Fantasy Football: Regression candidates for 2024

2W8T98C Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) enters the field before an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

• WRs Tee Higgins and Puka Nacua each posted high drop rates in 2023 relative to their respective career averages: A regression to their career average could be an easy way that both improve their fantasy output in 2024.

• There’s still hope for Atlanta Falcons TE Kyle Pitts: In 2023, Pitts’ 69.8% catchable target rate ranked 42nd among 43 qualifying tight ends. 

• Check out PFF's fantasy football rankings: PFF’s fantasy football rankings include ranks from our experts, projections and our strength of schedule metric.

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

Ahead of the 2024 fantasy football season, analysts far and wide will be crunching numbers from the previous year to predict player performance in the year to come. Some of those numbers are more highly correlated to predictive performance, however. 

Today, we’re focusing on three stats that aren’t necessarily predictive of what to expect in 2024 – including, drop rate, contested catch percentage and catchable target rate. We’ll talk about what makes these stats less predictive than other stable metrics (such as yards per route run or yards after contact per attempt), as well as some regression candidates who could produce more efficiently in 2024.

Drop rate

Drop rate is considered an unstable metric due to its small sample size, which can cause significant variability from year to year. Here are three receivers who had high drop rates in 2023 compared to their career averages with the potential to see regression to the mean in 2024.

WR Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals

Drop rate, 2023: 12.5%

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins’ 2023 campaign was plagued by two things – injuries and drops. In 2023, Higgins caught a career-low 56.8% of his targets – no doubt, in part, thanks in part to a career-high 12.5% drop rate. Higgins has averaged a 7.4% drop rate over his career and will return to play with starting quarterback Joe Burrow – a big plus in terms of chemistry – which could put him in line for a more efficient season in the drops category.

WR Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams

Drop rate, 2023: 10.2%

There might not be a better example of why drops shouldn’t matter to fantasy football managers than Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua. Despite leading the league with 13 drops on the year, Nacua still managed to break the rookie receiving yard and reception total records as the overall WR4 for fantasy on the season. Could you imagine if he’d have limited those drops?

Looking at Nacua’s drop rate in his two seasons as a starter with BYU, there’s reason to believe he could be due for some regression in this category. In those two seasons, Nacua totaled six drops on 132 targets for a 4.6% drop rate, begging the question – just how high is the ceiling for Nacua should he manage a regression in drop rate?

WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Seattle Seahawks

Drop rate, 2023: 11.3%

Another rookie, here. Jaxon Smith-Njigba tallied eight drops in 2023, which ranked second in the 2023 NFL Draft class only behind the aforementioned Nacua. That resulted in a whopping 11.3% drop rate that feels representative of the vibes of his entire rookie season that paled in comparison to other rookie wideouts like Nacua, Houston TexansTank Dell and Kansas City ChiefsRashee Rice

Smith-Njigba was unfortunately limited to three games in 2022 coming off a breakout 2021 season, which limits the sample size through his career even further. However, in that full-time role back in 2021, he tallied just six total drops on 112 – his only six drops on 133 total targets in college. 

Catchable target percentage

Catchable target rate is a particularly helpful stat in contextualizing a receiver’s performance beyond his own skillset because it accounts for the quarterback’s ball placement and accuracy. Considering that there are a number of factors that contribute to a quarterback’s ball placement (overall accuracy, play calling/scheme), the quality and catchability of a receiver’s targets can vary significantly from year to year. 

Considering those factors, here are three receivers who had exceptionally low catchable target rates in 2023 who should, theoretically, see a rise in catchable target rate due to a change of quarterback with improved accuracy.

TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

Catchable target rate (2023): 69.8% (42nd of 43 qualifying TEs)

In 2023, Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks combined for the fifth-highest uncatchable/inaccurate pass rate in the league at 22.3%. Tight end Kyle Pitts was a big-time victim to get caught in the crossfire of inaccuracy, with a 69.8% catchable target rate that ranked 42nd among 43 qualifying tight ends.

This offseason, the Falcons signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $180 million contract, whose 16.3% uncatchable-inaccurate target rate ranks fourth-lowest among quarterbacks dating back to 2021 (min. 500 attempts). Even coming off a ruptured Achilles, Cousins brings a massive improvement in the accuracy category which should make Pitts’ targets much more valuable than they’ve been in the past two seasons. 

