By J.D. Redemann
How much are we fantasy owners shocked-but-elated to see a relatively unknown player haul in two or three touchdown passes in a single game and then realize said player is still sitting on the waiver wire, thus providing even more fantasy goodness than expected for the season (i.e. WR Kevin Ogletree, 2012 Week 1)? How crushed are we when a guy we drafted to be a fantasy stud and TD monster goes five weeks at a time without sniffing the end zone once (i.e. RB LeSean McCoy in 2012)? After all, the touchdown is that fantasy football nirvana that we hunt and hope for, that six-point swing that can take a player’s weekly performance from mediocre to magnificent in a few brief seconds. It is elusive, though, untouchable… until we let go and stop trying to find it.
This is our point today: like you’ll hear from me frequently, there’s a great danger in looking at merely the surface-level stats like TD totals when doing your player research. The more TDs a player scores (especially when we didn’t expect them to), the more we are willing to overpay for them in drafts next year; it’s a common phenomenon. This blinding effect that one-category mastery has on us is something I have called “THE DANGER ZONE.” Trusting one piece of statistical output is especially treacherous when it’s something as unpredictable as touchdowns. We all have the need. The need for ‘TDs.’ But don’t get caught up in those numbers, otherwise you won’t be looking into the Red Zone anymore; you’ll be on the “highway to the DANGER ZONE.” (Warning: I’ll be making plenty of terrible Top Gun jokes throughout this article. Continue at your own peril.)
The key thing to be aware of when touchdown-hunting with your fantasy players is usage, and the easiest way to tell usage is by the volume of targets they are receiving in the red zone. The more the QB looks a particular receiver’s way when the field gets tight, the better that receiver’s chances of scoring are. We saw last year with Packers WR James Jones that 11 of his 14 TD receptions came from within the red zone, but he was targeted only 19 times within an opponent’s 20-yard-line. Just like the peacefulness of the “fun in the sun” beach volleyball scene, that more than half of those targets were converted to TDs is unsustainable, and we should expect Jones’ TD total to drop this year as a result (though not too much, and I’ll explain why later).
The other large red flag for regression to the mean is an abundance of long touchdowns, which indicate a really lucky broken coverage or a couple of slipped tackles that should have been made. Remember 2011′s Victor Cruz? He hauled in 9 TDs over 16 games, so that’s not unbelievable, right? Five of those were 68 yards or more, an absurd amount when you also consider he started only 7 games in 2011, and it was rightfully expected that those long TDs would regress the next year. In 2012, he only brought in two 70+ yard touchdowns, but due to an increased workload and starting role he still finished with 10 total.
And this final thought is perhaps the most important one I can impress on you: much like the target level I set up as a benchmark in our “3rd-year WR breakout” article, all of this is merely presented as just that, an indicator of regression that has to be illuminated by further context. I have no certain, tell-all predictive power for this, we’re just reaching into the murky sky and seeing what bits of truth we can drag down from it. We know we’re “headin’ into twilight, spreadin’ out her wings tonight, but you’ll never know what you can do until you get it up as high as you can go”! (And now for something completely different…) So, let’s look at some players!
“The Further on the Edge”: Low 2012 TDs
Andre Johnson, WR, HOU (ADP: WR #7, TTF Ranking: WR #10)
Andre Johnson is still hailed by many as one of the out-and-out elite WRs in the game today, but the super-elite WRs in fantasy thrive because of both an immense volume of yardage and high scoring totals. Johnson’s 4 TD catches last year seem right about where I’d peg him for this year. Two were of the long variety, which isn’t unrealistic considering the volume of work he gets (160+ targets in each of his last three full seasons), and two were in the red zone. Despite the amount of work he gets in between the 20′s, however, he was only targeted six times in the end zone. It’s safe to say that because Johnson gets no bunny TDs in close (most of those go to RB Arian Foster), this current level of TD production should stay pretty similar. Draft him just outside the top-10 for WRs. DANGER ZONE!
Calvin Johnson, WR, DET (ADP: WR #1, TTF: WR #1)
Here’s an example for you, if there ever was one, of a total not reflecting the true value. “Megatron” was by far still the best fantasy WR last year due to his record-setting yardage total, but he wasn’t able to provide that slight extra boon to his owners by scoring, nabbing only 5 TDs. What gives? Start with the fact that the big man was tackled on opponents’ one yard lines four times and you begin to paint the picture. Add in the fact that he was by far the only receiver regularly catching balls on that team and therefore faced regular triple coverage in the end zone (where he was targeted 16 times, only two of which became TDs), and you have a recipe for fantasy glory again. His quarterback will throw nearly 700 times again. Take Megatron in the middle or end of the 1st Round and feel good about it.
Steve Smith, WR, CAR (ADP: WR #21, TTF: WR #20, JDR Ranking: WR #17)
Even at age 34, Smith is still one of the fastest receivers in the league and the best example of defying every receiver stereotype: “At only 5′ 9″, he can’t get up on the jump balls.” “At 180 lb., he can’t get off the line well enough.” “He’s the only good receiver, and will get double-teamed and won’t produce.” None of those have held him back from NFL or fantasy success; the only thing that has is his lack of TD production. Only bringing in 4 TDs last year (only two were 23 yards long), Smith was targeted 14 times in the red zone, indicating that those four scores are a solid and repeatable number, especially if his young QB takes a step forward as a thrower. I see Smith as a legitimate #2 WR that you can get just outside the top-20.
Jason Witten, TE, DAL (ADP: TE #4, TTF: TE #2)
There’s a well-documented narrative that Cowboys’ QB Tony Romo just doesn’t look Witten’s way when they get in close. While that may be true on the goal line, Witten was targeted only 13 times in an opponent’s red zone last year. Three of those were all that became of his TD total for the year (a solid and sustainable amount), but it’s true that he was targeted outside the 10 yard line far more than from within it. Likely this is more a product of Witten’s elite blocking ability, which is a big boon for protecting the plays on the goal line, than Romo not offering him any opportunities. In addition, he was tackled inside an opponent’s 5 yard line five times, so a slight uptick in TD production isn’t out of the question for 2013. Witten’s our TE #2, and valued properly there. A high volume of targets plus one or two extra scores will equal fantasy goodness.
“The Hotter the Intensity”: High 2012 TDs
Dez Bryant, WR, DAL (ADP: WR #3, TTF: WR #4, JDR: WR #3)
Dez came on strong after another sluggish start last year, so much so that his stretch run totals in 7 games were 792 yards and 9 TDs. This is the Dez we’ve been waiting for. The real question is: how sustainable is that high total of 12 TDs for the year? Let’s go by the numbers: Dez had just 14 red zone targets last year (a fair number), but a good four of those went for TDs. That’s certainly a solid scoring foundation for him when you consider the massive amount of times Romo looks for him now all over the field. Even if you take away one fluky long touchdown, Dez still would have had 11 last year. If he plays like anything close to the way he played down the stretch in 2012 this year, double-digit TDs is a guarantee.
Eric Decker, WR, DEN (ADP: WR #21, TTF: WR #21)
As I’m doing the research for this article, I’ve realized how scarily low I am on Eric Decker. I’ve only got him 24th among wide receivers in my rankings, but he deserves to be much higher. And he’s still my third Broncos WR. Decker pulled in 14 TDs last year with Peyton Manning at the helm, and with superstar volume receiver Wes Welker now joining him and Demaryius Thomas in the Mile High City, Decker should become much less valuable and targeted, right? Maybe, but he was so good last year, even a slight dip could keep him in the top-20 or 25. He received a whopping 24 red zone targets last year, 12 of which he converted for scores. His QB has pinpoint accuracy and Decker’s an elite big target, so I don’t see that ratio being unsustainable. Half of his TDs came from closer than 11 yards, too, so not many can be chalked up to lucky slips of coverage. Maybe the opportunities drop a bit in 2013 due to a crowded receiver stable, but that could also be buoyed by a higher-temp offense and more chances. Decker should still get at least 10 scores this year; I’m buying into him.
