The Four Rarest Stats from the 2018 NFL Season, and How Likely They are to Repeat

Rarity in fantasy sports is a factor that can change the game. As the name implies, rare feats are difficult, if not impossible to predict, and can completely swing an NFL season. There are a bevy of “Do Not Draft” and sleeper lists out there, but this is not one of them. I’ll only be discussing my opinion on some of these feats, and while I don’t expect you to vehemently agree with me, I certainly hope you enjoy them!

Some stats we’ll be discussing are ones that I knew I wanted to talk about, and some I didn’t even know were so extraordinary until I started some research. Besides film study, a most helpful tool was the Play Index from Pro Football Reference, they certainly don’t need my endorsement, but I highly recommend it. Without further ado, let’s see if lightning can strike twice!

Tyler Lockett’s touchdowns (10 TDs on 70 targets in 2018)

Tyler Lockett was an All-American return specialist at Kansas State, and quickly became an effective kick and punt returner in Seattle, making the Pro Bowl his rookie year. Pete Carrol worked him into the offense as a deep threat too; Locket had 10 offensive touchdowns in his first three years in the league, five of them went for 40 or more yards. Lockett destroyed that number in 2018, scoring 10 more offensive touchdowns, three of them for 40 yards or more (plus a 39 yarder).

Lockett was almost a lock for a touchdown every week, tied with Calvin Ridley, Travis Kelce and Mike Williams for 6th in the NFL. The 5 players ahead of him all made the Pro Bowl, and had an average of more than double Lockett’s targets (149.4 targets).

He was one of the most efficient touchdown scorers the NFL has ever seen, getting into the endzone on 14.3% of his targets. While wide receiver TD% doesn’t really exist as it does for quarterbacks, here are some reference points. When Randy Moss scored a record 23 touchdowns in 2007, he scored on 14.4% of his targets. In his career, Marvin Harrison scored a touchdown on 7.2%.

Lockett was amazing in 2018, and was a complete snub from the Pro Bowl. Aside from his touchdowns, which I’m analyzing today, he also had historic yardage numbers. With the help of his career-high 81.4% catch percentage, he improved his yards per target to 13.8 (from a career average of 8.8). It didn’t just lead the league, among players with 50 or more targets, it was the third highest number ever recorded in “targets era” (the stat started in 1992). Even if the target threshold is lowered to 20, Lockett would still rank sixth. No one’s expecting his yards per target to stay that high, so let’s get back to the touchdowns.

This section is not about Russell Wilson, but he plays a huge role in Lockett’s success. He’s also extremely fun for a football nerd to talk about, because of how crazy some of his numbers are. Despite having a bottom 10 pass-blocking offensive line (per Football Outside) every year since 2013, Wilson has been a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback for seven years. He’s never missed a game, despite having been sacked a league-leading 299 times since his rookie season. In 2018, Wilson took a step, nay, leap forward in the touchdown department. He’s always had a great TD%, but last year he threw for a score on 8.2 percent of his passes. It may have been second to Patrick Mahomes in 2018, but it’s the 8th highest TD% since 2000.

Like Lockett, Wilson’s numbers were also ridiculous, and will definitely regress. The only QBs to have a TD% north of 8 in two seasons are Kenny Stabler and Peyton Manning. Of course, you should never tell Wilson the odds, as he is one 10 post-merger quarterbacks have a TD% of 7 in two seasons. He’s also only second to Aaron Rodgers in career TD% among post-merger QBs with 1,000 or more attempts. Wilson’s 2019 will still be insane, just “regular Russell Wilson insane” and not “historically insane.”

Anyway, back to Lockett. I was brought to my verdict after taking a look at some eyebrow-raising red zone stats. You know, the red zone? Where most touchdowns happen? Yeah, Lockett didn’t really get the memo, as he scored only three touchdowns on six targets in the red zone. Let’s look at Ridley, Kelce and Williams again. Out of each of their 10 touchdowns, they respectivley scored six, nine and seven of them in the red zone. The three of them averaged 16.3 targets from within 20 yards of the pylon. The three of them have much more sustainable touchdown efficiencies. Unless Lockett gets an influx of red zone targets (he’s only has 23 in his four year career), he has to rely on the historically great touchdown efficiency he had from outside the red zone.

