Using Vacated Touches to Identify Opportunity (2020)

Apr 21, 2020
Using Vacated Touches to Identify Opportunity (2020)

Opportunity is one of the major factors I consider as I evaluate free agent signings and trades, and attempt to identify impact rookies in any given season. Typically, I’ll gauge this opportunity holistically—e.g. the Rams cut Todd Gurley so there are touches available in L.A.—but last season I thought I’d go through the process of calculating vacated running back touches to see if it would identify opportunity that wasn’t readily apparent.

Note: On Wednesday, April 22, at 10 AM Pacific I'll be doing a chat on my Instagram [link] to discuss both the vacated targets and vacated touches articles.

Be sure to check out Part 1 of this opportunity study: Using Vacated Targets to Identify Opportunity.

Looking back at that (pre-NFL Draft) article, the process did identify several teams with major opportunity in their RB corps.

  • Kansas City led the way with 18.7 vacated touches per game and Damien Williams' workload nearly tripled from 4.6 touches per game to 12.8 touches per game. Unfortunately, he was only able to play 11 games and didn't start seeing a big workload (18+ touches per game) until late in the season and in the playoffs. Still, if the Chiefs don’t draft a running back early, Williams could be a post-hype sleeper in 2020.
  • We correctly predicted that the Raiders would give a big workload to Josh Jacobs, though that wasn't too hard to see coming. He was the No. 18 running back despite playing just 13 games.
  • LeVeon Bell walked into a 20.7-touch role for the Jets, who had 17.0 vacated touches from 2019.
  • The Bears also had 17.0 touches available and rookie David Montgomery was given a 16.7-touch role. He wasn’t efficient with those touches, but he still finished No. 25 at his position.
  • Jacksonville surprisingly popped as the No. 5 team in vacated touches (16.8 per game). Leonard Fournette's touches increased from 19.4 per game to 22.7 per game, including a career-high 5.1 catches per game. He was No. 9 at his position.
  • Baltimore had 13.7 vacated touches per game, and signed Mark Ingram as the lead back. Ingram handled 15.2 touches per game and finished as the No. 8 fantasy running back.
  • The Saints had 11.5 vacated touches per game after Ingram's departure -- and guess what -- Latavius Murray finished with 11.3 touches per game as the RB2 in New Orleans.
  • Murray's departure opened up 10.7 touches per game in Minnesota and Dalvin Cook's workload increased from 15.7 touches per game to 21.6 touches per game.
  • Houston had 11.2 vacated touches and eventually traded for Duke Johnson (7.9 touches per game) and signed Carlos Hyde (15.9 touches) after D'Onta Foreman tore his biceps. Hyde turned in a high-end RB3 season.
  • The Browns had 8.0 vacated touches per game and signed Kareem Hunt, who was suspended for the first half of the season. Chubb averaged 19.4 touches with Hunt in the lineup versus 22.2 touches prior to Hunt's return. His per-game fantasy production dropped from 18.1 (half-PPR) to 12.3 thanks in large part to a drop in receptions and rushing touchdowns during the second half of the season.
  • In the article, I mentioned five situations where touches may be tough to come by; the Lions, Browns, Bills, 49ers and Eagles. The Lions' backfield was a mess (but it wasn’t due to C.J. Anderson), the 49ers were tough to peg on a week-to-week basis and rookies Devin Singletary (Bills) and Miles Sanders (Eagles) didn't get consistent work until the second half of the season.

Given injuries, trades and Week 17 weirdness, it’s a little tricky to calculate total vacated touches, but I think the numbers below provide a good roadmap to find opportunity.

All running back touches through Week 16 are included. I’ve added some notes below the table and there’s also a chart that provides the same information visually.

Vacated Touches (2020)
Team Vacated Tchs/G Vacated Tchs % Key Additions
HOU 16.7 67.7% David Johnson
ATL 15.5 62.5% Todd Gurley
LAR 15.5 68.4%
LAC 13.7 45.9%
BUF 11.3 45.0% Taiwan Jones
PHI 10.8 36.7%
TB 10.8 40.3%
KC 10.1 39.8% DeAndre Washington
MIA 9.1 40.1% Jordan Howard
ARI 8.9 39.3%
LVR 7.9 25.5%
NYJ 6.9 25.9%
WAS 6.9 27.9% Peyton Barber, J.D. McKissic
DET 6.7 24.7%
TEN 5.2 20.5%
IND 3.6 12.2%
NYG 2.8 12.1% Dion Lewis
SEA 2.2 7.6%
NO 1.5 5.2%
DEN 1.3 4.6% Melvin Gordon
CHI 1.2 4.6%
GB 1.2 4.2%
PIT 0.7 2.4%
NE 0.2 0.6%
JAX 0.0 0.0%
BAL 0.0 0.0%
MIN 0.0 0.0%
CLE 0.0 0.0%
SF 0.0 0.0%
DAL 0.0 0.0%
CAR 0.0 0.0%
CIN 0.0 0.0%

Here's the same data in chart format:

Players to Keep An Eye On

  • The Texans let Carlos Hyde walk and replaced him with David Johnson, via an ill-advised trade. Johnson should see 17+ touches per game.

  • The Falcons replaced Devonta Freeman with Todd Gurley and they’ll likely give Gurley all he can handle.

  • Gurley’s departure from the Rams opens up 15.5 touches per game. Right now, Darrell Henderson has the most upside, but Malcolm Brown out-touched Henderson by a 71-to-43 margin last year, so it’s no sure thing Henderson emerges as the clear RB1. He did finish as the No. 2 back behind Josh Jacobs in Kevin Zatloukal’s running back success model.

  • The Chargers let Melvin Gordon walk, so they have 13.7 vacated touches per game, and that’s why Austin Ekeler is going near the 1/2 turn in early fantasy drafts. If the Chargers don’t spend significant draft capital on a running back then Justin Jackson is worth a long look as Ekeler’s backup. Jackson saw seven, eight and nine touches in the first three games during Gordon’s holdout.

  • Next up are Buffalo (11.3 touches per game) and Philadelphia (10.8). I mentioned earlier how Devin Singletary and Miles Sanders started to see starter’s touches in the second half of the season and that should continue into 2020 with Frank Gore and Jordan Howard moving on.

  • Keep a close eye on the Bucs. Peyton Barber is out of the way, so the Draft will tell us how much the team believes in Ronald Jones. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 172 totes and caught 31 passes for 309 yards. With 10.8 touches up for grabs, if the Bucs don’t come out of the Draft with major help at running back, Jones’s stock will be on the rise.

  • The aforementioned Chiefs have 10.1 touches up for grabs assuming they don’t eventually re-sign LeSean McCoy, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry, but fell out of favor late in the year. Like the Bucs, if the Chiefs don’t come out of the Draft with a good rookie running back, then Damien Williams’s stock will improve.

  • Miami has 9.1 vacated touches per game, but they signed Jordan Howard, who figures to take over as the primary ball-carrier on early downs.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, this study can identify teams/players that have touches that are under a lot of pressure. Take the Broncos, who signed Melvin Gordon to a big deal even though they still have Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman on the roster. I’d expect Gordon to see 250 or so touches with Lindsay taking a secondary role and Freeman not seeing much work at all if Gordon and Lindsay stay healthy.

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