Fantasy Football Today - fantasy football rankings, cheatsheets, and information
A Fantasy Football Community!

Create An Account  |  Advertise  |  Contact      


Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

2019 Regression Candidates - WRs & TEs
Preseason Matchup Analysis

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?

PPerhaps 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 the aforementioned factors are a critical piece. And if we can look at metrics to help us predict touchdowns scoring, shouldn't we give 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. For the purposes of this article, "league average" will refer to the averages of the receivers or tight end who recorded at least 50 catches.

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 catch (YPC).

Antonio Brown

Likely candidates for touchdown regression

Antonio Brown, Oakland

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2013 16 167 110 1499 8 65.90% 20.9 13.8 187.4 9 13.6
2014 16 181 129 1698 13 71.30% 13.9 9.9 130.6 9.4 13.2
2015 16 193 136 1834 10 70.50% 19.3 13.6 183.4 9.5 13.5
2016 15 154 106 1284 12 68.80% 12.8 8.8 107.0 8.3 12.1
2017 14 163 101 1533 9 62.00% 18.1 11.2 170.3 9.4 15.2
2018 15 168 104 1297 15 61.90% 11.2 6.9 86.5 7.7 12.5
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

While this may come as a surprise to some, predicting touchdown regression is not about taking the league leader in touchdowns in a certain category from the previous season and saying it won't happen again. First and foremost, Derek Carr has played five NFL seasons and never thrown more than nine touchdown passes to a single pass-catcher. HC Jon Gruden has been a coach for 12 seasons and only had two receivers hit double figures (Joey Galloway, 10 - 2005; Tim Brown, 11 - 2000). Each of the three key efficiency statistics we need to monitor for AB from last year were also well above league average; Brown needed 7.6 fewer targets, 5.6 fewer catches and 74 fewer yards than the average wideout to score a touchdown.

While it's not uncommon for Brown to be more efficient than the average receiver, it is unusual for anyone to score 15 times. There are 33 instances in league history in which a player has amassed at least that many receiving touchdowns; only Marvin Harrison (two), Randy Moss (four), Terrell Owens (two) and Jerry Rice (five) have turned the trick more than once in their careers. (Rice was the only one to do so in consecutive seasons.) Strictly from a logical standpoint, the falloff from Ben Roethlisberger to Carr is enough to believe Brown doesn't have a shot to score 15 touchdowns again in 2019.

Calvin Ridley, Atlanta

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2018 16 92 64 821 10 69.60% 9.2 6.4 82.1 8.9 12.8
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

This will be one of a few cases this week in which I am not suggesting the player cannot repeat or exceed last year's TD total, but rather I believe will fail to find the end zone with the regularity he did in 2018. Ridley became only the 17th rookie in league history to catch 10 touchdown passes in a season and the first to do so since Mike Evans and Odell Beckham both did so in 2014. How it all happened speaks yet again to the unpredictable nature of scoring - much less predicting - touchdowns. After a zero-catch pro debut, he scored six times over the next three weeks. Over the next 10 games, he paid only two more visits to the end zone before wrapping up the season with one TD in each of his last two contests.

The more telling part of Ridley's season is that he was more efficient (in regards to the league average) in every category in each of the three categories than Antonio Brown. The Alabama product needed 9.6 fewer targets, 6.1 fewer catches and 78.5 fewer yards to score a touchdown than the league-average wideout. While Ridley's modest catch total has a lot to do with his efficiency and he undoubtedly benefited from the presence of Julio Jones, it wouldn't be fair to him or his talent to say he was entirely the product of his favorable situation; his efficiency marks were very comparable to Nelson Agholor's marks from his breakout 2017 season. In no way does that make the two of them alike, but it should serve as a cautionary tale that fate smiled upon Ridley as a rookie. For some perspective, a league-average receiver with his 64 receptions a year ago would have caught roughly four touchdowns and a wideout with his 821 yards should have finished with about five TDs.

Tyler Lockett, Seattle

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2015 16 69 51 664 6 73.90% 11.5 8.5 110.7 9.6 13
2018 16 70 57 965 10 81.40% 7 5.7 96.5 13.8 16.9
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

Prior to the retirement of Doug Baldwin, Lockett was probably the poster child for touchdown regression among receivers in 2019. Even with his expected "promotion" this season to Baldwin's No. 1 role, it still seems like a good bet he won't: 1) reach 10 TDs again in 2019 after scoring a total of 10 over his first three seasons or 2) average one score every 5.7 catches. What does seem clear is that he is on the verge of his first true high-volume season - if "high-volume" exists in this Seattle offense any more. The Seahawks appear very committed to their grind-it-out offense with the occasional deep ball mixed in, so while it may be true Lockett becomes the new Baldwin, projecting him to match the latter's production from 2015-17 is a bit of a stretch.

