By: Brett Davis, USA Today Sports | www.profootballfocus.com
Julio Jones is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the high-level options in fantasy football. Physically and athletically, he is a cross between Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson. His last 5 full seasons have all seen him rewarded with a Pro Bowl nod, and he strings together 1400-yard campaigns with the consistency of a metronome. But there’s that word: consistency. As fantasy owners well know, Julio’s year-to-year excellence is not matched by his weekly performances, which boast the unpredictability of a Kanye rant. To add to our consternation, the 6’3, 220 lb. Julio scores TDs at a slot receiver pace, reaching rock bottom with just 3 in all of 2017.
Having heard shouts of condemnation and justification both for Julio, and being a multiple-year Jones owner who feels equal parts frustration at his fantasy scores and esteem for his real-life ability, I decided to see if there was reason to go back to the well with him in 2018, or if the inconsistency and lack of TD production are just unexplainable and inevitable parts of the Julio Jones fantasy experience.
PROCESS AND RESULTS
I started by comparing Julio’s weekly fantasy finishes over the last 2 years with those of the other elite fantasy WRs: the guys who were/are top-5 ADP WRs in either of the 2017 or 2018 drafts. I didn’t want to just find how often each of these receivers finished as a WR1, WR2, etc., because those finishes are easily skewed by a few great performances and are not consistent in quality from week-to-week. In order to get a more accurate picture of what a WR1 or WR2-quality week looked like, I went through each week from 2016 and 2017 to determine the average fantasy output of a top-5, top-12, top-24, etc. WR.
I then charted each finish in the past 2 seasons for the 7 top-5 ADP WRs and determined what percentage of their total games they had fantasy finishes of each quality (for Odell Beckham, I used the 2015 and 2016 seasons, as he only played 4 games in 2017; AJ Green’s 2016 season was used despite his only playing 10 games). I somewhat arbitrarily classified any performance under 8 points as a “dud,” and any WR3 or better game as a “startable” performance.
My initial takeaway here is that Julio Jones is predictably less consistent than the other elite WRs. He has a low percentage of startable games and, though his dud percentage is not worse than the others’, he has a higher rate of WR4 games than all of them.
I wanted to know if this lack of consistency was at all related to the other issue fantasy owners have with Julio: his lack of TDs. Assuming that Julio scores TDs in fewer of his games than the other elite WRs, I wanted to know if he was a consistent fantasy producer independent of his TD scoring. To do this, I found the percentage of total games in which each elite WR scores at least one TD. Then, in order to determine how well they performed when not scoring TDs, I looked for two things: 1) what percentage of their WR1 performances occurred in games in which they scored a TD, and 2) what percentage of games in which they did not score a TD did they post at least a WR2-quality fantasy score.
So, as expected, Julio scores a TD in significantly fewer of his games than the other elite WRs, and this, I think, would largely explain his lower percentage of startable games. Scoring just one TD is enough points for more than half of a WR3-level performance, and not scoring a TD makes logging a startable performance an uphill battle. There is reason here to be optimistic about Julio Jones the fantasy producer, however.
While Antonio Brown is on another level of top-end production than the other 6 elite WRs, Julio scores at an elite-WR1 level at a 34% rate, third to AB and Odell Beckham, who sits at 39%. Considering Julio’s lack of TDs, this is rather impressive, and encouraging. He is able to put up great fantasy performances even when he is not scoring TDs. The other numbers bear this out as well. Julio has the lowest rate of WR1 or better performances with a TD scored, and the third-highest rate of zero-TD games that result in a WR2 or better performance. Compare his numbers to those of Hopkins, Thomas, Evans, and Green; 3 of 4 of those players have no WR1 performances in the last 2 years in which they didn’t score TDs, and 3 of 4 of them are at or below 12% of zero-TD games that result in WR2 games. This reliance on TDs for strong fantasy performances is fine when the players score TDs in almost half their games, as all but Julio do. But it also means that in those games when they don’t score a TD, they are less likely than Julio (or Brown and Beckham) to produce a good fantasy game at all. In this way, because we know that TDs in general are mostly unpredictable, Jones is a safer weekly bet than some of the other elite WRs.
