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Workload Projections: AFC & NFC South

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 8/4/20 |


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.


 Houston Texans Workload Projections
Pos Player Pa Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
515 421 501 45.0% 55.0%
QB Deshaun Watson 499 83 19.7% 0.0%
RB David Johnson 223 58 53.0% 11.6%
RB Duke Johnson 85 54 20.2% 10.8%
WR Brandin Cooks 102 0.0% 20.4%
WR Will Fuller 68 0.0% 13.6%
WR Randall Cobb 3 79 0.7% 15.8%
WR Kenny Stills 42 0.0% 8.4%
TE Darren Fells 35 0.0% 7.0%
TE Kahale Warring 28 0.0% 5.6%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 62.4
2019 Average Plays per Game: 63.6

Since multiple coaching staffs have decided Duke Johnson doesn't deserve a shot at a lead role despite never having missed a game and averaging a healthy 4.4 yards per rush for his career, it's imperative David Johnson stays healthy this year. The alternatives are former undrafted free-agent Buddy Howell or possibly another winner of a trade from de facto GM/HC Bill O'Brien. One of the supposed motivations for the acquisition of David Johnson was to get the running backs more involved in the passing game under first-time play-caller Tim Kelly. In the six-season O'Brien era, the Texans have given their lead back at least 238 carries four times despite rarely ever having an above-average offensive line or possessing a high-end talent at running back. David Johnson has twice hit or surpassed 258 attempts, but he has a total of 230 in his other three pro seasons combined. If there is one positive for David Johnson besides zero competition for his early-down role, it might be that Houston is slowly finding long-term solutions to its offensive line problems.

Watson attempted 67 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season - the seventh-highest total in the league. With all the speed on the perimeter Houston has now, it would be at least mildly surprising if he doesn't match or exceed Aaron Rodgers' 88 such attempts last year (second only behind Jameis Winston's 102). Any increase like that is good for someone like Fuller, who has yet to average less than 14 yards per target in his four-year career. The problem is he has given fantasy owners no reason to believe he will be available often enough to even partly fill the void left behind by the trade of DeAndre Hopkins. Fuller has played 11 or fewer games in three straight seasons and has yet to catch 50 balls in a season or top 700 yards in any of his four professional seasons. Cooks missed his first two regular-season games in five years in 2019, ending a four-year run of at least 65 receptions AND at least 1,082 receiving yards. Cooks' concussion history is a big deal, but Fuller has proven time and again he can't be counted on to avoid soft-tissue injuries. Particularly on a team that can be expected to play in negative game scripts more often in 2020, it won't be the deep shots that will be available game after game. It will be the short and intermediate work, and that's why I'll gladly take Cooks and maybe even Cobb over Fuller this year.


 Indianapolis Colts Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
529 453 501 46.1% 53.9%
QB Philip Rivers 497 14 3.1% 0.0%
RB Marlon Mack 145 15 32.0% 3.0%
RB Jonathan Taylor 221 21 48.8% 4.2%
RB Nyheim Hines 36 53 7.9% 10.6%
WR T.Y. Hilton 94 0.0% 18.8%
WR Michael Pittman 81 0.0% 16.2%
WR Parris Campbell 7 82 1.5% 16.4%
WR Zach Pascal 32 0.0% 6.4%
TE Jack Doyle 75 0.0% 15.0%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 65.5
2019 Average Plays per Game: 63.8

The Colts compiled the fifth-most rushing attempts in the league last year. With one of the most accomplished college football backs of all-time joining the backfield and the defense likely to take another step forward, Indianapolis should be expected to run even more than the 471 times it did in 2019. With Rivers no threat to run, the Colts could very well have more than 450 rushing attempts to split among Taylor, Mack and Hines. It's hard to imagine Hines will exceed the 52 he had last year when he took a back seat to Jonathan Williams while Mack was sidelined. That means roughly 400 carries could be available for Taylor and Mack behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. The coaches have repeatedly stated they plan on taking a 1A/1B approach to Taylor and Mack. Teams tend to self-scout and reassess during their bye weeks, so perhaps the safest assumption to make is the Colts will distribute carries fairly evenly between Mack and Taylor before the Week 7 bye. Not only would this give Taylor a chance to overcome the lack of an offseason, but it would allow Indianapolis to comfortably give him about 60 percent of the rushing attempts down the stretch.

