Vacated Targets Updated
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
For anyone who isn't familiar with the concept of vacated targets, it can be defined as the opportunity created in an offense's passing game through the departure of players from one year to the next. Every offseason NFL teams go through various degrees of roster churn, where some players leave to free agency, roster cuts, and so on. When a player leaves that creates a void which will inevitably be filled through the increased production of another player already on the roster or the addition of a new player through free agency.
This is one of the best ways to evaluate the potential of players for an upcoming season. When a significant member of an offense is no longer with a team this means that the ceiling (a.k.a. potential) for other players on that team is raised. In fantasy football, no matter what the position is, the most important marker for success is opportunity. There are times where one player may outscore a better player just because they have more opportunities on the field (consider 2019 Leonard Fournette who managed 86% of the Jaguars rush attempts for example).
Analyzing these opportunities helps provide a better understanding of the impact free agency has had on offenses and see where incoming rookies might also be immediately relevant. The process of determining vacated targets is fairly simple; using the previous year's target data you add up the number of times a player who is no longer on the team was targeted and compare that to the total. For example, if a team threw the ball 100 times and a WR who was targeted 10 times is no longer with the team then that represents 10% of targets that are now vacated. This information can be further examined through concepts such as targets per game, red zone opportunities, implied fantasy points, and so on.
I usually like to calculate vacated targets around this same time every year with the NFL draft just around the corner and the buzz of free agency mostly settled. As with the Fantasy Statbook I decided that since I'm doing this for myself every year I might as well post it online for others to use as well. On the Vacated Targets page you can find the breakdown for each NFL team including vacated target count, target percentage, targets per game count, percent of red zone targets vacated, and a list of any notable free agent additions made. While I'll let you draw your own conclusions from the results I wanted to share some of the things that came to my mind when I was viewing the results.
Detroit Lions: If you're anything like me, when you hear about offseason moves the impact isn't as obvious until you see it visually like we do here. Losing Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay was obviously big, but I didn't realize how many looks former DB Jamal Agnew got when he switched to "WR" this year and the house cleaning didn't stop there. At this time the Lions are also missing the production of Amendola, Peterson, Sanu, and Jesse James. While Jared Goff may still have game left in him, Detroit has left him little to work with. Outside of any big future moves, we may see Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman once again find some fantasy "relevance" once again simply through necessity.
Tennessee Titans: This offseason the Titans parted ways with Jonnu Smith, Corey Davis, as well as Adam Humphries and ended up vacating about 47% of targets. For a team that was a playoff contender the last two year it was a little bit surprising, but they did bring in Josh Reynolds and I'm excited to see him get some opportunities. Outside of that they didn't make any other moves in free agency so it's looking like another season with a significant role for Derrick Henry and (assuming no major changes) a very clear WR1 role for A.J. Brown who is also hitting that fabled third year receiver mark.
Houston Texans: I think this one will be a really big question mark for fantasy players this year. During this offseason the Texans have managed to bring in what seems like every available free agent. With the future of QB Deshaun Watson being uncertain there will be potential for big value or big busts. When we look at the vacated targets for the Texans you would expect them to cover a lot of this through their recent acquisitions, but even that becomes a bit muddied because you have to imagine all those signings don't necessarily make the final cut. I already know I'm going to have issues trying to work out projections and starters for this mess of a team.
Cincinnati Bengals: One of the biggest debates leading up to this year's NFL draft has been what should the Bengals do with the fifth overall pick? I've been firmly on team Sewell in this debate because I believe every team should look to have a great offensive line before anything else. That being said, the evidence seems to lean towards the Bengals taking WR Ja'Marr Chase. My original thought was that this would be an instant downgrade for Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins since Burrow would be getting not only a star receiver, but one which he was already very familiar with from his time at LSU. However, once I looked over the numbers I realized that we actually saw a fairly equal split in targets between Boyd, Higgins, and A.J. Green who is now in Arizona. To me this means we can easily see Chase step into Green's role and, while he might be a favorite target for Burrow, we may still see fairly equal looks between those three.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars are one of several teams where I was a little surprised just how many targets went out the door this offseason. They did make several moves in free agency signing Marvin Jones Jr. and Phillip Dorsett, providing Trevor Lawrence some veteran talent, but I think most people expect that with this many vacated targets we will see D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault taking a big step forward this fantasy season.
