Fantasy Football: The Many Faces of Regression
Regression may be the dirtiest word in fantasy football. No matter how you put it, nobody likes to hear that a player may get worse. As the 2019 offseason plays out, regression is getting thrown around quite a bit. The typical discussion is based around players that had extraordinary seasons in 2018 and how betting on that again in 2019 is a losing bet. Not every player on this list was elite last year, but they excelled in certain categories and the consensus seems to be that it’s unlikely to happen again. Maybe that is true, maybe it’s not, but it’s important to see what regression might mean for each of these guys and how it is currently affecting their draft stock.
Patrick Mahomes (2018 Finish- QB1, 2019 ADP- QB1)
If you’re reading this article, you know what Patrick Mahomes did last season. To recap: he ended the year with 5097 passing yards and 50 passing TDs and added another 272 yards and two TDs running the ball. Mahomes was more than 4 points-per-game better than the QB2. He was awesome and it is no surprise that he is being drafted as the QB1 overall. His 3rd Round ADP is too high for the late-round QB crowd, but he certainly deserves to be the 1st QB taken right?
The obvious regression categories for Mahomes are yards and TDs, especially with the likely loss of Tyreek Hill to some form of NFL suspension. So what if he only throws for 4500 and 40 TDs? He would’ve still been the QB2 last year. In fact, he would’ve still been a top-3 QB in any of the last five seasons. While it seems likely that Mahomes numbers may regress, it is also likely he is still the best at the position in 2019.
Josh Allen (2018 Finish- QB21, 2019 ADP- QB16)
You may be confused as to how 2018’s QB21 is a regression candidate. Well, Josh Allen’s final ranking does not tell the entire story. Allen missed four games with an elbow injury but finished the season very strong. How strong? From Week 12 to Week 17, no QB in the NFL scored more fantasy points than Josh Allen. The most common issue people have with Allen’s fantasy success was how much of it came on the ground. Over that six-game span, Allen rushed for 476 yards and five TDs. Only four RBs put up those numbers during that same period.
So what happens if those rushing numbers come back down to earth? Allen is actually a candidate for both positive and negative regression. While his rushing numbers are unsustainable, he is likely to improve as a passer. Assuming the rushing numbers come down to a more pedestrian 500 and five TDs for the entire season (basically what he did in those six games) but his passing numbers improve by 10% and you would have a guy with about 3000 passing yards and 15 passing TDs on top of those rushing numbers. That would basically give you what the QB15 did last season so Allen feels very safe at his current ADP and has a lot of upside.
Christian McCaffrey (2018 Finish- RB3, 2019 ADP- RB4)
McCaffrey’s situation differs from the QBs above for one main reason: I don’t think he is going to regress. He was a true workhorse in 2018, registering 219 carries, 124 targets (most by an RB since 2014), and 107 receptions (most by an RB ever). The most common argument for regression is that his receiving numbers were inflated by Cam Newton‘s injuries and that the return of Greg Olsen and the emergence of young WRs will make for a smaller slice of the pie in 2019. While Cam is unlikely to be back to 100% by the start of the season, an improvement is expected. So what about his competition for targets?
During his rookie year, CMC was a lackluster runner but established himself in the passing game. During that season, he finished with 113 targets, just 11 shy of what he had in his record-breaking year. There is absolutely no reason to ignore the data in front of us. No matter which Cam Newton shows up, McCaffrey is going to get seven targets per game. If his passing game numbers don’t change, and there is the distinct possibility he improves as a runner again, then 2018 may have just been the tip of the iceberg.
James White (2018 Finish- RB8, 2019 ADP- RB29)
James White has one of the most negative reputations among fantasy football players. Despite the fact that he has caught 243 balls from Tom Brady over the last four seasons, more than Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, or any other Patriot, he is continually an afterthought in fantasy drafts. Last year, only Christian McCaffrey was targeted more in the passing game as an RB and White had a career year with 87 receptions, 751 yards, and 7 TDs. His reward? Being called a fluke and not being drafted til the 6th Round of .5 PPR fantasy drafts.
