Fantasy Football: Let Someone Else Pay Up for Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes is coming off the board in the third round, but he's a prime candidate for negative regression after an outlier season in 2018.

Patrick Mahomes exploded onto the NFL scene in a big way in 2018, amassing 5,097 passing yards and tossing 50 touchdowns.

These feats propelled the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC title game and delivered Mahomes the league's Most Valuable Player award. Unsurprisingly, it also saw him finish as the overall QB1 in fantasy football -- with a massive 64-point gap between him at Matt Ryan, the QB2.

As we head into the 2019 season, many in fantasy circles are expecting more great things from Mahomes. We aren't immune to that. Mahomes sits atop our quarterback projections, and he is the first quarterback off the board in early drafts, according to average draft position (ADP) data at Fantasy Football Calculator.

While Mahomes going as the QB1 makes perfect sense, he probably shouldn't be going as early as he is relative to receivers and running backs -- the most valuable positions in fantasy -- as he's currently being taken, on average, in the third round (32nd overall) in one-quarterback PPR formats.

Our own JJ Zachariason spoke about Mahomes as a prime candidate for regression on the latest episode of the Late-Round Podcast, and it's worth taking a closer look at some of the areas in which we should expect a drop from Mahomes in the 2019 season. There are a few good reasons why expectations should be tempered for this season.

Touchdown Passes

This is most obvious place to start, given how glorified the air is that Mahomes was breathing in 2018. Mahomes is one of only three quarterbacks to toss at least 50 touchdown passes in a single season in NFL history. Tom Brady was the first to achieve this back in 2007, while Peyton Manning set an NFL record with 55 scores in 2013. It is therefore highly unlikely that Mahomes gets close to this figure again.

Historically great, outlier seasons are those type of seasons for a reason -- they're extremely unlikely and hard to do.

Let's lower the benchmark to 45 touchdowns to get a bigger sample, though it's just slightly bigger. Since the year 2000, there are four instances in which we have next-season data for quarterbacks who managed 45 or more touchdowns. Of these four, only one of them threw at least 40 touchdown passes the following season.

Player 45-Plus Season TDs Next Season TDs + / -
Peyton Manning 2013 55 2014 39 -16
Peyton Manning 2004 49 2005 28 -21
Drew Brees 2011 46 2012 43 -3
Aaron Rodgers 2011 45 2012 39 -6

The average raw drop off the season after throwing at least 45 touchdowns is 11.5, although this average is skewed both times by the large drop off from Manning.

But you get the point: it's very likely that Mahomes throws fewer touchdowns in 2019 than he did in 2018 -- maybe significantly fewer. Of course, he could throw, say, 15 fewer scores in 2019 and his 35 passing touchdowns would be among the league leaders, but the expected touchdown regression isn't being weighed in when he's being taken in the third round.

Touchdown Rate

Mahomes' touchdown rate, obviously, goes hand in hand with his raw touchdown total.

Mahomes tossed scores at a rate of 8.6% in 2018, an obscenely large number. Aaron Rodgers, one of the most efficient quarterbacks in modern NFL history, boasts a career touchdown rate of 6.2%.

This, like the sheer number of touchdowns thrown, is not an easy mark to replicate year after year. In fact, since the 2000 season, there have only been eight instances of a quarterback posting a touchdown rate in excess of 8% (minimum 100 pass attempts). We have next-season data for only five of them, as two of these instances occurred in 2018 (Mahomes and Russell Wilson) while Tom Brady missed the majority of the 2008 season after an 8.7% touchdown rate in 2007.

As you can see, none of these guys really came close to matching their sparkling touchdown rate from the previous season.

Player 8% TD Rate Season TD Rate Next Season TD Rate +/-
Peyton Manning 2004 9.9% 2005 6.2 -3.7%
Deshaun Watson 2017 9.3% 2018 5.1 -4.2%
Aaron Rodgers 2011 9.0% 2012 7.1 -1.9%
Nick Foles 2013 8.5% 2014 4.2 -4.3%
Peyton Manning 2013 8.3% 2014 6.5 -1.8%

Players throwing touchdowns at a rate at or above 8% in a given season have experienced an average drop in touchdown rate of 3.2 percentage points the following year.

