Clay: 50 things I learned while doing 2020 fantasy football projections

Kenyan Drake is primed to be the workhorse in his second season with the Cardinals. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If you're not already aware, I'm the guy who does the fantasy football 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 hand. To begin each NFL year, I go team by team and thoroughly analyze historical league, team, coach and player trends. From there, on the player level, I generate projected dropback, carry and target shares for each player.

I recently completed that process and -- same as in recent years -- took notes. Below are my observations as well as a brief application to fantasy football in 2020.

Note: For perspective, the league average team target distributions by position are 21% running back, 21% tight end and 58% wide receiver. These will pop up often throughout the piece.

1. After scoring no more than two offensive touchdowns during their first five games, the Cardinals' offense managed at least three touchdowns in eight of Arizona's final 11 games last season. The Cardinals scored 53% of their touchdowns through the air, but playcalling suggests it should've been closer to 63%. Kyler Murray continues to trend up.

2. During his eight games with Arizona, Kenyan Drake played 381 (79%) of 483 possible snaps. He handled 123 (85%) of the 144 carries and 35 (14%) of the 43 targets by the team's running backs during the span. That is full-on workhorse usage, and we should expect a similar role in 2020.

3. One more on Arizona: WR DeAndre Hopkins handled target shares between 26% and 34% during the past six seasons in Houston. Will Murray feed him the ball that often in Arizona? Probably. Consider that Christian Kirk was on the receiving end of 24% of Murray's targets when active last season. Larry Fitzgerald's target share was 21%. Hopkins is obviously the superior talent of the group and shouldn't struggle to come close to his 31% rate from 2019.

4. Atlanta has scored at least 74% of its offensive touchdowns through the air each of the past two seasons, and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's units have reached 74% in the category each of the past four seasons. Don't forget about Matt Ryan when choosing your quarterback.

5. During Dan Quinn's five seasons as head coach, the Falcons' tight end target share has fallen no lower than 15% and no higher than 19% in a single season. Koetter's offenses have ranged between 18% and 21% over his past five seasons as a coach/OC. This suggests a fairly high floor for newcomer Hayden Hurst.

6. Justice Hill paced the Ravens' running backs in snaps (46), pass routes (38) and targets (five) during the team's playoff loss to Tennessee last season. Hill also handled four targets in Week 16. The team seemed to expand the then-rookie's role in passing situations down the stretch, which adds some PPR sleeper appeal in 2020.

7. Believe it or not, new Bills WR Stefon Diggs never played all 16 regular-season games during his five years in Minnesota. He appeared in 13 his first two seasons, 14 in 2017 and 15 in each of the past two seasons. For the record, the 2019 missed game was for rest in Week 17, so he's certainly trending the right direction, but it's something to keep in mind when breaking ties during your draft.

8. Bears RB Tarik Cohen sports a 203-1,534-9 receiving line on 261 targets since entering the NFL in 2017. He ranks fourth in both targets and receptions among running backs during the span. Keep an eye on Cohen for PPR leagues.

9. Prior to sitting out all of last season, A.J. Green's target shares by season (during active weeks) are as follows starting with 2011: 25%, 31%, 30%, 30%, 26%, 30% , 29%, 25%. That's big-time usage. Green turns 32 this season, but he seems like a good bet for roughly one-fourth of the Bengals' targets when on the field. He's still a solid fantasy starter.

10. Time for some 2019 Nick Chubb splits. Without Kareem Hunt during his first eight games, Chubb was fantasy's No. 6 RB while handling 86% of the team's designed runs and 12% of the targets. With Hunt during Weeks 10-17, Chubb was 15th in fantasy points while handling 73% of the runs and 7% of targets. Believe it or not, Chubb outscored Hunt by only three fantasy points during the latter eight games. Hunt doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon in Cleveland.

11. Jarvis Landry's target share by season starting with 2015: 29%, 29%, 27%, 27%, 27%. It's hard to get more consistent than that. Landry out-targeted fellow Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr. 139 to 132 last season. Perhaps roles will change under new head coach Kevin Stefanski, but Landry's floor remains solid.

12. The Browns' offense dealt with one of the league's hardest schedules last season, having scored 2.31 touchdowns per game, compared to an opponent-adjusted mark of 2.50. Stefanski's offenses averaged a very healthy 2.76 per game during 21 games as the Vikings' OC.

13. Expanding from there, the Chiefs (+0.27) and Buccaneers (+0.26) had the easiest offensive schedules in 2019, whereas the Dolphins (-0.27), Browns (-0.19) and Ravens (-0.18) had the toughest.

