Offseason Stealing Signals, AFC & NFC South

The signal and noise for each AFC and NFC South team

I’m going to do these in four posts, with this first one being free. Free subs: for $8/month, you can get access to the other three of these writeups, my rankings, my 2021 draft plan, and a whole lot more through August. Full details here. Also want to mention for anyone who typically only interacts with this newsletter through email, you can always go to to see a timeline of all posts.

I wanted to do these posts last month but got a little caught up, and I’ve done projects like this before where I cover all 32 teams and it becomes a lot to cover. So I’m going to try to do this fairly quickly, and I’m mostly using this as an avenue to get my current takes out there before too much training camp news impacts things (like it has for the first team below).

I’m more or less going to just fire off stuff I think is interesting about each team. Things I learned while going through the projections process, including what I think projections will miss. Which trends and narratives being discussed look like signal and which are probably noisy. And definitely a focus on market dynamics and whether the things influencing ADP are valid to provide actionable information on how I’m playing each offense.

Indianapolis Colts

Key Stat: Jonathan Taylor — 39 targets, 36 receptions, 7.7 YPT (well above average receiving efficiency for a RB)

  • Man, what a week for these guys. I was reasonably optimistic about a team with a great offensive line and solid defense, but Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson both had surgery this week to join a few other injured Colts and they look very unlikely to be anywhere close to full strength to open the regular season.

  • Michael Pittman led Colts’ skill players with an average weekly snap share of 78% last year. Only two teams, Denver and New Orleans, didn’t have any skill position players with an average weekly snap share of at least 78%. In other words, the Colts continued to rotate personnel at all major fantasy positions, as they have throughout Frank Reich’s tenure. Pittman did see the second-half rookie playing time bump, and his average weekly snap shares rose to 83% over the season’s final nine games, but broadly playing time and opportunity concentration are huge for fantasy, and this team is usually on the low end there.

  • We’re not sure on Wentz’s health status, but one thing of note about the quarterback change I’m putting weight on is at least some expected reduction in overall RB targets. Rivers has been among the most profitable QBs in the NFL for RB receiving value for a very long time, so just by virtue of not having him under center anymore, you’d expect essentially any other QB to throw fewer passes to the position. The question is whether that’s a handful fewer or a ton fewer.

  • For me, that last point is a knock more on Nyheim Hines, who makes his living in the passing game and was great last year. The thing with pass-catching backs is they are largely dependent on team context; Hines was much less useful for fantasy, even PPR leagues, in 2019 while mostly playing with Jacoby Brissett. The way this manifests in drafts is we typically see last year’s best pass-catching backs get bumped up a bit in this year’s drafts, and then they have a hard time repeating the volume and efficiency spikes that made them very good the year before. Coming off a good year, Hines is one of the more expensive pure pass-catching backs, and since I don’t typically want more than one or two of these very useful but limited-upside guys on a specific roster — there’s an advantage to keeping your running back group balanced between different types of players — I often find myself passing up Hines and taking some of the cheaper options of this archetype, or even similarly-expensive ones whose outlooks for 2021 I just like a bit more.

  • For Jonathan Taylor, the Wentz injury is probably a bad sign in terms of potential for plus game scripts and the Nelson one isn’t ideal for his rushing efficiency, since Nelson is the team’s and arguably the league’s best offensive lineman. Still, Taylor closed the season phenomenally after a midseason lull and a week on the reserve/COVID-19 list, averaging 121.5 rushing yards, two catches, and 1.6 touchdowns per game over the final six games, playoffs included. That included a monster 253-yard performance in Week 17, and we can be pretty confident in his rushing ability (obviously including his stellar college profile), while he quieted doubters about his pass-catching skills. I do have questions about his target numbers as most other quarterbacks won’t dump off on early downs as much as Rivers, but the efficiency was there and the 39 targets he saw were very solid considering he missed a game and lost some playing time early in the season. Some of the impact of the expected dip in overall RB targets without Rivers will be offset by Taylor expected to be in a much more consistent role through the entire 2021 season than the roller coaster his playing time was in 2020 as a rookie. On top of that, the Colts seemed to design screens and swings to him in 2020; Frank Reich seemed to really want to get Taylor easy touches in space a few times a game as an order of business. Taylor’s price will slip, but the bet here is he’s a Derrick Henry or Nick Chubb type rusher from an efficiency perspective who will add more receiving production than those two typically do. It’s a bet I’m willing to make, especially when he slips to the second round and especially because my Stealing Bananas cohost Shawn Siegele has argued convincingly to be on Taylor over at RotoViz. One more reason I’m excited about the slip to the second round — while the Colts will open the season banged up, none of their major injuries are full-season ones and it’s quite possible any negative impact to Taylor’s production will only come in the early weeks. You do need early-season points in fantasy football, and injuries can linger, but I’m typically going to be happy to buy a dip that is: a) related to the player’s circumstances, not necessarily his health or ability; and even then, b) might disproportionately impact the less-important early-season weeks, creating the potential for another strong late-season stretch.

