Using 2014 to Find Balance In 2015 Fantasy Football
May 13, 2015 | Rich Hribar
Since I spent so much time covering rookies over the past three months, I wanted to come back with something looking forward a bit to the 2015 fantasy football season. If you’re someone who plays Roto baseball or basketball, you’re already keen on using regression to your advantage in-season. Both of those sports have the benefit of seasonal longevity in their pockets, so more often than not, players revert closer to the average in production measurements, whether that average is their own or a larger grouping.
In the NFL, an individual season itself is an inherently small sample as a whole in comparison. Things don’t always recalibrate over the course of 16 games like we’d anticipate and often take longer to correct themselves. For every Eddie Lacy or Tom Brady, you have a Keenan Allen or an Andre Johnson. In fantasy football, a lot from yesterday is priced into today, even if a portion of that production is unlikely to be repeatable or could regain form. Looking back at 2014, here are a dozen statistics that will be hard for players to roll over into their 2015 campaigns or return back to the positive production that they once had. As a disclaimer, I wouldn’t base any sole decisions off of these facts, as the idea isn’t to strictly fade or prop up anyone, but rather incorporate them into the pricing of those involved.
- Russell Wilson: 36.7 percent of his fantasy production from rushing alone. Wilson’s 849 rushing yards last season were the fifth most from a quarterback since 1970 and his 7.6 fantasy rushing points per game rank as the 11th highest from all quarterbacks who played 10 or more games. He had five games in which he posted double-digit rushing points (there were 12 all season from quarterbacks and he and Cam Newton were the only ones with multiple games). Just 24.3 percent of Wilson’s points came from passing touchdowns, the 10th lowest total of any top-12 scoring quarterback ever. Since 2000, here are all of the top-12 quarterbacks that have had 35 percent or more of their fantasy production stem from their work rushing.
Outside of Mike Vick, who never developed nuance as a passer, it’s hard to retain that much reliance on rushing yearly. Quarterback rushing scores themselves are hard to predict or rely upon, and Wilson has gone from four to one to six over his three seasons in the league. Wilson may not need to retain that rushing output either, as his passing volume has increased every season and he now has his first legitimate passing target in Jimmy Graham. There are still plenty of reasons to have him ranked in your top half of quarterbacks coming into the season, but you should be treating his rushing output as fantasy frosting instead of banking on another historical season.
- Julius Thomas: 27.9 percent reception conversion rate into touchdowns. That seasonal rate ranks as the highest in NFL history for a tight end with 40 or more receptions and second for any tight end with 30 or more receptions. Moving on from Peyton Manning, who has thrown a touchdown pass once every 17.1 attempts in his career to Blake Bortles, who threw one every 43.2 attempts as a rookie (fifth worst rate by any quarterback since 2000) will ding Thomas’ weighted production for fantasy arguably more than any other free agent signing this past offseason since he also had positional scarcity in his favor.
- A.J. Green: three total targets inside the 10-yard line. That total ranked 108th in the league in 2014, behind glorious touchdown producers such as Benny Cunningham, Jacob Tamme and Jack Doyle amongst others and was less than half of the total that teammate Jermaine Gresham (seven) had. Over his first three seasons, Green had 12, 16, and 12 such targets in that area of the field. He squares off against some stiff cornerback competition this season, but I still expect Green to revert back to heavy usage when the Bengals offense is seeing red.
- Vincent Jackson: 6.7 percent of PPR production stemmed from touchdowns. That lowly percentage ranked dead last of all wide receivers in the top 40 scorers on the season and it was just the fifth time ever that a player had two or fewer touchdown receptions on 140 or more targets. Jackson still garnered 26.7 percent of the Tampa targets, as well as 25.9 percent of the team red zone targets, barely unchanged by the arrival of Mike Evans, he just didn’t convert looks into scores. Prior to 2014, 20.2 percent of Jackson’s career PPR output was generated through touchdown production and he never had a single season below 17 percent.
- Antonio Gates: 2.28 points per target in PPR formats. The highest ever mark for a tight end 30 or older (minimum 70 targets) and only the fourth tight end over 30 ever to post a 2.00 mark or higher per target. Gates saw similar target volume last year as he did over the previous three seasons, but the separator in efficiency was his 12 scores, his fourth season of double-digit touchdown production and first since 2010.
