team likes to involve the RB in the passing game.
- It is possible to make massive shifts year-to-year in terms of throwing to the RB. Think CMC when he arrived in Carolina or Tarik Cohen when the Bears started utilizing him as a weapon out of the backfield. Those teams were not innovative or progressive at all in the years prior to drafting those Swiss Army Knife RBs.
If true, these vacated target principles should affect how we project offenses during the offseason and how targets can be distributed especially on teams we might feel have an ambiguous outlook. Going into the 2019 season, the data was sitting in front of us but did teams actually reflect these conclusions once again?
Vacated Targets in 2019
Here are the top-8 teams in terms of vacated target teams and how they allocated their targets last year
At first glance, last year’s data looks rather mediocre as some of the RB market shares remain static or even drop a few percentage points. But if you banked on WRs being the main beneficiaries of vacated targets, you likely were left standing at the end of the season with your pants down looking like a fool. It was the RB units that were fantasy gold mines for receiving production.
Oakland Raiders– With a whopping 70.3 of their 2018 targets vaporized, the Raiders were ripe for opportunity. Offseason WR signings Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams seemed to be the biggest benefactors. However, it was the athletic TE Darren Waller and the RBs that had the most value in drafts. The Raiders tied for the 7th most RB receptions with DeAndre Washington leading the NFL in routes run per target at 2.21 and 3rd in yards per route run. Rookie Josh Jacobs was a major buy from last year’s article. He had the passing game chops from college but Jon Gruden seemed smitten with continuing to give Jalen Richard inefficient 3rd down work. Regardless, if you banked on the Raiders wide receivers being the place of fantasy production, you completely whiffed in 2020.
Baltimore Ravens– Based on the vacated targets numbers, this was an offense to invest in especially at discounted prices. Although hardly anyone could’ve predicted the nine percent TD rate from Lamar Jackson after he averaged 159 passing yards and never completed more than 14 passes in a game as a rookie, the value was there amongst a group of mostly unheralded receivers. No, it wasn’t Willie Snead or an often-injured Marquise Brown. I was all about Mark Andrews (who was My Guy for 2019 and my favorite candidate to go all George Kittle on us) but it was another Mark (Ingram) that broke through with five receiving TDs (tied for 2nd most at the position) en route to finishing as the RB8. What a return on investment for a guy drafted as the RB21. Although Ravens RBs ran 184(!) fewer routes in 2019, remember this team essentially used an extra RB (Jackson) all season.
Jacksonville Jaguars– Leonard Fournette was one of the major buys in last year’s article, which shocked even myself considering he came into the year with 74 combined targets over his first two years in the league. There was ample opportunity in Jacksonville as T.J. Yeldon left town and the only other viable RB on the roster was rookie Ryquell Armstead. While horribly inefficient, Fournette’s volume was unparalleled as he saw 100 targets, the 4th most among RBs. The supposed “early-down workhorse) also ran the 2nd most routes at the position, behind only Christian McCaffrey. The Jaguars definitively pivoted to throwing the RB more despite running 52 fewer RB routes than 2018. Imagine how you would’ve been mocked before the season if you declared that Fournette would have more targets than Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, and Le’Veon Bell. Other than D.J. Chark, none of the other Jaguars wideouts stepped up and the tight-end position has been a black hole for years.
Pittsburgh Steelers– Going into 2019, the Steelers pass-catching options were wide open with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell out the door. But no-one could have expected the utter wasteland QBs Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges provided for the entire offense. I was bullish on Jaylen Samuels as a late-round option who could soak up targets if James Conner. Heck, Samuels had more receptions than Juju Smith-Schuster, another one of those “you wouldn’t have believed me if I told you”. Steelers RBs tied for the 9th most receptions which makes sense considering their QBs’ adjusted yards per attempt was a meager 5.5. The group jumped to a 22.7% market share despite the fact Pittsburgh RBs ran 116 fewer passing routes than in 2018.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers– That small jump by the Bucs needs to be seen in context. At a 3.8% increase, they moved out of the RB target basement as Bruce Arians came to town. In fact, over the last six years, the Buccaneers had ranked in the bottom-3 of RB target market share. In Arizona, Arians’ RBs averaged a 19.8% market share in his five seasons with the team, which was a top-10 mark in the NFL. While no Bucs RB took over as the alpha, Ronald Jones II quadrupled his target total from his rookie season including posting the 5th yards per route run (1.82) at the RB position. Despite running 60 fewer routes than 2018, the Bucs pass-catchers as a whole caught 16 more passes.
New England Patriots– Ho hum… just another productive year for the Patriots’ RB unit that totaled the 3rd most PPR points in the league and 2nd most RB receiving yards at almost 71 per game. In the second half of the season, as the offense stalled, there was still production from James White that made him valuable as an RB2/FLEX option including a monster week-winning performance in Week 13 versus the Texans. If you would’ve bought into any other Patriots pass-catcher besides Julian Edelman and White, you likely were left in the dust. Their tight-ends had the fewest targets in the league, Phillip Dorsett finished second in targets among their wideouts, and N’Keal Harry didn’t see the field until Week 11. Even Rex Burkhead was effective on his 35 targets tying for the 5th best yards per route run among RBs.
After reviewing the main vacated target teams from 2019, it was clear that there was a greater emphasis on RB units and NOT WRs soaking up more market share. Regardless of team passing volume, the trend still seemed to persist. A lot of the teams highlighted even had fewer routes run at the position but their targets increased. Over the last three years, this trend towards targeting RB units just won’t go away and we need to take notice.
In the next part of this series, I will highlight vacated targets for 2020 and identify which RBs to value in drafts. While there is no guarantee teams will use this information in this manner, in fantasy football we can invest in teams that might have WRs hyped while their RBs are being undervalued.