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Workload Projections: AFC & NFC North

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 7/31/20 |


Being able to predict opportunity - perhaps the most important variable in fantasy football - is more than half of the battle when it comes to being able to construct accurate rankings. Thus, the goal over the next two weeks: provide thoughts and analysis on some of the issues that played a factor in the way I distributed the workload for each team. Unlike past years, I'll be breaking this into four smaller, more easy-to-digest articles.

Notes: After much consternation, I decided on 15-game workload projections. Although the industry judges players and fantasy projections on year-end totals, the fantasy season ends for the overwhelming majority of owners after Week 16. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to project what teams will do (or if they even need to have certain players suit up) in Week 17 - especially in a year like 2020.

The bolded numbers near the top of the middle three columns are the 15-game totals for each team. Players who factored into the overall pass attempt-carries-targets breakdown but are not expected to receive a meaningful workload for fantasy purposes have been excluded in the interest of brevity. The bolded numbers in the last two columns reflect each team's projected run-pass ratio. Last year's average plays per game included sacks, while my projections do not - accounting for some of the gap in the play averages under each table. Players with a next to their name have some degree of injury concern.


 Baltimore Ravens Workload Projections
Pos Player Pa Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
452 571 443 55.8% 44.2%
QB Lamar Jackson 427 121 21.2% 0.0%
RB Mark Ingram 199 24 34.9% 5.4%
RB J.K. Dobbins 147 38 25.7% 8.6%
RB Gus Edwards 52 4 9.1% 0.9%
RB Justice Hill  36 10 6.3% 2.3%
WR Marquise Brown 2 84 0.4% 19.0%
WR Miles Boykin 50 0.0% 11.3%
WR Willie Snead 1 47 0.2% 10.6%
WR Devin Duvernay 47 0.0% 10.6%
TE Mark Andrews 104 0.0% 23.5%
TE Nick Boyle 22 0.0% 5.0%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 68.2
2019 Average Plays per Game: 66.5

Baltimore has the tall task of trying to replace retired RG Marshall Yanda and needs to have a backup plan in case C Matt Skura (torn ACL and dislocated kneecap late in 2019) requires some time to find his form. There also is the small matter of trying to maximize Jackson's running talents without overexposing him (his 323 rushing attempts through two seasons are 52 more than any other quarterback has recorded in any two seasons of their NFL career). It's a safe bet OC Greg Roman wants Jackson down in the 120-attempt range Cam Newton hovered around in his prime. That seems like a more realistic possibility in 2020 after the Ravens added Dobbins, who provides much of the same kind of big-play ability Jackson does. Ingram will have a role in this offense as a between-the-tackles hammer regardless of how quickly Dobbins comes on, but there's also little question the rookie will get more work than Edwards did last year (133 carries). Expect that to come at the expense of Jackson's rushing opportunities in the handful or so of games Baltimore can put away early.

While Brown's slight frame will always be a concern (he was reportedly at 157 pounds at times in 2019 but hopes to play around 170 in 2020), the foot injury that greatly affected his rookie campaign appears to be a thing of the past. Much like DeSean Jackson in his prime, he will probably be a high-variance play because there will always be some question within the play-caller's mind how much punishment he can take or how much risk he is taking by allowing Brown to run among defenders with at least 70 pounds on him. With Hayden Hurst out of the picture and more downfield shots part of the plan to keep this offense humming, Andrews and his 10.8 average targeted air yards - good for second in the league by a tight end last season - stands to benefit greatly as well. Although Boykin should get more involved as a sophomore, the player I expect to emerge as a key factor before the end of the year is Duvernay. Whereas Brown and Andrews figure to do more of their damage downfield, Duvernay should quickly step forward as a weapon out of the slot because he is a bit of a "power slot" even at 5-10 and 200 pounds (23 forced missed tackles last season, per Pro Football Focus).


 Cincinnati Bengals Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
535 417 529 43.8% 56.2%
QB Joe Burrow 515 49 11.8% 0.0%
RB Joe Mixon 259 45 62.1% 8.5%
RB Giovani Bernard 55 38 13.2% 7.2%
RB Rodney Anderson 32 4 7.7% 0.8%
WR A.J. Green 105 0.0% 19.8%
WR Tyler Boyd 2 117 0.5% 22.1%
WR Tee Higgins 71 0.0% 13.4%
WR John Ross 4 45 1.0% 8.5%
TE C.J. Uzomah 35 0.0% 6.6%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 63.5
2019 Average Plays per Game: 65.6

