AFC Target Analysis (2021 Fantasy Football)
The offseason is filled with numerous changes, player movement, retirements, draft picks, all that have the ability to change how we perceive an offense to operate for fantasy football purposes. 2021 is certainly no different, as there’s been a ton of movement for fantasy-relevant players.
Look no further than two of last year’s biggest examples: Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins, who both changed teams and transformed their offenses and allowed for other players that replaced them to thrive as well. There is so much push and pull, give and take with each player move that one move can affect a cascade of other personnel decisions.
Today, I’ll be going through each AFC team and discussing each positional situation with departed targets and new additions to see how this shapes up for target distribution in fantasy football in 2021.
The addition of Bateman threw a bit of a wrench into what we can reasonably project to be one of the lowest volume passing games in 2021. Baltimore only passed the ball 406 times, which is the lowest team total since 2012’s Seattle Seahawks, who only passed 405 times. While Bateman may not lead the team in targets this season, reasonable expectation allows the rookie to be a significant factor in how the offense operates. Of course, this all hinges on some passing game improvement from Lamar Jackson.
From this current construction, expect Marquise Brown, who led the Ravens in targets in 2020, to battle it out with a presumably healthy Mark Andrews for the target lead in 2021. Brown will always be a difficult start in seasonal leagues until he shows week-to-week consistency, but he’s an excellent mid-round snag in Best Ball formats. We know this Baltimore offense will be a run-heavy as it’s always been, so expecting the Ravens to fully support more than two pass-catchers is an aggressive line of thinking. Bateman may show spurts but is ultimately somebody to stash away for bye weeks rather than having consistent value through the season. As for Watkins? Wait and see. We’ve been burned one too many times on Sammy Watkins, and going from Kansas City to Baltimore doesn’t exactly excite, well, anybody.
J.K. Dobbins led the Ravens’ running backs with a not-so-robust 24 targets and is the clubhouse leader to lead the team in his sophomore season. That said, unless the Ravens make a concerted effort to get him the ball in the passing game, he probably won’t increase that number by much in year two.
John Brown (WR – LV) – 52 targets
Tyler Kroft (TE – NYJ) – 16 targets
Lee Smith (TE – ATL) – 6 targets
Andre Roberts (WR – HOU) – 5 targets
T.J. Yeldon (RB – FA) – 4 targets
Total: 83 targets available
With Stefon Diggs amassing 166 targets and fully entrenched as the lead dog in Buffalo, there are some targets for the taking here now that John Brown has headed west to Las Vegas. Cole Beasley had over 100 targets himself and turned in a fine season finished as WR27, but that may change with the distribution of targets for 2021.
We could see the targets after Diggs pool together for Beasley and Gabriel Davis barring a year-two breakout from Davis. The Bills have done right by their young budding superstar quarterback Josh Allen by adding as much talent to the skill positions as feasible. Davis is somebody to watch to see if he can take the bull by the horns and separate himself from the two veterans in the target hierarchy. If he can, he’s going to be an intriguing fantasy piece for managers. Sanders seems like more of a real-world football piece than a fantasy asset to me.
The Buffalo tight ends garnered the second-lowest percentage of target share by position in the AFC last season, so you have to figure that not much is likely to change with Dawson Knox and the newcomer Hollister. Over to the running back room, this true 50/50 split between backfield mates Devin Singletary and Zack Moss is likely not going fruitful from a passing game perspective, though both did receive 50 and 44 targets, respectively.
A.J. Green (WR – ARI) – 104 targets
Giovani Bernard (RB – TB) – 59 targets
Alex Erickson (WR – HOU) – 17 targets
Cethan Carter (TE – MIA) – 7 targets
John Ross (WR – NYG) – 7 targets
Total: 194 targets available
Ja’Marr Chase (WR – CIN)
Exit stage left to the veteran Green, but enter fifth overall pick Ja’Marr Chase to reunite with Joe Burrow from their days at LSU. Three Bengals receivers had 100-plus targets last season, and with the current state of the defense, Burrow is likely to throw a ton this season.
Joe Mixon is finally slated for that juicy passing down work that eluded him last season before his health eluded him after Week 6! It’s been a long time coming, but it seems like we can finally put a bit of confidence into Mixon’s three-down role. Mixon should lead the rest of the team after the three receivers.
Speaking of, with Chase added to Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, these three should be excellent options at receiver for fantasy managers. Who leads the triumvirate is anybody’s guess but projecting each over 100 targets is certainly no stretch.
Anthony Schwartz (WR – CLE)
The Cleveland Browns’ passing game largely remains intact from last season to this season, barring a couple of minor contributions. The passing game does hinge on the continued development of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who looked great towards the end of last season and looks to parlay that into 2021 success.
