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Fantasy Football Friday: Know your touchdown regression candidates

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Who can score big for you, and who can’t?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When we judge the quality of a player, we tend to look back on past performance. That can be great as a retrospective, but past performance isn’t always the greatest indicator of future success. Knowing the numbers is good, but knowing which numbers can be volatile from year-to-year is better. A lot of that centers around touchdowns. Whether it’s quarterbacks, running backs, or wide receivers, touchdown rates typically regress to the mean from one season to the next. This is a useful thing to know for fantasy because touchdowns are king, the biggest point getters. Regression to the mean works both ways, even though the term is mainly used in a negative light. So with that in mind we’ll look at some players who can expect their touchdown rates to regress both positively and negatively in 2018.

Quarterbacks

Rise: Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

2017 was a disappointing season for Marcus Mariota, even as the Titans made the playoffs. Much of the disappointment, though, was due to a lack of touchdown passes. He threw a touchdown on just 2.9 percent of his pass attempts last season after tossing a score on 5.8 percent in 2016 and 5.1 percent in 2015. By TD%+ (an index stat that takes league average as 100), Mariota’s touchdown rates were above league average (108, 117) over his first two season before plummeting in 2017 (83).

Outside of normal regression to career norms, there’s good news for Mariota this season. For one, he’ll be in a real NFL offense and not whatever “exotic smashmouth” Mike Mularkey tried to install during his time with the Titans — which was neither exotic nor much of smashmouth. Mariota was routinely left with only two or three receivers running routes on a given play, which doesn’t lend itself to successful passing no matter who is throwing the ball. The Titans are also likely to give Mariota a few more chances to throw touchdowns when the team is close to the end zone. Last season, Tennessee had the league’s fifth-lowest pass-to-run rate inside the 20.

Fall: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Watching Deshaun Watson was fun as hell during the six and a half game stretch before his injury. Much of that was due to a long touchdown bomb seemingly every other play. That exaggeration isn’t far off. Watson threw a touchdown on 9.3 percent of his passes last season — a TD%+ of 161 (61 percent above league average). I hope I don’t have to tell you that’s unsustainable, but that’s unsustainable. Since the merger there have only been two other seasons when a quarterback attempted at least 200 passes and threw a touchdown on at least 9.0 percent of them and those seasons belonged to 1976 Ken Stabler and 2004 Peyton Manning.

We should be able to safely assume that is not Watson’s baseline talent level, but the problem is knowing what is after such a short sample. Watson could heavily regress and still be among the league leaders in touchdown rate — Carson Wentz was the only qualified quarterback over 7.0 percent last season — but if you’re thinking about taking Watson as you quarterback, first maybe think about a late-round QB strategy, but definitely don’t look at his 2017 production and prorate it out to 16 games.

Running backs

Rise: Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles

Between the Miami Dolphins and the Philadelphia Eagles, Ajayi had 208 carries and one touchdown last season. Some of that was due to his role on those teams, which could be a factor again in 2018, but either way a bump from one touchdown should be expected — he scored eight in 2017. A player with Ajayi’s workload last season should be expected to score somewhere around six touchdowns based on the averages of running backs over the past few seasons.

Ajayi might get a little more work in the red zone this year, too. With Miami, he was a part of the pass-happiest red zone team in the league (72 percent pass) and with the Eagles he was with one the least successful red zone running teams (39 percent success rate). In total, Ajayi only got six carries inside the 10 and 19 inside the 20.

Fall: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Like Watson, Alvin Kamara is a case where he could regress but still be fun and productive. Kamara scored eight rushing touchdowns last season against an expected three on his 120 carries. Three of his eight touchdowns came from at least 20 yards away and while that’s a show of Kamara’s big play ability, it’s not a totally stable way to score year-in and year-out.

What helps Kamara is there will be more volume, but having increased volume might also only bring his touchdown total to an expected level and for him to get to eight expected touchdowns based on attempts, he might need around 250 carries on the season, which probably isn’t going to happen. Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman was in a similar situation from 2016 to 2017. In 2016 Coleman scored eight rushing touchdowns on 118 carries but just five on 156 carries last season.

Wide receivers

Rise: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta’s usage of Julio Jones in the red zone is baffling. Every year the Falcons talk about how they want to get Jones more involved inside the 20 and then once the season rolls around he’s used a distraction to open up plays for others. Jones is one of the best and freakishly athletic wide receivers in the league, but he’s been an afterthought when the Falcons on on the verge of scoring. Last year Jones scored three total receiving touchdowns, fewer than the likes of Marcedes Lewis, Jermaine Kearse, and Jaron Brown. Jones wants that to change — so do we — but it’s also something we’ve heard before.

The good news is Jones’s play around the other 80 yards of the field is enough to keep him elite — he still finished the season as WR6 despite the three touchdowns. But add in that production and a few more touchdowns — even the six he had in 2016 and was expected to have in 2017 — Jones can be an automatic week-winner on a more consistent basis.

Fall: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

This goes hand-in-hand with Watson’s likely touchdown regression. For just about DeAndre Hopkins’s entire career, he’s been quarterback proof — a brief stint with Brock Osweiler aside. So it was no surprise when he was finally paired with an extremely talented quarterback, his production took off. But again, so much of that was due to the number of touchdowns scored — a career-high 13 in this case. Only one other time in Hopkins’s career did he score more than 10 touchdowns, though we’ve already been through his quarterback situation.

But even on those teams with bad quarterbacks, Hopkins was the only option in the passing game. Now he’s part of a wide receiver trio who all excel at getting downfield, along with rookie Keke Coutee and Will Fuller, who was his own touchdown machine with Watson under center. The Texans might even have a useful tight end in the passing game for maybe the first time ever. All of this could cut down on the ceiling for Hopkins’s touchdowns this season.

This concern is only raised because Hopkins is being taken as WR2 right now, per Fantasy Football Calculator, ahead of players like Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Keenan Allen, and Michael Thomas. Taking Hopkins that high and over those players is really counting on two unsustainable touchdown rates to continue and that should be a danger you’re trying to avoid when drafting this year.