30 things learned while doing 2024 fantasy football projections

Even with Cooper Kupp, there's no reason to expect a dropoff from Puka Nacua. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If you're not already aware, I'm the human who creates the fantasy football player projections at ESPN.

Although some would swear the projection numbers are totally automated or randomly generated, I assure you they are not. I have a lengthy process that involves a mixture of statistical calculations and subjective inputs. The latter is where this piece truly comes in handy. To begin each NFL season, I go team by team and thoroughly analyze historical league, team, coach and player trends. From there, on the player level, I generate projected dropback, carry and target shares for each player.

I recently completed that process and -- same as in recent years -- took notes. Below are my observations, as well as a brief application to fantasy football in 2024.

Be sure to also check out our sortable player projection page, as well as my detailed 2024 NFL Projection PDF Guide, which is routinely updated throughout the offseason.

1. Kyler Murray was active for eight games last season. The Cardinals' Drew Petzing-led offense leaned heavily on the run during the span (six percentage points below expected) , and it was effective (2.5 touchdowns per game and at least two in all eight games). Interestingly, the Arizona offense averaged 2.5 TDs per game during Murray's first four NFL seasons (albeit while operating a slightly pass-first scheme). Murray has yet to finish a season worse than 11th in fantasy PPG and remains in the QB1 mix.

2. Trey McBride handled a massive 27.3% target share (8.6 per game) during Arizona's final 10 games of 2023 (a run that started once Zach Ertz was out of the lineup). McBride averaged 14.9 fantasy PPG during the span, which ranked third among tight ends. The heavy usage suggests the 2022 second-round pick has a bright fantasy future, though his 27% target share is unlikely to sustain. Consider: Over the last decade, George Kittle's 28.4% target share (in active games) in 2019 is the highest single-season mark by a tight end. Only two other tight ends cleared 27.0%. A share closer to the 22% McBride saw during the final three games of the season seems more appropriate.

3. During the 2022-23 seasons, the Atlanta Falcons attempted 945 passes and 1,081 runs. Those ranked second fewest (to the Bears) and second most (also the Bears), respectively, in the league during the span. Expect a more balanced, if not pass-first, Atlanta offense in 2024 with Zac Robinson (via the Sean McVay coaching tree) calling the offense and Kirk Cousins under center.

4. Puka Nacua (29%) and Zay Flowers (24%) rank second and 10th, respectively, in target share posted by a rookie wide receiver over the last decade. An examination of the wideouts around them on that list suggests big things are ahead for the young receivers. The 11 WRs in that top-15 list who played the following season averaged a 26% target share in Year 2, and only Brandon Aiyuk (17%) was below 21%. The 11 WRs averaged 133.2 targets, 80.1 receptions, 1183.4 yards and 7.4 TDs (15.5 games).

5. The Buffalo Bills' 2023 offensive scheme can be split into two: the Ken Dorsey era (first 10 games) and the Joe Brady era (final nine games). Dorsey's offense was the league's fifth-most pass heavy scheme (+6%), whereas Brady's was the sixth run heaviest (-3%). Despite the change, Buffalo averaged 3.1 touchdowns per game during both spans -- their same output from the entire 2022 season. Once Brady took over, more of the scores were of the rushing variety (that aligned with Brady's past as a playcaller), but considering Josh Allen was a big part of that (career-high 18 rushing TDs in 19 games), his fantasy output remained elite.

6. The Cincinnati Bengals operated the league's second pass-heaviest offense with Joe Burrow in the fold in 2022 (+10%) and were also second in line during Burrow's 10 healthy games in 2023 (+12%). The young quarterback won't be short on heavy pass volume in his attempt at a big bounce-back season.

7. It might not surprise you to learn that the Browns' offense scored at least two touchdowns in all six Joe Flacco starts last season, but you might be shocked to hear that it produced two-plus scores in all five Deshaun Watson starts as well. Weirdly, the offense had a poor EPA in both spans (better with Watson, but still weak), which makes this a tricky unit to project. I settled in around midpack, but there's a ton of upside if Watson returns to his Houston form.