James Jones, WR, GB (ADP: WR #22, TTF: WR #30, JDR: WR #25)
Jones is an interesting case for fantasy owners this year. The Packers’ WR4 on the depth chart to begin 2012, he was given a real shot to contribute when both teammates Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings were hampered by injury, and he didn’t disappoint. 14 TDs later, and Jones was a top-20 end of season fantasy WR. The problem is that Jones only caught 65 balls on just 98 targets, making his TD-to-TGT ratio one of the highest in the league. Clearly, we should be pegging Jones for regression purely because of the volume of work he doesn’t get, but I don’t think he’ll plummet too far. 11 of his TDs came on 20 red zone targets, which is a fairly high number for any player, let alone the fact that those targets compose more than one-fifth of his total. Clearly his QB looks for him in close, and it doesn’t hurt that the guy throwing him the ball is a former league MVP. I won’t say Jones is a lock to get 10 TDs again this year, but opportunity knocks again with Nelson and Cobb both banged up. I’d say there’s no chance he finishes with less than 7 TDs.
Lance Moore, WR, NO (ADP: WR #37, TTF: WR #33, JDR: WR #28)
Moore really broke out in a big way last year, posting his first 1,000 yard season on only 104 targets. Moore also posted 6 TDs, a fair amount for a #2 or #3 WR even in the prolific Saints’ offense. He is now solidly the #2 WR for New Orleans, Sean Payton’s back as the head coach and will look to throw, throw, throw (I still believe, despite his words to the contrary). Can we believe in a repeat scoring performance for Moore? I don’t know if 6 is in the cards for him again, but he had 4 scores on 14 targets in the red zone (same as Dez), and it seems to be a fair amount for a player with Drew Brees as his QB. Rookie WR Kenny Stills and second-year Nick Toon look to be legitimate deep threats on the team, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore’s scoring upside remains limited. Seven TDs total again is possible, but four seems more likely. DANGER ZONE!
Kyle Rudolph, TE, MIN (ADP: TE #6, TTF: TE #9)
We leave the most difficult for the last. How tough is it to analyze the scoring chances of any player on the Vikings besides star RB Adrian Peterson? We’ll try here with Rudolph, who scored 9 TDs last year, all of them within the red zone. The startling thing was that it came on only 17 red zone targets, and he had only 93 total targets. That’s a startlingly high number of his receptions and targets that became a touchdown, and seems fairly unsustainable (50% in RZ, nearly 20% of REC, and 10% of TGTs). On top of this, it’s clear that Rudolph’s main scoring value is in close to the goal and for a team that doesn’t figure to be down the field a lot, Rudolph’s chances look a bit slimmer. Add in a sub-par quarterback, and you have a recipe for fantasy disaster. I’m avoiding Rudolph until he’s the 9th TE off the board, well after where he’s going in ADP. I could see half of his TDs regressing this year. DANGER ZONE!
Again, the most important thing to consider when looking into these next-level stats is context. The numbers I point out are merely statistical “red flags” or “green flags” that raise my attention, but if the situation isn’t ripe for this player or that one to produce, they simply won’t. Jones shouldn’t regress too much because of elite QB play, whereas Rudolph should regress because of poor QB play. Context is the key to filling in the story between the stats. So, ladies and gentlemen, let’s open up full throttle on our way out of the DANGER ZONE, and into the regular season!
J.D. is a Packers fan who has drafted Matt Forte in three leagues this year, and he’s not ashamed to admit it (in an IDP league he drafted Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, too). Follow us on Twitter @JR_TopTeam and @TopTeamFantasy to get the latest fantasy news and advice.