Every season teams lose valuable receiving options from the prior year, and every season fantasy managers daydream about the possibility of a random bench piece inheriting all that volume. While this narrative has played about favorably for a handful of players, in the grand scheme of the NFL, it is actually very rare. “Vacated Targets” are the snake oil of fantasy football. Don’t let yourself get duped.
Where Do They Go?
Looking at players that received 70 or more targets over the last two seasons, there have been a few different ways teams have dealt with the loss. The most common option was bringing in a rookie or free agent to absorb the lost targets. About half of the teams are unable to account for the targets. Their offense simply isn’t as efficient and the target total drops. Then there are the unicorns, the teams that have a player breakout and earn all of those coveted vacated targets.
Draft or Free Agency
Of the 14 teams that lost a 70+ target player in the last two seasons, only two teams didn’t bring in a new player to try to absorb some of that loss: the Rams and the Dolphins. In both of these situations, a player did see a massive uptick in targets, but those teams also had other issues going on.
The Dolphins, after losing Danny Amendola following the 2018 season, brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick supercharging their passing game. DeVante Parker saw the benefit in a massive breakout but took a step back this past season. The increased volume in the passing game can also be attributed to the loss of several defensive pieces in the 2019 season, as the Dolphins saw Minkah Fitzpatrick depart early in the season.
The Rams were without Brandin Cooks entering the 2020 season, and most of his lost volume was lost entirely. As he received 72 targets in 2019 and the Rams threw for 50 fewer targets in 2020. The remaining 22 targets were spread out and Josh Reynolds saw the biggest benefit, though he still remained irrelevant for fantasy purposes.
Four of the 14 saw a player that wasn’t with the team the year before leading all receivers in targets: Brandin Cooks (Texans), Justin Jefferson (Vikings), Golden Tate (Giants), and Diontae Johnson (Steelers). Five of the 14 had their new addition finish the season as the number two most targeted player on the team. The takeaway here is that teams are typically looking to fill that hole in the roster with more talent than what is currently sitting on their bench.
Half of the teams that lost a receiving option that accounted for 70+ targets saw a dip in their target total the following season. These offenses were less efficient and had drives end earlier.
In some cases, those teams might have undergone a change in philosophy, like the Ravens when they switched over to Lamar Jackson. Others went without other pieces, like the Steelers limping their way through the season with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. If you are after a player whose team is going to be throwing the ball less often, your chances of a high fantasy finish are harder to come by.
For what it’s worth, teams that saw a major increase in targets brought in a rookie that had a massive breakout or made a switch at the QB position.
In the past two seasons, we’ve seen breakout seasons from Calvin Ridley, Justin Jefferson, Darren Waller, Diontae Johnson, DJ Chark, and DeVante Parker. All of these players benefited from vacated targets in a roundabout way. A few of them can be explained away though. Ridley saw the benefit of Julio Jones suffering through injuries. Dionte Johnson benefited from injury as well, with JuJu Smith-Schuster being sidelined for a portion of the season. DJ Chark and DeVante Parker both benefited from improved QB play and increased target availability.
That leaves us with two players that saw actual breakouts due to vacated targets alone. Both of these players earned their target opportunities and did not simply fall into a good situation. This is the heart of the matter. Vacated targets aren’t a sticky stat because targets aren’t inherited, they’re earned. A team needs to see that there is a viable receiving option
2021 Possible Breakouts
As of right now, many teams have a clear path to breakout for multiple players. The ones to focus on, due to the “vacated targets” narrative typically tend to be rookie or second-year wide receivers that find themselves with massive opportunities for volume. Players that immediately come to mind are Chase Claypool, Michael Pittman Jr., Laviska Shenault, and Gabriel Davis. Watching to see what their teams do in free agency will be very telling in terms of their impending breakout. If their franchise makes no moves to account for the drop in targets, they could be in store for a massive workload in 2021.
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