Free agency's unclaimed fantasy opportunities
Around this time last year we examined the teams with the most unclaimed opportunities resulting from free agency, and set some fantasy-based expectations for who would be filling them. Now that the dust has settled on this year’s most important signings – with all due respect to Jared Cook’s last three truthers – let’s take a look at the offenses currently missing the most combined handoffs and PFF-charted targets from 2015, followed by several other notable situations.
Miami Dolphins (-226 Handoffs, -151 Targets)
More than 65 percent of the Dolphins’ combined 377 lost “opportunities” from last year departed with new Texans’ workhorse Lamar Miller. Despite Jay Ajayi’s impressive rankings in forced-missed-tackles-per-touch (ninth of 81 qualifying backs) and rushing-grade-per-attempt (second-highest), Miami is hell-bent on adding another ball carrier – with Daniel Thomas the latest head-scratching candidate. The play here may be to wait until it happens and buy Ajayi’s value dip. There will be plenty of volume to go around.
Most of the lost 90 wide receiver targets should head in DeVante Parker’s direction. His passing-grade-per-target ranked 22nd out of 116 qualifying wideouts, and he forced the 11th-most missed tackles per catch, after becoming a starter in Week 13. Fantasy tease Jordan Cameron may also be in line for more work, as the Dolphins targeted tight ends at the league’s ninth-lowest rate in 2015 (5.9 per game), while new coach Adam Gase’s Bears were doing it the 11th-most often (7.8 per game).
Denver Broncos (-208 Handoffs, -153 Targets)
With the Broncos registering the second-most unaccounted-for handoffs and targets, it becomes clear the workloads of Ronnie Hillman (207 carries, 32 targets) and Owen Daniels (73 targets) were as voluminous as they were mediocre. Whether Virgil Green or Jeff Heuerman – who has received some offseason buzz – plays the majority of tight end snaps, the guy taking those snaps is currently Mark Sanchez. At least Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders can bank on another 300 combined targets, which they’ll need to again approach fringe-WR1 status.
C.J. Anderson’s 152 carries will rise, especially after Denver matched Miami’s $18 million free agent offer. After the Broncos’ Week 7 bye, and presumably healthier following an injury-muted start, Anderson’s 6.4 yards-per-carry mark led the league. His 3.8 yards-after-contact rate ranked second-best, and on a per-attempt basis, he placed fifth in rushing grade and sixth in missed tackles out of 45 backs with 50-plus carries. Denver’s current cap room is the fifth-tightest, so appreciable roster additions will come via the draft.
New York Jets (-283 Handoffs, -74 Targets)
The Jets lead in lost handoffs by a large margin and attacked their backfield vacancies. Matt Forte is the big fish, but they also landed Khiry Robinson and re-signed Bilal Powell. Forte is in decline, and LaDainian Tomlinson’s age-31 season – his first with the Jets – feels like a ceiling (RB17 standard; RB15 PPR). Whether Forte can handle the same workload (271 touches), or even gets the chance, is questionable. Robinson ranked fourth in missed-tackles-per-touch out of 81 backs with 50-plus touches, and Powell placed 12th — while Forte was 70th.
The relatively few unaccounted for targets (21st-most) is another issue for Forte’s assumed workload. Some will be absorbed by a now-healthy Jace Amaro (New York targeted tight ends a league-low 29 times in 2015), and wideout Devin Smith. Powell missed most or all of seven games, still saw 60 of the Jets’ 109 backfield targets, and is Forte’s superior as a blocker and pass-catcher. New York is better served by spreading backfield touches, and Forte is no longer the workhorse he’ll be drafted as.
New Orleans Saints (-153 Handoffs, -203 Targets)
The Saints lost the second-most targets, and at least with new tight end Coby Fleener, the conversion is simple. In games Dwayne Allen missed during their time with the Colts*, Fleener averaged 1.92 PPR points per target and 12.2 per game. Both rates are just above what departed Saint Ben Watson averaged on 101 targets (1.87; 11.8) as fantasy’s TE7. That leaves roughly 100 targets to be sprinkled throughout the offense, with Brandin Cooks (126) and, to a lesser extent, Willie Snead (95) close to maxed out.
