There’s a subgroup of fantasy football players who have an odd but persistent disdain for the concept of regression. It seems to drive them mad that a team or player might not sustain statistical greatness into eternity.
Maybe it’s because the term is used incorrectly. Maybe it’s because we spend too much time ravaging our brains on Twitter and naturally develop hatred for a word we see over and over again. Maybe I’ve thought too much about this.
Whatever the case -- however folks work themselves up into a tizzy about regression in fantasy football -- the concept is real and vitally important in evaluating the game on a macro level. And since touchdown scoring matters quite a bit in our little game, understanding which teams are likely to regress in finding the end zone can identify inefficiencies in average draft position.
The indomitable Rich Hribar from Sharp Football Analysis found last year that since 2009, nearly 68 percent of teams that underperformed in the touchdown department scored more touchdowns the following season, with an increase of nearly ten scores.
Just as importantly, Reebs found that 72.4 percent of teams that have outpaced their expected touchdown scoring since 2009 have regressed the following year. I am pro-touchdown scoring and take no pleasure in reporting this.
Below is a look at teams that finished in the top-10 in touchdown scoring last year (three teams tied for tenth with 50 TDs) and by how much they exceeded their expected touchdown scoring.
2020 expected TDs
We’ll start with the Packers, who scored a touchdown on every 94.3 yards they gained in 2020 -- an outrageous clip that has no chance of surviving regression in 2021. For context: the league as a whole averaged 136.1 offensive yards per touchdown in 2020. Aaron Rodgers threw a TD on an incredible 9.1 percent of his attempts last season, three points higher than his career average and about double his 2019 TD rate. Rodgers was a touchdown producing machine last year, and he’ll probably be among the most over-drafted quarterbacks of 2021 because of it.
Davante Adams in 2020 notched a touchdown rate 4.3 points higher than his career average, finding the end zone paint 18 times in 14 games. That, per NBC Sports Edge sources, is a lot. Last season was Adams’ fourth double-digit touchdown campaign in his seven years as a pro. He is undoubtedly a touchdown scorer and he’ll continue to rack up TDs as long as Rodgers is slinging it in Matt LaFleur’s offense. But we know going into 2021 that Adams is (very) likely to see a drop in touchdown grabs as Green Bay’s offense succumbs to mathematical gravity.
Then there’s the preeminent touchdown regression candidate, the guy who stands no chance of avoiding the bloody scythe of the Regression Reaper: Robert Tonyan. It was Tonyan who was fourth on the team in targets last year while somehow scoring 11 times, tying Travis Kelce for the most touchdowns among tight ends. One minor difference: Kelce caught 105 of 145 targets for his 11 TDs, while Tonyan caught 52 of his 59 looks. A major uptick in usage is the only thing that can save Tonyan from a deep drop off in touchdown scoring in 2021. A 21.1 percent touchdown rate is the definition of unsustainable.
It turns the stomach to bet against a running back who’s found the end zone 45 times over the past three regular seasons. So let’s not do that with Derrick Henry. Instead, let’s imagine what a more moderate touchdown scoring campaign would look like for the apple of every Robust RB drafter’s eye.
Henry’s career touchdown rate of 4.6 percent would have given him 17 touchdowns in 2020 -- exactly the number be logged for Tennessee. Maybe that’s not a shock for a guy who tied for the lead in touches inside the ten yard line. His gig as goal line steamroller for the Titans ensures Henry’s touchdown ceiling will remain high in 2021.
It’s Ryan Tannehill who should concern regression truthers (aka, people who apply math to fantasy analysis). Tannehill’s career-high 33 touchdown tosses (a very nice 6.9 percent touchdown rate) is bound to drop in 2021, along with his career-high seven rushing scores. Tanny’s career average touchdown rate of 4.8 percent would have given him 23.1 touchdown passes. That, as you may have figured out, comes out to 40 fantasy points in touchdowns alone. While he probably won’t go for a premium in standard fantasy league formats, Tannehill might not be the every-week starter he was in 2020.