14. The Lions' offense scored 21 touchdowns (2.6 per game) during QB Matthew Stafford's eight starts, compared to 14 (1.8 per game) during the eight games he missed last season. That 2.6 mark is just above league average and an improvement on the team's 2.1 average during the 2016-18 seasons. There's some sleeper appeal to this offense. Speaking of which ...

15. Detroit WRs Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola played 12 games together last season. The targets those weeks were as follows: Jones 86 (20% share), Golladay 85 (20%), Amendola 78 (18%). When Jones was out Weeks 15-17, Golladay edged Amendola 23 to 20 (24% to 21%) in the category. This trio is probably closer than you realize in usage, which may lead to Jones being undervalued in fantasy again. He's now 30, but Jones has scored nine touchdowns two of the past three seasons and was on pace for nine in 2018 prior to an injury. He has finished 14th, 27th and 20th in fantasy points per game during the span.

16. Green Bay scored 58.8% of its offensive touchdowns through the air last season, which is the team's lowest mark of the past decade. Playcalling suggests the mark should've been 66%, which means we figure to see more passing touchdowns from Aaron Rodgers and fewer Aaron Jones scores in 2020.

17. Speaking of the Packers, star wide receiver Davante Adams has missed at least one regular-season game due to injury each of the past three seasons and four of the past five. That includes four games in 2019. Adams' massive usage keeps him squarely in the top-end WR1 mix, but keep this in mind when drafting one of your cornerstone players.

18. The Houston offense scored 61% of its touchdowns through the air last season. That's after marks of 78% and 69% during QB Deshaun Watson's first two seasons. The 2019 expected TD rate based on playcalling was 68%, which aligns well with coach Bill O'Brien's expected rates of 74%, 70%, 76% and 71% during the 2015-18 seasons. This is good news for Watson's potential touchdown output, though the loss of Hopkins certainly figures to lead to a dip in overall offensive efficiency.

19. Speaking of O'Brien, he's been an OC or head coach for seven seasons and none of his offenses have eclipsed an 18% target share to running backs (15% average). The loss of Hopkins combined with the backfield duo of David Johnson and Duke Johnson figures to lead to a career-high in the category, but we shouldn't expect either to be featured in the pass game.

20. Will Fuller V's regular-season games played (starting with his rookie season in 2016): 14, 10, 7, 11. Kenny Stills has missed three games over the past two seasons (though he missed only one during his first five seasons), and new slot Randall Cobb has missed at least one game each of the past four seasons. Fuller averaged a 24% target share in 10 "full" games last season and was at 22% in six "full" games in 2017. That's big-time usage and came with Hopkins in the fold. Fuller's share could rise even higher, but it will be hard to expect a full season from the oft-injured fifth-year receiver.

21. Marlon Mack has yet to appear in all 16 of the Colts' regular-season games, topping out at 14 in 2017 and 2019. He also doesn't play as much as it probably seems, averaging 56% of the Colts' snaps in 2018 and 66% last season. Mack handles a bulk of the team's designed rush attempts (65% over the past two seasons) but is a non-factor as a receiver (4% target share last season). That will continue to limit his fantasy upside.

22. Frank Reich's tight ends have enjoyed target shares of 23%, 24%, 31%, 29%, 27% and 29% during his six seasons a head coach/OC (three different teams). The Colts' 2020 offense might be on the lower end of that spectrum with depth a bit weak behind Jack Doyle, but it's clear Reich features the position and Indianapolis' wide receiver room isn't exactly flush with top-end targets. Note that Doyle tied for the team lead with 31 targets (20% share) once Eric Ebron went on injured reserve after Week 12 last season.

23. Jacksonville scored 89% of its touchdowns through the air last season (24 passing, 3 rushing). This should be obvious, but that rate will take a dive in 2020. New OC Jay Gruden's expected pass TD rate has been 68% or higher in eight of his past nine seasons as an OC or coach, so we should still expect an above-average rate, but it certainly doesn't figure to come close to 80%. Expect Leonard Fournette (3 TDs, 9.3 OTD) to find the end zone more often with DJ Chark Jr. (8 TDs, 6.3 OTD) likely to see a decrease.

24. Jaguars tight ends handled a low 14% target share last season. Gruden was the OC or HC for nine seasons with the Bengals and Redskins, and his tight ends never fell below 18% (23% average) and were below 20% once (2019). Newcomer Tyler Eifert and second-year Josh Oliver will be the biggest benefactors.

25. RB Damien Williams has played at least 49% of the snaps in 16 games since joining the Chiefs in 2018. He has handled 64% of the designed runs (13.3 per game) and 15% of the targets (5.3 per game) during those weeks, which includes five playoff games. His stats those weeks are as follows: 213 carries for 1,020 yards and 14 TDs, 65 catches for 514 yards and 7 TDs on 85 targets. His numbers add up to 340.4 fantasy points, which would have ranked second to only Christian McCaffrey last season. (Eyes emoji.)

