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Receiving touchdown overachievers in 2019 based on expected fantasy production

Dec 29, 2019; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (18) waves before walking off the field after the Rams win over the Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was the final game for the Rams at the Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Touchdowns have a massive impact on fantasy football scoring, yet this stat is notoriously difficult to predict both week-to-week and year-to-year. That said, players who overachieve in touchdown production almost always regress in efficiency in the following season. We’ve already looked at rushing touchdowns and pinpointed some regression candidates, so now let’s turn our attention to receiving touchdowns.

Just like rushing scores, receiving touchdowns have a major impact on a player’s fantasy line. A classic example is at tight end. Let’s say we have two tight ends with the exact same amount receptions and receiving yards: three catches for 32 yards. In PPR scoring, that’s 6.2 fantasy points. But now, let’s say that one of them scores and the other doesn’t. The player who scored now has 12.2 fantasy points, which is nearly double the non-scorer. Did he really have twice as good of a day? That’s a tough sell right there, but current fantasy scoring systems would lead us to believe he did.

Of course, the other big issue with touchdowns is their lack of predictability. The good news is that we can get a sense of how many touchdowns a player is likely to score by using expected production. This set of stats uses PFF’s historic play-by-play data to determine the average outcome of carry, target, or throw. For targets, we look at receivers with the same target depth and line of scrimmage. We then can determine the overachievers/underachievers and which players are the most likely regression candidates for the following season.

So let’s take a look back through every season in the PFF era, which goes back to 2006. Here are the biggest overachievers in terms of plus minus differential between actual touchdowns and expected touchdowns:

Player Yr TD xTD Diff Next Season
Randy Moss 2007 23 15.0 +8.0 11
Jordy Nelson 2011 15 7.1 +7.9 7
Greg Jennings 2007 12 4.8 +7.2 9
Doug Baldwin 2015 14 6.9 +7.1 7
Julius Thomas 2013 12 5.0 +7.0 12
Rob Gronkowski 2011 17 10.1 +6.9 11
Dez Bryant 2014 16 9.2 +6.8 3*
Jimmy Graham 2013 16 9.4 +6.6 10
Terrell Owens 2007 15 8.6 +6.4 10
Julius Thomas 2014 12 5.6 +6.4 5
Tyler Eifert 2015 13 6.6 +6.4 5*
James Jones 2012 14 7.7 +6.3 3
Demaryius Thomas 2013 14 7.7 +6.3 11
Tyler Lockett 2018 10 3.9 +6.1 8
Reggie Williams 2007 10 4.1 +5.9 3

*Indicates injury the following season.

Like we saw with rushing touchdowns, the biggest outlier season is a record year from Randy Moss. His 23 scores topped Jerry Rice’s 22 in 1987 and made Moss just the second player in NFL history to go over the 20-score mark. While his efficiency was off the charts, Moss also posted the highest expected touchdown number we’ve seen in the PFF era with a massive 15.0. Of course, Moss did regress the following season, and it was just his actual number that went down. Moss’s 11 scores was just 0.4 more than his expected touchdowns of 10.6.

Similarly, Doug Baldwin was extremely efficient in 2015, especially over the second half of the season. In Weeks 12 to 16, Baldwin scored a jaw-dropping 11 times. For the season, he outkicked his expected touchdown mark by 7.1 scores. We then saw the inevitable regression in efficiency set in the following season with Baldwin scoring seven touchdowns with an expected number of 5.4.

In the PFF era, some of the least efficient rushing touchdown seasons have come from aging backs, and there is a strong indication for regression upward toward the mean in the following season. However, the same cannot be said for receiving scores. There are a number of outlier seasons on the other end of the spectrum that were followed by increased efficiency in the next year. Here are the least efficient receiving touchdown seasons in the PFF era:

Player Yr TD xTD Diff Next Season
Chris Chambers 2006 4 11.1 -7.1 4
Julio Jones 2017 3 9.9 -6.9 8
Mike Evans 2017 5 11.1 -6.1 8
Brian Hartline 2012 1 6.6 -5.6 4
Calvin Johnson 2009 5 10.3 -5.3 12
Calvin Johnson 2012 5 10.2 -5.2 12
Andre Johnson 2014 3 8.1 -5.1 4
Mike Evans 2015 3 8 -5 12
Brandon Marshall 2011 6 11 -5 11
Legedu Naanee 2011 1 6 -5 0
Jermaine Kearse 2016 1 5.9 -4.9 5
T.J. Houshmandzadeh 2009 3 7.8 -4.8 3
Braylon Edwards 2008 3 7.7 -4.7 4
Malcom Floyd 2009 1 5.7 -4.7 6
Marcedes Lewis 2011 0 4.7 -4.7 4

We have some of the most frequent targets of the fantasy playing public’s ire on this list in Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Calvin Johnson. This trio of receivers have a lot in comment in terms of target volume, depth, and location, so it isn’t a coincidence they make up one-third of the names on this list.

