In the quest to identify next season’s fantasy football breakout stars, there are dozens of factors to consider. But before you dive into every potential draft pick’s efficiency stats or his team’s strength of schedule, the most important place to start is projecting that player’s path to the two essential fantasy t’s: touches and targets. Volume is king in fantasy football; it’s easy to get excited about a player who’s shown some potential, or who makes a few fun training camp plays, or who possesses extraordinary athleticism, but all too often, our favorite offseason hype stars turn into in-season fantasy afterthoughts because they’re stuck playing behind someone else.
For some teams, depth charts — and this year’s offensive volume shares — are pretty much set. We can assume, for instance, that Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph (a trio that combined for 318 targets, 212 receptions, and 20 touchdowns last year) will get the lion’s share of the Vikings’ passing game targets again in 2018, and barring injury, looks in the passing game will be hard to come by for the other pass-catchers on that depth chart.
But for a handful of teams, depth charts, target shares, and backfield rotations are still up in the air. For these 10 offensive units, offseason turnover has created a production vacuum, and that gives new additions and up-and-coming talents the opportunity to step up and take on those vacant roles — and produce big numbers for your fantasy team.
Ravens Pass-Catching Corps
TE Benjamin Watson (79 targets, 61 receptions, 522 yards, 4 TDs)
WR Mike Wallace (92 targets, 52 receptions, 748 yards, 4 TDs)
WR Jeremy Maclin (72 targets, 40 receptions, 440 yards, 3 TDs)
WR Michael Campanaro (27 targets, 19 receptions, 173 yards, 1 TDs)
WR Griff Whalen (6 targets, 4 receptions, 23 yards)
WR Chris Matthews (6 targets, 3 receptions, 25 yards)
WR Chris Moore (38 targets, 18 receptions, 248 yards, 3 TD)
WR Breshad Perriman (35 targets, 10 receptions, 77 yards)
TE Nick Boyle (37 targets, 28 receptions, 203 yards)
TE Maxx Williams (18 targets, 15 receptions, 86 yards, 1 TD)
WR Michael Crabtree
WR Willie Snead
WR John Brown
TE Hayden Hurst
TE Mark Andrews
The Ravens almost completely remodeled their pass-catching corps during the offseason, letting Joe Flacco’s top three targets from last year in Watson, Wallace, and Maclin all walk in free agency. In all, six receivers and tight ends departed, taking 282 targets, 179 receptions, 1,931 yards, and 12 touchdowns of 2017 production with them. That leaves a hell of a lot of future fantasy points up for grabs, and newcomers Crabtree, Snead, and Brown; the team’s four potential tight end options; and holdovers Chris Moore and Breshad Perriman will have the chance to divvy it all up.
Crabtree’s the best fantasy bet of the bunch, and I’d expect he’ll quickly emerge as Flacco’s (or Lamar Jackson’s?) go-to guy on the outside and frequent red-zone target. Brown slots into Wallace’s role as the defense-stretching deep threat and projects as a high-variance, touchdown-dependent fantasy option. Snead’s a dark horse to emerge as a big contributor in the team’s short-pass-dependent “air” attack, and should have the chance to pick up Maclin’s and Campanaro’s production out of the slot. And it’s worth keeping an eye on how the tight end depth chart develops: Rookie tight ends Hurst and Andrews will have to duke it out with Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams for the rights to Watson’s role as Flacco’s security blanket over the middle of the field.
Cowboys Pass-Catching Corps
WR Dez Bryant (132 targets, 69 receptions, 838 yards, 6 TDs)
TE Jason Witten (87 targets, 63 receptions, 560 yards, 5 TDs)
WR Brice Butler (23 targets, 15 receptions, 317 yards, 3 TDs)
WR Ryan Switzer (7 targets, 6 receptions, 41 yards)
TE James Hanna (9 targets, 4 receptions, 88 yards, 1 TDs)
WR Terrance Williams (78 targets, 53 receptions, 568 yards)
WR Cole Beasley (63 targets, 36 receptions, 314 yards, 4 TD)
WR Noah Brown (9 targets, 4 receptions, 33 yards)
TE Geoff Swaim (2 targets, 2 receptions, 25 yards)
WR Allen Hurns
WR Deonte Thompson
WR Michael Gallup
WR/RB Tavon Austin
WR Cedrick Wilson
TE Dalton Schultz
Dallas’s pass-catching corps will look a whole lot different in 2018. The team’s top two targets from last season (Bryant and Witten) are gone, and combined with other departures, a total of 258 targets, 157 receptions, 1,844 yards, and 15 touchdowns of 2017 production is up for grabs.