26. Chiefs WR Sammy Watkins has missed at least one game in each of the past five regular seasons, averaging 12.0 games played per season during the span. Inconsistent production and missed action from Watkins only boosts second-year Mecole Hardman's sleeper appeal.

27. QB Tyrod Taylor has appeared in 16 regular-season games in zero of his nine NFL seasons. Granted, he's been a backup during most of his career, but he has cleared eight appearances only three times, topping out at 15 in both 2016 and 2017. Considering his age (30), style of play (takes a lot of sacks, runs often) and history, he should be considered a long shot to remain the Chargers' starter for all of 2020.

28. Remember when Chargers WR Keenan Allen was considered high risk for injury? Allen hasn't missed a game since 2016. On the other hand, 2016 second-round pick Hunter Henry has yet to play a full 16-game season, missing all of 2018 and a total of seven games the other three seasons.

29. The Rams' offense disappointed in a lot of ways last season, but the unit still produced at least three touchdowns in 11 of 16 games, including five straight to end the season. In fact, if you add offensive touchdowns to field goal attempts, the Rams ranked eighth in the league at 4.7 per game. That's actually way down from the 5.3, 5.4 and 5.8 per game produced by coach Sean McVay's previous three offenses. Even in a "down" year, the Rams were in scoring position quite often.

30. During Weeks 1-12 last season, Cooper Kupp played 87% of the Rams' snaps, ran a route on 88% of pass plays and handled a 25% target share. During Weeks 13-17, his rates fell to 63% of the snaps, 68% of the routes and a 15% target share. The Rams expanded Tyler Higbee's role at Kupp's expense, so barring a Brandin Cooks trade, we should lower expectations a bit for 2019's No. 4-scoring fantasy wide receiver.

31. In other Rams wide receiver news, Robert Woods was targeted at least nine times in 10 of his 15 games last season. That 67% hit rate was tied with DJ Moore for fifth in the league behind only Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, Julio Jones and Julian Edelman. Woods is Los Angeles' clear No. 1 wide receiver.

32. One more on the Rams: Despite making his best effort to feature RB Todd Gurley II the past three seasons, McVay's offenses have averaged a 16% target share to running backs. That covers six seasons with Washington and Los Angeles. McVay's offense has never cleared the 21% league average to the position in a single season. This is notable for the prospects of Darrell Henderson Jr. and Malcolm Brown.

33. WR Adam Thielen played at least 80% of the Vikings snaps in 18 games in 2017, 16 games in 2018 and nine games in 2019. His target share was right at 26% during each of those stretches. Especially with Diggs gone, Thielen is positioned for a huge role and is a great "post-hype" target in 2020.

34. Including only the games in which he was active, WR Julian Edelman's target shares by season are as follows over his past six seasons: 26%, 26%, 26%, 29%, 26%, 26%. Tom Brady is gone, but Edelman's role as the Patriots' heavily targeted short-area receiver doesn't figure to change much.

35. Who led the Patriots in targets during their final two games last season? It wasn't Edelman or James White or even Mohamed Sanu Sr. It was 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry. Don't forget about the 2019 first-round pick on draft day.

36. The Saints averaged 3.5 offensive touchdowns per game in the 11 games Drew Brees played in "full" last season. That's compared to 2.0 per game during the six games Teddy Bridgewater handled the bulk of the snaps. The split is notable as the 3.5 per game aligns well with the Saints' averages of 3.4, 2.9 and 3.5 per game during the 2016-18 seasons. Brees remains a fringe QB1, although ...

37. The Saints' offense scored 74% of its touchdowns through the air last season. That's not far off the 71% expected rate based on playcalling. However, both marks were highest for a Brees/Sean Payton offense since 2013. It's fair to expect more balanced playcalling, especially near the goal line in 2020. That's good news for RBs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, but not great for Brees.

38. One more on the Saints: WR Michael Thomas handled a massive 32.5% target share last season, which is the seventh-highest rate the league has seen since 2007. The big question: Is a rate in that vicinity sustainable in 2020? Believe it or not, the answer is yes, at least in the sense that he should be close. Consider: From 2007 to 2018, 17 wide receivers achieved a target share of at least 31% in a single season. Sixteen of them saw at least 125 targets the next season and the lowest target share among those 16 was 24.2%. Though 14 of the 16 receivers saw a dip in target share, the 16 still averaged a 29.2% share. This is great news for Thomas.

39. We need to be conservative when projecting a new-look Giants offense led by coach Joe Judge and OC Jason Garrett, and doing so suggests good news for Saquon Barkley's rushing touchdown outlook. The Giants have scored a massive 76% of their offensive touchdowns through the air over the past six seasons. That's compared to a 65% league average and a 61% average by Garrett's offenses.

