Using Red Zone Expected Value to Find 4 Tight End Touchdown Regression Candidates

Using Red Zone Expected Value to Find 4 Tight End Touchdown Regression Candidates

By TJ Hernandez (Associate Editor), last update Aug 14, 2017

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TJ is a former full-time poker player who has been playing fantasy football for more than a decade. After online poker was outlawed, TJ ended his poker career and dedicated himself to fantasy football. His background in poker statistics and analytics translates to success in both daily and season-long fantasy football.

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This is the final installment of my four-part series looking at which players at each position are the most likely to see significant regression this year in their touchdown numbers. I have already researched quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers.

This series is based on Red Zone Expected Value (Red Zone EV), a metric that uses starting field position to calculate the odds of scoring for every play and assigns each player a score that reflects expected points from touchdowns generated by plays inside the red zone.

More Touchdown Regression Candidates: QB | RB | WR 

The following table lists the expected value for all tight end red zone targets:

Expected Value of a Tight End Red Zone Target
Starting Yard Line % Chance of a TD EV of a Target (% Chance of TD * 6)
20-16 14.9% 0.89
15-11 20.2% 1.21
10-6 33.2% 1.99
5-1 50.8% 3.05

For tight ends, touchdowns are among the most volatile year-to-year stats, and the rate at which tight ends score touchdowns varies even more. One of the biggest reasons that touchdown stats are so unstable from one year to the next is that tight ends rarely see a large enough sample of targets near the goal line in a single season to represent their true scoring ability. Because of their low volume, just a couple of touchdowns or missed opportunities can swing scoring rates for the entire season.

Just because touchdowns and scoring rates are inconsistent doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t predictable, though. The swings in scoring rates mean that most tight ends' touchdown efficiency is likely to regress to the mean -- either to the league average mean or to their individual mean, if there is a large enough sample.

Equipped with this knowledge, we can look at touchdown rates and Red Zone EV scores from the previous season to help pinpoint players that might regress, either positively or negatively, in the touchdown column.

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Negative Touchdown Regression Candidates

League Average Touchdown Rate - 5.0% of targets
League Average Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 27.5% of targets

Hunter Henry, Chargers

2016 Touchdown Rate - 15.1%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 43.8%
2016 Red Zone EV - 29; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 48

No tight end in football had more red zone touchdowns than Hunter Henry, despite him ranking just sixth at the position in red zone targets. While there is a precedent for Henry to maintain his red zone scoring rate over a large sample, the odds are stacked against him. Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas are the only tight ends in history with a career red zone touchdown rate over 40% on at least 50 targets. Henry’s teammate, Antonio Gates, has converted 36% of his career red zone looks from Philip Rivers into scores.

What’s really alarming is the overall rate at which Henry scored as a rookie. Only three active tight ends have a career touchdown rate above 10%, which Henry could easily fall to, but a more likely scenario is that Henry’s rate regresses closer to the 8.3% rate that Gates has posted in his career. If that proves to be the case, Henry would have to nearly double his target total from last season (53) to approach similar touchdown numbers. On a team that suddenly has a ton of mouths to feed, commanding a huge target share could be a tall task for the second-year tight end.

Martellus Bennett, Packers

2016 Touchdown Rate - 9.6%; Career - 5%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 50%; Career - 27.5%
2016 Red Zone EV - 21; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 36

Last season, no tight end scored further above his career scoring rates, both overall and in the red zone, than the Black Unicorn. Based on the starting field position of his targets, Bennett should have scored roughly as many red zone touchdowns as Charles Clay (3); instead, Bennett hauled in six.

One might argue that Bennett’s 2016 success is sustainable since he will be catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, who is equally as efficient as Tom Brady, but I’ve already pointed to the fact that the Packers entire passing game is due for regression itself. Assuming Bennett’s career red zone touchdown rate and Green Bay’s 2016 red zone attempts, Marty B would need to command roughly 20% of the red zone targets to match his touchdown total from last season, an attainable number, but one to keep in mind when investing in the new Packers tight end.

Positive Touchdown Regression Candidates

Coby Fleener, Saints

2016 Touchdown Rate - 3.7%; Career - 5.1%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 12.5%; Career - 20.3%
2016 Red Zone EV - 33.6; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 12

Probably a surprise to many, Coby Fleener led the Saints in red zone targets in his first season in New Orleans, but six players on his own team caught more scores from inside the 20. For his career, Drew Brees’s tight ends have scored on 32.1% of targets. Even if we remove Jimmy Graham from the equation, tight ends have converted 27% of targets from Brees inside the 20 into scores.

Even with his abysmal scoring rate, Brees continued to target Fleener near the goal line down the stretch -- nine of Fleener’s 18 red zone targets game in the second half of the season -- so there’s no reason to think that he won’t maintain his red zone share and see his scoring rate regress at least towards his own career average. With Brandin Cooks’s departure to New England and no significant pieces added to the Saints’ receiving corps, an argument could be made that Fleener might even see an increase in workload in 2017.

Greg Olsen, Panthers

2016 Touchdown Rate - 2.3%; Career - 5.2%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 12.5%; Career - 24.5%
2016 Red Zone EV - 32.3; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 12

Greg Olsen has led his team in red zone targets in each of the last five seasons, a feat only Larry Fitzgerald has accomplished as well. However, 2016 represented Olsen's lowest touchdown output since joining Carolina in 2011. Not coincidentally, Cam Newton posted the lowest overall touchdown rate -- and second-lowest red zone scoring rate -- of his career. This after Newton posted career highs in both figures in 2015. 

Olsen’s nearly unmatched red zone consistency combined with the high likelihood that Carolina’s entire passing offense regresses positively in 2017 suggests that Olsen might be able to maintain his PPR TE3 fantasy standing, even if his volume numbers dip slightly.

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