You can't record a catch if you aren't thrown the football.
While player skill is paramount in fantasy football analysis, opportunity ultimately drives results. Ability, in combination with preseason performance, will put a player in position to claim the largest possible role, but there's a specific breadth to said opportunity, one that we can roughly gauge team by team.
One way to do so is to examine a team's 2019 target totals, then compare that number to the available talent on its 2020 roster. An NFL team typically attempts somewhere between 500 and 625 passes in a season -- though teams sometimes exceed those numbers at either extreme, as nine did in 2019 -- meaning that a team's total amount of receiving opportunity falls within that range.
When a player leaves a team, his targets are effectively opened up for a new candidate, just as when a player joins a new team, he consumes a percentage of the team's target pie. This isn't a new concept to fantasy football but is one that can unearth hidden value. Within the industry, it's often referred to as "vacated targets."
A caveat: There are wrinkles within this concept. The past season's statistics can be adversely impacted by unexpected injuries, such as Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who recorded 143 targets in his last fully healthy season in 2017 but totaled 77 in a nine-game 2018 before missing the entire 2019 campaign. Simple regression to the mean also can influence those numbers, such as the Steelers' 510 total pass attempts, their smallest number in nine seasons. Be sure to consider the team's context before treating its 2019 target total as gospel.
Considering all that, the following four teams, with individual players of interest highlighted, present great opportunity for current (or new) receivers on their respective rosters to benefit from a target boost this season. These teams rank among the leaders in terms of vacated targets entering 2020.
Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons: It's quite a contrast between the jam-packed depth chart on which Hurst resided in Baltimore during the past two seasons and the dream scenario in which he landed via his trade to the Falcons in March. Granted, the Falcons targeted tight ends only 16.1% of the time from 2015-19, the fourth-lowest rate in the league.
The team's philosophy shifted in 2019, however, as Austin Hooper, the man Hurst will replace, enjoyed an 18.6% target share alone in his 13 healthy games. If prorated to a full season, that'd have been fifth best at his position, meaning Hurst has quite a lot of room in which to grow, especially when compared to his third-on-the-depth-chart status in Baltimore the past two seasons.
CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys are the only team to have shed a pair of 80-plus-target receivers from their roster during the offseason (Randall Cobb 83, Jason Witten 83), while No. 17 overall pick Lamb was the most prominent name added.
Granted, the Cowboys' 597 pass attempts in 2019 were their most in seven seasons, but that also was only the 10th-highest total across an NFL that is increasingly resorting to the air. Expect some spreading around of these 164 vacated targets. Amari Cooper (119), Michael Gallup (113) and Ezekiel Elliott (71) are all in shape to at least repeat, if not exceed, their 2019 totals, but Lamb is a premium prospect in one of the best situations in which to thrive. Expect him to play frequently in three-receiver sets, absorbing 80-plus targets, making him a strong value at his current WR44 average draft position.
Tight end Blake Jarwin, Witten's replacement atop the positional depth chart, is another strong value as TE22.
Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd and Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers: The Niners have a lot of youth at wide receiver, and they lost both Emmanuel Sanders' 53 and Marquise Goodwin's 21 targets during the offseason. The team also wasn't particularly pass-heavy last season -- its 478 attempts were well beneath the totals from 2017 (607) and 2018 (532) -- Jimmy Garoppolo's first since ACL surgery.
While everyone looks to tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel as the receiving stars in San Francisco, it's these three pass-catchers (who contributed zero targets to the 2019 squad) who are the most interesting from a role-boosting perspective. Taylor missed the entirety of the campaign with a Jones fracture, Hurd the whole season with a stress fracture in his back, and Aiyuk was the team's second of two first-round picks. Taylor and Hurd seem ticketed for a slot receiver preseason battle, while Aiyuk should start across from Samuel. All three warrant close attention during the preseason.
Jalen Reagor, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Marquise Goodwin, Philadelphia Eagles: Goodwin's new team is another that has opened up a good amount of opportunity after Nelson Agholor's (69 targets) free-agent departure in March. The Eagles attempted 599 and 613 passes the past two seasons, and don't forget that No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery missed six games because of injury in 2019 and carries a level of injury risk that could further create targets for some of the lesser names on the depth chart.
Rookie Reagor is in prime position to excel, but Arcega-Whiteside and Goodwin, three years removed from a 103-target campaign, could also factor in.
Meanwhile, here are the "worry" players on two teams that added quite a lot of personnel to the passing game, meaning their target shares might decrease significantly.
Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears: Three different Bears receivers earned at least 85 targets last season, with Cohen's 104 and Miller's 85 probably the toughest to repeat -- though Allen Robinson II's 154 might also be a challenge, considering the team's offseason additions.
New tight ends Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet might not be big fantasy factors, but they'll siphon targets from someone and Cohen's might be a logical place to look. The additions of Ted Ginn Jr. and Demetrius Harris also create a roster logjam, so be cautious expecting many repeats from this group.
John Brown, Buffalo Bills: While there's room for growth in terms of team passing attempts -- the Bills' 513 were eighth fewest in the league, and 28 of those were targets with no intended receiver (throwaways, spikes, etc.) -- the Bills don't exactly have the most accurate of quarterbacks, meaning their offense can become only so pass-friendly.
The addition of Stefon Diggs creates a battle for targets in Buffalo and Brown stands out as someone likely to significantly regress, considering his 115 targets last season were more than any Bills receiver had in a single year since 2014. There's a good chance that both of these receivers will cut into the other's opportunity, making a top-15 season tough for either.
Full vacated targets report
The chart below shows each team's vacated targets from 2019, so you can identify your own such candidates. Included are the number of targets added to or subtracted from the roster during the offseason, as well as key additions and subtractions.