NFL Reactions: Key 2023 Statistics Bound to Regress in 2024

NFL Reactions: Key 2023 Statistics Bound to Regress in 2024

This article is part of our NFL Reactions series.

The term 'regression' is borderline cliché in the world of fantasy sports, having been used so often that it's probably lost some of the original meaning and tends to go in one ear and out the other. Simply pointing out that extraordinary numbers are unlikely to be repeated isn't especially useful; if you're here on RotoWire reading this article you've almost certainly figured that out on your own.

It doesn't take a math wiz to suggest that Brock Purdy (9.6 YPA) and Brandon Aiyuk (12.8 YPT), for example, are unlikely to duplicate their 2023 per-unit yardage efficiency in 2024 even if they both play well again. We can also reasonably say that they were doing something right in the first place (and getting help from circumstances) to even have a shot at posting those numbers over the course of a full season.

2024 projections should lower the aforementioned figures but still put Purdy and Aiyuk at/near the top for YPA and YPT. Much of what went right for them in 2023 — having Kyle Shanahan as a coach, Deebo/Trent/Kittle as teammates — could stay constant for 2024.

Part of the reason "regression" became cliché in this space was the urge some analysts had to condense all numbers (besides volume) close to league-averages. While it's true that volume is easier to predict than efficiency, it's also true that projections aren't especially helpful if they take a hall pass on predicting the hard part.

What I want to discuss below is some stuff that goes beyond the obvious (like Purdy/Aiyuk) and has a significant impact on how we project 2024 to play out. I'm going to highlight some team-level stats as well as individual ones. Let's get started.

   

Seattle Seahawks - 995 Offensive Plays (32nd in NFL)

Teams with play volume depressed to this extent (7.3 percent below league average) are usually ones that flat-out stink. Occasionally we'll see a good team like the 2022 Dolphins or 2023 49ers come close to this level (but not quite get there) behind an offense that specializes in quick-strike drives.

Then we have the 2020-23 Seahawks, who consistently had a huge number of plays run against their defense, ranking 32nd, 32nd, 30th and 32nd. They also fielded respectable offenses each of those years, won no fewer than seven games and didn't quite bottom out in offensive play volume until 2023.

The recipe on defense was pretty simple — the Seahawks were bad, and with a conservative style that favored allowing long drives full of short and intermediate gains more so than knockout punches. On top of that, Pete Carroll's fourth-down strategy on offense prioritized field position over possession at a time when many other coaches were questioning or even rejecting the traditional logic.

Other aspects of the offense were more of a mixed story. The 2020 Seahawks had an excellent attack; the '21 Seahawks struggled overall but got a bunch of big plays from Rashaad Penny, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett; the '22 Seahawks had a good-but-not-great offense that wasn't especially memorable in any statistical way.

The 2023 Seahawks were statistically similar to the 2022 version, except with third-down struggles exacerbated — 30th in defensive conversion rate, 23rd in offense (down from 27th and 20th) -—and the defense flukishly facing five more drives than the offense ran. None of this was good news for fantasy players with a lot of Seattle shares.

For 2024, we should expect the Seahawks to run a lot more plays on offense. That's partially about regressing to the mean, but coaching changes are the bigger factor. If the Seahawks had kept Pete Carroll and Shane Waldron, they'd be projected near the bottom for 2024 play volume, alongside probable dregs like Carolina and New England.

Instead, Seattle hired former Ravens DC Mike McDonald as head coach and former Washington OC Ryan Grubb as offensive coordinator. I'm not sure if the moves will work out, but simply not being Carroll/Waldron is good news for the team volume projection. I also think Seattle has a lot of the pieces to build a competent defense — despite brutal results the past two years — and McDonald's work in Baltimore obviously was encouraging.

The Seahawks have a promising group of young CBs led by 2023 fifth overall pick Devon Witherspoon, while aging safeties Quandre Diggs, Jamal Adams and Julian Love all appear to be cases of addition by subtraction in terms of both the on-field product and cap space. In fact, the team can free up more than $33 million in cap space just by cutting those three safeties.

If the Seahawks do that, sign a couple new players and keep LB Bobby Wagner, they might even go from having a bottom-five defense to the top half of the league. Which, to be fair, is asking a lot, but even more modest improvement along with new coaches should be enough to get the offense's play volume out of the gutter. Keep that in mind when project/assessing DK Metcalf, Geno Smith, Kenneth Walker, etc.

     

NFL Offenses - 331.6 Yards per Team Game (Least since 2008)

NFL teams averaged just 21.8 points and 331.6 offensive yards per game this past season, with the former being the lowest number since 2009 and the latter the lowest since 2008. We now have a two-year trend of depressed offense, and some might even call it a three-year trend given that 2021 saw significant declines compared to 2020 (I disagree with this, as 2020 was really a high-scoring outlier, seemingly in part due to pandemic-related factors). If you're interested in seeing year-by-year numbers league-wide, click HERE for one of my favorite PFR pages.

You've probably heard the explanation that two-deep zone defenses have made things tougher for NFL offenses and allowed defenses to "solve" some of them. To me, that's a lazy explanation, or at least a woefully incomplete one.

My first point of objection is that Cover 2 and Cover 3 were already two of the most popular defensive schemes... before, during and after the relatively high-scoring 2010s. Could stopping NFL offenses really be as simple as just using the most popular coverages even more than before?

