2021 Fantasy Football Targets and Touches Week 2

by Cale Clinton
2021 Fantasy Football Targets and Touches Week 2

Welcome to our official Fantasy Football Targets and Touches Tracker Through Week 2 of the 2021 NFL season.

We're slowly getting out of the honeymoon phase of the 2021 Fantasy Football season. Our Week 1 over-reactions either have some evidence to back them up, or they've been completely wiped away with another game under our belt (looking at you, Packers and Saints).

With two weeks officially in the books, we can finally start to recognize some trends about player usage on certain teams. Run/Pass ratios have been established. Favorite receivers are emerging. Bell-cow backs are coming out of the stables.

Each week, this article will be tracking both the positive and negative trends for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. While we may spend some time this first week discussing some household names, the goal of these pieces will be to shed some light on players you can either pick up on waivers or trade for without sacrificing too much. These trends will arise as defenses adapt, players get injured, or new guys make the most of their opportunities.

Let's get our sources out of the way. All metrics on run/pass frequency, yards/game or attempt, or attempts per game come from Team Rankings. Any Fantasy rankings come from FantasyPros in a Half-PPR scoring format. All references to EPA/play can be found on Ben Baldwin's Box Score plug-in on RBSDM. Anything else in the article will be directly linked to.

2021 Fantasy Football Targets and Touches Week 2

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Running Backs

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

Let's rip this bandage off first, shall we?

Look, it's really tough to completely give up on your potential first-round draft pick this early, but things aren't looking good for Ezekiel Elliott owners this season. Elliott started off the year pretty poorly with 33 rushing yards on 11 carries. Remove his one 13-yard run, and you're left with a ghastly 2.0 yards per carry. Elliott looked better as a pass protector for Dak Prescott than he did as a running back (the position he's getting paid $9.6 million to play this year).

The picture for the Dallas Cowboys running back room should have gotten a lot clearer after Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Ezekiel Elliott maintained majority control over Dallas's run game, leading the team with 16 carries. However, Tony Pollard crept up very close behind with 13 carries of his own. Per Ben Baldwin's RBSDM, Tony Pollard generated 0.48 EPA per rush compared to Zeke's 0.04 EPA per rush. That's a staggering difference when you add that up across their rushing attempts (6.3 EPA for Pollard, 0.7 for Zeke). This doesn't even account for the fact that Pollard is more involved in Dallas' passing game. Through two weeks, Pollard has 7 catches on 7 targets for 60 yards, whereas Elliott has 4 catches on 4 targets for 24 yards.

Right now, Pollard looks like the better back, and it doesn't seem particularly close. Now, the (9.6) Million Dollar Question: will the Cowboys play the better back? Or is their financial tie-up too big a factor in who ends up as the lead back?

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Ty'Son Williams, Baltimore Ravens

After all the injury misfortune that struck the Baltimore Ravens--especially at the running back position-- it's good to see one person finally catch a break.

Ty'Son Williams, a 2020 UDFA who played for UNC, South Carolina, and BYU in college, was slated to be Gus Edwards' backup before Edwards fell to a similar season-ending fate as J.K. Dobbins. With some shuffling at the offensive line position coupled with this double-whammy of a loss at running back, it was tough to make sense of what the Ravens running back situation would look like. Baltimore did their best Houston Texans impression, signing a bunch of former prominent backs like Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, and Le'Veon Bell. Despite these splashes, the in-house promotion has fared better than all of them.

Williams has excelled in his first two games as starter. Comparing him to Latavius Murray, the only free agent hire who has seen considerable reps thus far, Williams has held his own. Williams has generated an EPA per carry of 0.148 on 23 rushing attempts, while Murray has posted a -0.215 EPA per carry on 20 attempts, per RBSDM. Murray does have two touchdowns to Williams' one. However, Murray's touchdown runs have come on the 5-yard-line and the 8-yard-line. Williams' lone touchdown was a breakout 35-yard rush on fourth-and-1. Murray's been a bit of a goalline vulture, but Williams can create scoring opportunities on his own.