Hurns projects as Bryant’s replacement as the team’s new de facto no. 1, while Thompson should carve out a role on the other side; Gallup will have a chance to earn some playing time as a rookie; and Austin’s being described as a “web back” who could pick up a dozen or more touches per game. (Wait, one question: What is a “web back”?) Expect a committee approach in the Cowboys’ passing attack: Dak Prescott still has his field-stretching threat in Terrance Williams and his third-down chains mover in Cole Beasley. Finally, one of the team’s tight ends will have to take over Witten’s role, whether that’s Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers, or the rookie, Schultz. Gathers, a former sixth-rounder and college basketball convert project who lit up last year’s preseason with seven catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns, is the early favorite.
RB Orleans Darkwa (171 carries, 751 yards, 5 TDs; 28 targets, 19 receptions, 116 yards)
RB Shane Vereen (45 carries, 164 yards; 53 targets, 44 receptions, 253 yards)
RB Paul Perkins (41 carries, 90 yards; 10 targets, 8 receptions, 46 yards)
RB Wayne Gallman (111 carries, 476 yards; 48 targets, 34 receptions, 193 yards, 1 TD)
RB Saquon Barkley
RB Jonathan Stewart
It was clear the minute they took him with the second overall pick that the Giants have big plans for Barkley, and he lands in an opportunity-rich backfield devoid of an incumbent starter or passing-downs specialist. Stewart should play a rotational role, spelling Barkley to keep him fresh down the stretch, but the former Penn State star projects as a three-down playmaker who should factor both on the ground and through the air.
Gone are Darkwa, Perkins, and Vereen, leaving a collective 257 carries, 1,005 rushing yards, and five touchdowns of 2017 ground production up for grabs. That trio also left 91 running back pass targets, 71 catches, and 415 receiving yards on the table, too, which means, basically, we can expect that Barkley will be a fantasy stud in 2018. I mean, duh.
Cardinals Pass-Catching Corps
WR Jaron Brown (69 targets, 31 receptions, 477 yards, 4 TDs)
WR John Brown (55 targets, 21 receptions, 299 yards, 3 TDs)
RB/WR Andre Ellington (50 targets, 33 receptions, 297 yards)
TE Troy Niklas (23 targets, 11 receptions, 132 yards, 1 TD)
WR Brittan Golden (9 targets, 5 receptions, 70 yards)
WR Larry Fitzgerald (161 targets, 109 receptions, 1,156 yards, 6 TD)
WR JJ Nelson (61 targets, 29 receptions, 508 yards, 2 TD)
WR Chad Williams (7 targets, 3 receptions, 31 yards)
TE Jermaine Gresham (46 targets, 33 receptions, 322 yards, 2 TD)
TE Ricky Seals-Jones (28 targets, 12 receptions, 201 yards, 3 TD)
WR Christian Kirk
WR Brice Butler
WR Cobi Hamilton
We can expect that Larry Fitzgerald (161 targets in 2017) will remain the focal point of the Cardinals’ air attack again this season, especially considering three of the team’s next four most-targeted pass catchers left in free agency. The departures of the two Browns (Jaron and John), Ellington, Niklas, and Golden leave a total of 206 targets, 101 catches, 1,275 yards, and eight touchdowns of last year’s passing game production on the table.
Whether it’s Sam Bradford or rookie Josh Rosen throwing downfield for Arizona this year, the two likeliest beneficiaries of all that unclaimed loot are Nelson and Kirk. My money’s on the rookie turning into the no. 2 option in the Cardinals’ passing game early on.
RB C.J. Anderson (245 carries, 1,007 yards, 3 TDs; 40 targets, 28 receptions, 224 yards, 1 TD)
RB Jamaal Charles (69 carries, 296 yards, 1 TD; 28 targets, 23 receptions, 129 yards)
RB Devontae Booker (79 carries, 299 yards, 1 TD; 38 targets, 30 receptions, 275 yards)
RB De’Angelo Henderson (7 carries, 13 yards; 2 targets, 2 catches, 36 yards, 1 TD)
RB Royce Freeman
RB David Williams
By cutting Anderson and leaving Charles unsigned in free agency, the Broncos head into 2018 with a combined 314 carries, 1,303 yards, and four touchdowns of 2017 production up for grabs from the team’s new-look running back group. Incumbent Devontae Booker will have the first shot to grab the reins of the team’s ground attack, but he’ll have to hold off rookie third-rounder Royce Freeman, an elusive and versatile back who scored 60 touchdowns in his college career. Don’t be surprised if the former Duck ends up ahead of Booker on the depth chart by the midway point in the season.