There isn't much doubt if Mixon will be the workhorse in Cincinnati, but the question is if HC Zac Taylor will wait until midseason again to unleash him. Although Burrow is more advanced than the typical Week 1 rookie starter, the smart money is that Mixon will receive a heavy workload right out of the gate. Working in his favor will be the delayed debut of LT Jonah Williams (shoulder). Mixon topped 1,000 rushing yards last year despite posting 1.8 yards per carry before contact - third-worst in the league among backs with at least 200 attempts. Much of that can be explained by horrendous line play, but it is also difficult for fantasy owners to believe the 23-year-old is a special talent when he struggled to top four yards per carry as one of only five backs to face eight men in the box on less than 10 percent of his attempts (7.91). Entering a contract year and surrounded by as much talent as he has seen on his team in his professional career, Mixon could be poised to finally meet expectations if Williams can help the offensive line become even an average run-blocking unit.

Even as Boyd has proven himself to be a capable lead receiver, Green will strike the most fear into defenses if he is even 90 percent of the player he was when we last saw him on the field in 2018. While no one should expect Burrow to carve up the league in September, there is a strong case to be made that he will be the most accurate quarterback Green has played with as a pro. The dismissal of Green in fantasy circles has gone too far; for as inept of a franchise as most people seem to think Cincinnati is, no team is going to keep a player on the active roster for 16 of 17 weeks if it didn't think he wasn't going to be able to help. The team and/or its medical staff just didn't get a good grasp of what they were dealing with until it was too late. Consider him an injury risk if you must, but I'm not ready to give up on a dominant player because of toe and ankle injuries - especially when that player has WR1 upside at a WR3 cost. Given the lack of a usual offseason, it's probably safe to assume Ross will begin the season as the starter over Higgins. The fact he has played eight or fewer games in two of his three seasons is why Higgins is projected for so much more action.


 Cleveland Browns Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
494 422 496 46.1% 53.9%
QB Baker Mayfield 490 24 5.7% 0.0%
RB Nick Chubb 259 28 61.4% 5.6%
RB Kareem Hunt 120 59 28.4% 11.9%
WR Odell Beckham Jr. 1 121 0.2% 24.4%
WR Jarvis Landry 3 110 0.7% 22.2%
WR Rashard Higgins 30 0.0% 6.0%
TE Austin Hooper 64 0.0% 12.9%
TE David Njoku 44 0.0% 8.9%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 61.1
2019 Average Plays per Game: 60.8

People continue to dismiss the possibility that HC Kevin Stefanski will NOT be the person calling plays this season when even he has repeatedly said he doesn't know if it will be him or OC Alex Van Pelt. I am proceeding as if Stefanski will do it, and it will be an interesting development if it happens. Stefanski utilized two tight end sets on 579 of 1,079 snaps last season with the Vikings and two backs on 361 plays. The Browns traded for FB Andy Janovich shortly after Stefanski's arrival, which should have been enough to tip fantasy owners that Chubb and Hunt won't be lining up in the same backfield very often. If we assume Cleveland's personnel usage somewhat mirrors that of last year's Vikings, it is Hunt who stands to suffer the most unless the Browns take the unusual step of committing to a running back as their primary slot receiver. Cleveland addressed its offensive tackle deficiency in a big way by landing Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin. If the Browns improve even a little bit on defense in 2020, there won't be nearly as many third-and-longs and/or negative game scripts in which Hunt is needed as a receiver. Further consider the team sank $11 million/year into TE Austin Hooper, meaning Hunt has more competition for short-area targets than he did last year as well.

If everything seems to be pointing toward a more run-heavy approach, then you'd be correct. Cleveland's 537 pass attempts last season weren't astronomically high, but it's probably going to come down considerably under Stefanski. (The Vikings threw 465 times in 2019.) While their volume (138 targets for Landry, 133 for Beckham) may dip as a result, the longtime friends will almost certainly make up for it with the quality of targets they get. (More on that in a second.) Mayfield was oddly not asked to utilize play-action much in 2019, but it is expected to be a staple with Stefanski around. The former No. 1 overall pick enjoyed a better completion percentage (64.7 to 57.5), yards-per-attempt average (8.9 to 6.6), touchdown-to-interception ratio (9:3 to 13:18) and passer rating (106.2 to 69.4) on play-action passes versus standard drop-backs. That's a big deal by itself if he can maintain that level, but it also suggests he is primed for a huge rebound when we consider he should have more healthy versions of Beckham and Landry after both played through severe injuries for much of last season.


