News & Analysis

Unclaimed NFC opportunities coming out of free agency

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 24: LeGarrette Blount #29 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs the ball against Kiko Alonso #47 of the Miami Dolphins in the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 24, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Dolphins 38-31. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The NFL began tracking targets in 1992, but it took far longer for fantasy gamers to widely follow suit. Forecasting opportunity was less prevalent back when we tallied scores on paper and made once-per-week roster moves via phone. Of course, PPR scoring was rare, and having Emmitt Smith’s 373 carries, 1,713 yards, and 18 touchdowns pretty much meant you won.

Times were simpler then.

Nowadays, targets are as commonly thought of as carries, and we can construct 20 lineups during a morning constitutional. Measures of opportunity – including potential opportunity – are in most fantasy gamers’ DNA, more now than even five years ago.

An intuitive and increasingly popular method of determining the fertility of fantasy soil is an examination of rushing attempts and passing targets left 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 begin in the NFC, with the AFC coming on Friday.

Philadelphia Eagles

For the second offseason in a row, Super Bowl champion LeGarrette Blount is leaving a wide swath of opportunity in his considerable wake. While Blount’s 173 vacated handoffs pale in comparison to last year’s 299 leftover carries – not to mention going from 18 rushing touchdowns to only 2 – the Eagles are missing 47 percent of their 2017 tote total. Under Doug Peterson, they’ve opted for a committee backfield, but mid-season pickup Jay Ajayi is in the driver’s seat.

Ajayi’s workload incrementally increased during Philadelphia’s march to the Super Bowl, and from the first time he hit double-digit carries in Week 13, through the end of the playoffs, nobody came close to matching his elusive rating. Corey Clement was well used in a pass-catching role, particularly post-Week-13. He figures to take on more, making him a low-risk PPR dart throw. Running backs are a dime a dozen, and backfields are still solidifying, but investing in affordable backs playing behind strong lines in elite offenses is the optimal way to chase available opportunity.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

So far this offseason, the Buccaneers have been filling roster cracks both real (Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry), and imagined (Cameron Brate). Their most well-known hole is particularly cavernous, however. They have 159 handoffs and 62 PFF-charted running back targets unclaimed from last year, with a depth chart consisting of Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers, and something called Dalton Crossan. If Penn State dynamo Saquon Barkley falls to the Bucs, there’s a strong chance general manager Jason Licht pulls the trigger. After all, positional value hasn’t factored much in his drafting (see: Aguayo, Roberto).

From a fantasy perspective, Tampa Bay would be an ideal landing spot for Barkley. It is an ascending young offense with little competition for the ample available touches. Of course, Barber has shown to be an adequate ball carrier. His rushing grade ranked 16th out of 60 qualifying running backs after he took over as the starter in Week 13. He is worth rostering in deep dynasty leagues due to the offense’s potential and a thin depth chart, but Ray Charles can see more competition coming to the Bucs’ backfield.

San Francisco 49ers

The largest free agent winner from an opportunity standpoint is longtime #MetricsTwitter binky Jerick McKinnon. The four-year, $30 million contract ($11.7 million guaranteed) he received from the 49ers at least ensures he gets first crack at a mountain of opportunity, even if they add to the depth chart in the draft. San Francisco has a whopping 63 percent of their rushing attempts up for grabs (241) and no team has more vacated running back targets (83).

McKinnon was last season’s seventh-highest-graded pass-catching back – as well as the 19th-best on handoffs – and the 99th-percentile SPARQ athlete will play a central role on a smartly coached, well-quarterbacked, rising offense. Kyle Shanahan is one of the few truly difference-making coaches for fantasy running backs, and the versatile McKinnon will benefit – putting him squarely in RB2 territory, with upside from there.

New York Giants

The Giants are a tough projection, but the stakes are high. They have a meaty 219 unclaimed handoffs (57 percent, fifth-highest), as well as the third-most vacated running back targets (79). Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins are holdovers, and only Gallman appears worth holding onto. Cult hero Terrell Watson also lurks at the end of a depth chart currently headed by former Panther Jonathan Stewart, who signed a two-year, $6.9 million contract ($2.95 million guaranteed). While Stewart has familiarity with new offensive coordinator Mike Shula, and was acquired by former general manager Dave Gettleman, his role is tenuous if the Giants add even modest talent in the draft.

It seems unlikely New York selects Barkley with the second overall pick when they have a 37-year-old quarterback who hasn’t played well in a half-decade, but it can’t be ruled out. Either way, any fantasy investment in Stewart should be light. He hasn’t averaged more than 3.8 yards per carry since 2015 or earned a positive passing game grade since 2013. The Giants did add Nate Solder, but the rest of their offensive line remains a train wreck, and the few linemen who had (slightly) positive run-blocking grades have walked in free agency.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have 36 percent of their rushing attempts unaccounted for (150), and the assumption that they will mostly flow to Dalvin Cook has boosted his draft stock to the first-round fringe. While Cook tore his ACL relatively early in the season (Oct. 1), Latavius Murray substituted more capably than most folks expected. This is not to say Cook won’t lead the backfield, or eventually assume the feature-back-level workload he appeared to earn before he was injured. However, it will likely be unnecessary to ride him hard, especially early on, with an upgraded Kirk Cousins-led passing attack.

