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35 things learned while compiling 2018 fantasy football projections

Cam Newton's rushing volume continues to boost his fantasy value, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire

If you're not already aware, I'm the guy who does the player projections here at ESPN.

Although some would swear the projection numbers are totally automated or randomly generated, I assure you they are not. I have a lengthy process that involves both statistical calculations and subjective inputs. The latter is where this piece truly comes in handy. To begin each league year, I go team by team and thoroughly analyze historical league, team, coach and player trends. From there, I generate projected dropback, carry and target shares for each player.

I recently completed that process and -- same as last year -- I took notes. Below are those notes, as well as a short application to fantasy football in 2018. Each NFL team is included at least once.


1. Last season, Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald handled a 29 percent target share, his highest since 30 percent in 2011. In addition, he was on the field for 98 percent of Arizona's pass plays, his highest rate since 99 percent in 2012. Fitzgerald trailed only DeAndre Hopkins in targets in 2017, and he has finished 11th or better in fantasy among wide receivers each of the past three years. Even with the coaching change to Steve Wilks, there's little reason to expect a decrease in usage during what might be Fitzgerald's final NFL season.

2. Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu has enjoyed a target share of at least 19 percent during two of his five NFL seasons (20 percent in 2014 and 19 percent in 2017). He finished 34th (2014) and 29th (2017) among wide receivers in fantasy points during those two seasons. Atlanta lost Taylor Gabriel to Chicago and did nothing during free agency to suggest that Sanu won't be the team's clear No. 2 wide receiver behind Julio Jones.

3. Excluding weeks he was inactive or barely played due to injury, new Ravens WR Michael Crabtree has managed a target share of at least 21 percent in each of his nine NFL seasons. In each of his three seasons in Oakland, that number was at least 23 percent. A figure in that range is likely the floor for Crabtree in Baltimore, considering the team's absurdly weak group of offensive skill position players. Assuming roughly one-quarter of the targets, the 30-year-old shouldn't have much trouble providing WR3, if not WR2, numbers in 2018.

4. Bills TE Charles Clay has averaged a target share of at least 20 percent each of the past three seasons. Unfortunately, he has missed at least one regular-season game during six of his seven seasons (13 total), including three in 2017. Clay averaged 6.4 targets per game and was fantasy's No. 5 scoring tight end during the 10 weeks he ran a route on more than half of the Bills' pass plays last season. The Bills' wide receiver group -- led by Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones -- is on the weak side of the league, so Clay is a good bet for another gigantic workload in 2018. Consider him a fringe TE1.

5. Panthers QB Cam Newton was responsible for a career-high 24 percent of the Panthers' designed rushing attempts last season. In addition to his scrambles, Newton averaged 6.7 designed runs per game. Counting all of his carries, Newton hit a new career high in rushes (139) and rushing yards (754). During his seven years in the league, Newton has finished no lower than fourth among passers in carries, yards and touchdowns. He has finished first in rushing OTD all seven seasons. Powered by his rushing ability, Newton has been a top-four fantasy quarterback in five of his seven campaigns and is again a top option for 2018.

6. Panthers WR Curtis Samuel was on the field for at least half of the team's snaps during three games last season. He handled 19 percent of the targets (17 total) and carried the ball twice during those games. That's obviously a very small sample, but considering the team added only Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright during free agency, the 2017 second-round pick has a path to a significant offensive role in his second season. Samuel has the look of a fine, late-round-upside flier.

7. Among 111 head coaches/offensive coordinators whose teams have registered at least 1,000 targets during the past decade, new Bears head coach Matt Nagy's 30.9 percent target share to the tight end position trails only that of Jason Michael (31.3 percent). Yes, that number comes on only a two-year sample in Kansas City and is inflated a bit by the presence of Travis Kelce, but Chiefs tight ends not named Kelce handled 91 targets during the two years (Kelce had 247). The Bears signed Trey Burton to be their primary pass-catching tight end, and 2017 second-rounder Adam Shaheen will also be in the mix for looks. Burton is a sneaky bet for top-10 tight end numbers.