 Pittsburgh Steelers Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
580 372 568 39.1% 60.9%
QB Ben Roethlisberger 558 20 5.4% 0.0%
RB James Conner 200 55 53.8% 9.7%
RB Anthony McFarland Jr. 66 20 17.7% 3.5%
RB Jaylen Samuels 17 22 4.6% 3.9%
RB Benny Snell 61 6 16.4% 1.1%
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster 117 0.0% 20.6%
WR Diontae Johnson 1 97 0.3% 17.1%
WR James Washington 2 60 0.5% 10.6%
WR Ryan Switzer 2 29 0.5% 5.1%
WR Chase Claypool 39 0.0% 6.9%
TE Eric Ebron 74 0.0% 13.0%
TE Vance McDonald 38 0.0% 6.7%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 63.5
2019 Average Plays per Game: 58.6

One of the more interesting nuggets this summer is this one from Nick Farabaugh of Pittsburgh Sports Now: in games in which FB Roosevelt Nix played at least 10 snaps during Conner's career, Conner has averaged 5.3 yards per carry. In games in which Nix didn't hit that number, Conner's average drops to 3.8. Derek Watt is now the fullback in the Steel City, but the point remains the same. Much to the dismay of the anti-Conner crowd, HC Mike Tomlin not only firmly believes in having a "featured back," but also believes that Conner is one. And that's really where any fantasy debate about Conner needs to end. IF Roethlisberger, the Steelers' wide receivers and tight ends all stay relatively healthy this year, then about the only reason fantasy owners have for avoiding Conner is his lack of durability. Expect the Steelers to manage him more this year than they ever did Le'Veon Bell, but Conner is still a 25-year-old back entering a contract year playing for a team with an elite defense and a coach who believes in featuring a running back. Sometimes, fantasy football isn't that hard. Accept the injury risk and be comforted by the likelihood he'll get the workload of an RB1 in at least 10-12 games.

Last season just reinforced how important a healthy Roethlisberger is to this offense. With Big Ben around, the Steelers go from an offense where it was difficult to predict which one receiver was going to post WR3 numbers in a particular week to one in which Smith-Schuster, Johnson and Washington could all be viable most weeks. Smith-Schuster won't see near the volume he became accustomed to before 2019, but he should be expected to lead this group and return to fantasy WR1 status. Johnson's finish to the end of 2019 (23 catches for 257 yards and two touchdowns on 31 targets over the last four games) with subpar quarterback play in his rookie year still stands out as an amazing feat. However, the player that needs more love from the fantasy community at the moment is Ebron. The Steelers have coveted an athletic tight end capable of stretching the field and being a dynamic presence in the red zone for some time. They may finally have their man. Assuming he pushes McDonald into a true backup role and the two don't effectively share snaps (Pittsburgh won't use a lot of two-tight sets with Smith-Schuster, Johnson and Washington around), this is a loaded supporting cast for Roethlisberger.


 Chicago Bears Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
556 402 545 42.0% 58.0%
QB Mitchell Trubisky 183 23 5.7% 0.0%
QB Nick Foles 345 19 4.7% 0.0%
RB David Montgomery 255 27 63.4% 5.0%
RB Tarik Cohen 56 75 13.9% 13.8%
WR Allen Robinson 124 0.0% 22.8%
WR Anthony Miller 4 102 1.0% 18.7%
WR Ted Ginn 4 33 1.0% 6.1%
WR Riley Ridley 45 0.0% 8.3%
WR Cordarrelle Patterson 13 15 3.2% 2.8%
TE Jimmy Graham 54 0.0% 9.9%
TE Cole Kmet 32 0.0% 5.9%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 63.9
2019 Average Plays per Game: 63.8

Back in 2018 when Chicago fielded a dominant defense in the team's first season under HC Matt Nagy, the Bears ran the ball 468 times - 369 of which went to the running back position. In 2019, those numbers dropped to 395 and 319, respectively. This is a team that wants to run the ball - and may be better off doing so more often than not - when the defense is holding up its end of the bargain. This is a notable generalization because unless Ryan Nall has proved something to the Chicago brass with his two career carries, there is no one else on the roster after Montgomery to handle roughly 80 percent of the rushing attempts from running backs after Cohen gets his share. Unfortunately, the Bears did next to nothing to make his job easier after signing former Seattle OT Germain Ifedi to play guard. Until Chicago finds another good lineman to pair with LG James Daniels and C Cody Whitehair to give the offense either a strong left side of the line or a solid interior push - upgrades at left tackle or right guard in other words - Montgomery will be heavily reliant on the Bears' defense affording him the opportunity to get the volume he needs to be more useful in fantasy than he was as a rookie.

