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Last season's running back target leaders won’t surprise you much, but I’ll give you a quick rundown of the top 10 for reference.
1. Darren Sproles (104), 2. Ray Rice (83), 3. Marcel Reece (73), T4. Trent Richardson (70), T4. Doug Martin (70), 5. Joique Bell (69), 6. LeSean McCoy (67), 7. Darren McFadden (63), 8. Matt Forte (60), and T9. Jacquizz Rodgers (59), and T9. Ronnie Brown (59).
Amazingly a whole bunch of targets helped said running backs to have more fantasy points, especially in PPR leagues. This basic math brought to you by the letter L. So what about this season? What players might reach for the targets stars and land in the top 10? Let’s take a look.
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Reggie Bush: The USC alum has been catching passes his whole career. In New Orleans he averaged 6.7 targets a game, but in his last two seasons with the Dolphins he averaged just 3.4. Of course his role changed in his switch to the every down back in Miami, but his ability in the passing game didn’t.
Now he’s moved on to the Detroit Lions who targeted running backs 144 times, third most in the league. The quick breakdown is Joique Bell (69), Mikel Leshoure (48), Kevin Smith (16) and then some other guys you don’t need to remember for the test later. In Miami Bush had exactly 52 targets each of his last two seasons. Will he get 144 targets, um, no. But will he get the bulk of the targets, yes he will. And with the league's best wide receiver drawing the focus of the defense, especially on passing downs, Bush should have plenty of opportunities to get his numbers back into the top 5.
Our first look at Reggie Bush as a Lion in the second week of preseason has already shown us he should see plenty of targets. In just one half he had 7 targets and caught 5 of them for 44 yards. If he holds up the sky is the limit in PPR leagues.
Matt Forte: The Bears running back has always been near the top in targets and receptions, but his rookie season was his high with 77 targets for 63 receptions. Marc Trestman laughs at those numbers. Just think, under Trestman running backs Derek Loville caught 87 passes, Terry Kirby 52, Larry Centers 69, Adrian Murrell 49, Michael Pittman 73, and Charlie Garner 91. There are some good names in there and some not so good names, but we know Forte is no slouch.
This season the Bears are still searching for that #2 wide receiver. Alshon Jeffery is the guy people want to see do well, but when you look at the talent on their team, the pecking order in targets should be Brandon Marshall then Matt Forte. Forte has talked about needing to block in the variety of offenses that have come before, but under Trestman he is more of a receiver than a blocker in passing situations. The sky is the limit for Forte’s receptions this season.
Shane Vereen: Last year the Patriots threw the ball the fourth most in the NFL while running the ball the second most. They averaged a record 72 plays a game. That leads one to believe that the go to guys will be gone to often during this season.
Vereen was hurt to start last season and didn’t really get involved until game seven. But come playoff time we saw him go off against Houston when he ran the ball 7 times for 41 yards and a touchdown and caught 5 of 6 passed for 83 yards and 2 more touchdowns. And now he’s picked up where he left off by averaging over 8 yards per touch in the preseason and making a touchdown reception. So the ability is there, is the opportunity?
The easiest thing to look at from last season is Danny Woodhead’s targets and receptions. He was fifth on the team with 55 targets in which he caught 40 for 446 yards and three touchdowns. That’s not too shabby. It actually put him as the 25th ranked PPR running back for the season. Of course Woodhead is now in San Diego and Vereen has his spot in the lineup. Can we safely give him those 55 targets? Yes, we are more than safe there, but I think we can do better.
Last year the top target leaders for the Patriots were: Wes Welker (178), Brandon Lloyd (131), Aaron Hernandez (83), Rob Gronkowski (79), Danny Woodhead (55), Julian Edelman (32), Deion Branch (29), Steven Ridley (14) and Shane Vereen (13). It’s not hard to notice here that four of the top 5 are now off the team and one will miss the start of the season. Right now your “replacements” are Danny Amendola for Welker, Kenbrell Thompkins for Lloyd and Zach Sudfeld for Hernandez. The only guys left with experience in this offense are Edelman, Ridley and Vereen. This gives Vereen huge opportunities in the offense. We’ve already seen him line up as a moveable chess piece or as Greg Cosell likes to call it, the “joker.” His upside is Darren Sprolesesque, but his floor isn’t all that low at all. 70-80 targets are in no way a reach with room for more.
Steven Jackson: The Falcons have been telegraphing run versus pass ever since Michael Turner came on the scene. Turner put up big numbers as a Falcon, but opposing defenses didn’t have to worry about him catching the ball all that often. That’s when Jacquizz Rodgers would come in and then you knew the ball was going to be thrown. But now in comes Steve Jackson who is a nice amalgamation of the two.
Last year Rodgers had 59 targets in which he caught 53. That says a lot about Matt Ryan’s ability in the short passing game. Jason Snelling also caught 31 of 35 targets and Michael Turner caught 19 of 30. This leaves a pretty big door open for Jackson to see a goodly amount of targets. Jackson has always been a good receiver, but had been used less in the receiving game in St. Louis over the last few season with just 53 targets last season resulting in 38 receptions. His floor in the Falcons offense is much closer to Rodgers’ 53 receptions while his ceiling is closer to 70. The Falcons are going to love having a guy who can move short yardage piles while at the same time make great catches out of the backfield. That extra dual purpose wrinkle will keep him in the running back reception leaders this season.
Jamaal Charles: Mr. Charles has always felt like a player who should be putting up good reception totals. But as a Chief he’s averaged 3.3 targets per game. That number is truly damning to all the offensive coordinators he’s ever come in contact with.
Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy on the other hand were thrown to, much more often. Westbrook averaged 5.4 targets per game and McCoy averaged 4.8 targets per game under Andy Reid, the Chiefs’ new coach.
You can also take a look at Pro Football Focus’ stats which show number of passing routes run by each player over the last five years and Charles has averaged 15 routes per game compared to Westbrook/McCoy who have averaged 23.
The numbers don’t lie in this case. 75 to 85 targets are right about in Andy Reid’s wheelhouse and Alex Smith has always been a good dump off passer. That puts Charles at 55-65 receptions, which coupled with his big play ability places him in line with 2,000 total offensive yards.