Probably not. It might help some, but I think a more likely explanation is that defenses now tend to be more complex — better at disguising coverages/blitzes both pre-snap and for the first second or so after the snap. Defensive players in 2023 tend to be tasked with more than their 2013 counterparts from a mental standpoint, and a majority are up to the task.

The other factor, which is probably more important, is that we've simply hit a dry spell for QB play. A lot of long-time starters left the league over the past three years, including Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger. On top of that, two of the QBs that were supposed to replace them as top-notch guys — Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz — ended up being duds rather than studs for reasons that appear at least partially related to confidence.

On top of that, there was just one strong rookie class of QBs (2020) from 2019 to 2022. The 2021 class was supposed to be good, but Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones didn't pan out and we're still not quite sure exactly what Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are.

I'd argue, however, that things are looking up. C.J. Stroud is a monster, and Anthony Richardson might be too; Purdy is saving the 2022 class from being a total wash; Jordan Love and Tua Tagovailoa are late bloomers from 2020. And now we're about to get one of the most hyped rookie classes this millennium, featuring three likely Top 10 picks (Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels) and a bunch of other solid candidates for Day 1 or 2 (J.J. McCarthy, Michael Penix, Bo Nix, Spencer Rattler, Michael Pratt).

If not for an unusual glut of QB injuries in 2023, we might've already seen offensive numbers start to rebound back toward pre-2022 levels in the range of 23 points and 250 yards per game. We also don't have many high-impact retirements coming up; each of the 10 quarterbacks that threw for 4,000 yards in 2023 was 30 years old or younger. Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers might hang up their cleats soon, but only Stafford contributed to good offensive play in 2023 anyway.

Long story short, I'll be rather surprised if NFL teams average less than 22 points per game for a third straight year in 2024.

     

DeAndre Hopkins - NFL-high 39 targets 20+ yards downfield

This is one of the stranger stats from 2023; a 31-year-old Hopkins not only led the league in raw number of deep targets but also was one of just three players with triple-digit targets overall and at least one-fourth of those coming 20+ yards downfield (Hopkins - 29.3 percent, Mike Evans - 26.8 percent, DK Metcalf - 25.9 percent). Prior to this past season, Hopkins hadn't seen more than 20 deep targets in a campaign since 2019 or more than 25 since 2018. It was kind of like a throwback to his Houston days, only without the barrage of short and intermediate passes to match (which, um, is kind of a big deal).

Hopkins' 28.7 percent target share in active games was 11th largest in the league, and his efficiency stats (54.7 percent catch rate, 7.7 YPT) were perfectly reasonable for someone getting so many downfield throws from subpar quarterbacks. You might even view his 75-1,057-7 receiving line was a success, especially within the context of a Tennessee offense that was 31st in total plays, 31st in pass attempts, 29th in passing yards and 29th in passing touchdowns. Hopkins accounted for 30.1 percent of the team's receiving yards and half the TDs.

Now he enters the second and final year of his contract with $16 million in non-guaranteed compensation, which means he could be traded or released. Even if he's in Tennessee again, Hopkins definitely will be in a new system under former Bengals OC Brian Callahan and might not have to share an offense with impending free agent Derrick Henry (who led the NFL with 280 carries in 2023 despite ceding nearly half the snaps and 100 carries to Tyjae Spears).

That's not to say Hopkins is a safe bet to put up big numbers. After all, he's entering his age-32 season, and it's possible Titans QB Will Levis is terrible or that Hopkins ends up with another team that already has an alpha receiver. But there's also some chance he returns to what he did in 2022 (7.1 catches for 79.7 ypg) or 2020 (7.2 for 87.9), and the wide range of outcomes should be seen as a good thing when his early ADP on Underdog (83.1, WR42) puts him in WR4/FLEX range. 

Hopkins could see fewer deep targets than in 2023 and have a smaller target share... and still end up producing a much better fantasy season, especially for full-PPR leagues. If nothing else, I'm confident he won't end up with another coaching staff that wants to use him like Mike Wallace.

       

Matthew Stafford - 62.6 Completion Percentage (25th)

Stafford completed 67.2 percent of his throws in 2021 (8.5 aDOT) and 68.0 percent in an abbreviated 2022 (6.7 ADOT) before dropping to 62.6 percent in 2023 (7.7 aDOT). We mostly think of his 2023 in terms of what went right, but there's also an aspect of what could have been, as he finished with the second-highest drop rate (6.7 percent) and third-highest bad throw rate (19.0 percent) among qualified passers, per profootballreference.com.

The second number has more to do with attempting difficult passes than lacking accuracy, but it nonetheless was higher than in past years, including the phenomenal, high-aDOT 2021 season in which he tossed 41 TD passes and a league-high 17 INTs en route to Super Bowl glory. The point being: his ceiling for 2024 is higher than most people think.

Stafford just threw for 3,965 yards and 24 TDs over 15 games in 2023 in what was supposed to be a rebuilding/retooling year, leading the Rams to a playoff appearance that few expected before the season. Not only that; the Rams unearthed a pair of unexpected gems in recent fifth-round picks WR Puka Nacua and RB Kyren Williams. They're suddenly set up pretty for the immediate future, heading into the offseason with a handful of established star players plus two things they haven't had in quite a while — a nice chunk of projected cap space ($27.7 million) and a normal amount of draft capital.

The roster should be better in 2024 than it was throughout 2023, in addition to the likelihood of fewer drops by the pass catchers and a healthier season from Cooper Kupp. That could lead Stafford to one of the best statistical seasons of his healthy career, and I'll also note that Rams +3500 is my favorite Super Bowl future based on the opening lines.

     

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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