  • Pittman drew a target on 15.5% of his 367 routes in 2020, which is a fine but not great rate. Parris Campbell has a TPRR (targets per route run) of 20.8% across only 159 routes in two injury-plagued seasons. I love second-year wide receivers but haven’t been grabbing a ton of Pittman on general offense concerns coupled with a belief Campbell might just out-target him if Campbell can stay healthy and lock down the slot role. Campbell’s one of the few interesting very late WR fliers, but typically my rosters are going to be heavy on WR early and I’m just not going to take a lot of WRs late overall.

  • Mo Alie-Cox has never run 200 routes in a season, but he’s drawn targets at a good clip and been very efficient on the targets he’s seen, so there’s reason to take very late stabs on him. I don’t expect a big enough role to make him a huge difference-maker, but he could be a solid TE streamer at times given he looks to be the potential TE2 after a career typically spent as the TE3.

Signal: Colts — have been unconcentrated, offense might take an injury dip, not prime conditions for fantasy; Jonathan Taylor — answered questions about receiving ability in Year 1, might just be too good to fail; Colts — strong bet to lose RB targets without Rivers; Parris Campbell — has shown a solidly better ability to earn targets per route than Michael Pittman in small career samples thus far

Noise: Nyheim Hines — 63 catches, 7 total TDs in similar role to 2019 where he totaled 44 catches and 2 TDs with different quarterback (I’m expecting something in between but not a repeat of 2020 in 2021)

Tennessee Titans

Key Stat: Titans — No. 3 WR in volume last year totaled 35 targets (Humphries)

  • Great, I already went long on Jonathan Taylor and now it’s A.J. Brown SZN. Look, Julio Jones is very good but he’s 32, just missed eight games, and importantly the idea he didn’t slow down at all when healthy last year isn’t totally accurate. He did remain very efficient, including a career-high 11.3 YPT, but we probably can’t expect him to sustain that. Meanwhile, his TPRR fell to 22%, his first season below 26% since 2012. Here’s a table from a lookup tool I built:

    See that multiyear decline in TPRR compared to his peak? I’m still fine drafting Jones, so take this more as commentary on Brown, but Jones enters an offense where we almost couldn’t project any targets outside of Brown and the early-offseason discussion was a 200-target season for AJB. That Brown can now be had in the early third round as a result of that trade is very odd to me. Jones can see a ton of targets in what should be a concentrated passing game and not really take as much from Brown’s target ceiling as one would immediately assume, and then this note on his TPRR is just further evidence that Brown — who is ascending and went from a strong rookie TPRR of 21.4% in 2019 to 24.9% last year — is going to have plenty of room to earn targets. On top of that, Brown is a high-efficiency player who wins both before and after the catch like so many of the best wide receivers in the league, and like Julio throughout his long and storied career. Those YPTs you see that stayed very strong across all of Julio’s seasons? That’s how I expect Brown’s career to look. As I wrote Monday, you should never talk yourself out of a guy who looks like a superstar talent by every single metric just because of situational or volume concerns, and all I’m writing now is those concerns are also probably overblown. Draft AJB again.

