News & Analysis

Unclaimed AFC opportunities coming out of free agency

Nov 12, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis (33) runs between the blocks of offensive tackle Nate Solder (77) and fullback James Develin (46) in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

An intuitive and increasingly popular method of determining the fertility of each NFL city’s fantasy soil is an examination of how many rushing attempts and passing targets have been vacated from the prior season. As we do each year around this time, let’s take a post-free-agency spin around the league in search of unaccounted-for opportunity.

We began with the NFC, which you can see here. Now we’re on to the AFC.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins may be floundering their way through their offseason “plan,” but they have a ton of available fantasy opportunity. Their 156 missing wide receiver targets combine with 74 from the tight end spot, and another 46 open backfield looks, to make up the league’s second-largest vacated passing game workload (276, 49 percent). Unless Miami plans to start one of its many slot receivers at tight end, the answer at that spot is likely still to be determined – with all due respect to the many A.J. Derby truthers. The long-awaited DeVante Parker launch remains in a holding pattern, although predictable preseason hype will move him and Kenny Stills – an NFL wideout who has actually done something – in opposite directions on the fantasy value scale.

Kenyan Drake opened eyes down the stretch, but zombie Frank Gore joins him on the depth chart. Still, Drake is enticing, not only due to a sizable portion of the 46 unclaimed running back targets potentially funneling toward him – he already saw 43 last year – but because Miami has 194 vacated carries (57 percent, eighth-most). During the last five weeks of 2017, once he locked down the Dolphins’ lead back role, Drake led the league with 444 rushing yards (4.9 per attempt), had the highest yards-after-contact average (4.1), and the second-highest rushing grade. He also ranked second in elusive rating and fifth in breakaway percentage among 54 qualifying backs. Gore has been a machine, but the best part of his signing is Drake becomes cheaper to acquire.

Cleveland Browns

Carlos Hyde left behind a truckload of opportunity in San Francisco, and while he won’t match his 299 total touches (59 receptions), he’s unlikely to hurt for work in Cleveland. The Browns’ 254 unclaimed rushes (73 percent) are the league’s fifth-most, and there should be more where that came from considering it’s doubtful they again trail on a league-high 76 percent of plays (Hue Jackson: “Hold my beer.”). Despite losing Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas, Hyde is buoyed by a still-strong run-blocking offensive line, as well as by taking handoffs from a mobile quarterback in Tyrod Taylor.

Duke Johnson’s presence and Hyde’s poor performance on passing downs (both catching and blocking), all but guarantee the former 49er won’t sniff last season’s bloated target total (83). However, the ridiculous specter of the Browns drafting a first-round running back appears to be fading. The backfield is not yet complete, but it’s reasonable to expect Hyde to play a prominent role. At least for 2018, his $3.5 million signing bonus portends a healthy share of Cleveland’s ample opportunity, and uncertainty over who else may be added has kept his draft cost reasonable.

Indianapolis Colts

With Frank Gore finally plodding his way out of Indianapolis, 3.7 yards at a time, general manager Chris Ballard and his rebound coach, Frank Reich, need to replace the league’s second-most unclaimed handoffs (262, 61 percent). Riding shotgun next to Andrew Luck is a role once assumed to be a ticket to fantasy fortune, but it’s currently marked by uncertainty – not the least of which is if Captain Luck’s sidearm still fires. Ballard has so far made solid moves in his short time steering the ship, but the S.S. Irsay still lacks requisite talent.

Shoring up an offensive line that helped the Colts to the fourth-worst run-blocking grade, while affording Gore only 1.2 yards before contact, is high on the list no matter who absorbs his touches. Ballard already traded down in the first round, picking up a valuable haul of second-rounders, and is presumably sharp enough not to waste the sixth overall pick on a running back. However, will Reich – who coordinated a Super-Bowl-winning backfield committee – commit to a fantasy-friendly touch distribution? Marlon Mack may have taken one step back for every two yards forward as a rookie, but will still play a role. Beyond that, there remains as much uncertainty here as there is available opportunity.

