Players who will score fewer TDs this season

Mike Clay

Football statistics are extremely hard to predict, but history continues to show that projecting touchdown regression to the mean is significantly easier than you might imagine.

The 2016 and 2017 versions of this article provide overwhelming evidence:

There are 24 names listed above and, in all 24 cases, the player scored fewer touchdowns the following season. Even if we ignore players who barely saw the field (David Johnson, Karlos Williams), the evidence remains extremely strong.

This is far from surprising, as we've learned over the years that players simply can't sustain extremely high scoring rates. It's not a knock on their talent, though, as scoring is simply more about opportunity.

You want proof? Good! I have it.

From 2007 to 2016, there were 270 instances in which a player totaled nine-plus touchdowns as either a rusher or receiver. Of those instances, a whopping 229 players (84.8 percent) scored fewer touchdowns in the subsequent season. The average decrease in scores was 4.9. Of the 28 cases in which a player had scored 15-plus touchdowns, every single one of them scored fewer times the next year, with an average dip of 9.4 TDs. In 2017, Todd Gurley II (19 TD) was the only player to eclipse 13 scores. Be on alert!

For more on this topic, check out this piece from earlier this offseason, which digs deeper into touchdown trends. Also, be sure to also check out the list of players who will score more touchdowns this season.

Note: In this piece, I'll be referencing OTD, which is a statistic that weighs every carry/target and converts the data into a single number that indicates a player's scoring opportunity. Put another way, it's how many touchdowns a league-average player would have scored with the exact same opportunity as the player being discussed. This analysis is limited to regular season rushing and receiving data.

With all of that in mind, a careful examination of each of the following players' performance in 2017 indicates that we should expect an decrease in scoring production from them in 2018.

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints (2017: 13 TD, 5.6 OTD): Kamara is the poster boy for overall statistical regression to the mean in 2018. As if his 6.1 yards per carry and 10.2 yards per reception marks weren't enough, Kamara also found the end zone 13 times (second-most in the NFL) despite a 5.6 OTD (46th overall). That 7.4 gap was easily largest in the league and the ninth-largest mark the NFL has seen since 2007. If Kamara scores fewer than 13 touchdowns in 2018, each of the players with the top-20 highest marks in the category during the past 11 seasons will have scored fewer TDs the following year. The average drop of the previous 19 players was 7.6 scores, and the average OTD change was only -0.2, as seven players managed a higher OTD the next season. As for the 45 players who exceeded their OTD by at least 5.0 during the span, 41 of them (or 91.1 percent) saw a drop the following season.

Kamara managed only four carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (Mark Ingram handled 13 carries) and was targeted while inside the opponent's 9-yard line just once. Even with Kamara likely to improve on his 216 looks (carries plus targets) from 2018, history suggests he'll see at least a slight dip in touchdowns.

2018 Projection: 11 TD

Todd Gurley II, Los Angeles Rams (2017: 19 TD, 15.3 OTD): As noted in the introduction, recent history tells us that Gurley is all but a lock to score fewer touchdowns -- and likely a lot fewer -- in 2018. Interestingly, Gurley actually came close to his rushing OTD last season (13 TD, 12.7 OTD), but the receiving game is where he really overshot the landing (6 TD, 2.6 OTD). Gurley was targeted while inside the opponent's 20-yard line on occasions times, but scored on four of them.

From 2007-2016, there were nine instances in which a running back caught six-plus touchdowns in a single season. All nine saw a drop in the category the next season , with a 3.6 average drop. Expanding a bit, of the 35 backs with four-plus touchdown reception seasons during that span, 31 players (or 88.6 percent) caught fewer TDs the following season. Gurley, Kamara and Christian McCaffrey caught six touchdowns last season. Melvin Gordon, James White and Chris Thompson each caught four.

Fortunately for those banking on Gurley, he's still a 24-year-old workhorse in one of the league's top offenses. That should allow him to push for 12-to-14 touchdowns.

2018 Projection: 13 TD

DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans (2017: 13 TD, 9.6 OTD): Hopkins led the NFL last season with 13 touchdown receptions and has reached double-digits in the category in two of the past three years. He also easily led the NFL with 25 end zone targets in 2017 and topped the position with 21 in 2015. Still, despite his objections, Hopkins is a candidate for a dip in the category in 2018. This isn't a shot at Hopkins from a talent perspective but, as noted earlier, it's simply unlikely that a player can repeat a double-digit touchdown total.

