Year in and year out, fantasy
owners are vexed when a breakout player from a season ago cannot
come close to replicating his production from the previous year.
Why does this happen so often?
Perhaps the best place to start is realizing scoring touchdowns
is an opportunity-based statistic and not a talent per se. That's
not to say talent doesn't play a huge role because it obviously
does. There are countless examples every season in which a player's
unique talent helped him score on a play that 95 percent of the
rest of the players at his position probably could not have. Talent
gets a player on the field. It helps a running back leave a defender
flat-footed or break a tackle. It helps a receiver create separation
and attract more targets. Among many other factors, scoring touchdowns
is by and large a combination of talent, coaching/scheme, some
luck and opportunity - the last of those factors likely being
the most important. In a vacuum, it would probably be fair to
say the longer the distance a player travels to score a touchdown,
the more likely talent played a role in it.
There's more to fantasy than scoring touchdowns obviously, but
they are a critical piece. And if we can look at metrics to help
us make scoring touchdowns a bit more predictable, shouldn't we
them a shot?
Regression to the mean is a topic that gets some discussion in
the fantasy community but not near enough. After discussing running
backs last week, we're
going to take a look at touchdown regression candidates at receiver
and tight end this week. Why only touchdown regression? The short
explanation is my opinion that running backs have more control
over their efficiency marks than wideouts or tight ends. What
I've done for each player is supplied their efficiency marks going
as far back as necessary and provide the league average marks
for receivers and tight ends who recorded at least 50 receptions.
I settled on that number mainly because it is usually pretty difficult
for a pass-catcher to be relevant in fantasy for any length of
time in a given season if he does not reach that benchmark.
Most of the column headers below are self-explanatory, so I'll
explain only one: Yds/Tgt refers to how many receiving yards a
player averaged for every target - a number that will obviously
be slightly different than yards per reception.
Likely candidates for touchdown regression
JuJu is a fine fantasy prospect but James
Washington and TE Vance McDonald are a threat to his productionn
Let's be clear: Smith-Schuster appears on this list only because
of his efficiency rate in regards to scoring touchdowns last year,
as opposed to his ability to surpass the seven offensive TDs he
actually did manage, because I think seven may be his floor this
year. To put his league-best 11.3 targets per TD rate into some
recent historical perspective, only Davante Adams (10.1) and Jordy
Nelson (10.9) bettered that mark in 2016 (among pass-catchers who
met my above criteria). There's no question Smith-Schuster benefits
from the attention Antonio Brown draws (and will continue to), but
I'm not sure I was dazzled enough by his play last year to believe
he is the Adams to Brown's Nelson or the Reggie Wayne to Brown's
Marvin Harrison quite yet. Until further notice, he is still the
third-best option in the passing game behind Brown and Le'Veon Bell.
Rookie James Washington may not have much of a consistent fantasy
impact this season, but he's almost certain to do more than Martavis
Bryant did last year. Furthermore, the team believes Vance McDonald
is about ready to be the seam-stretching tight end it has hoped
Ladarius Green was going to be.
73.4 percent catch rate was about 10 percent higher and his yards-per-catch
average (15.8) was more than two yards better than the league
average - each of which was among the top six marks among receivers
in this study. If we increase his receptions by 20 to 78, bump
his target rate of 5.6/game up to 7.0, drop his catch rate a little
closer to league average (let's say 68), decrease his targets/TD
down to a more reasonable 16 (still well above league average)
and lower his YPC to 13 (still pretty high for a receiver who
does his best work in the intermediate passing game), we are left
with a 78-1,014-7 line in 16 games (he played 14 last season).
The point to be made here is not whether or not that looks good
for fantasy, but I have almost certainly projected his ceiling
and a pretty optimistic one at that since we can assume Brown
will get his 100-plus catches and Bell will push for 70-80. A
big part of Smith-Schuster's success last year was due to Bryant's
indifference and lack of dependability. Anything Washington does
to top Bryant and McDonald does to best Jesse James last year
figures to take more of a bite out of Smith-Schuster's production
than Brown or Bell.