Lockett is capable of winning at every level, but it seems like a safe assumption he'll at least work out of the slot more often with the plethora of outside receivers Seattle has or added recently. D.K. Metcalf, Jaron Brown and David Moore should all spend more time on the perimeter, so it seems more likely that Lockett will finish with 70-plus catches and/or 1,000-plus yards than 10 or more touchdowns in 2019. And in case anyone considered a more slot-heavy role would help Lockett in the scoring department, consider that only six of his 19 career receiving touchdowns - only two of which were closer than 10 yards - have come in the red zone.

Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2018 16 95 59 842 7 62.10% 13.6 8.4 120.3 8.9 14.3
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

Godwin figures to be a popular target in fantasy drafts this summer and rightfully so. His will be another case in which it is likely he blows right past last season's TD total (seven). The talent is most certainly there, Bruce Arians' offense should allow it to happen - especially if Tampa Bay follows through and makes him the primary slot option in three-wide sets. With that said, Godwin (5.2 fewer targets, 4.1 fewer catches and 40.3 fewer yards than league average) scored at roughly the same rate across the board as Davante Adams (5.8, 4.0, 54.0) did in 2018; needless to say, he doesn't have the luxury of having the top quarterback - or at least one of the top two or three - at his disposal.

But let's dig it a bit deeper than that. Mike Evans is going to remain the top target in this offense regardless of Godwin's role. O.J. Howard will eventually make it through a full season and should theoretically enjoy the softest matchups against linebackers and safeties on a regular basis. Can owners realistically expect Godwin to be the "close to 100-catch guy" Arians suggested he could be the spring playing the Larry Fitzgerald role in an offense that has two players vastly more talented than anyone Fitzgerald played with in Arizona under Arians? Is Jameis Winston even as good as Carson Palmer? Can he get there in his first year under Arians? These are all difficult questions to answer. Even the most optimistic Godwin supporter has to realize there is a very real chance he will be the third option in a progression roughly half of the time. Expecting that same player to push 90-100 catches AND exceed last year's seven TDs is a tall order. Something will almost certainly have to give.

Eric Ebron, Indianapolis

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2016 13 85 61 711 1 71.80% 85 61 711 8.4 11.7
2017 16 86 53 574 4 61.60% 21.5 13.3 143.5 6.7 10.8
2018 16 110 66 750 13 60.00% 8.5 5.1 57.7 6.8 11.4
League Average 15.7 102.7 70.4 819.0 5.7 68.7% 18.1 12.4 144.5 8.0 11.6

To say Ebron had a dream season statistically in 2018 may not be fully capturing just how many things broke his way. Although T.Y. Hilton's season totals say he played 14 games last year, he was probably healthy for no more than half of those. Nyheim Hines tallied 63 catches. Chester Rogers, Ryan Grant, Dontrelle Inman and Zach Pascal all logged significant time as well. Jack Doyle, who played significantly more than Ebron when he was healthy last season, missed 10 games. Long story short, there were multiple games in which Ebron was not only the best option, but he also might have been considered the only realistic option in the red zone - even in he was reportedly nursing three injuries simultaneously. Hilton is healthy again, Devin Funchess was signed via free agency and Parris Campbell is the shiny new toy HC Frank Reich loves after the team drafted him in the second round. Grant and Inman signed elsewhere in free agency, while Rogers and Pascal are not assured of making the team in 2019. Doyle is expected to be ready for camp.

Only six tight ends in league history have ever caught at least 13 touchdown passes in a season, and Vernon Davis is the only one to do it more than once. That alone makes it unlikely Ebron can repeat his stellar 2018 showing. Despite getting phased out late in the season, Funchess somehow ranked second in red zone targets (12) for Carolina last season. It seems highly unlikely Indianapolis didn't bring him in with an eye toward using his 6-4 frame near the goal line. Campbell may not be the classic big-body type who catches the fade or fade-stop, but don't think for a second he won't score at least once or twice on a quick screen near the goal line. If Doyle stays healthy, he's also going to chip away at Ebron's 21 targets inside the 20. When we consider the ex-Detroit Lion's one TD for every 5.1 receptions was almost 2 1/2 times better than the league-average tight end and one TD per 8.5 targets was bested only by Lockett (7.0) among all qualified pass-catchers, Andrew Luck will probably need to throw close to 50 touchdowns if Ebron hopes to find the end zone 13 times again.