  • Adam Humphries played only seven games for the Titans last year but wound up as the third WR in targets with 35. Their fourth most-targeted WR was Kalif Raymond, at 15. So in those nine games where Humphries was out, the Titans basically didn’t throw to a third wide receiver; it was all Brown and Corey Davis, plus the tight ends. Humphries and Raymond are both gone now, so it’s not just Davis and Smith who left this offseason. And yeah, the Titans brought in Josh Reynolds and drafted Dez Kirkpatrick at the top of the fourth round, but these are the reasons I’m so optimistic about a concentrated passing game that really features Brown and Jones as the key cogs. Those guys are both superstars and frankly no one else in this passing game has much on their resume. I’m out on Reynolds and could maybe be talked into Firkser, but he’s not really a priority target for me. I think Firkser will have solid efficiency but probably not earn enough targets.

  • Derrick Henry is the same as he’s always been — he rushed for over 2,000 yards and scored 17 touchdowns and finished with 20.9 PPR points per game. That was very good, but it wasn’t season-breaking (Kamara and Cook were each at least three points per game ahead) and also represented a clear ceiling outcome for him. My Ship Chasing cohost Pat Kerrane covered this very well at NBC Sports recently in a piece everyone should read. Plus or minus a little leeway for being a potential cyborg, Henry in 2021 carries the same risks any early RB selection does, and I still can’t get my head around a RB in the middle of the first round who probably needs the truly elite dual threat RBs to all miss time for him to be the overall RB1.

  • One concept I’ve toyed with this offseason is players that, if injured, could dramatically reshape our expectations for an offense. Henry is probably the poster boy for that, and someone I’ve loosely been calling an “identity back” in the sense that so much of their offensive playcalling, especially with leads, is tied up in Henry being who he is specifically. In other words, if he were not in the lineup for some reason, I would expect Darrynton Evans or Brian Hill to be solid (and think Evans particularly is a good late-round RB option) but would also expect Tennessee to put more on Ryan Tannehill’s shoulders and to recognize their WR duo at that point would be the strength of their offense. These are the types of easy upside cases that often go overlooked when we focus too much on projections, but you’d obviously want to be all in on Brown and Jones if this offense had the potential to be very concentrated and also pass a lot more. This is just one possible outcome in a sea of uncertainty that is the 2021 season, but not every team has an “identity” back or player that could potentially create such a dramatic team-level shift if they were to miss time, and the potential impact is worth weighing when we consider the other players in that offense.

  • Tannehill is definitely an intriguing later QB option this year that I’m buying at the right price for reasons above plus his mobility. To the latter point, he doesn’t actually run for a ton of yards, but has rushed for a ton of touchdowns with Tennessee. He rushed for seven touchdowns last year, four in 10 starts in 2019, and also has a postseason rushing TD in his four playoff games with the Titans over the past two years. I’m usually pretty skeptical of QB rushing touchdown rates, but there are certain spots that are hard to ignore. Tannehill’s 12 rushing touchdowns over 30 starts with the team (postseason included) make it reasonable to expect four or five, which is a good chunk of bonus points over immobile passers.

Signal: Team — I’m expecting a highly concentrated offense around three main skill players (Henry, Brown, Jones); Derrick Henry — his probably peak rushing efficiency wasn’t good enough to compete with the very best dual threat RBs in PPR last year due to receiving; Ryan Tannehill — 12 rushing TDs over 30 starts with Tennessee (postseason included) will probably regress some but I’m buying some signal here

Noise: A.J. Brown — the impact of the Julio Jones trade acquisition on Brown’s profile has been overstated when we look at ADP

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key Stat: Laviska Shenault — solid 19.8% TPRR as a rookie (higher than D.J. Chark’s career high)

