Using Regression Tree Modeling to Find WR Breakouts and Bouncebacks
Which WRs Are Primed For Breakouts In 2019?
Finding ascending, breakouts players is a key to winning in fantasy football. Whether it's drafting someone coming off of a down year, or who has never quite had that great season before, these players have a shot to massively out-kick their draft position, and be league-winners.
But how can we find these players, specifically at wide receiver?
Using Josh Hermsmeyer's fantasy scoring database, I took a look at every WR since 2009 who finished outside of the top 36 at the position in fantasy points per game. The objective was to find thresholds using data from that season to indicate they could finish inside of the top 24 the following year. Target and air yards data were the main criteria used. This was the result.
There were 825 WRs in the sample, with 49 reaching WR2 status in year n+1 over the nine year period. The formula is pretty simple. If the player saw at least 21% of team targets in year n, he is already set up greatly to have a shot at a bigger year the following season. This stands to reason, as targets are the life-blood of fantasy football. The other key component was the depth of those targets. So long as the player was not being targeted too close to the line of scrimmage, we come out with a 43% hit rate over the sampling period. This is a huge number, and one we can attribute a sizable level of confidence to.
So is there evidence that this works? Here are some of the hits over the past three years.
2018: Emmanuel Sanders (WR53 to WR16)
2017: DeAndre Hopkins (WR38 to WR2), Alshon Jeffery was close (WR41 to WR29)
2016: Dez Bryant (WR55 to WR21) and Stefon Diggs (WR43 to WR13)
This has been a fairly reliable method of finding WR hits.
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The Breakouts Candidates
In 2018, there were four players who reached 21% of team targets and failed to finish top-36 in points per game:
Of these four, Fitzgerald and Coutee saw low target depths (9.3 and 5.1 yards respectively). That leaves us with just Davis and Jones as potential ascending talents in 2019. Let's take a little deeper look at their resumes.
Corey Davis, TEN, WR39 on DRAFT
It should be no surprise to find Davis on this list. He was a top five pick in the 2017 draft and will be entering his third season in the NFL. Last year, Davis put up some impressive numbers but was clearly limited by the injuries the Titans had at quarterback. As a prospect, he broke out prior to his 19th birthday and posted a remarkable 3.97 receiving yards per team pass attempt in his final season. My model gave him a 92% chance to reach 200 PPR points by his third year. He seems poised to do so in 2019.
Zay Jones, BUF, WR77 on DRAFT
Jones comes at a much cheaper price, but it is easy to see why. Buffalo has not been the land of the WR over the past few seasons, and the Bills just spent decent money on both John Brown and Cole Beasley to join the team. Add in Reuben Foster's electric finish to 2018, and all signs were pointing to Jones starting out 2019 on the bench. That has not been the case so far in camp, with Jones running exclusively with the ones, and he should continue along with his progression as an NFL WR. Jones was a top 40 pick in the same class as Davis, meaning the Bills have more capital invested in him than anyone else. They also have a bit better of a passing identity with Josh Allen at QB. Jones made a big leap from year one to year two and could make another jump in year three. Even if he doesn't get to WR2 status, there is likely value here at such a depressed ADP.
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