Looking at teams’ actions regarding position groups throughout an offseason can provide an insight into how they plan to distribute touches to that position during the upcoming season. Seeing how personnel for a team develops at each phase of an offseason can provide a sizable edge over fantasy players who might begin checking depth charts late during the summer to catch up. It also helps to know who is behind some of the more prominent names in fantasy or who is second fiddle in a given backfield in case the inevitability of injury strikes a starter or touch leader. With free agency dying down, it is a perfect time to look at a few situations before the draft, so that come fantasy draft time, we’re not paying for last year’s role.
Tennessee Titans Second Receiver
Tennessee was one of the most interesting teams for me this offseason, since they lost their play-action guru Arthur Smith to the Atlanta Falcons HC job, and both Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis were free agents. Smith and Davis have both since found new teams, meaning the 2021 Titans will look vastly different in the passing game than the 2020 Titans. Smith and Davis vacated 157 targets and 13 touchdowns from an offense that overperformed in the touchdown department in 2020.
The Titans’ offensive approach likely isn’t changing though. Last season, in neutral game scripts (one score, first three quarters), the Titans ran the ball on 58% of early downs, per Sharp Football Stats. This offense figuratively and literally runs through Derrick Henry. AJ Brown will also be the clear alpha in the pass game, securing 106 targets last season. Despite this, there is still room for another receiver to find fantasy relevance in this offense. Ryan Tannehill scored a career high 7(!!) rushing touchdowns last season, which will be hard to repeat. Assuming those rushing touchdowns get redistributed to the offense both to Henry and the passing game, along with the 157 vacated targets, there are fantasy points to be had.
The two candidates on the roster likely to fill this void are Anthony Firkser and Josh Reynolds. Undrafted out of Harvard, Firkser is in the last year of his contract, which could incentivize both the Titans to feed him volume and Firkser to capitalize on it. Firkser hauled in 53 targets last year, besting his 2018 and 2019 target totals combined. He also is the incumbent highest targeted player remaining on the team, with the next highest total being Derrick Henry’s 31. In games where he got more than 4 targets (only 5 games), Firkser averaged a 4.6/47/0.2 line on 6.4 targets. This is an admittedly small sample, but encouraging if he is to see a bump in targets in 2021.
Josh Reynolds is the only noteworthy free agent addition Tennessee has made to their pass catching corps, signing a 1 year, $1.75 million contract with $1 million guaranteed. This is by no means a major vote of confidence by the Titans in Reynolds, but he immediately becomes the second most productive receiver on the roster. He too had a career high in targets last year with 83 for the Los Angeles Rams. In games where the Rams were forced to pass, Reynolds showed target upside, gathering 9/10/10 targets in games with 61/37/43 pass attempts, respectively. Yes, you read that correctly, Jared Goff threw 61 passes against the Dolphins last year in Tua’s first start. Reynolds poses to be the only main threat to Firkser for targets currently on the roster.
The Titans also have picks 22, 53, 86, 101, and 127 in the first four rounds of the draft. It is conceivable that Tennessee will invest more into the passing game throughout the offseason. Monitoring how they invest in the draft will be very telling of who can emerge as the second fantasy relevant receiver in this offense.
Chicago Bears Backfield
This one might seem strange, after David Montgomery was white hot down the stretch last year, winning many a fantasy championship. Yet fantasy players will likely forget how crucial of a role Tarik Cohen played for the Bears offense before he tore his ACL in week three. In his last full season, Cohen earned 104 targets, turning in a 79/456/3 line. That production led the Bears to give him a 3 year, $17.5 million extension in September of last year.
Presumed Bears starter Andy Dalton has heavily targeted running backs before in his career, doling out 103 and 88 in his last two years as Bengals starter. If Cohen returns to his pass game specialist role, that would drastically cut into the workload David Montgomery thrived on last season. In the games after Tarik Cohen got injured, averaged 4.9 targets per game, which was almost two full targets more than the 3 per game he had to start the season. In his rookie season, that number was only 2.2 per game.
Tarik Cohen does not pose the only threat to touches in the Chicago backfield, either. Chicago signed Damien Williams, formerly of the Chiefs, on March 24th, per Ian Rapoport. Oddly, the contract details have not come out yet, but it’s assumed Williams was signed with a role in mind. How much of a role? Who knows, but Williams has thrived as a part time player in an Andy Reid-style offense before. He never played with Nagy in Kansas City, but adds another question mark to a backfield full of them.
New York Jets Backfield
You might have to hold your nose for this one, but hear me out. The Jets have the third most unaccounted for carries in the NFL, per John Daigle of NBC Sports Edge. There are three incumbents on the roster currently: Josh Adams, Ty Johnson, and La’Mical Perine. Adams recently re-signed with the Jets on a one year deal, but has been up and down from the practice squad the past two years. He seems to be locked into a special teams role. Ty Johnson had the only 100 yard rushing game of the Jets season, which is just a sad representation of Adam Gase’s fart of an exit. Perine was drafted 120th overall by the Jets last year, and showed some promise despite only drawing 15 targets.
The only addition the Jets have made to the backfield so far is Tevin Coleman, who has worked closely with Mike LaFleur since their time in San Francisco. If Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offenses are anything to learn from, Coleman will likely mix in and the backfield will be difficult to prognosticate on a weekly basis barring injury. The Jets also own seven picks in the top 150 of the draft this year, which they could realistically invest into the running back position. The Jets will likely be a below average offense with a rookie qb in 2021, but it is worth keeping an eye on throughout the offseason if a clear touch leader can emerge.
Data courtesy of profootballreference.com, contract info courtesy of overthecap.com, draft information courtesy of tankathon.com, all other sources linked