Tennessee’s offense could be a sensible fade in 2021 outside of the eternally dominant Henry.
The main concern with potential touchdown regression in New Orleans can be found in the backfield. More specifically, there should be some concern about Alvin Kamara’s touchdown scoring inching toward a more normalized rate in 2021.
Kamara scored a touchdown on 7.7 percent of his touches last season -- a 3.5 point bump over this career touchdown rate. Certainly he’ll continue to be among the league’s most proficient touchdown scorers as long as he’s the centerpiece of Sean Payton’s offense. But Kamara would have to defy regression in a pretty serious way to score anything close to his 21 touchdowns from 2020.
There’s also the lingering threat of Taysom Hill as the team’s starting quarterback in 2021: Kamara drew just four targets per game in Hill’s 2020 starts, down from 8.3 targets per game when Drew Brees was under center. This isn’t a plea to fade the most dynamic running back in the game; it’s a reluctant yellow light for those who might pencil in Kamara for 20 scores in 2021.
We’ll cut to the proverbial chase: Tom Brady’s 2020 season is eminently repeatable. The ageless one posted a touchdown rate just 1.1 percent higher than his career rate on his way to a QB7 finish in fantasy. With the band back together in 2021, there’s no reason Brady can’t post similar numbers.
Mike Evans is a very different and more cautionary story. Evans scored a touchdown on 18.6 percent of his receptions in 2020 -- 7.2 percent higher than his career TD rate. It’s possible -- if Brady continues to force the ball to Evans inside the 10 yard line -- he’ll come close to his 13 touchdowns from 2020. After all, Devante Adams was the only receiver to see more targets inside the 10 last year (though, I should note, nine of Evans’ 14 targets inside the 10 went for scores). The likeliest scenario is Evans losing out on at least a few scores in 2021.
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Before you ask, I have not been paid by Josh Allen Truthers, Inc., a powerful international conglomerate that has undue influence within the fantasy football industry. But I feel obliged to point out that the 2020 version of Josh Allen is probably closer to what we’ll see in the coming years than the 2018 and 2019 versions of the wild man signal caller. Allen’s TD rate jumping from 4.3 percent in 2019 to 6.5 percent in 2020 may have had something to do with Buffalo throwing 111 more passes in 2020 and Allen progressing as a passer.
Critically, his rushing opportunity hardly dipped at all last year, as he carried the ball 102 times, just seven fewer than in 2019. While Allen -- like everyone else -- isn’t immune to regression, the nature of Buffalo’s offense and Allen’s transformation into a real-life passer should keep his touchdown scoring afloat.
Gabriel Davis’ wildly unsustainable touchdown rate (20 percent) won’t stand up in 2021. That’s a certainty. An increased role in the lethal Buffalo passing attack, following the release of John Brown, could offset some of that regression. Forty-two percent of Davis’ 2020 targets were in the red zone, the highest rate in the NFL among receivers who played at least half of their team’s snaps. All seven of his scores came inside the 20, and five of them came on end zone targets. This isn’t me telling you to fade Davis in 2021; this is me showing he vastly over-performed in the red zone as a rookie.
Stefon Diggs should be in the double-digit TD conversation in 2021 after scoring eight times on a league-leading 127 receptions in 2020. Diggs’ 2020 touchdown rate was actually 1.5 percent lower than his career rate. That’s something. It’s certainly not nothing. The target hog should continue to light opposing defenses aflame this year.
Baltimore’s offense kept scoring touchdowns last season despite being fairly terrible at gaining yards. The Ravens gained about 12 yards per game more than the putrid Detroit offense, yet scored more touchdowns than all but six teams.
