Dressed to Regress: Darren Waller (2021 Fantasy Football)
In this series of articles, we’ll use some of the valuable (and free) reports that FantasyPros offers to identify players you may want to flag on your cheat sheet come draft day – both to target and to avoid. We’ll analyze data from the Touchdown Regression, Stats Leaders, Red Zone Stats, and Advanced Stats reports, along with situational factors that might also influence a player’s production, to determine which players could be in line for positive or negative regression in 2021. We’ll then compare that to the latest ECR and ADP to help you mine some value and dodge the pyrite in your fantasy drafts.
There’s one word that describes how I feel about writing this article: “Ugh.” You know that feeling when you have to deliver bad news to someone, and it isn’t your fault, but you know that person will be annoyed with you? Yeah, that’s this article.
The phrase that keeps coming to mind is, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” I assume someone actually did shoot the messenger once, so they had to invent a phrase specifically to make sure people didn’t do that. (It’s like some of those crazy warning labels they have on products because someone, somewhere once wondered what would happen if they stuck their tongue into their hairdryer, and now they have to warn everyone not to do that.)
In this article, I’ll journey to Las Vegas to play the role of the precariously situated messenger. You see, if they made a sitcom about a fantasy football player, it’d be called Everybody Loves Darren Waller. I mean, why wouldn’t you love him? From his journey from late-round sleeper to TE4 in 2019 to his ADP-busting TE2 finish last year, all Waller has done in the last two seasons is win people fantasy championships. Plus, the man is just so darn easy to root for. If you haven’t seen his interview with Steve Smith last year, it’s well worth a watch.
Unfortunately, when you start leafing through the pages of his extraordinary 2020 season, a familiar word starts to jump out from between the lines: “regression.”
You should know going into this that you won’t like me after you read this article. In fact, I’d prefer that you don’t read it. Just know that if you do, you’re going to read some things that go a bit against the fantasy grain. I promise you, though, all of it is based on hard data and sound reasoning.
So if you’re still reading (yep, looks like you are), realize you might feel a little differently about the fantasy community’s tight-end sweetheart after reading this article. I swear my intentions are good, though, so do me a favor and have a little patience with that trigger finger.
Darren Waller (TE – LV): ECR 27, TE 2
Last season, Waller finished as the TE2 by a wide margin. Like an insanely wide margin. In half-PPR, he tallied 225.1 points, a staggering 50% more than TE3 Robert Tonyan. To find a better season by a TE not called Travis Kelce, you have to go all the way back to 2014 when Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham both topped that number.
However, the underlying metrics that contributed to Waller’s season show some cause for concern.
The Las Vegas Raiders’ receiving corps was in a bad state in 2020. Tyrell Williams was the top wide receiver on the depth chart heading into training camp. His season was over before it began, as he underwent surgery on his shoulder before the opening game. Derek Carr’s top receivers were first-year Raider Nelson Agholor, rookies Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, and Hunter Renfrow (who can’t even fake enthusiasm for his own hype GIF).
Unsurprisingly, Carr funneled passes to a familiar favorite, targeting Waller at an extremely high rate. Looking at the Advanced Stats report, Waller’s percentage of his team’s targets was a ridiculously high 27.7%. Looking all the way back to 2013 (as far back as the report goes), no tight-end has had a higher share of his team’s targets.
The historic volume doesn’t end there either. Waller received 145 targets in 2020, the fourth-highest amount for a TE since 2013. He also had a league-leading 24 targets in the red zone and a 31.6% red-zone target percentage, both the fifth-highest since 2013.
Looking at each player who had a season as good or better than Waller’s, every one regressed the following year — most of them to a large degree (there’s a reason these stats are historically high). While we can all agree that Waller’s 2020 season was hugely impressive, the message screaming from the pages is that we should expect him to regress significantly in 2021.
Trust the Touchdowns?
When trying to gauge whether a player is likely to regress, touchdowns are another big factor. Looking at Waller’s touchdown profile is a double-edged sword. His 6.16% TD rate was only slightly above the league average of 5.8% for TEs, meaning it’s fair to assume this rate isn’t in line for significant regression toward the mean. The flip side of that is that his nine touchdowns mostly resulted from a high target volume. If we expect his volume to regress — and we’ve established that we should — then it follows that, unless he can significantly increase his efficiency, his touchdown total will likely regress, too.
The other slight cause for concern is the huge jump from 2019 to 2020, with his touchdown rate jumping up from 2.56%. While it’s reasonable to give Waller the benefit of the doubt and assume he’ll be closer to his 2020 rate, there are only two seasons of work to assess. His risk of regressing somewhere in the middle of those two rates is higher than most in the fantasy community would like to admit. Combined with a drop in overall volume, that could lead to a significant drop-off in his points total.
The final inkblot on Waller’s resume is his consistency over the course of the season. While Kelce was a model of dependability throughout the season, Waller really only flourished in the final half of 2020. Looking at Waller’s stats from Week 1 to Week 8, he played well but was far from elite, finishing within six half-PPR points of Tonyan, TJ Hockenson, and Mark Andrews in the same amount of games.
In fact, Waller didn’t become a consistently dominant option until the last five games of the regular season, with his total getting a huge boost from a mammoth 38.5-point game against Adam Gase’s New York Jets in Week 13. Waller’s stat line in that game (13 receptions, 200 yards, 2 TDs) was on the back of a sky-high 17 targets and accounted for 17% of his season’s points.
If Waller’s season had been cut short at Week 12, there’s no way fantasy drafters would be going near him in the first three or four rounds. We can’t (nor should we) erase Waller’s late-season heroics, but his 22.2 points per game in that five-week stretch was underpinned by an average 11 targets per game. We can be confident this will regress toward the eight targets (and 10.4 points) he averaged during weeks 1 through 12.
Conclusion: Regression is Coming
At this time last year, Darren Waller was the fifth TE off the board at a reasonable 59 overall ADP, meaning he was often available around the end of the fifth round in 12-team leagues. At the time of writing, Waller’s current Underdog ADP is 19 overall, meaning you’ll have to pay a mid-to-late second-round pick if you want him on your team. Hockenson and Andrews are currently available three to four rounds later than Waller, and Tonyan –admittedly due significant regression himself — is going in the 11th round. Those three players are much more likely than Waller to outproduce their draft price.
To be clear, I think the probability that Waller finishes as a top-three tight end again in 2021 is fairly high. Yet this isn’t good enough to justify his current cost ahead of AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Keenan Allen. Waller’s ADP indicates that fantasy drafters expect him to match or even improve on his historic 2020 season. When putting Waller’s 2020 performance in perspective alongside some of the other great fantasy TE seasons, every piece of data tells us we should expect Waller to regress toward the mean in 2021.
Of course, there’s always a small chance that Waller bucks the trend and becomes the new Kelce in fantasy circles. For the price of a second-round pick, though, the sharp money says your fantasy team is better off taking a running back or wide receiver and letting someone else roll the dice on Waller succeeding where almost every other tight end has failed. As much as I like Waller as a player, the opportunity cost is just too high.
This might not be what the fantasy community wants to hear, but in my humble opinion, it’s something that it needs to hear. Us messengers have a solemn duty to deliver our messages no matter the cost.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a note I need to deliver to Mark Davis’s hairstylist while I’m in town, and I have a suspicion it’s not going to be well received…
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy football, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you navigate your season. From our Start/Sit Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup, based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football season.