With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next we’ll look at one of the best wide receivers doing it right now despite a puzzling lack of touchdown production.

Sustained Excellence

Since entering the NFL in 2011, Julio Jones has dominated like few other wide receivers:

  • Targets: 925 (sixth)
  • Receptions: 585 (fourth)
  • Receiving yards: 9,054 (second)
  • Receiving touchdowns: 43 (12th)

Most wide receivers never reach his level, and the ones that do often fail to stay there for more than a handful of years, but Jones has been the gold standard of elite performance over a large sample.

However, despite his otherworldly stats over that span, Jones hasn’t cracked the top 10 in touchdowns in a season even once — it’s what often keeps him a step below the likes of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. in fantasy.

(Data from DraftKings, 2014-2017, via FantasyLabs NFL Trends tool)

Steve Sarkisian, True to His Word

Jones entered 2017 looking poised for a career year in touchdowns. In reference to Jones in the red zone, new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was quoted as saying: “When you have a player like Julio, it’s making sure we maximize his opportunities.”

And Sarkisian did just that: Jones was fed nine more red-zone targets than he got in 2016 despite the Falcons throwing 21 fewer times in the red zone overall. The opportunity was there, but Jones was unable to convert them into scores, and on 19 red-zone targets, he caught just one more touchdown than I did.

Will the Touchdowns Ever Come?

This isn’t new, either. Jones has underwhelmed in the red zone for five seasons and counting:

The average receiver has a touchdown rate somewhere in the 8-9% range, depending on the year. Most players will typically regress to the mean following outlier seasons, but Jones never really has, failing to hit 8% for the past five seasons. While he may never become a league-average scoring threat, Jones’ career-low 3.4% touchdown rate in 2017 was low by even his standards.

But these are small samples of highly volatile data points. Even if Jones is a below-average receiver in the red zone, betting on that to be the case in every year would be like chasing fool’s gold. Jones may not be an elite red-zone threat, but regression will come for him just as it would for any other player.

Touchdown rate is highly unstable from one year to the next. Consider that Matt Ryan won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in 2016 on the back of 38 passing touchdowns and a league-leading 7.1% touchdown rate, then regressed to a meager 20 touchdowns and 3.8% rate in 2017. Ryan, whose career rate is 4.6%, is likely to regress positively in 2018, and if he does, he’ll likely bring Jones along for the ride: Per our NFL Correlations tool, a quarterback and his No. 1 wide receiver’s fantasy output have a .45 correlation coefficient, which is fairly strong as far as NFL data goes.

While Jones has typically underperformed in the touchdown department, his dominance of the Falcons’ red-zone work in 2017 and likely positive regression to the mean efficiency-wise are both promising signs that point to improved scoring upside. Combine that with a likely return to form for Ryan along with first-round pick Calvin Ridley potentially being another threat defenses have to account for, and Jones has a shot at hitting double-digit scores for only the second time in his seven-year career.

Jones will continue to get knocked for low touchdown totals, but we know touchdowns are highly volatile. In every other metric, Jones stands among the NFL’s elite receivers. He should be treated as such in fantasy.

Pictured above: Julio Jones
Photo credit: Bob Donnan – USA TODAY Sports