Los Angeles Rams: There weren't a lot of players departing the Rams offense this offseason, but between Gerald Everett, Josh Reynolds, and Malcolm Brown the Rams saw 32% of their targets in the 2020 season go out the door. In my mind the trade for Matthew Stafford was another push by the Rams to win now and they didn't add much extra talent yet (the only notable free agent signing was DeSean Jackson). In my mind this all equates to us seeing Tyler Higbee get a firm hold on that TE role and hopefully Van Jefferson works out as the a reliable option alongside the always reliable Woods-Kupp pairing.
New England Patriots: The Patriots' offseason is almost more interesting for what they brought in versus what they lost. While they did vacate 40% of their 2020 targets, they brought in a number of new players with Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne. To me this could work out more towards the "too many mouths to feed" narrative, and we could see less production then we might expect from Henry and/or Jonnu, but still there are a number of other questions in New England. Will they get the Agholor who notoriously dropped balls for the Eagles or will they get the WR1 version we saw in Las Vegas? Is Cam Newton their answer at QB or will they land rookie QB Justin Fields as some draft analysts suggest? All of these things will impact how that 40% vacated target percentage gets allocated and whether their overall game strategy moves towards a more or less pass heavy offense.
Arizona Cardinals: I don't have a lot of big insight for the Cardinals, but I did want to at least note that the numbers for the Cardinals' vacated targets have been calculated with the assumption that Larry Fitzgerald is retiring this year.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers ended up on the lower end of our vacated targets spectrum, but they were a good reminder that while a team may manage to keep together most of their offensive core, losing just one guy (Jamaal Williams in this case), can open a significant portion of a team's targets, especially on a very pass heavy offense. Since they still seem to have no interest in adding talent to help Aaron Rodgers my initial thought is that A.J. Dillon will just slide in as Williams' replacement and we'll mostly see business as usual in Green Bay.
Washington Football Team: This is a team I'm a bit unsure about. WFT ended up in the bottom-3 for vacated targets, yet they brought in two notable free agents in Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries. If we're expecting Ryan Fitzpatrick to be the starting quarterback in Washington this season then maybe we see more passes from their offense this year, but you would still expect Terry McLaurin, Logan Thomas, and Antonio Gibson to be leading the team's production. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what they do in the draft this year because at this point I'm still uncertain on how things will play out for a team I thought showed incredible potential last year despite a 7-9 record.
Dallas Cowboys: Going into last year I was leading the Dak Prescott hype train. I was drafting him in every league I could and it paid off BIG...... at least until he went out for the year with a broken ankle. The team had Michael Gallup coming off a big 2019 season and managed a steal in the draft with CeeDee Lamb. Looking at the team's vacated targets this offseason I can already see that I'm going to pick up right where I left off since they didn't lose any major offensive targets. While I would expect some regression for Dak this year (assuming they make moves to fix the defense so Dak doesn't need to make as many big plays to keep the team alive) I'm still going to expect big numbers from Dak who may see a drop in ADP based on injury worries.
While looking at the total vacated targets for a team provides insight into possible opportunities, narrowing that down further to all redzone targets helps to identify touchdown upside. As you may expect, in most cases the number of vacated targets is usually fairly proportional to the number of vacated redzone targets. In some cases you'll find that the number of lost redzone targets is less than the total target loss. This can be the result of a team cutting a number of "unknown" receivers or game script that favors the running game in the redzone. On the other end of the spectrum there are a few teams such as the Saints or Seahawks that lost more redzone targets than general targets. Using both vacated targets and vacated redzone targets is a great starting point to be able to project player roles and help identify who could be looking at capitalizing on new opportunities.