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Workload Projections: AFC & NFC North

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 7/26/21 |


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 is to provide thoughts and analysis on some of the issues that played a factor in the way I distributed the workload for each team.

Notes: These are 16-game workload projections. Although the industry judges players and fantasy projections on year-end totals, the fantasy season will end for the overwhelming majority of owners after Week 17 - and not Week 18 - as we enter a brave new world of a 17-game schedule. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to project what teams will do (or if they even need to have certain players suit up) in the final week of any season.

The bolded numbers near the top of the middle three columns are the 16-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 do not include sacks - my projections also will not - so last year's plays per game will be slightly lower than what you might find on others sites.

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
463 534 463 53.6% 46.4%
QB Lamar Jackson 463 151 28.3%
RB J.K. Dobbins 199 34 37.3% 7.3%
RB Gus Edwards 153 11 28.7% 2.4%
RB Justice Hill  26 24 4.9% 5.2%
WR Marquise Brown 0 76 16.4%
WR Sammy Watkins 0 40 8.6%
WR Devin Duvernay 3 29 0.6% 6.3%
WR Rashod Bateman 0 71 15.3%
WR Tylan Wallace 0 33 7.1%
TE Mark Andrews 0 103 22.2%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 62.3
2020 Average Plays per Game: 60.1

* The presence of an incredible athlete at quarterback can be a bit of a double-edged sword for running backs. On one hand, the defense typically has to wait for the quarterback to make his decision at the mesh point. As a result, the defense is very unlikely to crash down on the running back for fear someone like Jackson will keep it and beat the backside defender to the sideline on his way for a chunk gain. On the other hand, quarterbacks that run as often as Jackson rob backs like Dobbins of the volume fantasy managers want to see. In short, backs like Dobbins and Edwards are very likely to be efficient runners. However, they will also usually possess some kind of statistical ceiling because teams like Baltimore are three-headed backfields - even when there are approximately 600 carries to distribute.

But let's get back to that efficiency for a second: for as much concern as there seems to be about Dobbins' potential 2021 workload, it's worth noting he ranked 15th in the league in carries from Week 8 - which is about the time Mark Ingram was phased out of the offense. (He missed a game over that span due to COVID protocol.) Will Edwards and Jackson occasionally be a drain on his value? Of course they will. Is his six-game scoring streak to end the regular season sustainable for an entire year? Of course not. However, he is the unquestioned lead back in an offense that will likely run the ball more than any other team in the league. We already spoke of the likely efficiency. Never mind the fact Dobbins scored touchdowns on seven of his eight carries inside the 5 (Edwards was 3-for-9 and Jackson was 0-for-1 on such plays) or that Dobbins is a highly explosive runner that can score from anywhere. Jackson's presence may keep him from ever becoming a true fantasy RB1, but it should also actually prevent him from falling out of top-end RB2 territory. Last but not least, if Baltimore is truly serious about passing more and utilizing Dobbins as a receiver even slightly more, a low-end RB1 season is possible.


 Cincinnati Bengals Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
592 419 592 41.4% 58.6%
QB Joe Burrow 592 42 10.0%
RB Joe Mixon 292 74 69.7% 12.5%
RB Samaje Perine 70 11 16.7% 1.9%
WR Ja'Marr Chase 1 128 0.2% 21.6%
WR Tee Higgins 126 21.3%
WR Tyler Boyd 111 18.8%
WR Auden Tate 33 5.6%
TE C.J. Uzomah 69 11.7%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 63.2
2020 Average Plays per Game: 62.0

* Cincinnati is bound to be one of the most pass-heavy teams again this year. The talent at receiver is jaw-dropping, the defense and offensive line are still below average, and there is only one running back on the roster worthy of a heavy workload. However, while optimism on Burrow is justified, present and future fantasy managers need to understand that he is extremely unlikely to run much - if at all - during the early part of the season. ACL injuries are tough enough to recover from in nine months - not to mention how much longer it takes most athletes to trust their knee again - but Burrow also tore the MCL and meniscus. Furthermore, the damage was significant enough that he may suffered a capsular tear in the knee as well. There seems to be a popular assumption by early drafters that he should be good to go in Week 1 because the ACL is the only part of his knee we have to worry about. Burrow suffered a MAJOR injury to his knee and will only have just over nine months - the time it takes for most doctors to clear patients to return to physical activity from just an ACL tear - from the time he underwent surgery to the time he is expected to take the field for the opener.

