Every offseason presents plenty of change that can be overwhelming come August if left ignored. Free agency and the NFL Draft are obviously the big-two events, but general player movement happens throughout the entirety of the annual sad, dull six-month period where no meaningful professional NFL football is played.
Today’s goal is simple: identify which position rooms have the most potential available opportunity based on their unrestricted free agents. It’s pretty hard (read: impossible) to score fantasy points without getting the football; figuring out which teams have ample targets and carries available in the first place will help in projecting booms and busts ahead of the 2022 season.
Yes, vacated opportunity isn’t the end-all, be-all, of player evaluation. Also yes, it’s far easier to predict workload than talent. Each is a piece of the puzzle; today we’re focusing on the former. Cool? Cool.
Special thanks to Over The Cap for all free agency information. We’ll just focus primarily on targets today while noting additional rush attempt opportunities in the running back section.
Only four backfields have at least 50% of their 2021 targets unaccounted for: Ravens (81%), Chiefs (72%), Giants (50%), and Cardinals (50%). The Ravens, Giants, and Chiefs mark three of the league's four teams with more than 50% of their carries also available. The return of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards should fill up most of Baltimore’s available opportunities, but don’t discount the potential for the likes of James Conner and Saquon Barkley to handle hefty three-down roles more weeks than not.
And then there are the Chiefs, who are projected to be led by Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Ronald Jones. The former back might finally have the chance to show off some of the plus receiving ability that made him a first-round pick in the first place, while the latter player reminds me of 2021 James Conner in that he’s largely being written off in fantasy land despite finding himself on a soft depth chart inside of an elite offense. RoJo is objectively terrible at catching the ball; it’s far from a perfect one-to-one comparison with Conner. Still, the Chiefs seem to believe in Jones enough to pigeonhole him as the offense’s No. 2 back, and his rushing ranks since entering the league are plenty fine:
- PFF rushing grade: 78.4 (No. 29 among 95 qualified backs)
- Yards per carry: 4.5 (tied for No. 32)
- Yards after contact per carry: 3.1 (tied for No. 22)
- Missed tackles forced per carry: 0.16 (tied for No. 38)
I’m not suggesting that Jones is a home run fantasy selection or a lock to take over the Chiefs backfield, but be careful about simply fading him because “he sucks.” As a receiver, this rudimentary analysis is (sadly) probably enough, but he’s repeatedly flashed as a rusher. Since entering the league in 2018, RoJo has posted a better PFF rushing grade than guys like David Montgomery, Antonio Gibson and Elijah Mitchell, averaged the same amount of yards per carry as Javonte Williams, posted superior YAC numbers to Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott, and broken tackles at a higher rate than Joe Mixon and D'Andre Swift. If that constitutes “sucking,” sign me up at his current sub-40 running back ADP.
Six more teams find themselves with over 30% of their 2021 available targets up for grabs:
- Patriots (47%): Brandon Bolden is now a member of the Raiders, meaning James White *should* be back to working as one of the league’s more used pass-catching backs.
- Texans (43%): One of few backfields that remains ready for takeover should the organization decide to invest some serious resources in the group.
- Jaguars (42%): Doctors don’t seem convinced that James Robinson (Achilles) will play football in 2022. Injury recovery is also important to monitor for Travis Etienne (foot), but the rising second-year back has certainly had more time to recover than Robinson.
- Broncos (39%): Javonte Williams’ ceiling is the moon in fantasy land should the Broncos not re-sign Melvin Gordon.
- Rams (37%): It remains to be seen if the Rams will add a third back to complement projected bell-cow Cam Akers and change-of-pace option Darrell Henderson.
- Panthers (37%): Christian McCaffrey should soak up pretty much everything when healthy, but D’Onta Foreman has a chance to be the superior handcuff over Chub Hubbard after the Panthers handed the ex-Texans/Titans back $2 million this offseason.
Fifteen different squads have fewer than 15% of their 2021 targets available. Among these teams, Devin Singletary, Michael Carter and Cordarrelle Patterson stand out as the biggest potential winners should their respective teams refrain from making any serious additions to their backfield in the draft. Each of these three backs flashed true RB1 upside at different points in 2021 and would be a bargain at their presently reduced ADP.
Six teams have at least 50% of their 2021 available targets up for grabs: Chiefs (75%), Packers (67%), Falcons (56%), Browns (54%), Bears (53%) and Dolphins (51%). Each of our top-three squads seem to be like locks to draft a wide receiver on Day 1 or 2, but it’s curious that JuJu Smith-Schuster has earned the benefit of the doubt ahead of Marquez Valdes-Scantling in fantasy ADP when the latter receiver received a far bigger financial investment from the franchise. The likes of Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, and Auden Tate stand out as worthy late-round darts in best-ball land thanks to their potential to at least start in three-WR sets.