It's easy to understand why fantasy owners are hesitant to put too much trust into Hilton after consecutive years of lower-body injuries - the worst of which was last season's calf tear. He's always been a much better player on the FieldTurf at Lucas Oil Stadium than on natural grass to boot, making him more of a hit-or-miss WR2 in fantasy than a low-end WR1. That seems unlikely to change despite OC Nick Sirianni's insistence Hilton will be the centerpiece of the team's passing attack because the Colts have other legitimate weapons at his position for the first time in years. Pittman should quickly emerge as the same kind of threat in the red zone Eric Ebron was and gives Rivers the same kind of downfield threat he had with Mike Williams in recent years. Campbell has been assured primary residence in the slot and should be able to emerge as the big-play threat Indianapolis thought it was getting last year before his hamstring tormented him. It's important to remember Doyle is not in the same class as Antonio Gates or Hunter Henry and that Rivers could attempt about 100 fewer passes than the 591 he had last year. In other words, Doyle has upside but keep expectations at the high-end TE2 level. Targeting him because "Rivers loves his tight ends" is minimizing the quality of options the former Charger quarterback has had at the position throughout his career.


 Jacksonville Jaguars Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
567 427 559 43.0% 57.0%
QB Gardner Minshew 527 71 16.6% 0.0%
RB Leonard Fournette 240 58 56.2% 10.4%
RB Ryquell Armstead 56 11 13.1% 2.0%
RB Chris Thompson 36 53 8.4% 9.5%
WR D.J. Chark 1 118 0.2% 21.1%
WR Dede Westbrook 3 84 0.7% 15.0%
WR Laviska Shenault 12 69 2.8% 12.3%
WR Chris Conley 48 0.0% 8.6%
TE Tyler Eifert 68 0.0% 12.2%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 66.3
2019 Average Plays per Game: 63.8

The narratives are out in full force with Fournette. On one hand, the combination of the Jaguars failing to exercise their fifth-year option on him and reports of him on the trade block have many believing Jacksonville will run him into the ground before moving on in 2021. On the other hand, the arrival of Thompson and the Jags' apparent willingness to move on from Fournette in what figures to be a rebuilding year would seem to suggest the team has little to gain by giving the former No. 4 overall pick 20 carries per game when it has another back on the roster it likes in Armstead. There's even a school of thought that has Jacksonville releasing Fournette before the start of the season. One thing appears for certain, however: Thompson's presence on the roster figures to put a hard cap on Fournette's work on passing downs (for as long as Thompson can stay healthy anyway). One interesting nugget to keep in mind: 41 of Fournette's 76 catches last season came on 1st-and-10 or 2nd-and-10 (or longer).

Jacksonville quarterbacks attempted 587 passes in 2019. With the Jaguars expected to field one of the worst defenses and be among the worst teams in the league, it's hard to see how new OC Jay Gruden keeps that number under 600 this year. The addition of Shenault is another shot to Fournette's volume in the passing game but should be a boon to the offense as a whole. Few receivers enter the league with his ability to line up virtually anywhere at multiple positions and even fewer receivers can do that AND can power through tacklers. Chark emerged as the clear alpha dog in this receiving corps last season, and Gruden has already assured the masses he intends to move Chark all over the formation. Expect his slot snaps (24 percent in 2019) to go up. Fantasy owners should not forget about Eifert, who played for Gruden as a rookie in Cincinnati in 2013. Gruden's offenses in Washington were generally pretty favorable for tight ends; even with Jordan Reed hurt as often as he was, the position was targeted at least 126 times every season in his five full years in D.C.


