When a previously proven producer has a down campaign, it often shifts how the market prices that player as a commodity the following season. There is a natural "burn factor," when the hate can go too far the year after an expensive player significantly underperforms. In certain cases, can value be found in the resulting deflation of his draft stock or statistical projections? The key question we pose is whether that underwhelming campaign was an outlier in an otherwise positive series of seasons, or a foreboding trend of things to come. Are the wheels coming off, as we might have just witnessed with Michael Turner last season, or was it just a momentary flat tire that influenced the dip in production? More specifically, is there a form of Matthew Berry's "proven player off a bad year" (PPOBY) concept that he has regularly applied to fantasy baseball analysis that can be translated to fantasy football?
Part of the inspiration for concocting this analysis comes from baseball sage Ron Shandler, who essentially once posited, "once a player exhibits a skill over a long enough period of time, he then owns that skill." A rough translation is to say that if a player can sustain performance at a high level over an enduring stretch, it's then entirely possible -- not guaranteed, mind you -- for such skills and performance to be revived. Last year, we discussed Reggie Wayne's potential to provide a profit for investors willing to forgive his down 2011 season. Clearly, Wayne provided great margins for those willing to believe that 2011 was more of an outlier than a downward trend. Now, we also detailed how Peyton Hillis might have been a wise investment last August, but let's just focus on the part we nailed and explore if there are some ideal PPOBY candidates to consider for the 2013 season.
Note: In order to focus on players who endured statistical slides, injury recovery isn't a part of candidacy. So while Darren McFadden and Ryan Mathews could only be more frustrating if they were on the same depth chart for a Mike Shanahan backfield, they, along with players such as Hakeem Nicks, aren't in consideration here.
Stafford is considered a back-end, top-10 fantasy quarterback in both our staff rankings and by his current average draft position (ADP) in ESPN leagues. While Stafford's perch as a "proven" player rests on just one star season in the league, his 2011 effort saw him post the sixth 5,000-yard passing effort of all time and one of only nine 40-touchdown seasons in league history. And while his 333 fantasy points in ESPN standard leagues in 2011 was good for fifth at the position, the prolific performances ahead of him that season must be considered, as that 2011 point total would have been good for the second overall QB performance (and just four points behind Drew Brees for the top spot) in 2012. Stafford more than lived up to his fantasy contract that season, and the price for his services in 2012 skyrocketed, with an overall ADP of 16.5 For Stafford, his deflated 2012 scoring production has pushed him entirely out of the elite class for 2013 drafts.
It's safe to call Stafford's 2012 just flat-out strange. The dude threw the most passes in the history of football, with a video-game-like 727 attempts, but ended up with only 20 passing touchdowns. The yardage was epic (4,967) -- good for the seventh-most passing yards in NFL history -- and he even had four rushing scores, but the glaring lack of passing touchdowns left a lot to desired for fantasy investors. Most of us have already seen the insane stat about wideout Calvin Johnson being stopped inside the 1-yard line four times in 2012, but as Berry shared in this year's Love/Hate, Lions pass-catchers "were stopped 23 times last season inside an opponent's 5-yard line." Berry went on to say, "Stafford represents a great value if you miss out on the top QBs." I agree with this statement, but I'd even add that he is one of the top quarterbacks, but just isn't being drafted as such. While the sample size for Stafford as a starting fantasy quarterback is just two seasons, he's an undeniably ideal PPOBY candidate given just how aberrational the scoring results were from 2012.
Using a ratio of pass attempts to pass touchdowns can be precarious in small samples given how many variables play into the specific value of any given attempt -- as in holding equal the values of a goal-to-go attempt versus a garbage-time screen pass -- but if we use a three-year sample of all passing attempts, we can see that results tend to stabilize. In an increasingly pass-happy climate, we don't often place great value in passing attempts as a measure of fantasy opportunity in the way that we look at rushing attempts or receiving targets, but when afforded in such historic volume, as they have been to Stafford over the past two seasons, there is indeed value in considering a conversion rate for scoring.
The average for all NFL QBs since 2010 is 23.4 pass attempts per passing touchdown (let's call this att/TD). Stafford's att/TD in 2012 was 36.35, a figure weaker than Jake Locker's last season, among many others, after having posted a stellar 16.17 att/TD in 2011. To put these rates in some context, Aaron Rodgers enjoyed an historically elite 14.15 att/TD rate last season, while Peyton Manning (15.75) and Drew Brees (15.5) set prolific paces themselves. Hover around the 30-att/TD range and you start seeing some of the league's weaker passing offenses populate the list, along with Stafford, of course. The Lions aren't one of the league's weaker passer offenses, but rather one of the strongest, and Stafford's 2012 att/TD rate screams outlier.