A topic we will discuss at least a few times this week is how
often receivers who make their living in the deep passing game
are much more likely to appear efficient with some of the metrics
(specifically targets/TD and receptions/TD) I'm using. Anderson
(one touchdown every nine receptions and one TD every 16.3 targets
in 2017) is one such player, although he is certainly not limited
to being just a one-trick pony. At any rate, Anderson scored seven
times last year - all from distances of at least 18 yards and
four of which covered more than 30 yards. That seems unlikely
to happen again for any number of reasons, some of which I'll
address in the next paragraph. First, for some perspective, Tyreek
Hill (seven) was the only player in the NFL last year to score
from 30 yards more than four times in 2017. (Amari Cooper and
T.Y. Hilton were tied with Anderson at four.)
At some point this season, there figures to be a change of quarterback
from Josh McCown to Sam Darnold. Which receiver will the rookie
favor? We also should have the return of Quincy Enunwa, who was
expected to be the No. 1 receiver in New York prior to his neck
injury. Will Terrelle Pryor mess with Anderson's deep-ball thunder?
How will the change from former OC John Morton to current play-caller
Jeremy Bates change the distribution of touches in this offense?
Perhaps most importantly, Anderson seems like a good bet to miss
time due to suspension for his recent off-field antics. There
are other potential obstacles standing in his way, but those are
some of the most notable. Assessing risk is one of the most important
things an owner must do when preparing for the draft. For all
the talent he brings to the table, Anderson is a receiver who
brings WR2 upside into the 2018 season with an end-of-the-fantasy-bench
floor if one or two of the different variables don't go his way.
It is rare a receiver can post two 100-catch seasons, amass 401
receptions over the first four years of his career and we still
don't know what he really is. Such is the case with Landry, who
became the first non-running back in league history to catch 100
passes but fall short of 1,000 receiving yards. (Matt Forte, LaDainian
Tomlinson and the incomparable Larry Centers were the others.)
What we do know is Miami never allowed him to post an average
depth of target more than eight yards, which is about as ridiculous
for a receiver as it sounds. Fortunately for Landry and his career
arc, the Dolphins gave him plenty of opportunities inside the
red zone last year and he cashed in. (All nine of his receiving
touchdowns came inside the red zone on 23 targets. Interestingly,
Landry also had 23 red zone targets in 2015 but only scored three
times, once again proving how fickle scoring touchdowns can be.)
As difficult as this may be for all of us to process, Landry
leaves Miami for the talent hotbed Cleveland has become. If Josh
Gordon finally has a handle on his off-field issues, he will likely
be the No. 1 option in the passing game. The Browns just extended
Duke Johnson for three years and $15.6 million, suggesting they
are expecting him to catch another 60-70 passes per season through
2021. David Njoku is a prime candidate to see his role expand
in 2018 - particularly in the red zone - after finishing with
a 32-386-4 line as a rookie. That's not to say there aren't plenty
of opportunities left for Landry, but even if Cleveland allows
him to become more of an intermediate and downfield receiver,
I've already identified players at each level (short, intermediate
and deep) who will eat away at his potential production. The Browns
have three NFL-caliber running backs and figure to use them all
as well as an improving defense, suggesting the volume Landry
often saw in Miami may not work in his favor either. And yet again,
we have a situation in which a veteran quarterback who is expected
to start Week 1 (Tyrod Taylor) stands a great chance of being
replaced during the course of the season by a rookie (Baker Mayfield).
Furthermore, no pass-catcher exceeded 60 receptions in Taylor's
three seasons with Buffalo. Even with a sizable increase in average
depth of target, there is just too much working against Landry
to match his nine scores from a season ago, much less the one
TD per 17.9 targets he managed in 2017 (his career mark entering
last season was 31.5).
Jones has enjoyed a brush with efficiency greatness before, scoring
10 times on 51 catches and 80 targets with Cincinnati back in
2013. (His eight targets per touchdown from that season trails
only Doug Baldwin's 7.4 in 2015 as the best such mark over the
last five seasons.) In other words, Jones' 11.9 rate in 2017 isn't
exactly uncharted territory for him. However, it is worth noting
he was at 25.8 in both 2015 (Bengals) and 2016 (Lions). There's
no question Jones took a step forward and emerged as a more complete
receiver in 2017, so nine touchdowns is potentially repeatable.
