Fantasy Football Today: Aaron Rodgers, J.K. Dobbins, Michael Thomas lead list of 2021 regression candidates


You want to know a sure-fire way to win your Fantasy league? Draft only players who are about to have career years. Yep, it’s that easy. 

OK, easier said than done. But that’s what it takes: Identifying players right before they have that one year where everything comes together perfectly. Sometimes, it never happens; some players are just steady as they come every year. But most players have that one season that stands above the rest of their career as their pinnacle, and they tend to lead countless players to Fantasy championships when it happens.

But what goes up must fall, as the man said, and one sure-fire way to put yourself in a hole on Draft Day is to go too aggressively after last year’s career-best seasons. You never want to pay a premium for last year’s production, after all. Sometimes, of course, a career year is just a career year so far, and figuring out the difference is one of the keys to succeeding in this game.

Which means you want to identify outliers. For most players, production tends to fall within a fairly narrow range. Those ranges can be higher or lower depending on the player and their team context, but generally speaking, if a player has been between 4.2 and 4.6 yards per carry for his career, chances are he is going to end up right around the league average of 4.4. 

Figuring out where the outliers are and which ones are unlikely to sustain that production is what we’re looking for, then. On Thursday’s episode of the Fantasy Football Today podcast, Adam Aizer, Heath Cummings and I set out to do just that, as we looked for 2021’s key regression candidates. Players who played over their heads, got a bit lucky, or however you define it, and are going to come back down to earth in 2021.

To be clear, though, we’re not just talking about players who played over their heads, but also those players who, for whatever reason, just didn’t get the results they probably should have. Maybe they had some bad touchdown luck — a few slightly overthrown balls here, a tackle at the 3-yard-line there — or just didn’t break out quite as many of the 40-plus yard plays they normally do. 

Identifying both is a key for success in Fantasy Football, so that’s what today’s newsletter is all about, as well. Make sure you check out the podcast for Heath’s thoughts as well, but for now, here are a couple of high-profile regression candidates to keep in mind as you do your research for 2021 drafts. 

And, as always, if you disagree with my takes, have any questions or just want to reach out with some feedback, you can hit me up at Chris.Towers@CBSInteractive.com

2021 regression candidates 

Let’s take a look at a couple of regression candidates at each position, where that regression might come from, and what it might mean for their 2021 value, starting with a very big name at QB. 

But before that, I want to highlight one thing: A lot of these are going to come down to one thing: Touchdowns. They are the most important currency in Fantasy Football, but they are also arguably the single stat that is most prone to fluctuation from year to year. Generally speaking, if a player scores an inordinate amount of touchdowns one year, you should expect a more ordinary number the next, and vice versa for those who were unusually unable to find the end zone. That’s one of the easiest ways to spot players who are likely to bounce back or underperform. 

Quarterbacks

Aaron Rodgers – Overall efficiency

Rodgers highlights why it’s kind of hard to have the conversation about regression candidates, and not just because some will take it to mean he isn’t good or that last season was a fluke. It wasn’t; he played at an incredibly high level, but not exactly out of step with his whole career. And Rodgers has the second-highest touchdown rate of any QB who has played since 1975, so it certainly wasn’t a fluke that he led the league in touchdown rate. Still, a 9.1% rate is awfully hard to sustain — he had a 9.0% rate in 2011 and followed it up with a still-league-leading 7.1% the following season. If Rodgers was at 7.1% last season, he would’ve thrown around 37 TD, rather than 48. That would have been enough to drop Rodgers from first in Fantasy points per game to 11th. And it would have still given him the second-highest TD rate in the league.

Daniel Jones – Rushing production

Jones is a solid rusher, and that should give him a nice boost if he can figure out the whole “throwing” part of the position. However, he ranked seventh among all QBs in rushing yards, and you shouldn’t expect that to continue. I mean, he rushed for 66 more yards than Jalen Hurts on two more attempts; anyone want to argue Daniel Jones is a better runner than Jalen Hurts? No, Jones is a good example of a specific type of regression candidate, the one who benefited inordinately from a few big plays. Or, in Jones’ case, one: His unforgettable 80-yard-and-trip rush in Week 7 in prime time against the Eagles. That rush alone accounted for 19% of his total yards for the season, and his eight rushing points added with that run would have been his second-highest total for the season in a game. Jones is a solid rusher, but he’s probably more like a 250-300-yard rusher. 