Lamar Jackson’s 2020 rushing performance is repeatable: he scored the same number of rushing TDs (7) in 2019 and 2020, with a drop off of 0.6 yards per carry year over year. Jackson’s passing touchdown rate, as expected, fell off a cliff in 2020 -- from a gaudy 9 percent in 2019 to 6.9 percent last season. Even the 2.1 percent drop left Jackson with the NFL's third best touchdown rate. A slight bump in his passing TD rate this season wouldn’t be shocking.
It’s hard to talk oneself into Marquise Brown continuing the blistering touchdown pace of his first couple years in the league. Brown -- a massive disappointment for fantasy managers in 2020 -- has scored on 14.4 percent of his receptions since the start of 2019. The touchdown rate for all receivers in 2020 was 7.4 percent, for the record.
Seattle’s touchdown regression isn’t easy to figure out thanks to the team’s dramatic 2020 touchdown splits. Russell Wilson scorched opposing defenses to the sweet, sweet tune of 28 touchdowns in the season's first eight weeks, only to throw a dozen touchdowns in the season's final eight games.
The team’s second half horror show meant Wilson finished 2020 with a reasonably repeatable touchdown rate of 7.2 percent, just one percent higher than his career rate (and the third time he’s posted a TD rate of over seven percent). With more consistent use of play action under new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, it’s certainly in the range of outcomes that Wilson throws for somewhere in the range of his 40 passing scores from a year ago.
Seattle’s second half doldrums also kept D.K. Metcalf from profiling as a touchdown regression candidate in 2021. His 17 percent TD rate in 2020 was a mere 5 percent higher than his career rate (his career, of course, being two short seasons). Ninth in targets inside the 10 yard line last year, Metcalf probably won’t be the victim of any touchdown backsliding for Seattle.
Tyler Lockett’s 2020 touchdown rate of 10 percent was just a smidge over his career rate of 9.8 percent. With Wilson under center, Lockett is an end zone magnet -- there’s no denying it. That three of those 10 touchdowns came in the season’s final 11 games should keep Lockett’s 2021 ADP deflated. Seattle’s touchdown over-performance in 2020 was hardly egregious. I don’t think it changes the outlook for Wilson, Metcalf, or Lockett.
Pittsburgh’s offense is a Freddy Krueger-style touchdown regression nightmare. Don’t. Fall. Asleep. Things of that nature.
Even with Ben Roethlisberger set to return at a drastically reduced cost, there’s no way the Steelers can keep up what they did in 2020: While gaining the same number of yards per game as the odious Eagles, the team managed 50 touchdowns, seventh most in the NFL. Pittsburgh outgained Jacksonville’s offense by a meager six yards per game last year. Fantasy managers: be wary.
Roethlisberger needed 608 attempts -- the third most in the league -- to throw 33 touchdowns last year. I suppose the Steelers could once again be forced into dropping back more than any other team in the league once again in 2021. The likelihood is that the team will atone for its pass-heavy sins of 2020, pour resources into the running game, and run an offense in which the elderly Roethlisberger won’t have to throw it nearly as much. His 2020 adjusted yards per attempt (6.6) was lower than it has been in 12 years. He is, as the zoomers say, washed.
Chase Claypool’s touchdown prowess could continue unabated in 2021 if the second-year wideout gets more playing time and sees a bump in target share. Claypool, who saw a 16.7 percent target share in his rookie campaign, could be a beneficiary of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s (assumed) vacated 128 targets. One would really have to believe in Claypool to pencil him in for another season with a 14.5 percent touchdown rate. He also scored twice on the ground -- a famously fickle carryover stat for receivers.
Diontae Johnson’s 7.9 percent touchdown rate -- about a half percent over the league average for wideouts -- is certainly doable with Roethlisberger returning. Here’s to hoping to everlasting fantasy stigma of dropped passes in primetime games suppresses Johnson’s ADP this summer.
I’m hardly fretting about the next few teams on the above chart. They weren’t that far over touchdown expectation and the (good) possibility that NFL scoring is going to remain absurdly high in 2021 makes this level of over-performance doable for the league’s best offenses.
The Vikings Offense, which will still be coached by the Kubiak family in 2021, was a yardage machine in 2020. Only three teams gained more yards than Minnesota last season. I’m sure that’s exactly how head coach Mike Zimmer planned it. Or maybe not.
Kirk Cousins’ 2020 yardage and touchdowns were artificially inflated by pass-heavy scripts in blowout losses. That led to 32.25 pass attempts per game, an increase of about three attempts per contest over 2019. Perhaps not shockingly, Cousins threw a career high 35 touchdowns, exceeding his career TD rate by 1.6 percent. He would have thrown around eight fewer touchdowns last season at his career rate. Cousins likely profiles as a high-end streaming option in 2021. I’m always be dubious of QBs in offenses that desperately want to establish the run.
Justin Jefferson’s touchdown scoring was hardly out of the ordinary in his extraordinary rookie season. He scored on 7.9 percent of his 88 catches, right around the league average. Jefferson’s rookie year dominance and potential growth as a pro wideout strongly suggests we’ll look back at 2020 as a season in which he very much underperformed in touchdown scoring.
Not even a Zero RB truther like me is willing to present Dalvin Cook as a candidate for significant touchdown regression. He’s scored 29 times on the ground since the start of 2019, cashing in for 16 TDs in 2020 thanks largely to a league-high 22 rushes inside the five yard line. A volume monster like Cook is a candidate to put up 15-18 rushing scores in any given season.
Yes, Patrick Mahomes in 2020 bounced back from his relatively disastrous 2019 touchdown rate of 5.4 percent. But his 6.5 percent touchdown rate in 2020 was still under his career rate of 6.8 percent. The short of it: I’m not at all concerned about KC’s offense being 8.1 touchdowns over expectation last year, and a healthy Mahomes could very well be set for a blowup season like we saw in 2018.
Tyreek Hill looks to be the likeliest KC player to see a touch of TD regression in 2021. He scored on 17.3 percent of his receptions last year -- well above his career rate of 12.7 percent. There remains the chance I could regret writing this if Hill leads all wideouts in red zone targets, as he did a year ago. A whopping 14 of his 15 touchdowns came on those grabs. Red zone maven was a new role for Hill, who in 2019 was 39th in red zone targets among receivers.
Cleveland’s offense -- shockingly good down the stretch last year -- is another unit I’m not worried about. Baker Mayfield’s 26 touchdowns came at a 5.3 percent rate, just a tick above his career rate of 5 percent. Behind one of the league’s best offensive lines -- Mayfield was pressured on the fifth lowest percentage of drop backs last year -- he should once again be a viable streaming option in 12-team, one-QB formats.
Nick Chubb scored on 6.3 percent of his rushing attempts, higher than his career rate of 4.1 percent but not enough to downgrade him in seasonal leagues. He saw 21 rushes inside the 10 yard line, 12th most among backs. That was, in fact, a noteworthy drop off from his 32 attempts inside the 10 yard line in 2019. And he still managed a career high in TDs. Chubb’s compete lack of involvement in Cleveland’s passing game -- he commanded a grand total of 16 targets last season -- remains something of a concern while splitting proverbial hairs among the game’s top running backs.
Whether Frank Reich can fix Carson Wentz is the subject of another wordy column that I don’t feel like writing today. But if the Colts can keep up their touchdown scoring -- and the above chart suggests they can -- that should be excellent for Jonathan Taylor.
Taylor in his rookie season saw a good number of high-value touches for a guy who didn’t establish himself as the team’s workhorse until late in the season. Taylor enjoyed the sixth most rushing attempts inside the 20, the seventh most inside the 10, and the seventh most inside the five. From Week 10-17, Taylor saw a glut of carries and shredded opponents, gaining more rushing yards (753) than every back not named Derrick Henry. A mere five backs had more red zone carries during that stretch. Assuming a full season as Reich’s workhorse, Taylor could blow away the 11 rushing TDs he posted in 2020.