8. Tracing back to the start of the 2015 season, Bengals TE Tyler Eifert has averaged a 17 percent target share (5.6 per game) during the 21 games in which he has run a route on at least 70 percent of the Bengals' pass plays. Those aren't massive numbers, but combined with his 20 end zone targets and 18 touchdowns in his past 23 games, Eifert has provided solid TE1 numbers when healthy. He's a post-hype sleeper in 2018.

9. Last season, the NFL average target share to tailbacks was 20.6 percent and 20.8 percent to tight ends. New Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offenses have fallen below the tailback mark in 10 of his past 11 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator. The units have fallen below the tight end mark during all 11 campaigns. His averages during the span are 18 percent to backs and 15 percent to tight ends. That obviously has meant a lot of work for wide receivers, which makes sense when you consider that Haley's offenses have ranked near the top of the NFL in "11" formations -- one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers -- throughout his career. This is good news for the Browns' trio of starting receivers -- Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman -- but could limit the upside of RB Duke Johnson Jr. and TE David Njoku.

10. Cowboys TE Jason Witten handled a career-low 18 percent of the Cowboys' targets last season. Witten turns 36 years old this year and hasn't finished better than ninth (or worse than 11th) at the position in fantasy points since 2013. Witten is trending the wrong direction but remains what he has been for years: a low-ceiling fringe TE1 in 12-team leagues.

11. Including only weeks when he was active, Cowboys WR Dez Bryant's lowest target share the past five years was 26 percent (2016) and his highest was 29 percent (2014). Bryant's efficiency was awful in 2017 (6.3 yards per target), but his 28 percent target share kept him afloat in fantasy (WR24). Still only 29 years old and entering a make-or-break season with the team, Bryant's heavy volume could certainly support a bounce-back season.

12. Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas has handled a target share of at least 23 percent each of the past seven seasons. He has finished no lower than 16th among wide receivers in fantasy points during the span. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Sanders has handled target shares of 25, 26, 29 and 25 percent during his four seasons with Denver (excluding games in which he was on the field for fewer than half of the pass plays). Denver's offensive skill players behind the dynamic duo include the likes of WR Carlos Henderson and TE Jake Butt, who have yet to play an NFL snap. Especially with the team's quarterback upgrade to Case Keenum, Thomas has the look of a fringe WR1 and Sanders of a strong bounce-back candidate with WR2 upside.

13. Lions WR Marvin Jones Jr. handled a hefty 27 percent target share and was a top-five fantasy receiver during the five games Kenny Golladay missed last season. His share dipped to 16 percent and his fantasy ranking to 17th during the 11 games Golladay was active. With Golladay's role likely to increase this season, expectations for Jones should be lower than the 11th-place finish he posted in 2017.

14. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has appeared in 15-plus regular-season games during eight of the past 10 NFL seasons. During those eight years, Packers tight ends rank 24th in targets, 22nd in receptions, 18th in receiving yards, seventh in touchdowns and 17th in fantasy points. New TE Jimmy Graham has handled a target share of at least 18 percent in seven consecutive seasons, but even if that figure drops in Green Bay, he shouldn't be short opportunities near the goal line. Graham paced tight ends in touchdowns (10) and was second in the NFL in end zone targets (19) last season.

15. Texans head coach Bill O'Brien has been a head coach or offensive coordinator during five NFL seasons since 2011. His running back target shares have fallen well below the 2017 league average of 21 percent all five years. His highest mark was 18.1 percent in 2015, and the Texans have been at 14.8 and 15.9 percent the past two years. Lamar Miller was busy as a receiver in Miami but has failed to crack the top 25 at the position either year in Houston. At least to some extent, O'Brien's scheme limits the PPR upside of its running backs.

