Players who will score more touchdowns in 2019


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.

Results from last season's article are pretty compelling:

Each player who appeared in at least 12 games last season did, in fact, improve his touchdown total, and all but Lockett were within two scores of their projection.

During the 11-season span from 2007-17, there were 138 instances in which a wide receiver or tight end scored fewer than five touchdowns on 50-plus offensive touches before managing at least 50 touches the very next season. Of those 138, 97 (70.3%) scored more touchdowns the next season.

Focusing on the 45 players in that group who scored fewer than three touchdowns during the first year, 37 (82.2%) scored more touchdowns the next season. Of the 17 who scored either one or zero touchdowns, 15 (88.2%) found the end zone more often the next year. Oddly enough, Jason Avant (2010-11 and 2011-12) was responsible for both exceptions.

We see similar results if we run this test on running backs during the same span. There were 59 instances in which a back scored seven or fewer touchdowns on 200-plus touches before managing 200 again the next season. Of those 59, 46 (or 78.0%) scored more touchdowns the next season. Interestingly, there were seven backs who failed to score more than two touchdowns in the first year, but each scored at least six times the next season. The average second-year touchdown total of those six players was 10.7!

If you skipped all that, or just tuned out while scanning over the math, the point here is simple: NFL players tend to bounce back -- often in a big way -- when they post an unusually low touchdown number and see similar playing time the following season.

In this piece, I'll be referencing OTD, which is a statistic that weighs every carry/target and converts the data into one number that indicates a player's scoring opportunity. Put another way, it's how many touchdowns a league-average player would've scored with the exact same opportunity as the player shown.

A careful examination of each of the below players' 2018 usage tells us that we should expect an increase in scoring production this season. Note that this is a lighter year than usual in this category, as the four players who fell short of their OTD by the largest margin are currently either out of the league (Kelvin Benjamin) or backups (Doug Martin, Ryan Griffin, Alfred Morris).

Note that this study is limited to regular-season rushing and receiving data.

Sony Michel, New England Patriots (2018: 6 TDs, OTD: 8.8): Michel rushed for six touchdowns in 13 regular-season games as a rookie, but if you add his playoff production, the Georgia product scored 12 touchdowns in 16 outings. That "12" number is more where you should expect him to be in 2019, assuming his knee cooperates. Despite missing three games, Michel's 12 carries inside the 5-yard line during the regular season ranked seventh at the position. Eight of those carries came from the 1-yard line (fourth most), though he and Saquon Barkley were the only two players to register fewer than three touchdowns on five-plus carries from the 1 (both had two). Michel has emerged as the clear goal-line back for a Patriots team that ranked second in the NFL in carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line last season (29).

2019 projection: 12

Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers (2018: 2 TDs, OTD: 4.8):Considering he entered last season having scored 73 touchdowns in 127 career games, Graham was expected to be a featured target near the goal line in Green Bay last season. Instead, the former Saints and Seahawks tight end was limited to seven end zone targets, his lowest total during a full season in his career. Despite the surprisingly low volume, Graham still should've found paydirt more often. He caught only one of the seven end zone targets and failed to score on any of his 75 targets outside the 2-yard line. Graham could conceivably see a big boost in scores if his role changes in 2019, but at the very least, a guy who entered last season with 42 touchdowns on 91 end zone targets should be ticketed for some touchdown regression to the mean.

2019 projection: 5

Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans (2018: 2 TDs, OTD: 4.6): There have been 309 instances in which a running back has reached 200-plus touches in a single regular season since 2007. In only 18 of those occurrences did a back fall short of three touchdowns. Lewis (two touchdowns on 214 touches) is the only player on that list from 2018. It was part lack of opportunity, part bad luck. Lewis was targeted 68 times, but not once while inside the opponent's 7-yard line and only twice while within 15 yards of the end zone. Lewis did get some goal-line work (five carries inside the 5), but converted only one. Though regression to the mean is probable, Lewis is expected to play a lesser role in 2019, so we should anticipate only a slight boost.