New England Patriots

Rex Burkhead is well positioned near a mountain of high-quality opportunity, as the Patriots rank top-10 for most unclaimed handoffs (180, 43 percent). Dion Lewis also departed for Tennessee with 33 targets. Burkhead currently shares a backfield with passing-game specialist James White, 2017 disappointment Mike Gillislee, and the ghost of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (a.k.a. Jeremy Hill). The last two are on short money deals, and neither is a roster lock considering they’re likely vying for the same role. This opens the possibility of New England adding further depth at the position. Bill Belichick loves inexpensive talent almost as much as waxing poetic about special teams, and the running back market remains flooded.

Burkhead’s deal — $9.75 million base, $5.5 million guaranteed over three years – ensures he has a large seat at a valuable table, but assigning backfield roles in March is best done with a pencil. As long as he holds up physically, however, Burkhead will likely pay off a still-modest fantasy price tag – especially if he adds to his 36 targets. He averaged four looks during the three games he started last year, but only managed a 25-percent snap rate overall. That will surely grow, making him a worthy fantasy investment. However, don’t be surprised if he has further company when training camp dawns.

Baltimore Ravens

If déjà vu is for you, check out the Ravens and their NFL-high 313 unaccounted for PFF-charted targets (60 percent). They were at the top of the league in the same category last year and essentially produced fantasy flatulence. Despite a late-season push – if it qualifies as such – Joe Flacco failed to throw even 20 touchdowns, while setting career lows in passing yards and yards per attempt. Baltimore retained Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator and re-signed one of the league’s consistently worst offensive linemen, James Hurst. Their revamped pass-catching corps is only slightly less depressing.

The Ravens’ big wide receiver signing was Ryan Grant Michael Crabtree, and the 31-year-old should be a fine PPR-league investment despite a career-low passing-game grade (53rd of 118 wideouts) and dwindling yards-per-reception rate. He does his best work in the short-to-intermediate area, and Flacco’s seven-yard average depth of target in 2017 made even Alex Smith laugh. John Brown was signed to stretch the field, if he can remain on it. The rest of the depth chart needs work. Former first-rounder Breshad Perriman is hanging on the roster by a hair, and Chris Moore is still more theory than practice. Baltimore’s 77 unaccounted-for tight end targets and a nuked free agent market give Maxx Williams truthers hope, as he could finally be a factor on a depressing depth chart.

Denver Broncos

The backfield has gotten most of what little fantasy focus has been on Denver’s offense this offseason. Whether or not C.J. Anderson is retained – John Elway seems ambivalent – and who winds up with the nicest chunk of their 69 unclaimed handoffs, is the closest to buzz the Broncos have come since passing on the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes in favor of a two-year, $36 million contract with Case Keenum. It wasn’t the sexiest of signings, and perhaps that’s why they are getting little early-offseason notice, but the fantasy cost of their pass catchers doesn’t reflect the upgrade in both quarterback quality and overall opportunity.

Keenum was light years better than Denver’s 2017 quarterbacking clown car, grading seventh-best while Brock Osweiler (36th) and Trevor Siemian (39th) butchered the Broncos. Keenum facilitated the fantasy WR11, WR16, and TE7 in an offense that only threw the 21st-most passes. Demaryius Thomas (cheap to draft) and Emmanuel Sanders (essentially free) both ranked as fantasy WR2s, at least, for three straight seasons prior to last year. There are 161 unclaimed targets in the Broncos offense (31 percent, sixth-highest), 82 of which went to wideouts. Redshirt sophomore Carlos Henderson is worth monitoring as a trendy sleeper in a potential third-wideout role, but taking the discount on Thomas and Sanders is the type of boring springtime move that pays dividends in the fall.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans have 29 percent of their targets unaccounted for (132), with the vast majority (88) coming from the wideout position. They have added nobody of note, heightening expectations for 2017 first-rounder Corey Davis, although the steady Rishard Matthews should not be ignored. Davis ended his rookie year well, with two playoff touchdowns – one of the highlight-reel variety – in a loss to the Patriots. Adding to those rising hopes is the hiring of ex-Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as new head coach Mike Vrabel’s play-caller, as well as the Titans finally giving Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” the Old Yeller treatment.

