Opportunity is the most important element of fantasy success, but efficiency plays a big role as well. It also waxes and wanes from year to year even for the best players, and those deviations can lead to outlier seasons even when opportunity remains steady. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at an alternate history in which the best fantasy scorers from last season performed at their career averages.

For quarterbacks, that means adjusting yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, and yards per carry. I also created an expected rushing touchdown number based on the percentage chance of each carry resulting in a score. For instance, a rushing attempt from the one-yard line has resulted in a touchdown 55 percent of the time over the last five seasons, so an attempt from the one is worth .55 expected touchdowns. Lost fumbles were left out of the equation because they are particularly fluky.

Expected QBs

Alex Smith is the poster child for this exercise. Using his career averages, Smith would have had 557 fewer passing yards and 5.8 fewer passing touchdowns last season. Even using just his Kansas City averages, he would have been expected to throw for 406 fewer yards and 4.79 fewer touchdowns, and that is with last year’s explosion making up one-fifth of the average. The question, then, is does he keep up last season’s pace in Washington, or does he revert back to his career norms. Kirk Cousins’ numbers in Washington – 7.7 yards per attempt and a 4.7 percent touchdown rate – suggest Smith will get the opportunity to replicate what he did last season, but it is more likely he takes a step back.

-On the other end of the spectrum, Marcus Mariota unsurprisingly vaulted up these rankings. In easily his worst season, Mariota was well below his career averages in all three passing categories, and that is especially true if last season’s downturn is removed from the equation. Using just the numbers from his first two seasons, Mariota would have been expected to throw for 210 more yards, 4.6 fewer interceptions, and a whopping 11.9 more touchdowns. Those numbers would have moved him all the way into the top-10 in this exercise. With a new, more exciting coaching staff in town, Mariota looks like a prime bounce-back candidate.

-Some of the most dramatic slides came from players with just one year of quality play. Carson Wentz saw his yard per attempt average jump from 6.2 to 7.5 and his touchdown percentage increase from 2.6 to 7.5 from 2016 to 2017. Jared Goff had an even bigger sophomore YPA leap, increasing his average from 5.3 to 8.0, and his touchdown percentage jumped from 2.4 to 5.9. Following several seasons of mediocre at best play, Case Keenum posted career highs across the board last season. While Wentz’s touchdown rate is unsustainable, it is not crazy to think 2017 was a new baseline rather than a career-best season for the young quarterbacks. Keenum’s jump in efficiency is more dubious, however, especially since he is transitioning to a new system.  

Dak Prescott actually rose one spot in these rankings based on how poorly he fared as a passer last season, but his expected rushing touchdown total is interesting. Prescott has scored 12 touchdowns on the ground in his two seasons as a starter, but his usage only created 4.64 expected rushing scores over that span. It certainly seems like my calculation method underestimates how effective quarterbacks are at converting rushing attempts into touchdowns – the 35 quarterbacks in this sample scored 63 rushing scores against just 44.6 expected touchdowns – but Prescott’s total still stands out as dramatically out of whack. Prescott is someone I like to have a bounce-back season, but it seems prudent to scale back his rushing touchdown projection.

-Much has been made of Drew Brees’ low touchdown total last season, and these numbers suggest he should have thrown 5.46 more scores. It is important to note, however, the 28.46 expected total is still considerably lower than where Brees has been in the past. In fact, it would have been the first time he failed to top 32 passing touchdowns since 2007. Much of the low total can be blamed on his 536 passing attempts, 137 fewer than in 2016 and 96 fewer than his yearly average in New Orleans prior to last season. It is possible his attempt total bounces back along with his touchdown percentage, but the Saints have an ascending defense and running game which should keep them in positive game scripts. Even if his touchdown efficiency returns to normal, Brees might not have the kind of rebound some are expecting.

Matt Ryan may never revert back to his MVP form, but it is worth noting he posted only his second sub-four touchdown percentage since his rookie season. The other one came in 2015, a season in which Ryan was perhaps not coincidentally attempting to settle in with a new offensive coordinator. We all know what happened the next year. I am not expecting another MVP season, but I do think Ryan will bounce back, especially in the touchdown department.

Philip Rivers’ and Ben Roethlisberger’s climbs are interesting because their actual numbers last year are not that much different than their final tallies here. Rivers did add a couple touchdowns and Ben added about 200 more passing yards and 40 more rushing yards, but this result seems to have more to do with the players around them in the standings than anything else. Still, it does show the old dogs are getting enough opportunity to crack the top-five if they can reclaim a bit more of their former magic.

Eli Manning and Joe Flacco are two other veteran quarterbacks who climbed these ranks, but unlike Rivers and Roethlisberger, I am not reading too much into it. While either player could bounce back if they somehow reclaimed their early-career form, both Manning and Flacco look washed. If I had to make a bet on one of them, it would be on Manning simply because of the surrounding talent.

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