  • So Taylor, Brown, and now Laviska Shenault. My take on Ship Chasing during OTAs was that with the positive buzz from Jaguars camp, Shenault should be their first receiver drafted. My reasoning was there’s enough unknown here with a whole new coaching staff and Shenault and his main competition for that honor — DJ Chark both being very young that we should be loose with our priors and willing to react aggressively to positive buzz. I also think Shenault’s rookie year is looked at less favorably than it should be because he got hurt right as his snaps started to tick up in the second half of the season (like they do for a lot of rookie WRs). He missed a pair of games and played only 14% of the snaps in another during a time when it would have been fair to expect his production to be better than the earlier part of the season, but on a per-route basis he drew targets well (19.8% TPRR) and still has a strong collegiate profile backing him. And it sounds like the Jaguars are committed to using him as a full-time wide receiver, which should help some of the concerns about the value of his targets. To that point, Rich Hribar recently wrote a great piece about high-value wide receiver targets and noted Shenault’s rookie-year targets weren’t great. He also noted Shenault was good when targeted downfield, and that’s a part of his game I think has been missed thus far — he definitely made plays downfield while at Colorado. At any rate, I’m optimistic he can gobble up targets underneath while Chark and Marvin Jones both work downfield more, and also has enough YAC and downfield ability to be an efficient player (to that point, his YPT was very slightly higher than Chark’s last year at a lower aDOT). Is the role shift and breakout a lock? Absolutely not. But it’s also not blocked out by his Year 1. He’s well worth a pick in the middle rounds as an upside second-year WR.

  • I’m fine with Chark as another upside WR, but where I’m a little less optimistic than Shenault is that we have a little more information on Chark. His second season was way above expectations, but I think that can mask a bit that it wasn’t actually otherworldly, with 1,008 receiving yards and eight scores in 15 games. Then he missed three games last year but played pretty full snap shares in the other 13, and his yards per game dipped from 67.2 in 2019 to 54.3 in 2020 and his TPRR stayed flat (19.2% and 19.3%). Chark definitely has the downfield profile that can crush, but entering his fourth season I’m not sold he has the upside he’s billed as having. In other words, my concern is without a pretty big step forward this year, Chark might wind up a little bit like his new teammate Marvin Jones who hasn’t had a TPRR over 18.4% since he was in a limited role in 2013. Jones, to me, is the type of late-round WR that isn’t worth drafting because he can’t actually move the needle toward winning leagues as much as people think. There’s the misconception that WR is deep and thus replaceable; high-end, target-dominant WRs are not replaceable on the waiver wire, but it’s guys like Jones that, despite his very solid career, do fit that replaceable mold. Chark isn’t that guy yet — there’s still hope he can grow — but it’s a concern.

  • Trevor Lawrence is part of a great corps of rookie QBs that could legitimately define the 2021 fantasy season, and is getting knocked a bit because he doesn’t have otherworldly rushing bona fides like Trey Lance and Justin Fields. I think if he wasn’t in a class with those two, people would be talking quite a bit more about his mobility — he rushed for 943 yards and 18 TDs in three years of college — and that he looks like the type of guy that will run more early in his career before settling in as more of a pocket passer long term. If he just provides some rushing value, he’s interesting much in the way I described Ryan Tannehill above.

  • I’ll talk about Travis Etienne more when I reup my work on the Running Back Dead Zone soon, but Etienne is pretty much exactly the kind of guy that can exceed from that range. Most of the elite seasons we’ve seen from the dead zone — which are few, and that’s the point — have come from rookies or second-year players breaking out for the first time. There’s also a clear theme in the dead zone that projected volume and early-season role is overvalued, whereas Etienne is only being drafted there because of concerns about his role, meaning he’s being devalued by projections. We have a pretty clear idea he’ll be involved in the passing game and he’s getting early rave reviews for being uncoverable there, so even if he doesn’t smash this year, he’s a pretty good bet to be solid in PPR leagues. The upside is obvious if he finds himself rushing a good amount, too. I know James Robinson was incredible last year, but for better or worse UDFAs don’t tend to get long leashes even when they produce, and the new coaching staff went out and drafted Etienne in the first round. I’ll definitely have my Etienne exposure this year, and I won’t likely have any Robinson as a guy who looks like he’ll have limited two-down (read: low value) upside at best.

Signal: Laviska Shenault — pretty solid TPRR despite perception around his rookie season; Trevor Lawrence — solid rushing numbers in college; DJ Chark — some reasons for target-earning and YPT-type efficiency concerns

Noise: Team — past trends, including James Robinson’s production and Laviska Shenault’s role, which could change drastically under a whole new regime

Houston Texans

Key Stat: Tyrod Taylor — 28.1 pass attempts per game across three seasons as BUF starter (has both high scramble and high sack rates, so pass attempts will likely be low in games he starts)

  • Finally, a team I couldn’t care less about. They’re loaded up on RBs with Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay joining David Johnson, but they don’t project to be a team that produces much RB value, especially if noted scrambler Tyrod Taylor starts as is currently projected (which negatively impacts RB target rates and could impact TD opportunities, too). I don’t want to sound too rigid, but I also try to be honest, and the truth is I’m more or less completely out on their RBs.