We should see wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry pace the team again in targets, with Austin Hooper slotting in behind them. We have yet to see the Beckham of yesteryear in New York, and frankly, we may not ever again. The Browns offense is predicated on running the ball and controlling the time of possession. Schwartz could be interesting as a deep-ball specialist, but that role doesn’t call for a usable target share, especially from a fantasy perspective, and he’s a developmental wide receiver project to boot.
Hooper should lead the tight end grouping in Cleveland again. Still, as for the running backs, Kareem Hunt should lead the charge yet again as we don’t see Nick Chubb mattering in that aspect of the offense as much as fantasy managers hope and pray he does.
DaeSean Hamilton (WR – FA) – 44 targets
Nick Vannett (TE – NO) – 21 targets
Troy Fumagalli (TE – NE) – 15 targets
Phillip Lindsay (RB – HOU) – 14 targets
Jake Butt (TE – FA) – 4 targets
Total: 98 targets available
With the Broncos bringing in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater via trade this offseason, the seat under incumbent Drew Lock is scorching hot. Whoever the quarterback is for the Broncos, they’ve got quite a young and tantalizing grouping of skill position players to pass to.
Courtland Sutton is not technically an addition, but he only played in Week 2 before being lost for the season. Between Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and tight end Noah Fant, the trio should flirt with 100 targets each in this offense. After that, all bets are off because then we get into the likes of deep threat wide receiver KJ Hamler and Tim Patrick, who the Broncos leaned on last season when Sutton was injured.
Melvin Gordon is still an adept pass-receiving back and should be locked in for a healthy dose of targets, but with day two selection Javonte Williams squarely in the mix for work in Denver’s backfield, projecting either of them out for significant passing work is not a fruitful endeavor. The Broncos’ backfield could be a 50/50 split down the middle if neither asserts themselves in 2021, making for a fantasy headache.
Fant is far and away the best option here at tight end for the Broncos and the third option in the passing game. Fant has Sutton and Jeudy to navigate to get to that 100 target mark, but at worst, he should be a fringe TE1 with obvious upside given his athletic gifts.
Will Fuller (WR – MIA) – 75 targets
Duke Johnson (RB – FA) – 35 targets
Darren Fells (TE – DET) – 28 targets
Chad Hansen (WR – FA) – 24 targets
Kenny Stills (WR – FA) – 19 targets
C.J. Prosise (RB – TB) – 5 targets
DeAndre Carter WR – WAS) – 2 targets
Total: 188 targets available
Rex Burkhead (RB – HOU)
Mark Ingram (RB – HOU)
Phillip Lindsay (RB – HOU)
Nico Collins (WR – HOU)
Chris Conley (WR – HOU)
Andre Roberts (WR – HOU)
Alex Erickson (WR – HOU)
Donte Moncrief (WR – HOU)
Taywan Taylor (WR – HOU)
Brevin Jordan (TE – HOU)
Where to begin.
The Houston Texans completely overhauled most of their offense, and depending on the legal issues surrounding Deshaun Watson; they may not have the one player that can bring this band of misfits together. Should Watson not be available in Week 1, the quarterbacking duties fall to journeyman Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Driskel, or rookie Davis Mills. Yikes.
We know that the target leader is likely incumbent Brandin Cooks, who just produces for what team he’s playing for that season. He will undoubtedly receive a considerable share of targets no matter who is passing to him. While the quality of targets could be an ongoing issue as the Texans figure to be on the losing end of most games, the sheer volume will be the friend to Cooks for low-end WR2 work in fantasy. After Cooks, it’s anybody’s guess who emerges among these wide receivers. Could it be the veteran Randall Cobb? Maybe Keke Coutee? Even the rookie Nico Collins could factor in, but you’re not drafting any of the names in this receiver group after Cooks. Take a wait-and-see approach.
Jordan Akins at tight end will be very deep on waivers after your fantasy drafts, and while he may provide bouts of fringe usefulness, but ultimately, he lacks any sort of upside if Watson isn’t throwing him the ball. Brevin Jordan could find his way into some targets replacing the departed Darren Fells, but not enough for relevant fantasy consideration.
Who may surprise is David Johnson. He could be at the receiving end of dump-off passes and garner some low-end RB2 utility due to his prowess in catching the ball. He just needs to stay healthy to capitalize on that work, but the opportunity is there, even with Lindsay, Burkhead, and Ingram. Or the Texans could mix and match every back and make this an actual fantasy nightmare scenario. The roster is pretty much that already, so why not lean into it?