At least early on, Brandon Coleman is a solid bet to add to his 48 targets as he absorbs Marques Colston’s role and workload (65 targets) — even in the likely event the Saints draft receiver talent. The usual offseason “expanded role for C.J. Spiller” fluffery exists, but we’ve danced that dance before. More notable is the missing handoffs, 63 percent of which return if New Orleans re-signs Tim Hightower. In that case, the remaining 57 would theoretically be absorbed by a full-season’s worth of games for Mark Ingram.
Chicago Bears (-219 Handoffs, -132 Targets)
Jeremy Langford, who already had 148 rushing attempts, is the assumed workhorse despite masking a poor season by accumulating 10.2 percent of his yards and 14.3 percent of his touchdowns on one memorable play. The Bears danced with Anderson in free agency, and Langford will have backfield company not named Ka’Deem Carey before Week 1. Meanwhile, the 132 lost targets should dry up quickly. Alshon Jeffery only saw 92 and first-rounder Kevin White missed the season. Martellus Bennett’s 76 targets won’t necessarily all go to Zach Miller if Chicago’s wideouts stay healthy, and they may throw less often if their defensive front-seven upgrades perform.
Houston Texans (-162 Handoffs, -161 Targets)
Newly signed Lamar Miller will gobble up those handoffs, a good portion of the targets, and mercifully, a lot of Alfred Blue’s 199 opportunities from last year. Jonathan Grimes is the second-best back on the roster now that he’s been re-signed, but the #FreeLamar movement should finally become reality. With four consecutive positive passing game grades to close out last season, and only Cecil Shorts as competition for targets, Jaelen Strong is well-positioned to absorb a chunk of the Texans’ departed looks. However, a Feb. 29 marijuana arrest doesn’t help his chances of making the leap this year. They will add pass-catchers in the draft.
Philadelphia Eagles (-193 Handoffs, -129 Targets)
DeMarco Murray accounted for 41 percent of the missing targets and all of the handoffs. It is tricky assigning “lost” opportunities on a one-to-one basis, as Philadelphia will run a Doug Pederson offense that averaged 9.3 fewer plays per game than the Eagles. The missing targets essentially disappear, as Kansas City threw 150 fewer passes. Yet the Chiefs only handed off seven fewer times than the Eagles, who will skew decidedly more run heavy in 2016 – especially if their defense improves under Jim Schwartz. For fantasy, signs continue to point toward Philadelphia’s running back – currently Ryan Mathews, value stud — and away from the passing game.
New England Patriots (-189 Handoffs, -119 Targets)
LeGarrette Blount remains a candidate to return and reclaim his fat portion of the “departed” between-the-tackles handoffs, although the Tyler Gaffney candle still flickers. Between Dion Lewis (NFL-high 0.51 missed tackles per touch) and Blount (0.21 missed tackles per rush attempt; eighth-most), the Patriots would again have an elusive backfield, with functional depth behind them in Donald Brown and James White. Track record indicates this is more likely than drafting a second-round running back. The lion’s share of the missing targets will go to new tight end Bennett, with Bills import Chris Hogan vying with Danny Amendola (80 targets last year) and others for the runoff.
Detroit Lions (-90 Handoffs, -210 Targets)
The Lions lost the most targets of any team, with 68 percent of them retiring with Calvin Johnson. Career No. 2 Marvin Jones was brought in to play a significant role, and Golden Tate will get a bump – but he already saw 121 looks. They threw to their running backs a whopping 164 times as well. Their passing pie has the most room to widen at tight end, a position group Matthew Stafford threw to only 93 times last year (seventh-lowest). Tickets for the Eric Ebron Express are about to get expensive.
Indianapolis Colts (-50 Handoffs, -202 Targets)
Although Frank Gore won’t hold up to another season of handling a league-high 75 percent of his backfield’s workload, it’s the Colts’ departed target load that really stands out. T.Y. Hilton (125) and Donte Moncrief (100) aren’t maxed-out, but they aren’t far from it – although Moncrief saw two more red zone looks in seven games with Andrew Luck than in nine games without. Phillip Dorsett’s 36 targets will almost certainly get juiced, and Dwayne Allen is in line for a sizable bump from his 26 now that Fleener’s 81 departed. Obviously everyone benefits if Luck manages to play a full 2016 season.
