2022 vacated air yards: Discovering potential fantasy football breakouts through opportunity

Who does the vacated air-yard data suggest could step forward into a more prominent role and breakout for fantasy football in 2022?

When looking for potential values or breakouts in fantasy football, finding teams with a large share of vacated targets or air yards can be a way to pin down opportunities. While not a perfect system, looking at vacated targets from the year prior can help us find breakouts in upcoming fantasy football drafts that might not have been considered before. Who does the air-yard data suggest could step forward and breakout for fantasy football in 2022?

Which players could benefit from vacated air yards in 2022?

Simply using vacated targets or air-yard data as a singular point for potential production is an oversimplification. Can it help point out possible values in fantasy? Sure, but we also know that not every target is created equal.

What “role” on the offense is the vacated targets or yards coming from, and how does that translate to 2022? Are they shallow crossers, deep attempts, or better yet, of the red-zone variety? Are the vacated air yards a product of intermediate volume or from explosive vertical attempts?

Just because there might be a 25% vacated target share floating around, if the two primary receivers and red-zone options are still on the team, those will likely be vacuumed up by them rather than a longshot fantasy hopeful.

Also, is there anyone talented enough with a corresponding skill set on the roster capable of capitalizing on this potentially expanded role? After all, placing a mediocre talent in a significant role only equals mediocre results. While not fool-proof, adding vacated air yards into your arsenal can help narrow in on potential breakouts for the coming season.

Drake London | WR, Atlanta Falcons

At this point, no one should be surprised I’m spending time hyping up Drake London as a breakout for the 2022 season. I’ve been on this train well before the NFL draft took place, but it feels like more and more are on this ride with me.

London has all the talent in the world to break out in 2022 and has the opportunity via vacated air yards to do it as well. As Calvin Ridley serves his one-year suspension along with the departure of Russell Gage to Tampa, Atlanta heads into 2022 with 287 of its targets (51.8% – third-most) vacated along with 48% of the air yards up for grabs (1,940 – sixth).

The only significant addition to the WR room alongside London was the acquisition of Bryan Edwards. Still, even he has missed time this camp due to a shoulder injury and has struggled to find a role since joining the league two years ago.

As a rookie, London could see in excess of 130 targets. Although there will be a dip in efficiency going from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota, I’m going all-in on the breakout upside of London as his role and vacated air-yard data mesh perfectly together for 2022.

Treylon Burks | WR, Tennessee Titans

No team has a higher percentage of vacated air yards (74.6%) or targets (351 – 67.1%) heading into 2022 than the Tennessee Titans. Following the departure of Julio Jones and the draft night trade of A.J. Brown, the leading target recipient of last year is Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (57).

I could also list Robert Woods here, but given his age, he no longer counts as a “breakout” since he’s a proven veteran. Woods is also a solid value in drafts as his ADP is suppressed due to being on the wrong side of 30 and coming off an ACL injury. But if we’re trying to guess the breakout, Treylon Burks has to be the leading candidate as the vacated air yards scream value in 2022.

Let’s just examine the role Burks is filling. In his three years with the Titans (43 games), Brown recorded a 23% target share and 26.5% over the last two seasons. He also saw 44% of the WR targets since 2020 with 45% of the yards. That equated to nearly 3,000 yards and a 15.1 PPR/game average.

Although I’m not going to say Burks is the same level of prospect as Brown was coming out of Ole Miss, Burks undoubtedly has the skill set to succeed in this role. If you’re looking for breakouts while using air yards, a talented rookie is rarely a bad bet for fantasy football.

Allen Lazard | WR, Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers have a void no player can fill, as there is only one Davante Adams walking the planet. Unfortunately for them and Aaron Rodgers, he’s now walking the streets of Las Vegas and not Green Bay.

As a result of the blockbuster trade, Green Bay heads into 2022 with the second-most air yards vacated from last season (2,807 – 62.8%). Having averaged 1,327 yards and 11.8 touchdowns in his last four years, no one will have the same impact as Adams, but this does leave room for a breakout option.

