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NFL players who could regress, improve in 2020

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Of all the major professional sports leagues, the NFL is the one with the most volatility of results from year to year. With such a small sample size of games, 16 in a season compared to 82 in the NBA and NHL or 162 in the MLB, it’s harder to tell what’s real and what’s a statistical anomaly.

Every year in the NFL, we see sharp regression from what we thought we knew from the prior season, and it can entirely alter teams’ fortunes. The Bears’ defense in 2018, for example, logged a ridiculous 36 turnovers en route to a 12-4 record, but fell to 8-8 when the turnover number regressed to a reasonable 19 the following year.

Positive regression can happen, too: Despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry in 2018, Vikings RB Dalvin Cook only scored two rushing touchdowns. In 2019, when saddled with about twice as many attempts, he scored 13 TDs and the Vikings’ rushing offense took off despite averaging slightly fewer yards per attempt (4.5). They won 10 games and made the playoffs.

Regression can play a huge part in any part of the football-watching experience, whether you’re playing fantasy, betting or just rooting for your team. Here are some regression candidates, both positive and negative, to look out for:

Negative regression

Ryan Tannehill

From Week 6 on, when he replaced Marcus Mariota, Tannehill posted career-best numbers in passer rating (117.5), yards per attempt (9.6), completion percentage (70.3) and touchdown percentage (7.7). All of those numbers outpaced his career averages (89.8 rating, 7.2 Y/A, 63.5%, 4.5 TD%) by a ridiculous amount. Tennessee also scored touchdowns on 77.4% of its red zone drives, highest in the NFL by 10 whole percentage points.

Ryan Tannehill
Ryan TannehillGetty Images

It was Tannehill’s first year free of Adam Gase since 2016, and as players tend to do when released from his leadership (see: Kenyan Drake, DeVante Parker), he instantly improved. Still, his numbers in 2019 (in only 10 games) were so far removed from the norm that it’s unreasonable to expect a repeat. The Titans will still be a good team, but with less-than-historically-efficient numbers from Tannehill, they could play closer to their 9-7 record instead of making another AFC Championship run.

Aaron Jones

The Packers back posted monster numbers in 2019: he had 19 total touchdowns, 16 on the ground and three through the air. In fantasy football, he finished as the second-highest scoring RB. But while he certainly is a stud, there are reasons to expect his numbers to come back down to earth.

For one, touchdown totals are known to fluctuate from year-to-year. Todd Gurley is the only RB to repeat as the TD leader since 2007, and he came out of it with an arthritic knee. The Packers used a second-round draft pick to take A.J. Dillon, a running back out of Boston College, adding to a crowded backfield that also includes Jamaal Williams. Jones, 25, is still young, but he could improve in 2020 and still not put up the scoring numbers he did in 2019.

Chris Godwin

Chris Godwin
Chris GodwinGetty Images

Godwin broke out in 2019, and with a transition from Jameis Winston to Tom Brady at QB, the stud receiver should only continue to emerge, right? From a pure statistical standpoint, not necessarily. Godwin caught 86 passes for 1,333 yards in just 14 games, but that was with Winston constantly throwing interceptions and putting the team into negative game scripts, forcing Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians to abandon the run early and often.

Brady won’t throw for 5,000 yards like Winston did, mainly because he won’t need to, and the offense should be more balanced. Tampa also added Rob Gronkowski and WR Tyler Johnson in the draft, while fellow stud WR Mike Evans will compete for targets. There are a lot of mouths to feed in this offense, and without Jameis constantly slingin’ it, simple math says the decreased passing numbers should trickle down to the receivers.

Positive regression

Kirk Cousins

Last season was Cousins’ first as a full-time starter in which he didn’t throw for 4,000 yards. But he only threw the ball 444 times, second-to-last among NFL QBs who started at least 15 games (Lamar Jackson had 401 attempts). The Vikings were a run-first team under OC Kevin Stefanski (fourth-most rushing attempts in NFL), with much of the offense running through Dalvin Cook, but Stefanski is now the head coach in Cleveland.

New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak also likes to run the ball, but Cook is threatening to hold out, and has never played a full 16-game season. The Vikings lost three starting cornerbacks, and a less potent defense all around could lead to fewer favorable game scripts. All of it adds up to Cousins likely having to throw the ball more than 444 times, so the passing yards should go back up – maybe, say, higher than DraftKings’ current over/under of 3,800.

Odell Beckham Jr.

It would be fair to put the entire Browns offense here, which was a mess under Freddie Kitchens in 2019. But Beckham was perhaps the most negatively impacted by Kitchens’ futility as a play caller (other than Baker Mayfield). One of the NFL’s true game-breaking receivers, Beckham only found the end zone four times in 2019 as Mayfield completed just 40 percent of his passes in the red zone (down from 65 percent in 2018).

Odell Beckham Jr.
Odell Beckham Jr.Getty Images

Without Kitchens, Mayfield should be better, and Beckham’s playmaking talent should be more properly utilized. He also dealt with injuries in 2019, playing through the season with a sports hernia and recently undergoing surgery to repair a core muscle. It wouldn’t be a shock for him to push double-digit scores this year, which he did in each of his first three NFL seasons.

Alvin Kamara

Many predicted a massive year for Kamara after fellow Saints RB Mark Ingram left for Baltimore, but his usage numbers in 2019 were remarkably similar to 2018: he had 171 rush attempts compared to 194 the year prior, and the exact same number of receptions (81) as he had in the previous two seasons. And he did less with those touches in 2019: he only scored five rushing TDs compared to 14 in 2018, and logged only 533 receiving yards and a TD through the air following a season with 709 and 4, respectively, on the same number of catches.

Kamara said he played the 2019 season “on one leg,” but figures to be healthy in 2020 and should return to his previous level of explosiveness. Which could mean more big plays and more yards. And with those usage numbers likely to remain stable, there’s plenty of reason to expect him to find the end zone at a much higher rate.

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