8. Mike McCarthy's past 12 NFL offenses totaled a 15% target share for tailbacks. All 12 were in the 11-18% range, which means his offenses have maxed out below the league average 19% rate. The Dallas Cowboys are in transition at running back, and, barring the surprise addition of a feature back, the Cowboys' lead rusher figures to have limited pass-catching output.

9. Sean Payton's past 11 NFL offenses have a massive 26% tailback target share, which doesn't include another 2% for fullbacks. All 11 RB rooms totaled a target share of 20% or higher and his last six RB rooms were at or above 26%. Last season, the Denver Broncos led the NFL with a 32% RB target share, with Javonte Williams (12%), Samaje Perine (12%) and Jaleel McLaughlin (7%) handling most of it. All three are back for 2024 and Payton's history suggests heavy passing game usage will continue.

10. When David Montgomery returned from injury in Week 10 last season, we saw Detroit turn to more of a true backfield committee. From that point on, Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs played 12 games together (including the playoffs). Gibbs held an edge in snaps (420 to 341), targets (52 to 21), target share (13% to 5%), and routes (235 to 123), but Montgomery led in carries (164 to 135) and carries inside the 5-yard line (15 to 7). Gibbs actually scored three more TDs than Montgomery during the span (12 to 9), but Montgomery's expected TD total was slightly higher (9.5 to 9.1). That second-half usage is more what we should expect in 2024, though perhaps with Gibbs taking on a few more carries.

11. The San Francisco 49ers were the only team to score at least two offensive TDs in every game they played last season (all 20!), but the longest active streaks otherwise are the Bills (18), Lions (13) and -- believe it or not -- the Packers (12).

12. Speaking of the Packers, they have a lot of talented mouths to feed in the passing game. There were eight games last season in which Christian Watson was a full go. During those weeks, Watson paced the team with 49 targets (19%), with Romeo Doubs at 40 (15%), Jayden Reed at 40 (15%), Dontayvion Wicks at 23 (10%), the tight ends at 48 (18%) and the running backs at 52 (20%). If Watson holds up health-wise this season, it may be tricky for any of these pass-catchers to provide consistent fantasy output. That also applies to the tight ends, as Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft could split around 20% of the targets nearly down the middle.

13. Anthony Richardson played only two full games as a rookie, though he made a major impact before leaving two other games due to injury. In those four games, the Colts scored four passing TDs and seven rushing TDs (36% pass). In the team's other 13 games, they scored 14 passing TDs and 12 rushing TDs (54% pass). That split is hardly surprising considering Richardson's skill set, as he was heavily utilized as a rusher (25 carries, four rushing TDs). The Indianapolis offense may limit scoring opportunities for pass-catchers, but it's one of the league's fasted-paced units, which adds to its appeal.

14. Tank Dell played most of the snaps in eight games during his rookie season. He posted a 41-618-7 receiving line on 67 targets, and his 18.8 fantasy PPG average ranked sixth at wide receiver during the span. Dell was lucky in the TD department (3.3 xTD and only five end zone targets), but he had four double-digit target games and will continue to operate as a downfield target for C.J. Stroud.

15. Here's a 2024 sleeper for you: Zay Jones. The 28-year-old is averaging a 21% target share during his last 35 games, which traces back to his midseason breakout with the Raiders in 2021. Jones' target share is also right at 21% (7.6 per game) during 27 games with the Jaguars, and his usage barely fell off from 2022 (7.9 per game) to 2023 with Calvin Ridley in the fold (7.1 per game). All eyes will be on newcomer Gabe Davis, but Jones very well could out-target his new teammate (perhaps easily). Jones finished 31st in fantasy PPG in 2022 and is likely to come cheap as a late-round flier in 2024 drafts.

16. There has been offseason chatter about Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive playcaller Greg Roman's run-heavy offense, but that doesn't really align with their time in San Francisco. During those four seasons (2011-14), the 49ers' offense was just a hair below average in pass rate over expected (-1% total) but ended up running the ball 55.1% of the time as a product of leading often. The offense was very slow paced all four seasons, which is notable, but a balanced offense (perhaps a slight lean toward the run, considering their offseason roster moves) is the most likely outcome with standout QB Justin Herbert under center. The Chargers have been extremely fast-paced and pass-heavy the last three seasons, so we do need to downgrade Herbert, but he'll add some value with his legs and is best viewed as a fringe QB1.