  • Brandin Cooks is vaguely interesting as a volume play, given he’s also been very good at various times in his career. But I don’t love his price. He’s pushed up right behind the last of what I would call the types of WRs you really want to be targeting. He’s more or less been the signal to me in drafts that it’s time to go away from WR.

  • Rookie Nico Collins has some athleticism-based upside arguments and makes for a decent late-round WR. Any of Anthony Miller, Keke Coutee, or Jordan Akins could have surprisingly decent target numbers. But I also think this offense will lean run more than it should based on team strength, especially because of Taylor’s scrambling ability but also because they acquired running backs. Sometimes an offense no one is looking at has value, and sometimes it’s for good reason. You’re not likely to miss a lot that you won’t be able to find on waivers.

  • I don’t really want to talk about Deshaun Watson. The allegations are many and I’m not the right person to talk about them, even if I have read a lot about the situation to try to stay educated. What I will say is I do think that whatever the perception is or becomes about his potential to play, from a purely fantasy football standpoint the public will likely undervalue risk of new evidence, information, or discussion that can change things. He’s been completely off my board and will almost certainly stay that way.

Signal: Team — not likely to be good enough to run a lot of plays, not likely to throw a lot of passes any time Tyrod Taylor starts

Noise: Team — projecting a backfield with three fairly accomplished backs

Carolina Panthers

Key Stat: D.J. Moore — 3.0% career TD rate

  • The only discussion around Christian McCaffrey should be how much to spend on him in auction formats. He only played three games last year but averaged over 30 PPR points per game, a touch higher than his ridiculous 2019 season. If you’re considering not taking him at a 1.01, please don’t do that. As for auctions, I think he’s gotta be worth over $70 in standard $200 budget leagues.

  • I talked a lot about D.J. Moore and to a lesser extent Robby Anderson in my recent post about situational regression, but suffice to say Moore has checked every box from a production standpoint across various roles and he’s an easy “small miss, big hit” pick. One efficiency stat I look at it is Josh Hermsmeyer’s RACR (Receiver Air Conversion Ratio), which measures receiving yards against air yards. So basically yards per target or yards per reception, but yards per air yard. Because RACR is influenced by a player’s aDOT, I have a rough depth-adjusted RACR I look at to see if a guy is better or worse than what we might expect based on his aDOT. Moore has had three pretty different aDOTs but his depth-adjusted RACR has been at least 0.12 over expectation all three years, with an average of 0.18, which I realize there’s not much context here but that’s very good. He’ll be productive if healthy in a way that even if things don’t improve, he won’t sink your team. But there are a lot of things that could break his way, including not being forced into such a clear deep threat role, Sam Darnold being a better fit for that role even if Darnold isn’t great because Teddy Bridgewater was a terrible fit for it, or even an average TD rate, let alone a big TD season, because he’s been terrible on that front. If any of those things manifests, his proven ability to win at all depths and both before and after the catch point all makes for easy top-10 potential.

  • Anderson is also very good and is a pretty easy play at cost, especially given how he was used last year (underneath more) and that he was reasonably productive in a bad Jets offense while playing with Darnold in more of a downfield role. Earlier this offseason, I called Anderson a better play at cost, but I know he’s gotten a bit more expensive. I’m definitely not out on him, and Terrace Marshall is also a late-round rookie to have exposure to with a solid profile that had him as high as WR2 in the class on some sharp analysts boards. I’m more or less buying that this Panthers offense will be better this year than last year, even if Darnold isn’t great, because Bridgewater’s unwillingness to be vertical — something that can also plague Darnold — was such a big hindrance. And I also want to think Matt Rhule and Joe Brady could be a sharp head coach-offensive coordinator tandem. Even with McCaffrey’s presence, there’s a lot of talent at WR, and you buy talent and uncertainty. Some of the uncertainty here includes what Rhule and Brady could cook up in Year 2, how much Bridgewater held back the offense, and whether Darnold can be at least a bit better outside New York. I have to note at least some concern I might get burned a bit if McCaffrey absolutely dominates production and things are relatively even behind him in an offense that doesn’t actually take a step forward.

