Antonio Gibson Will Have to Thwart History to Be a True Fantasy Football Superstar in 2021
One thing that I tracked closely during the 2020 NFL season was expected touchdowns.
Gibson ended the season with 11 rushing touchdowns (with no receiving scores) on 1,042 scrimmage yards. Ultimately, he finished as the RB12 in half-PPR formats overall and as the RB15 on a per-game basis among backs with at least 10 games played.
Expectations are now placing Gibson as the 16th pick, on average, across NFC drafts since the start of July. That pits him as the RB12, just where he finished a year ago.
I kinda think that's too high. Here's why.
Before digging into Gibson's scoring rates, all of this could be mitigated to a degree if his receiving role expands from 44 targets a year ago, but he still has competition there in the form of J.D. McKissic, who handled 110 targets last year.
Now, moving on.
There are a lot of paths to finding expected touchdowns, and a lot of them (i.e. all of them) note that Gibson scored too often last year.
Using historical regression since 2000 at the running back position, Gibson should have scored 6.6 times rather than 11 based on his scrimmage yard tally.
Based on numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Gibson should have scored 7.9 times in 2020. (By NEP, he scored 4.5 more times on the ground than expected but did underperform as a receiver by 1.4 touchdowns.)
ProFootballFocus clocked Gibson for 7.1 expected rushing touchdowns and 0.9 expected receiving touchdowns, still 3.0 shy of his 11.
Now, over-performing touchdown rates isn't always a bad thing. Good players do it, and by all accounts, Gibson could just be a really, really good player.
But even if he is, that line of thinking is a bit too optimistic.
Since 2000, we've had 710 instances of a running back posting consecutive 100-plus-opportunity (carries plus targets) seasons. This, then, gives us year-over-year samples to compare to one another.
Of those 710 instances, 357 of the following seasons (50.3%) saw an increase to their yards-to-touchdown ratio the following year, which is another way of saying that this stuff balances out often.
Let's look at the backs who really outperformed expectation and how they fared the following season.
Among the 83 instances in the overall sample in which a back had a follow-up 100-plus-opportunity season after outperforming his expected touchdown count by at least 4.0 (Gibson did it by 4.4 based on his yardage output), 80.3% saw their yards-to-touchdown ratio drop the following season.
Also something that's interesting about this data is just when these massive over-performing seasons were accrued.
We've got 20 possible seasons in this sample (because players from the 2020 season could not yet have gotten 100-plus-opportunities the following year), so that lets us split it nicely into season buckets spanning from 2000-2009 and from 2010-2019.
Of those 83 instances of backs outperforming expectation by 4.0 touchdowns, 56 of them (67.5%) came from 2000-2009. The workloads for the backs in that earlier subset were just greater, and so it makes sense that touchdowns were more bunched up for singular backs in an offense.
NFL teams don't force-feed backs quite like they used to, and the Football Team sure didn't use Gibson like that in 2020.
Gibson handled 41.4% of the Team's (can I abbreviate their name like that?) red zone carries last year, a mark that ranked 21st among running backs last season. His 29 red zone carries tied for 20th at the position.
He tied for sixth in red zone touchdowns with nine. That's an outlier.
And according to NextGenStats, Gibson was on the field for 59 of Washington's 122 snaps from inside the 20-yard-line last year in games he played (even if we exclude his 4-snap Week 13).
Yes, that J.D. McKissic who also plays with Washington still.
In fact, McKissic and Gibson played the same number of red zone snaps across Gibson's active games as Gibson himself.
Oh, and Peyton Barber? He had 6 goal-line snaps to Gibson's 11 in this sample to combine with McKissic's 5.
To love Gibson as the RB12 and have potential to shift into the top six or eight among the position, we need to be banking on Gibson to buck the trend of touchdown regression and experience a significant shift in red zone usage relative to McKissic and Barber, who remain behind him on the depth chart.
Antonio Gibson's 2021 Fantasy Football Projection
None of this is to say that Gibson is untouchable in the second-round of fantasy drafts. In fact, the workload seems pretty stable with room to grow.
This does suggest, however, that we shouldn't be surprised if he finds himself more in the RB2 range than a tail-end RB1 where he's being drafted.
Reports exist about Gibson's growth, which could lead to an expanded role that thwarts touchdown regression. As already foregrounded, the most obvious path for Gibson to increase his impact and mitigate any potential scoring regression is through the air.
If that happens, we're looking at a strong fantasy profile of someone with early-down work and receiving potential.
If McKissic remains a nuisance, then we're looking at a back who is due to score less frequently while playing for a team with a win total of 8.5 (with -120 odds on the under at FanDuel Sportsbook, mind you).
numberFire's projections anticipate an RB12 season for Gibson in half-PPR formats on a stat line of 284 rushes, 1,292 yards, 10.8 rushing touchdowns, 45 receptions, 364 receiving yards, and 2.1 receiving scores.
My projections have Gibson as the RB17 with a line of 244 carries, 994 yards, and 7.9 rushing touchdowns plus 42 catches, 287 yards, and 1.4 receiving touchdowns.