Fantasy football: Things I learned while compiling 2017 projections – ESPN

Before I dive into this, let’s get this out of the way: I’m the guy who does the player projections here at ESPN.

You know that “Proj” column on your team page that never proves accurate? Yeah, all me.

Although some would swear the projection numbers are totally automated or randomly generated, I assure you they are not. I have a lengthy process that involves both statistical calculations and subjective inputs. The latter is where this piece truly comes in handy. To begin each league year, I go team by team and thoroughly analyze historical league, team, coach and player trends. From there, on the player level, I generate projected dropback, carry and target shares for each player.

I recently completed that process and — for the first time ever — I took notes. Below are those notes, as well as a look at how they will affect fantasy production in 2017.

Note: During the 2016 season, leaguewide target shares by position were as follows: tailback — 17 percent, fullback — 1 percent, wide receiver — 61 percent, tight end — 21 percent. The necessity for this context will quickly become apparent.

1. Cardinals WR John Brown is averaging 6.9 targets per game (20 percent share) during the 35 games in which he has played at least 70 percent of the pass-play snaps. Brown was limited by a sickle-cell issue last season, but the team has said it is now under control. Fantasy’s No. 22 scoring wide receiver in 2015 is a prime bounce-back candidate as an underrated Arizona offense’s No. 2 wideout behind 33-year-old Larry Fitzgerald.

2. Bills RB LeSean McCoy‘s carry share has progressively decreased from 75 percent in 2011 to right around 70 percent during the 2012-14 seasons to 62 percent in 2015 (his first with Buffalo) and to 58 percent in 2016. McCoy’s snap and pass-down usage also has trended downward, although his target share has held up pretty well. McCoy turns 29 this year, Mike Gillislee is lurking, and Buffalo is unlikely to be quite as run-heavy with Rex Ryan out of the picture. McCoy is still a strong RB1 option but figures to see a slight dip in fantasy production this season.

3. When active, Bills TE Charles Clay has been on the field for 88 percent of the team’s snaps, 78 percent of the carries and handled 21 percent of the targets each of the past two seasons. Those are huge numbers for any tight end. Clay’s role may change in Buffalo’s new-look, Rick Dennison-led offense, but he currently faces little competition for every-down duties.

4. More Bills? Sure, let’s go for it. WR Sammy Watkins is averaging 7.8 targets per game (27 percent share) during the 32 games in which he has played at least 70 percent of the pass-play snaps. Watkins was fantasy’s No. 7 scoring wide receiver during the 11 weeks that fit that bill in 2015. That, of course, was prior to his injury-ravaged 2016 campaign. Watkins is still only 23 years old and in line for a massive workload again this season.

5. Bears WR Cameron Meredith averaged a healthy 7.3 targets per game (21 percent share) during the 12 games in which he played at least 40 percent of the pass-play snaps last year. Teammate Kevin White was targeted 35 times (25 percent) in just under four games of action. The two 24-year-old wide receivers currently sit 1-2 on Chicago’s depth chart following Alshon Jeffery‘s departure. The likes of Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton and Zach Miller will contribute, but Mike Glennon‘s two 6-foot-3 targets will be busy.

6. Browns WR Corey Coleman averaged 6.9 targets per game (22 percent share) during the 10 games in which he played as a rookie. He was on the field for 92 percent of Cleveland’s pass plays during the span. Newcomer Kenny Britt may enter the season as the club’s No. 1 wide receiver, but Coleman was a first-round pick for a reason. Coleman will see enough volume to position him for a second-year breakout, but touchdowns may elude him in a Cleveland offense unlikely to find pay dirt often.

7. Cowboys WR Cole Beasley handled between four and six targets in 13 of 17 games last season. He saw seven (twice), nine and 12 in the other four outings. Beasley played 58 percent of Dallas’ snaps, including 75 percent of pass plays and handled 20 percent of the targets. All were career highs. Beasley finished 40th among wide receivers in fantasy points, and considering his usage in Dallas’ run-heavy offense, that’s likely his ceiling in non-PPR formats.

