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  • These players could deal with negative regression in 2019.
By Michael Beller
June 20, 2019

Regression is too often treated as the end of the discussion when, in fact, it is the beginning. Yes, players regress, both negatively and positively, in every sport, every year. It can be tempting to see one outlier stat and assume regression, but that’s the fantasy sports equivalent of screaming “fire” in a crowded room. Certainly, players will regress this season, but it’s not because they were due for an evening out in their bottom-line performance. Rather, regression typically owes to a substantive change in environment that results in a decline in that stats-based output that drives fantasy production. In other words, regression is an effect, not a cause.

If there’s one area in fantasy football where regression occurs without a substantive change in the player’s circumstances, it’s in the touchdown department. Touchdowns are among the most volatile stats in sports, especially considering the length of an NFL season relative to that of other sports. That’s why when a player’s fantasy production swings dramatically from one season to the next, we usually see a significant change under the TD header on his year-to-year stat line.

The following players are most at risk to experience regression this season through tangible change, unsustainable touchdown rates, or a combination of the two.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers

Over the previous six seasons, Roethlisberger threw for 172 touchdowns. Antonio Brown accounted for 67, or 39%, of them. Brown is now in Oakland, doing what he can to resuscitate the Raiders’ offense. Back in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to have to figure out what life without Brown looks like, and that’s going to have a significant effect on Roethlisberger’s production.

To be fair, Roethlisberger has never subsisted, even for one season, on an unsustainable touchdown rate. His touchdown rate for the six-year window in question was 5%, with a single-season high of 5.7%. That bodes well for 2019, as does the likelihood that Juju Smith-Schuster can be a legitimate No. 1 receiver without Brown on the field. Still, there’s no way to argue that the Steelers’ offense is improved without Brown, or that Roethlisberger is in a better spot, notably from a fantasy perspective, without the guy who has been the best receiver in football over the last six years. It all comes together for a strong regression case in 2019.

Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks

Last year, Wilson threw 35 touchdowns on 427 attempts, good for a touchdown rate of 8.2%. That was the seventh-highest touchdown rate in NFL history in a season with at least 400 attempts, tied with Kurt Warner’s 1999 campaign. It was also one of just 10 instances in league history where a quarterback had a touchdown rate of at least 8% across a minimum of 400 attempts. Even by the pass-friendly standards of the modern game, that’s an outlier.

Before last season, Wilson’s career high in touchdown passes was 34, which he set in 2015 and matched in 2017. In those two seasons, his touchdown rates were 7% and 6.1%, respectively. From both historical and personal perspectives, Wilson operated on a different, likely unsustainable plane, last year.

To counteract possible regression in the passing game, the Seahawks used a second-round pick on D.K. Metcalf. Unless he’s painfully slow to adapt to the NFL game, he’ll be an upgrade over the 2018 version of Doug Baldwin, who was a shell of his former self due to injury. Even with that, though, the Seahawks lack the pass-catching firepower, at least on paper, to suggest Wilson will be a 35-touchdown quarterback. He can make up for some of it with his legs, but we could see Wilson south of 30 touchdowns again this season.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs

I listed Mahomes among my early busts for many of the same reasons that he’s in this column, so I won’t repeat too much of what I said previously. Rather, I’ll focus on the key points. First, like Wilson, Mahomes put up an almost certainly unsustainable touchdown rate last season, checking in at 8.6%, fourth-highest in NFL history. Peyton Manning is the only quarterback in NFL history with two 8% touchdown-rate seasons, and only six quarterbacks have had two seasons with a touchdown rate of 7% or better. If Mahomes’ touchdown rate dropped to 7% this year and he had the same 580 attempts he did last year, he’d end the season with 40 touchdown passes. That’s a significant dropoff from last year, and to achieve even that he’d have to become the seventh quarterback in NFL history with two 7% touchdown-rate seasons to his name.

Then, there’s the Tyreek Hill question. Hill was as necessary an element to the Chiefs’ offense as anyone last year, catching 87 passes for 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns, and running the ball 22 times for 151 yards and a score. Seven of his 12 receiving touchdowns were from at least 25 yards out, and four were 58-yard scores or longer. That explosiveness typified the Chiefs’ offense, and helped carry Mahomes to his MVP campaign. Without Hill, that explosiveness is, at best, significantly curbed and, at worst, completely gone.

James White, RB, Patriots

White had a monster year in 2018, setting new career highs literally across the board. His 87 receptions, 123 targets, 751 receiving yards, seven receiving touchdowns, 94 carries, 425 rushing yards and five rushing scores were all comfortably the best marks of his career. Everything about White’s 2018 season screams outlier. He ranked second among backs in targets, third in receptions, second in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns. The only other backs with 100 targets and 80 receptions last year—Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara—are also as legitimate workhorses we expect to approach or surpass 300 touches. It’s hard to be a heavily targeted back who’s used lightly as a traditional runner, and be a in the top 20 at the position, let alone the top 10 where White was last year.

With all that being said, I don’t see much regression risk for White through the air. Yes, Rex Burkhead is healthy (at least for the time being) and the Patriots drafted Damien Harris, but Rob Gronkowski is gone and Julian Edelman is the only other holdover from last year who was a significant weapon in the passing game. White has also earned the trust of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, which we know is half the battle in New England. White’s going to be just fine as a receiver.

