Identifying 2023 Touchdown Regression Candidates: WRs (Fantasy Football)

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If you rostered Diontae Johnson in fantasy football last season, you are well aware that he scored zero touchdowns despite earning 154 total opportunities. Naturally, you might be wondering: how many touchdowns should Johnson have scored last season? How many points did he leave on the table? And how likely is it that he repeats a zero-touchdown campaign? We can answer these questions by using a metric known as Expected Touchdowns (or xTD), which calculates the probability of a player scoring on any given play. While Johnson is the most obvious regression candidate, this article will highlight multiple wide receivers who could regress to the mean in 2023.

Play-by-play data used for this metric was provided by nflfastR.

Calculating Expected Touchdowns

To calculate Expected Touchdowns, I created an xTD model that uses historical play-by-play data to determine the likelihood of a player scoring on any given play. This is based on a variety of variables such as the down, distance to the goal, and the type of opportunity (rush attempt, pass attempt, or target). For targets and pass attempts, I also factor in the depth and direction of the throw. Once we account for each of these variables, my model will calculate an xTD value for each opportunity on a scale from 0 to 1.

To better understand xTD for wide receivers, we can take a look at the following play for Davante Adams against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13:

  • Type of Opportunity: Target
  • Yards to Go: 10 Yards
  • Yardline: Denver’s 31-Yard Line
  • Down: 1st Down
  • Air Yards: 31 Air Yards

If we run this play through my Expected Touchdowns model, we arrive at an xTD value of 0.1649. Considering this was a deep shot by Derek Carr that landed in the end zone, the expected touchdown value was relatively high. In other words, around 16.5% of targets in this specific scenario would have resulted in a touchdown. Because Adams scored on this play, we calculate his Touchdowns Over Expected (TDOE) as follows:

  • Touchdowns Scored: 1.00
  • Expected Touchdowns: 0.1649
  • Touchdowns Over Expected: +0.8351

As you can see above, TDOE is the difference between the touchdowns scored and their xTD. If Adams failed to score a touchdown on that play, his TDOE would have landed at -0.1649. Once we run this analysis for each of Adams’ opportunities, we arrive at his weekly xTD value. He finished the week with 12 opportunities, two touchdowns, and an expected touchdown value of 0.89. As a result, Adams scored an efficient +1.11 Touchdowns Over Expected against the Chargers in Week 13.

As you may have already surmised, Expected Touchdowns are synonymous with opportunity and usage. The more opportunities a player receives near the end zone, the more likely they are to score – leading to a higher expected touchdown value. On the other hand, Touchdowns Over Expected (TDOE) is a metric that highlights efficiency, which is both volatile and subject to regression. The premise is that the TDOE value will generally regress to zero over a period of time. In fact, after an efficient Week 13, Adams regressed heavily to the mean as he only scored two more touchdowns in his final five games (-0.20 TDOE).

Interpreting xTD and TDOE

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After calculating the Expected Touchdowns for every opportunity, we can then evaluate each player’s usage and efficiency by totaling their xTD over a period of time. In doing so, we arrive at the chart above. The x-axis represents a player’s xTD, while the y-axis displays the actual number of touchdowns scored. To avoid overcrowding the chart, I only plotted the wide receivers with a minimum of 90 opportunities. In addition, the line represents the projected point of regression for each player. The gap between a player and the trend line is their Touchdowns Over (or Under) Expected. The expectation is that if a player receives the same type of usage this season, they are likely to score closer to their expected touchdown value.

With this in mind, what is the likelihood that a player will regress to the mean? Historically, wide receivers who scored above their xTD value experienced an 89.7% decline in Touchdowns Over Expected the following season. By contrast, wide receivers who scored below their xTD value were about 92.5% more efficient in their next season. In short, regardless of where a player is located on this chart, they are likely to regress toward their Expected Touchdown value this upcoming season.

Keep in mind, regressing to the mean does not imply that a player will fall out of fantasy relevance. Let’s once again use Davante Adams as an example. While he led all wide receivers in Touchdowns Over Expected (+4.53), he was also second at his position in Expected Touchdowns with 9.47. If he scores anywhere close to his expected value of nine or ten touchdowns, he should still retain WR1 production. He may just not be a top-three wide receiver like he was last season.

The main takeaway should be this: Usage and volume matter. The more targets a player receives, the more opportunities they have to score touchdowns. On the other hand, if a player’s production is heavily reliant on touchdown efficiency, their fantasy output will likely be volatile and inconsistent.

