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Touchdown Regression: Receivers to Watch

Looking at the most extreme touchdown rates from 2013 for wide receivers and tight ends.

Touchdown Rate is one of the fantasy football statistics with a strong confidence of regression. Up until a year ago, I tracked everything from yards-per-reception to missed tackle rate and everything in between. At one juncture I asked myself what the end-game impact of all these regressions were over the course of an entire fantasy football season. Digging into the numbers, each one had a small overall impact – except for touchdown rate. Touchdowns are a significant part of fantasy football (outside of general ‘opportunity’ with playing time, targets, carries, etc.) and can swing head-to-head matchups with a single play.

Mike Clay did significant work on this subject back in 2011, outlining the league rate for receivers, around 8%, and those in the hot zone for decline, above 13%. In my research I found that 12% and above is still very much in line for decline. One aspect I examine, in addition to the touchdown rate of their Y-1 season, is how greatly that season differed from their prior seasons above or below the league average. For example, Rob Gronkowski has consistently been among the league leaders in touchdown rate since entering the NFL, so his baseline is significantly higher than the NFL average and less prone to a sharp downward regression from season-to-season. Without further ado, here are the pass-catchers to monitor in 2014:

*Must have 25 receptions in a season to qualify*

On the Decline

Vernon Davis

2013 Rate: 25%

’10-’12 Rate: 11%

Davis hit the rare air of more than 20% of his receptions going for touchdowns. The 49ers have Michael Crabtree for a full season and added Steve Johnson. Vernon Davis is a very likely candidate to see his touchdowns cut in half with an upside of six-to-eight scores in the coming year.

Brent Celek

2013 Rate: 19%

’10-’12 Rate: 6%

Celek is not really on the fantasy radar outside of tight end premium leagues, but after 10 touchdowns in three seasons, he logged six in 2013 alone. Zach Ertz is coming on, Jeremy Maclin is coming back, and Jordan Matthews was added in the draft. Celek goes back to fantasy afterthought in 2014.

Jimmy Graham

2013 Rate: 19%

’10-’12 Rate: 12%

Graham is the first one on this list that has a small chance to repeat his scoring clip. Lance Moore is gone, Drew Brees’ safety blanket, as well as Darren Sproles, who was a key cog in the red zone. However, Graham may see the Calvin Johnson treatment inside the 10-yard-line. It would take heavy volume to come close to Graham’s 16 touchdowns again this season. Graham has sported at least a 10% rate in each of the previous four seasons, so something in the 10-15% range is likely.

Julius Thomas

2013 Rate: 19%

’10-’12 Rate: N/A

With no previous data, it is tough to gauge Thomas’ chances at a repeat season. Playing with Peyton Manning automatically a pass-catcher's baseline touchdown rate and Eric Decker is now out of the picture. While a sub-10% mark would be a surprise, a Jimmy Graham-like 10-15% would still represent a decent decline and the loss of 2-to-4 scores.

Riley Cooper

2013 Rate: 17%

’10-’12 Rate: N/A

Like Brent Celek, it was a perfect storm for Cooper in 2013 with limited passing weapons in the Philadelphia offense. Expect Cooper’s rate to be cut in half this season and be in the four-to-six range for touchdowns.

Marcedes Lewis

2013 Rate: 16%

’10-’12 Rate: 9%

Lewis had a similar high-rate season back in 2010, but has been one of the biggest boom-bust touchdown plays over the past few seasons. The Jaguars had nothing in the passing game, especially in the red zone and it is worth noting that Lewis barely made the cutoff with exactly 25 receptions. Lewis is a prime candidate to fall back down to three touchdowns or less.

Kenny Stills

2013 Rate: 16%

’10-’12 Rate: N/A

Deep threats are subjects to wild swings in touchdown rate due to the nature of their routes and inconsistent involvement in their offenses. Stills is a trendy upside play this season. Part of that would be retaining this lofty touchdown rate with an increase in receptions from his 32 as a 2013 rookie.

Jeff Cumberland

2013 Rate: 15%

’10-’12 Rate: 10%

Eric Decker joins the Jets pass-catchers, who has been a dependable touchdown scorer in his career and Jace Amaro will compete for tight end targets out of the gate. Cumberland, like others on this list, saw a perfect storm to produce a high rate of touchdowns in 2013.

Demaryius Thomas

2013 Rate: 15%

’10-’12 Rate: 11%

Demaryius Thomas, like Julius Thomas, gets the Peyton Manning treatment where he is likely to sustain at least a 10% rate following his impressive 2013 season. While a total of 14 touchdowns is a lofty number, eight would be about the limit to Thomas’ floor.

Zach Miller

2013 Rate: 15%

’10-’12 Rate: 7%

Miller had just 33 receptions in 2013, so he is not on the radar of the general fantasy populous. Luke Willson has physical upside as Miller’s primary backup to boot.

Calvin Johnson

2013 Rate: 14%

’10-’12 Rate: 11%

Like Jimmy Graham, Johnson is one of the most-likely candidates to repeat his strong touchdown numbers. That said, Johnson had a paltry 4% rate in 2012 following his impressive 17% in 2011. While that season of 4% is the outlier in Calvin Johnson’s career, it shows that a sharp regression is possible for even the most-talented receivers.