2019 projection: 3

Sterling Shepard, New York Giants (2018: 4 TDs, OTD: 6.4): Since overachieving in the touchdown department as a rookie (9 TDs, 5.4 OTD), Shepard has fallen short of expectations during the past two seasons (combined 6 TDs, 10.3 OTD). He'll have an opportunity to get back on track with Odell Beckham Jr. gone and touchdown-allergic Golden Tate opposite him at receiver. During 12 games with Beckham last season, Shepard posted a 9.0 average depth of target (aDOT) and 4.2 OTD. In four games without OBJ to end the season, his aDOT jumped to 12.8 and his OTD was 2.1. At 5-foot-10, Shepard doesn't figure to come close to the top of the touchdown leaderboard, but he's a strong bet for a boost in 2019.

2019 projection: 6

Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns (2018: 6 TDs, OTD: 8.3):Beckham actually contributed eight offensive touchdowns last season, but two were of the passing variety and thus not included here. Beckham's 8.3 OTD was powered primarily by 16 end zone targets, which was the second-highest total of his career and tied for fourth most in the league. And that was despite missing four games. Beckham failed to score on any of his 108 targets outside the confines of the end zone. Last offseason, I wrote an entire piece on why Beckham's touchdown pace would slow down, but it's fair to say he overcorrected a bit. Beckham is a featured target near the goal line and a strong bet to push for double-digit touchdowns in a Browns offense that is expected to be near the top of the league in passing scores.

2019 projection: 10

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (2018: 2 TDs, OTD: 4.3):Remember, this is only rushing and receiving production. Whereas Mahomes is likely to see a dip in passing touchdowns, we should expect more of the rushing variety if he plays a similar style in 2019. In fact, as OTD goes, Mahomes was the unluckiest quarterback in the league in terms of rushing touchdowns (2.3 below expected). Mahomes ranked ninth at the position in carries (60), fifth in OTD and second in carries inside the opponent's 5-yard line (five), but managed only the two scores. Expect at least a slight boost here and don't be shocked if Mahomes ends up closer to four or five rushing touchdowns.

2019 projection: 3

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers (2018: 7 TDs, OTD: 8.8):Smith-Schuster has scored exactly seven offensive touchdowns during each of his first two NFL seasons. He was above his head as a rookie (4.5 OTD, three end zone targets), but was unlucky in 2018 (8.8 OTD, 13 end zone targets). The primary culprit was end zone targets, as Smith-Schuster caught only three of 13 last season. His other touchdowns required post-catch runs of 1, 13, 49 and 67 yards. Smith-Schuster is already a good bet for an increase in touchdown rate this season, but also will benefit from the departure of Antonio Brown (15 touchdowns last season).

2019 projection: 8

Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (2018: 0 TDs, OTD: 2.0): Wentz appeared in 11 games last season, though clearly not back to 100 percent from a torn ACL suffered in 2017. The limitations led to a drastic dip in rushing production (64 carries for 299 yards in 2017, 34 carries for 93 yards in 2018), but he still posted a 2.0 OTD (14th among quarterbacks) and three carries inside the 5 (eighth). Wentz ran for two touchdowns (1.7 OTD) on 46 carries as a rookie, but has somehow failed to manage even one on 98 carries over the past two seasons (4.1 OTD). Especially now that he's back to full health, expect Wentz to find the end zone with his legs in 2019.

2019 projection: 2

Theo Riddick, TBD (2018: 0 TDs, OTD: 2.4): Riddick failed to find the end zone on 101 touches last season after finding paydirt at least three times each of the previous four seasons (18 TDs, 16.4 OTD). As a passing-down specialist with a minimal role as a rusher, Riddick will never be a major force in the touchdown department (he has managed five rushing touchdowns and six carries inside the 5 in his six-season career). However, the 28-year-old has finished no lower than 12th among running backs in targets and no lower than 16th in receiving OTD during the past four seasons. Riddick was cut by Detroit, but if he finds a consistent role in passing situations with a new team, he very well could provide value in deeper PPR leagues. Either way, expect an increase in touchdown rate.

2019 projection: TBD