Bears Pass-Catching Corps
WR Kendall Wright (91 targets, 59 receptions, 614 yards, 1 TD)
WR Dontrelle Inman (40 targets, 23 receptions, 334 yards, 1 TD)
TE Zach Miller (35 targets, 20 receptions, 236 yards, 2 TDs)
WR Deonte Thompson (18 targets, 11 receptions 125 yards, 1 TD)
WR Tre McBride (15 targets, 8 receptions, 144 yards)
WR Markus Wheaton (17 targets, 3 receptions, 51 yards)
WR Josh Bellamy (46 targets, 24 receptions, 376 yards, 1 TD)
TE Dion Sims (29 targets, 15 receptions, 180 yards, 1 TD)
TE Daniel Brown (20 targets, 13 receptions, 129 yards)
TE Adam Shaheen (14 targets, 12 receptions, 127 yards, 3 TD)
WR Tanner Gentry (6 targets, 3 receptions, 35 yards)
WR Kevin White (4 targets, 2 receptions, 6 yards)
WR Allen Robinson
WR Taylor Gabriel
WR Anthony Miller
TE Trey Burton
WR Bennie Fowler
Chicago hit the reset button at the receiver position over the offseason, letting Wright, Inman, Thompson, McBride, and Wheaton walk — and along with Zach Miller (who suffered a gruesome knee injury that threatens his career) that group accounted for 216 targets, 124 receptions, 1,504 yards, and five touchdowns of the team’s passing offense in 2017. In their place, GM Ryan Pace and new head coach Matt Nagy have added Robinson, Gabriel, Anthony Miller, and Burton.
Robinson projects as Mitchell Trubisky’s top target and comes with the upside of a fantasy star. The former Jaguar is a field-stretching deep threat whose size (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) should come in handy on third downs and in the red zone. Gabriel also brings top-echelon downfield speed to the mix, and Miller should quickly emerge as a big part of the team’s passing game, both from the slot and on the outside. The über-athletic Burton takes on the role of a poor man’s Travis Kelce in Nagy’s Chiefs-style offensive scheme, and the big X factor in this group, of course, is former first-round pick Kevin White, a receiver who’s missed most of his first two seasons in the league — but offers a tantalizing combination of size and speed.
Frank Gore (261 attempt, 961 yards, 3 TDs; 38 targets, 29 receptions, 245 yards, 1 TD)
RB Marlon Mack (93 carries, 358 yards, 3 TD; 33 targets, 21 receptions, 225 yards, 1 TD)
RB Robert Turbin (23 carries, 53 yards, 1 TD; 11 targets, 9 receptions, 56 yards)
RB Josh Ferguson (1 carry, 5 yards; 4 targets, 3 receptions, 16 yards)
RB Nyheim Hines
RB Jordan Wilkins
The departure of Gore, who carried the Colts’ run game in 2017, creates an opportunity for the team’s backfield. The wily 35-year-old vet finished last year eighth in the league with 261 totes and rushed for 961 yards and three scores while adding 29 catches, 245 yards, and a touchdown through the air. That production — and potentially more, if Indy’s offense takes a jump forward thanks to the expected return of Andrew Luck and the addition of Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson — should be bequeathed in some manner to the combination of second-year pro Marlon Mack, veteran runner Robert Turbin, and rookie fourth-rounder Nyheim Hines.
Right now, Mack looks like the front-runner to be lead back, and he’s electric in space as a pass-catching back, too. Hines, who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine, has a strong chance to carve out a complementary role, and Turbin could snipe some of the team’s goal-line carries.
