Fantasy Football: The Top Touchdown Regression Candidates for 2022 (Running Backs)
Touchdowns are one of the major components of fantasy football, and I don't mean just that they are one of only a few ways to generate fantasy points. I mean that they matter a lot.
Sort a fantasy football leaderboard by yardage, and you'll see a pretty tight dispersal overall. It's touchdowns that really shake up the fantasy standings (especially in standard and half-PPR leagues).
If a player finds paydirt at a position-high rate, he's going to have a great fantasy season even if the other stats are lagging behind. And, of course, there are always productive players from a yardage standpoint who just don't score much in a 17-game season (whether it's randomness or their offense or their role).
But one truth remains: players generally regress year to year, especially in the touchdown column, and that should help us as we build our fantasy football and best ball lineups.
Here are the biggest touchdown regression candidates among running backs for 2022. If you don't care about the process or its accuracy, just skip ahead to the results.
Foregrounding the Process
With running backs, we can look primarily at rushing touchdowns, but I also wanted to account for receiving scores, too.
Between our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric and raw yardage, you can predict touchdown output quite well.
In terms of R^2 values, we can understand around 65.0% of rushing scores by simply looking at successful (i.e. NEP-increasing) rushes and yardage. Averaging those out, we can see a player's expected rushing touchdown tally and see if he overperformed or underperformed.
The same goes for receiving scores for backs. The R^2 values there are around 58%.
As pointed out with receivers and quarterbacks already, the process works, and players are very likely to regress when having an outlier season in the touchdown rate column (i.e. touchdowns per opportunity, which is rushes plus targets).
For running backs, it also holds true.
Since 2016, if we look at backs with at least 50 opportunities in one season and 50 or more in the following one (to test year-to-year touchdown rates), we see that 27 backs have scored at least 3.0 more times than they should've, based on our process.
The following season, only 3 (or 11.1%) increased their touchdown rate once more after an outlier season, and on average, their touchdown rate fell by 2.8 percentage points.
Put another way, this group of overperformers scored on 5.7% of their opportunities, nearly double the position average of 3.1%. The following year, they fell to 3.8% -- closer to the NFL average but not below it or even to it. Regressing doesn't mean being bad; it just means being more like expected.
As for the underperformers (those who came up at least 3.0 touchdowns shy of expected), they scored at just a 1.6% clip in their weak season and then climbed nearly to the NFL average (2.7%) when qualified the next season. The weaker performers might still be weak, but they shouldn't continue to be awful.
Also, 73.9% of those big outliers in the negative sense increased their scoring rate the following season.
Positive Touchdown Regression Candidates
These running backs should have better touchdown luck in 2022 than they had in 2021.
It's probably not a huge surprise that Miles Sanders leads this list. Sanders didn't score a single time in 2021 despite some decent work and metrics. Even at 6.1 touchdowns (the second-largest touchdown discrepancy since 2016), he would have vaulted from the RB45 finish he had to an RB29 campaign. He's the RB28 in best-ball formats right now on FanDuel in terms of average draft position (ADP).
Tony Pollard is a fascinating name on this list because, with more work, he should score more times. Even without more opportunities in 2022, he should have better touchdown luck. Of course, red zone roles are a big part of scoring for running backs, but Pollard (RB32 in best-ball formats) could easily have finished better than he actually did (RB28) a year ago with better touchdown numbers.
We don't usually see big names such as Dalvin Cook on a list like this, but he's well above the 3.0 cutoff where we should anticipate an increased touchdown rate in 2022. Cook ranked tied for third in red zone carries in 2021 but churned out just 5 touchdowns on 45 red zone carries. He's the RB5 in best-ball ADP on FanDuel.
There's a lot more to the case for Christian McCaffrey in 2022 than just touchdown regression, but if he stays healthy, we could be reminded why he has been the no-brainer 1.01 in recent drafts; he's the RB3 in best-ball formats on FanDuel.
Negative Touchdown Regression Candidates
These players should see a decrease in their touchdown rate in 2022.
For as obvious as Miles Sanders was in the negative sense, James Conner had to have been at the top of the list in the positive sense. Conner scored 18 times on 241 opportunities for a 7.5% rate. That's the highest rate recorded since 2016 among backs with at least 150 opportunities, and only five total backs in that span surpassed even a 6.5% rate. Yes, he has a great red zone role on a plus offense, but his touchdown rate scaling back toward average seems inevitable. He's the RB14 right now in best-ball drafts.
There are a few reasons to be hesitant about another ceiling season from Austin Ekeler, and touchdown regression is one of them. Ekeler's 4.5 receiving scores over expected by this method is the largest outlier since 2016. Only six backs outperformed both their rushing and receiving number by 1.5 each. Those backs, the following season, averaged 2.3 touchdowns on 87.5 opportunities for a touchdown rate of 2.7%. He is the RB4 in best-ball drafts.
Damien Harris also has a stronghold on red zone work for the New England Patriots (he had 13 red zone touchdowns on 44 carries and tied for third with 14 carries from inside the five, as well). That said, even at the better-than-average-but-regressed-after-an-outlier touchdown rate from our sample discussed earlier of 3.8%, Harris would've scored around 8.5 times rather than 15 times. Because he was so touchdown-dependent, he would've fallen from the RB13 to the RB24 in 2021. That said, he's the RB24 in best-ball drafts for now.