Last season, Hopkins caught 12-of-25 end-zone targets (48 percent, 7.8 OTD) after entering the campaign having hauled in 16-of-52 career end-zone targets (31 percent, 16.7 OTD). Even with Deshaun Watson back under center, Hopkins' safest touchdown projection is closer to single digits.

2018 Projection: 9 TD

Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers (2017: 10 TD, 10.3 OTD): From 2007-2016, 70 players posted a season in which they caught 40-plus passes and scored on at least 15 percent of those receptions. Out of those 70 players, 64 (91.4 percent) scored fewer touchdowns the next season -- with an average decline of 5.5 scores. Three players made the cut for this damning list last season: Graham (57 receptions, 10 TD), Tyler Kroft (42, 7 TD) and Alshon Jeffery (57, 9 TD).

Graham is a tough sell as a player who will score fewer touchdowns this season for obvious reasons. The 32-year-old has scored nine-plus touchdowns during five of his eight NFL seasons, including 10 with Seattle in 2017. Graham was all but force-fed the ball near the goal line in 2017 and his 10.3 OTD was tops in the NFL among all non-running backs. He also ranked second overall with 19 end zone targets. Graham now heads to a Green Bay offense led by Aaron Rodgers. Packers' tight ends rank seventh in the NFL in touchdowns during the past eight seasons in which Rodgers has played 15-plus games.

Graham will obviously be a featured target near the goal line in Green Bay, and has a high touchdown ceiling. That said, history suggests that at least a slight downtick is on the horizon.

2018 Projection: 8 TD

Tyler Kroft, Cincinnati Bengals (2017: 7 TD, 5.4 OTD): Kroft quietly racked up seven touchdowns with Tyler Eifert sidelined for most of the 2017 season. The 2015 third-round pick finished sixth among tight ends in touchdowns, eighth in OTD (5.4) and third in end zone targets (11). Although the usage near the goal line is nice, Kroft ranked only 17th in routes (384), and 21st in both receptions (42) and receiving yards (404). Kroft caught 7-of-11 end zone targets after never having handled any targets inside the opponent's 4-yard line prior to 2017. Even if Eifert again misses extended time, Kroft is a strong bet for a dip in touchdowns.

2018 Projection: 2 TD

Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles (2017: 9 TD, 8.2 OTD): I hesitated to include Jeffery here because he's a primary target in an elite offense but, as noted earlier, history shows that his touchdown total is an extremely strong bet to decline. Jeffery ranked third among wide receivers in touchdowns, fifth in OTD (8.2) and ninth in end-zone targets (14) last season, but was only 35th in receptions (57) and 29th in receiving yards (789).

Jeffery has finished no lower than 18th at his position in end zone targets over the past five seasons and has finished in the top nine during four of those campaigns. He's clearly a featured target near the goal line, and that's unlikely to change, so don't expect more than a slight decrease.

2018 Projection: 8 TD

Sammy Watkins, Kansas City Chiefs (2017: 8 TD, 4.2 OTD): Watkins had one of the flukier touchdown totals of 2017, posting a mark nearly double his OTD. He registered only six end zone targets, catching three, and needed post-catch runs of 1, 6, 8, 13 and 17 yards to score the others. Watkins was a near-every-down player for the Rams, but the role only allowed him the 63rd-most receptions (39) and 51st-most yards (593) among wide receivers. Even if he takes on larger target volume in Kansas City, Watkins will need a lot more work near the end zone in order to repeat his eight-score season.

2018 Projection: 5 TD

Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans (2017: 9 TD, 5.5 OTD): Lewis seems like an obvious bet for fewer touchdowns as he adjusts from roughly 15 touches per game in New England's high-scoring offense to a complementary role alongside Derrick Henry in Tennessee. Of course, this column is more about scoring rate than volume, and that's an area where Lewis was over his head in 2017. Lewis managed only four carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (scoring three times). His other three rushing touchdowns came from 8 yards out. Before 2017, only four of Lewis' 149 career carries had come inside the opponent's 6-yard line and he failed to score on any of them. Back to 2017, Lewis was targeted only four times while inside the opponent's 17-yard line and scored three times, from distances of 4, 9 and 16 yards.

