Regression to the Mean, Fluky Non-touchdowns, and Matthew Stafford’s 2013 Outlook
Matthew Stafford is probably living a pretty good life. He’s got a missile-launcher for an arm, threw for 10,000 yards over the last two seasons in the NFL’s pass-happiest offense, and he gets to play with one of the all-time great receivers in the midst of both their primes. Plus, he made a solid commercial for ESPN last year, and has a right pretty girlfriend. Do not shed any tears for Matthew Stafford.
The fantasy football community doesn’t seem to know what to do with Stafford this year, however. Per the composite rankings on fantasypros.com, he is being drafted on average as the 9th QB at an ADP of 61, after the likes of Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, and the free-falling Tom Brady. Fantasy football writers, on the other hand, seem to consider Stafford to be a solid value pick, ranking him as the 7th QB with an ADP of 52, a full nine spots ahead of where the general public has him. Considering the other high-upside guys going in the 50-60 range (Pierre Garcon, Montee Ball, Chris Ivory), it is absolutely worth digging a little deeper to find out how Stafford will play in 2013.
First, let’s take a look at the last couple of years. In 2012, Stafford led the NFL in pass attempts (727) and completions (435), and was 2nd in passing yards (4967). Those numbers were remarkably similar to his stats in the 2011 season, when Stafford led the league in pass attempts (663), was 2nd in completions (421), and was 3rd in yards (5038). The only guys to top Matthew Stafford in any of those categories over the past 2 seasons were Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
So if Stafford is throwing the ball as much as elite QBs, why aren’t people drafting him like one? There are probably a few reasons. First, Stafford only threw 20 TDs in 2012; he threw 41 in 2011. That is a titanic fall, and really dropped him in the overall QB rankings for leagues that award at least 4 points per passing TDs. Second, Stafford does have an injury history: he didn’t miss any games in 2011 or 2012, but only played in 3 games in 2010, and 10 games as a rookie in 2009. Finally, he plays for a team that performed inconsistently at best last season, and I think most people (rightfully) attribute the team’s performance to the play of its starting QB.
Still, I believe that Stafford will find himself back among the elite fantasy QBs in 2013.
To start, he hasn’t had any significant health issues in the last 2 seasons, and he’s only 25 years old, when his ability to recover from injuries is still very good. I am much more concerned about the health of guys like Peyton Manning and RG3 than I am about Matthew Stafford. That said, injuries often strike at random, so no player is ever 100% guaranteed to stay off the injury report. Still, I’m confident that two straight seasons without significant injury time bodes well for Stafford in 2013.
Moreover, advanced metrics suggest that the trajectory Stafford is following can continue to be very productive. The QB Similarity Scores App at RotoViz can take a QB’s stats from one season and show you comparable seasons from other QBs in the past. The app also tells you how those QBs from the past performed in their following season (year N+1), so you can get an idea of how your own QB might perform in the upcoming year. It’s a neat app, and you should use it.
For Matthew Stafford’s 2012 stats, the top QB Similarity Score was Drew Brees in 2007, when he led the league in attempts (578) and completions (398), and was second in yards (4423), behind only Tom Brady (I know, I sound like a broken record). In 2008, Brees beefed up his yardage (5069) while keeping his attempts (635) and completions (413) about the same. Adding this to what we already know about the Lions’ offense (they kinda like to throw the ball), I think we can be quite confident that Stafford will continue to sit atop the league leaders in passing attempts and completions, giving him ample opportunity to rack up fantasy points.
It’s worth noting that cherry-picking the top comp might not be the most valid way of using the Sim Score App – the top comp is a good idea of what your player might do, not what he WILL do, and so going with some kind of a composite of the top comps for forecasting is probably a better bet. Check out the top 10 comps for 2012 Stafford:
Here’s how the list looked in season N+1:
On average, the top 10 comps for 2012 Stafford played one fewer game, attempted 92.2 fewer passes, completed 69.3 fewer passes, and threw for 773.6 fewer yards – if Stafford follows that same trajectory, he’ll just be another guy in 2013. But look at those attempts for a second. In 2011-2012, Matthew Stafford officially attempted 1390 passes – the average for the 10 comps was 1070.4, which is a massive difference. The only guy on the comp list to top 1200 attempts in his two year sample was Drew Brees, with 1213. I think this is a good reason to expect Stafford’s 2013 season to follow a lot closer to the trajectory of Drew Brees than the rest of the lot.
Most worrisome to many people is the fact that Stafford’s 20 passing TDs in 2012 were less than half of his 2011 total, but I think that last year’s figure was a statistical aberration. Per Pro Football Reference, there have been 34 instances of a QB throwing more than 4500 yards in a single season. On average, QBs who accumulated at least 4500 passing yards in a season threw 35 TDs, and QBs who had at least 4900 passing yards threw 38 TDs (SEMs of 1.34 and 1.42, respectively, for curious statheads). Plotting TDs as a function of passing yards with a simple linear trendline makes this point pretty clearly:
Feel like taking a guess who that data point at the very bottom is? That there is called an outlier. To put it in perspective, there were only two instances where QBs deviated more from their expected TD totals (based on passing yardage) than Matthew Stafford did in 2012: Peyton Manning in 2004 when he broke the passing TD record with 49 TD passes; and Tom Brady in 2007 when he broke Manning’s record by throwing for 50 TDs. Nobody has under performed in the TD pass department like Stafford did in 2012, and it isn’t likely to happen to him again. Based on regression toward the mean alone, I think Stafford will find himself a lot closer to the TD trendline in 2013. Factoring in the return of Nate Burleson, the development of Ryan Broyles, and the addition of Reggie Bush, I think Stafford is a lock to hit at least 30 TDs in 2013
In short: Matthew Stafford is no more of an injury risk than other elite QBs; he will probably complete more passes in 2013 than every quarterback not named Drew Brees; and he will throw more touchdowns than he did last year. I think that both the ADP and a lot of the experts are missing the mark on Stafford this year: I have him as my 4th QB, behind Rodgers, Brees, and Newton (who I think is actually a tank on loan from the military). Regarding the QBs that are generally ranked ahead of Stafford: Brady and Manning are all-time greats who are still very good, but they are 36 and 37 years old respectively, and they can’t avoid regression forever; Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, and Matt Ryan are all young and very talented, but they won’t have the same kind of opportunity to accumulate passing yards as Stafford will in the Lions’ offense.
Matthew Stafford is 25 years old, coming off of back-to-back (mostly) great seasons, and is throwing to one of the best receivers of all time. I don’t know what his ceiling is, but I don’t think he’s hit it yet, and I fully expect him to take a big step forward in 2013.