Analyzing Vacated Targets, Air Yards & Routes (2022 Fantasy Football)
When it comes to fantasy football, volume has always been king. We want the players who generate the most targets and touches – opportunities lead to fantasy points. But not all opportunities are created equal.
It’s time to look across the post-free agency NFL landscape to determine which teams have the most high-end vacated targets and opportunities. We can use this information to identify teams that provide newly acquired free agents and incoming rookies with a bounty of high-value opportunities in 2022.
We can also use it to see which incumbent players will benefit the most from a teammate’s departure from the offense.
Do keep in mind that targets are a skill, and not every player is capable of earning them even with a golden opportunity. A subpar receiver landing somewhere with vacated targets does not always guarantee success. But even so, identifying teams with immediate opportunities for a player to showcase their talent is worth pursuing.
That was the approach behind drafting rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown last year despite his fourth-round draft capital. The Detroit Lions were No. 1 in nearly every vacated target metric last season, which led to ASB seeing a boosted role from the get-go, fueling him to a WR21 finish.
The Kansas City Chiefs look like that team primed to bring forth another stellar rookie wide receiver season.
2022 Vacated Targets
|Vacated Targets||% of Vacated Targets|
It shouldn’t come as a major shock to see the Chiefs atop the vacated target list after losing Tyreek Hill, Byron Pringle, and Demarcus Robinson this offseason. They’ve added some free agents with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but those two alone won’t make up the 53% target percentage lost from 2021.
Smith-Schuster should be viewed as the fantasy favorite based on his clear-cut role in the slot and track record of productivity – two seasons of 125-plus targets. MVS has never commanded 75 targets in a season.
Even if the two combine for 200 targets in 2022, that still leaves over 145 targets ripe for a plucky rookie that Kansas City seems destined to select with one of their two first-round picks.
After the Chiefs, Arizona, Atlanta, Green Bay, Titans, and Bears round out the remaining top-6 teams in vacated target space. Rookie wide receivers could immediately impact any of these squads, but don’t forget about some of the incumbents who could benefit significantly from a lackluster depth chart.
Most notably, A.J. Brown, Kyle Pitts, CeeDee Lamb, Rondale Moore, Cole Kmet, and Darnell Mooney are the names that come to mind of guys who could have massive 2022 seasons. Allen Lazard, Austin Hooper, and Auden Tate also deserve honorable mentions.
Moore is entering his second season with a straightforward path for an expanded role in the Cardinals’ offense. He flashed his potential early on for Arizona in 2021, with 182 receiving yards in his first two NFL games. But Kliff Kingsbury never opted to go back to Moore with the likes of A.J. Green and Christian Kirk playing solid roles. We should see Moore – and his dead-last 1.3 aDOT – experience significant growth in Year 2.
I expect to see similar growth between the Bears’ two projected top-pass catchers in 2021: Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney.
WRs with multiple games of 16-plus targets first two years of their career:
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) March 28, 2022
The Chicago wide receiver room remains glaring, with nobody worth much outside of Darnell Mooney as legitimate competition. Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown should not get anybody overly excited.
And Mooney is already a star in the making. The third-year receiver looks primed to cement himself as the Bears’ true No. 1 wide receiver. He already operated as the team’s No. 1 for most of the 2021 season, ranking as the WR27 in half-point fantasy scoring through 17 weeks. Mooney also finished the last four weeks of the season ninth in target share (27%) and fifth in route participation (95%).
No tight end should make a more considerable third-year leap in 2022 than Kmet because his upside has been capped by a lack of touchdown equity from Jimmy Graham. The veteran is a free agent in 2022.
Kmet’s eighth-ranked 2021 route participation hardly aligns with his fantasy production – no tight end finished with more fantasy points under expectation (-36.6) than the Notre Dame product in 2021.
That designation is a sign Kmet is due for a fantasy breakout. It signaled as much for players like Zach Ertz and Dawson Knox, who scored fewer points than expected in 2020 before contributing for fantasy in 2021. Both tight ends finished last season as top-10 options at the position in fantasy points per game.
2022 Vacated Air Yards
|Vacated Air Yards||% of Vacated Air Yards|
It’s the same usual suspects atop the vacated air yards list, but there are a few teams to call out. After all, a team that lost air yards production from 2021 might be looking to fill that void by drafting a downfield receiver or using an incumbent starter/free-agent signee in a different role., such as Moore in Arizona.