8. Cowboys WR Dez Bryant is averaging 8.8 targets per game (27 percent target share) during the 53 games in which he has played at least three-quarters of the pass-play snaps since the start of 2013. That level of usage places Bryant where he belongs among the league’s top wide receiver talents. Bryant posted a top-10 fantasy performance during 38.5 percent of his outings last season, which was fifth best at the position.

9. Check out the tight end target share in new Broncos OC Mike McCoy’s offense over the past five years: 25, 28, 23, 24, 27. Granted he had Antonio Gates in San Diego the past four years, but the team also kept Ladarius Green and Hunter Henry busy. In 2012, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen combined for 149 targets (24 percent share). A.J. Derby is currently the team’s top tight end, and the free-agent market has cleared up at the spot, but don’t be shocked if Denver looks at O.J. Howard or David Njoku with the 20th pick of April’s draft.

10. Lions WR Golden Tate has been on the field for at least 87 percent of his team’s snaps (one season with Seattle, three with Detroit) and handled at least 21 percent of the targets in four consecutive seasons. The durable and versatile Tate is averaging 7.6 targets and 0.4 carries per game during the span. Last season, Tate ranked 23rd among wide receivers in fantasy points, including 10th after Week 5. Detroit did nothing in free agency to suggest the 28-year-old Tate won’t play a huge role again this season.

11. During his first two seasons in the NFL, Lions TE Eric Ebron caught four of five end zone targets. Last season, Ebron was limited to two end zone targets (he caught one) and no additional targets while inside the opponent’s 5-yard line. This helps explain why Ebron scored once on 61 receptions. Ebron can’t block a garden gnome, but he’s an athletically gifted 6-foot-4, 255 pounds and a playmaker in the passing game. Detroit needs to correct this error and get its 23-year-old weapon the ball near the goal line.

12. During head coach Bill O’Brien’s first two seasons with the Texans, 12 percent of the team’s targets were directed at the tight end position. Last year, that mark nearly tripled to 31 percent. So, was it a change in strategy or the product of QB Brock Osweiler? It seems to be a bit of both. Houston had two or more tight ends on the field for 24 percent of its offensive snaps in 2014 (14th), 20 percent in 2015 (20th) and 20 percent in 2016 (18th). So, no big changes there. Of Osweiler’s 557 aimed throws, 31.6 percent were directed at a tight end. Of Tom Savage’s 70 aimed throws, 24.3 percent went to a tight end (although C.J. Fiedorowicz did miss one of his games). With Osweiler gone and WRs Braxton Miller and Will Fuller entering their second year, expect fewer throws to the tight end position this season.

13. During the past two seasons, Colts WR Donte Moncrief was on the field for at least 70 percent of the team’s pass plays in 18 games. He averaged 7.8 targets per game (21 percent share) during the span. Granted he was too touchdown-dependent, but Moncrief finished two-thirds of his outings as a top-30 fantasy wideout last season. Only A.J. Green and Jordy Nelson posted a higher rate. Moncrief has struggled with injuries, but he’s only 23 and positioned well as Andrew Luck‘s No. 2 target.

14. Over the past 10 years, the offenses of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski have directed a minimum of 20 percent of the targets to the tight end position. Chudzinski’s average is 26 percent and Pagano’s 23 percent during the span. Dwayne Allen was shipped to New England, opening the door for Jack Doyle to emerge as the team’s clear top tight end. Doyle scored the 13th-most fantasy points at the position in 2016 and is positioned for even more production this season.