The Verdict: Lockett simply can’t do what he did again. He’s a great deep threat in a solid Seattle offense, and should see some more targets with Doug Baldwin’s retirement. But the 5-foot-11, 170 pound Lockett just doesn’t belong in a group of huge red zone monsters like Travis Kelce and Mike Williams. His touchdowns won’t fall off a cliff, but they’ll slide down to 5 or 6.

Phillip Lindsay’s high carry count and efficiency (192 carries, 5.4 yards per attempt in 2018)

Two things had been consistent with Phillip Lindsay throughout his football career. He had never played competitive football outside of Colorado, and he had never been given the respect he deserves by scouts and pundits. But the latter finally turned around for Lindsay in 2018. 

After being recruited to the University of Colorado as a three-star prospect from Denver South High School, he was a standout on a middling Buffalos team. In the Pac-12, he was deep in the shadows of future teammate Devontae Booker of Utah and Royce Freeman of Oregon, as well as Stanford’s Christian McCaffery and Washington’s Myles Gaskin. Uninvited to the combine, the “Tasmanian Devil” was overlooked in the 2018 NFL Draft, signed by the Broncos, and fought to solidify a spot behind 2018 3rd rounder Freeman, and 3rd year veteran Booker. 

It didn’t take long for Taz to start going crazy. He took carries away from the bigger backs ahead of him, and was one of the most efficient backs in the league. With 192 carries, his 5.4 yards per attempt on were second among qualifying running backs (although Aaron Jones, the only one ahead of him, had 59 fewer carries). Lindsay made his hay from a mix of off-tackle and inside zone, and it wasn’t as if he was the change-of-pace speedster that defenses weren’t ready for. He demanded 49% of his teams carries, compared to 42% from Freeman and Booker combined. It’s not uncommon for a back like Lindsay to be extremely efficient on the ground, it’s just extremely rare that he did it with so many carries. 

The numbers Lindsay put up (again, 192 carries and 5.4 yards per attempt) replicated only 19 former seasons since the merger; the only players to put up those numbers twice: O.J Simpson, Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson and Clinton Portis. Lindsay’s size just doesn’t make sense, at 190 pounds, he’s the second lightest player from that group (little known pro-bowler James Brooks did it at 180 pounds in 1989). Lindsay has the explosiveness to continue to run efficiently, in addition to catching the ball, but he showed that a high carry count may not have been a smart idea after he fractured his wrist and sustained significant ligament damage in week 15. 

He is back in training camp healthy, but he still has Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker close behind him on the depth chart, and has even deflected the idea that he should be taking away their carries.

“I know you guys like to pin us against each other, make it a competition, but at the end of the day we all three wear the same helmet,” the humble Lindsay said after day one of Broncos training camp, “And when it comes down to it, that first game against the Raiders we all three need to be ready,” he said.

Though it won’t be unprecedented for Lindsay to continue or even raise his high carry count. The 13 carries per game he averaged his rookie season is far from the 25 carries per game he had his senior year at Colorado. The depth chart at Colorado wasn’t nearly as crowded or as talented as the depth chart in Denver, plus the pace is obviously much slower in the NFL. But it shows Lindsay’s 5-foot-8, 190 pound frame can hold up, should he be relied upon with a 60 percent or more carry share.

The Verdict: It’s very unlikely to repeat, but don’t write Lindsay off. Even if he suffers normal regression, he still could be fighting for a Pro Bowl spot. Lindsay has a great underdog story, and lightning could strike twice, but not nearly with the same consistency of 2018. I statted Lindsay out for 178 carries for 822 yards (4.62 yards per attempt)

Drew Brees’ completion percentage (74.4 Completion Percentage in 2018)

New Oreleans’ 2018 season will be remembered for decades to come, but only three things will find their way into the minds of football fans. Nickell, Robbey, and Coleman. Yes, the famous non-call is no longer a problem for the Federal courts, but it will be associated by Saints fans as “a season that could have been.”