But his lack of TDs is still concerning. It seems that with the high-level of reliability offered by his catch and yardage outputs, an increase in TDs would make Julio an incredible fantasy WR, instead of the simply great one he has been the past two years. I wanted to know if there was reason to think this could happen. I started by comparing red zone targets and red zone catch rates of all the top WRs, using stats from just 2017, as this most recent season also happens to be Julio Jones’ signature low-TD campaign. I also compared RZ catch rates to previous career averages. Upon finding that Julio’s RZ catch rate was significantly lower than the other elite WRs’ as well as his own career average, I included numbers for 2017 total catch rate and previous career average in total catch rate to see if Julio’s poor red zone performance correlated with an overall drop in his play.
If Julio were simply a bad red zone receiver, then it would be expected that his career RZ catch rate would more closely match his 2017 efficiency; it does not however, and is right up there at 55% with the other elite receivers. It also doesn’t appear that his overall play dropped in 2017, as his catch rate in all areas of the field aligned fairly closely with those of the other top WRs as well as with his own career average. So what happened? Simply put, I don’t know. A keener-eyed film analyst could look at Jones’ red zone targets from 2017 and glean more than I did, but I saw a mixture of off-target throws, near misses, and a couple uncharacteristic drops. Having not seen an incapable Matt Ryan or a diminished Julio Jones, and with no drop-off in other kinds of efficiency and production from Julio, I’m left to assume that much of Jones’ RZ failure in 2017 was bad luck, the kind of unpredictably down season that Calvin Johnson had with only 5 TDs in 2012, or that Drew Brees had with just a 4.3% TD rate in 2017.
I remained curious, though, whether this lack of TDs for Julio is at all likely to correct itself, so I looked at historical data regarding his red zone usage and efficiency. I found that his career is pretty evenly split into two kinds of seasons: the 3 seasons with less than 10 total RZ targets, and the 3 seasons with at least 18 (and one year in which he played only 5 games). In the years when Julio sees low RZ volume, he scores an average of 6.7 TDs per season. In the years (prior to 2017) when he sees high RZ volume, he scores an average of 9 TDs per season. The clear outlier here is 2017, with just 3 TDs, and that matches with an outlying drop in red zone TD efficiency. In 2017, on 5 RZ catches, Julio scored just one TD, for a 20% TD rate. His previous career TD rate in the red zone is 44%, and 52% in years when he is targeted 18+ times in the red zone. So not only did Julio catch a smaller percentage of his red zone targets in 2017 when compared to the rest of his career, but he converted a smaller percentage of the ones he did catch for TDs as well. The good news is that nothing in the rest of Jones’ production profile points to these dips being any sort of trend; we should expect his red zone efficiency overall to revert closer to his career averages in 2018. But what might that look like?
PROJECTING THE EXPECTED JULIO JONES REGRESSION
The only sample of a Steve Sarkisian-led Falcons offense we have is from 2017, so we have no reason to assume that Julio Jones’ red zone usage would drop in 2018; projecting him for 18 RZ targets again makes sense (more would even be logical, as perhaps the 2nd year of Sarkisian as OC means a more productive and efficient Atlanta offense overall). As we’ve seen from the numbers above, Julio’s drop in RZ production is due to an apparently anomalous drop in RZ efficiency. If he reverts back to something closer to his career averages, we can project him for around a 53% RZ catch rate (his combined RZ catch rate from 2015-16) and a 48% RZ TD rate (splitting the difference between his career average and average in high-RZ target seasons). On 18 red zone targets, this would give Julio 9.54 red zone receptions and 4.6 TDs on those receptions. If all else remains consistent with Jones, we can pencil him in for an additional 3.1 TDs scored outside the red zone (in the last two seasons, Julio averages 1 TD per 41.6 targets outside the RZ — at that rate on 130 non-RZ targets like he saw in 2017, we could expect Jones to score 3.1 TDs), for a total of 7.7 expected TDs.
If all else remained equal and Julio simply increased his 2017 TD output to 7 or 8, he would have jumped Keenan Allen in 0.5 PPR scoring to finish as WR3, with 236.4 or 242.9 points (with 7 and 8 TDs, respectively). While this doesn’t necessarily bring his totals higher than an Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham, a simple reversion to the mean in red zone efficiency plants Julio firmly in the elite-of-the-elite fantasy WR tier, above the Michael Thomases, Mike Evanses, and AJ Greens, as well as likely giving a substantial boost to the weekly consistency of his fantasy finishes. I conclude that fading Julio Jones for a historical lack of TD production is misguided, and that there is much reason to expect him to be among the very elite at the WR position in 2018 in year-end scoring as well as week-to-week reliability.
Note: all fantasy data from fantasypros.com, all other statistics from pro-football-reference.com