15. During his breakout 2015 season, Jaguars WR Allen Robinson was on the field for 93 percent of the snaps, including 94 percent of the pass plays and handled 25 percent of the team’s targets. During his disappointing 2016 campaign, Robinson was on the field for 94 percent of the snaps, including 96 percent of the pass plays and handled 25 percent of the targets. So, why did he score 98 fewer fantasy points? The long ball. In 2015, Robinson was targeted 43 times while more than 20 yards downfield. He caught 15 of them for 591 yards and two touchdowns (33 percent were “off target”). In 2016, he caught one of 24 targets for 24 yards and no scores (58 percent off target), including zero catches on 17 balls thrown his way 24-plus yards down field. It’s fair to expect some regression to the mean here, but Blake Bortles‘ shortcomings will continue to handcuff Robinson.

16. Including only games in which he was active, Jaguars WR Allen Hurns‘ career target shares by season are as follows: 18 percent, 18 percent, 18 percent. Notice a trend? Even during Marqise Lee‘s emergence last season, Hurns remained heavily involved. Hurns was never a good bet to repeat his 10-touchdown 2015 campaign, but regression to the mean aside, poor quarterback play and a hamstring injury derailed him in 2016. Don’t forget about the 6-foot-3 25-year-old late in 2017 fantasy drafts.

17. During the 12 games he played in full last season, Chiefs RB Spencer Ware handled a healthy 70 percent of the team’s designed rushing attempts (16.2 per game). He also saw 9 percent of the targets (3.1 per game) during the span. Ware ranked ninth at the position in fantasy points during those weeks. During March’s NFL combine, head coach Andy Reid spoke as if Ware would return as the team’s lead back in 2017. With the likes of Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller behind him on the depth chart, Ware is currently positioned for a big role.

18. Chiefs WR Jeremy Maclin handled 8.4 targets per game (31 percent share) during the 14 games he was on the field for at least two-thirds of the team’s pass plays during his first season (2015) with the Chiefs. He played 12 such games last season, but his targets fell to 6.5 per game (20 percent share). The emergence of Tyreek Hill was obviously a factor here, but Maclin’s play also fell off a bit. He’s set to turn 29 years old this spring, so age isn’t a factor yet, but Maclin’s upside will be limited in the Chiefs’ conservative attack.

19. Chiefs TE Travis Kelce enjoyed a breakout 2016 season and was fantasy’s top-scoring tight end. That much is true, but the narrative that it was a product of Reid finally getting the ball to him more often is not. Comparing 2015 to 2016, Kelce actually saw a dip in the percentage of the team’s snaps he was on the field for (92 percent to 87 percent) and a dip in target share (23 percent to 22 percent). Kelce’s raw touches were up a bit because Alex Smith was on target a bit more, but his usage really wasn’t much different than in 2015. His touchdowns were actually down one (from five to four), but his catch rate (71 to 74 percent) and average depth of target (5.5 to 6.7) both increased. Some will point to Kelce’s dominant post-catch production, but his RAC has been in the 7.4 to 7.5 range each of his first three years in the NFL. Expect Kelce to come back to earth a bit this year.

20. Chargers WR Keenan Allen is averaging 8.5 targets per game (24 percent share) during the 36 games of his career in which he has played at least two-thirds of the pass-play snaps. That has been enough to allow plenty of fantasy production, but he has now missed 23 games during the past two years. The Chargers are suddenly stacked with an offensive arsenal that also includes Gates, Henry, Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman, Travis Benjamin and Melvin Gordon. Considering that he’s primarily used in the short area, a dip in usage would knock him into WR3 territory (WR2 in PPR).

21. During the 16 games he played in 2015, Tavon Austin was on the field for 77 percent of the Rams’ snaps, including 84 percent of the pass plays, and handled 12 percent of the team’s carries and 18 percent of the targets. In 2016, he averaged 76 percent of the snaps, 84 percent of the pass plays, 8 percent of the carries and 21 percent of the targets during the 15 weeks he was active. That doesn’t exactly paint the picture of a player who saw a 58-point dip in fantasy points. The biggest change for Austin was actually his rushing production. He posted a 52-434-4 line in 2015 and 28-159-1 in 2016. Those are 46 of the points, and he also failed to return a kick for a touchdown for the first time in his career. Austin’s 2017 prospects will depend on QB Jared Goff‘s progression and new head coach Sean McVay’s ability to maximize his skill set.

