Using Red Zone Expected Value to Find 7 Wide Receiver Touchdown Regression Candidates

Using Red Zone Expected Value to Find 7 Wide Receiver 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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In the first two parts of this series, I’ve examined Red Zone Expected Value (Red Zone EV) for quarterbacks and running backs in hopes of uncovering potential touchdown regression candidates. Red Zone EV is a metric designed to quantify how many points a player should score from red zone touchdowns based on the starting field position of every red zone opportunity

More Touchdown Regression Candidates: QB | RB | TE

The following table lists the expected value for all wide receiver red zone targets:

Expected Value of a Wide Receiver Red Zone Target
Starting Yard Line % Chance of a TD EV of a Target (% Chance of TD * 6)
20-16 11.5% 0.69
15-11 15.6% 0.94
10-6 29.7% 1.78
5-1 41.5% 2.49

When it comes to wide receivers, no volume stat carries less weight from one year to the next than touchdowns, and the rate at which receivers score touchdowns from year to year varies even more. With the knowledge that touchdown rates are likely to regress to some mean -- either the league average or an individual's average, given a large enough sample -- we can look at scoring rates from last season as an indicator of players that might see a significant change in the touchdown column in 2017.

After compiling every red zone target for every wide receiver in the league from 2016, I calculated each receiver’s Red Zone EV and compared that number to the actual points that they generated from red zone touchdowns. The differential in those numbers will highlight receivers that scored more often or less often than they should have in the red zone, based on starting field position.


Negative Touchdown Regression Candidates

League Average Touchdown Rate - 4.7% of targets
League Average Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 22.7% of targets

Jordy Nelson, Packers

2016 Touchdown Rate - 9.2%; Career - 8.4%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 37.9%; Career - 30.3%
2016 Red Zone EV - 46.3; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 66

Jordy Nelson led all wide receivers in red zone touchdowns last season with 11, but he also scored furthest above expectation, as starting field position suggested a yield of fewer than eight red zone scores. In the quarterback iteration of this series, I hinted that Aaron Rodgers should see a slight decline in his scoring rate, and that would obviously have a direct impact on Nelson. Like his quarterback, Nelson has consistently scored at an electric pace over the course of his career, but 2016 was unsustainable even for his standards.

Having just turned 32, the Green Bay receiver is also fighting history. Since 1992 (when the league started tracking targets) only eight receivers aged 32 or older have posted a touchdown rate of at least eight percent. Considering that Nelson hasn’t been the healthiest of players, fantasy owners shouldn’t bank on a 2016 repeat.


Sterling Shepard, Giants

2016 Touchdown Rate - 7.6%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 50%
2016 Red Zone EV - 17.9; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 36

Usually when a rookie wide receiver puts up as a respectable of a season as Shepard did in 2016, fantasy owners eagerly roster that player in year two in hopes of landing the next big thing. But there is reason for pause when it comes to the second-year Giants wideout. Only five receivers scored more touchdowns from inside the 20 than Shepard, but 37 saw more red zone targets.

In the offseason, New York added one of the most efficient red zone scorers of this generation, in Brandon Marshall, and drafted Evan Engram at tight end, a position that Eli Manning has always targeted heavily in the red zone. It’s virtually impossible for Shepard to maintain his 2016 scoring rate, but with the new roster, he might not improve on his 12 red zone targets, either.


Rishard Matthews, Titans

2016 Touchdown Rate - 8.3%; Career - 6.1%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 46.7%; Career - 44%
2016 Red Zone EV - 24.5; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 42

Another player attached to a quarterback that is expected to see regression in his scoring rate, Rishard Matthews ranked third among all receivers in red zone scores last year despite seeing just 16 targets inside the 20. For his career, Matthews has seen just 26 red zone targets and Dez Bryant is the only active receiver with a career red zone scoring rate over 40% on at least 50 targets. With the additions of Eric Decker and rookie wide receiver Corey Davis, Matthews is likely to see a drop in his already-pedestrian red zone target volume, as well as his scoring efficiency.


Davante Adams, Packers 

2016 Touchdown Rate - 9.9%; Career - 5.7%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 35%; Career - 23.8%
2016 Red Zone EV - 37.2; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 54

As was the case with his teammate Jordy Nelson, Adams's uptick in scoring coincided with an outlier year from A-Rod, but unlike Nelson, Adams doesn’t have a history of high scoring efficiency. In fact, no receiver recorded an overall touchdown rate further above their career average than Adams (minimum 75 targets). Newly signed tight end Martellus Bennett figures to siphon off a good number off red zone targets, and if Adams regresses even to Rodgers’ career touchdown rate, the fourth-year receiver could tumble from the WR1 ranks.


Positive Regression Candidates

Amari Cooper, Raiders

2016 Touchdown Rate - 3.8%; Career - 4.2%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 0%; Career - 10%
2016 Red Zone EV - 24.1; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 0

Much has been made about Amari Cooper’s lack of involvement in the red zone since being drafted by Oakland, but the Raiders haven’t completely ignored Coop near the goal line. Based on the starting field position of his red zone targets, the Raiders sophomore receiver should have found pay dirt four times -- give him even three of those and Amari would have leapfrogged his teammate Michael Crabtree to finish as a PPR WR1.

Contrary to some of the negative regression candidates, Cooper will be catching balls from a quarterback expecting positive touchdown regression himself. If “the dog is coming out” like Derek Carr suggests, and Amari’s red zone scoring normalizes even a little bit, he could be the newest player to join the elite tier of fantasy wide receivers.


Jermaine Kearse, Seahawks

2016 Touchdown Rate - 1.1%; Career - 4.1%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 7.1%; Career - 14.6%
2016 Red Zone EV - 25.5; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 6

In terms of expected red zone scoring, Jermaine Kearse ranked 17th among all receivers last season but found the end zone just once. No wide receiver who saw at least 75 targets in 2016 had a lower touchdown rate than Kearse, but there’s reason for optimism heading into 2017.

After posting the worst touchdown rate of his career and the lowest touchdown rate relative to his career average of any quarterback last season, Russell Wilson is primed for a bounce-back season. Outside of Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham, Kearse shouldn’t find much competition for targets -- remember that Tyler Lockett’s leg got turned into spaghetti in Week 16 last season. If passing continues to trend upward in Seattle, as the graphic shows below, Kearse could eclipse 100 targets for the first time in his career in a season where passing touchdowns are expected to increase for the entire team.

Seahawks Passing Rate, 2012-2016
2012 SEA 404 531 43.2%
2013 SEA 419 502 45.5%
2014 SEA 454 518 46.7%
2015 SEA 489 496 49.6%
2016 SEA 565 399 58.6%


Tyrell Williams, Chargers

2016 Touchdown Rate - 5.9%; Career - 6.5%
2016 Red Zone Touchdown Rate - 12.5%; Career - 12.5%
2016 Red Zone EV - 28.1; Actual Points Scored from Red Zone Touchdowns - 12

Only 14 wide receivers saw more red zone targets than Tyrell Williams last year, but the second-year receiver scored just twice from inside the 20. The Chargers ranked eighth in red zone passing rate last season and Philip Rivers is consistently one of the most efficient touchdown scorers in the league. Rookie Mike Williams is already in danger of missing the entire offseason, which could help Tyrell maintain his target share, both overall and in the red zone. Should his red zone scoring rate approach the league average, the incumbent Williams could repeat as a solid WR2 in fantasy.


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