40. Barkley, Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, Darius Slayton and Evan Engram form a pretty darn good group of offensive weapons, but did you know that the quintet played zero games together last season? In fact, even if we remove Barkley, the four pass-catchers combined to play one game together (Week 5). Despite this, as well as multiple quarterback changes, the New York offense ranked 13th in the league in touchdowns (2.6 per game). This group is a good bet to be healthier in 2020, though Engram remains a concern after missing one game as a rookie, five in 2018 and eight last season.

41. Six players appeared in at least eight games and were targeted at least six times during 100% of those outings last season: Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and, believe it or not, a pair of Giants: Shepard and Engram. Don't sleep on Shepard when flex hunting.

42. Le'Veon Bell hasn't appeared in 16 regular-season games since 2014, falling short of the mark in five of six NFL seasons (not including his 2018 holdout). He's no longer an RB1, though an improved Jets offensive line helps his 2020 prospects.

43. Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery has missed at least three games during four of the past five regular seasons. One of those was a four-game suspension (2016), but he since has missed nine games due to injury over the past two seasons. Teammate DeSean Jackson missed 13 games last season and hasn't played a 16-game season since 2013. Both are viable fantasy starters when healthy, but we obviously can't count on a full season from either.

44. The Steelers' offense scored a grand total of 10 touchdowns during its final nine games of the 2019 season. Despite that horrific output, James Washington and Diontae Johnson were both top-40 fantasy receivers during the span. Granted, JuJu Smith-Schuster missed five of those games, but should Ben Roethlisberger return to form in 2020, Pittsburgh very well could support three viable fantasy starters at the position. Note that with Roethlisberger under center, Pittsburgh averaged at least 2.7 offensive touchdowns per game during the 2016-18 seasons, with 70% scored through the air.

45. Mike Tomlin has been the head coach of the Steelers for 13 seasons and all 13 of those teams ended the season with a tight end target share below 21% (average of 18%). Pittsburgh added Eric Ebron to go along with Vance McDonald, but we shouldn't expect a huge spike in targets to the position.

46. Over the past decade, 73% of the Buccaneers' offensive touchdowns have been passes (74% expected rate). The average pass TD rate of coach Bruce Arians' past seven offenses is 69% (73% expected). OC Byron Leftwich's offenses sit at 70% (75% expected) in the category in 25 career games. With Arians and Leftwich back, we should continue to expect plenty of scoring through the air in Tampa, Florida. Hello, Tom Brady fantasy rebound season.

47. O.J. Howard has missed at least two games during each of his three pro seasons. Additionally, Arians' last 12 offenses tracing back to 2007 have all been below-average in tight end target share (17% average). A fourth-year breakout for Howard is possible but seems unlikely.

48. With Marcus Mariota under center during Weeks 1-6, the Titans' offense averaged 1.8 touchdowns per game. With Ryan Tannehill under center during Tennessee's final 13 games, the offense averaged 3.7 per game. That includes at least three scores during all but one outing. For perspective, the league-leading Ravens averaged 3.5 offense scores per game for the season. Tennessee settled for only four field goal attempts during its final 10 games -- a number sure to rise in 2020 -- but even still, this is an offense that shouldn't struggle for above-average output.

49. The Redskins averaged a league-low 55.3 offensive snaps per game last season. For perspective, the Steelers were second-lowest in the category at 58.6 per game and the Eagles led the league with 68.5 per game. Since 2007, only the 2018 Dolphins (54.9 per game) ran fewer offensive snaps in a single season. New coach Ron Rivera averaged 64.4 plays per game and never fell below 61.8 in a single season during nine seasons with Carolina. The Redskins could run 100 more offensive plays in 2020 than they did in 2019 and still be below league average. This should serve as some optimism for Washington's top fantasy weapons.

50. OK, if you've made it this long, you deserve a prize. While working through each roster, several deep sleepers popped up. Here is that list: Cardinals TE Dan Arnold, Ravens RB Justice Hill (PPR), Bears WR Riley Ridley, Bengals RB Trayveon Williams, Cowboys TE Blake Jarwin, Texans TE Kahale Warring, Colts TE Mo Alie-Cox, Colts RB Jordan Wilkins, Jaguars TE Josh Oliver, Chargers RB Justin Jackson, Rams WR Josh Reynolds (if Cooks is traded), Dolphins WR Preston Williams, Patriots RB Damien Harris, Jets TE Chris Herndon, 49ers WR Jalen Hurd, Buccaneers WR Scotty Miller and Redskins TE Jeremy Sprinkle