If Stafford's att/TD rate were adjusted in 2012 to league average from the past three seasons (23.4), he'd have thrown 32 TDs last fall. If he were connecting on his elite 2011 conversion rate, he'd have had 45 passing scores. Of the top 10 passing attempt efforts in league history, Stafford's att/TD rate in 2012 is the weakest by a good margin, and this includes some seasons -- Warren Moon's 1991 and Drew Bledsoe's 1994 seasons -- that predate this pass-friendly modern era. There is also a red zone correction of sorts on the way, it appears. Since the start of the 2011 season, Stafford is second in the NFL in red zone pass attempts with 183, while the league average for offenses is 129 red zone attempts over those 32 games. If Stafford converted red zone attempts into touchdowns (RZatt/TD) at the same rate he did in 2011 (3.44 RZatt/TD), he'd have had 24 red zone passing touchdowns in 2012 and not the 15 he ended up with, thanks to a pedestrian 5.53 RZatt/TD. If Stafford converted at the league average RZatt/TD clip since 2010 (4.07 RZatt/TD), he'd have thrown 20 touchdowns in the red zone in 2012.
With an all-world offensive weapon in Johnson and an infusion of supremely capable hands into the offense in Reggie Bush and Ryan Broyles, these "ifs" and potential corrections should materialize in the way of far more touchdowns for Stafford & Co. in 2013. For Stafford to provide a strong profit on his ADP, he doesn't need to return to his 2011 scoring pace, but rather just convert his volume of attempts closer to league average att/TD rate in order to produce a star fantasy result. The odds suggest a return to the 30-touchdown threshold and the talent associated could push that even higher. Doubts about investing in Stafford in 2013 should focus on his health -- as in his shoulder falling off with another season of attempts nearing or besting 700 -- and not scoring production, because a return to statistical glory seems like something the averages suggest. With a price tag closer to Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, but a stat profile closer to Brees, I would and will confidently take Stafford as the sixth quarterback off the board.
Davis was a magician of sorts in 2012, completely vanishing for much of the second half, only to reappear as a prominent weapon in the 49ers' Super Bowl run. From 2009-11, Davis averaged 67 receptions, 890 yards and nearly nine touchdowns. He had the second-most fantasy points among all tight ends during that stretch. After going as the third tight end off the board last season with an overall ADP of 50, Davis burned investors with just 41 receptions, 548 yards and five scores, and was 15th among tight ends in fantasy points. While there really isn't a substantial burn factor in play with his 2013 ADP -- he's going fifth at the position and 56.8 overall -- it remains relevant to discuss him as a PPOBY given the precedent of his big-play ability and the incredibly shallow nature of his position in fantasy. Rather than attempt to convince you why Davis should be going as the fifth tight end this season, because he already is, I'll just seek to affirm why he's worthy of such an investment come draft day.
It started off so promisingly last fall, with Colin Kaepernick in his first career start throwing his first career touchdown pass to Davis in a dazzling Monday night performance. The chemistry was short lived; from Weeks 12 to 17, Davis had six total receptions for just 61 yards and no touchdowns and was targeted just 11 times over the final six games. It was a Keyser Söze disappearing act, except without the really cool and elaborate heist part. This doesn't mean that the 49ers' offense shifted dramatically from their normally heavy usage of the position; during that abysmal 11-target stretch for Davis, Delanie Walker hauled in 13 catches for 246 yards, two touchdowns and 10 first downs (to Davis' two in that span).
An important element that should see Davis return to top form, and likely even set a career best in yardage -- and possibly by a significant margin -- is the fact that the 49ers feature the most big-play friendly offense for the position in all of football. From Week 10 and into the Super Bowl -- the time that Kaepernick took the reins -- Davis led all 49ers with 12 targets of at least 20 yards (six of which were at least 30 yards in the air). Of the 39 targets of at least 20 yards that Kaepernick threw last year (including the playoffs), 22 of them (56 percent) were to tight ends. Kaepernick's 22 attempts of 20-plus yards to tight ends (including the playoffs) would have led the NFL last season despite him starting just 10 games. Alex Smith and Kaepernick's 31 combined throws of at least 20 yards to tight ends in 2012 led the next-closest team by 10. Only five other offenses in football even attempted more than 10 such throws.
Not only do the 49ers throw more deep balls to the tight end than any other offense in football, but they are far better than other offenses at doing so; Kaepernick went 14-of-22 on those pass attempts and enjoyed a ridiculous 18.8 YPA (yards per attempt) and 122.3 passer rating in the process. League average on deep balls to tight ends in 2012 included a 12.7 YPA and a 41 percent completion rate. Since 2010, Davis has the third-highest YPA of all NFL tight ends with at least 100 receptions at 13.7. In this somewhat inverted Jim Harbaugh offense, the tight end is going deep and the wideouts are often serving as possession targets. Last season, Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss saw just eight targets each of at least 20 yards. For all of the hype about Davis lining up out wide this preseason, it's not as if lining up at tight end is going to curb his upside. Big plays are coming, and they might be more consistent and plentiful for Davis than ever before in his career.