It’s a shame the Saints couldn’t make the Super Bowl in a year they had a tremendous “Boom and Zoom” running game, All-Pros on all three sides of the ball, and (perhaps most forgotten) a record-breaking year for Drew Brees. In 2017, Drew Brees broke the record for completion percentage in a season, but the season was wasted by a historic playoff outcome (shout out Paul Allen, and Pete Bercich, the most unapologetic homes in broadcasting). It was Deja Vu all over again in 2018, as Brees somehow broke his own record, throwing completions on 74.4 percent of his throws. The Saints season still ended in sorrow.

But enough sadness! Let’s talk about the generational talent that is Drew Brees. He’s never won an MVP, and he’s only around the fourth best quarterback of his generation (Brady, Manning, Rodgers), yet he might arguably be the 6th best quarterback of all time when his career wraps up (I’ll throw Montana and Marino ahead of him). His completion percentage record was helped by an Average Intended Air Yardage just over seven (the eighth lowest out of 38 qualified QBs, per NFL Next Gen Stats). But don’t let that be a crutch, the starting passers around that AIAY number were Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Eli Manning (66.1, 67.9 and 66.0 completion percentage respectively). 

Brees also hit his receivers open, becoming just the seventh QB post-merger to achieve 70% completion percentage and 8.0 net yards per pass attempt. The others? Joe Montana, Steve Young, Alex Smith… and Drew Brees three more times. While interceptions are not a spot-on way of determining accuracy, it’s still cool to note that Brees hit a career-best 1.0 interception percentage, the second best in the league in 2018 (behind Aaron Rodgers).

The Saints are still in the Super Bowl conversation because of the talented skill position players Sean Payton surrounds his aging quarterback with. Remember the Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl offense? Brees threw for a 70.6 percent completion clip, targeting no. 1 receiver Marques Colston 102 times and running back Reggie Bush 68 times. If you took the athletic profiles of those two and added a layer of glue to their hands, you might get a pair like Michael Thomas and Alivn Kamara. Respectively 26 and 24 (interestingly, the same ages as Colston and Bush in 2010), Thomas and Kamara will be back with the Saints in 2019. Each has a career catch percentage north of 75%. Mark Ingram has left for purple pastures in Baltimore, but the Saints brought in Latavius Murray, who sports a solid career catch percentage of 79.0 (Ingram’s was 79.7).

Regression should absolutely occur for not only Brees, but also Thomas (who’s 85% catch percentage in 2018 could require an entire section – it’s the highest catch percentage for a wideout with over 50 targets in the “targets era”). However, Thomas has plenty of historical evidence proving he can lead the league in catch percentage, and even come close to 85% again. He’s had two seasons with a 75% catch percentage (again, minimum 50 targets), and is one of three wideouts to accomplish the feat more than once. Wes Welker did it three times, and Thomas can absolutely catch him. 28 of those 75%, 50 target seasons have occurred, and five of them have come from Drew Brees’ pass catchers (Thomas twice, Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills). 

The Verdict: Brees won’t break the completion percentage record again (then again, most pundits said that last season), but don’t be surprised when he leads the league in that category. From the consistent, short-passing offense that Sean Payton employs, to the reliability of newly-paid Michael Thomas, Brees has a good chance to continue his dominance, and maybe even have the third 72% completion percentage season in NFL History. After all, 2017 and 2018 Drew Brees may want some company.

George Kittle’s usage and efficiency (136 targets, 15.6 yards per reception in 2018)

The last 365 days have been great for Georges. Paul went from a perennial NBA All-Star to no-doubt MVP candidate. R.R Martin saw his life’s work become a worldwide phenomenon; he never has to work another day in his life, although his super fans say otherwise. However, the biggest George breakout has to be Mr. Kittle’s (if any 49er fan wants a name for their cat: you’re welcome).

