The theory of regression towards the mean states that if a variable is extreme on one measurement, it will generally be closer to average on subsequent measurements. Similarly, if the variable is extreme on secondary measurements, it was generally closer to average on the first try. Such is the case with fantasy players who score big one season compared to their follow-up campaigns.
During the 2015 fantasy season, we saw five running backs score double-digit touchdowns for the first time in their careers. That's the most in a single season since 2008 and includes Todd Gurley, Lamar Miller, Jeremy Hill, David Johnson and Devonta Freeman. As a result, their statistical expectations are now heightened (at least to some extent) for next season. In fact, Gurley, Miller, Johnson and Freeman will all be top 12 to top 15 projected picks in most 2016 fantasy football drafts.
The question is ... can these talented runners score double-digit touchdowns again? After all, end-zone visits are the single-most important statistic in the world of fantasy football, right? Sure yardage and receptions (in PPR formats) matter too, but let's be honest. What gets fantasy fans most excited during the course of NFL games? That's right, it's that trip to the painted area ... the promised land where fantasy studs spike your team's point total.
In order to predict the future, sometimes we need to look back at the past. In this case, I went back and looked at the last 10 NFL campaigns and searched for the number of runners who scored double-digit touchdowns for the first time in their careers during that time. Next, I examined what those runners did the following year. Unfortunately, what I found is not going to elicit much confidence among fantasy fans in some of these players during your upcoming drafts.
Between 2006 and 2014, the NFL has seen a total of 45 running backs score double-digit touchdowns for the first time at the pro level. That list includes a diverse group of players that range from Le'Ron McClain to Le'Veon Bell. Of those 45 runners, 30 (or 67 percent) failed to score 10 or more touchdowns the following season. We're not talking about the curtain jerkers either, as superstars the likes of Frank Gore, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte saw their totals fall. Keep that in mind before you argue how great Gurley, Miller, Johnson and Freeman are and will continue to be as touchdown producers in the stat sheets.
Now let's look a little deeper into the numbers.
Of the 30 players who failed to score 10 or more times after a double-digit touchdown season, the average decline in end-zone visits the following year is a staggering 7.9 scores (or 47.4 fantasy points). Some can argue that such a stat is somewhat of an illusion because it includes players who might have missed significant time due to injuries, so let's also take that into consideration. On average, our 30 players missed 3.9 games the season after posting their first campaign with 10-plus scores. Some players including Ryan Grant (2010), Darren McFadden (2011) and Martin (2013) missed more than half a season.
Here's the catch though ... even if we focus on the 19 of our 30 runners who played in 12 or more games in their follow-up campaign, the average decline in touchdowns is still 7.8 (or 46.8 fantasy points). That includes massive drops from the likes of Willie Parker (2006), LenDale White (2009), DeAngelo Williams (2009), McCoy (2012) and Trent Richardson (2013). You might roll your eyes at guys like White and Richardson now, but a lot of fantasy owners believed in them after their initial double-digit touchdown campaign. Heck, Parker, Williams, McCoy and Richardson were top-15 selections in drafts as a result of their previous season's success.
Now that we've looked at the "decliners," what about the 15 running backs who were able to score double-digit touchdowns the year following their initial double-digit campaign?
That list of backs includes fantasy superstars like Maurice Jones-Drew (2007), Adrian Peterson (2008), Chris Johnson (2009), Arian Foster (2011) and Marshawn Lynch (2012) among others. But here's the stat that might blow your mind ... 11 of those 15 runners experienced declines in their touchdown totals (despite still scoring 10 or more times). Furthermore, the average decline among those 11 runners was almost four touchdowns. Overall, the average drop was just under two.
So what have we learned from this exercise? Well, if I haven't taught you to temper your expectations in these cases then you might want to re-read this column. As good as a player is during his breakout season in terms of touchdowns, there's a better chance than not that he will fail to amass the same number of end-zone visits the following season.
Remember, success is tough to achieve and often times harder to duplicate.