Dez Bryant

2013 Rate: 14%

’10-’12 Rate: 14%

Bryant joins Jimmy Graham as the only two pass-catchers with at least 25 receptions and a 10% touchdown rate in each of the last four seasons. Bryant’s 14% clip in 2013 was basically business as usual for the big-play machine. Bryant is one of the few receivers with 18 or more touchdown potential in a season upside at his peak.

Ted Ginn

2013 Rate: 14%

’10-’12 Rate: N/A

Ginn rose from the ashes (three straight seasons below the 25-reception threshold) to catch 36 passes with a 14% touchdown rate last season. Ginn moves from a situational deep threat in Carolina to the same role in Arizona. His targets will be limited with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd soaking up significant work, plus rookie speedster John Brown has been generating plenty of offseason buzz on the depth chart.

Wes Welker

2013 Rate: 14%

’10-’12 Rate: 7%

Peyton Manning's historic season is in effect once again on this list with Wes Welker. While cutting his touchdowns in half (from 10 to 5) may be unlikely, losing a few is probable.

Notable Names in the 12-13% Range

Randall Cobb

Eric Decker

Kenbrell Thompkins

Larry Fitzgerald

Brandon Marshall

Cobb is the most insulated one of the group in terms of quarterback quality and a 9% rate in 2011-2012. Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall both enjoyed four-year highs in touchdown rate last year. Despite not having overt athleticism or size, Kenbrell Thompkins makes the list with four scores on 32 receptions. With a healthy Rob Gronkowski and at least half of the other receivers at a given time, Thompkins will be hard pressed to approach that rate again in 2014.

On the Rise

Hakeem Nicks

2013 Rate: 0%

’10-’12 Rate: 10%

Nicks is the poster child for regression. He had 56 receptions last season without a single visit to the end zone. In addition to being in physical decline since his breakout season in 2010, Nicks’ touchdown rate as been waning for three straight seasons. With an upgrade at quarterback to Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, Nicks’ health will be the key variable to a rebound season.

Miles Austin

2013 Rate: 0%

’10-’12 Rate: 11%

Like Hakeem Nicks, Austin took a zero in 2013 with no scores on 24 receptions (just misses the catch cutoff). The oft-injured receiver now goes from Tony Romo to a muddy quarterback situation in Cleveland. In addition to a likely run-heavy offense, Austin has to overcome his consistent hamstring issues that have plagued him since 2009 and 2010 seasons of relevance.

Heath Miller

2013 Rate: 2%

’10-’12 Rate: 7%

Miller had a sharp correction from his 2012 season of 11% (eight touchdowns) with just one last season. The Steelers still have little competition for Miller in terms of red zone weapons. At a minimum a bounce back to four to six touchdowns is in the cards as Miller mired through ACL recovery early on in 2013.

Kendall Wright

2013 Rate: 2%

’10-’12 Rate: 6%

Wright’s game is not conducive to a high touchdown rate, but one touchdown on 58 receptions last year is a low mark for any receiver. While five or six scores may be his upside, that would be a significant improvement if his target volume remains intact.

Harry Douglas

2013 Rate: 2%

’10-’12 Rate: 2%

Here is where historical context is important. Douglas’ 2013 touchdown rate was low in a vacuum, but his third straight season less than 3%. Douglas’ game is outside the 20-yard-line and he is clearly third in line behind Julio Jones and Roddy White.

Pierre Garcon

2013 Rate: 4%

’10-’12 Rate: 9%

Garcon is a big-bodied receiver that mired in the touchdown department despite a gaudy 113 receptions. DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed are not dominant red zone receivers, so Garcon is likely to see a rate increase this season.

Other Players on the Watchlist

Victor Cruz: 5.5% last year after back to back seasons in the 11-12% range. Hakeem Nicks is gone and the tight end position is a major question mark. Outside of a big emergence from Odell Beckham Jr. or Rueben Randle, it is poised to be the Victor Cruz show for the Giants passing game.

Torrey Smith: While 6.2% in 2013 does not make the traditional cut for touchdown rate regression, Smith had a 15% mark in his first two seasons. There was little around Smith in the Ravens passing game last year with Anquan Boldin gone and Dennis Pitta injured for most of the year. A healthy Pitta and at least the presence of Steve Smith will get Torrey Smith back on track with touchdowns in 2014.


More from Chad Parsons:

The New Reality No.28: Doubling Data Points - September 17
The New Reality No.27: Week 1 Whiplash - September 10
The New Reality No.26: Backfields in Motion - September 2
Final Tasks Heading into Week 1 - August 28
Targets and Landmines: Preference Planning - August 25
The New Reality No.25: Preseason Observations Week 2 - August 22
What if Andre Ellington is Lost for the Season? - August 18
What if Adrian Peterson is Lost for the Season? - August 15
The New Reality No.24 - Finding the Next Late-Round Wide Reciever Breakout - August 12
Going Deep: Preseason Observations Week 1 - August 12