Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke: Regression came for these players in Week 9 — but what should we expect going forward?

I’ve written a lot about how different cognitive biases can lead to faulty decision-making in fantasy football, and one place where they sneak in is the setting of our expectations. I’m as guilty as the next person of letting the idea of “he’s due” creep into my lineup-setting process. “He’s due” is the average person’s way of expressing an expectation for regression to the mean. Simply put, regression is a statistical concept referring to the tendency of outlier events (those that are much higher or lower than the average) to come closer to the mean upon additional measurements.

In football, we tend to think about touchdown regression. Good players with high snap counts, routes run, carries — in other words, heavy involvement in the offense — should score at a certain rate. Most of us don’t actually do the math, however, which can lead us to shaky logic, or to rely more on our feelings than the data.

So I did the heavy lifting to help us all better manage our expectations — and our reactions.

Over the past four seasons, a fantasy-relevant running back (top 60 in fantasy points) will score on average one touchdown for every 29 carries or 31 targets. A fantasy-relevant wide receiver will score one touchdown on average for every 18 targets. The best of the best at their positions (top 10) will score at a slightly higher rate, 1 TD per 14 targets for wide receivers and 1 TD per 23 carries or 28 targets for running backs.

We heard a lot about regression during Week 9’s games. Let’s check in and see how some of the surprising performances line up with our educated expectations.

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

The five touchdowns were a deciding factor in any fantasy matchup he was part of. He single-handedly outscored many full fantasy rosters and many actual NFL teams in Week 9. Prior to this outburst, Mixon had two rushing touchdowns on 129 carries (about 1 TD/65 attempts) and one receiving touchdown on 45 targets. Both are well under the league average and this had been a source of frustration for Mixon’s managers.

He’s now right in the mix with a season figure of 1 TD per 25 carries and 25 targets. Going forward, Mixon should reasonably be expected to average just under one total touchdown per game given his current volume. Carolina is going to vault from a good fantasy matchup for RBs to a top-three one as a result of Mixon’s regression, but beware that what Mixon did in Week 9 is still a statistical outlier performance. He will likely never repeat that feat, nor should we expect any other back to approach it when facing the Panthers again.

Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Ekeler has been the best fantasy running back for a few weeks now, and touchdowns are a big reason why. He’s averaging 1 rushing TD per 16 carries and 1 receiving TD per 17 targets. After going scoreless in the first three games of the season, Ekeler has made up the difference with above-average scoring rates in the last five games where he is averaging two touchdowns per game.

Expectations for a player like Ekeler, who is so far from the league average, may be a bit higher. He is consistently used heavily in the best situations and his role in the passing game (higher value touches for fantasy) is second to none. At some point, his failure to score in a game or to only score once is going to feel disappointing, but it will only be a regression back to the mean.

Davante Adams, WR, Las Vegas Raiders

Adams has had a season of outlier performances, from the very, very terrible to the very, very excellent. He has four single-digit fantasy point games, three with over 20 fantasy points and one 10-point game. He is scoring touchdowns at a high rate, one per 13.6 targets, right as you’d expect for a top-10 WR. His 17 targets and two scores in Week 9 both tied season highs, but he’s also had three weeks with only 5-7 targets and/or zero touchdowns.

Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams (17) has fluctuating fantasy value
Davante Adams' fantasy production has been a roller coaster this season. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This can be a tough situation to endure, knowing he is going to perhaps win or lose your matchups any given week, especially since we’re not accustomed to pinning Adams with a “volatile player" title. He reminds me to mention that our understanding or definition of what the mean is for any given player is a moving target. Change of team, schedule, age and QB play all factor into that reasonable expectation and we have to be willing to adjust it as we continue to play fantasy each season.

Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears

Fields is quietly the QB7 for fantasy on the season and is second behind Lamar Jackson in QB rushing yards. Week 9 proved to be his breakout game, with three passing scores and one rushing touchdown, not to mention a record-setting 178 rushing yards vs. Miami. It has been an upward trajectory for Fields since Week 4 when he first exceeded 20 pass attempts in a game.

In terms of managing expectations, he has yet to attempt 30 passes in a game, and he has only passed for more than 200 yards once this year. Compared to the best QBs in the league, Fields is actually slightly under average in touchdowns per rushing attempts and pass attempts, possibly because he has so many more rushing and so many fewer passing attempts than his peers. Fields is 100 percent startable in all formats, but don’t expect his fantasy output to increase forever. There will be the inevitable down games, but on the whole, I believe Fields’ best is yet to come.

Quick Hits

Tyreek Hill: Ah, the luxury of having Tyreek Hill on your fantasy roster. For him to be the WR1 in fantasy (all formats) with only three touchdowns this season is amazing. He’s averaging only 1 TD per 33 targets. If you skipped the intro, the league average is 1 per 18, and the elite average is 1 per 14 targets.

If we’re talking regression, Hill still has a lot of touchdowns coming his way.

Josh Jacobs: After a three-week stretch as fantasy’s RB1, Jacobs has cooled right off in the last two games. His volume has fluctuated, and I will give him a pass for the very tough assignment vs. New Orleans in Week 8, but Jacksonville had been allowing the seventh-most fantasy points per game to RBs coming into Week 9. Overall, Las Vegas is proving to be a very up-and-down team for fantasy. When someone is good, they’re very good, but they can’t all be good every week.

The good news with Jacobs is that he’s behaving much like a top-10 running back, scoring once per 20 carries (he is currently RB5 in PPR scoring). He’s also getting the most-valued opportunities, with the fourth-most red-zone rushing attempts in the league.

The bad news is that, being at or slightly above the mean expectation, regression could go the other way for Jacobs.

Amon-Ra St. Brown: Speaking of negative regression, the Sun God is being worshipped less and less these days. Averaging a touchdown for every 16.6 targets, St. Brown is still scoring at an elite rate for the season, but there are two causes for concern: He hasn’t scored since Week 2 … and after garnering 24 targets in the first two games of the season, St. Brown has 35 in the next five games combined.

Granted, he was removed from the Dallas game for a possible concussion, but this volume is concerning for a player who looked like he was going to set records this season. St. Brown and Goff really started connecting around this point last year, so I’m not giving up on him just yet. Since his scoring is right in between the mean for top-10 receivers and everyone else, we should be looking for about 0.5 TD per game from St. Brown at his current volume.

Gabriel Davis: At least Davis has the reputation for being touchdown-dependent, right? He catches an astonishing one touchdown for every 9.5 targets. He boasts one of the better yards per target (11.9) and yards per reception (25.1) while leading the league in average air yards per target (16.9). But until we get ourselves a fantasy point per air yards league, Davis is going to be boom or bust. He’s more likely to continue to negatively regress to the mean but is worth a desperation start when you need that touchdown-dependent, high-ceiling play to win a tough matchup.

Cade Otton: We honestly don’t know enough about Otton to have much of an educated expectation, but we do know how Tom Brady feels about a good tight end. Since Cameron Brate went on IR, Otton has had at least five targets in each of the last three games. He scored the Bucs’ lone touchdown in Week 9 while leading the team in receiving yards. His usage looks legit, and even if Brady is impossible to start with a loaded Field of QBs (take the pun or leave it), an up-and-coming tight end is something we can all latch on to.

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