Lewis, who is 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, will be busy as a change-of-pace and receiving specialist, but he's a poor bet to come close to his 2017 touchdown total with the 6-foot-3, 247-pound bulldozer Henry in the mix.

2018 Projection: 5 TD

Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins (2017: 6 TD, 2.5 OTD): Thompson exploded out of the gate last season and made for a good example of in-season touchdown regression to the mean. Thompson scored four touchdowns on 27 touches during Weeks 1-3. His rushing scores came from 7 and 61 yards out and his touchdown receptions from 17 and 24 yards away. He handled one carry inside the opponent's 10-yard line and one target inside the 17 during the span. From that point forward, Thompson found the end zone only twice (both receiving) on 76 touches.

Thompson has five career carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line and is unlikely to see an expanded workload near the goal line with rookie Derrius Guice in the picture.

2018 Projection: 4 TD

O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2017: 6 TD, 2.6 OTD): Howard made some noise as a rookie, but it was primarily built on an unsustainable scoring rate. Howard is a big target at 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, but his touchdown production was not a product of the team utilizing his size near the goal line. Howard registered only four end zone targets (30th at his position). He caught two, but his other four scores came after post-catch runs of 2, 4, 26 and 34 yards. For perspective, only seven touchdowns (on 2,542 targets) were scored by tight ends after post-catch runs of over 20 yards last season, and Howard was responsible for two of them (on 29 targets).

Howard was a risky player to include here, because the 2017 first-round pick has massive upside. Of course, with Cameron Brate signed to an extension, it's likely Howard will remain as a blocker/receiver hybrid, with Brate continuing to handle a larger share of the targets. If Howard kicks Brate to the curb, however, and takes on an every-down role, he could potentially match his 2017 scoring production with more work near the goal line.

2018 Projection: 3 TD

Duke Johnson Jr., Cleveland Browns (2017: 7 TD, 3.7 OTD): Johnson scored seven touchdowns last year after totaling three scores (5.7 OTD) during his first two NFL seasons. He finished 17th among backs in touches, but was 38th in touchdowns. Johnson registered only three carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (scoring twice) and had three targets while inside the opponent's 10-yard line, none inside the 5. Johnson is a candidate for a slight reduction in touches and is a very poor bet to see much work near the goal line with Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb also in the mix for touches.

2018 Projection: 4 TD

Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia Eagles (2017: 8 TD, 5.5 OTD): Agholor's 2017 touchdown production reminded me a lot of Jamison Crowder's 2016 campaign, which was featured in this column last year. The 2016 version of Crowder (7 TD, 3.9 OTD) caught 3-of-6 end zone targets and added scores with after-the-catch runs of 5, 8, 12 and 57 yards. In 2017, Agholor -- who also made several explosive plays while working primarily from the slot -- caught 4-of-7 end-zone targets and needed post-catch runs of 17, 19, 20 and 30 yards for the others.

Agholor ranked 32nd at the position in targets last season, but was seventh in touchdowns. He surely benefits from a top-end offense, but he'll need a large uptick in usage near the goal line in order to come close to his 2017 touchdown total. Otherwise, expect him to follow in Crowder's footsteps and score less often this time around.

2018 Projection: 5 TD

Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns (2017: 9 TD, 6.6 OTD): After failing to eclipse five offensive touchdowns in a single season during his first three NFL campaigns, Landry exploded for nine scores in 2017. Interestingly, despite the consistent early-career touchdown totals (5, 5 and 4), Landry's usage near the goal line was inconsistent -- his OTDs were 3.1, 7.1 and 2.2, respectively. Through four seasons, Landry is an enigma, having either overshot or undershot his OTD by at least 1.7 each season. Landry's target share is likely to take a hit in Cleveland, and he's unlikely to be a primary target near the goal line with the likes of Josh Gordon and David Njoku also in the mix.

2018 Projection: 5 TD

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers (2017: 5 TD, 1.7 OTD): This one may seem like it's out of left field, but if you're throwing a late-round dart at Ekeler on the grounds that his rookie production suggests touchdown upside, I suggest you look elsewhere. Ekeler scored on two of his 47 carries, from distances of 21 and 35 yards. He also scored on three of his 33 targets, from distances of 6, 20 and 20 yards. He handled three carries and two targets while inside the opponent's 10-yard line. Ekeler should only be viewed as a handcuff to Melvin Gordon, and not as player with standalone fantasy value.
2018 Projection: 2 TD