Robinson once again proved he is nearly quarterback-proof, although 154 targets certainly didn't hurt his cause to enjoying a career high in receptions. It seems unlikely Robinson needs to worry much about a significant change in target share as he enters what should be the prime years of his career (turns 27 in August). It was an absolute joy to watch the Bears #freeAnthonyMiller right about the same time Taylor Gabriel's season came to an end. As only teams like Chicago can do, the Bears added a more dynamic version of Gabriel in Ginn, leaving some doubt whether Miller will go right back to being a fringe fantasy option. I'm betting on talent with my projection of Miller, but I have my doubts. Cohen admitted to not being physically ready for last season and has vowed to not let it happen again in 2020. If he rediscovers his 2018 form, he brings a unique element to an offense that needs it. Graham and Kmet should be able to give the offense more than it got from Trey Burton, but the former's physical decline and the latter's inexperience figures to keep either from contributing all that much in 2020.


 Detroit Lions Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
568 375 559 39.8% 60.2%
QB Matthew Stafford 549 33 8.8% 0.0%
RB D'Andre Swift 170 46 45.3% 8.2%
RB Kerryon Johnson 124 34 33.1% 6.1%
WR Kenny Golladay 1 114 0.3% 20.4%
WR Marvin Jones 1 93 0.3% 16.6%
WR Danny Amendola 1 77 0.3% 13.8%
WR Geronimo Allison 40 0.0% 7.2%
WR Quintez Cephus 31 0.0% 5.5%
TE T.J. Hockenson 93 0.0% 16.6%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 62.9
2019 Average Plays per Game: 63.8

Johnson probably should have been allowed another chance to prove he could be the man in Detroit, but missing 14 of a possible 32 games in the NFL left the Lions relying on the likes of J.D. McKissic and Bo Scarbrough too often. The addition of Swift should eventually slam the door on Johnson being anything more than a 1B back over the final two years of his rookie contract. Given the unique nature of this offseason, however, it is certainly within the range of outcomes that Detroit opts to make this a split backfield to keep both players healthy for as long as possible. Another reason the Lions may opt for this approach is that Johnson (5-11, 211) and Swift (5-8, 212) possess similar builds and have somewhat similar games, giving OC Darrell Bevell the luxury of being able to call the same kind of play for one as he would for the other. I gave Swift a high-end comp to Aaron Jones in his draft profile and wouldn't be surprised if he eventually performs at that level, so he should be considered the odds-on favorite to emerge as the clear lead back no later than November.

With the addition of an all-purpose back like Swift capable of lining up anywhere across the formation, a multi-week absence from Stafford might be the only thing that keeps the offense from lighting up the scoreboard. Golladay has seemingly settled in as a low-end fantasy WR1 despite not attracting the same target volume of some of his contemporaries because the Lions use him so much in high-value situations (deep targets and inside the 10). To that end, Golladay ranked 11th in the league in average depth of target (14.6) and led the league in targets inside the 10 last season (13). Jones isn't exactly the typical sidekick either, as his aDOT of 13 yards and nine targets inside the 10 are well above the norm for a "possession" receiver. Once Stafford can improve his chemistry with Hockenson (only 65.5 percent of the balls thrown in Hockenson's direction last year were catchable, per Sports Info Solutions), it's fair to wonder how much Golladay and Jones will suffer as a result (near the goal line). The same can be said if Swift can punch a few more in on the ground than Detroit is used to getting.

Green Bay

 Green Bay Packers Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
540 437 531 44.7% 55.3%
QB Aaron Rodgers 516 43 9.8% 0.0%
RB Aaron Jones 213 53 48.7% 10.0%
RB Jamaal Williams 82 40 18.8% 7.5%
RB AJ Dillon 90 8 20.6% 1.5%
WR Davante Adams 153 0.0% 28.8%
WR Allen Lazard 86 0.0% 16.2%
WR Equanimeous St. Brown 47 0.0% 8.9%
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling 20 0.0% 3.8%
TE Jace Sternberger 87 0.0% 16.4%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 65.1
2019 Average Plays per Game: 63.8