Other noteworthy regression candidates:

Davante Adams, Green Bay
Amari Cooper, Dallas
Zay Jones, Buffalo
Trey Burton, Chicago

Likely candidates for positive touchdown regression

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2017 14 79 58 917 7 73.40% 11.3 8.3 131 11.6 15.8
2018 16 166 111 1426 7 66.90% 23.7 15.9 203.7 8.6 12.8
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

So you're still not convinced touchdowns are a highly unpredictable statistic and often a function of being in the right place at the right time? Consider the case of Smith-Schuster, who scored the same number of times on 58 catches and 79 targets as a rookie as he did on 111 receptions and 166 targets in 2018. The 22-year-old became only the eighth receiver in NFL history to catch as many as 111 passes and score seven or fewer TDs in a season - last "accomplished" by Pierre Garcon in 2013. Still, owners can't help themselves when it comes to him this season, most notably because Antonio Brown and his 168 targets are now in Oakland. By extension, Smith-Schuster is set to become the unquestioned No. 1 receiver in this offense and an annual threat for 100-plus catches as well as 10-plus touchdowns. But is it really that easy? After all, how will the youngster handle being the primary focus of every defense he faces? Will he remain a player who sees 61.5 percent of his snaps in the slot (like he did in 2018), one year after he lined up 58 percent of the time?

Although we don't have much of a sample size to go by, here are Smith-Schuster's lines in the three full games he has played without Brown in his two-year career (targets-catches-yards-touchdowns): 7-6-75-1, 10-9-143-1, and 10-5-37-1. Extrapolated over a full season, his totals in those four categories would be 144 targets, 107 receptions, 1,360 yards and 16 touchdowns. While it would be foolish to use three games alone to project Smith-Schuster's production, it is interesting to note the first three stats would result in a slight dip in his overall numbers from 2018. Conversely, his touchdowns would more than double. Obviously, no one should be expecting Smith-Schuster to become only the 18th player in NFL history to score at least 16 receiving touchdowns in a season. However, when we consider someone with his run-after-catch ability and the fact he needed nearly five more targets and 3.4 more catches to find the end zone than a league-average wideout - one season after leading all qualified receivers in one TD every 11.3 targets - than we have some reason to believe he is a candidate to "rebound."

Keenan Allen, LA Chargers

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2013 15 105 71 1046 8 67.60% 13.1 8.9 130.8 10 14.7
2014 14 121 77 783 4 63.60% 30.3 19.3 195.8 6.5 10.2
2015 8 89 67 725 4 75.30% 22.3 16.8 181.3 8.1 10.8
2017 16 159 102 1393 6 64.20% 26.5 17 232.2 8.8 13.7
2018 16 136 97 1196 6 71.30% 22.7 16.2 199.3 8.8 12.3
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

Amazingly, Allen hasn't performed better than the league-average receiver since his rookie year of 2013. While it's entirely possible his ceiling may now be six touchdowns, I choose to believe all of the complementary weapons the Chargers have assembled in recent years (most notably Mike Williams, not to mention the return of Hunter Henry) will force defenses to give Allen the middle of the field and single coverage in the red zone. Is it possible Williams and/or Henry steal the majority of his red zone scores? Sure. Is it likely? Probably not. After all, this is a player who has scored 10 of his 12 receiving touchdowns from the 20 or closer - eight of which have covered 11 yards or fewer - over the last two seasons. He even led the Chargers in red zone targets last season with 15. In short, I think we can dismiss the idea that the continued rise of Williams and the return of Henry will somehow dramatically affect Allen near the goal line.

I might argue the biggest threat to Allen failing to score seven or more times in 2019 may be too much positive game script. The Chargers scored 48 offensive touchdowns a season ago, boast what should be one of the league's best defenses and have arguably a better and deeper offensive line heading into HC Anthony Lynn's third season at the helm. But even if say that Los Angeles matches last year's TD output despite having a better offense and we project 10 touchdowns again for Williams, eight for Henry (matching the total from his rookie year) and 15 total for Melvin Gordon (one more than last season), it still leaves 15 on the table for the rest of the group. Isn't it somewhat likely that Philip Rivers' favorite receiver might get around half of that total?

Robert Woods, LA Rams

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2017 12 85 56 781 5 65.90% 17 11.2 156.2 9.2 13.9
2018 16 130 86 1219 6 66.20% 21.7 14.3 203.2 9.4 14.2
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

Brandin Cooks, LA Rams

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2017 16 114 65 1082 7 57.00% 16.3 9.3 154.6 9.5 16.6
2018 16 136 88 1377 5 64.70% 27.2 17.6 275.4 10.1 15.6
League Average 15.2 113.3 75.3 967.4 6 66.5% 18.8 12.5 160.6 8.5 12.9

Every offense must adapt and evolve to account for the changes that occur to team personnel. Los Angeles has done an exceptional job of spreading the touchdown wealth in the passing game in its first two seasons under McVay (Sammy Watkins in 2017 is the only player to score more than six times through the air in that span). It's a big part of what makes this offense so difficult to defend. But as we enter the back half of June, the Rams enter Year 3 under HC Sean McVay with seemingly more questions than answers in regards to which players will be ready for Week 1 (Cooper Kupp) and/or be able to make it through the season (Todd Gurley). While I am very much in the camp that believes owners are overreacting to Gurley's knee "condition," I'm in no way oblivious to the fact it will likely be an issue for him for the rest of his career. As far as Kupp is concerned, his season came to an end in mid-November last year due to an ACL tear, meaning he will be roughly 10 months removed from surgery that typically comes along with a nine-month rehab if everything goes well. Even then, that doesn't account for the fact Kupp relies heavily on cutting and quickness to do his job. Can we realistically expect him to be the best version of himself in 2019?

