Fantasy hints from targets, other data

After some big runs in the preseason, Chris Johnson has not been explosive through Week 4. AP Photo/Wade Payne

Last week, I wrote that Tavon Austin is being significantly overvalued because players like Kenbrell Thompkins, who had outscored him, were owned at a significantly lesser rate. This week, let's turn the table around and talk about veteran players who are still trading off their past reputation. Let's face it, holding on to an aging veteran too long is just as bad as placing too much value on a rookie because of his potential. Am I right, Chris Johnson owners?

While some might be encouraged by Johnson's decent yardage totals, there should be concern about how many carries it took to obtain that yardage. Specifically, Johnson had exactly 25 carries in both Weeks 1 and 2. That's a mark he achieved only once in each of the past two seasons. Considering that Johnson played in many contests where his normal starting quarterback was sidelined due to injury during those seasons, expecting an increase due to Jake Locker's hip injury is not advisable.

If Johnson's downside ended there, he'd still maintain decent value. It doesn't. Johnson isn't nearly as explosive as he was in the early part of his career. As most remember, Johnson's value has been driven significantly by his ability to break long runs frequently. In 2008 and 2009, Johnson broke a big-play rush (10 yards or more) once every 7.2 carries. That number plummeted to one every 9.3 carries for the 2010 to 2012 seasons. It has plunged further to just once every 14 carries this year. This season's rate is 24 percent worse than the combined rate for all other running backs with at least 50 carries this year. Any way you look at it, he's just not explosive anymore.

Finally, Johnson has zero touchdowns this season despite the fact that he has had 17 of the 24 red zone rushes the Tennessee Titans have attempted this season. Those 17 rush attempts represent the largest number of red zone chances given to any running back this season. Furthermore, every other running back with double-digit opportunities in the red zone has at least one touchdown.

To recap: Johnson is receiving more carries than he has usually been given. He is significantly less explosive than his reputation suggests, and he is a colossal flop in the red zone. If you own Johnson, now is the time to pawn him off to another owner. If you don't, avoid being the fish that gets hooked on this bait.

On target

Receiving yardage is the most variable form of yardage, which makes sense because so much of it is dependent on where the quarterback elects to throw the ball. Because of this, variations in the number of times a player is targeted by his quarterback can greatly change a player's value. So while your receiver may have scored 10 fantasy points this weekend, you need to know whether it's reasonable to expect that he can repeat that type of performance on a routine basis. If a receiver had one target that he turned into a 40-yard touchdown, you need to realize that he was one quarterback decision away from posting a goose egg. Conversely, if your wideout had 12 targets and finished with 108 yards receiving, his prospects for consistent fantasy production are significantly greater.

Below, you'll see all the players who are averaging eight or more targets through Week 4 and how many of those targets were on plays that began in the red zone during Week 4.

Note: Targets are not an official NFL statistic. Based on the methodology that stat services use, the number of targets listed may be different than target values listed elsewhere. ESPN Stats & Information's philosophy is to count a target when the analyst thinks the pass was actually intended for the player. Therefore, if a quarterback is obviously throwing a ball away, the analyst will not record a target for that pass. This gives a truer representation of what a target is -- a pass thrown to a particular player, with the intent for that player to catch the ball -- and therefore should be more helpful to the fantasy community.

Fantasy insights based on data through Week 4

• Those owners who stashed Justin Blackmon on their rosters will soon see the dividends of that decision. But Cecil Shorts' owners shouldn't be too concerned. In the five games last season where Blackmon obtained his highest receiving yardage totals, Shorts averaged over 90 receiving yards per game.

Tandon Doss' nine targets in Week 4 might not be an aberration. While the Baltimore Ravens were virtually forced to pass on every down due to Ray Rice being far less than 100 percent and Bernard Pierce straining his calf early in the game, Doss got all of his targets in three-WR sets. Through the first three weeks of the season, the Ravens had employed that set on 72 percent of their passing attempts.

• If you are desperate for a wide receiver on any given week, try Harry Douglas. Douglas' 25 routes run in the red zone are third in the league, behind only Calvin Johnson and Tony Gonzalez.

• No running back in the NFL has run more pass routes than the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarco Murray (107), with routes being defined as every occasion on which a player goes out as an eligible pass-catcher. Murray's reception percentage of 91.3 is second among running backs who have run at least 50 pass routes (Jacquizz Rodgers leads with a 92.9 reception percentage on 62 routes).

Brandon Myers has scored just 22 fantasy points (ESPN standard scoring) despite running 112 routes. For comparison, Charles Clay has 35 fantasy points on just 100 routes. That said, the New York Giants' remaining schedule is littered with teams in the bottom half of the league in terms of passing yardage allowed, so Myers is a good buy-low candidate.

Big plays and up close

In Week 4, only six NFL players totaled three or more rushes that gained 10 or more yards each: Reggie Bush (6), Frank Gore (5), Russell Wilson (4), Knowshon Moreno (4), Arian Foster (4) and LeSean McCoy (3). To put that into perspective, Week 6 of the 2012 season was the only week since the start of the 2011 campaign when there were fewer than six runners who gained at least 10 yards on three or more carries.

Meanwhile, only four players had at least two carries from their opponent's 5-yard line or closer: Le'Veon Bell (3), Anthony Dixon (2), Jackie Battle (2) and Moreno (2). Of this group, only Battle failed to score on at least one of these attempts.

Welcome to the league, Le'Veon Bell. While his 3.6 yards-per-carry average doesn't look great, it is 0.5 yards better than the other Pittsburgh running backs averaged in their first three games without him. Bell is an instant upgrade who should benefit from the Steelers' bye, and then provide his owners with a solid option going forward.

If you haven't bailed on Montee Ball yet, what are you waiting for? Forget about stories of rock, paper, scissors. The starting job is Moreno's, and he's going to hold on to it for the foreseeable future.

Through four weeks of the NFL season, McCoy has 13 rushes for 10 yards or more. Last season, he had 24 in 12 games. At this pace, he'll surpass last year's total in Week 8.

Last season, Doug Martin averaged 3.3 rushes per game in the opponent's red zone. This year, he has just five such opportunities through four games. Say what you will about how improved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line was supposed to be this year, but without those red zone opportunities, Martin is only an RB2 for fantasy purposes.

Red Zone Play Calling Chart

Below is a listing of the percentage of run and pass plays each team has executed so far this season in the red zone. Pass plays are defined as any play in which the quarterback attempts a pass or was sacked, and all other plays are deemed as rush plays.

In closing, some shameless self-promotion.

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