The big risk, especially from a touchdown standpoint, is on the ground. White was one of 30 backs who rushed for at least five touchdowns last year, doing so on the aforementioned 94 carries. Alex Collins had the next fewest carries in the group at 114. The other 28 all had at least 130 rushes. White had two rushing touchdowns in the first four years of his career before hitting paydirt five times on the ground last year. Of those five, two were from one yard out, and a third came from inside the 10-yard line. All three of those were in games Sony Michel missed due to injury.

Todd Gurley, RB, Rams

Gurley was also in the early busts column, so we won’t restate too much of the case against him here. Put simply, it’s hard to score 21 touchdowns in consecutive seasons, particularly when you have an arthritic knee, your coach has a stated goal of managing your workload, and your team traded up to draft another running back to help with that goal. There’s plenty of reason to believe in Gurley if the price comes down, but he’s such an obvious regression candidate that we have to include him in this column.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Seahawks

It stands to reason that if Russell Wilson enjoyed an unsustainable touchdown rate in 2018, at least one of his pass-catchers did, too. Lockett had 10 touchdowns on 70 targets and 57 receptions. He’s one of seven players since targets became an official stat in 1992 to score 10 times with 70 or fewer targets, and one of 13 to do it with 80 or fewer. There have been 123 instances of a receiver scoring 10 touchdowns on 60 receptions or fewer, but only 20 of them have occurred in the last 30 years, and just 12 have come in the last 20. Scoring 10 receiving touchdowns on 70 targets and 57 receptions just doesn’t happen in the modern game.

If Lockett is going to sustain the production he had last year, his target share will have to increase significantly. For that to happen, the Seahawks must treat him as a true No. 1 receiver. Lockett had a 17.5% target share last season, second on the team to Doug Baldwin’s 18.3%. Before last season, Baldwin had three straight years with target shares north of 20%, though he never ranked better than 15th in the league in target share. Lockett could score double-digit touchdowns again with a 20% target share, but even if he gets to that mark there’s significant risk involved considering the efficiency Seattle’s offense played with last year.

Calvin Ridley, WR, Falcons

Touchdown regression is a numbers game for every player, and Ridley may provide us with our purest example of that fact. Julio Jones has had a target share of at least 24.4% each of the last five seasons. He’s hit at least 28% three times in that span, including both of the previous two seasons. We can safely pencil in Jones for at least a 28% target share this season. Since it’s Julio and for the sake of round numbers, let’s call it 30%, meaning that 70% of Atlanta’s targets are up for grabs.

Ridley had an excellent rookie year, catching 64 passes for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns. Surprisingly, though, he ranked third on the team in target share, also trailing Mohamed Sanu and finishing at 15.2%. He made the most of his opportunities, but it will be hard to duplicate his efforts this year without an increase in target share. Sanu is still in his familiar role, and Austin Hooper and Devonta Freeman will also command their fair share of targets. Even if Ridley climbs ahead of Sanu in target share, he likely has a ceiling of 20%. Matt Ryan has averaged 583 pass attempts per season the last five years, ranging between 529 and 628. A 20% target share on Ryan’s average would give Ridley 117 targets, a number with which he could hit double-digit touchdowns, especially in this offense. Anything short of 20%, however, is likely to result in some regression.

Zay Jones, WR, Bills

Jones may seem an unlikely candidate for this column considering he ranked just 36th among receivers in half-PPR leagues last year. Off the top of your head, though, guess how many touchdowns he scored. Did you say seven, the same amount as Juju Smith-Schuster and Tyler Boyd, and one more than Keenan Allen and Odell Beckham? Congratulations, you nailed it.

Jones did most of his work in the second half of the season, after Josh Allen established himself as the starter. That bodes well for this season. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t the only receiver opening eyes in Buffalo at that time. Robert Foster closed the season with a flourish, catching 25 passes for 511 yards and three touchdowns over his final seven games. Additionally, the Bills brought in John Brown and Cole Beasley this offseason, and upgraded at tight end by signing Tyler Kroft and drafting Dawson Knox out of Mississippi in the third round. Jones led the Bills in target share last year. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he ranked third this year.

Eric Ebron, TE, Colts

Another player pulling double-duty in our early bust and regression columns, Ebron is the poster child for expected touchdown regression in 2019. Forget for a second, if you can, that he scored 13 touchdowns while playing just 55.9% of the Colts’ snaps. Focus instead on why he was on the field that much in the first place. Jack Doyle played only six games last year due to two separate injuries. In the four games he played between the two, he out-targeted Ebron 18-13 and caught 17 of his targets for 165 yards and two scores. He also out-snapped Ebron by nearly 100 plays, racking up a 73.5% snap rate compared with Ebron’s 42.4%.

Why should we expect that to change this season? The alarm bells would be ringing around Ebron based on the 13 touchdowns alone. With a healthy Doyle back in the mix, he may not even have the opportunity to score 13 touchdowns, even in a best-case scenario season. The Colts also found last year a strong goal-line back in Marlon Mack and a dangerous pass-catching back in Nyheim Hines. Furthermore, they signed Devin Funchess and drafted receiver Parris Campbell out of Ohio State in the second round. Simply put, Ebron isn’t going to have anywhere near the volume he did last season.

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