 Tennessee Titans Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
444 452 437 50.4% 49.6%
QB Ryan Tannehill 424 58 12.8% 0.0%
RB Derrick Henry 289 21 63.9% 4.8%
RB Darrynton Evans 81 53 17.9% 12.1%
WR A.J. Brown 5 107 1.1% 24.5%
WR Corey Davis 68 0.0% 15.6%
WR Adam Humphries 60 0.0% 13.7%
TE Jonnu Smith 66 0.0% 15.1%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 59.7
2019 Average Plays per Game: 59.3

After witnessing Henry put together one of the more dominant postseasons by a running back in league history, it's only natural that people believe the Titans have found their winning formula. Those people aren't necessarily wrong, but history suggests fantasy owners wanting to jump on that train now will be getting on too late. Henry became only the 11th back in NFL history to score at least 250 PPR points in a season while finishing with fewer than 20 catches. That's the good news, at least in regards to how good he is as a runner. The bad news is Earl Campbell is the only one to ever do it twice in his career. There are two other key obstacles in Henry's way of another huge year. First and foremost, RT Jack Conklin bolted for Cleveland in free agency after finishing as the league's third-best run blocker (per Pro Football Focus). Whoever wins the battle Dennis Kelly and rookie Isaiah Wilson for the right to replace him will be a severe downgrade. At least a small part of Henry's heavy workload down the stretch last year was a product of Dion Lewis giving the team next to nothing. If Evans proves to be as explosive as Tennessee hopes, it's conceivable Henry may finish with closer to 250 carries than 300.

Much like Henry, Brown is due for some regression. Unlike Henry, there's reason to believe he's in line for a sizable bump in volume. One thing we know that won't change; he figures to be one of the best run-after-catch receivers in the league for a while, so a 100-target season for him may end up being comparable to another receiver getting 120. However, there are reasons to pump the breaks on him a bit. While Brown started cooking once Tannehill entered the lineup, it should be noted three of his biggest games took place with Adam Humphries out due to an ankle injury. With Humphries only entering Year 2 of his four-year, $36 million contract, it's possible Titans to find a way to get him more involved. Bill Belichick suggested Smith could be the best tight end in the league after the catch before the teams meet in the Divisional Round. While that sounds like Bill being Bill during the week of the game, Smith's 8.3 YPC per reception was the best in the league for a tight end with at least 40 targets. He's due for a sizeable target-share increase after finishing with only 44 looks a season ago.


 Atlanta Falcons Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
603 375 596 38.3% 61.7%
QB Matt Ryan 571 38 10.1% 0.0%
RB Todd Gurley 222 77 59.2% 12.9%
RB Ito Smith 68 24 18.1% 4.0%
WR Julio Jones 1 148 0.3% 24.8%
WR Calvin Ridley 3 116 0.8% 19.5%
WR Russell Gage 5 85 1.3% 14.3%
TE Hayden Hurst 99 0.0% 16.6%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 65.2
2019 Average Plays per Game: 68.5

Most fans are well aware of the fact neither Gurley nor Devonta Freeman had great blocking last season, but to say the Falcons and Rams had the same pathetic blocking would be untrue. Atlanta was assigned a 63.9 run-blocking grade by Pro Football Focus (11th in the NFL), while Los Angeles posted a 53.0 score (26th). LT Andrew Whitworth was the highest-graded run-blocker on the Rams' offensive line last year, finishing 66th (minimum 80 percent of the team's snaps). The news wasn't much better when the threshold was lowered to 50 and 20 percent of the snaps either. Atlanta wasn't great itself, but C Alex Mack (19th) and LT Jake Matthews (44th) were more than respectable and rookie RT Kaleb McGary (69th) was right behind Whitworth. In other words, while the Falcons didn't create make Atlanta a runner's paradise, they gave Freeman much more of a chance to succeed than the Rams gave Gurley. Despite all this, Gurley was a more productive and, quite frankly, better runner than Freeman. McGary and fellow 2019 first-rounder RG Chris Lindstrom, who played only five games due to injury, should be expected to improve this season entering their second full season. There is a distinct chance if Gurley's knee holds up - and that is the biggest question with him moving forward - that he will give the Falcons a significant upgrade over Freeman.

Jones has usually been a lock for about 150-plus targets and 80-plus catches since 2014. He produces against just about every defense designed to stop him, so it would be silly to think that's going to change at age 31. Since 2010, 106 receivers - just over 10 per year - have scored at least 250 PPR fantasy points in a season. Of that group, all but two had at least 121 targets (and those two scored 14 and 15 touchdowns). Projected over a 16-game season, Ridley's average targets in 2019 would have fallen about five short of the mark and that includes the massive increase he saw near the end of the season when the Falcons' pass-catchers were struggling to stay healthy. He has a chance to be a fantasy WR1, but folks need to understand the odds are against it - especially if Gurley gives the running game a jolt. Hurst has become a hyped sleeper and is expected to pick right up where Austin Hooper left off. It wouldn't be a shock if it happens, but they are also not the same type of tight end. Hooper's average depth of target in 2019 was 6.5. Hurst's was 8.6 last year in Baltimore. Mark Andrews (10.6) and Jared Cook (10.3) were at the top of that food chain in 2019. Given how much Ryan has raved about Hurst's speed and athleticism this summer, Hurst could move closer to them.


