Targets, other data offer hints

If he's healthy, Daryl Richardson is a smart fantasy football play this week against the 49ers. Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Changes in reality should drive changes in perception. For example, if you own Stevan Ridley, you are firmly aware of the drastic difference in his productivity last year versus this year. You are likely looking to move him to someone who hasn't changed their perception of Ridley. But are you making those adjustments when evaluating your weekly starters against opposing team defenses?

Let's start with a rather simple question. Which Team Defense has surrendered the most fantasy points to opposing running backs this season? If you haven't been paying close attention, the answer may surprise you. It's the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are allowing an average of 24 fantasy points per game to running backs. That's more than the "awful" run defenses of the Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings. This week the 49ers play the St. Louis Rams. While Daryl Richardson might be a game-time decision, starting him (or Isaiah Pead if Richardson is inactive) is not, by any means, a bad decision.

Conversely, the New Orleans Saints defense is very much improved versus last year. For those of you that forgot, the Saints were thrown into disarray when head coach Sean Payton was suspended for all of 2012. This season, Rob Ryan is their new defensive coordinator and the unit he oversees currently places the Saints as third-best against fantasy quarterbacks, fifth-best against fantasy wide receivers and seventh-best against fantasy tight ends. Last season, they gave up the most fantasy points to quarterbacks and wide receivers and ninth-most against tight ends. If you still view the Saints as a desirable matchup for your starters, then you aren't matching your perception with this year's reality.

On target

Receiving yardage is the most variable form of yardage, which makes sense because so much of it is dependent on where the quarterback elects to throw the ball. Because of this, variations in the number of times a player is targeted by his quarterback can greatly change a player's value. So while your receiver may have scored 10 fantasy points this weekend, you need to know whether it's reasonable to expect that he can repeat that type of performance on a routine basis. If he had one target that he turned into a 40-yard touchdown, you need to realize that he was one quarterback decision away from posting a goose egg. Conversely, if your wideout had 12 targets and finished with 108 yards receiving, his prospects for consistent fantasy production are significantly greater.

Below, you'll see all the players who are averaging eight or more targets through Week 3 and how many of those targets were on plays that began in the red zone during Week 3.

Note: Targets are not an official NFL statistic. Based on the methodology that stat services use, the number of targets listed may be different than target values listed elsewhere. ESPN Stats and Information's philosophy is to count a target when the analyst thinks the pass was actually intended for the player. Therefore, if a quarterback is obviously throwing a ball away, the analyst will not record a target for that pass. This gives a truer representation of what a target is, a pass thrown to a particular player with the intent for that player to catch the ball, and therefore should be more helpful to the fantasy community.

Fantasy insights based on data through Week 3

• In case you missed it, the following New England Patriots are averaging more than eight targets per game: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. It's expected that TE Rob Gronkowski will return this weekend, which will shake everything up. Look for Gronkowski and Amendola/Edelman to be the top options going forward. Don't be too encouraged by Thompkins' touchdowns this past Sunday, as he only caught three of his seven targets and his 41 yards were the lowest total he posted so far this year.

• Last season, Brian Hartline frustrated fantasy owners with erratic production, but this season he's a reliable option. He's been targeted at least six times each game, and his 11 receiving first downs rank 25th in the league.

Tavon Austin is currently being overrated based on his production. Austin is owned in 100 percent of ESPN.com leagues, but ranks behind Donnie Avery (owned in 4.6 percent), Kenbrell Thompkins (35.4), Stephen Hill (2.8) and Leonard Hankerson (8.2) in fantasy points scored. If you own Austin, move him now before people realize that the only real comparison between Austin and the player he was compared to on draft day, Percy Harvin, is that neither is helping their teams win.

• While the Pittsburgh Steelers might not challenge the Baltimore Ravens or Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC North crown this season, their offensive line played well enough in the second half of Sunday's game to make both Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders usable in fantasy again. They will remain that way as long as Ben Roethlisberger stays upright, which is no sure thing.

• If you are sitting with two high-end tight ends and need a receiver, the guy I would target is DeAndre Hopkins. Andre Johnson seems to be getting more frail, and Hopkins would not only have the opportunity if Johnson misses any sort of time, he also has the skills to be a clear number one receiver.

Calvin Johnson has been targeted eight times in the red zone through three weeks, after receiving only 17 such targets for all of last season. While it seems impossible that the best receiver on earth could actually improve over last season's record-breaking season, an increase in red zone usage would certainly be one way in which this could happen in the fantasy football realm.

• Do not sell Hakeem Nicks or Rueben Randle, as tempting as the thought may be. Their performances Sunday were horrible, but the Giants' passing attack has one the most generous schedules remaining. From Week 5 through the end of the season, the Giants face only one team currently in the upper half of defenses in terms of passing yards allowed.

Big plays and up close

There were 11 NFL players who totaled three or more rushes that gained 10 or more yards each. They were: DeMarco Murray (5), DeAngelo Williams (4), Bilal Powell (4), Pierre Thomas (3), Michael Vick (3), LeSean McCoy (3), Joique Bell (3), Jamaal Charles (3), Jake Locker (3), Frank Gore (3) and David Wilson (3).

Meanwhile, there were 12 players with at least two carries from their opponent's 5-yard line or closer. That group consists of Ahmad Bradshaw (3), Murray (3), Charles (3), Marshawn Lynch (3), Michael Bush (3), Bernard Pierce (2), Darren McFadden (2), Giovani Bernard (2), James Starks (2), Maurice Jones-Drew (2), Mike Tolbert (2) and Ronnie Brown (2). Of this group, only Lynch and Starks failed to score on at least one of these attempts.

Many will point to domination against the Rams as an indication that Murray may be on the verge of living up to the hype he earned not so long ago. I'd advise against that. While Murray gained 175 yards on the ground, only 26 of those yards came after contact. Of the 30 games this season in which a running back gained at least 85 yards via the rush, Murray's 1 yard after contact-per-carry average was the fifth-worst rate of the season. Simply put, Murray's domination was a result of great blocking, and not primarily attributable to Murray himself.

Similar to Murray, Powell dominated because of great blocking. Powell gained only .93 yards per carry after contact, which is the second-worst performance among backs who have gained at least 85 yards in a game this season. That being said, the loss of Chris Ivory will likely yield additional carries for Powell going forward, so he makes an intriguing option as a flex play until Ivory returns.

Through three weeks, the Tennessee Titans seem to be utilizing Locker in the manner the franchise used to utilize Steve McNair. Comparing Locker to the former MVP isn't really fair, but if this trend becomes the norm, then Locker will be a viable option in most fantasy formats.

Wilson's three rushes of 10 yards or more are more indicative of his projected performance going into this season than what was delivered during the first two weeks. Last season, Wilson broke a run of 10 or more yards on one of every six carries. Before Week 3, Wilson only had one such run in 14 attempts.

Bell has earned a greater role in the Lions' offense and not just because of his performance last week subbing in for the injured Reggie Bush. While most are bumping Ryan Broyles in their rankings due to Nate Burleson's accident this week, don't overlook the idea that we'll continue to see a lot of Bell even when Bush is back in the active lineup.

Based on their year-to-date production, it's only a matter of time before Bernard displaces BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the primary running back for the Bengals. Bernard has top-10 running back potential from the point that the Law Firm gets removed as the starting running back for the Bengals.

Red zone play calling chart

Below is a listing of the percentage of run and pass plays each team has executed so far this season in the red zone. Pass plays are defined as any play where the quarterback attempts a pass or was sacked, and all other plays are deemed as rush plays.

In closing, some shameless self-promotion.

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