Negative Regression Candidates

Tyler Lockett was one of the most efficient wide receivers last season, scoring an elite +4.3 touchdowns over expected. While this heavily contributed to his WR14 finish in half-PPR per game, it also leaves plenty of room for regression this upcoming season. The larger concern was Lockett’s volume as he only averaged a 22.7% target share. For context, 11 of the top 15 wide receivers in half-PPR leagues averaged a target share of at least 26%. In addition, his expected fantasy value was only at 9.9, which ranked WR29 last season. In other words, if Lockett’s efficiency regresses to the mean, his volume may not be enough to keep him in WR2 territory. Factor in the presence of D.K. Metcalf (who scored a -1.98 TDOE) and the addition of Jaxon Smith-Njigba, it would not shock me if Lockett’s efficiency and volume declined this upcoming season.

Jahan Dotson has gained significant momentum as we head into the 2023 campaign. While I do see a path to a breakout season, it will need to come with improved volume. From a touchdown perspective, Dotson is likely to regress negatively as he scored +3.1 touchdowns over expected. For context, he found the endzone seven times in only 12 games, putting him on pace to score 10 touchdowns on only 89 opportunities. Simply put, this type of efficiency is unsustainable. Does this mean Dotson is unlikely to break out this season? That will depend on the usage and health of Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel. If McLaurin continues to lead the team in both target and air yards share, Dotson will likely remain a flex receiver at best. On a positive note, we did see Dotson’s volume improve after their bye week, leading all Commanders’ receivers in total opportunities (26) and Expected Touchdowns (1.8). If that usage carries over into this season, we could see him outproduce his eighth-round ADP.

Christian Watson was one of the most efficient wide receivers from Weeks 10 to 13, scoring seven touchdowns on only 29 opportunities. To no surprise, he led all wide receivers in that timespan with 5.74 touchdowns over expected. To put this into perspective, out of the 1,325 wide receiver seasons in my database since 2010, only fourteen (1%) have managed to maintain this type of efficiency for a full season. So while it was a truly elite stretch of games, Watson was bound to fall back down to the earth as he failed to find the end zone in his final four games. And while he already regressed to close out the year, he still finished with 3.7 touchdowns over expected, leaving room for his efficiency to decline even further. As a result, Watson’s volume will need to improve drastically if we expect him to break out this upcoming season. Unfortunately, with the additions of Jayden Reed and Luke Musgrave, Watson will have plenty of competition in the Packers’ offense.

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Positive Regression Candidates

This entire segment could be dedicated to Diontae Johnson as he is the most obvious regression candidate this year. As you can see above, he finished the season with 7.51 Touchdowns Below Expected on 154 opportunities. In fact, since 2010, this was the most inefficient touchdown season in my database by a significant margin. This alone should provide plenty of optimism as regression should lead to a more productive fantasy season in 2023. Even more encouraging, Diontae’s volume was truly elite last year, averaging an impressive 27% target share and 34% air yards share for the Steelers. If we converted his usage into fantasy points, his expected value would have been 12.3 half-PPR points, which would have ranked as the WR15 last season. In other words, if he regresses to the mean and Kenny Pickett takes a step forward in his development, Diontae has the upside to finish as a borderline WR1 this year. And at his seventh-round ADP, he could be one of the best values in fantasy football this season.

Drake London’s fantasy season of WR45 left much to be desired as he struggled to find any sort of consistency in his rookie year. This was partially driven by play calling as the Falcons were one of the most run-heavy teams in the league. In addition, the quarterback play also limited his upside as he received passes from Marcus Mariota for the majority of the season. As a result, London finished with one of the lowest TDOE values among wide receivers at -2.37. On a positive note, London operated as the unquestioned WR1 for the team, especially after Desmond Ridder took over at quarterback in Week 15. He finished the season with an elite 29.3% target share, the highest value among rookie wide receivers over the last decade. Yes, even higher than Odell Beckham Jr. Unfortunately, a high target share is valued far less in an offense that prefers to run the ball on over 60% of their plays. However, if his touchdown efficiency can at least regress to the mean, and the addition of Bijan Robinson can further elevate the Falcons’ offense, London has the upside to finish as a WR2 or better in 2023.

Garrett Wilson enters the year as one of the most popular breakout candidates at the wide receiver position. Especially with the addition of Aaron Rodgers, Wilson has an opportunity to enter elite territory. And as you can see in the chart above, Wilson did not even reach his full potential as he finished below expected by 2.42 touchdowns. If we take a look at his fantasy usage, Wilson underperformed in this metric as well. He finished the year as the WR29 in half-PPR leagues despite ranking as the WR16 in Expected Fantasy Points (11.9). In other words, Wilson’s usage should have resulted in WR2 production had he played with a competent quarterback for the majority of the season. Thankfully, this should not be an issue this year with Rodgers set to lead the offense. As a result, Wilson is already priced relatively high at an ADP of WR8. However, I do believe he has the potential to meet or even exceed that cost, operating as the unquestioned WR1 in what should be a much-improved Jets offense.

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