Again, this is another sign pointing to Mahomes throwing fewer touchdowns this season. That doesn't mean he can't be the QB1, but if he's not the QB1 by a large margin, then he doesn't warrant such a high pick relative to wideouts and running backs.

Passing Yards

It wasn't just in the area of tossing scores in which Mahomes was able to shine in his MVP season, but he also racked up a bunch of passing yards. Mahomes is one of only 10 quarterbacks to achieve 5,000 yards passing in a single season since the dawn of the 21st century, and he's one of two who managed it in 2018. (Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 yards last year.)

Six of the eight quarterbacks for whom we know the next-season results all failed to hit the 5,000-yard mark the next season. One player, however, managed to string together three consecutive 5,000-yard seasons between 2011 and 2013 while also hitting the mark in 2008 and 2016. Stand up, Drew Brees.

Player 5,000-Plus Season Passing Yards Next Season Passing Yars + / -
Peyton Manning 2013 5477 2014 4729 -748
Drew Brees 2011 5476 2012 5177 -299
Tom Brady 2011 5235 2012 4827 -408
Drew Brees 2016 5208 2017 4334 -874
Drew Brees 2012 5177 2013 5162 -15
Drew Brees 2013 5162 2014 4952 -210
Drew Brees 2008 5069 2009 4388 -681
Matthew Stafford 2011 5038 2012 4967 -71

While the average drop in yards the following season is relatively small, at 413, it's worth considering that none of the quarterbacks, not even Brees, was able to exceed their tally from the
previous campaign.

If we apply these regression figures to Mahomes 2018 stats, we would expect him to amass 4,684 yards and 39 touchdowns. As it happens, these are pretty close to the figures we have him projected for in our rankings. We forecast Mahomes for 4,672 yards and 38.74 touchdowns (with 13.61 picks). Those numbers are good enough for him to top the quarterback, per our models, but the gap between him and Aaron Rodgers is fewer than three fantasy points.

And there is one more area in which we should perhaps expect regression from Mahomes.

Poisoned Chalice and Schedule

Since the 2010 season, seven different players have finished as the QB1 in fantasy football, with Brees and Rodgers the only players to achieve the feat twice. Only Brees, however, has managed to repeat as the QB1 in back-to-back years, with top finishes in 2011 and 2012. For good measure, Brees finished as the QB2 in 2013.

But the seasons following the overall QB1 finish have not been memorable for most of the players involved. Indeed, of the players who finished as the QB1 in seasons 2014 through 2018, only one of them finished inside the top 10 in points at their position the next season. That was Wilson in 2018, when he finished as the QB9. Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Rodgers all suffered injuries that restricted them in the seasons following their QB1 campaigns.

And there is another factor at play that could limit Mahomes in fantasy just as much as any knock or tear -- KC's schedule.

Our numbers have Mahomes facing the toughest slate of games for a quarterback in the coming season. Sharp Football agrees, listing the Chiefs with the toughest strength of schedule in terms of opposing defenses in 2019. While these type of numbers aren't the be-all and end-all because they are based off of what teams did in 2018, which isn't perfect given how much NFL teams change year to year, it's another negative in Mahomes' corner.

In Conclusion

There is little doubt, assuming Mahomes is able to stay healthy, that he should be among the highest scorers at his position in fantasy in the coming year. But the overwhelmingly high likelihood of negative regression in passing yards and touchdowns -- in addition to his difficult schedule -- make his current third-round ADP hard to swallow. Receivers and running backs are the key players in fantasy, and that's who you should be targeting early.

The numbers -- and history -- suggest that Mahomes' 2018 season, as incredible as it was, is unlikely to be repeated, and you're better off letting someone else pay up for Mahomes at his current cost.