2009 Fantasy Projections: Charting Manning's Downfall and Portis' Dependability

Zach FeinAnalyst IAugust 10, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - DECEMBER 28:  Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts stands on the field during the game against the Tennessee Titans on December 28, 2008 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It’s the middle of August, a time in which many fantasy football owners start to produce their rankings and cheat sheets. Some resort to intuition, while some take an expert’s rankings and tweak them. Others use hours and hours of research to create their rankings.

I’ll use projections.

My FEIN projections (short for Forecasted Evaluative Impartial Numerical projections) aren’t based on intuition or an expert’s rankings or even hours of research. Mine are based on complex algorithms with no human interaction—I input a player’s stats, and out spits their forecast.

 

The Method

Some of you may be wondering how I control for players switching teams or wide receivers losing a top passer, such as Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall.

I don’t; I only adjust for players who switch conferences. While I could account for this by using air yards, I could only find yards after catch for quarterbacks for the current year, and there was no data for any previous seasons.

The basic steps for any projection system, as well as these, are:

1. Weight each season;
2. Regress each player’s stats to the mean;
3. Adjust for age.

The FEIN projections look at every player-season since 2002. Each stat—passing yards per attempt, interceptions per attempt, etc.—are weighted differently. I looked at all five-year stretches since 1980 and performed tests to see which weight results in the lowest error between actual performance and projected performance.

For instance, completion percentage is weighted as 0.5, meaning 2008 would have a weight of one, 2007 would have a weight of 0.5, and so on down to a minuscule weight of about 0.016 for 2002, whereas interception percentage has a weight of 0.9.

Before I do that, however, I first adjust each player’s stats to a neutral conference. Since 2002, players moving from the AFC to the NFC mid-season or in the offseason have a 2.1 percent increase in passing touchdowns, so I adjust each AFC player’s passing touchdowns down by 1.1 percent (the square root of 2.1 percent, to get them to a neutral conference).

Then, instead of regressing a player’s stats to the league average, I regress it to their height or weight (or BMI). I did further research to follow up my article on height and weight and found that the only stats that are not affected by height or weight are completion percentage, pass yards per attempt, and pass touchdowns per attempt. I regress the first two to the league average, while I regress the third to completion percentage and interception percentage.

What do I mean by that? I found that completion percentage actually predicts future touchdown-to-interception ratio better than that stat itself, and I already saw a relationship between weight and interceptions, so I project first completion and interception percentage, and use that to project touchdowns.

(Side note: The amount I regress each stat to the mean or to height and weight depends on the year-to-year consistency in each stat. What I mean is that completion percentage is more stable than any other passing stat, so a quarterback won’t be regressed as much for completion percentage than interception percentage.)

I then age adjust, adjust for strength of schedule, and then re-adjust for the player’s 2009 conference.

Strength of schedule adjustments admittedly don’t have that much effect; I regress each team’s 2008 defensive stats to the mean (so much so that the Steelers’ 13.9 points allowed per game rises to 18), total up the passing yards per attempt for each team’s 2009 opponents, and then normalize for the league average (such that a team whose opponents allowed a combined 6.7 yards per attempt with a league average of 6.8 YPA would have a YPA factor of 0.985).

I also project rookies as if they were 2008 rookies. Their “2008 stats” are solely based on their projected attempts or receptions. That is, we know that a running back with 200 attempts usually has a higher YPC than one with 100 attempts, or else he wouldn’t have gotten 200 attempts.

So, I looked at all players post-1980 within 20 pass or rush attempts or 10 receptions of each rookie’s projected playing time and found the average stat line of the players in that group. (As expected, the running backs with more attempts had a higher YPC than low-carry backs. Running backs with 188 to 228 attempts—Chris Wells is projected to have 208—averaged one-tenth of a yard more per carry than those with 51 to 91 carries—Glen Coffee is projected to have 71.)

Once I have that, I run the rookies through the same process as everybody else.

 

The Projections

I cheated a little, as projected playing time is an average of ESPN’s, CBS’s, and FFToday’s projected attempts and receptions.

For those without a projection and who played in 2008 (plus Michael Vick), I assigned 20 pass and five rush attempts for quarterbacks, 20 rush attempts and five receptions for running backs, five receptions for tight ends, and 10 receptions for wide receivers.

In the spreadsheet below, overall rank is determined as a player’s VBD, or fantasy points over baseline. My baseline was the number of each position picked in a standard, 192-player draft—24 quarterbacks, 57 running backs, 18 tight ends, and 59 wide receivers.

Some players have “xxx” beside their team and bye week; these players either didn’t play in 2008 or are currently a free agent or retired (in the cases of Vick and Brett Favre).

Without further ado, here are the top-10 in fantasy points at each position. Click here to see the full list.