Speaking of passes, the Vikings have very few vacated targets (98, 20 percent), but nearly two-thirds came from their backfield. Cook averaged 4.3 looks in his three full games, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him, after the departure of Jerick McKinnon, become more involved in the passing game at the expense of a handful of handoffs. If it winds up being anywhere close to a one-for-one exchange, it would be far from the worst tradeoff a fantasy running back can make.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers’ 141 targets vacated from 2017 (28 percent) are nothing to sneeze at considering the arguable best quarterback in the league delivers them. We can assume they will pass more with Brett Hundley again buckled to the bench. Green Bay’s 89 missing wide receiver looks are the ninth-most, and knowing Aaron Rodgers’ lack of patience with pass-catchers slow to pick up the nuances of the offense, they’ll be ticketed for receivers he trusts. Davante Adams is fairly priced, if expensive, and Randall Cobb shapes up as a bargain.

Even slowed by years of abuse, Jimmy Graham’s presence – along with the Packers’ 52 unclaimed tight end targets – is commanding attention. At this stage, he excels near the goal line, which is where the departed Jordy Nelson most recently thrived. We can safely ignore the “Packers’ tight ends are fantasy dead-ends” narrative as correlation confused with causation. Their tight ends have mostly stunk relative to their wideouts. Geronimo Allison currently projects as a starter in three-wide sets, and Ty Montgomery may again factor here. The Packers are one of only two teams with zero unclaimed handoffs, and the Aaron Jones/Jamaal Williams pairing acquitted itself well in 2017.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals have a hefty 229 unclaimed targets from last season (41 percent), and while David Johnson will soak up most of the 83 running back looks – and probably lead his position in receptions – their remaining wideouts won’t hurt for opportunity. “Hurt” is an operative word in the desert, with Sam “Good When Healthy” Bradford signing as their bridge quarterback. Currently a bridge to nowhere, as the Cardinals have no passer of the future, Bradford’s tenuous health adds risk to the workload of the annually under-drafted Larry Fitzgerald, as well as late-round fliers J.J. Nelson, Ricky Seals-Jones, and even Chad Williams.

Arizona’s bargain pass-catchers are likely to remain inexpensive for good reason. The all-too-real prospect of Mike Glennon taking over doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, and we can’t count on the Cardinals throwing the fifth-most passes again. A new coaching staff is in place, and Johnson makes handing off a lot more appealing than did last season’s clown-car backfield. However, for as long as Bradford remains upright, there is value to be mined among the Cardinals’ increasingly shallow group of receivers.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have been shedding more talent than Derek Jeter in his prime, and picking up Ed Dickson to ostensibly replace Jimmy Graham doesn’t exactly earn a gift basket. Our 48th-graded pass-catching tight end last year, Dickson has never received a positive grade in the passing game or as a run-blocker, and at best, occupies a precarious spot atop the depth chart. An interesting alternative to monitor is Nick Vannett, Seattle’s 6-6, 261-pound third-round pick from 2016. With 112 vacated tight end targets contributing to a juicy 211-target team total (42 percent, fifth-highest), passing game opportunities abound for whoever is left to line up with Russell Wilson. Boost Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett in your rankings.

While Seahawks pass-catchers are flush with high-quality opportunity via Wilson, whoever lines up in his backfield is staring at a dwindling vacated carry total (127, 13th-most), behind a still-under-construction offensive line. The jettisoning of Tom Cable is a plus, and signing D.J. Fluker portends more power blocking, but the workload distribution in an again-crowded backfield remains foggy. Chris Carson is the current favorite to head the committee, but Mike Davis is back in the fold and C.J. Prosise is healthy, at least for now. It should surprise no one if the Seahawks are not done adding, and after last year – when five different backs had at least 48 carries – it is tough to place a significant bet on any horse right now.

Chicago Bears

With the Bears ridding themselves of the predictably poor Markus Wheaton contract, they have 171 unclaimed wide receiver targets from 2017 (76 percent of 224 PFF-charted passes). Prior to free agency, their depth chart consisted of Cameron Meredith coming off a brutal preseason knee tear (he may depart as a restricted free agent), household names Josh Bellamy, Tanner Gentry, and Mekale McKay, in addition to Kevin White – the 2015 seventh overall pick who’s been as reliable as a ’71 Ford Pinto. Ryan Pace’s prior free agency work has been far from artistic, but he had a fresh canvas on which to paint former Jaguar Allen Robinson and ex-Falcon Taylor Gabriel.

Throw in former Eagles tight end Trey Burton, and the passing-game picture suddenly looks far brighter than last season. Second-year passer Mitchell Trubisky also gets a coaching upgrade and will take positive steps under new head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Nagy has the requisite pieces – including speedy second-year chess piece Tarik Cohen – to replicate the passing game success he had last year in Kansas City. Even if there are early growing pains, we will want fantasy shares of a passing attack flush with both talent and opportunity.

(Check back Friday for a look at the unclaimed-opportunities outlook in the AFC.)

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