The corn-fed, Midwestern boy went to high school in Norman, Oklahoma, but stuck to his roots and went to the University of Iowa. Thanks mostly to Kittle, along with former Hawkeyes Dallas Clark and Scott Chandler, Iowa is being retroactively dubbed by many as “Tight End U.” The football world is waiting on the potential breakouts of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, especially after seeing what Kittle did in his sophomore season.

To use a worn out expression, Kittle was a beast in 2018. With the ball in his hands, he showed shades of a skinny Rob Gronkowski, and was unlike anyone else, save Travis Kelce, in the NFL. The 97th percentile SPARQ athlete showed off his 4.52 speed, racking up a league-leading 873 yards after the catch. I love watching all these players on film, but there was nothing like seeing the separation, speed and power of Kittle.

Today I’ll look at the numbers. Much like Phillip Lindsay, Kittle’s usage and efficiency wasn’t just rare, it was unprecedented. While Lindsay was in unventured territory for someone his size, the 6-foot-4, 250 pound 49er was in a class all by himself at tight end. The numbers: 136 targets, 88 catches, 1377 yards, for an insane efficiency of 15.6 yards per reception. 136 targets only ranks 16th among tight ends since 1992, but 1337 yards tops the list of tight ends post-merger. 

54 NFL players have received 136 targets and had 15.6 Y/R, Kittle is the only tight end. Rob Gronkowski is the only one in his area code, with a 2015 campaign of 120 targets and 16.3 Y/R, and a 2017 campaign of 105 targets and 15.7 Y/R. 

Among tight end seasons with 130 targets, Kittle’s 15.6 Y/R is 1.3 greater than second place, Jimmy Graham in 2013. The difference between Graham and the seventh player on the list, Tony Gonzalez in 2000, is just 1.2. Kittle doesn’t just have the upside of a top-3 tight end, he has the potential to be a top-1 skill position player in the league. The law of averages has a funny way of hitting 99% of guys. So will it hit Kittle?

The easiest exercise I like to employ in order to normalize yards per X is to look at the big plays, and simply cut them down, depending on the situation. While it’s rudimentary, let’s take a look at his longest play, an 85-yard catch against Denver (the eighth longest play of the 2018 season). An impressive play, it was; an amazing feat of athleticism and route-running, it was not. Kyle Shannahan got his first NFL offensive coordinator job at 28 for a reason (besides nepotism): he is pretty darn good at running an offense. Kittle feigns run-blocking on a 1st and 10 play-action fake. After he starts his route, there is the Denver defense immediately miscommunicates, and Todd Davis is caught with his hand, and the rest of his body, in the cookie jar. Kittle easily finds the soft spot in the zone, and runs like a giraffe to the endzone. If there was some semblance of communication on the play, this catch probably would have been 35 yards, rather than 85. Just this normalization takes his Y/R down to a still-impressive 15.1. 

The next most targeted 49ers receiver after George Kittle (any guesses?…) was Kendrick Bourne! No one on the team even sniffed the dinner Kittle was receiving every Sunday. San Francisco drafted Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in the second and third round, acquired solid pass catcher Tevin Coleman, and is returning another pass-catching running back, Jerick McKinnon. Kittle’s target share of 25.5% will most certainly be in jeopardy. 

The Verdict: Unless there is another Tony Gonzalez or Rob Gronkowski in the AFC, Kittle can’t keep these numbers as high as they were in 2018. Kittle’s target share will most certainly be going down, and the 49ers passing attack won’t be voluminus enough for him to match his 136 targets. Some natural regression is also imminent for his yards per reception. Like most fantasy analysts, I still have him as my 3rd overall tight end, due to his upside and red zone usage. He will regress, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be historic. Only two tight ends since 1992 have had 78 receptions and 13.3 Y/R in two seasons. With 119 targets, 78 catches and 1040 yards, I predict Kittle will be the third.

Jack Lido is a Northwestern University journalism student. You can check him out on Twitter @JackSLido, and hear his own fantasy football podcast, The Fantasy Geek on the Powder Blue Podcast Network

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