The likeliest breakout for the Packers is Allen Lazard. Believe it or not, the breakout actually started last year. Over the final five weeks, Lazard was the WR8 in PPR scoring thanks to 21 receptions for 290 receiving yards and five touchdowns to close the year out.

This is one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL, and the WR1 role on the team will be highly coveted. Someone has to replace Adams in the red zone, and the 6’5″ Lazard looks to be the best option. Add in better timing and chemistry, and Lazard has a top-30 finish in his range of outcomes.

I would also get some exposure to the Green Bay rookie wideout in fantasy football as well. But I don’t mean Christian Watson, I mean Romeo Doubs. Given the praise Rodgers has given about Doubs publicly, his value is rocketing up the draft boards.

Darnell Mooney | WR, Chicago Bears

What if I told you there is a wide receiver heading into Year 3 who is coming off a season in which they saw 34.8% of the air yards and 27.3% of the targets and is likely to blow both stats out of the water in 2022? Would you be interested? What if their closest competition for targets came from a tight end and not a fellow receiver? Oh, and to top it off, they have one of the more athletically-gifted QBs under center and in a brand new offense.

Sound good to you? Well, I sure hope so because Darnell Mooney should be on everyone’s breakout radar before vacated air yards are even added to the equation. The WR23 last year, Mooney was 31st in PPR/game due to the inefficiency of the offense. Despite finishing 11th in targets (140), Mooney was T-18th in receptions (81) and 17th in yards (1,055), converting just 71% of his air yards (1,480) into actual yards.

But here’s the catch. Mooney is about to blow those out of the water.

Let’s see. Allen Robinson. Gone. Marquise Godwin and Damiere Byrd. Gone and gone. Outside of Cole Kmet (93), the next highest returning Bears pass catcher in targets (non-RB) is Dazz Newsome with five.

Entering the offseason with the worst WR room and overall roster in the NFL, the Bears added Byron Pringle, a 24-year-old rookie in Velus Jones Jr., and N’Keal Harry. Show me one player on this roster who can rival Mooney for targets because I don’t see one. With Luke Getsy leading the offense as the new OC, Mooney is a sure bet as a 2022 breakout for fantasy football.

JuJu Smith-Schuster | WR, Kansas City Chiefs

How do the Kansas City Chiefs move forward without Tyreek Hill on their roster? There is a gaping hole left in his wake following the trade which sent the cheetah to Miami. The Chiefs have the third-most vacated air yards heading into 2022 at 62.1% (2,748), with Hill accounting for 1,647 of those air yards.

Kansas City opted to reload the offense with players who can help mitigate the loss of Hill. Marquez Valdes-Scantling should serve as the field stretcher who specializes in nine routes. As far as the intermediate and bulk of the work, that will be between JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Skyy Moore.

Although I love Moore, and would also consider him on this list, Smith-Schuster is the safer bet. It’s easy to forget how special Smith-Schuster was early on in his career. In his first two seasons, he totaled 2,343 yards, putting him No. 4 on the all-time receiving list for players under 23, behind only Justin Jefferson, Randy Moss, and Josh Gordon.

Smith-Schuster’s also just one year removed from a WR17 finish in PPR and had two down years largely due to QB play. In 2019, Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph started 14 games. Last year, Ben Roethlisberger’s anemic arm hampered Smith-Schuster in the games he participated in before his shoulder injury.

Back in 2018, no receiver had more yards after the catch than Smith-Schuster (587), over 100 more than Hill in second place. What if that same per-catch upside is there, and the last three years are actually easier to explain away than we first think? What if that same upside shows up with the best QB we’ve seen at extending plays while being able to target any receiver on the field? After all, this is Patrick Mahomes we are talking about here.

Coming off a stellar training camp where he made daily highlights, Smith-Schuster has a chance to be the breakout we’ve been waiting for these last three years.

Tommy Garrett is the Senior Fantasy Football Analyst at Pro Football Network. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read all of Tommy’s work here and follow him on Twitter: @TommyGarrettPFN.

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