17. Nacua and Cooper Kupp played 12 full games together last season. During those outings, Nacua handled a 27% target share and posted a 62-944-4 receiving line. Kupp managed a 26% target share and posted a 59-737-5 receiving line. Nacua averaged 15.7 fantasy PPG (12th-highest among WRs), whereas Kupp averaged 13.7 PPG (23rd). Needless to say, Nacua has secured his spot as the top fantasy wideout in this offense.

18. With Josh Jacobs sidelined for the final four games of last season, Zamir White's weekly fantasy finishes were as follows: 12th, 16th, 16th and 19th. White played 69% of the snaps, handled 76% of the designed runs (21.0 per game) and 10% of the targets (3.3 per game). Though he found the end zone only once and didn't do much as a receiver, White was effective on the ground (4.7 YPC), which helped him to 15.2 fantasy PPG during the span (11th best). Las Vegas signed Alexander Mattison, but he very well could settle in as the backup, which would set up White as the lead back in 2024. Consider him a flex option with RB2 upside.

19. I'll get right to the point: Tua Tagovailoa is not a good fantasy quarterback. Miami scored at least three offensive touchdowns in six-straight games to open the 2023 season (including 10 against Denver in Week 3) but averaged a pedestrian 2.3 TDs per game during its final 13 games. Mike McDaniel's scheme leans a bit toward the pass, but it moves at the pace of a tortoise carrying a refrigerator. Add in Tagovailoa's bare-minimum rushing contributions (62-169-0 rushing line in 31 games over the last two seasons) and you can better understand why the man who led the NFL in passing yards last season finished way down at 20th among QBs in fantasy PPG. Tagovailoa, who had zero weekly fantasy finishes better than ninth after Week 6 last season, figures to come out firing in the warm weather in September, but he is a candidate to fall off quickly -- same as he has the last three seasons. To put some numbers on that, he's averaging 19.4 fantasy PPG in 21 career "full" games during Weeks 1-10 but 14.1 per game in 29 "full" games from Week 11 on (including the playoffs).

20. There were eight games last season in which both Raheem Mostert and De'Von Achane played significant snaps (Weeks 3-5, 13-16 and 19). During those outings, Achane held a tiny edge in snaps (239 to 236) and was ahead in routes (138 to 104) and targets (35 to 21, or 14% to 8%). Mostert led in carries (96 to 83, or 45% to 39%). Mostert ended up with more touches (114 to 106) and TDs (11 to 9), but Achane had a massive edge in yardage (815 to 539) and a decent edge in fantasy PPG (19.6 to 17.0). We should anticipate a committee this season, but 22-year-old Achane figures to be the better fantasy asset over 32-year-old Mostert.

21. The Giants offense was REALLY bad when Daniel Jones was under center last season. New York totaled five TDs in his four full games, but four of those came in one game (vs. the Kyler Murray-less Arizona). Believe it or not, the Giants actually averaged more offensive TDs in games Jones missed (1.7) than ones he played in full (1.3). The Giants had an offensive EPA of -8.3 or worse in all six games Jones appeared in, aside of the Arizona game. Jones still appears to be the clear starter for the Giants this season, and his 2023 performance suggests that could be a big problem.

22. Who is the league's most reliable running back? Here's one vote for Devin Singletary. Including the playoffs, the 2019 third-round pick has played in exactly 19 games each of the last four seasons (officially 18 in 2022 due to the canceled game between the Bengals and Bills). Singletary and Ameer Abdullah are the only RBs who have played in 100% of his team's games since the start of the 2020 season (and Singletary has 883 touches to Abdullah's 168 during the span). Singletary was effective as a feature back down the stretch in Houston last season and has finished all five NFL seasons in the 950-to-1,100-yard range. He figures to be the lead back for New York and is on the RB2/flex radar.

