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The key stat to look at before you start your fantasy football draft

Cardinals running back David Johnson led the league in touches last season (373). (Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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There are many draft strategies available in fantasy football, but the one that gives the most consistent results is betting on players who get a large volume of opportunities throughout the season. After all, more touches (carries plus targets) mean more opportunities to score points — the five highest-scoring players by position in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues last season averaged fifth or better in number of touches last season.

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One obvious way to project rushing attempts and receiving targets is to look at each player’s position on the depth chart.

Running backs at the top of the depth chart are always good bets to get opportunities. Over the past three years, the average No. 1 back on the depth chart carried the ball 209 times with 43 targets. The No. 2 back is not even half as productive, with the third option barely viable in most lineups.

Team depth chart Average rushes Average targets Average PPR points
No. 1 RB 209 43 191
No. 2 RB 87 34 106
No. 3 RB 41 16 45

And it isn’t worth risking picks on running backs in a committee or on teams without a clear No. 1 choice — the number of two-back sets run in the NFL are few and far between. The same goes for teams with two pass-catching tight ends.

Drafting players at the top of the depth chart isn’t new, but not all top-tier players are the same: you also want players who are going to be on the field most often. For running backs, that means looking for rushers who often play on all three downs.

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Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in carries last season (322), producing 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. Twenty one of those rushing attempts were on third downs, tying him for third in the league. He also caught 32 of 40 targets for 363 yards and a touchdown, giving him plenty of opportunities to stay on the field as a pass-catcher.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter alluded to possible discipline being handed down by the league once the NFL concludes its investigation into a domestic abuse claim against Elliott from 2016. The NFL personal conduct policy affords the option of up to a six-game suspension for first-time offenders, putting Elliott’s overall fantasy value in doubt.

If that’s the case, Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers and David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals are the most likely backs to lead the league in touches.

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The average No. 1 receiver in 2016 saw 23 percent of his team’s targets, predictably higher than the No. 2 option (16 percent) and more than twice the share of the No. 3 receiver (10 percent). More targets mean more fantasy points. In fact, the points generated per target by a team’s top three wideouts were nearly identical, resulting in a difference of just fractions of a point per target.

Team depth chart Target share in 2016 PPR points per target
No. 1 WR 23% 1.72
No. 2 WR 16% 1.67
No. 3 WR 10% 1.66

Over the past five seasons, of the 120 top-24 fantasy receivers (PPR scoring) in each year, 30 percent ended the season with 150 or more targets. A majority (99 out of 120, or 83 percent) ended the season with at least 120 targets.

Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown was targeted 154 times in 15 games last season, catching 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns. Since 2014, no wide receiver has seen more passes thrown his way than Brown (528), making him the obvious choice to be the No. 1 ranked receiver in 2017.

Personnel usage also can help decide how far down the depth chart you are willing to go for sleepers or late-round values. The New York Giants led the league in number of plays run in 11 personnel (89 percent had one RB, one TE and three WR on the field), giving Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz plenty of targets last season. The New York Jets, by comparison, had the lowest share of plays using this set (38 percent), making their third wideout a less-viable fantasy option.

But don’t be shy about drafting these receivers being selected in the fifth round or later in mock drafts, as each is projected to have 120 targets or more next season:

  • Julian Edelman, NE, 131 projected targets in 2017, ADP: 5.02
  • Larry Fitzgerald, ARI, 141 targets, ADP: 6.12
  • Emmanuel Sanders, DEN, 138 targets in 2017, ADP: 7.04
  • Michael Crabtree, OAK, 126 projected targets in 2017, ADP: 8.07
  • Corey Coleman, CLE, 130 projected targets in 2017, ADP: 10.06

The trend for tight ends is also clear: more opportunities help push a player up the leader board for PPR points in a season. Last year, Kyle Rudolph led the position in targets and finished second overall in points, with all five of the most-targeted tight ends ending up among the top scorers at the position in 2016.

Tight end Targets in 2016 Rank in PPR Points
Kyle Rudolph 132 2
Greg Olsen 129 3
Dennis Pitta 121 8
Travis Kelce 117 1
Zach Ertz 106 6

Carolina’s Greg Olsen was second among tight ends in targets last season (129), with 16 of those opportunities coming in the red zone. No player at the position has had more targets than Olsen (376) over the last three years combined and he is expected to lead the field in 2017.