Running backs

J.K. Dobbins – Overall efficiency

There is, I think, a general sense that Dobbins is a budding superstar, and that very well may be the case. He’s a heck of a back, and his skills combined with a Ravens offense that has historically been very productive for running backs should help make him a must-start Fantasy option. However, you can’t just look at his 6.0 yards per carry from 2020 and expect him to sustain something like that in a much larger role, because that just doesn’t happen. In NFL history, there have been only six running back seasons with at least 200 carries and 6.0 yards per carry, and that includes some pretty great backs like Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Adrian Peterson, among others. Those six backs collectively averaged 4.7 yards per carry the next season. Lamar Jackson‘s presence should help Dobbins maintain high efficiency as the lead back, but your expectation should be more like 5 yards per carry. If you’re expecting outlier performance from Dobbins, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, and given that I’m not 100% convinced he’s going to see much more than, say, 14-15 carries per game, he may just end up being a disappointment for Fantasy overall. 

Austin Ekeler – Bad touchdown luck

As I said earlier, regression doesn’t just have to be negative. In Ekeler’s case he performed well below career norms when it came to finding the end zone in 2020. He had one touchdown on 116 carries and two more on 54 catches; based on his career rates, he should have had more like three rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns (more like 4.8, but we’ll round up). Taking out the game where he played just three snaps, Ekeler averaged 17.9 PPR points per game, which would have been tied with James Robinson for sixth among all RB last season; if he had scored eight touchdowns instead of three like expected, he would have been fourth in points per game, ahead of Derrick Henry. Obviously, touchdowns aren’t all about luck, and Ekeler did lose plenty of goal-line opportunities last season to other RBs on the field, but given the quality of the offense around him and his role in it, he clearly underperformed. This is part of why I’m so high on Ekeler as a first-round pick for 2021. 

Wide receivers

Michael Thomas – Unsustainable TD rate

Like Ekeler, Thomas also suffered through some terrible touchdown luck in 2020. Obviously, if you fail to score on 55 targets, some bad luck is at play, though just as obviously, there were some extenuating circumstances that made Thomas’ job more difficult. The one most will point to is that he played four of his seven games with Taysom Hill, though he was on a 120-catch, 1,372-yard pace in those four games, so it’s hard to blame that too much. The more important factor, in my opinion, was that he simply wasn’t ever healthy. He suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 1, and though he was able to play through it for about a month, he ultimately went back on IR to close out the regular season. He came back and scored on five catches for 73 yards in his first playoff game. Thomas had several targets inside of the 10-yard line, and was actually tackled inside the 5 twice, so there were opportunities. In 2021, that will correct itself no matter who is playing QB, but if Jameis Winston is in there, I could see Thomas finally reaching double digits in that category. 

Diontae Johnson – Drops

We tend to think about regression as this almost mystical force — it trips players up short of the end zone or magically lifts the ball into a receiver’s hands for a touchdown, like something out of Angels In The Outfield. But we are talking about real players, who sometimes go through hot or cold streaks, where they “earn” their production, but in a way they can’t hope to sustain. I’m not saying Johnson won’t have trouble with drops again — in fact, given that he runs so many short routes where his back is often to do the defense when the ball arrives, it could continue to be an issue — but it shouldn’t be the expectation. Drops tend to not be particularly predictable from year to year, and in Johnson’s case, 10 of his 19 career drops came in an eight-game stretch from Week 7 through Week 14 last season. His drop rate in those eight games was 11.5%; it is 6% in his other 23 games. Johnson had just three drops on 47 targets in the four games after that stretch, and the number you should be focused on is the nearly 12 targets per game, not the drops. I’m expecting his catch rate to jump at least five points. 

Tight end

Robert Tonyan – Unsustainable TD rate

Obviously if Aaron Rodgers was playing above his head, his receivers would be as well. And while you shouldn’t expect Davante Adams to have 18 touchdowns again, Tonyan’s 11 on 59 targets was even more egregious. Tonyan had 11 targets inside the red zone and scored on six of them, which also means he had five touchdowns on 48 targets outside of the red zone. Repeating either is going to be tough even with Rodgers at QB, and nothing about Tonyan’s role suggests you should be targeting him as a starting TE. Don’t forget his five-week stretch from Week 6 through 10 where he averaged just 6.3 PPR points per game without a touchdown. That’s what you’re looking at when Tonyan doesn’t score. He’s a touchdown-or-bust streamer, even if he might be drafted higher than that. 

Noah Fant – Bad TD luck

On the other side of the coin, you have Fant, who scored just three times on 93 targets. Fant’s combination of size and speed should make him a dominant force all over the field, capable of scoring on long catch-and-runs or as a force in the red zone. Just as Tonyan benefited from elite QB play, Fant was held back by pretty poor play all around, so his breakout chances depend to at least some degree on Drew Lock taking a step forward. However, the Broncos also now have Teddy Bridgewater if Lock falters, which should mean a sizable improvement in the quality of QB play in Denver no matter what. Fant could make the leap to the elite tier at TE this season but even if he doesn’t, he should be much better than last season. 





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