The real question is: why will he regress? Gronk and his 72 targets are currently retired. Josh Gordon is still suspended. Tom Brady is a year older. Are we expecting fewer check downs? White is never going to be a workhorse and may not score seven TDs again in 2019, but his targets could easily remain the same and those receptions should keep him the RB2 conversation in any PPR league.
Amari Cooper (2018 Finish- WR17, 2019 ADP- WR13)
Like Josh Allen, Cooper’s overall 2018 rank does not tell the whole story. In the middle of the season, Cooper was traded from Oakland to Dallas and went on a tear once joining the Cowboys. From Week 9 -Week 17, Cooper was the overall WR7 and was the overall WR2 in the last five weeks. Including the playoffs, Cooper played 11 games with Dallas last year and put up 66 receptions for 896 yards and seven TDs. Those numbers alone would’ve been good enough for a low-end WR2 finish and that’s only 11 games. His 16 game pace would have made him the overall WR8. So why can’t he do it again?
It’s more about his boom and bust trends. Inconsistency has been the name of Cooper’s game and that has to be what is pushing him down draft boards. His seven TDs came in only four of those 11 games, meaning he did not find the endzone in far more than half his games as a Cowboy. He had another four games where he didn’t even crack 40 yards. It seems like drafters don’t quite love the risk of having Cooper as their WR1 and I can’t say that I blame them. He is a high risk, very high reward WR2 and that is how he is being drafted.
Tyler Boyd (2018 Finish- WR16, 2019 ADP- WR27)
Tyler Boyd scored seven more fantasy points per game last season than he ever had in his career. The 3rd year wideout reeled in 76 balls and finally cracked the 1000 yard mark, also adding seven TDs. The misconception around Boyd starts with his teammate, AJ Green. Green missed seven games last year and the thought process is that Boyd cannot repeat his 2018 success as the offense’s 2nd option.
So does this theory hold up? Boyd’s FPPG without Green: 10.72. His FPPG with Green on the field: 14.38. Boyd performed better as the team’s 2nd WR and if we take into account that Boyd missed two games of his own, we may very well be looking at a low-end WR1 for a WR3 price. The Bengals will have an entirely new offense in 2019, but one that is supposed to be pass-friendly, so Boyd may be a guy that blows away his doubters and ends up helping win your league.
Eric Ebron (2018 Finish- TE4, 2019 ADP- TE7)
Of every player named on this list, regression has followed Ebron around the closest. In his first year playing with Andrew Luck, Ebron scored two more TDs than he had in his entire career combined. Predicting TDs is just about the least exact science that exists in fantasy football, so it’s easy to say that Ebron cannot repeat his 13 TD performance.
The thing is: he doesn’t have to repeat it to be a good fantasy TE. Only five TEs last season averaged more than ten fantasy points per game. If you take away 6 of Ebron’s 13 TDs, he would have been at 9.4 points per game and finished as the TE5. So if the return of Jack Doyle and the additions of Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell are scaring your league away, Ebron may end up being the safest TE pick outside of Travis Kelce, even with regression.
Jared Cook (2018 Finish- TE5, 2019 ADP- TE8)
Cook benefited from being the only show in Oakland last season, seeing career highs in targets, receptions, yards, and TDs. Obviously, regression becomes a clear possibility when you do your absolute best in every statistical category. It doesn’t help when you change teams immediately after doing all of that. In New Orleans, there will be competition for targets, but there will also be Drew Brees. What does all of this mean for Cook’s 2019?
So to start: Can you expect 101 targets again? Unlikely but not impossible. The Saints targeted TEs 89 times last year but not one of them was as talented as Cook. However, even if Cook only sees 85 targets, with Brees throwing him the ball, he can reasonably expect to catch more than 67% of the passes thrown his way. If he can reel in 75%, we are looking at 64 receptions, just four short of 2018. Brees can also be counted on to help improve his yardage and TDs, so Cook may stack career years. The Saints need someone to step up as the 3rd option behind Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, so Cook is looking like a right place, right time guy at a very reasonable draft cost.