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Vaccinate Your Fantasy Team Against an AB Negative Outcome

There are currently head to toe problems with Jon Gruden’s flashy new wide receiver acquisition in Oakland. While it will be an abject disaster for the Raiders if Antonio Brown misses games, who are the fantasy players that stand to benefit?

Fortunately, we have a pretty good model for that outcome, since the Raiders ditched their star receiver on purpose last year after Week 6, when they traded Amari Cooper to the Cowboys. I’ve recreated the Raiders’ 2018 season post-Amari with help from the RotoViz Screener and the Player Usage App to get a sense of where all those extra WR1 targets were distributed. Using the Projection Machine, I’ll build a new set of projections without Brown to see if there are any surprising values further down the depth chart.

WHEN INJURY STRIKES, WHO BENEFITS?

When a WR1 goes missing, tight ends are often the biggest beneficiaries. Unlike RB, where a replacement back frequently absorbs the starter’s workload, lesser WRs can rarely carry the offense to the tune of 28 or 30 percent of team targets. The WR2 certainly gets a nice bump, but a receiving TE who can go from a 14 percent target share to a 19 percent share (or more) can become a top scorer for the position. Recent examples of this include Jared Cook, Evan Engram, Jack Doyle, and Cameron Brate.

We saw this effect last year, where Cook flourished without Cooper, leaping up to an elite WR2-type target share. Here is a breakdown of how the Raiders targets were sorted after the Amari trade.

Player Position Targets Target Share
Jordy Nelson WR1 57 20.1%
LaFell/Ateman WR2 47 16.6%
Seth Roberts WR3 (slot) 44 15.5%
Jared Cook TE1 58 20.5%
Smith/Carrier TE2 14 4.9%
Jalen Richard RB1 44 15.5%
Doug Martin RB2 19 6.7%

One thing we notice right away is that Jordy Nelson did not become a super-elite WR1–he was good but not dominant. Second we notice that the targets were shared very evenly between the secondary WR (played first by Brandon LaFell, and then Marcell Ateman) and the slot WR Seth Roberts. Third we notice that the receiving TE blossomed into a primary target. And last we see that the Raiders generated a near-elite target share for the receiving back.

Now, let’s apply this distribution to the current roster.

IT’S ALL JUST A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY REPEATING

Tyrell Williams first leapt onto the fantasy radar with the Chargers because of a Keenan Allen injury. He was able to lead that team with a 21 percent target share, and I’d expect something similar in Oakland without Brown.

Darren Waller becomes the most intriguing Raider in this scenario. It’s difficult to expect him to pick up where Jared Cook left off, but on the other hand, Williams may be inferior to Jordy Nelson (even at the brink of retirement). It’s unlikely, but Waller could be a wildcard to lead this team in targets.

Hunter Renfrow has sleeper appeal if Ryan Grant and J.J. Nelson cannibalize each other for snaps but leave the slot work to the rookie. There is probably not enough volume in this role to be meaningful in most leagues, but on deep enough bestball rosters, he could be an under-owned safety valve.

Perhaps most important is the question of RB targets. Unfortunately for both Jalen Richard and Josh Jacobs, they will probably share passing snaps to the degree that neither supercharges their fantasy output. Richard is cheap enough in drafts that he’s a must-own regardless, but Jacobs becomes even more interesting, as a second injury to Richard would likely push him into a truly elite workload. On a potentially broken offense, that won’t automatically look like the next coming of Saquon Barkley, but it could still be a valuable approximation of what David Johnson cobbled together last year from the wreckage of Mike McCoy’s offense.

JUST TELL ME HOW MANY POINTS THESE GUYS WILL SCORE

Thanks to the Projection Machine we can actually put some numbers to these hypotheses.

I’m giving the Raiders a tiny bump in pass rate from last year’s 59 percent, mainly because in this scenario without Brown, they will likely be even worse than last year and be forced to throw. That said, I’m still expecting a below league-average number of plays.

Next, I’ve inputted the target shares I’ve hypothesized above, with a particularly optimistic breakout for Darren Waller, whom I’ve given a 17 percent target share.

The final step is a bit trickier, as we need to estimate catch rate and yards per catch for each player. The research tabs give us helpful historical precedents, but mainly we are guessing what kind of role each WR will have, and their depth of target and catch rate largely follow. Here are my final projections.

 

TAKEAWAYS

Jacobs’ projection is very close to what Phillip Lindsay and Adrian Peterson put up last year. That’s more than fine, but it firmly shows the limitations if the offense struggles. Likewise, Tyrell Williams looks like a solid, but underwhelming sleeper in this scenario, with a projection very similar to what Corey Davis put up in a rough Titans offense.

As is often the case with projections, we still need the chaos of the regular season to shake some values loose on this depth chart. The major takeaway here is that an Antonio Brown absence looks like it will further dilute rather than concentrate value in the Raiders’ passing game, with the exception of RB and TE. With Jacobs an unappealing combination of unproven and expensive, Richard and Waller are the names I’m keeping a close eye on. Hard Knocks is not going to help keep the Waller hype at bay, but it may push Richard even lower if the enthusiasm for Jacobs continues to build. The potentially abundant receptions for the RB group make Richard–the cheapest pick who is also a proven passing-down back–the most promising way to inoculate your fantasy team against a virulent AB.

 

IMAGE CREDIT: SCOTT WINTERS/ICON SPORTSWIRE. PICTURED: DARREN WALLER.

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