One of the most significant factors in fantasy football success is finding value while minimizing risk. With a plethora of information available, it’s essential to find an edge. Breakout candidates are one of those edges, but players who could regress are equally as important.
When looking for a potential breakout candidate, one of the most common metrics used to identify opportunity is vacated targets (the targets available to pass catchers after another player departed). Vacated targets is a great metric to start with, because you can’t have a breakout season without the opportunity to get more work. However, people tend to ignore potential regression. Players returning from injuries – who had a high volume of targets previously – can hinder another player’s production. This is where unapparent regression candidates are found.
Regression for Robby
Returning Player: Christian McCaffrey, Running Back CAR
Affected Player(s): Robby Anderson, Wide Receiver CAR
One of the biggest busts from last year was Christian McCaffrey. After putting up a monster 2019 with nearly 2,400 total yards and 19 TDs, McCaffrey suffered through an injury-plagued 2020 and was limited to three games. In his first three seasons (2017-2019), he averaged 126 targets (7.9 per game), but in 2020 he was limited to 19. It’s a difference of 107 targets off the board, and all reports suggest McCaffrey is healthy and likely to return to his previous workload.
In most cases, the targets just go to the next guy, but it wasn’t the case. In 2020, Mike Davis was a great pickup for those who could get him after McCaffrey went down, but in 15 games Davis had 70 targets (4.6 per game). Combined with McCaffrey’s 19, you’re still 37 targets short of his three-year average and 53 behind his 2019 total.
So who will be hit the hardest? One important point is these are two different offenses given the change at coach and quarterback.
|Year||Rushing Plays||Rushing Percent||Passing Plays||Passing Percent||Total Plays|
The Panthers attempted 83 more passing plays in 2019 with a healthy McCaffrey, while their rushing attempts were similar. The decrease in offensive snaps is expected when transitioning to a new offensive scheme with a rookie play-caller and new quarterback.
In 2021, Carolina will once again employ a new quarterback with Sam Darnold making his way over from the Jets. Unfortunately, Darnold’s career has been plagued by inefficiency. In his career, he has 59 turnovers in 38 starts. Additionally, in 12 games last year, he threw 29 interceptable passes — fourth-most in the NFL. Not only was he inefficient, the Jets were in the bottom ten of plays per game every year since he took the reigns. This does not bode well for the number of total plays returning to their 2019 levels.
So Whose Value Takes a Hit?
The first place to look is D.J. Moore, but he dropped in targets from 2019 to 2020 – from 135 to 118 – while staying consistent in yards and touchdowns. Although Carolina replaced Curtis Samuel with Terrace Marshall, the signs are pointing to regression for Robby Anderson.
Darnold and Anderson played two years together in New York (2018-2019), and while Anderson was his go-to guy, he never saw more than 96 targets in a season. Anderson is coming off a solid first year in Carolina with 95 receptions on 136 targets. However, the defense is expected to improve after the addition of 27 players through the draft and free agency over the past two seasons. If it is, Carolina will look to control the clock more and take the ball out of Darnold’s mistake-prone hands while allowing McCaffrey to make plays. All of this, points to a dip in Robby Anderson’s volume and value in 2021.
Barkley is Back
Returning Player: Saquon Barkley, Running Back NYG
Affected Player(s): Evan Engram, Tight End NYG
Another marquee name to go down in 2020 was Saquon Barkley. Unfortunately, the young stud running back succumbed to an ACL tear in Week 2. Similar to McCaffrey, Barkley is a workhorse back who demands not only touches on the ground but also targets. Across 2018 and 2019 (29 games), Barkley averaged 97 targets (6.7/game). In 2020 he had just nine. While reports suggest the Giants are taking a cautious approach with their cornerstone back, he will likely be back to form early in the season.
In Barkley’s absence, Dion Lewis and Wayne Gallman only garnered 57 targets. So naturally, other players had to step up: most notably tight end Evan Engram. He is also the player most likely to see a regression in 2021.
Engram is lower on consensus tight end rankings because he only had one touchdown in 2020, but it’s easily forgotten he also had 109 targets. He finished 2021 with 10.4 yards per reception. Because of this, many of Barkley’s shorter routes out the backfield could take some volume away from Engram. The other factor working against Engram is New York’s front office retooling their offense. First, they signed wide receivers Kenny Golladay and John Ross, then drafted Florida standout Kadarius Toney. The most impactful offseason move was signing veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph to a 2-year/$12M contract (with $7M in year one). With Barkley returning and the Giants new weapons, Engram could be an afterthought in 2021.
A New Offense with OBJ
Returning Player: Odell Beckham Jr., Wide Receiver CLE
Affected Player(s): Nick Chubb, Running Back CLE and Kareem Hunt, Running Back CLE
This year, a big question mark for the Cleveland Browns in 2021 is which Odell Beckham Jr. will they get in his return. Early reports (for what they’re worth) suggest he looks excellent and should be good to go. In his first season with Cleveland, Beckham Jr. saw 133 targets, but he was limited to 43 in just seven games throughout 2020. Given his age and the fact he is coming off an injury, it’s unlikely he demands the 8.3 targets per game rate he had in 2019, but 6-7 targets per game is not unthinkable. Those 100-110 targets will have to come from somewhere.
Rather than replace those targets in the passing game, Cleveland decided to use its two-headed monster in the backfield to replace the production on the ground. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined for 388 carries, nearly a 14-percent increase from 2019. While the biggest beneficiary was Hunt, some reduced volume for both is likely, with another (notoriously vocal) mouth to feed in this now deep Cleveland offense.
A Step Back for Aiyuk
Returning Players: Deebo Samuel, Wide Receiver SFO and George Kittle, Tight End SFO
Affected Player(s): Brandon Aiyuk, Wide Receiver SFO
2020 was a frustrating season for the San Francisco 49ers who saw their young wideout and All-World tight end limited to a combined 15 games. In 2018 and 2019, Kittle combined for 243 targets in just 30 games (8.1 per game). Kittle maintained his targets/game rate in 2020 (63 in 8 games) suggesting, when healthy, the volume will always be there. Samuel had a solid rookie campaign in 2019, hauling in 57 receptions (81 targets) for 802 yards in 15 games (11 starts). A foot injury limited Samuel to seven games in 2020 where his numbers dropped to 33 receptions (44 targets) for 391 yards.
Enter rookie Brandon Aiyuk. In 2020 Aiyuk saw 96 targets and turned them into 60 receptions for 748 yards across just 12 games. After a slow start to the year, his value skyrocketed in Weeks 8-15. He played in five games and saw 62 targets, made 39 receptions for 453 yards and four touchdowns (17 game pace of 132/1540/13). The difference was Samuel missed Weeks 8-11 and 15 while Kittle missed Weeks 9-15. Let’s take a look at the breakdown for Aiyuk:
|Games without Kittle & Samuel (4)||38||23||239||2|
|Games without Samuel (2)||12||9||106||1|
|Games without Kittle (2)||25||15||214||1|
|Games with all three healthy (4)||21||13||189||1|
In 4 games where both Samuel and Kittle played, Aiyuk averaged 47.25 yards on 3.25 receptions and only found the endzone once. To say there was a massive discrepancy in the numbers is an understatement. In an offense designed around the running game, a healthy Samuel and Kittle could spell a big drop from Aiyuk. His value may never be higher than it is right now if you have someone willing to overpay based on his 2020 numbers.
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