Using vacated red-zone touches to find fantasy football sleepers

Using data to find fantasy football sleepers is crucial to success. Here are four players that should benefit from vacated red-zone touches.

In the olden days (that’s the mid-2000s to be specific), sleepers in fantasy football were simply players you liked that went late in drafts. Almost everything was just “trust your gut.” In modern fantasy football, we can use data to spot undervalued players. Today, we’re going to look at vacated red-zone touches (targets and carries) and see if we use this information to find some fantasy football sleepers.

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What are vacated red-zone touches?

As you are all likely aware, the red zone is inside the 20s. A red-zone touch is any carry or target a player sees inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Vacated red-zone touches emerge when a player heavily used in the red zone leaves his NFL team. Oftentimes, the player or players inheriting those touches will be clear. Sometimes, there will be great uncertainty, though. That’s where we can capitalize in fantasy football — by figuring out who is likely to inherit those vacated red-zone touches.

Fantasy football sleepers for the 2022 season

Darrell Henderson | RB, Los Angeles Rams

For the first eight weeks of the 2021 season, Darrell Henderson was a legitimate RB1. He averaged 17.5 PPR fantasy points per game over that span. There’s a proven ceiling if he gets the volume.

Last season, Sony Michel was 10th amongst running backs in red-zone carries with 41. He was ninth in carries with 22 inside the 10. Now in Miami, all of Michel’s vacated red-zone attempts are available.

I know what you’re thinking — they’re going to Cam Akers. Yes, but most red-zone touches go to highly drafted players in fantasy football. But the purpose here is to find sleepers.

Given the volume of work Michel saw in the red zone, Henderson has serious touchdown upside if he finds himself in the starting role once again. That would take either an Akers injury or him continuing to look like he did in the playoffs after returning from a torn Achilles in just 5½ months.

After losing his job to Michel down the stretch last season and then Akers upon his return, Henderson is largely being written off. However, Henderson’s ceiling remains exactly where it was over the first eight weeks of the 2021 season.

Allen Lazard | WR, Green Bay Packers

The Allen Lazard debate is one of the more fascinating ones of the 2022 season. On the one hand, he’s the clear WR1 in Green Bay — at least to open the season. With Davante Adams’ departure, there’s a gaping void in the Packers’ offense.

Last season, Adams saw 28 red-zone targets, the third most in the NFL. Those targets presumably have to go to someone. Granted, Aaron Rodgers will likely not attempt as many red-zone passes without the elite talent of Adams on the outside. However, he’s still going to throw passes in the red zone.

Lazard is the favorite to take the largest share of Adams’ vacated red-zone targets. After scoring eight touchdowns last season on just 60 targets, Lazard is due for some serious regression in that department. But if he inherits even half of Adams’ red-zone target share, Lazard can make up for an inevitable drop in efficiency with an increase in volume.

Lazard averaged 9.5 ppg last season. It’s entirely possible he sees that number jump to 12-13, which would give him WR3 value.

JuJu Smith-Schuster | WR, Kansas City Chiefs

For a glorified slot receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster isn’t looked at by many as a prototypical red-zone target. However, Smith-Schuster finished second in the NFL with 29 red-zone targets in 2018, and in 2020, he was seventh with 18.

Now on the Chiefs, Smith-Schuster gets to catch passes from Patrick Mahomes. Last season, Mahomes threw the ball 109 times in the red zone. Of those passes, 24 of them went to Tyreek Hill. Another 10 went to the combination of Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle.

Hill is now in Miami. Robinson is in Las Vegas. Pringle is in Chicago. That’s 34 vacated red-zone targets.

Of course, they’re not all going to Smith-Schuster. At the same time, he does have a track record of being a productive receiver in the red zone. He caught nine touchdowns in 2020 and seven in each of his first two seasons. If Smith-Schuster develops into Mahomes’ top receiver (outside of Travis Kelce), he could be a nice sleeper in 2022 fantasy football drafts with legitimate WR2 upside.

Jason Katz is a Fantasy Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter: @jasonkatz13 and find more of his work here.

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