16. Trivia: How many NFL teams had two tight ends with a target share of at least 10 percent last season? If you guessed "zero," you'd be correct. This is an important tidbit as we consider new Colts TE Eric Ebron's fantasy viability. Ebron figures to slide in behind Jack Doyle on Indianapolis' depth chart. The Colts targeted the tight end position 31 percent of the time (third highest) last season, and new head coach Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni have a history of heavily targeting the position with the Eagles and Chargers. Unfortunately, there tends to be a ceiling with targets to the position, and the Colts were already near it last season. Consider that the Ravens had a second tight end on the field for 43 percent of their pass plays last season, which easily topped the NFL and was roughly double the 21 percent league average. During the past decade, there has been only one instance in which two tight ends from the same team finished top-10 in fantasy, and it was Rob Gronkowski (first) and Aaron Hernandez (third) in 2011. The duo finished 11th and 14th, respectively, in 2010, and fifth and 17th, respectively, in 2012. Those mark the three best finishes by a second tight end since 2007. Otherwise, the best finish during the span was 19th (Dwayne Allen in 2014 and Hunter Henry in 2016). The best fantasy finish for a "No. 2" tight end last season was O.J. Howard (21st). That's about where Ebron belongs in 2018 rankings. Doyle, meanwhile, is good enough and should see enough work that he's still a viable TE1.

17. Jaguars WR Keelan Cole enjoyed a mini-breakout late in the 2017 regular season, but it's important to note that his usage took a significant dive once his teammates returned from injury. With Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns healthy and Dede Westbrook in the fold, the pass routes and targets were distributed as follows in the team's three playoff games: Westbrook (75 routes, 14 targets), Lee (74, 15), Hurns (64, 10), Cole (39, 6). Hurns was released, but Donte Moncrief was added to the mix, which creates a tough path to consistent targets for Cole in his second season. Unless he climbs the depth chart, Cole is barely worth a late-round flier in 2018 fantasy drafts.

18. The Chiefs made a splash at wide receiver during free agency when they signed Sammy Watkins. It's an especially aggressive move for head coach Andy Reid, whose wide receiver units have averaged a 53 percent target share (well below the 58 percent league average) since he joined the Chiefs in 2013. With Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce also in the mix, Watkins is unlikely to reach the 25 percent target share he posted during three seasons in Buffalo, but he should easily improve on last season's 15 percent share with the Rams.

19. Speaking of the Rams, WR Robert Woods was active for 12 regular-season games last season. During those weeks, he averaged a 23 percent target share (6.9 per game) and ranked 10th among wide receivers in fantasy points. That doesn't even include the career-high 14 targets he saw against Atlanta in the playoffs. Woods has missed at least one game due to injury during four of his five seasons, but he's clearly a fantasy force as Sean McVay's top wide receiver. He belongs in starting lineups again this season.

20. Dolphins WR DeVante Parker hasn't quite lived up to his first-round draft status, but volume hasn't been much of an issue. In 2016, Parker averaged a 20 percent target share (5.9 per game) and was fantasy's No. 42 scoring wide receiver in the 15 games he was active. Last season, he averaged a 21 percent share (7.4 per game) and ranked 29th during the 12 games he played in full. Jarvis Landry's departure creates a path to more targets for Parker, but expect only a marginal uptick, with newcomers Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola soaking up many of Landry's looks.

21. Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph finished a career-best second among tight ends in fantasy points in 2016 but fell to eighth last season. His share of snaps (92 to 84 percent), pass routes (85 to 72 percent) and targets (22 to 15 percent) all took a dive closer to where Rudolph was the previous four seasons. That might suggest a "return to earth" for Rudolph -- and to some extent it was -- but it also had to do with a period of Weeks 14-17 in which he was dealing with an ankle injury, was on the field for only 51 percent of the snaps and pass plays and handled 9 percent of the targets. Rudolph's playing time bounced back in the playoffs (93 percent of snaps, 15 percent of targets), so there's no real need to panic about his ability to provide TE1 numbers in 2018.

22. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski has missed 27 percent (26 of 96) of New England's regular-season games over the past six seasons, including at least one each season. Despite all the missed action, Gronkowski sits second among tight ends in fantasy points (Jimmy Graham is first), and he has posted four top-five seasons in the span. Gronkowski's shaky durability hurts his fantasy value, but his per-game dominance makes him well worth a third-round investment.

23. Saints RB Alvin Kamara set a career high when he was on the field for 64 percent of New Orleans' offensive snaps during the team's wild-card game against Carolina. He then beat that mark when he played 67 percent of the snaps the next week at Minnesota. Kamara handled 24 percent of the Saints' carries during Weeks 1-14 and 41 percent during their final five games. Although only a marginal increase, he was also on the field for more pass plays and was targeted more often down the stretch. Kamara's elite rookie-season efficiency is unsustainable (6.1 yards per carry, 10.2 yards per reception), but his late-season surge in usage suggests he'll see the boost in volume that he'll need to continue producing RB1 numbers.

24. Saints TE Josh Hill played more snaps than Coby Fleener during six of the final seven games that both were active last season. Fleener ran more routes (103 to 78) and saw more targets (16 to 6), but his adjusted role as a situational receiving threat -- as opposed to an every-down tight end -- cost him valuable opportunities. Fleener is no longer close to TE1 territory.

25. The average NFL team directed 21 percent of its targets at a tight end last season. New Giants head coach Pat Shurmur's offenses targeted the tight end at least 23 percent of the time (25 percent average) during six straight season as a head coach/offensive coordinator prior to posting an 18 percent rate in 2017. New OC Mike Shula's numbers are strikingly similar. His offenses targeted the tight end at least 23 percent of the time (27 percent average) during his first four years with the Panthers (2013-16) before falling to 19 percent last season (Greg Olsen missed most of the season). Giants TE Evan Engram handled a generous 22 percent target share when healthy last season, and the history of his new coaches suggests he will receive heavy volume again in 2018.

26. Jets tight ends have been responsible for 9 percent of the team's targets during Todd Bowles' three seasons as head coach. That's the lowest percentage among all active head coaches and offensive coordinators during the past decade. Granted, the position's targets jumped to 18 percent last season (from 4 percent in 2015 and 6 percent in 2016), but the loss of Austin Seferian-Jenkins to Jacksonville leaves New York with only Jordan Leggett, Eric Tomlinson and Neal Sterling on the depth chart. Even if the team adds to the position during April's draft, it's likely that the Jets' tight ends rank near the bottom of the league in targets this season. That's good news for wide receivers Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Quincy Enunwa and sleeper Chad Hansen.

27. Starting in 2011 and including only the weeks he was active, Raiders TE Jared Cook's annual target shares are as follows: 14, 16, 17, 18, 17, 18 and 16 percent. That's some serious consistency. Cook isn't much of a blocker, but he's a decent receiving tight end and was on the field for a career-high 78 percent of the offensive snaps last season, running a route on 77 percent of Oakland's pass plays. Cook's role might be reduced a bit during the Jon Gruden/Greg Olson regime, but with blockers Lee Smith and Derek Carrier behind him on the depth chart, Cook figures to remain a key piece of the passing game.

28. Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery handled 21 percent of the Eagles' targets last season, which is his lowest rate since he became a full-time player in 2013. Nine touchdowns powered Jeffery to top-20 fantasy production, but he finished 35th in receptions (57) and 29th in receiving yards (789). Jeffery is a force near the goal line (14 end zone targets) and the top wide receiver in a high-scoring offense, but he'll need a larger target share in order to improve on last year's 21st-place finish.