  • I could see Darnold as a decent bet to be a usable streamer for the first time in his career. Moore and McCaffrey especially are guys that do so much after the catch that in my projections I easily had Darnold at a career-best YPA and there wasn’t a lot of room to take that down. Anderson is also an efficient player, and while I think the idea of improved weapons can be used inaccurately, in this situation the specific weapons Darnold now has will almost certainly drag up his efficiency. It’s not dissimilar to how the San Francisco passing game has made a lot of different passers look efficient over the past few years, although it likely won’t be quite as fruitful for Darnold. And Darnold isn’t wildly mobile and to be clear he came in at QB22 in my projections even with a ton of optimism on the skill guys. I just think he’s a good bet to be statistically better than he has been and with the potential to be usable for fantasy even if he doesn’t really improve.

  • I’m not buying any Dan Arnold hype given how WR-oriented this passing game was last year even without McCaffrey gobbling up a ton of targets, and Arnold not really bringing a huge track record with him.

Signal: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson — both good floor-to-ceiling bets with Curtis Samuel gone

Noise: D.J. Moore — 3.0% career TD rate; Team — passing distributions (Teddy Bridgewater’s story is great and I like rooting for him but let’s just say he took a lot of checkdowns last year)

Atlanta Falcons

Key Stat: Calvin Ridley — 181-target pace in seven games without Julio Jones last year

  • I have to admit I was initially a little concerned about Calvin Ridley’s efficiency without Julio Jones immediately after that trade, but I think I just forgot how good he was when Julio missed time last year. The left side below is Ridley’s per-game averages and 16-game paces in games Julio played, while the right is games Julio missed, courtesy of the RotoViz Game Splits App:

    The touchdown rate came down a bit, but Ridley’s volume, yardage, and ultimately PPR points all spiked. Kyle Pitts provides another dynamic weapon, but one I don’t expect to take as much from Ridley, making Ridley my WR4 behind what I think is a clear Big 3 in Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill.

  • Pitts is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, but in a pre-draft look at this rookie class I fired off a bunch of thoughts on why we should be optimistic about him. Redraft ADP has agreed, and it’s been a challenge to get exposure, but I’m not going to be fading this dude. Still, I think there’s a good case to be a little cautious at ADP, at least for Year 1. I do think he’s a lock to be used as a red zone weapon and will return decent enough value given the state of the TE position and his ability — with pretty clear upside to be a late-season hammer if he’s a star — but yeah, it’s tough to chase down Kelce, Waller, and Kittle, and you have to pay nearly the same price. I’m very obviously of two minds about Pitts.

  • There’s not a clearer fade for me this year than Russell Gage. Wrote a couple reasons why in a post on dubious types of common fantasy analysis, and after I mentioned him at the end of the first section on vacated opportunity, I missed an opportunity to again mention him in the second section on relating end-of-season ranks to positional ADP. The reasons to draft Gage anywhere close to his ADP just do not fit how I believe you win at fantasy football. If you want to play this target volume, draft Olamide Zaccheaus very late.

  • And Mike Davis is the quintessential dead zone running back! We’re touching on it all here. Taking running backs largely because of projected opportunity — especially a guy who is 28 and just had his first 1,000-yard season last year (and on poor efficiency) — is more or less exactly why the Running Back Dead Zone exists. The way I think about it, there are 32 teams, and every year we’re pretty confident in roughly the top-15 backs, or half the league, give or take. At the back of the league, there are usually a few teams where there are no backs going until later. But if we were to rank the back we feel best about, as a fantasy community, for each of the 32 teams, the No. 1 RBs from about 15th or 20th through 30th — or close to the back of the league — are a lot of guys who we are projected for volume but don’t actually feel very confident in. And those guys get pushed up into that middle-round range due to projected volume, but there’s a wisdom of the crowds element in play where people aren’t confident enough to push them into the top few rounds. Those are the dudes that wind up failing, and sinking fantasy teams. Don’t do it.