On top of this, the Ravens are far-and-away the most run-heavy team in the NFL through two weeks. Shocker, I know. Baltimore is running on 55.56% of all plays (1st in NFL), rushing 37.5 times per game (1st in NFL), while averaging 220 yards per game (1st in NFL) and 5.9 yards per attempt (1st in NFL). Yes, these numbers get amplified by Lamar Jackson scrambling for big chunks of yardage. What's undeniable, however, is that the Baltimore Ravens offensive line has been great at run blocking this year. It's tough to tell where this group is headed with the likes of Devonta Freeman and Le'Veon Bell waiting in the wings, but for now, Ty'Son Williams is the lead back in a great situation.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Nothing's looked great for the New York Giants thus far in 2021, but Saquon Barkley is definitely one of the team's biggest under-achievers thus far.

Yes, he's coming back from a massive injury. Yes, he is playing behind a bad offensive line. Yet none of this excuses his performance so far this season. 41 of Barkley's 83 rushing yards this season have come on one single run (that drive ended in a punt by the Giants). Take that one big breakout play away, and Barkley has just 42 yards on 22 carries. That's good for 1.9 yards per carry. On ESPN's list of top rushers in 2021, that yards-per-carry mark would rank just below Ryan Fitzpatrick and just above Jimmy Garoppolo and Kenyan Drake. Yes, there is a running back that somehow ranks below that average rushing figure.

I personally find Saquon to be a great back in open space, but he has always needed the offensive line to hold up their end of the bargain. Barkley isn't a running back with the patience of a prime Le'Veon Bell, who could wait for the exact right moment for a hole to open up. Nor is he a Derrick Henry, who doesn't bother with holes and runs right through a person. Barkley needs the space to run through. Once he has it, he can work his magic. According to ESPN's run block win rate, the Giants offensive line is at least performing average in their run responsibility, ranking 17th in the league in RBWR.

This is more a case to monitor going forward than it is an immediate cause for concern. The Giants have faced off against the Denver Broncos and Washington Football Team thus far, two teams with formidable front sevens. Ranking 21st in rushing attempts per game and 19th in run frequency doesn't bode well, but we may need to see a larger sample size on this one.

Wide Receivers

Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers

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Joe Lombardi's offense has opened a lot of doors for this Chargers offense, but no one has benefitted quite like Mike Williams. Williams was a steadfast WR2 in Anthony Lynn's offense. Even with Justin Herbert in the fold last year, Williams finished third on the team in targets behind Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry and fourth in receptions behind them and Austin Ekeler.

Now, Mike Williams looks like the receiver that was drafted sixth overall in 2017. His route tree is much more versatile. No longer is Williams relegated to strictly running deep posts and go routes. He forces defenses to spread out to cover all these passing options. This makes the Chargers offense much more lethal.

The difference already shows. Through two weeks, Williams is the top target for Justin Herbert. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Williams ranks 17th in the league in average YAC above expected, commanding a 33% share of his team's air yards. He automatically benefits from drawing the second cornerback by lining up alongside Keenan Allen, but now his more diverse route tree is enabling Williams to get open more often and actually get utilized as a practical, multi-faceted receiver.

A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, Tennessee Titans

This Titans tandem has yet to find its stride in 2021. Combined, the two have just 16 catches on 31 targets, hauling in just over half of their passes. A.J. Brown in particular has yet to look like his typical self, coming off the heels of a Seattle Seahawks game where he saw 9 targets and turned it into 3 receptions for 43 yards.

Yes, there are many things we can blame for why this is happening. Substituting Arthur Smith with Todd Downing will certainly take some getting used to. Not only is the change in offensive playcaller affecting the receivers, but it is also taking a toll on Ryan Tannehill as well. Over the last two seasons, Ryan Tannehill has been the most efficient quarterback in football. Between 2019 and 2020, Tannehill led the league in EPA + CPOE composite, a metric by Ben Baldwin's RBSDM that combines per-play efficiency with completion percentage over expected. Yes, Ryan Tannehill was a more efficient quarterback on a per-throw basis than Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson. Through two weeks, however, Tannehill ranks 28th in this same meteric.

Under Downing, the Titans are also spreading the ball out more. Derrick Henry has just as many catches as Julio Jones (9) and both Chester Rodgers and Jeremy McNichols sit behind A.J. Brown with 6 receptions apiece. Brown and Jones are still the alpha receivers of this team, but seeing their slow starts coupled with diluted targets, things do not bode well. I wouldn't panic just yet, though. It took Derrick Henry one whole game before he returned to typical form. Just be patient.

Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers

Deebo Samuel has been a one-man army through the first two weeks of the year.

I know that Week 1 game against the Detroit Lions is still carrying a lot of weight, but what Samuel has done through these first two games is impressive. 282 yards and 15 catches on 20 targets are flirting with Madden-level numbers. Even if I take away his one long play of 79 yards against Detroit, that still leaves him with over 200 yards on 14 receptions.

It may be against some lackluster competition thus far, but Samuel demands the ball in this 49ers passing attack. His 53.58% share of air yards is second only to Brandin Cooks for most in football, and Houston has absolutely nobody to throw to. Not only is he dictating this 49ers passing offense, but he's doing something with the ball every time he touches it. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Samuel averages 10.6 YAC per reception. Every time Deebo Samuels catches the ball, on average, he's also gaining an additional 10 yards. That's bananas.

At the moment, it doesn't seem like there's going to be anything slowing Deebo down. George Kittle is second-highest in targets with just 9. Kyle Shanahan has taken a surprising stance against playing Brandon Aiyuk at this time, who everyone anticipated being a breakout receiver star for San Francisco. For now, just ride the Deebo train and ask questions later.

Tight Ends

Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders

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Like I mentioned earlier, this is going to be the article where we get the household names out of the way. I promise I won't bring up any near-untouchable fantasy assets after this week.

That being said, I couldn't write a Targets and Touches piece without mentioning Darren Waller. It is rare enough to see a tight end lead his team in targets. Seeing one lead the league in targets is a whole other story.

Las Vegas has been one of the most pass-happy teams through two weeks. They rank 5th in pass frequency while leading the league in both attempts per game (46.5) and passing yards per game (391.0). Derek Carr's 89 targeted throws have gone to 11 different players. That feels extremely high given how early in the season it is. The players behind Waller are a real hodge-podge of pass-catchers. Hunter Renfrow, Henry Ruggs, and Kenyan Drake all have double-digit targets, but none come close to Waller.

I cannot imagine this passing volume is a sustainable pace for the Las Vegas Raiders going forward. However, this frequent targeting of Darren Waller is going to be a trend going forward. If anyone is dumb enough to give up Waller, pry him away as quickly as you can.

Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

The departure of Arthur Smith has negatively affected the Tennessee Titans offense thus far. The arrival of Arthur Smith hasn't done the Atlanta Falcons offense any favors, either. Through these first two weeks, Atlanta passes on 65.41% of plays (7th in NFL) and throws 41.5 times a game (8th in NFL). Despite those rates, they rank 24th in yards per game and 28th in yards per attempt.

Kyle Pitts currently ranks 2nd on the team in targets and 3rd on the team in catches. Yes, those are solid numbers. The only problem? This offense is really spreading the ball around. Six different players on the Atlanta Falcons have at least five catches so far. Hayden Hurst, Atlanta's other tight end, is one of those six. Yes, Pitts is getting some targets, but his slice of the pie could be much bigger.

Even if Kyle Pitts' 24.76% share of air yards moved up considerably, how drastically affect his fantasy output? The Arthur Smith offense isn't producing effective yards in the passing game despite passing so often. The targets he currently has are relatively hollow, at least compared to where they could be.

Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Gronk is BACK!

Really, this isn't a version of Gronkowski we've seen in some time. Through two weeks, Gronkowski has 12 catches of 129 yards and 4 touchdowns on 13 targets. Last year, it took Gronk until Week 5 to hit the 12-catch and 129-yard benchmarks. It took until Week 10 for him to haul in 4 touchdowns. Even in his last year in New England, Gronkowski didn't have this level of agility and strength to his game. This is a leaner, wiser Gronk who isn't hampered by braces, who gets to soak up the Florida sun.

Yes, Gronkowski drew 77 targets in 2020, but they didn't feel as high-quality as these reps do. Gronk has all but invalidated the other two tight ends on the roster. Cameron Brate and O.J Howard both have just one target apiece. Gronk is on pace to finish just behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in targets like he did last year. However, Brady's newly re-discovered confidence in Gronkowski's red zone ability will make those targets very valuabe.

Until next week, click here for more Fantasy Football content.

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