Seahawks Pass-Catching Corps
TE Jimmy Graham (96 targets, 57 receptions, 520 yards, 10 TDs)
WR Paul Richardson (80 targets, 44 receptions, 703 yards, 6 TDs)
TE Luke Willson (22 targets, 15 receptions, 153 yards, 4 TDs)
WR Doug Baldwin (116 targets, 75 receptions, 991 yards, 8 TD)
WR Tyler Lockett (71 targets, 45 receptions, 555 yards, 2 TD)
TE Nick Vannett (15 targets, 12 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD)
WR Amara Darboh (13 targets, 8 receptions, 71 yards)
WR Tanner McEvoy (9 targets, 5 receptions, 113 yards)
WR Marcus Johnson
WR Jaron Brown
TE Ed Dickson
TE Will Dissly
No team on this list lost more touchdown production from their passing game over the offseason than the Seahawks. Graham, Richardson, and Willson combined to collect 198 targets, 116 receptions, 1,376 yards, and 20 touchdowns last year — leaving Russell Wilson (who led the NFL with 34 TD passes) with a surplus of end zone targets to distribute in 2018. Some of that up-for-grabs touchdown production will likely end up in the hands of the team’s running backs; Seattle’s ineffective backfield (not including Wilson, who also rushed for three TDs) scored just one touchdown on the ground in all of 2017 as the Seahawks used Graham, who was basically unguardable on the back-shoulder throw, as their de facto goal-line back.
With Graham out of the picture, Doug Baldwin looks like the primary beneficiary for fantasy production. The two-time Pro Bowler and top-tier route runner led the Seahawks in touchdown catches the previous two seasons, and finished tied for the league lead in 2015 with 14 scores. I expect he’ll take back his role as the team’s top end zone target again next season. Fourth-year pro Tyler Lockett projects as the team’s no. 2, and Brown has the size and speed to help the team on third downs and in the red zone.
Dolphins Pass-Catching Corps
WR Jarvis Landry (161 targets, 112 receptions, 987 yards, 9 TDs)
TE Julius Thomas (62 targets, 41 receptions, 388 yards, 3 TDs)
TE Anthony Fasano (16 targets, 12 receptions, 107 yards, 1 TD)
WR Kenny Stills (105 targets, 58 receptions, 847 yards, 6 TD)
WR DeVante Parker (96 targets, 57 receptions, 670 yards, 1 TD)
WR Jakeem Grant (22 targets, 13 receptions, 203 yards, 2 TD)
WR Leonte Carroo (12 targets, 7 receptions, 69 yards)
TE A.J. Derby (9 targets, 2 receptions, 20 yards)
TE MarQueis Gray (3 targets, 1 reception, 10 yards)
WR Danny Amendola
WR Albert Wilson
TE Mike Gesicki
TE Durham Smythe
Landry’s trade to the Browns alone could have landed the Dolphins on this list, but after the departures of Thomas and Fasano, Miami goes into this season with 239 targets, 165 receptions, 1,482 yards, and 13 touchdowns of 2017 pass game production to redistribute. Returning receivers DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills are likely going to see a big uptick in opportunities downfield, and newcomers Amendola and Wilson will help fill the rest of the gaps Landry’s departure creates. And after using second- and fourth-round picks on Gesicki and Smythe, respectively, expect Adam Gase to heavily target his tight ends in 2018.
RB Dion Lewis (180 carries, 896 yards, 6 TDs; 35 targets, 32 receptions, 214 yards, 3 TDs)
RB Rex Burkhead (64 carries, 264 yards, 5 TD; 36 targets, 30 receptions, 254 yards, 3 TD)
RB Mike Gillislee (104 carries, 383 yards, 5 TD; 1 target, 1 reception, 15 yards)
RB James White (43 carries, 171 yards; 72 targets, 56 receptions, 429 yards, 3 TD)
RB Sony Michel
RB Jeremy Hill
The Patriots’ receiving corps has undergone a bit of a makeover this offseason with the trade of Brandin Cooks and loss of Amendola to free agency, but veterans Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman (who is set to return from an ACL tear) should have no trouble making up the bulk of the team’s lost passing game production. Instead, the bigger question for New England’s offense is how will its backfield rotation shake out. The team’s lead back from last year (Lewis) just signed in Tennessee, and its second-leading rusher (Mike Gillislee, who fell out of favor in the second half) is a release candidate. That should leave four backs — veterans Rex Burkhead, James White, free-agent pickup Jeremy Hill, and Michel, the team’s second first-round pick — fighting for touches in 2018.
It’s just about impossible to predict what Bill Belichick’s going to do at running back, but Michel is the favorite to inherit most of Lewis’s vacated production. The former Georgia standout is a physical, downhill runner with the versatility to catch passes out of the backfield. Assuming he can hold on to the rock (and that’s no given, considering Michel had the second-worst fumble rate of all the backs in this class), the rookie looks like the best bet for a big year in fantasy football.