- DeMarco Murray: 28.1 touches per game. A fairly obvious one, but that total was the eighth highest ever since the merger and the most since Larry Johnson’s 28.6 touches per game in 2006. Accumulating 449 regular season touches, Murray had 12 games with 25 or more touches which was tied for the second most ever in a single season behind Barry Foster’s 13 from 1992. Now sharing a backfield with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles, Murray should have a lot more company in shouldering the overall workload.
- LeSean McCoy: 0.59 PPR points per touch, which was lowest of all running backs with 200 or more touches in 2014 and was the lowest total in his career. Prior to last season, McCoy averaged 0.93 PPR points per touch and a large portion of the decline stemmed from career lows with 28 receptions and just 5.5 yards per catch. Greg Roman had a poor history of involving the backs in San Francisco into the passing game, so I don’t expect a massive rebound in that department, but Buffalo has set themselves up to be a run after the catch passing attack and I anticipate McCoy to be involved to some capacity with improved efficiency per touch to go along with the bankable rushing volume.
- Tony Romo: 0.612 passing points per pass attempt. You can argue a sound case that Romo had a better passing season than Aaron Rodgers last year, but that’s for another time. I always separate passing and rushing performance when dissecting quarterbacks and that level of efficiency from Romo passing ranks as the eighth best mark per attempt for any quarterback with over 400 pass attempts ever.
Romo’s previous season high was 0.528 points per attempt passing back from 2007 and had just one season over half of a point per attempt since then prior to last year. The turnover in the Dallas backfield may increase volume for Romo to compensate any efficiency dip, but even at his apex in efficiency, he was still the ninth best quarterback in terms of fantasy points per game in 2014.
- Antonio Brown: 14 games with seven or more receptions, which was the most ever in a single season, surpassing Marvin Harrison’s 12 games from 2002 in which he set the NFL single season record with 143 total receptions. Brown also has the longest streak ever of games with five or more receptions (32 with the next closest at 19), but had just six games of seven or more catches in 2013. The only two receivers with multiple seasons of double-digit seven plus catch games are Andre Johnson (2008 and 2012) and Wes Welker (’08-09). Still a reception machine and no-brainer first round selection, it’s still almost unreasonable to expect Brown to maintain pacing per game in the capacity he did in 2014.
- Vernon Davis: one red zone target. That lone red zone target also came in the opening week of the season. Davis has the third highest red zone target to touchdown conversion rate of any player (minimum 50 targets) since targets were tracked at 42.9 percent, behind only Rob Gronkowski (48.8) and Dez Bryant (43.8). Previously averaging 10.4 red zone looks per season over his career, Davis is currently a fantasy afterthought at this stage of the offseason and a prime streaming tight end target, allowing nearly no risk at all for those making a play on that returned usage.
- Jarvis Landry: 46.3 percent of PPR output from just receptions, which was the fifth highest reception dependency for fantasy output ever for a top-40 scoring wide receiver. I wrote about these types of seasons a bit last offseason when dissecting Kendall Wright’s fantasy surge (43.9 percent of his scoring in 2013 was from receptions alone), and it really comes down to two things when drafting Landry if he costs anything before a seventh round draft pick, which is you either believe his touchdown production will increase (he had just a 10.9 percent career reception to touchdown rate in college) or he will lose the overall volume support necessary to keep lateral fantasy relevance. Given the allocations that Miami has spent on the position surrounding him this offseason, I will steer clear of his price tag if it holds in August.
- Martavis Bryant: averaging a touchdown reception once every six targets. That almost feels silly to even type out it’s so ridiculous, but Bryant turned just 48 targets into eight touchdowns as a rookie, the best TGT/TD rate of any receiver with over 40 targets ever, rookie or not. 36.9 percent of his fantasy production came from touchdowns, the highest in the league. As with Romo, you’re anticipating volume to meet unsustainable efficiency in the middle, but with Bryant, you’re not really afforded that as so much of his cost has his ceiling factored in already.
BONUS: Six rookie wide receivers with 100 or more targets, which was most ever in a season since targets were tallied. Prior to last season, there had never been more than three rookie receivers to garner 100 or more looks from their offense. Kelvin Benjamin had 145 targets, which was the most targets a rookie receiver has had in a season since Anquan Boldin’s 165 in 2003. That doesn’t even include Allen Hurns who had 97 targets, either. The 2014 rookie receiver class had historic production, but also had a perfect storm of opportunity, something this incoming class lacks in comparison, but the excitement of the return from the most recent rookie crop may elevate this batch in drafts still this summer.
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