 

PlayerPosCompPass AttPass YdPass TDINT 
Drew BreesQB37860742553318 
Tom BradyQB35055340012916 
Aaron RodgersQB34055039462917 
Kurt WarnerQB35454041062916 
Philip RiversQB31951337722916 
Peyton ManningQB34553337962715 
Tony RomoQB30549636622817 
Matt CasselQB31650035612213 
Jay CutlerQB30649536152214 
Matt RyanQB31050136632315 
        
PlayerPosRush AttRush YdRush TDRecRec YdRec TD
Maurice Jones-DrewRB247107312605133
Matt ForteRB292116810554245
Adrian L. PetersonRB321146412221692
Michael TurnerRB3341438158481
Steven JacksonRB291120310484013
Steve SlatonRB27712419493854
Clinton PortisRB315133011282131
LaDainian TomlinsonRB264110512433212
DeAngelo WilliamsRB271123513221391
Chris JohnsonRB26411969433123
        
PlayerPosRecRec YdRec TD   
Tony GonzalezTE799427   
Antonio GatesTE708398   
Jason WittenTE809406   
Dallas ClarkTE728028   
Chris CooleyTE738006   
Greg OlsenTE677636   
Zach MillerTE628095   
Owen DanielsTE647865   
Kellen WinslowTE677505   
John CarlsonTE596966   
        
PlayerPosRecRec YdRec TD   
Larry FitzgeraldWR99141810   
Calvin JohnsonWR84134510   
Andre JohnsonWR10514068   
Randy MossWR84119111   
Reggie WayneWR9212739   
Greg JenningsWR7912249   
Steve SmithWR8512887   
Roddy WhiteWR8612616   
Vincent JacksonWR7111408   
Antonio BryantWR8112037   

 

You can download the above spreadsheet into Excel here.

 

The Counter-intuitive Forecasts

The projections aren’t going to be accurate for all 470 players. Here are some of those whose projections seem to go against the grain.

Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning finished in the top four in fantasy points at his position each year from 2002 to 2007, but he slipped to seventh last year. A more telling trend is this: Since his record-breaking 2004 season, both his yards per attempt and passer rating have fallen each year, from a 9.2 YPA and 121.1 rating in 2004 to last year’s 7.2 YPA and 95.0 rating.

The FEIN projections don’t take that into account, but Manning is projected to once again decline in both stats as well as finish sixth among quarterbacks in fantasy points, with this forecast: 64.7 completion percentage, 3796 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.

Matt Cassel

Matt Cassel went from a career backup to earning more than Tom Brady in just one year, after passing for almost 3,700 yards with 21 touchdowns.

As I mentioned before, the projections don’t take into account any changes of coaching staff, personnel, or teammates, and Cassel is one who would be negatively affected with any adjustments for this.

Last year, 57 percent of Cassel’s passing yards came after the catch, while only 42 percent came after the catch for Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen. Cassel’s raw YPA was a yard higher than Thigpen’s, but his air yards per attempt was less than Chiefs QB.

Since wide receivers have more control over YAC than quarterbacks, it’s likely that Cassel’s projected YPA of 7.1 is optimistic.

Clinton Portis

Clinton Portis’ projection isn’t actually odd at all; it’s just that too many fantasy owners massively underrate him.

Since his rookie season in 2002, Portis has finished outside the the top 10 in fantasy points among RBs just twice—he finished 11th in 2004 and 36th in 2006, when he only played eight games (double his fantasy points and he would finish ninth).

Portis has had one sub-1,200-yard season in his career—2006, when he would’ve finished with 1,000 yards if he played all 16 games. He’s also had two sub-nine-touchdown seasons in his career—2004, the year he finished 11th in fantasy points, and 2006, when he would’ve had 14 if he played all 16 games.

Just when everyone thought he was done, Portis had almost 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns in 2008.

His forecast of 1,330 yards and 11 touchdowns is nothing short of ordinary.

Anquan Boldin

Boldin finished seventh in fantasy points last year despite missing four games due to injury, and he finished the year with 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Boldin’s projection calls for a YPC rate of 12.4, in line with his past numbers. The seven touchdowns is a major drop from his touchdown percentage the last two years, but receiving touchdowns have a weight of 0.8—which means that 2004, 2005, and 2006 are weighted quite heavily in the forecasts.

We get a career weighted touchdown percentage of 8.9, or 7.2 touchdowns in his 81 projected receptions; that’s slightly less than his exact projection of 7.3 touchdowns.

As well, his No. 17 ranking among wide receivers may be due to his forecasted playing time. Give him 89 receptions, and he ranks No. 12 among wideouts.

Vincent Jackson/Antonio Bryant

Jackson and Bryant were the epitomes of late-round or waiver-wire grabs at the wide receiver position last year. Jackson, selected No. 41 among wideouts in 2008, provided owners with almost 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns. Bryant, taken No. 73, finished No. 8 among receivers, with 83 receptions for 1,248 yards and seven scores; amazingly, Bryant had a higher YPC in 2007 than in 2008.

Fantasy football owners certainly think they’ll both cool off, as Bryant and Jackson are being selected as Nos. 17 and 18 among receivers, respectively.

That doesn’t make sense, even if you discount their projections. Jackson is projected to catch 71 balls in 2009, 12 more than he had in 2008. Thus, he’d need a 25 percent drop in yards and touchdowns per catch (which would give him a new career low in YPC by over a yard) from 2008 to finish as the No. 18 receiver, if only because of his (projected) increase in receptions.

As for Bryant, he’s projected to get 81 catches in 2009. If he even ties his career lows in YPC and touchdown percentage, he’d still end up with 138.3 fantasy points—which would place him right ahead of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who’s projected to end the season with 138 fantasy points and finish No. 18 among receivers.

I would not suggest you use the bare projections as your cheat sheet. The projections don’t take into account any changes in a player’s surrounding—save for a switch in conferences—and, as such, there’s going to be a lot more inaccuracy in the projections for players switching teams.

Is Matt Hasselbeck the No. 24 quarterback? Maybe he was before T.J. Houshmandzadeh signed with the Seahawks; it’s inevitable that Hasselbeck will outperform his projection, and the same could be said for Matt Ryan with Tony Gonzalez now on the team.