  • Meanwhile, the inverse if Davis doesn’t have the huge workload is someone else is going to be a screaming value. Undrafted rookie Javian Hawkins is very interesting if a bit undersized, and I saw a positive note on Qadree Ollison recently and mainly because of his size and Arthur Smith’s time coordinating for an offense that featured Derrick Henry, I’m probably going to stash Ollison in a couple of places. I’m not sure he’s good, but he’s reportedly around 230 pounds, while Hawkins is a bit over 180 and Davis is himself a decent-sized back around 220. They also have Cordarrelle Patterson, who might play a decent amount, so there’s a reason there’s not a lot of love for the backup RB spot here.

Signal: Calvin Ridley — locked into tons of volume, was productive without Julio last year; Kyle Pitts — generational TE prospect who should see the field very early

Noise: Mike Davis, Russell Gage — projected volume doesn’t always manifest and either way it doesn’t tend to equate to helping win leagues for players like this

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Stat: Antonio Brown — 26.6% TPRR

  • I don’t really want to draft Antonio Brown in his age-33 season, but it’s hard to deny that he was still pretty solid after joining the Bucs midseason last year. The main reason I think that’s the key stat is it’s pretty hard for me to get back on the Mike Evans and Chris Godwin trains, and they are two guys I really like. Brown didn’t play full time, but his 26.6% TPRR lapped Evans’ career-low 19.3% and Godwin’s tied-career-low 19.1%. The case for Evans is the touchdowns were there and maybe some of the downfield stuff is better in Year 2 with Tom Brady, while the case for Godwin is maybe even a bit easier in that he led the team in receiving yards per game (70.0 to Evans’ 62.9 and Brown’s 60.4) while playing through injuries a bit. Evans and Godwin are going in a range where there are other receivers I really want to get exposure to, and it’s a challenge to get exposure to everyone, but Godwin in particular is one I’ll have some of. I’m a little more reluctant with Evans given he also dealt with some hamstring issues last year, but I’m maybe overstated that since he’ll only be 28 in August.

  • Brady makes for a solid mid-round QB target with the potential to throw a ton of TDs. There are a lot of high TD rates in the receiving corps here, and this team is going to score points, so in my projections Brady came out behind only Patrick Mahomes in passing touchdowns. And I think that’s pretty easily defensible. Brady doesn’t having the rushing upside to contend with the elite dual threat guys, but he could legit throw 40 touchdowns and he also scored three rushing TDs last year and is typically a threat to add a few of those on QB sneaks. I’m typically out on immobile QBs with any real cost associated to them, but Brady’s one I could understand.

  • I’ll probably always leave a candle lit for O.J. Howard, but it’s crazy these guys are very deep at TE, too. Obviously Rob Gronkowski is at the top, and will likely carry a high TD rate, but I’m mostly out after a solid return from retirement but nothing that looked like prime Gronk. I was interested last year in that he’s arguably the best TE of all time, but at 32 he looks like a nice efficiency play but one with a long injury history in a loaded offense where the volume will be inconsistent. So I led with Howard because I do think he’d be interesting as a waiver add this year were Gronk to miss some time. Howard turns 27 in November, and if his Achilles injury doesn’t sap too much explosiveness — a huge if — could still have a late-breakout run at a position that features them. This is mostly a dynasty take but I don’t mind buying cheap right now. Cameron Brate still lurks, too.

  • Since Giovani Bernard signed, I’ve mostly been out on the early-down backs. It looks like a probable split between Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, both of whom really struggled catching the ball last year and weren’t great in pass protection, either. The Bucs showed a willingness to play the hot hand week by week, so it doesn’t really matter that I think Jones is the superior runner to Fournette, because I do expect both to play and it to be fairly difficult to predict on a weekly basis. Jones especially has been a fine best ball pick in the right builds, but I’m not sure I’ll make an effort to get either at their prices in managed leagues. Bernard is up there in age, but he did grade out well in pass protection last year, was literally just the RB30 in PPR last year, and has always been a strong pass-catcher. He’s one of the pass-catching options that tends to go a bit later than Hines I alluded to being in on, in the Colts section.

