Next-level data provides fantasy hints

Eddie Lacy has had the most carries of any RB over the past four weeks. Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports

One of the staples of this column is a weekly look at target data that aims to identify receivers who may not be properly valued based on the quantity of opportunities they are receiving. I am happy that most readers see the inherent value in that data, and one reader took it further to request similar data for running backs via Twitter.

Quite frankly, it was a really good idea, and one that I'll look to incorporate several times over the remainder of the season, with the first look at that data right now. In the chart below, you'll see a list of the top RBs in the league in terms of average carries over the past four weeks.

While most people have inflated their value of Eddie Lacy based on his recent performance, not many realize that Lacy is getting more opportunities than any other back over the past four weeks. When you add in the fact that the Green Bay Packers play the third-best schedule in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs, it's clear the Lacy should be regarded as one of the top fantasy backs in the game.

Willis McGahee hasn't been much of anything this year, but he's probably undervalued based on his usage and remaining schedule. No team faces a friendlier schedule for fantasy running backs than the Cleveland Browns for the remainder of the season.

Through the first four weeks, Pierre Thomas (28.5 snaps per game) and Darren Sproles (30.8) were used almost equally. During Week 5 through 8, that changed dramatically. Thomas received 40.3 snaps per game to Sproles' 18.7 snaps. Notice that Week 9 -- where Sproles was injured after playing just one snap -- was not included in those stats. The difference in their workloads makes Thomas the New Orleans Saints running back to start on a weekly basis.

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 a receiver 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 of the players who are averaging eight or more targets in their past four games, and how many of those targets were on plays that began in the red zone during Week 9.

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 & 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 9

Griff Whalen stepped in as the third receiver for the Indianapolis Colts and didn't really produce. Though he was targeted nine times, he finished the game with just three catches. For perspective, Andrew Luck completed 48.4 percent of his pass attempts to all other Colts and just 33 percent to Whalen. Even if Darrius Heyward-Bey were to miss some time, Whalen is not fantasy relevant at this point.

Juron Criner played more snaps for the Oakland Raiders than all receivers except Denarius Moore, but parlayed that into only three catches for 38 yards. Frankly, the fact that he surpassed the other established receiving options for opportunities in his first game of the season is an indictment of the other options for the Raiders. However, keep an eye on Criner, especially in deeper leagues.

• While you might want to adjust the value of Cecil Shorts after the suspension of Justin Blackmon, doing so would be foolish. The level of performance Shorts attained and the opportunities he was given wasn't positively or negatively affected by Blackmon's presence. Remember, he was producing well during Blackmon's initial suspension this season. Now, if Blaine Gabbert somehow unseats Chad Henne ...

• In Vincent Jackson's first game without Mike Williams, he was targeted only four times, which resulted in two catches for only 11 yards. Don't look at that as indicative of how much Williams impacted Jackson, but rather attribute it to Richard Sherman's blanket coverage.

T.Y. Hilton lit up the scoreboard Sunday night, but don't elevate him to elite status just yet. Almost all of Hilton's performance came in the second half, when the Colts were forced to throw to get back into the game. Coming into Sunday night, Hilton had a total of 117 receiving yards in the second half of all the Colts games, and he almost equaled that Sunday night when he gained 115 such yards.

Big plays and up close

There were 15 NFL players (up from seven last week) who totaled three or more rushes that gained 10 or more yards each. They were: Marshawn Lynch (7), Chris Johnson (6), Mike James (5), Matt Forte (5), Adrian Peterson (5), Jamaal Charles (4), Lacy (4), Chris Ivory (4), Terrelle Pryor (3), Stevan Ridley (3), Rashad Jennings (3), Lamar Miller (3), Giovani Bernard (3), Brandon Bolden (3) and Alfred Morris (3).

Meanwhile, there were 10 players (up from eight last week) with at least two carries from their opponent's 5-yard line or closer. They were Morris (4), McGahee (3), Ridley (3), DeAngelo Williams (3), Darrel Young (3), Zac Stacy (2), Shonn Greene (2), Jeremy Stewart (2), Fred Jackson (2) and Ivory (2). Of this group, only McGahee, Williams and Jackson failed to score on at least one of these attempts.

The decision on how the New York Jets will use Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell going forward presents a great opportunity for fantasy players. Ivory has the potential to be a very usable option if he continues to receive the chances that he has received in recent weeks, and therefore he should obviously be owned in all formats. Powell looks as though he will receive a role similar to how the Detroit Lions utilize Joique Bell.

If you don't know who Jeremy Stewart is, don't worry. His two carries inside the 5 were his first two carries for the Raiders this year. If anything, they show that Rashad Jennings won't be given every opportunity that Darren McFadden received when McFadden was a healthy, workhorse-type back.

It was so nice of Chris Johnson to finally show up. Johnson's six runs of 10 yards or more in Week 9 represents half of his season total. If Johnson is going to be worthy of starting as a fantasy back, he needs to rip off an average of at least three of these types of runs per week. I don't view that as likely, so Johnson is more of a matchup-dependent RB2 or Flex play than he is a definite starter.

Red zone play-calling chart

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

In closing, some shameless self-promotion.

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