Fantasy owners have seemingly made up their minds that the Packers will be able to play with positive game scripts as often as they did in 2019 (they spent over 40 minutes per game on average either tied or leading). What coaches/general managers want to do - based on the players they draft and acquire - and what they have to do in a given game don't match up near as often as the common fan realizes. Green Bay overcame a questionable run defense in part because it was able to get ahead quickly often and stay there. The Packers may not be so lucky in 2020, facing a host of likely explosive offenses (Lions, Saints, Falcons, Bucs, Texans and 49ers over a seven-game stretch from Week 2 to Week 9). Some fantasy owners have also decided Jones is too risky, but is it all that improbable that the plan for Dillon in 2020 is to give Green Bay a more dynamic change-of-pace for Jones than Williams in the running game? Dillon may have been added for more power in short-yardage and at the goal line, but can the Packers believe he will do better than Jones did in 2019 (eight TDs in 13 runs inside the 5 last year)? Better than 7-for-12 from the 3 or closer? Additionally, if the Packers end up playing from behind more often, the main beneficiary should be Jones.

We've already established game script could easily force Rodgers into passing more often than the 569 times he did so last year. Let's also hold a bit on his farewell tour while we're at it. His intended air yards (4,715) ranked sixth in the league last year and his deep passing accuracy (attempts where the ball traveled at least 20 yards in the air) was right about where it had been the previous four seasons. Even his percentage of catchable balls was right at or above the standard he has set since 2015. I'm not saying he's primed to return to overall QB1 status, but try to keep in mind he did all of the above despite being without one of the top receivers in the game for a quarter of the season. Speaking of Adams, he has the most legitimate case of any receiver to be the overall fantasy WR1 in 2020. Not only is there a lack of stud corners on the schedule this year, but it's hard to imagine any scenario in which he plays 15 or 16 games and Rodgers doesn’t throw his way at least 150 or 160 times. Don't be surprised if Sternberger takes full advantage of getting used out of the slot like Mike Gesicki was in Miami last year and becomes the second-best fantasy option in the passing game.


 Minnesota Vikings Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
534 439 525 45.1% 54.9%
QB Kirk Cousins 498 47 10.7% 0.0%
RB Dalvin Cook 237 66 54.0% 12.6%
RB Alexander Mattison 96 21 21.9% 4.0%
RB Mike Boone 29 2 6.6% 0.4%
WR Adam Thielen 3 122 0.7% 23.2%
WR Justin Jefferson 1 89 0.2% 17.0%
WR Olabisi Johnson 31 0.0% 5.9%
TE Kyle Rudolph 60 0.0% 11.4%
TE Irv Smith 1 73 0.2% 13.9%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 64.9
2019 Average Plays per Game: 60.6

After serving as the team's offensive advisor and collaborating with former OC Kevin Stefanski in 2019, Gary Kubiak will return to calling plays for the first time since 2016. Kubiak's promotion means more of the same outside zone running game Cook thrived in last year and that the Vikings will be making a seamless transition offensively. The biggest difference for Cook this year will be whether the offense will be able to provide him with the same volume; it's not a question about Cook being given the bulk of the touches out of the backfield, but rather if the defense that has been good for so many years will be able to hold up consistently with Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney and Mike Hughes likely occupying the top three cornerback slots. It is a legitimate concern considering Gladney's injury history in college along with Hill and Hughes' uneven play in 2019. It's rarely ever a bad idea to invest in a Kubiak backfield, so Mattison is a fine handcuff choice so long as fantasy owners don't think the second-year back will be a league-winning type of player if Cook misses multiple games. Regardless, it may behoove Kubiak to find a way to give Mattison a steady 10 touches per game as a way of decreasing the number of shots Cook must take on his troublesome shoulder.

Stefanski and Kubiak's implementation of more play-action passing last season is being credited as one of the major reasons Cousins enjoyed one of his more efficient years in 2019. He'll have his work cut out for him a little bit more in 2020 after the team traded away Stefon Diggs, who is one of the league's premier route-runners. Diggs also showed he was a dynamic deep threat as well, which is something Jefferson probably won't be. Minnesota is expected to adjust by making the rookie the primary slot option and giving Thielen more of the outside reps, creating a situation in which Jefferson becomes the new Thielen and Thielen becomes the new Diggs. (Of course, it's not quite that simple, but hopefully you get the point.) The primary beneficiary of Diggs' departure, however, should be Smith. In the five games Thielen and Smith played together, Smith was targeted an average of two times. In the nine games Thielen either sat out or did not finish, Smith averaged 4.1 targets. GM Rick Spielman noted shortly after the 2019 NFL Draft that he felt Smith compared favorably to Jordan Reed, and it shouldn't come as a surprise if that begins to manifest itself this year.

East | West | North | South

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA TODAY's Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He is also a high-stakes player who often appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, such as Sirius XM's "Fantasy Drive." Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

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