Signal: Team — potential for plenty of passing production, especially touchdowns, but a pretty wide target tree makes some of the prices tough; Giovani Bernard — definitely buying the idea he’ll be the main passing-down back, and like him at cost over the other two RBs

Noise: Chris Godwin — played through injury a bit, missed four games, probably isn’t getting enough credit for what he could be (I think if one WR in this group really takes off, it’s him)

New Orleans Saints

Key Stat: Alvin Kamara — 7.0 targets/game in 52 career games with Drew Brees, 5.5 in eight games without him

  • I’m not sure what to make of Alvin Kamara. I was obviously happy to be heavily exposed to him in 2020, and he’s always been a guy I really like, but there’s no denying that — much like the Rivers point above, and maybe even more so — losing Drew Brees will negatively impact his target numbers. For his career, Kamara has only played eight games without Brees, and he’s paced for 70 catches in those games so he hasn’t been chopped liver. But the receiving gap has been the main reason he’s scored five-plus fewer points per game without Brees.

    Earlier this offseason, I would have told you Kamara was still my RB3, but I’m much less certain about that now. I think he still probably is, but if I’m in a league with everything on it, I’m probably going WR or Kelce, and that will lead to me probably not having much Kamara this year.

  • With Michael Thomas banged up, the Saints do definitely need someone to throw to, and that’s a pro case for Kamara. Adam Trautman had just 16 targets last year, even with Jared Cook missing some time. He was efficient, but I’m not sure how we can ignore that. Being able to consistently draw targets is a pretty key element to a TE breakout. The Saints also signed Nick Vannett — who is more of a blocking TE but could get in the way of snaps — to a bigger-than-you-probably-realized three-year, $8 million contract with $3.8 million guaranteed. I’m out on Trautman at his ADP.

  • For the receivers, Tre’Quan Smith has had a hard time consistently earning targets, but he had a good prospect profile once upon a time and has shown flashes of efficiency. It’s probably Marquez Callaway and then maybe Deonte Harris that are the biggest beneficiaries of potential underneath targets while Thomas is out, but I do expect Kamara to lead the team. This is a situation where there’s probably some opportunity if you’re like me and not really sold on Trautman, but I’m having trouble placing what I think the play is.

  • Part of the issue here is we don’t know who will play quarterback, and if it’s Taysom Hill there’s a lot less overall passing upside than if it’s Jameis Winston. Part of me thinks Payton — who has always coached his teams to know two sets offenses basically, one for Brees and one for when Hill enters the game — will employ a college-style two-quarterback system where both will play. Hill could be the red zone guy, Winston could be the more likely one to play if they fall down by two scores — I’m expecting to see plenty of both, regardless of who the Week 1 starter is. There’s an obvious advantage to forcing teams to gameplan for two offenses and being flexible to what’s working better on a given week, but it does make me hesitant on the quarterbacks. Hill in particular, with his rushing ability, would be a great late-round option if we knew he was going to be the main guy. Hill’s also worse for the receiving corps and Kamara especially; in Hill’s first two starts last year, Kamara combined for just one catch, after averaging 7.4 receptions per game over the nine games leading into those two. Kamara did have a 7-catch game with Hill under center a couple weeks later, but the potential for the offense to be extremely run heavy and Hill’s scrambling did show the potential to completely wipe out what is a huge part of Kamara’s fantasy profile.

  • Part of the other side of the Kamara issue, even if he does fill some of the target void left by Thomas, is Latavius Murray. Murray’s 31 now and I sort of avoid backs that age, but I get the reason some people are on him. The Saints have always liked a backfield committee under Payton, since well before Kamara, and Murray’s been good as the between-the-tackles guy over the past couple years.

Signal: Adam Trautman — 11.0% TPRR, only 16 targets all season, doesn’t exactly scream “breakout”; Alvin Kamara — likely to lose some receiving, especially if Hill is under center, although Thomas’ rehab might offset that early in the season

Noise: Team — whoever the name the Week 1 starter seems pretty unlikely to be the starter all year