News & Analysis

Rushing touchdown overachievers in 2019 based on expected fantasy production

Nov 24, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) celebrates after a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Touchdowns are the worst thing about fantasy football. I know, I know. That take isn’t going to go over well, but hear me out. This isn’t a talking-head-screaming-into-the-void attention grabber, it’s the honest truth.

In fantasy football, most scoring systems award six points for a touchdown and 0.1 points for a rushing or receiving yard. That means that a running back who rushes one time from the 1-yard line and scores receives as many fantasy points as a back who carries the ball 14 times for 61 yards but does not score. Sure, the touchdown scorer put points on the board his team, but did he actually have an equal performance to the non-scorer? It’s tough to argue in favor of that idea, but both players scored 6.1 fantasy points.

And it isn’t just the point differential. Touchdowns are also notoriously finicky year over year, which makes them the most difficult fantasy stat to predict. Yet, a large chunk of the fantasy playing public is blissfully unaware of this fact, and often make broad sweeping conclusions about a player’s fantasy value based on how many touchdowns he scores.

The good news is that we have a wealth of data at our disposal here at PFF, and we can use this information to provide context to rushing and receiving touchdowns. One of the best ways to do so is with expected production. This set of stats looks at historic carries and targets to determine the average performance for players in that exact location on the field. Using expected production then allows us to determine whether a player’s actual performance deviated from expectation and whether or not we should expect regression (either downward or upward toward the mean).

Let’s start with rushing touchdowns. Our data at PFF goes back to the 2006 season, so here are the top 15 biggest overachievers over that span.

Player Yr TD xTD Diff Next Season
LaDainian Tomlinson 2006 28 13.8 +14.2 15
DeAngelo Williams 2008 18 7.5 +10.5 7
Adrian Peterson 2007 12 3.1 +8.9 10
Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 13 0.1 +6.9 9
LaDainian Tomlinson 2007 15 8.4 +6.6 11
Ezekiel Elliott 2016 15 8.7 +6.3 7
Melvin Gordon 2018 10 3.7 +6.3 8
LeSean McCoy 2016 13 6.8 +6.2 6
Wills McGahee 2009 12 6.3 +5.7 5
Chris Johnson 2009 14 8.4 +5.6 11
Isaiah Crowell 2014 8 2.4 +5.6 4
LeSean McCoy 2011 17 11.6 +5.4 2
Corey Dillon 2006 13 7.7 +5.3
Marshawn Lynch 2011 12 6.8 +5.2 11
Adrian Peterson 2011 12 6.8 +5.2 10

The name at the top shouldn’t come as a surprise. Any time we have a record-breaking season, there’s a good bet it’s an outlier. And Tomlinson’s production did “dip” the next season to 15 rushing scores, which also came in at No. 5 on this list. This example is important to note. While it’s rare for outliers to extend beyond one season, there are cases of it happening over the last decade and a half.

However, at No. 2 on this list, Williams is a classic example of regression. He was off the charts in 2008 and slid right back to his expected range in 2009. Of course, his massive 2008 campaign pushed him up fantasy draft boards in 2009. Williams ended up being the No. 5 player selected in drafts based on ADP and finished the season 14th among running backs in fantasy scoring. That’s what the cool kids like to call a negative return on investment.

There are other names on this list who stand out, but one of the biggest swings we’ve ever seen came from LeSean McCoy. He set the fantasy world on fire in 2011, finishing No. 2 among running backs in scoring and racking up 17 rushing scores. Like Williams, McCoy was a top-five pick in fantasy drafts the following season. He proceeded to score just twice as a runner in 12 games and finished a lowly 21st among backs in fantasy scoring. McCoy had an expected touchdown number of 5.1 in 2012, meaning he went from extremely efficient in one season to extremely inefficient in the next. Those swings can happen with touchdowns.

While the McCoy example is extreme, it does highlight the potential for dramatic shifts in touchdown production year-over-year. It’s important to keep this in mind, especially as we start to put initial pieces in place for the 2020 fantasy draft season. Looking back to 2019, here are the biggest overachievers for rushing touchdowns:

Player TD xTD Diff
Aaron Jones 16 8.4 +7.6
Derrick Henry 16 9.5 +6.5
Raheem Mostert 8 3.1 +4.9
Christian McCaffrey 15 10.8 +4.2
Dalvin Cook 13 9.5 +3.5
Chase Edmonds 4 0.7 +3.3
Josh Allen 9 5.8 +3.2
Ronald Jones 6 2.9 +3.1
Kenyan Drake 8 5.0 +3.0
Todd Gurley II 12 9.2 +2.8

Given the value of touchdowns in fantasy scoring, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that four of the top five fantasy running backs made the list. Christian McCaffrey had a historic season from an efficiency standpoint, and a big part of his fantasy success was due to his ability to find pay dirt. In 2018, he was far less efficient with just seven rushing scores on an expect 8.5.

Of course, McCaffrey is the likely 1.01 in 2020 fantasy drafts, but Derrick Henry is going to be a fascinating case study. There are a lot of moving parts with him right now given his potential to hit the open market in free agency, but his plus/minus differential is one of the highest we’ve seen in the PFF era. Touchdown regression is almost a lock.

Likewise, Aaron Jones posted the fourth-highest plus/minus differential since 2006. The Packers back showed a nose for the end zone this season, but it’s tough to envision him bucking the trend and posting another outlier season. To be fair, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be overvalued in 2020 fantasy drafts, but fantasy players need to look beyond his fantasy points for a more accurate picture of what to expect out of Jones or anyone else on this list.

Of course, one of these things is not like the others on this list. Josh Allen is the lone quarterback in the top 10 in plus/minus differential. He’s scored a massive 17 rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons, which is a combined 6.9 more than the 10.1 expected. That expected number is nothing to bat an eyelash at, but it’s also 41.4 fewer fantasy points. Given his prolonged efficiency, Allen is due for regression. Like Jones, we’ll need to consider more than just Allen’s fantasy points scored when evaluating him for 2020 drafts.

Looking at fantasy points simply doesn’t give you the whole picture and can potentially lead you into false assumptions about a player. Yes, some players can maintain touchdown efficiency for multiple seasons, but regression eventually catches up. And the bigger the outlier, the more likely we see significant regression in the following season. Of course, rushing touchdowns only tells part of the story. In my next piece, we’re going to take a look at receiving touchdowns.

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