Fantasy Football: Ex Post Outcome -- Eric Ebron can't repeat; is he worth drafting?

Every NFL season is a small sample, and every offseason features significant turnover. While we often discuss how coaching and personnel changes might impact future results, it can be difficult to appropriately weight how past outcomes were impacted by variance.
Ex Post Outcome is a series dedicated to analyzing 2018 results through this lens to provide actionable intel for how to exploit recency bias in 2019 drafts. 

Saying Eric Ebron is due for some touchdown regression isn't saying much at all. If it weren't expected, the PPR TE4 last season wouldn't be going as the seventh option off the board at such a thin position in 2019 drafts. 

The real question is how much regression are we talking? The former 10th overall pick and Lions disappointment broke out with the Colts in his age-25 season, and still has all the tools, the youth and the situation to expect he'll continue to contribute to Fantasy rosters. 

So what is a reasonable expectation? How much of Ebron's 2018 production should we expect him to lose, and does that leave him worth drafting at a discount to his 2018 finish?

2018 season

Let's first put Ebron's touchdown rate in context. Ebron caught 13 touchdowns on 110 targets, an 11.8% rate. He also added a rushing touchdown, something he had done once before in his career, but something that's hard to expect again in 2019.

Since 2012, the first season of Andrew Luck's career, NFL tight ends have combined for a 5.6% touchdown rate on over 25,000 targets. But Luck is known to favor the position, especially in the red zone; in that same span, Luck's 634 targets to tight ends other than Ebron have resulted in a 7.7% touchdown rate, well above average. 

The tight end to whom Luck has thrown the second most passes to this point in his career, Dwayne Allen, posted a 10.6% rate on 179 targets across five seasons. So while Ebron's rate was very high, the data does support that it wasn't exactly unprecedented for a Luck tight end.

There was one major distinction between Allen's numbers and Ebron's, however. Allen scored 11 of his 19 touchdowns from Luck on 18 targets he saw from inside the 10-yard line. Ebron saw just six such targets last year, catching four touchdowns from in close. 

That makes some sense when you consider the way Ebron was used relative to fellow tight end Jack Doyle. Ebron's average depth of target last year was 9.4, compared to Doyle's 5.3 aDOT in the six games he played. In 2017, Doyle's aDOT was 4.7. 

During Allen's time in Indianapolis, he often split time with Coby Fleener, whose aDOT was more than a yard deeper than Allen's in their Colts' careers. Fleeners touchdown rate in Indy was solid, but nothing to write home about at 5.4%. While the offenses are different, Ebron's downfield usage resembles Fleener's more than Allen's, which might suggest a tougher time sustaining an otherworldly touchdown rate. 

Of course, individual skill sets vary. But sorting out Doyle's impact is a huge piece of the Ebron puzzle. In the 10 games Doyle missed last season, Ebron ran 34.4 routes per game. In the six Doyle played, Ebron averaged just 17.7, while Doyle ran 25.7. 

Naturally, Ebron saw fewer targets in those games, and the split was enormous. Ebron's targets per game fell from 8.8 to 3.7 when Doyle was active with 16-game paces of 141 and 59 targets. Doyle saw 5.5 per game; the 110 targets Ebron saw for the season were certainly elevated by the 10 games Doyle missed. 

Outcome verdict: 95th percentile

If we're splitting hairs, Ebron could have been more efficient in terms of catch rate and yards per target, and he could have hit even more of his ceiling if Doyle missed even more time. But Ebron's 110 targets, his 11.8% receiving touchdown rate, and the extra rushing touchdown thrown in for good measure make his 2018 as high-level as an outcome gets. 

How to play it

The big question is still whether Ebron is worth a pick as the seventh tight end off the board. While much of this piece discussed Ebron's touchdown rate, targets will be the real key. 

If you add the per-game averages of Ebron and Doyle targets when they were on the field together, you get 9.2, not a huge bump from the 8.8 Ebron saw when Doyle was out. If the pie didn't get much larger, we know a healthy Doyle is directly taking opportunities from Ebron. 

And if Doyle is healthy and sees more targets than Ebron, as he did when both played together last year, Ebron is not worth a pick that high. Say we set the split between the two a little closer than what it was last year and give Ebron 70 targets (which would leave Doyle about 77 if we're assuming 9.2 per game total between the two). 

At that volume, even if we project Ebron to elevate his touchdown rate to 12% and match career highs in catch rate and yards per reception, his PPR projection would be worth a TE7 finish from a year ago. If we project a still very optimistic but more reasonable 9% touchdown rate, plus smaller increases in catch rate and yardage efficiency, we're talking about roughly the TE12 season from 2018. 

In other words, Ebron needs volume to be a Fantasy success, just like every other player. And that's a problem, because not only is Doyle healthy, but the Colts brought in a big-bodied wide receiver who could compete for red zone looks in Devin Funchess and drafted a speedster they want to get touches in Parris Campbell. Even if you think Ebron will out-target Doyle this year, or that Doyle won't stay healthy, the overall number of targets tight ends see should probably be expected to decrease. It's just extremely difficult to imagine a scenario where Ebron matches his 110 targets from 2018 on the 2019 Colts. 

So putting aside any efficiency regression, we're still talking about a lack of upside to finish as a top-five tight end again. With downside that could make him legitimately hard to justify rostering if he sees fewer than 70 targets plus steeper efficiency regression than anything I've discussed here, we're not talking about the profile of someone you should be considering anywhere near the seventh player off the board at the position. 

So which Fantasy Football sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which RB2 can you wait on until late? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that called Andrew Luck's huge season, and find out.

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