San Francisco 49ers (-46 Handoffs, -170 Targets)
The available opportunities will spike, as Chip Kelly’s Eagles ran the equivalent of 2.2 additional 49ers games worth of snaps last year. Carlos Hyde, who topped 68 qualifying backs in missed-tackles-per-carry, will chew up the available handoffs and more. The real intrigue involves San Francisco’s pass-catchers. They don’t have many quality options to corral the incoming flood of targets, but Bruce Ellington is an interesting, if forgotten name. As for their quarterback, it’s cathartic to remember Kelly coaxed a 27-touchdown, two-interception season out of Nick Foles.
Cleveland Browns (-24 Handoffs, -152 Targets)
Travis Benjamin left for San Diego with 116 targets, and Dwayne Bowe just left. Gary Barnidge already got 119 looks and Duke Johnson had 70 balls thrown his way. Unless we think Brian Hartline is about to significantly add to his 73 targets or Taylor Gabriel warrants a lot more than 48, Josh Gordon is about to return to a monster workload when/if his suspension is lifted. The quality of those targets remains to be seen, but Gordon still went nuclear with the likes of Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell throwing at him.
San Diego Chargers (-59 Handoffs, -148 Targets)
Malcom Floyd’s retirement and skillset fits nicely with the importing of Benjamin. He probably sees more than Floyd’s 68 targets, but as the field-stretcher for an offense with several viable pass-catchers, not a ton more. Remember Keenan Allen was on a 172-target pace through eight games. Ladarius Green’s departure is more intriguing, as 36-year-old Antonio Gates already saw 75 looks and may struggle to hold up to a monster workload. There is little behind him, so don’t cancel your Asante Cleveland Google alerts just yet.
Washington Redskins (-219 Handoffs, -28 Targets)
Washington is tied for the third-most departed handoffs, and if Jay Gruden is to be believed, they are “taking a bit of a gamble” on Matt Jones significantly adding to the 144-carry workload he handled poorly. Despite perception, his missed-tackles-per-attempt was mediocre (0.17; 31st of 68 qualifiers), his rushing-grade-per-attempt was bad (58th of 68), and his yards-per-carry was brutal (3.4; 62nd of 68). Players improve, Washington has a truckload of available handoffs, opportunity is nearly everything for running backs, and Scot McCloughan is a smart dude. That last point should worry Jones investors.
Seattle Seahawks (-185 Handoffs, -85 Targets)
It is fairly surprising that Seattle hasn’t brought in a veteran running back to absorb some workload and be a calming influence in their young running back room. Thomas Rawls is coming off a severely broken ankle, took 147 handoffs as a rookie, and is in line for a huge increase from there. Christine Michael may finally be turning the corner, but it still wouldn’t be shocking if the Seahawks eventually add an Arian Foster or Ahmad Bradshaw to the mix. Former Seahawk Fred Jackson also remains a free agent.
Dallas Cowboys (-123 Handoffs, -22 Targets)
Between Joseph Randle, Robert Turbin, and Michael, a good chunk of handoffs are unaccounted for. Darren McFadden may be the nominal lead back in March, but free agent import Alfred Morris can still approach 200 carries with last year’s workhorse topping 160 of his own. It would be the fourth-highest rushing attempt total of McFadden’s career if he did. With Lance Dunbar averaging one carry for every 5.5 targets, he’s not a factor here. The main runners’ carry distribution is not an “either-or” proposition.
Arizona Cardinals (-0 Handoffs, -0 Targets)
All the birds are back in town, as the Cardinals are the only team not to lose any opportunities from 2015 (Oakland lost one target). It is worth noting, however, that Carson Palmer averaged 16.8 points per game once David Johnson cracked 70 percent of snaps in Week 13, versus the quarterback’s 21.9 scoring rate through 12 weeks. Still, with the same cast of characters returning to the offense … giddy up.
*- courtesy of the RotoViz Game Splits App
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman