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Fantasy Football Touchdown Risers and Fallers - Tight End Regression Candidates

George Kittle - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, Draft Targets

We've officially made it to the end of this series and I hope, if you've been reading along, this series has been helpful. The goal is to assist you in recognizing certain values early in your fantasy drafts and avoiding players whose ADP is maybe a little higher than it should be. Touchdowns can play a big role in how certain players are valued. Look no further than where Miles Sanders was ranked going into last year to where he is now, despite the significantly inferior team and environment he finds himself on. You can do the same with Diontae Johnson's ADP from last year to where it is now. Touchdowns are especially crucial at tight end and we've seen guys like Eric Ebron, Robert Tonyan, and Dawson Knox get massive boosts to their ADP following a season where they scored touchdowns at an extremely high and unsustainable rate, and yet, their ADPs rose all the same. If you are just catching up with us now, please be sure to check out the previous entries below.

Here you can find this series' previous entries.

In most leagues, you might have anywhere from 24–28 running backs started on any single week and potential 36–40 receivers assuming you're playing in a 2 RB, 3 WR, and a 1 flex format, but only 12 tight ends are ever started. Because of this, we don't have quite as many options for both positive and negative regression candidates, so we'll be able to wrap it up right here. We'll be identifying three tight ends who will score more this season and three other guys who will score fewer times.

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Positive Touchdown Regression Candidates

Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers

One of my favorite tight ends to target in the early season is Pat Freiermuth and if you're looking for a better reason why other than being a positive touchdown regression candidate, be sure to check out my blind resume comparison article on tight ends here and see if you can find once one is Freiermuth.

Freiermuth finished tied for 29th among tight ends with just two touchdowns. This is despite the fact he was sixth in targets with 98 and tied for 11th in red zone targets with 12. As a rookie, Freiermuth scored seven times on just 79 targets, an unsustainable 8.8% touchdown rate. Entering last year, Freiermuth was a great bet to score fewer touchdowns, which is exactly what happened, but now he's a great bet to score more. Through his first two years, we've received two touchdown-scoring seasons on each side of the pendulum.

His target total and his solid red zone utilization are great reasons to bet on more touchdowns from Freiermuth in year three, but another reason is the play of Kenny Pickett. While his rookie play was up and down and fantasy managers shouldn't be expecting Pickett to make any sort of giant leap forward, but we should be expecting him to be somewhat better.

The Steelers were dead last in 2022 with just 12 passing touchdowns. That is laughably bad. Consider, the Commanders who started Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke, and Sam Howell had 24 touchdowns. The Panthers who started Sam Darnold, PJ Walker, and Baker Mayfield had 16. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Steelers have 6–10 more passing touchdowns in 2023.

The Steelers had 16 rushing touchdowns compared to the 12 passing scores. Their touchdown split was 43/57, with the edge to rushing scores. The league average is 60/40, with the edge to passing scores. Fantasy managers should be expecting some fairly sizable regression to the mean in terms of the way the Steelers find the end zone in 2023.

With improved play from Pickett, a more typical scoring distribution by the team, and his excellent target total and red zone utilization, Freiermuth is a great bet to score 3–5 more times in 2023.

Darren Waller, New York Giants

Anytime you get a player who changes teams, it's a little bit more difficult to argue they'll score more or fewer touchdowns because we don't truly know what their role will be with their new team and we don't entirely know how the player's acquisition will alter the team's offensive scheme.

As it relates to Waller, it shouldn't be a surprise, but he's in a great spot to lead the Giants in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He is the most talented pass-catcher in New York. Likewise, while we can expect Waller to increase the Giants' passing volume to some extent and help with their efficiency, this team is likely to continue a more run-heavy approach with a ball-control mindset.

Last year with Las Vegas, Waller was only active for nine games. In one of those games he played just about 10% of the team's snaps and in two others he played fewer than 50% of the snaps. Despite this, he still managed to average 5.5 targets per game, 14th best among tight ends. His 43 total targets ranked 31st and he did manage to score three times on those 43 targets, which ranked tied for 19th among tight ends.

He was busy in the red zone, however, finishing the 2022 campaign with 10 red zone targets, which was the 15th best among tight ends. He also had six targets inside the 10-yard line, which was tied for the ninth-most out of all tight ends. Fantasy managers should expect Waller to be a focal part of the Giants' offense this upcoming season.

By now, you're most likely well aware Daniel Jones had just 15 passing touchdowns, but here, that's helping to keep Waller's ADP down. The entire Giants' team finished with 17 passing touchdowns, but they had 21 rushing touchdowns. That equaled a 45/55 split between passing and rushing touchdowns, respectively. As mentioned above, the league average is a 60/40 split between passing and rushing touchdowns. This tells us we should be expecting the Giants' offense to score more passing touchdowns this upcoming season as their scoring split regresses to the mean. Jones and Waller will be a big beneficiary of that.

Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

We are not going to stop betting on Kyle Pitts. Not now. Not ever. Last year, no tight end averaged more air yards than Pitts at 81.6 per game. His 14.1 average depth of target was also the best among tight ends. His 30% target per route run rate was also the best among tight ends with at least 50 targets. His 26.6% target share was second best among the position. His utilization was phenomenal.

Despite missing seven games, he had the fifth-most air yards and he led all tight ends with 540 unrealized air yards. With any kind of better quarterback play, which with Desmond Ridder isn't guaranteed, but any kind of better quarterback play will help Pitts tremendously and could help him break a few big ones that he wasn't provided the opportunity last year to do.

Marcus Mariota's true completion percentage was 65.0%, which ranked 31st. His deep ball completion percentage was 23.5%, which ranked 33rd among qualifying quarterbacks.

Pitts finished 2022 10th in targets per game with 5.8 per game and finished 24th in total targets. He finished tied for 29th with just two touchdowns. He had five red zone targets, which ranked 38th among tight ends, but four of those targets came inside the 10-yard line, which has a greater success rate of finding the end zone. He ranked 19th in this statistic. There are plenty of reasons to buy into the Pitts hype again.

In 2022, the Falcons finished the year with 17 rushing and passing touchdowns, a split 50/50 split. The league-average split was 60/40 as previously indicated. Based on Atlanta's 50/50 split last year, we should expect a touchdown split that favors passing scores a bit more in 2023.

There are some concerns about the quarterback play the Atlanta pass-catchers will have to endure, but it's truly hard to imagine it being any worse than Mariota last season. The way I see it, either Desmond Ridder will be an improvement or he'll bomb out and Taylor Heinicke will take over. Heincike is without a better passer than Mariota, so either Pitts will get better quarterback play from Ridder or he'll get it from Heinicke, but one way or another, he's going to get it.


Negative Touchdown Regression Candidates

George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers

There may be no bigger regression, one way or the other, at tight end other than George Kittle. He's one of the best bets to score fewer touchdowns in 2023 than he did last year out of any of the three skilled positions.

He scored 11 touchdowns last year in 15 games. Over the last three years, which includes 36 games, he scored just 13 touchdowns. In his previous five seasons, he never scored more than six touchdowns in a single season.

I'm going to cheat here a bit and use an excerpt from my negative touchdown regression article on wide receiver... Purdy had a 7.6% touchdown rate. Patrick Mahomes led the league last year with a 6.3% rate because Purdy didn’t qualify. Mahomes threw 41 touchdowns on 648 pass attempts but had Purdy thrown 648 attempts last year at his 7.6% rate, he would’ve thrown 49 touchdowns. Kind of puts it into perspective, right? Let’s do another one though.

Joe Burrow had a 5.8% touchdown rate. This was the fourth-highest in the NFL. He finished with 35 touchdowns on 606 attempts. Purdy would’ve had 46 touchdowns on the same number of attempts at his 7.6% touchdown rate. One more, I promise. Aaron Rodgers had a 4.8% touchdown rate. This was tied for the 12th-best. He had 26 touchdowns on 542 attempts. Purdy would’ve had 41 touchdowns. Okay, now that we’ve established the very obvious fact Purdy is going to throw touchdowns at a significantly lower clip this upcoming season, assuming he’s 100% healthy, which is somewhat of a question mark right now, we can move on.

Last year, Kittle was second to only Travis Kelce in touchdowns scored. Kelce scored 12 times, just one more than Kittle, but Kelce had 66 more total targets and 16 more red zone targets, which is more than double the number of red zone targets Kittle had himself. I think we've established just how strong of a negative touchdown regression candidate Kittle is, but let's dig in a bit more.