23. Garrett Wilson is fourth among wide receivers in targets since he was drafted in 2022. The other top 10 wideouts over that span are Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, CeeDee Lamb, Stefon Diggs, Amon-Ra St. Brown, A.J. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr., Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase. Those nine receivers averaged 18.7 fantasy PPG (17.0-plus for eight of them), whereas Wilson sits at 12.6 PPG. Quarterback play has been the obvious issue in New York and suggests Wilson is primed for a huge breakout in 2024.

24. Arthur Smith moves from calling plays in Atlanta to doing the same for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2024. Smith operates a very fast-paced and very run-heavy scheme. The latter aligns with the Steelers' game plan since late in the 2022 season, so it shouldn't be a surprise if Pittsburgh ranks as one of the league's most run-heavy teams in 2024.

25. When the Steelers do decide to throw the ball, expect Najee Harris and especially Jaylen Warren to be busy. Mike Tomlin's RB rooms have a below-average 17% target share over the last 13 years, but hit 23% (the highest during the span) in 2023. Smith has had some RB rooms with low target shares, as well, but two of three while in Atlanta reached 24%. That includes a 2023 season in which Bijan Robinson ranked second among RBs with 87 targets (Warren was fifth with 75). Expect Harris to remain the lead rusher with Warren handling a similar role to what Robinson had in Atlanta last year (albeit with fewer carries). It's a recipe that could allow both fantasy value.

26. George Pickens enjoyed a 28% target share (8.0 per game) during the four games Diontae Johnson was out last season. That number fell to 21% (6.0 per game) when Johnson was active. He averaged 16.6 fantasy PPG (WR18) with Johnson out but 10.9 (WR43) with him active. With Johnson traded to Carolina, Pickens figures to slide into the "Drake London" role in Smith's offense. It's a role that allowed London target shares of 29% and 23% over the last two seasons, though Atlanta's QB struggles and run-heavy nature held him outside the top 40 WRs in fantasy PPG both seasons.

27. When Zach Charbonnet returned from a one-game injury absence in Week 8 last season, he and Kenneth Walker III played eight full games together the rest of the season. During those outings, snaps were tight (Walker 228, Charbonnet 225), but Walker held a massive edge in carries (106 to 37, or 70% to 24%). Charbonnet was well ahead in routes (133 to 88), but both saw 20 targets (8% each). Walker scored three TDs and averaged 11.5 fantasy PPG (RB31), whereas Charbonnet scored zero TDs and averaged 5.8 PPG (RB60) during the span. Charbonnet's role could expand in Year 2 (especially in a new offensive scheme), but it's fair to expect these two recent second-round picks to continue stealing work from each other for another year or three.

28. The Tennessee Titans have called a run-heavy offense each of the last six seasons, but we very well could see a major flip with Brian Callahan calling plays. The Bengals' offensive coordinator over the last five seasons, Callahan has called a pass-first game each of the last four seasons, including an extremely pass-heavy scheme each of the last two seasons. Tennessee's scheme will depend somewhat on who ends up under center and the split in the backfield (Tony Pollard, Tyjae Spears), but the days of a run-heavy offense are likely numbered.

29. Kliff Kingsbury will call the plays in Washington for the Commanders this season. Kingsbury operated the league's fastest-paced offense and leaned slightly toward the pass during his four seasons as Arizona's head coach (2019-22). Those Kyler Murray-led offenses were successful during the first three seasons, but the wheels fell off during Murray's injury-plagued 2022 campaign. Washington will almost definitely have a rookie QB under center, so growing pains are likely, but there's plenty of fantasy upside in Kingsbury's scheme.

30. Jahan Dotson's target share falling from 16% as a rookie (23% during the final 5 weeks) to 13% in 2023 is quite the mystery. Believe it or not, Dotson finished fourth in the NFL in pass routes -- but was 49th among WRs in targets -- last season. Perhaps it was a Sam Howell/scheme issue and he'll find a better connection with Kingsbury and a rookie quarterback TBD, but he'll be hard to trust as anything more than a late-round flier.