The Raiders and Dolphins lost major air yards from the previous season. Still, they invested heavily by trading for arguably the league’s best two wide receivers in Davante Adams and Hill. Both players will inherit a boat of air yards simply from raw targets, but Hill’s acquisition – an insane track record of being a mean deep threat – could mean Miami views him as their primary deep threat instead of Jaylen Waddle.
Interestingly enough, Hollins signed with the Raiders this offseason. He could carve out a role as the team’s primary deep threat after finishing last season fourth in aDOT (16.7). Hollins will compete with Bryan Edwards for that No. 3 role. Neither will ever get doubled with all the other weapons on the Vegas offense, making them appetizing best-ball options.
The Dallas Cowboys also look to be in the market to add another wide receiver, or else it’s CeeDee Lamb fantasy WR1 season. Big D ranks fifth in vacated air yards and eighth in vacated targets. That’s why Lamb was such a big winner post-NFL-free agency and remains one until Dallas adds someone else of consequence.
The other team worth noting here is the Cleveland Browns. Their team is the perfect example of why it makes sense to look at raw numbers and percentages because the run-heavy nature of their 2021 offense makes the total vacated targets and air yards not nearly as appealing. But a deeper dive into the percentage unveils a golden opportunity for the likes of Amari Cooper and David Njoku.
They rank top-eight in available targets/air yards from a percentage basis – despite not ranking in the top-10 for either from a total number perspective. Considering the offense will likely run considerably less with Deshaun Watson at quarterback, you should be taking stabs on all Browns pass-catchers in dynasty and best-ball formats.
Cooper should provide a higher floor with him slotted as the clear No. 1 wide receiver in Cleveland after seeing just a 15% target share amid high target competition in Dallas. And that floor will be accompanied by an extremely high ceiling with Watson under center.
The ex-Texans quarterback cultivated top fantasy WR finishes for the likes of Brandin Cooks (WR16, 2020) and Will Fuller (WR8/game, 2020). And before that, he supplemented DeAndre Hopkins as the fantasy WR4 and WR10 from 2018-2019. Cooper’s ADP is WR22 on Underdog Fantasy Best Ball.
Donovan Peoples-Jones also becomes an intriguing late-round dart throw as the Browns’ other primary “X” receiver – assuming they don’t also bring in free agent Will Fuller. DPJ finished 2021 second in yards per catch (17.6).
2021 third-round pick Anthony Schwartz also has speed to burn – 4.25 40-yard dash wheels – so he could be a prime benefactor of the vacated air yards in the Browns offense.
Recently franchise-tagged tight end David Njoku also has a chance to break out in 2022 with Watson as his quarterback after an encouraging 2021. He set career highs in PFF grade (70.9, 11th), yards per route run (1.54, 11th), and yards after the catch per reception (7.0, fourth) in 2021.
2022 Vacated Routes Run
|Vacated Routes||Vacated Routes %|
In prior seasons my analysis would have stopped at analyzing vacated air yards and targets, but I was intrigued by the idea of also capturing routes run data as well. Routes run are an indicator of opportunity and predictor of fantasy production – especially at tight end – so I figured it would be worth investigating.
If anything, it does entail that a team’s offense possesses routes that need to be run by somebody. The teams that stick out the most are the Giants and Jaguars. New York ranks fourth, and Jacksonville ranks eighth in vacated routes run.
These findings suggest that these two offenses offer a lot of untapped fantasy potential that isn’t considered enough by market ADP. Both teams were dumpster fires in 2021 under horrible head coaching, so there’s an easy reason to believe they can make the jump from bottom-dwellers to at least league average in 2022.
Especially when considering part of why these teams were so bad in 2021 was because a lot of their best players weren’t on the field. New York, for example, saw the likes of Kyle Rudolph and Devontae Booker have “integral” roles on offense. Jacksonville was doing something similar with a flurry of tight ends, Carlos Hyde and Tavon Austin. Woof.
Therefore, Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Evan Engram, Ricky Seals-Jones, Christian Kirk, and Zay Jones should be firmly on your radar in the later rounds. As healthy full-time starters, they will be able to offer much more than many think.
The same goes for the Titans. Behind Brown, there’s just newly acquired veterans Robert Woods and Austin Hooper. Woods is coming off an ACL injury, so there’s a potential he comes out the gates slow, which could open the opportunity for Hooper or a rookie WR to see an increased role from Day 1.
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