While it is entirely possible 90 percent of Kupp and 75 percent of Gurley (just to throw some numbers out there) may be enough to turn Los Angeles from a great offense to a good one, let's not dismiss the idea that McVay can adapt and evolve as well. To some degree, he already has by drafting Darrell Henderson. However, owners will have to look far and wide to see an actual report in which the third-round rookie is being billed as the clear backup to Gurley. Here's a brief excerpt of what GM Les Snead said following the selection of Henderson:

“If you go back to when we signed Lance Dunbar – Sean’s always felt like his offense would be, let’s call it, slightly more explosive when you have a change-of-pace-type running back. … We thought about doing it in last year’s draft. A couple of enemies chose a few of those change-of-pace backs ahead of us. It’s always been something we’ve been trying to do, obviously, since Sean walked in and felt like it would be a nice complement. … Sean will split him out and let him run some routes. … Because you can run the ball as a change-of-pace guy, but to be able to split out – a little bit like James White with New England and be able to run some routes similar to a slot receiver."

Nowhere in that quote does it sound like the Rams have any plans of making Henderson a workhorse. Obviously, plans can change, but my pre-draft evaluation of the rookie wasn't much different. This is all relevant because if Gurley and Kupp are limited in any way, the bulk of the offense - one which scored 55 offensive touchdowns in 2018, including 32 through the air - is going to rest on the shoulders of Woods and Cooks.

Getting back to efficiency, Woods and Cooks are both one season removed from performing well above the league-average receiver when it comes to scoring touchdowns, albeit the latter did so in New England. (However, I think Watkins' eight scores - playing a similar role to Cooks - on 39 catches might have set some kind of record for efficiency if he had qualified.) Perhaps both players remain stuck in the range of 5-6 TDs like Keenan Allen over the last few years, but I'm willing to bet on McVay finding a way to keep this offense among the NFL's best more than the alternative. If the former sentiment is correct (and again, if Gurley and Kupp are slightly lesser versions of their regular selves), it will almost certainly happen because Woods and Cooks played a significant role.

George Kittle, San Francisco

Year G Tgt Rec Yds TD Ctch% Tar/TD Rec/TD Yds/TD Yds/Tgt YPC
2018 16 136 88 1377 5 64.70% 27.2 17.6 275.4 10.1 15.6
League Average 15.7 102.7 70.4 819.0 5.7 68.7% 18.1 12.4 144.5 8.0 11.6

What do you get the tight end who set an NFL record for most receiving yards by anyone at his position? More touchdowns, of course. As ridiculous of a season as Kittle enjoyed in 2018, one only needs to compare his numbers side-by-side with Travis Kelce to see what could (and maybe should) have been. Despite his obvious big-play ability, Kittle needed nine more targets, 5.2 more catches and roughly 131 more receiving yards to score a touchdown last season than the league-average tight end. For the sake of comparison, Austin Hooper (3.9, 5.4, 20.5), Kyle Rudolph (2.4, 3.6, 14) and David Njoku (3.9, 1.6, 15.3) all performed below "league-average" tight ends and were still were significantly more efficient than Kittle.

The good news is that San Francisco will get back Jimmy Garoppolo from injury. Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd arrived via the draft to strike some fear into defenses. Albeit young, both players offer skill-sets that opposing defenses must respect, even if they begin the season as part-timers. Dante Pettis began to emerge as the season started to wind down, and two of Kittle's best games occurred during that stretch. Owners have a right to be skeptical if a team adds a bit too much talent, thereby threatening the targets and overall opportunity of the established star. While the 49ers may eventually get to the point where Kittle's fantasy owners have to work about target share, I'm not sure they are quite there yet. It's more likely San Francisco is now in that sweet spot where it has just enough talent to get defenses to respect the complementary pieces while allowing Kittle to make some hay in the red zone. It should come as no surprise if the third-year tight end loses more than 200 yards from his 2018 receiving yardage total but comes close to doubling his touchdown output.

Other noteworthy positive regression candidates:

Jarvis Landry, Cleveland
Kenny Golladay, Detroit
D.J. Moore, Carolina
David Njoku, Cleveland

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.