I have my doubts about whether or not he can score once every
12 targets or 6.8 catches two years in a row though. While the
departure of Eric Ebron frees up some more scoring opportunities
in theory, it is highly likely Kenny Golladay absorbs what Ebron
would have done and then some. Detroit also seems fixated on making
sure the running game carries its fair share of the offensive
weight this season. Ultimately, that's where I expect the pendulum
to swing for Jones, as he scored three times from six or fewer
yards away last year. With a back like LeGarrette Blount on the
roster, perhaps Jones loses those three bunnies in 2018.
Graham's 9.6 targets and 5.7 receptions for every touchdowns
last season seems pretty incredible until one discovers we've
usually seen at least one instance of such efficiency from a tight
end on an almost annual basis over the last six seasons. (Tyler
Eifert was at 5.7 and 4.0, respectively, in 2015. Antonio Gates
was at 8.2 and 5.8 in 2014. Graham himself was at 8.9 and 5.4,
while Julius Thomas was 7.5 and 5.4 in 2013.) The reason Graham
finds himself on this list isn't because he isn't a good bet to
score 10 touchdowns again, but rather because it's going to be
hard for him to repeat his efficiency numbers entering his age-32
season with at least one receiver (Davante Adams) taking priority
over him in the red zone. Graham seemed to lack his usual explosiveness
(per Next Gen Stats, his average separation went down from 2.7
yards in 2016 to 2.5 in 2017 - fourth-lowest among qualified tight
ends) and his 9.1 YPC was easily the lowest of his career. His
seven drops were the most in the NFC and tied for the second most
in the league, according to STATS.
Unlike Seattle - where he was the clear top red zone option -
the five-time Pro Bowler enters a situation in Green Bay where
he may not be. Forget the narrative Aaron Rodgers doesn't like
throwing to his tight end - two tight ends (Jermichael Finley
and Richard Rodgers) had eight-TD seasons with him, while Jared
Cook was starting to form a nice connection with him as well toward
the end of the 2016 season. If owners don't want to get on board
with Graham this year, refer to the previous paragraph and the
possibility Rodgers will opt for Adams in addition to one of the
big, young and athletic receivers trying to replace Jordy Nelson
(such as Geronimo Allison or J'Mon Moore). The number of other
desirable options figures to be the main reason why Graham won't
score with near as much regularity or efficiency this season.
I decided to break out five years' worth of information on Jones
to illustrate a few points. While Jones may play hurt on a regular
basis, I think we can start moving away from questions about his
durability. More importantly for the sake of this piece, was he
all that much different as a receiver last year than in his previous
four "full" seasons? (I left off 2013 because only played
five games.) A strong case can be made Jones is still the most
talented receiver in the league, but the fantasy community would
have owners believe his inability to score touchdowns is something
he cannot do anymore for one reason or another. Let's review some
facts: 14 of his 19 red zone targets last year fell incomplete.
Only one of his five red zone targets resulted in a touchdown.
Of the four catches that failed to result in scores, three of
them were stopped at the 1- or 2-yard line. (In the interest of
full disclosure, one of the four led to his only score on the
next play.) Feel any different about his season yet?
Here's some other potential nuggets for fantasy owners who buy
into Jones to hang their hat on: in Dirk Koetter's second season
as the play-caller in Atlanta in 2013, Jones was on pace for a
131-1,856-6 line on 189 targets before his season was cut short
with a foot injury. In Year 2 under Kyle Shanahan in 2016, Jones'
16-game pace was 95-1,610-7 on 147 targets. Need more? Jones'
worst catch rate in the red zone since his rookie year was 50
percent. Last year, it was 26.3. If he comes anywhere close to
his pre-2017 career norms in that area alone and the red zone
targets stay roughly the same, Jones could score eight or more
times in 2018.
It shouldn't be a huge surprise Evans appears on this list.
After all, we're talking about a player who has scored 12 touchdowns
in two of his four seasons as a pro. But rather than going with
the lazy odd-year-off, even-year-on narrative, let's actually
see what the numbers say. His catch rate has been right around
or just over 50 percent all four years. His YPC has dropped in
the last two seasons, but some of that has to be expected since
defenses won't allow themselves to get beat deep consistently
by Evans when he is the clear alpha dog among the Bucs' receivers.