Kylen Granson (TE – IND)
All of the skill position players largely remain the same transitioning into 2021, but the quarterback does get an upgrade (depending on who you ask.)
Carson Wentz was the major acquisition this offseason via trade and should be a clear upgrade in the passing game as far as getting the ball downfield. He gets some familiarity with head coach Frank Reich, which should put Wentz at ease a little bit as far as nailing down passing game concepts and working with his new receivers.
Those receivers could be a log jam, especially if T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell remain healthy. Add in Michael Pittman, and you’ve got what could be a three-way split of targets in Indianapolis. The odds on bet to lead the trio would be the elder statesman Hilton for me. Hilton is being drafted at WR52 according to FantasyPros’ Expert Consensus Rankings, cheaper than Pittman (WR47) in terms of average draft position (ADP).
Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor should both attain healthy target shares for running backs, as Hines has the specialized passing game role and Taylor being an adept pass-catcher in his own right. Taylor had 39 targets in a part-time role for much of the year, so a number like 55-60 targets would be a healthy yet realistic projection for him.
The tight end room in Indianapolis used to be chock full of talent, and while Jack Doyle was included in that once upon a time, you probably can’t say that now. Mo Alie-Cox could find his way into a red-zone role too, but let’s be honest: you’re not chasing the tight end position for the Colts in terms of fantasy production.
Keelan Cole (WR – NYJ) – 88 targets
Chris Conley (WR – HOU) – 63 targets
Tyler Eifert (TE – FA) – 60 targets
Chris Thompson (RB – FA) – 23 targets
Eric Saubert (TE – DEN) – 4 targets
Bruce Miller (FB – FA) – 2 targets
Dede Westbrook (WR – FA) – 1 target
Craig Reynolds (RB – FA) – 1 target
Total: 242 targets available
The Jaguars hit the proverbial reset button on the franchise and selected Trevor Lawrence to lead the franchise as starting quarterback starting in 2021. With new head coach Urban Meyer in tow, we’ll see what excitement that brings to Jacksonville.
Focusing on the running backs, I can see Etienne taking an “Alvin Kamara-lite” type role in the Jaguars offense with 65-70 receiving targets and a split of rushing workload with last season’s fantasy RB7 James Robinson. Robinson himself may get a solid workload of targets as well, working well within fantasy rosters that wait to roster running backs or as a back that has contingent value if something happens to Etienne.
If Meyer and the Jaguars decide to use Laviska Shenault as a gadget-type player in the line of Percy Harvin or Curtis Samuel at Florida and Ohio State, then Shenault could be one of the biggest steals of drafts. There is D.J. Chark and free-agent acquisition Marvin Jones to contend with as well for targets, but the pecking order should still be Chark – Shenault – Jones for target share.
Involving the tight end doesn’t seem as high of a priority for Jacksonville as the team let Tyler Eifert walk.
Tim Tebow? No.
Kansas City Chiefs
The targets in Kansas City revolve around two players: Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Could we see a third develop into a tertiary role? Between Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Mecole Hardman, one of the two (or both!) could work their way into more targets, with 74 available from the departures in the offseason. Hardman just needs to refine his route tree, and Edwards-Helaire just needs to keep fending off Darrel Williams for the work on third downs.
The wide receiver targets outside of Hill are a lottery of sorts. One guy comes up each week to score a random touchdown or a smattering of targets; they pop up in waiver wire articles and then rinse, repeat. Guessing who will do this every week is not worth the trouble, so just leave players like Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle on your waiver wire.
Las Vegas Raiders
I’m guessing the Raiders don’t want Josh Jacobs catching the ball out of the backfield, so much so that they went out and grabbed Kenyan Drake AND Theo Riddick? A genuinely perplexing move, but for fantasy purposes, Drake should be an excellent utility back and RB3 who will get some work on the ground and catch 55-60 balls. Drake is a definite #ZeroRB candidate, which seems weird considering that at this time last year, we were selecting Drake from the end of the first round to the beginning of the second round. While Jacobs should be the primary option on the ground, 40 targets should be his ceiling in this offense.
The Raiders made a solid move plucking John Brown from Buffalo. While he’s probably there to help mentor Henry Ruggs, I believe that Brown outproduces Ruggs in every way in 2021. Simply put, the Raiders need to figure out what to do with Ruggs to put him in the best position to succeed. Brown is a solid bet to get close to, if not over 100 targets, with Ruggs and slot man Hunter Renfrow bringing up the rear behind those two.
Darren Waller is pretty good. Should I end there? Well, Waller is definitely in the conversation for fantasy’s overall TE2 next to Travis Kelce. He should comfortably lead the Raiders in targets, receiving yards, and every other meaningful receiving statistic.