He finished second among tight ends with 11 touchdowns, but he finished just 10th in total targets (86) and red zone targets (13). He was tied for ninth for six targets inside the 5-yard line.

His career touchdown rate from 2017–2021 was 4.3%. In 2022, his touchdown rate climbed to 12.8%, which is just about three times his career rate. His average touchdown distance last year was 22.6 yards, which is very deep for a tight end, even one of Kittle's stature. In 2021, his average touchdown distance was 16.8 yards.

There is just reason after reason, statistic after statistic that says Kittle will score fewer times in 2023.

Juwan Johnson, New Orleans Saints

Juwan Johnson finished third among tight ends with seven touchdowns. There aren't too many reasons to believe Johnson will be able to duplicate that performance in 2023. He was tied for just 17th with just 65 targets, which gave him a 10.7% touchdown rate. He was 13th with 11 red zone targets and just 19th in targets inside the 10-yard line with four. Not a good sign when the player's rank in targets and red zone targets is significantly worse than their rank in touchdowns.

Another concern is that Johnson was very efficient with his red zone targets. Among tight ends with at least eight red zone targets, only one tight end scored a touchdown at a higher rate than Johnson did on his red zone targets, more on that player to come.

Johnson scored on five of his 11 red zone targets, for a success rate of 45.4%. TJ Hockenson had 20 red zone targets and found the end zone the same amount as Johnson did with five. Mark Andrews had 18 red zone targets and he too scored on just five of those targets. Kelce turned 34.4% of his red zone targets into touchdowns, still 11 percentage points behind Johnson's rate. As you can see, Johnson is very likely to be less efficient with his red zone targets next season.

Last year, Johnson's average distance traveled per touchdown was 17.57 yards. In 2021, it was just 7.25, which doesn't exactly bode well either. Another concern is the fact that Michael Thomas played just three games and found the end zone three times. That's not to say we should expect him to score in every game, but his size and the team's game plan clearly made Thomas a priority in the red zone. With him returning in 2023, what role Johnson did have in the red zone could shrink ever so slightly.

Star rookie Chris Olave also only scored four touchdowns on 119 targets. Fantasy managers can take it to the bank that he'll score more times this upcoming season. With his target competition, the fact that his target competition under-performed finding the end zone themselves, and how he finished worse in total targets and red zone targets compared to his touchdown finish, fantasy managers can feel extremely confident Johnson will score fewer times this season.

Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears

Cole Kmet is our third tight end that fantasy managers should be all but banking on finishing with fewer touchdowns in 2023 than he did last year.

Kmet ended up finding the end zone seven times last year, which was tied with Johnson for third-most among tight ends. Despite this excellent ranking, Kmet finished 12th in total targets with just 69. In his first and second seasons, he found the end zone just twice on 137 and had a 1.4% touchdown rate during this time. Last year, his touchdown rate climbed to 10.1%. While we can easily say that his touchdown rate was lower than expected in his first two seasons, we can also just as easily say his touchdown rate in 2022 was far over expectation. It actually gets even worse for Kmet, however.

He finished with just eight red zone targets. This ranked 24th among tight ends, quite the difference from the No. 3 finish he had in touchdowns. Remember before, when I was talking about how Johnson was the second-most efficient tight on turning their red zone targets into touchdowns? Well, Kmet was the very best. Johnson, if you recall turned 45.4% of his red zone targets into touchdowns, which was the second-best. Kmet was at 62.5%.

To make matters worse for Kmet, there's a whole host of additional pass-catchers he's going to have to contend with that he didn't have to last year. Darnell Mooney missed five games, his being back won't make matters easier for Kmet. Chase Claypool only played seven games with Chicago and will have a full offseason to get up to speed on their offense, which won't make matters easier for Kmet. The Bears also acquired star receiver, DJ Moore from the Carolina Panthers, his arrival won't make matters easier for Kmet.

In closing, his target total, and especially his red zone target total didn't come close to equaling how many touchdowns he scored last season. His insane efficiency on his red zone targets screams regression and if that all wasn't bad enough, he's got significant target competition coming in. Kmet is a virtual lock to score a lot less this season.

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