* Burrow's limited mobility - certainly at least to begin the season - is just another reason to buy into Mixon. The Bengals will play at a fast pace in part because it is what HC Zac Taylor wants and in part because game script will be pushing them in that direction more often than not. In other words, Cincinnati is a good bet to fly past 1,000 offensive plays for the season - the Bengals rattled off 992 non-sack plays in 2020 and did so without having Mixon in the lineup for 10 games or Burrow for six and part of a seventh. Only one quarterback in NFL history has attempted more than 700 throws in a season, so there will be well over 300 rush attempts to distribute. It's not as if Perine is going to steal much work from Mixon or Giovani Bernard is around anymore to split work on passing downs. For better or worse, Cincinnati appears poised to treat Mixon like Christian McCaffrey or Ezekiel Elliott and have him on the field for at least 80 percent of the offensive snaps.


 Cleveland Browns Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
495 485 495 49.5% 50.5%
QB Baker Mayfield 495 37 7.6%
RB Nick Chubb 285 34 58.8% 6.9%
RB Kareem Hunt 135 48 27.8% 9.7%
WR Odell Beckham Jr. 104 21.0%
WR Jarvis Landry 3 97 0.6% 19.6%
WR Rashard Higgins 45 9.1%
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones 37 7.5%
TE Austin Hooper 57 11.5%
TE Harrison Bryant 34 6.9%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 61.1
2020 Average Plays per Game: 62.3

* It is hard to say that a back widely acknowledged as the best pure running back in the league is underrated, but such seems to be the case for Chubb in 2021. The most common objection to treating him as a first-round lock in fantasy drafts is the presence of Hunt and how much work he steals from Chubb in the passing game. But is that a logical stance? I tend to believe then-rookie HC Kevin Stefanski used the first nine weeks of last season - of which Chubb missed the last five - to figure out what he had. Upon Chubb's return from his knee injury in Week 10, his touch totals were as follows: 19, 20, 22, 19, 19, 17, 16, 14. That works out to 18.3 per game. Over that same stretch, Hunt had 17 catches (on 22 targets) to Chubb's 13 (14 targets). Most people - myself included - tend to believe Cleveland greatly improved its defense this offseason, which should keep the prolific offense in positive game script just about every week. The Browns also kept all of their key pieces intact on offense, including what may be the league's best offensive line. All of the elements - including a favorable slate of matchups - are present for Chubb to have a special season. If anyone besides maybe Ezekiel Elliott is going to challenge Derrick Henry for the rushing title, it might be Chubb. Never mind the possibility he could score a Henry-like 16 touchdowns as well.

* Taking a ride on the Beckham train early last season was not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, he was the overall WR27 in fantasy points per game among receivers (WR19 in total points) through six weeks. An absurd 44.2 percent of his fantasy production in that stretch came during his three-score outburst against Dallas in Week 4. But let's dig deeper. In those six full games before tearing his ACL, OBJ had a 25.5 percent target share. Unfortunately, he and Mayfield could only hook up on 52.5 percent of those throws. Further consider three of those six games came against teams ranked inside the top four in net yards allowed per pass attempt (Pittsburgh, Washington, Baltimore). Those matchups unsurprisingly resulted in his three single-digit fantasy efforts before the injury. In the other three games, he averaged 22.2 fantasy points. No one is saying Beckham is going to return to the 160-target days of yesteryear. What I am willing to say is injury may be the only thing that keeps him from a sixth career 1,000-yard season. And if he stays healthy long enough to reach 1,000 yards, he would also be a great bet to score around eight touchdowns - especially in this offense with defenses needing to account for Chubb.


 Pittsburgh Steelers Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
585 380 585 39.4% 60.6%
QB Ben Roethlisberger 585 20 5.3%
RB Najee Harris 271 73 71.3% 12.5%
RB Anthony McFarland Jr. 49 10 12.9% 1.7%
RB Kalen Ballage 28 4 7.4% 0.7%
WR Diontae Johnson 131 22.4%
WR Chase Claypool 9 115 2.4% 19.7%
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster 108 18.5%
WR James Washington 44 7.5%
TE Eric Ebron 70 12.0%
TE Pat Freiermuth 25 4.3%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 60.3
2020 Average Plays per Game: 64.3

* If there has been one topic that has been treated as indisputable fact this offseason, it might be how bad the Pittsburgh offensive line will be in 2021. (Click here for more perspective.) Even in a best-case scenario, the Steelers can probably only hope for league-average play up front. The funny thing is they may not even need it to be that good. Even accounting for what projects to be a bottom-eight line, nearly a third (five, to be exact) of Harris' matchups are green on my matchup chart (only three yellows). Part of what doomed this offense last season was former OC Randy Fichtner - supposedly at the request of Roethlisberger - got away from pre-snap motion. When average offensive line talent meets a lack of play-call creativity, bad things tend to happen. Based on some of the early reporting out of Pittsburgh, the force behind the early use of pre-snap motion and shifts last year (new OC Matt Canada) will be running an offense similar to the one that Alabama used to tear up college football last year. For those that didn't watch, the Crimson Tide featured plenty of pre-snap motion, creativity, play-action passing and a power running game. The good thing about Harris is that he is a true three-down back, so it is entirely reasonable to assume he will average 8-10 fantasy points just from the passing game. It won't look like the second coming of Le'Veon Bell in Year 1, but buy into the talent and volume. If my volume projection is even remotely close to accurate, then 1,500 total yards is a more than reasonable expectation.