While I hate to keep going back to red zone production as the
answer for everything in regards to touchdown regression because
not all red zone passes are designed to score, it's more than
just a coincidence we've continually seen inefficiency in the
red zone tends to lead to overall touchdown inefficiency. Let's
look at Evans' work in the red zone thus far in his career:
2014: 8-15, six TDs
2015: 3-17, two TDs
2016: 9-19, seven TDs
2017: 5-19, three TDs
Shocking (sarcasm alert). In seasons in which Evans has approached
a 50 percent catch rate inside the red zone, he has been a beast.
Last year, his 5-for-19 showing in the red zone was exactly the
same as Julio Jones', with the main difference being Evans scored
three times on his opportunities and Jones scored once. Note Evans'
red zone targets haven't really varied that much from year to
year, but his inefficiency has (unlike Jones' red zone targets,
which have varied wildly). Evans' own history suggests he's going
to be better inside the 20 this year, and Tampa Bay is starting
to assemble enough talent offensively where he is going to start
become more efficient year after year or his teammates are going
to eat (which seems to be the case in Atlanta). There's probably
at least one 14-15 TD season coming up in Evans' career; if the
new-and-improved offensive line can do its part, perhaps Jameis
Winston will see to it Evans finally hits his statistical ceiling
With the exception of two nine-touchdown seasons, Jackson has
scored between 2-6 times every other year of his career, so the
fact he finished with three in 2017 sounds about right. Given
his reputation as a deep threat, Jackson is always going to be
subject to more volatility in the touchdown department. However,
one quick look at his recent efficiency numbers provides a pretty
good glimpse of what is happening: his targets/TD and receptions/TD
have both increased in four straight seasons (skipped 2015 because
he missed the 50-catch threshold to qualify for this study), while
his yards per target and yards per catch have decreased in three
consecutive years. In fact, his 13.4 YPC in 2017 was nearly four
yards lower than his career average and easily the lowest mark
of his career.
But let's not pretend as if this is all his fault; the mere fact
two starting receivers from the same team can end up in an article
such as this one is a pretty good indication Jameis Winston and/or
the play-calling of HC Dirk Koetter had their own struggles. Like
most vertical receivers, Jackson excels when there is a capable
run threat causing safeties to bite on play-action. The mere fact
Tampa Bay had two of the game's more capable downfield receivers
(and another one who will get there in time in Chris Godwin) and
could not either throw the ball or run particularly well is a
pretty strong sign the front five wasn't holding up and Koetter
wasn't doing a good enough job to mask the deficiency. It's no
mystery why Tampa Bay identified the offensive line - specifically
adding some nastiness - as an area of need this offseason. Once
Ronald Jones establishes himself as the big-play threat the Bucs
hope he will be, containing Evans and Jackson may become a near-impossible
As good as Thielen was last season, he was so close to being
so much better in fantasy. The Minnesota State product became
only the 20th receiver in league history to catch at least 90
balls and score four or fewer touchdowns. For the answer as to
why, let's resume the red zone efficiency discussion. Thielen
was targeted four more times inside the 20 than Stefon Diggs (17-13)
and two more times inside the 10 (8-6), but Diggs won both battles
when it came to catches (11-5 and 4-1, respectively). And in case
readers want to point to bad luck playing an important role in
Thielen's lack of TDs, Kyle Rudolph was even more efficient than
Diggs (14-of-16 on passes in the red zone for six TDs, 8-of-9
for four scores inside the 10). Is all this a reflection on Thielen?
Not necessarily. So what gives?
In terms of the targets/TD, Thielen finished in between Jamison
Crowder (34.3) and Sterling Shepard (42.0) last year. One year
earlier, Shepard scored eight times and Crowder scored seven times.
Like it or not, the "art" of scoring touchdowns is volatile.
If we believe Thielen is a solid NFL talent and Kirk Cousins is
an upgrade over what Minnesota had last year, it's reasonable
to project the Vikings' top slot option will probably visit the
end zone at least six times in 2018 - even if we assume Diggs
becomes Cousins' favorite target.
