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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.