* Much like Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, the Steelers will do their best to protect the offensive line by getting rid of the ball quickly in the passing game. That should come as good news to Johnson and Smith-Schuster. Pittsburgh understands what it has in Claypool, so it will not let him go to waste. But in terms of pure volume, Johnson and Smith-Schuster seem like the best bets for consistency. What seems clear now is that the Steelers will not be averaging 41 pass attempts again in 2021. Furthermore, Harris may end up seeing almost twice as much work as James Conner did (43 targets, 35 catches), further capping the volume upside the receivers had in 2020. Fortunately, Pittsburgh's passing game schedule lays out even better than it does for the running game. This offense may not have a fantasy WR1 attached to it, but the talent and matchups are such that it could still give fantasy managers three receivers worth starting.

NFC North


 Chicago Bears Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
600 431 600 41.8% 58.2%
QB Andy Dalton 349 30 7.0%
QB Justin Fields 251 46 10.7%
RB David Montgomery 255 42 59.2% 7.0%
RB Tarik Cohen 51 66 11.8% 11.0%
RB Damien Williams 40 7 9.3% 1.2%
WR Allen Robinson 149 24.8%
WR Darnell Mooney 4 106 0.9% 17.7%
WR Dazz Newsome 5 52 1.2% 8.7%
TE Jimmy Graham 58 9.7%
TE Cole Kmet 72 12.0%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 64.4
2020 Average Plays per Game: 62.9

* If Fields does not win the starting job in camp - and it appears he will not get the chance to do so - then the guessing game as to when the coaching staff will replace Dalton begins. Coaches who have the luxury of playing the long game and care about trying to ease in the rookie tend to look for a comfortable pocket of games for the kid to build his confidence. I am not sure I trust HC Matt Nagy to make that choice - or if he even has the luxury of believing he is not on the hot seat - but the most logical spot to begin the Fields era is not until Week 12. Week 4 is an option, but only if Nagy wants to subject the rookie to four straight games against the Bucs, 49ers, Steelers and Ravens before and after the Week 10 bye. Dalton is better than anyone Chicago has had under center in a while, so the skill-position talent should meet expectations. I just don't think Fields is going to get the nod early enough in the season to help many of the folks who draft him in August.

* Many are predicting a breakout season from Kmet after a strong finish to his rookie campaign. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that it happens, but lost in all of the discussion about how easy the schedule was for Montgomery down the stretch was that it was easy for virtually every player on offense for Chicago. Sometimes distinguishing which tight end is the better play is identifying which one the team thinks is the better blocker and going with the other option. Graham has never been even an average blocker while Kmet is at least decent in that area and maybe potentially be very good down the road. When the competition is light and offensive coordinators do not feel as if they need six men in to protect, it frees him to draw up plays for the more dynamic tight end (which would seem to be Kmet now). That was very likely the case for Kmet late in 2020. When the opposition possesses a more fearsome pass rush, tight ends that can block like Kmet tend to stay behind to block while big slot tight ends like Graham continue to run routes. Unlike last year, Chicago did not catch much of a break in terms of matchups. The first five weeks look decent for the tight ends, but there is far too much good linebacker/safety play after that to feel overly confident about either player.


 Detroit Lions Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
547 389 547 41.6% 58.4%
QB Jared Goff 526 46 11.8%
RB D'Andre Swift 158 72 40.6% 13.2%
RB Jamaal Williams 136 34 35.0% 6.2%
RB Jermar Jefferson 47 15 12.1% 2.7%
WR Breshad Perriman 81 14.8%
WR Tyrell Williams 66 12.1%
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown 77 14.1%
WR Quintez Cephus 49 9.0%
TE T.J. Hockenson 121 22.1%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 58.5
2020 Average Plays per Game: 59.3

* Casual fans tend to hear the term "vertical receiver" and can fall into the trap of believing those wideouts are one-trick ponies. Williams and Perriman can do more than just run deep routes, but that is typically what they have done since joining the league. The reason this is relevant is that Goff has not been very good on the deep ball since he had Brandin Cooks at his disposal in 2018, completing less than 31 percent of his throws over 20 yards in 2019 and 2020. Thus, new OC Anthony Lynn has to answer the following question: does he ask Williams and/or Perriman to consistently run shorter routes and play to Goff's strengths or ask Goff to throw deep more and play to his receivers' strengths? That dilemma is one of the reasons why St. Brown has become a popular sleeper, but the USC product is likely destined to be a slot receiver for an offense that will attempt to run the ball as much as possible and talked openly this spring about using Swift more often out of the slot. The Lions are shaping up to be one of the few teams in 2021 whose top two pass-catchers at the end of the year may be their tight end and running back.