 Carolina Panthers Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
578 364 554 38.6% 61.4%
QB Teddy Bridgewater 550 42 11.5% 0.0%
RB Christian McCaffrey 237 120 65.1% 21.7%
RB Reggie Bonnafon 37 12 10.2% 2.2%
RB Mike Davis 18 3 4.9% 0.5%
WR D.J. Moore 7 127 1.9% 22.9%
WR Robby Anderson 2 87 0.5% 15.7%
WR Curtis Samuel 13 101 3.6% 18.2%
TE Ian Thomas 79 0.0% 14.3%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 62.8
2019 Average Plays per Game: 67.3

There seems to be a general misconception in the fantasy industry that new OC Joe Brady called plays for LSU last year. He did not. Perhaps it was a matter of semantics, but it is notable nonetheless. Regardless of whether Brady deserves the amount of credit he is getting for the Tigers' record-breaking offense, he quickly identified getting the ball to a mismatch weapon out of the backfield like Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a good idea. Of course, this bodes well for McCaffrey, although it would take a fool not to get a player with his receiving talents matched up on a linebacker as often as possible. What is less certain is if Brady's two-year apprenticeship under Sean Payton in New Orleans drove home the importance of a balanced offense. McCaffrey is coming off a 403-touch season, and it has to be a priority for Brady and his staff to make sure that number drops a bit without compromising the offense. As such, it's possible third-string QB P.J. Walker could take some carries on zone-read plays while either Davis and/or Bonnafon steal at least one series per game.

The addition of Bridgewater in free agency and hiring of Brady pretty much guarantees this offense will try to emulate the Saints' high-percentage passing attack. That's good news for Moore, who could be in line for 150 targets in such a high-volume passing game. Moore wasn't quite as good from a run-after-catch perspective as he was in his rookie year, but he's still one of the better RAC receivers around. Samuel's drop rate more than doubled from 2018 to 6.7 percent and his catch rate nosedived to 51.4 percent. It helps to explain why he was considered a bust by some, but another possible explanation is that 33.9 percent of his targets were deemed uncatchable and his average depth of target was 14.6 yards - the same as Kenny Golladay, who had a similar uncatchable pass rate. Anderson does not project to be a great fit for Bridgewater's skill set, but the ex-Jet could be if he is used more often in the short and intermediate passing game than he ever was in New York. Thomas is due for a big bump from the 30 targets he saw a year ago. LSU didn't use its tight ends all that much under Brady's watch last year, however. With that said, it's impossible to know how much of that was a function of the talent the Tigers had at receiver and how much of it was by design.

New Orleans

 New Orleans Saints Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
571 415 535 42.1% 57.9%
QB Drew Brees 535 20 4.8% 0.0%
QB Taysom Hill 13 32 24 7.7% 4.5%
RB Alvin Kamara 209 106 50.4% 19.8%
RB Latavius Murray 134 13 32.3% 2.4%
RB Ty Montgomery 12 14 2.9% 2.6%
WR Michael Thomas 143 0.0% 26.7%
WR Emmanuel Sanders 2 94 0.5% 17.6%
WR Tre'Quan Smith 2 28 0.5% 5.2%
TE Jared Cook 72 0.0% 13.5%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 65.7
2019 Average Plays per Game: 63.2

Kamara has played a total of 45 games over three years in the NFL. He's logged at least 15 touches in 29 of them (64.4 percent) and at least 20 touches in 11 (24.4). His usage isn't ideal for those of us who want and/or expect volume every week, but it's a beautiful thing for fantasy owners in that 33.5 percent of his 729 career regular-season touches have come via the passing game, which further reduces the number of times he gets beat up between the tackles. In other words, last year's injury-plagued season figures to be much more the exception than the rule. Murray's 180 touches look very good for a complementary back, but fantasy owners must understand 65 of his 146 carries (44.5 percent) and 15 of his 34 receptions (44.1) came in the three games Kamara either missed (Weeks 7-8) or was being rested for the most part (Week 17). In New Orleans' other 13 games, Murray averaged 6.2 carries and 1.5 catches. He is a high-upside handcuff in the sense he can be an RB1 if Kamara must miss time again, but his standalone value was questionable at best in 2019 and doesn't figure to change significantly in 2020.