29. In a league leaning more and more toward committee attacks, Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell breaks the mold with absurdly large usage numbers. Starting with 2013 and including only the weeks he has been active during his five NFL seasons, Bell's snap shares are as follows: 77, 83, 83, 90 and 90 percent. His carry shares are 75, 69, 77, 82 and 81 percent. His target shares are 13, 17, 15, 19 and 19 percent. Despite missing 18 regular-season games during his career, Bell has ranked top 10 at the position in snaps in four seasons. He missed one game last season but paced all running backs in snaps, touches, pass routes, carries and receptions. Only Todd Gurley II scored more fantasy points. It's easy to make a case for Bell as the first overall pick in 2018 fantasy drafts.

30. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin's target shares over the past four seasons are as follows: 22, 22, 24 and 22 percent. The heavy and consistent usage has helped Baldwin finish 13th or better at his position in fantasy each of the past three seasons. His 29 touchdown receptions during the span trail only that of Antonio Brown (31) for most in the NFL. Seattle is in a bit of a transition period, but the connection between Russell Wilson and 29-year-old Baldwin shouldn't change at all in 2018.

31. 49ers TE George Kittle was on the field for 77 percent of the team's snaps, ran a route on 73 percent of the team's pass plays and handled a 13 percent target share during Weeks 1-6 last season. Those marks were 44 percent, 46 percent and 10 percent during his final nine games. While Kittle was fantasy's No. 10 tight end during Jimmy Garoppolo's five starts to wind down the season, the drastic dip in usage should certainly be viewed as a red flag. On the plus side, the team has yet to add to the tight end room this offseason, which means Kittle -- a fifth-round pick last season -- remains a potential breakout candidate at the position.

32. Last season, 21 percent of the Buccaneers' targets were directed at tight ends. That ranked 12th in the NFL, which is lower than you might expect from a team with 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard and recently extended Cameron Brate on the roster. Brate finished as fantasy's No. 10 tight end, but after posting six consecutive top-10 weeks, his playing time decreased, and he managed only one top 10 the rest of the season. Howard consistently played more snaps but ran fewer routes than Brate and was thus limited to four top-10 outings in 14 appearances. As noted in item No. 16, NFL offenses simply can't support two fantasy starters at tight end. Brate's recent contract extension through 2023 suggests that he'll sustain a generous target share, which crushes Howard's fantasy appeal.

33. New Titans RB Dion Lewis has never been on the field for more than 37 percent of his team's offensive snaps. That career high came last season, and his previous best was 24 percent in 2015. Lewis was drafted in the fifth round back in 2011 and has appeared in only 54 of 112 possible regular-season games during the span. Lewis appeared in all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his career last season, but it's hard to ignore his career résumé. The 27-year-old will be busy in Tennessee but likely in a role similar to Tevin Coleman in Atlanta. Plan on seven-to-nine carries and a generous share of the position's targets each week.

34. Titans WR Corey Davis played the better part of 12 games as a rookie. During those affairs, Davis was on the field for 89 percent of the team's pass plays and handled a 20 percent target share. Davis' fantasy production was crushed by the fact that he failed to find the end zone even once, but he did break out a bit in the playoffs, scoring twice while handling 15 targets during Tennessee's two games. Davis was a full-timer as a rookie and will be handed an opportunity to be the team's top receiving weapon again in 2018.

35. Redskins TE Jordan Reed handled a 21 percent target share (7.5 per game) and was fantasy's No. 6 tight end during the four games he ran a route on at least half of the team's pass plays last season. His share was 23 percent (8.6 per game) in 10 games in 2016 and 26 percent (9.0) in 14 games in 2015. Reed was fantasy's top scorer at the position during those weeks in both seasons. His durability woes are troublesome -- he has missed 28 of 80 regular-season games in his career (35 percent) -- but this should serve as a reminder that he sports massive fantasy upside. New quarterback Alex Smith helped Travis Kelce to the most fantasy points among tight ends each of the past two seasons and figures to target Reed early and often in 2018. The 27-year-old is well worth a midround flier.