Sports and STEM

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

Zach FeinAnalyst IAugust 10, 2009

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;

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.

 Player Pos Comp Pass Att Pass Yd Pass TD INT Drew Brees QB 378 607 4255 33 18 Tom Brady QB 350 553 4001 29 16 Aaron Rodgers QB 340 550 3946 29 17 Kurt Warner QB 354 540 4106 29 16 Philip Rivers QB 319 513 3772 29 16 Peyton Manning QB 345 533 3796 27 15 Tony Romo QB 305 496 3662 28 17 Matt Cassel QB 316 500 3561 22 13 Jay Cutler QB 306 495 3615 22 14 Matt Ryan QB 310 501 3663 23 15 Player Pos Rush Att Rush Yd Rush TD Rec Rec Yd Rec TD Maurice Jones-Drew RB 247 1073 12 60 513 3 Matt Forte RB 292 1168 10 55 424 5 Adrian L. Peterson RB 321 1464 12 22 169 2 Michael Turner RB 334 1438 15 8 48 1 Steven Jackson RB 291 1203 10 48 401 3 Steve Slaton RB 277 1241 9 49 385 4 Clinton Portis RB 315 1330 11 28 213 1 LaDainian Tomlinson RB 264 1105 12 43 321 2 DeAngelo Williams RB 271 1235 13 22 139 1 Chris Johnson RB 264 1196 9 43 312 3 Player Pos Rec Rec Yd Rec TD Tony Gonzalez TE 79 942 7 Antonio Gates TE 70 839 8 Jason Witten TE 80 940 6 Dallas Clark TE 72 802 8 Chris Cooley TE 73 800 6 Greg Olsen TE 67 763 6 Zach Miller TE 62 809 5 Owen Daniels TE 64 786 5 Kellen Winslow TE 67 750 5 John Carlson TE 59 696 6 Player Pos Rec Rec Yd Rec TD Larry Fitzgerald WR 99 1418 10 Calvin Johnson WR 84 1345 10 Andre Johnson WR 105 1406 8 Randy Moss WR 84 1191 11 Reggie Wayne WR 92 1273 9 Greg Jennings WR 79 1224 9 Steve Smith WR 85 1288 7 Roddy White WR 86 1261 6 Vincent Jackson WR 71 1140 8 Antonio Bryant WR 81 1203 7

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.

Where can I comment?