Since targets started getting tracked in 1992, Thomas is only the 14th player to amass at least 185 in a season. Only one of them (Cris Carter) was able to increase his targets the next year. The average drop-off - even if we figure in Carter's bump from 188 targets in 1994 to 197 in 1995 - was 27.8 percent the following year. At the very least, this means fantasy owners should expect Thomas to finish with roughly 134 targets in 2020. The drop may not be as bad as history suggests it could be given his age and the offense he plays in, but 2019 was a bit of a perfect storm for him in that Kamara got hurt and the absence of a quality second receiver. Kamara's track record tells us he is unlikely to have another rough season, while Sanders is the closest thing New Orleans has had to a viable threat opposite Thomas since his rookie year in 2016 (Brandin Cooks). Cook attracted 65 targets in 14 games last year. Contrary to popular belief, only nine took place in the red zone. However, there were two key reasons he paid off nicely in fantasy after a slow start: he scored on every red zone catch he made and his average depth of target of 10.3 yards ranked second at the position.

Tampa Bay

 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
549 397 542 42.0% 58.0%
QB Tom Brady 549 22 5.5% 0.0%
RB Ronald Jones 212 35 53.4% 6.5%
RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn 100 22 25.2% 4.1%
RB LeSean McCoy 38 25 9.6% 4.6%
WR Mike Evans 120 0.0% 22.1%
WR Chris Godwin 4 126 1.0% 23.2%
WR Scotty Miller 1 19 0.3% 3.5%
WR Tyler Johnson 36 0.0% 6.6%
TE Rob Gronkowski 1 59 0.3% 10.9%
TE O.J. Howard 50 0.0% 9.2%

2020 Projected Average Plays per Game: 63.1
2019 Average Plays per Game: 67.9

The Jones-Vaughn debate has become almost comical this offseason. The next time Vaughn steps on the field with a Bucs helmet will be the first time he has done so. With the kind of head start he is going to have over Vaughn in several areas (including knowledge of the playbook and actual physical reps), the biggest concern for Jones this season will be the propensity HC Bruce Arians showed for pulling him in favor of Peyton Barber last season despite there being clear evidence - statistical and otherwise - that Jones was the better back. Jones was one of the youngest players in the league when he entered the NFL in 2018 and - if we are to believe his trainer - hasn’t been instructed on some of the finer points of football very well. McCoy's arrival is interesting, but I'm not sure it does much more than muddy the competition for the likely James White/Kevin Faulk-type role in this offense. It should not be a shock if he ends up competing with Dare Ogunbowale for a roster spot or if both get cut in the event Raymond Calais looks sharp and/or Vaughn or Jones prove they are up to the challenge in pass pro.

Evans missed three games due to injury with Jameis Winston and still easily turned in a 1,000-yard season, making him 6-for-6 in doing so. "But Doug … Brady doesn't have the arm to throw deep anymore." OK. Evans is more than a vertical receiver and Brady threw 60 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season (completing 25). As a point of reference, Kyler Murray was 25-for-61 on such throws. If fantasy owners want to cite Evans' lack of consistency last year, his four single-digit fantasy games in 2019 are the same number he had in 2017 and 2018. There seems to be a lot of love for Godwin and rightfully so, but there will almost certainly be more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) than last season (23 percent), so fantasy owners relying on 11 personnel (which the Bucs played on 64 percent of their snaps) to get Godwin in the slot as often as he was in 2019 could be disappointed. Gronkowski hasn't played more than 13 games since 2015 and sat out last season. That either means he has given his body time to heal or he's rusty. Regardless, I'm not sure I want to bet on the former when there are at least two better options in this passing game on just about every play. Give me Howard at the end of deeper drafts and I'll take my chances on the narrative that Brady loves his tight ends outweighing the one that says Arians and OC Byron Leftwich don't.

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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