* Hockenson surprisingly attracted 101 targets last year, making him one of only five tight ends to top the century mark. There is a slight but somewhat reasonable chance he ascends into the Travis Kelce (145) and Darren Waller (146) tier in terms of targets this year. (To be clear, the quality of targets will not be nearly as good.) There are only three players on the roster who are good fits for a Goff-led offense; Hockenson is easily the best fit (big, athletic, capable of creating separation, etc.) Considering how often the Lions' defense will likely put the offense in negative game scripts, the volume should be there on almost a weekly basis. Even with what should be massive volume, he could struggle to score more than the six touchdowns he had last year just because the red zone does not figure to be a place Detroit will spend much time.

Green Bay

 Green Bay Packers Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
562 408 562 42.1% 57.9%
QB Aaron Rodgers 562 41 10.0%
RB Aaron Jones 214 74 52.5% 13.2%
RB AJ Dillon 145 18 35.5% 3.2%
WR Davante Adams 172 30.6%
WR Allen Lazard 74 13.2%
WR Amari Rodgers 4 73 1.0% 13.0%
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling 41 7.3%
TE Robert Tonyan 81 14.4%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 60.1
2020 Average Plays per Game: 60.6

Note: Recent reports indicate Aaron Rodgers could announce his retirement this week. Projections assume he will play.

* With so much uncertainty surrounding Rodgers in Green Bay, it makes little sense to spend any time on the passing game until a domino or two falls. Thus, we will focus on the recent report that the Packers intend to "lean on (Dillon) a lot more this year." This is not groundbreaking news after Jamaal Williams signed with Detroit this spring. At this time last year, there was reason to believe Dillon was going to be the lead back in 2021. As underrated as Williams was as a Packer, Dillon is in another class as a runner (something that was on full display in Week 16 against the Titans). While that does not mean he will overtake Jones, Dillon is almost certain to handle more than the 125 carries Williams averaged over his four seasons in Green Bay. It may be helpful to look at the Saints' backfield as a model, with Dillon emulating Latavius Murray and Jones assuming a role to the one Alvin Kamara has. It implies - and I think correctly so - that Jones could be in line for a slight decrease in carries moving forward but will more than make up for it with his usage as a receiver. If Jordan Love has to start for one reason or another early this season, I expect that to be even more the case.


 Minnesota Vikings Workload Projections
Pos Player Pass Att Carries Targets Carry Share Target Share
543 435 543 44.5% 55.5%
QB Kirk Cousins 543 38 8.7%
RB Dalvin Cook 255 57 58.6% 10.5%
RB Alexander Mattison 104 15 23.9% 2.8%
RB Ameer Abdullah 23 12 5.3% 2.2%
WR Adam Thielen 2 107 0.5% 19.7%
WR Justin Jefferson 131 24.1%
WR Olabisi Johnson 26 4.8%
WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette 3 37 0.7% 6.8%
TE Irv Smith 85 15.7%
TE Tyler Conklin 45 8.3%

2021 Projected Average Plays per Game: 61.1
2020 Average Plays per Game: 61.5

* Cook is one of the few backs that has a legitimate shot of keeping up with a healthy Christian McCaffrey in fantasy, making him well worth the No. 2 overall selection in drafts. He also scares me more than any other consensus first-round pick. It seems most are assuming new OC Klint Kubiak will seamlessly take over for his dad (Gary) in his first opportunity to run an NFL offense. Play-calling requires nuance at the very least, which comes with experience. Having dad to bounce off ideas during the week is nice and should help the learning curve, but picking up where right where dad left off is a big stretch. Klint's dad is one of the better play-callers of this generation.

There was also a report Friday (July 23) that offensive line coach Rick Dennison may be on his way out for his refusal to take the COVID vaccine. Dennison is, at the very least, one of the better offensive line coaches in the NFL now. With two rookies expected to start up front, the Vikings can ill afford to lose him in addition to Gary Kubiak. But that is not even the part I fear the most with Cook. The two-time Pro Bowler has yet to play a full season in large part because of shoulder issues. He has suffered at least three significant shoulder injuries dating back to college and is coming off a season in which he averaged 25.4 touches. If there was ever an instance of wondering when something serious is going to happen and not if, this sure feels like one of those times.

East | North | South | West

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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