Fantasy Football Regression
Fantasy gamers tend to look too much into 2018 statistics when making predictions for the 2019 season. Where 2018 season statistics matter in terms of creating baseline projections it is important to identify outliers in projection. Often times these outliers in production cause players to be over-drafted and overvalued because they simply cannot reach the same expectations that they set in 2018. Many times finding players that are candidates for regression are looking for players that either had career years or performed so much above-set expectation. Draft capital is also important here as well, as that psychologically has an impact on value. Many players on this list were either drafted in the double-digit rounds or went undrafted all together making any fantasy football production they had profitable; further increasing their chance for regression in the next season. Newer expectations have been set. Let’s dive in.
Patrick Mahomes | QB
Kansas City Chiefs
According to the FantasyData.com fantasy scoring, Patrick Mahomes scored the most fantasy points ever in 2018 for a QB. He was able to beat out Peyton Manning’s 2013 season by just over seven fantasy points. Bringing up Manning’s 2013 season is important because it is one if not the only season comparable to Mahomes’ 2018 campaign. Manning in 2013 threw for 55 touchdowns, 5547 passing yards, and 10 interceptions. Mahomes in 2018 threw for 50 touchdowns, 5097 passing yards, and 12 interceptions. Mahomes ended up edging Manning out in fantasy scoring because of his 272 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. When you are the highest scorer in fantasy history at QB, it’s just hard to expect him to get better, because he’s already the best. Referring back to Manning, after his 2013 campaign, he regressed from 25.6 fantasy points/game to 19.5 fantasy points/game in 2014. Manning finished 2014 has the QB4 on the season. Will Mahomes finish as the QB1 in 2019? Most likely. But it won’t be in the same fashion as he did in 2018.
Eric Ebron | TE
Ebron finished as the TE4 in 2018, because of his 14 total touchdowns (13 receiving, 1 rushing). Touchdowns year over year are extremely volatile, so expecting to see Ebron match this production in touchdowns in 2019 is unlikely. Since Luck entered the NFL in 2012, Ebron is the first Colts player to score double-digit touchdowns in one season. Also, remember that tight end Jack Doyle missed ten games last year. In the six games, with Doyle playing Ebron averaged just 4.4 targets per game. When Doyle did not play Ebron was averaging 8.8 targets per game. Having seasons with back to back double-digit touchdown scores is also an extremely difficult feat to reach unless your name is Davante Adams.
Phillip Lindsay | RB
I’ve already declared my Royce Freeman truther status in the previous article: Three Way Too Early Bold Fantasy Predictions for 2019. Lindsay broke out of nowhere in 2018, finishing as the RB12 in PPR formats through 16 games. Lindsay ranked first in the NFL in yards per carry (5.4) with any player who had a minimum of 190 carries. Not only effective as a runner, but he also saw work in the passing game with 47 targets and a 9% target market share. It did end on a more sour note as he stumbled by finishing with just 2.63 yards per carry over the last three, weeks of the NFL season. He then was placed on injured reserve after Week 16, due to a wrist injury.
Regression in the yards per carry department is almost certain. At such a high number of 5.4, it is extremely difficult to duplicate year over year. Nobody in 2017 had more than 5 yards per carry with a minimum of 190 carries. In 2016, LeSean McCoy averaged 5.4 yards per carry and that dropped to 4 yards per carry the following season, and then all the way down to 3.2 in 2018. There is extreme volatility of yards per carry and how it is not extremely predictive of future success.
Antonio Brown | WR
Drama aside, Brown showed some signs of decline in 2018. His yards/target went from 9.4 in 2017 to 7.7 in 2018. That 7.7 yards/target was the lowest since 2012 for Brown. Brown’s fantasy season, however, remained great because it was supplemented by a league-leading 15 touchdown receptions; a career high for Brown. Again touchdowns are not sticky year over year, and there’s a strong chance AB is out of Pittsburgh in 2019 after he tweeted his goodbyes to the Steeler faithful. You do not just replicate the chemistry you have built over nine years with Ben Roelithsberger on another team. Unless he ends up back in Pittsburgh, fantasy gamers will be disappointed if they pay high-end draft capital for the diva wide receiver.
James White | RB
New England Patriots
White finished the regular season has the RB7 overall on the year. A lot of that had to do with his career highs in receptions (87), targets (123), receiving yards (751), rushing yards (425), and total touchdowns (12). But why did all of sudden White become such a focal point in the Patriots’ offense? Well, because they were missing pieces throughout the season. Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel all missed games throughout the season. Weeks 1-10, White was the RB7 overall in PPR leagues. Better than Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott at the time. Weeks 11-16 though, RB36. It’s no coincidence that we saw a drop in production from White starting Week 12 because that is when Michel was healthy and Week 13 is when Burkhead returned. With all three running backs returning for 2019, White could see a significant drop-off in production unless Michel or Burkhead goes down with an injury.