WR Garrett Wilson, New York Jets

Catchable target rate (2023): 67.5%

This one is kind of self-explanatory. After a season-ending Achilles injury to QB Aaron Rodgers, second-year wideout Garrett Wilson was forced to catch passes from Zach Wilson, Trevor Siemian and Tim Boyle.  The Jets finished the year with a 55.6% accurate pass rate (sixth-lowest) while posting the fourth-highest uncatchable-inaccurate pass rate that ranked only behind the Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers, who each had quarterback problems of their own.

This year marks the return of a presumably healthy Rodgers, who’s been a full participant in OTAs so far this spring. Dating back to 2020, Rodgers’ 19.5% plus-accurate throw rate, accounting for accurate balls and throws away from coverage, ranks second-highest among quarterbacks (min. 500 pass attempts). In that same span, Rodgers is tied with Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow for the second-lowest uncatchable-inaccurate pass rate at 16.1%, only behind two-time MVP Patrick Mahomes (15.7%).

WR George PickensPittsburgh Steelers

Catchable target rate (2023): 67.5%

There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens has been a victim of poor quarterback play over his two seasons in the league. So far in his career, Pickens has caught passes from a rotation of Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph

The Steelers’ 21.2% uncatchable-inaccurate pass rate in 2023 ranked ninth-highest in the league. Their accurate target rate on throws 20-plus yards down the field wasn’t any better at just 31.4%, the eighth-lowest in the league – which, as everyone knows, is an area of the field in which Pickens is particularly proficient with a 94.0 PFF receiving grade on such targets. 

This year, the Steelers have veteran Russell Wilson in the “pole position” to start the season, who ranked third among quarterbacks with a 66.3% accurate throw rate. 

Yards before contact

More than any other skill position, running back production can depend on certain factors outside of their control, such as the quality of offensive line play and run-blocking schemes. Here are three players that could see the most improvement in yards before contact:

RB Derrick Henry, Baltimore Ravens

Yards before contact/attempt in 2023: 0.85

Almost no running back was given less room to work in the 2023 season than Derrick Henry, whose 0.85 yards before contact per attempt ranked 52nd among 57 qualifying running backs. However, now having signed with the Baltimore Ravens, Henry has the opportunity to play alongside Lamar Jackson – the greatest rushing threat in the league at his respective position, which should open things up dramatically. 

The Ravens led the league with an average of 1.9 yards before contact per attempt last season, ranking sixth in the league with a 69.0 run-blocking grade. Even heading into the season with some question marks along the interior, Henry should benefit tremendously from the change in scheme.

RB Saquon Barkley, Philadelphia Eagles

Yards before contact/attempt in 2023: 0.98

Playing behind the New York Giants’ offensive line in 2023, Saquon Barkley averaged 0.98 yards before contact per attempt – tied for the 14th-lowest average among running backs (min. 100 attempts). Given that Barkley’s playstyle has historically been so dependent on breakaway runs, with the third-highest stuff rate among running backs (21.9%) dating back to 2018, lack of space behind the offensive line hasn’t exactly helped his overall efficiency. 

Saquon Barkley having more space behind the offensive line could be paramount to posting his most efficient season to date in 2024. Having signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency – a top-three unit in both PFF run blocking (74.9) and pass blocking grades (83.3) in 2024 — expect Barkley to enjoy some more breathing room (and therefore, more homerun-hitting-potential), with superstars like Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson at tackle. 

The biggest question mark for the Eagles’ o-line will be along the interior this season with the retirement of All-Pro Jason Kelce. The coaching staff opted to move guard Cam Jurgens to center, which means multiple shakeups worth consideration. However, if they can look like an average unit, Barkley will benefit in a big way.

RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

Yards before contact/attempt in 2023: 0.99

The Pittsburgh Steelers made some significant investments along their offensive line over the past two seasons, through both free agency and the draft, including the signing of LG Isaac Seumalo and using back-to-back first-round picks to shore things up at offensive tackle and a second-round pick on WVU center Zach Frazier. Each of these additions are Day 1 upgrades on what they were working with in 2023, which could mean big things for the overall efficiency of their run game moving forward.

Though Steelers RB Jaylen Warren was largely the much more efficient option in 2023, it could be Najee Harris that stands to gain the most from the blocking of his o-line based on the frequency of which he sees stacked boxes. Harris saw 37.5% of rush attempts against a stacked box (8+ defenders) in 2023 compared to Warren’s 23.6%. On those attempts, Harris outpaced Warren in overall efficiency, including in yards per carry average (3.1), yards after contact per attempt (2.7) and first-down/TD rate on such attempts (18.0%).


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