Leftover opportunity is not the only vintage in Tennessee, as they had been a consistently low-volume offense. Last season they ran the fourth-fewest plays, and for the second straight year threw the fifth-fewest passes. Davis will benefit from plenty of vacated targets, a generally higher-volume pass offense, and an update on their Zubaz-era scheme. Taywan Taylor also stands to take a step forward due to a thin receiver depth chart and LaFleur’s penchant for making consistent use of slot receivers during his time with the Rams. Plus, he helped feed Todd Gurley a career-high 76 targets, there are 44 unclaimed running back looks in Tennessee, and Dion Lewis was presumably imported (at significant cost) to soak up those and more.

New York Jets

If your first instinct after hearing the Jets have 149 unclaimed PFF-charted targets (ninth-most, 32 percent) is to say, “so what?” you probably aren’t alone. After last season, however, we shouldn’t be so quick to write them off. New York produced the fantasy WR15 (Robby Anderson) and WR29 (Jermaine Kearse). At various points, Bilal Powell, Matt Forte, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins were relevant. Lack of faith in Josh McCown – more precisely, his ability to stay upright – scared us away from drafting Jets. Now, with McCown and Teddy Bridgewater under contract, and a highly drafted passer on the way, we don’t have to worry about Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty throwing over, under, and up on our fantasy investments.

Of New York’s 149 unclaimed targets, 77 are tight end looks and 47 went to running backs. Powell and Isaiah Crowell can handle the running back targets, but the Jets have no solution at tight end. Most likely, the surplus instead flows to Anderson, Kearse, Quincy Enunwa, and the newly imported Terrelle Pryor. Forte’s retirement vacated 103 handoffs in addition to 44 targets, making Crowell, Powell, and Elijah McGuire more interesting. Crowell gets first crack at the lion’s share of the carries, backed by a freshly signed three-year, $12 million contract ($6 million guaranteed). Buying Jets in fantasy at least comes with the comfort that they won’t lose value via the addition of significant skill position talent. The free agent market is gutted worse than New York’s cache of draft picks, and they’re taking a quarterback first.

Oakland Raiders

New/old Raiders head coach Jon Gruden recently weighed in* on Oakland’s vacated workload:

“I’ll tell ya what, I’m so jacked about all the opportunity available in our offense, man. We don’t have any leftover running back handoffs from last year, so we brought in even more running backs. We got Dougie Martin – wow, was he outstanding three years ago – and we got a real head-droppin’ fullback called Smith. Gotta love that guy, man. He doesn’t even want you to remember his name. We’d have one heckofa selfless team if everyone was named Smith.

Anyway, now we got more running backs, so we’ll run more. We have “multiplicity,” which is Analytics for “more than one running back on the field at once.” It’s gonna be wild, man. Jon Ritchie will be proud.

I pretend I’m not into analytics, but it’s a smokescreen. Tell you what – I dig it! We have a DJ and everything now. When I first head of analytics, I said, “that’s wild, man …but I don’t judge.” Then I went back to drawing plays about fruit and spiders, where fullbacks are primary targets out of I-formations.

Anyway, we have 153 available targets. That’s 29 percent. That’s analytics! What a time to be alive. We also got rid of Crabtree. Who wants crabs on their tree anyway? Instead we got Jordy Nelson. I’d call him Lordy Nelson, but Mr. Davis is very religious. I’d still rather call them all Smith.

Anyway, Jordy is 32 and lost a step, but Jerry Rice gave me nine touchdowns and over 1,100 yards when he was 39 years old. It was wild. This is the same thing, man. They call it “arbitrage.” I’ll tell ya, gotta love those analytics. We got more than probably any team in the league.”

[*Editor’s Note: No he didn’t. The real Jon Gruden may not know what PFF is, and he’s definitely never heard of Pat Thorman.]

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