Tyler Lockett | WR
Lockett’s absurd efficiency in 2019, makes him an extreme candidate for regression in 2019. To start Tyler Lockett becomes the first player since at least 2006 to have a perfect quarterback rating (158.3) when targeted on at least 70 targets (through 17 games played). He was catching a touchdown every seven targets. Including playoffs, he was second in the NFL in yards/reception (17.8), and first in reception percentage (85.9%). Lockett is the only player since 1992 to have a catch percentage of at least 80%, 70 targets, and a yards/receptions greater than 16 according to Pro Football Reference. It has never happened since targets became a tracked statistic.
Russell Wilson | QB
Of course, when you have wide receiver regression, there is usually a quarterback tied along not too far down the line. In 2015 and 2017, Wilson threw for 34 passing touchdowns. His touchdown percentage averaged over those two seasons was 6.55. In 2018, Wilson threw 35 touchdowns on just 427 passing attempts for an 8.2 touchdown percentage. He also had the lowest rushing attempts (67) of his career in 2018. Those passing numbers have only been duplicated once before in the entire history of the NFL. According to the Pro Football Reference, there have been just two quarterbacks that threw for at least 35 touchdowns, on under 430 passing attempts with at least an 8.0 touchdown percentage. Wilson in 2018, and Y.A. Tittle of the New York Giants in 1963. He threw for 36 touchdowns on 367 passing attempts for a 9.8 touchdown percentage. What did he do the following season? He threw ten touchdowns, had just 281 passing attempts, and cumulated a 3.6 touchdown percentage. Now obviously the game has changed a lot since 1963, but the fact of the matter still remains how insane Wilson’s 2018 campaign truly was.
Adam Thielen | WR
In Weeks 1-8, Thielen was averaging 25.5 fantasy points per game as the WR1. In Weeks 9-17 Thielen was averaging half of that with 12.9 fantasy points per game as the WR26. As the offense made a transition later in the season to feature more of Dalvin Cook, Thielen’s production took a massive hit. It’s no coincidence that Thielen’s streak of eight 100-yard games ended in Week 9 when Cook returned from his injury and started to receive double-digit touches. Thielen finished the season as the WR7 overall in PPR formats. Stefon Diggs, on the other hand, was WR11 Weeks 1-8 and WR16 Weeks 9-17, finishing as WR11 overall. With Kevin Stefanski returning as the offensive coordinator the Vikings are going to be a team that wants to establish the run, no matter the cost. Via 4for4.com, under John DeFilippo, the Vikings averaged 40.3 pass attempts and just 21.1 rush attempts, a 65.7% pass rate. In three games under Stefanski, Minnesota averaged 27.3 pass attempts and 27.7 rush attempts for a 49.7% pass rate. Cook averaged 14.8 touches per game under DeFilippo and 18 touches per game when Stefanski was calling plays. No Vikings offensive player looks to hit regression as hard as Thielen in 2019.
George Kittle | TE
San Francisco 49ers
Now, this last player is tough to evaluate. At first, I considered Kittle an obvious candidate for regression. Kittle finished the 2018 season as the TE3 in PPR formats. He also broke the record for the most receiving yards by a tight end (1377) because he led his team in targets (135) in 2018. That’s because the 49ers other skill position players like Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, and Jerick Mckinnon all missed time due to injuries. Kendrick Bourne commanded the second most targets (66) in the 49ers’ offense. No tight end has ever commanded 135 targets, and average 15.65 yards/reception in NFL history. But that’s where the projection of regression halts for Kittle, because of what I found next.
Not including 2018, since 1994, 14 tight ends have commanded 135 targets. Jimmy Graham had three seasons in a row where he had plus 135 targets from 2011-2013 and he was an elite TE. Ben Coates had two seasons in a row with 135 plus targets as an elite TE. Overall after a season of 135 targets, there was not much regression for these elite tight ends. 12 of the tight ends saw at least 115 targets the following season. Only Shannon Sharpe and Kellen Winslow Jr. saw less than 100, and Winslow Jr. was hurt and played just 10 games. I was initially worried that Kittle would regress significantly in terms of target share, but even with offensive pieces coming back he still should dominate the target market share unless the 49ers add an Antonio Brown player-esque this offseason. So until they do, I can’t confidently say Kittle is going to see a huge decrease in targets. At worst perhaps a 15% decrease down to 115 targets. But then there’s the fact Kittle could see positive regression in terms of receiving touchdowns. With Jimmy Garoppolo returning there’s a chance that Kittle could see a slight boost in efficiency from his 2018 output of just five receiving touchdowns. Since 1992, 64 tight ends have seen at least 115 targets. 66% scored more than five touchdowns.
I know another argument that is made in the case against Kittle is that Kyle Shanahan has hardly ever featured a tight end in his offense heavily. That’s not entirely true though. In Houston, Washington, and Atlanta he brought out top six tight end production from Owen Daniels and Chris Cooley followed by top-14 production from Fred Davis and Jacob Tamme. The common theme for these four tight ends? All are 6’3” or taller like Kittle.
So whereas Kittle seems like a candidate for some regression in terms of yardage and targets, there are other factors that need to be realized. That includes the 49ers just being an overall more efficient team and offense as a whole which could increase Kittle’s overall efficiency.