However, it’s important to note that each of these seasons was followed by a dramatic increase in efficiency. Jones’ disappointing 2017 campaign started the #NeverJulio movement, but he bounced back in 2018 and scored eight touchdowns on an expected number of 7.8. Evans wasn’t as efficient that season, but his total of eight touchdowns was just 0.4 below expectation. He also followed up his inefficient 2015 season with 12 scores in 2016, which was 1.3 over expectation. And the godfather of touchdown efficiency swings, Johnson, followed up both of his poor efficiency seasons with 12 scores the following year. In 2010, he was 3.1 scores over expectation and his 2013 total was plus-0.6 over his expected total.

Given this historic information, let’s take a look at who stands out on either side of the spectrum from the 2019 season. Here are the biggest overachievers:

Player TD xTD Diff
Austin Ekeler 8 3.5 +4.5
Jared Cook 9 4.6 +4.4
A.J. Brown 8 3.8 +4.2
Cooper Kupp 10 5.8 +4.2
Mark Ingram II 5 1.0 +4.0
Mecole Hardman 6 2.0 +4.0
Darius Slayton 8 4.1 +3.9
Darren Fells 7 3.2 +3.8
Taysom Hill 6 2.3 +3.7
Golden Tate 6 2.5 +3.5

Interestingly, we have two running backs on the list in Austin Ekeler and Mark Ingram. Ekeler is a free agent and could potentially hit the open market depending on what the Chargers decide to do. Regardless of what uniform he’s in next season, we should expect his touchdown efficiency to regress. That’s very important when evaluating him for your 2020 fantasy football draft board. Likewise, Ingram was extremely efficient with an expect touchdown number of just one score. Heading into his age-30 season, Ingram is a prime regression candidate and could end up being overvalued in 2020 drafts.

At wide receiver, the two names at the top stick out. A.J. Brown caught fire down the stretch and scored five of his eight touchdowns over the final six weeks of the season. More importantly, four of his scores went for more that 40 yards. Longer touchdowns are unsustainable even for the most explosive players in the league. Sure, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding Brown for fantasy purposes, but be careful to not overvalue him heading into next season.

Cooper Kupp was almost the opposite of Brown with a bulk of his fantasy production coming early in the year, but the Rams receiver did rattle off five straight games with a score to close out the season. His 4.2 scores over expectation marks the second straight season of extreme efficiency, as Kupp’s six scores in 2018 were 3.1 more than his expected number of 2.9 touchdowns. Touchdown regression would almost certainly move Kupp from a fringe WR1 to a back-end WR2 given his relatively low average depth of target.

Now let’s take a peek at the biggest underachievers from last season:

Player TD xTD Diff
Auden Tate 1 6.1 -5.1
Mike Williams 2 5.9 -3.9
Zay Jones 0 3.5 -3.5
Odell Beckham Jr. 4 7.1 -3.1
Tyler Higbee 3 6.0 -3.0
Davante Adams 5 7.7 -2.7
Alex Erickson 0 2.6 -2.6
Courtland Sutton 6 8.3 -2.3
Greg Olsen 2 4.3 -2.3
O.J. Howard 1 3.1 -2.1

Several names stand out of this list, but let’s start with the two biggest: Odell Beckham Jr. and Davante Adams. The 2019 season didn’t go as planned for the Cleveland Browns, and Beckham ended up being a massive fantasy disappointment. His lack of touchdown efficiency was a big part of the problem. Based on his expected number, Beckham is due for favorable regression similar to what we’ve seen in the past with Evans, Jones, and Johnson. Can we guarantee that will happen? No, but the numbers suggest it will and Beckham is likely going to be a major value in 2020 fantasy drafts.

Similarly, Adams has the potential to go lower in 2020 drafts than he should. There’s a widespread perception among the fantasy playing public that Adams had a down year. To quote Dwight Schrute, “False.” Adams got off to a somewhat slow start and then got hurt, but he was the No. 2 fantasy receiver from Week 9 on. He also was 2.7 scores under expectation. Let’s take advantage of this perception on Adams along with his likelihood to bounce back in touchdown efficiency and draft the heck out of him next season.

There are also two young guns on the list in Mike Williams and Courtland Sutton. Williams was one of the most efficient in the league in 2018, finishing 2.9 scores over expectation, and then regressed last year. That isn’t surprising given his high average depth of target, but he’s a good bet to improve in efficiency next season. The bigger question is who will be under center for the Chargers. As for Sutton, the second-year man took a big step forward for fantasy purposes, but now is at a combined 3.9 scores under expectation for his career. If he’s able to improve in efficiency, Sutton will solidify himself as a WR2-plus going forward.

Touchdown efficiency is extremely difficult to predict from one season to the next, but the historic numbers show that big outlier seasons are often followed by a movement either upward or downward to the mean. Keep this in mind as you prep for the 2020 fantasy season and be careful to not overvalue the importance of touchdowns.

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