22. Vikings OC Pat Shurmur has been a head coach and/or offensive coordinator for 122 games since 2009. During those outings, 24 percent of his team’s targets have gone to the tight end. That includes at least a 20 percent target share each season, and at least a 23 percent share since 2011. During HC Mike Zimmer’s three seasons with Minnesota, the tight ends have handled 22 percent of the targets and have trended up from 19 percent in 2014 to 25 percent last year. That’s the long way of saying that Kyle Rudolph shouldn’t have much trouble repeating the 22 percent target share he saw last season — the first with Zimmer and Shurmur together in Minnesota.

23. At least 22 percent of the Saints’ targets have been directed at the running back position during each of their past 10 seasons. The average during the span is 26 percent, and it reached as high as 32 percent in 2013. New Orleans likely isn’t done adding backs to its roster, but for the time being, Mark Ingram and Travaris Cadet stand to benefit from coach Sean Payton’s scheme.

24. Since coach Payton and QB Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the target share of the team’s top wide receiver during their 11 years of work is as follows: 20, 23, 19, 20, 20, 17, 20, 18, 16, 20, 19. That’s a nearly unheard of level of consistency. It shows that even with the likes of Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks in the mix, Brees is not afraid to simply find the open man. Expect that trend to continue this season as the team makes use of Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon Coleman at the position.

25. During each of coach Ben McAdoo’s three seasons with the Giants, at least 19 percent of the team’s targets have gone to the tight end. That’s notable, when you consider how poorly the Giants’ tight ends have played. New York figures to address the position during April’s draft (Howard and Njoku may be on their radar at No. 23), but for now, newcomer Rhett Ellison and incumbent Will Tye are atop the depth chart.

26. During his three seasons with the Jets, there have been 31 games in which WR Eric Decker has been on the field for at least two-thirds of the their pass plays. He’s averaging 8.3 targets per game (26 percent share) during the span. Decker posted a trio of top-10 fantasy campaigns during the four seasons leading up to a 2016 derailed by shoulder and hip injuries. Following the release of Brandon Marshall, the perpetually underrated Decker is positioned as the Jets’ top offensive target.

27. During Jack Del Rio’s past seven seasons as a head coach, no fewer than 19 percent and no more than 22 percent of his offense’s targets have gone to the running back position. That includes exactly 20 percent during each of the past three seasons. An average of 3 percent of those targets were directed to the fullback. This is a stat to refer back to once the Raiders acquire their 2017 lead back. For now, intriguing scat backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington are atop the depth chart.

28. The tight end position has handled at least 27 percent of the targets during each of Doug Pederson’s past three seasons as an offensive coordinator (Kansas City, 2014-15) and head coach (Philadelphia, 2016). What’s notable about those three seasons is that the teams in question weren’t very good at wide receiver. The Eagles are fairly stacked at tight end with Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton, but they also made drastic improvements at wide receiver via the signings of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Ertz’s target share figures to decline this season.

29. Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell has been on the field for at least 86 percent of the team’s offensive snaps during 25 consecutive games in which he wasn’t injured or limited (25 of his past 28 total). During those 25 games, he was on the field for 95 percent of the snaps and handled 22.2 carries (85 percent share) and 6.7 targets (19 percent share) per game. That level of usage is nearly unheard of for running backs, but there’s little reason to expect a change in usage for the 25-year-old in 2017.

30. Steelers WR Martavis Bryant has been on the field for at least 70 percent of the team’s pass plays during 12 of his 24 career games (11 of which came in 2015). During those 12 showings, Bryant handled 9.5 targets per game (25 percent share). Bryant ranked 17th among wideouts in fantasy points during the weeks he was a full go in 2015. He scored eight touchdowns and ranked 15th during the 10 weeks he was active as a rookie. Bryant remains suspended, but he has applied for reinstatement, and a decision is expected in March. The 6-foot-4 deep threat has WR2 upside.

31. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett has been on the field for at least two-thirds of the team’s pass plays during 22 career games. During those affairs, he averaged 4.9 targets per game (16 percent share). Relative to some other numbers I’ve thrown around, these ones are low, but Lockett’s talent level and big-play ability are intriguing. If he’s able to recover from a broken fibula and tibia in time for Week 1, Lockett will be on the post-hype sleeper radar. If not, watch out for Paul Richardson.

32. During Kyle Shanahan’s nine years as an NFL offensive coordinator, his fullbacks have racked up 44 carries for 153 yards and 5 touchdowns, plus 110 receptions, 1,067 yards and 8 touchdowns on 168 targets. That may not seem like a ton on a per-year basis, but (A) not many teams use the fullback that often these days, and (B) Shanahan now has his best and most versatile weapon at the position in Kyle Juszczyk. Expect the former Raven to be a key component of the 49ers’ offense, but he’s unlikely to see enough volume to warrant flex consideration.

33. Mike Mularkey has either held a head coach or offensive coordinator gig during 13 seasons dating back to 2001. The average target share handled by tailbacks is 14 percent during those campaigns. Mularkey’s tailbacks have never exceeded 18 percent (2004), and the Titans’ 16 percent mark in 2016 was his highest since that 2004 season. In chronological order, the target shares are as follows: 10, 13, 16, 18, 14, 13, 16, 14, 14, 15, 12, 14, 16. That’s an impressive level of consistency and a pretty strong clue that we shouldn’t expect much of a change in the department for DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry this season.

34. Titans WR Rishard Matthews was fantasy’s No. 15 scoring wide receiver last year, but he was actually a part-time player until midseason. Matthews was on the field for 62 percent of Tennessee’s pass plays during his first seven games with the team (max 75 percent), but 95 percent from that point on (minimum 91 percent). Matthews handled 4.9 targets per game (16 percent share) during the first stretch and 8.0 (28 percent) during the second. He is currently positioned for another massive workload, but considering the Titans flirted with Jeffery and Cooks, they’re a good bet to add an impact wide receiver during April’s draft.

35. Redskins RB Robert Kelley played more than 13 percent of the team’s snaps for the first time in Week 8 last season. From that point on, he appeared in nine games, was on the field for 54 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, handled a hefty 74 percent of the designed runs (16.8 per game) and 6 percent of the targets (1.9 per game). Only 12 running backs scored more fantasy points than Kelley from Week 8 on. Washington is a strong bet to add a running back during April’s draft, but Kelley’s impressive rookie campaign has him positioned to carve out a significant role.

36. Redskins TE Jordan Reed handled 8.3 targets per game (23 percent share) during 38 career games in which he was on the field for more than half of the team’s offensive plays. The mark is 8.8 (25 percent) if we limit the sample to the past two seasons (24 games). It’s also worth noting that Vernon Davis handled 7 percent of Washington’s targets during the 10 games Reed was on the field for at least half of the team’s pass plays and 14 percent during the other six contests. Reed’s injury woes are a pain, but he’s a heavily utilized and elite fantasy tight end when active.

37. During Jay Gruden’s six years as an offensive coordinator (2011-13 with Bengals) and head coach (2014-16 with Redskins), A.J. Green is the only wide receiver who has exceeded a 20 percent target share in his offense in a single season. Green paced the unit each year in Cincinnati (23, 32, 31 percent), and Pierre Garcon carried the torch each year in Washington (19, 20, 19 percent). If we include Reed, the Redskins’ marks change only marginally (to 19, 22, 19 percent). This is notable as we try to determine how the team will spread targets to Terrelle Pryor Sr., Jamison Crowder (16 percent share last year) and Josh Doctson this season and beyond. The most likely outcome is Pryor and Crowder flirting around the 20 percent mark, Reed just above it and Doctson settling into the 15 percent range (at least early on).