Finding someone to say something nice about Parker is not an
easy task. (I get it, I drafted him during my rookie draft in
an experts' dynasty league in 2015 and am still waiting for him
to realize the NFL comp I gave him back then … a poor man's
A.J. Green). But why all the hate? If the answer to that question
is "he's always hurt" or "he doesn't score enough,"
it might be time to step back and remember what has happened to
Parker to this point of his pro career. Last season's solid start
was ruined by a high-ankle sprain from which he never quite fully
recovered. And whether it sounds ridiculous or not, it's been
well-documented he didn't exactly know how important rest and
nutrition were to his prospects of enjoying a long career during
the first two NFL seasons, which obviously contributed to his
lack of durability back then - a lesson he reportedly learned
last offseason. In short, owners would be wise to dismiss his
first two years to being "young and naïve" and
remember the 96-1,226-5 pace he was on after three games last
season before suffering an injury that has stopped many NFL players
dead in their tracks.
It's a virtual certainty Parker will score more than one touchdown
in 2018. It's also worth noting that in his last 17 full games
with Ryan Tannehill (which obviously does not include last year's
fast start), Parker has posted a 66-1,028-6 line on 110 targets.
That was with Jarvis Landry averaging almost 150 targets. Will
Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola replace all of those empty targets?
Doubtful. Look, if Parker doesn't do anything this year, perhaps
it's not meant to be for him. Many talented NFL players never
live up to their potential because they can never seem to reach
or maintain peak health for very long. But isn't there even a
small possibility the receiver Miami has touted was (and probably
wants to be) its top wideout for each of the last two years actually
could fulfill that promise in his age-25 season? As a receiver
with a 100-target floor and perhaps a 140-target ceiling, he is
a ridiculous potential value pick in the late eighth round right
now. (And yes, this is coming from someone who was "burned"
by him in at least two high-stakes leagues last season.)
Subscribers to the notion that scoring touchdowns is mostly
a talent may reconsider their stance after considering Thomas'
case. The second-year wideout averaged 1.2 more targets, caught
12 more passes and accumulated 108 more receiving yards in 2017
than he did in 2016, yet his TD total dropped from nine to five.
As such, the Ohio state product became only the ninth player in
league history to catch at least 100 balls for at least 1,200
yards and score five or fewer times. Just as a point of reference,
there have been 24 instances over the last five seasons (2012-17)
in which a receiver amassed 100-plus receptions and at least 1,200
yards. Exactly half of them scored at least nine times, while
14 finished with at least eight TDs.
Thomas' catch rate dropped a little over six percent as a sophomore,
but the biggest difference had to be the ridiculous level of success
Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara had in scoring territory last year.
Four of Kamara's five receiving TDs covered between 10-18 yards
- an area of the field in which Drew Brees was probably more than
willing to let Thomas high-point a ball or let him try to make
something happen on a short pass one season earlier. Maybe the
return of Benjamin Watson and addition of Cameron Meredith caps
Thomas' touchdown upside, but it's just as likely the duo is the
reason he bounces back with nine or more scores in 2018.
When we look at the totality of Walker's time with the Titans,
it doesn't take long to see last year was the exception to the
rule. His catch rate in 2017 (66.7) was just a few tenths of a
point higher than his first four years in Tennessee (66.0). The
big differences from 2016 to 2017 were pretty much the same themes
we've discussed throughout this piece. The Titans threw for 29
touchdowns two seasons ago and Walker's target per TD and receptions
per TD metrics were at or near career highs. Last year, Tennessee
combined for 14 passing touchdowns and Walker predictably suffered.
The red zone production followed suit. Walker caught only two
passes (of eight) inside the 10 and four (of 12) inside the 20
in 2017, leading to two scores. In 2016, Walker was 9-for-17 with
six TDs in the red zone and 4-for-7 inside the TD (all of those
catches went for scores).
Walker has some factors working against him in his quest to return
to the 6-7 score level he had become accustomed to as a Titan.
Jonnu Smith is only going to see more playing time moving forward;
he is a player to target in deeper dynasty leagues. Corey Davis
has the talent to become a WR1 and should be freed from the restraints
injuries as well as former OC Terry Robiskie's offense placed
on him as a rookie. Rishard Matthews is a more than capable second
receiver. But we are only talking about touchdown regression here,
and it seems reasonable enough for Walker to see a few more targets
in the red zone this season. He may not experience a huge jump
in touchdowns, but a 700-yard, five-score campaign is well within
the realm of possibilities even as he enters his age-34 season.
Doug Orth has written for FF
Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy
Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s
hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday
in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national
sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”.
Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.