After a 14-TD season, how can James really be the third-most-draftable Packers WR?
The simple answer: Fantasy owners are getting smarter.
For years, you've heard the phrase, "Touchdowns drive fantasy football scoring." From a technical standpoint that's true: Nine of the 10 players to score 12 or more touchdowns in 2012 finished among the top 18 flex-play (that's all running backs, wide receivers and tight ends) options in fantasy points, and every one of the seven quarterbacks who managed at least 30 passing or six rushing scores ranked among the top seven at the position in fantasy scoring.
But what the fantasy community has learned over the years is that there's a difference between driving scoring and being predictive, and the point is that touchdowns -- especially receiving touchdowns -- are not an especially predictive statistical category.
James Jones' 2012 touchdown total serves as a basic example. Fourteen receiving scores in a season is a feat that has been accomplished by 35 different players in NFL history, and done in back-to-back seasons only twice: by Jerry Rice (1986-87) and Marvin Harrison (2000-01). Lower the bar for TD success: Since 2000, only 12 players -- Harrison (2000-06), Randy Moss (2000-01, 2003-04, 2007-09), Terrell Owens (2000-02, 2006-08), Hines Ward (2002-03), Torry Holt (2003-04), Joe Horn (2003-04), Antonio Gates (2004-05), Plaxico Burress (2006-07), Larry Fitzgerald (2007-09), Roddy White (2009-10), Rob Gronkowski (2010-12) and Calvin Johnson (2010-11) -- have managed as many as 10 receiving scores in back-to-back years.
Let's dig deeper: Jones was the aforementioned 10th player who failed to finish among the top 18 flex-play scorers, and the reason was that his fantasy point total was largely touchdown-driven. He failed to place among the top 25 wide receivers in targets, receptions and receiving yards, and among players with at least 25 targets and 20 receptions, his rates of targets per touchdown (6.9) and receptions per touchdown (4.6) were lowest in the league.
It's the assumption that Jones' touchdown total will regress to the mean -- a belief in which fantasy owners are gaining a greater understanding -- that's pushing him to third-most-draftable among Green Bay Packers wide receivers. Perhaps fueling that is this additional fact: Randall Cobb (10.0) averaged more fantasy points per game than Jones (9.9) last season, and Jordy Nelson (9.5) wasn't far behind.
With Greg Jennings now a division rival with the Minnesota Vikings, one might have made the natural assumption that Jennings' targets will be divided evenly among those who remain in Green Bay. It'd have been a mistaken assumption and one that fortunately isn't being reflected in the preseason average draft position; a quick glance at the Packers' 2012 splits in games Jennings played and missed shows that Jones' role might have already reached its maximum breadth.
Jennings played eight games and missed eight, creating a nicely balanced split. Here are Cobb's, Jones' and Nelson's -- as well as tight end Jermichael Finley's -- per-game numbers in each split:
Jones' usage showed no discernible change regardless of personnel on the field, and to give you an understanding of just what his snap total meant, bear in mind that he played the 11th-most snaps of any NFL wide receiver last season. He played more than 90 percent of the Packers' snaps, so if he's to make any gains, it'll have to be a noticeable increase in looks from Aaron Rodgers. Considering Jones was already the team's leader in red zone targets (18), even those might amount to low-fantasy-impact, between-the-20s yards. And remember, it takes 60 receiving yards for him to replace the production from any lost touchdown.
Cobb and Nelson, meanwhile, reaped the benefits of additional looks from Rodgers while Jennings nursed his injuries. There's also much chatter this preseason that Cobb will assume a larger role in the passing game and smaller accordingly on returns, while Nelson's 12.7 fantasy points per game from Week 1 of 2011 through Week 7 of 2012 -- the latter his final game before he first hurt his hamstring -- is difficult to ignore. There's little doubt that Cobb and Nelson, therefore, have the most to gain from Jennings' departure. Certainly they have greater room for growth than Jones.
(On an aside, that's if the Packers don't take a closer look at Jarrett Boykin, if not during the preseason, then sometime during the regular season.)
In Jones' defense, though, that he's the third-most-draftable Packers wide receiver hardly makes him undraftable; it's not a black mark by any means.
Again citing Jones' team-leading red zone target total (18), he does have Rodgers' trust where it counts, giving him some of the better odds of any receiver this millennium of pulling off the 10-plus-score repeat. One regression-related argument that carries little weight: Nelson's decline from 15 scores in 2011 to seven in 2012 shouldn't be used in comparison. Five of his 15 touchdowns in 2011 were of 50 yards or greater, eight of at least 35 yards; Nelson garnered 14 red zone targets by comparison. Jones, meanwhile, scored only three touchdowns of 20 yards or greater in 2012, and all were of 32 yards or fewer; there was little question that he had more of Rodgers' eye in scoring position than Nelson did the year before.
Let's also not gloss over the risk factors facing Cobb and Nelson. Cobb might have to be reined in at times in the receiving game should Jeremy Ross falter again on special teams; let's not forget Ross' critical muffed punt during the divisional playoffs last season. Nelson, meanwhile, missed four full games and parts of two others with hamstring and ankle issues, and needs to prove his health. It's not unthinkable that Jones could emerge as the team's fantasy leader among wide receivers for the second straight season.
You simply shouldn't draft him as though he will be.