As we approach the 2021 fantasy football season, we have been taking this week to dive into player performance in the red zone, uncovering who ran hot and cold.
Following what we can take away from team production in the red zone, we covered that the crux of touchdowns scored in the NFL come from inside of the red zone and that not all red zone touches are created equal. With that, we have been diving into the red zone production versus expectation for fantasy skill players based on their actual opportunities in the red zone as opposed to just blanket red zone stats. So far we have covered the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions with an eye on spotting some regression candidates in each direction heading into the 2020 season.
In the quarterback piece we ran down the methodology in using player production per yard line in the red zone to create an expected points outline and in the wide receiver piece covered how sticky year-over-year targets are in each area of the red zone for individual players. Circle back to those posts if you still come across the questions.
So with everything in place, let us jump into some of the output from a year ago to highlight those who out-produced and fell short of expected output on their actual opportunities per yard line in the red zone. For our player sample, we are using the top tight ends in current ADP.
2020 TE Red Zone Fantasy Points Vs. Expectation
|TE||RZ FF Pts||Exp. Pts||(+/-)|
|Irv Smith Jr.||41.9||29.1||12.8|
Attached to the league’s MVP, no tight end ran hotter near the paint last season than Robert Tonyan. Tonyan’s 18.6% rate of receptions resulting in touchdowns trails only Julius Thomas in 2014 (19.4%) among tight ends who have caught 20 or more passes in a season. Tonyan finished fifth in fantasy points scored in the red zone despite ranking 13th in expected points. Tonyan converted all four of his targets inside of the 5-yard line for scores and he caught 10-of-11 targets in the red zone for seven scores. He converted seven of his eight end zone targets for touchdowns (league rate was 41.5%). The Packers and their scoring efficiency from last season has come up several times across our top-down look at the 2020 season and Tonyan is at the forefront at their anticipated regression this season, even if Aaron Rodgers is back under center.
Tonyan and Logan Thomas battled for the TE3 spot in fantasy last season, which had the lowest positional leverage for the TE3 over the past 30 seasons. Thomas was right behind Tonyan in terms of outproducing his actual opportunity. Thomas was fifth in expected points scored still, so his anticipated floor was much better than Tonyan’s, but he still ran hot himself. Thomas caught 15-of-17 (88.2%) red zone targets for six touchdowns, catching 5-of-9 end zone targets for scores.
Travis Kelce was the top candidate for positive scoring regression among tight ends a year ago and he delivered in a big way on that expected rebound. After turning a career-low 10.5% (2-of-19) of his red zone looks into scores in 2019, Kelce came back and set a new career-high, turning 45% (9-of-20) into scores. In 2019, Kelce turned just 1-of-8 end zone targets into touchdowns before roaring back in converting 7-of-12 last season. Kelce has career marks of a 29.4% red zone touchdown rate and 43.8% end zone conversion rate. There should be some correction on his 2020 evening things from his depressed 2019 campaign, but Kelce has also been first or second at the position in expected red zone points in each of the past five seasons.
Kelce was second last season in expected points behind Darren Waller. Waller was not as heavy as an outlier in production over expectation, but he trailed only Davante Adams (28) in overall red zone targets (22) while ranking fourth among all tight ends in end zone targets (11) last season.
Jonnu Smith was second in points scored here behind Kelce and third in expected points scored. After 14 red zone targets over his first three years in the league, Smith received 17 targets there in 2020, catching 10 of them for eight touchdowns. After just six end zone targets through three seasons (two scores), Smith had nine end zone looks come his way, catching five of them.
Smith was part of the hyper-efficient Tennessee juggernaut that we have covered throughout each of these posts, so it will remain to be seen if he has the same impact for a New England offense that was begging to be more diverse in the red zone a year ago. Smith also has red zone competition at his position in Hunter Henry.
For their careers, Smith has converted 12-of-31 (38.7%) of his red zone looks and 46.7% (7-of-15) of his end zone targets for scores while Henry has turned 34.6% (18-of-52) of his red zone targets into scores and 52.9% (18-of-34) of his end zone targets for scores, further complicating the dynamic of both of these players potentially cannibalizing each other’s true upside.
Smith also potentially leaves that red zone opportunity for Anthony Firkser. Firkser has a limited sample of true scoring opportunities, but has converted just 3-of-14 red zone targets for scores so far through his career while catching 2-of-4 end zone targets. With Julio Jones joining the roster to cap his overall target ceiling, Firkser could have a chance to be a Tonyan-esque player in a low-volume passing game if his efficiency on scoring targets spikes.
As you can see above, 2020 was a good season for tight ends making the most of their red zone opportunities. Not many players fell below expectations at the position. The player at the bottom was Evan Engram. Engram was 12th at the position in expected points here, but ended 22nd in points scored. Engram was also at the bottom of this list a year ago and once again; he was attached to the quarterback that was also dead last in this category. Engram caught just 5-of-12 red zone targets (league rate is 62.2%) for just one touchdown. In the end zone, Engram caught just one of his three end zone targets.
In two seasons playing with Daniel Jones, Engram has now secured just 8-of-22 red zone targets for three touchdowns while receiving just six total end zone targets for two scores. On one hand, we could shove some of this blame off to Jones, but what if Engram is also part of the issues Jones has had when the field shrinks?
While Engram has caught just 8-of-22 red zone targets (36.4%) for three scores (13.6%), the rest of the team has caught 67-of-108 targets (62.0%) with 20 touchdowns (18.5%) while other pass catchers have secured 18-of-42 end zone targets. Both are still right below league rates, but much closer to the average marks in each department.