Los Angeles Chargers
With the ascension of Justin Herbert as the Chargers’ quarterback, the outlook of this offense looks much rosier than it did at this point in the last offseason.
With offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi now in Los Angeles, it’s a welcome sign for those who are advocates for Austin Ekeler. Ekeler should flirt with the top target getters among running backs in the entire NFL in 2021, thanks to Lombardi’s history with pass-catching backs like Alvin Kamara and in Detroit with backs like Joique Bell, Reggie Bush, and Theo Riddick. With the backup running ambiguity between Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley continuing from last season, it should only help Ekeler get more work than he ever has before.
The Chargers also brought in Jared Cook, who has familiarity with Lombardi, so that should be a lateral transition as far as skill at the tight end position for Herbert. He may not achieve high target totals in 2021, but he should be in a prime position to succeed in fantasy as the Chargers should be scoring quite a bit.
The real meat here lies in the passing game with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, both of whom should be reaching triple-digits in targets provided that health is on their side. Especially Allen, who seems to have a new lease on fantasy life after being a consensus fifth or sixth-round pick in since he was projected to have Tyrod Taylor throwing him the ball in 2020. Allen is a stud WR1 in fantasy and could reasonably lead the NFL in targets if things break right.
Williams is making a colossal contract number this season, but right now is the deep threat, so while that may not bode well for target volume, he should see a healthy dose with his big 6’4″ frame. He should be going much higher than WR50 in FantasyPros’ ECR.
Isaiah Ford (WR – FA) – 44 targets
Matt Breida (RB – BUF) – 10 targets
DeAndre Washington (RB – FA) – 9 targets
Antonio Callaway (WR – KC) – 4 targets
Chandler Cox (FB – FA) – 2 targets
Jordan Howard (RB – PHI) – 1 target
Total: 70 available targets
It would not surprise me if either Waddle or Fuller led the Dolphins in targets in 2021, but I would lean Fuller here because he’s the veteran. Waddle is DEFINITELY the better draft value than Fuller right now. DeVante Parker is still around in Miami, but there’s a target crunch coming for either Parker or tight end Mike Gesicki. There just does not seem to be enough targets to make all four of them relevant in fantasy in 2021 unless quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is Superman. Can he be?
My money is on Gesicki being crunched out of targets in this offense, as he has the most replaceable role within the offense. 2020’s offensive coordinator Chan Gailey who loves tight end slot usage, is now gone, so the writing may be on the wall. To add insult, the Dolphins drafted Boston College’s Hunter Long in the third round in April. Still, Gesicki should see 70-75 targets, but that’s nowhere near the amount he should be getting if he’s worth his TE11 ADP.
New England Patriots
Damiere Byrd (WR – CHI) – 77 targets
Julian Edelman (WR – FA) – 39 targets
Rex Burkhead (RB – HOU) – 33 targets
Ryan Izzo (TE – HOU) – 20 targets
Donte Moncrief (WR – HOU) – 2 targets
Total: 171 targets available
We saw the Patriots spend as no Patriots team has ever spent before in free agency. It was honestly wild, but they gained four offensive skill-position upgrades and then nabbed a quarterback of the future in Mac Jones to boot.
The only passing game running back worth anything is James White, as Damien Harris and Sony Michel do not feature in the passing game. While White won’t have the greatest quarterback of all-time throwing to him to boost his PPR profile, White is still solid enough to provide a portion of the utility he once had, so 60-70 targets seem like a substantial number. He won’t offer much if anything running the ball.
Between the four free-agent signees Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, there should be a target pile-up where nobody wins, but each does just okay for fantasy. Add in the holdover from last season Jakobi Meyers to the mix, and you’re looking at roughly 75-90 targets for each player. This passing game is a situation where any of these players could conceivably lead the team in targets, but if you need to choose one, I like Agholor for his deep ball prowess that he showed last season in Las Vegas. He’s transformed his game from his time in Philadelphia, and if he develops more of an intermediate route tree, he could separate himself from the pack in New England.
New York Jets
Breshad Perriman (WR – DET) – 60 targets
Chris Hogan (WR – FA) – 26 targets
Frank Gore (RB – FA) – 19 targets
Kalen Ballage (RB – PIT) – 10 targets
Le’Veon Bell (RB – FA) – 3 targets
Total: 118 targets available
The Jets added many pieces to their offense, namely a new quarterback in BYU’s Zach Wilson. Wilson’s development will undoubtedly be the key in how this offense distributes its targets and, ultimately, fantasy success.
