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Opportunity Knocks: 2017 Passing Game Edition

Outlining the key available targets around the NFL for wide receivers and tight ends.

Opportunity is paramount to fantasy viability. Sometimes overt talent forcefully carves their own opportunity, other times there is a void where any baseline talent can become a fantasy starter by opportunity alone.

Looking back at 2016 team statistics, here are the NFL teams with the highest ratios of available targets heading into the NFL Draft:

TOP TIER

56% rams

Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, and Lance Kendricks - all multi-year pass-catchers for the Rams are gone this offseason. Robert Woods is the most significant addition pre-draft with Tyler Higbee the incumbent tight end most likely to elevate to the starting role. The biggest variable is Jared Goff and the offensive line facilitating passing production as a whole. Robert Woods fits the profile of an ancillary NFL receiver and the team has yet to figure out Tavon Austin's optimal usage. Nearly 300 targets are available from 2016, but outside of a splash NFL Draft addition this pass game has the projection of supplying bye week and low-end fantasy depth more than potential impact performers.

53% bills

Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin are gone of note. Overall, more than 200 targets have been vacated. The pass game centers around Sammy Watkins' health, but Charles Clay is a baseline NFL tight end at best as the on-paper second option pre-draft. With one of the strongest wide receiver needs in the NFL, I project 75% odds Buffalo hits wide receiver within the first three rounds of the NFL Draft with a good chance at No.10 overall (namely Mike Williams or Corey Davis). Watkins has seen a strong market share of targets through three seasons, but Buffalo has yet to open up the offense beyond 29 passes per game (anemically-low by NFL standards) with Rex Ryan. The coaching staff turned over this offseason, another hope for optimism.

SECOND TIER

38% 49ers

Can Kyle Shanahan's magic touch work for the 49ers? Brian Hoyer is an under-the-radar bridge quarterback signing. Torrey Smith was the notable 'loss' by San Francisco's pass game with more than 150 targets available overall. Pierre Garcon projects as the lead receiver with a Day 2 receiver certainly in-play. Vance McDonald is the upside fantasy play of the pass game at tight end, one of the most balanced metric prospects at the position in recent draft classes with +39% Size, +32% Athleticism, and +51% Production scores in my collegiate projection model.

36% browns

Terrelle Pryor, the lead receiver from 2016, is gone to Washington. Kenny Britt stands to benefit with his arrival. Corey Coleman flashed on occasion as a rookie. Without a strong quarterback in place, this is a murky passing game to project much fantasy appeal, despite a high percentage of available targets from last season.

35% redskins

Both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon departed in free agency. Terrelle Pryor enters on a one-year deal and Josh Doctson's health is a wild card for this passing game. Also, Kirk Cousins leaving via trade is still in play before Week 1. Washington is unlikely to add a rookie receiver of consequence with a strong (on paper) top-3 of the depth chart.

THIRD TIER

29% panthers

Ted Ginn is the notable departure from 2016, at times (gulp), the most dependable (within his role) receiver for Carolina. Kelvin Benjamin did not regain his middling movement post-injury last season and Devin Funchess remains a work in progress to be a prototypical wide receiver entering Year 3. From a tools standpoint, Funchess has the most upside in a cost-to-value equation, but reviewing every route from 2016 in film study this offseason left more questions in my mind than answers for Funchess' future. Improved line play and accuracy from Cam Newton sits at the center of any Carolina pass game dialogue for a 2017 bounce back, beyond where the targets from Ted Ginn will land. Greg Olsen, Newton's long-standing security blanket, is a solid bet for another top-5 season. 

29% Saints

Brandin Cooks is gone via trade, but Ted Ginn can garner at least 75% of what Cooks did within the Saints offense. Willie Snead is back, but Coby Fleener has been a disappointment thus far as the starting tight end. A high-end receiving running back would be an ideal boost for the creative New Orleans offense to bridge the lost targets gap. A drafted receiver would be a sneaky projection for 2018 if Snead is not in the long-term cards.

28% vikings

Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson are gone after combining for more than 100 targets a year ago. The stunted pass game needs improved performance from their lagging offensive line (and run game) to promote much through the air. LaQuon Treadwell was the rare no-show from a Round 1 rookie receiver without a Year 1 injury. Stefon Diggs has some upside beyond his 112 targets in 2016. If Treadwell continues to lag, returning Adam Thielen - 2016 standout - is poised to surpass 100 targets as the No.2 receiver as a result.

27% giants

Victor Cruz is mercifully gone after soaking up plenty of empty snaps last season. Brandon Marshall's addition makes this an easy transition to filling the departed targets and then some. Sterling Shepard's upside takes a big hit with Marshall joining Odell Beckham for the short-term. While the starting tight end job is open for a rookie to arrive and immediately develop, the ceiling is low with two target hogs at receiver in 2017.

26% Bears

Alshon Jeffery is out, leaving Cameron Meredith and Kevin White atop the receiver depth chart. White has an incomplete grade through two seasons, missing all but a handful of games in 2016 overall. Meredith profiles as a stopgap option more than long-term projected starter. With a murky tight end depth chart, Chicago is in play for tight end and wide receiver for the 2017 NFL Draft. Mike Glennon, while a lower upside long-term option under ceiling, offers an upgrade over their quarterback play a season ago.

26% Jets

Brandon Marshall is the notable subtraction. The quarterback situation is horrific and the Jets have strong needs across the board at each skill position. Quincy Enunwa and Devin Smith are the glaring upside plays - if there is one - of the low-cost incumbent wide receivers. Eric Decker could still be an offseason cut with reasonable dead money and a year to go on his current contract with the Jets. Without much competitive hope, transitioning to the future would be wise.

23% ravens

Steve Smith retired and Dennis Pitta returned after taking a pay cut. Breshad Perriman has a golden opportunity to break out in Year 2. After film study of his 2016 targets, I came away more impressed with his intermediate route-running and overall game than I expected. Joe Flacco threw the fifth-most passes in 2016 and their run game looks as tenuous as ever with Kenneth Dixon suspended to start the year. Danny Woodhead projects to collect more targets than any running back on the roster last season. Mike Wallace's floor is high (think top-40 range), still possessing quality athleticism entering his age 31 season. Ben Watson is a darkhorse candidate after missing last year and Dennis Pitta running on fumes at this point in his career.

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