Davis saw targets on just over 25 percent of the routes he ran in 2011, but just 15 percent of his routes from Weeks 10 to 17 last season. This rate jumped back to 26 percent in the playoffs, and guess what? The numbers were healthy again. For whatever reason, it seems that you need your quarterback to throw you the ball in order to produce. Not including running backs, Davis is the only 49ers player expected to play Week 1 for the 49ers in 2013 who received more than one target in the 2012 playoffs for them. This, of course, leaves a great deal of attention (i.e. targets) to be doled out to Davis, who thrived in his only season given more than 100 targets in 2009; he posted career highs in receptions (78), yardage (965) and tying a then-league record in touchdowns (13) for the position. I'll just say it now; Davis should lead all tight ends in yardage, even over … gasp … Jimmy Graham. This isn't really that bold of an expectation; the leap being taken here is that Davis builds on that strong chemistry with Kaepernick we saw in the playoffs. It is quite possible Kaepernick becomes a full-fledged star, with Davis seeking out the best supporting nod. The cliff that we see at tight end after Davis is even steeper when you realize just how rare of a big-play threat he could become this season.
The 2012 season was Fitzgerald's worst as a professional. He compiled the second-fewest yards in his career, only 18 more than his rookie campaign, while hauling in a career-low four scores. Arizona's quarterback play was amazingly awful in 2012, even by their own franchise standards, with four QBs combining to amass just 3,005 passing yards and league-lows in both QBR (21.4) and passer rating (63.1) on the way to 21 interceptions and just 11 passing touchdowns. When you are possibly the worst among a group that includes the 2012 Jets and Chiefs passing offenses, it's truly historic ineptitude.
There might not be many concretely positive elements to focus on from 2012 for the Arizona offense, but in 2013 there are some encouraging signs for a Fitzgerald revival, with a new offense-minded head coach in Bruce Arians and an upgrade at quarterback in Carson Palmer. Arians has experience in building dynamic vertical passing offenses, most recently in Indianapolis. The Colts passing game was spurred by an incredible infusion of young talent in 2012, led by franchise savior Andrew Luck. But one would think that the aggressive, downfield tendencies Arians brings to the table -- Luck led all NFL quarterbacks in 2012 with 91 pass attempts of more than 20 yards -- would still be a factor in his playbook with the Cardinals. The 2012 Cardinals threw only 54 passes of more than 20 yards last season, ranking 25th in the league. On throws of at least 20 yards, Palmer threw 20 "catchable" balls (a signature stat from Pro Football Focus) out of 64 such attempts to various wideouts in 2012 for Oakland. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was targeted 26 times on passes of at least 20 yards by Arizona quarterbacks in 2012, and only two of those throws were deemed catchable. In case you were wondering, Fitzgerald hauled in both of those catchable balls for a combined 61 yards and a touchdown. It's not as if Palmer represents an upgrade to most offenses in the NFL, but in the relative sense to what he can provide the Cardinals, and specifically Fitzgerald, a return to elite statistical status is quite possible.
While you won't be landing Fitzgerald at some dramatic discount in drafts this season, you can acquire him as a low-end WR1, and possibly even a high-end WR2 after years of regularly going as one of the first few fantasy wideouts in drafts.
Other strong PPOBY names to consider
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs: Just read the Fitzgerald part, swap in Chiefs for Cardinals, Alex Smith for Palmer, Andy Reid for Arians and temper your expectations a bit given that Fitzgerald has a far superior résumé to date. It is worth noting just how much of an uptick Bowe might see in PPR formats given the efficiency and volume we could see from the passing game. With just a borderline WR2/WR3 investment (ADP of 57.3 ranks 19th at wide receiver), the "Double Dwayne Bowe" fantasy team name could make a comeback this fall.
DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles: In emailing ESPN NFC East blogger Dan Graziano about Jackson's potential to produce in 2013, he shared this interesting take: "I think Jackson is intriguing as a bounce-back guy. He's about all they have right now at wide receiver, and while I think Kelly's offense is going to be run-heavy and may throw a lot of short stuff to the backs and tight ends, if they do anything downfield, at this point, it has to be Jackson. Plus, Kelly's talked a fair bit about them working on ways to get the ball in his hands closer to the line of scrimmage, so he can make a play once he has it in his hands. My biggest concern for him is that I don't think they have a QB."
So with Jackson, there is certainly some risk associated with his quarterback situation. But with a proven penchant for big plays and now the potential for the greatest volume of targets he has ever seen (if by default of the depth chart), there could be a nice buying window to exploit with Jackson being taken as the 25th wideout on average in ESPN leagues at the moment.