The Jets have a ton of backs on their roster right now, and with a Kyle Shanahan-influence present in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, we could be seeing musical chairs across this backfield which makes it incredibly difficult to pin one down in fantasy. Rookie Michael Carter has the highest ADP of the running backs, but we’ve seen Tevin Coleman be a thorn in fantasy managers’ sides for years in Atlanta and San Francisco. Apparently, this act is on tour. Competent advice would be to select the cheapest option in drafts and go from there instead of spending higher draft capital on Carter or Coleman.
Corey Davis was brought in to New York on a big contract, but there are still quite a few names in this receiving room, namely Jamison Crowder, last season’s rookie Denzel Mims, and rookie Elijah Moore. Davis looks like the solid best as the WR1 in this offense, but that translates into low-end WR3 work for fantasy with some ambiguity as to how much this offense passes the ball with a rookie quarterback and an offensive line that has talent but has yet to gel.
Do we go back to the well with Chris Herndon now that former head coach Adam Gase is gone and nobody is there to have Herndon block on roughly 25% of snaps? Well, at the very least, Herndon is a sleeper candidate. Just keep his name filed away for now.
With a major and minor addition in the running back room plus the returning JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Pittsburgh Steelers look to remain pretty much the same in terms of target distribution from 2020 to 2021.
Replacing James Conner‘s target share should be the rookie Najee Harris, who likely slots right into the starting running back role starting in Week 1. He firmly seats behind all three wide receivers and possibly tight end Eric Ebron in the target hierarchy, but with the drafting of Harris, we could see a philosophical shift in the offense.
Amazingly enough, offensive coordinator Matt Canada may not want Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball 45 times a game and instead lean on the run game to pass more. While that caps a bit of upside off of the receivers, the receiver group should be just fine.
Diontae Johnson finished sixth in the NFL in total targets with 144 and should lead the team yet again. Chase Claypool may love seeing Smith-Schuster back in a Steeler uniform, but fantasy managers hate it for the upside that was lopped off by GM Kevin Colbert bringing JuJu back on a one-year pact. The Steelers passed out of 11 personnel at the third-highest rate in the NFL, but when the Steelers only had two wide receivers on the field, it was Claypool who came off the field. Still, it’s hard to keep him off the field, so I still like the trio for fantasy and will prioritize Johnson, Claypool, and Smith-Schuster in that order.
Ebron and rookie Pat Freiermuth should be a solid tight end combo, but with Ebron the distant fourth target and a touchdown-dependent one at that, he’s a TE2 for me with Freiermuth in tow now.
Corey Davis (WR – NYJ) – 92 targets
Jonnu Smith (TE – NE) – 65 targets
Adam Humphries (WR – WAS) – 35 targets
Kalif Raymond (WR – DET) – 15 targets
MyCole Pruitt (TE – SF) – 8 targets
D’Onta Foreman (RB – FA) – 1 target
Total: 215 targets available
Early Sunday morning, news broke that the Tennessee Titans have traded for Julio Jones, so clearly, this has a huge impact on the Titans’ target outlook, right? You have to figure that in this efficiency-based offense with two stud, alpha options, that they both can eat and feed off of one another. Even if Ryan Tannehill and the Titans pass the ball slightly more than in 2020 (481 pass attempts), if both A.J. Brown and Jones can attain close to a 25% target share, they’ll be locked-in WR1 options. A 130 target projection is a fair amount for both players, and both can wreak havoc on opposing defenses. One has to wonder if this acquisition crunches Josh Reynolds from any meaningful work, and the answer is looking to be a yes. The Titans passed in 11 personnel (3WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) at the second-lowest rate last season and there’s no chance either of Brown or Jones come off the field barring injury.
We know that Derrick Henry does his damage on the ground and not through the air, but could he see a slight uptick? With Jones now in tow, I’m not so sure. It helps Henry on the ground, but his ceiling is low and potentially lower to project targets. Maybe the Titans get some more involvement from last season’s Day 3 draft pick Darrynton Evans or former Atlanta Falcon Brian Hill in that department?
One of the more divisive takes I’ve seen this offseason is regarding Titans tight end Anthony Firkser, who with the Jones trade should still see the field but becomes more of a touchdown-dependent option. That said, Firkser did block on the lowest percentage of pass plays in the NFL and is strictly on the field to run block and run routes. He flashes in limited opportunities and could find himself a sleeper as we get deeper into the summer. Worst case scenario pegs him as Cameron Brate, but best case? He could be a less fleet-footed Mike Gesicki. I’ll take that bet as half-PPR TE25 in FantasyPros’ ECR.
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