Betting Against History: Demaryius Thomas Is A Unicorn

Demaryius Thomas is trying to rewrite the history books of what a wide receiver can do over five seasons. If you want to own him in fantasy football, you’re betting on him to do it. 

This was my favorite article to write last year (despite the first words of it being “This is not fun…”) and I’m stoked to be doing a series of them this year. I am obsessed with the concept of approaching fantasy football believing everything normalizes over time, I should always bet on the likeliest outcome, and no extreme can continue for very long. When the extreme does happen, the seemingly craziest, unlikeliest outcome in a broad range of possibilities, it not only fascinates me, it costs me fantasy championships.

And I’m okay with that. Because at some point, some day, some game, some week, or some season — it ends. It always ends. We know Father Time is undefeated, and we still bet on him to lose, because Matt Forte happens, and is an overall RB1 eight years in a row, and we need that high of having the chance to hit the next one.

An absolutely unthinkable extreme underway right now is what Demaryius Thomas has done over the last four seasons. Remember when you thought Josh McDaniels was an idiot for drafting him with a broken foot over Dez Bryant, which was clearly about character concerns and not talent? NFL.com still has this up from April of 2010:

Though Bryant entered the draft as the more accomplished player, Thomas’ big-play potential and solid character profile apparently led to Josh McDaniels’ decision to favor the former Yellow Jacket. In making the decision to choose potential over production, McDaniels continues to place himself in the cross hairs with his controversial decisions.

Remember when his first two seasons were a complete bust from forearm, concussion, and ankle injuries his rookie year, and tearing his Achilles while working out the following February, as well as needing surgery on his finger? Remember when he broke out year three, but still had knee and shoulder injuries late in the year? Remember when he was injury prone into 2013, his fourth season?

Before you laugh those off, they aren’t random people. Josh runs the website that crushes the FantasyPros rankings game, Evan Silva called Adam the most underrated analyst, and Russell is in almost all certainty a better dynasty player than you.

Since then, Thomas has not missed a game, and has had one of the most dominant stretches for a wide receiver in football history.

HISTORY

Thomas’ four core stats (targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns) over the last four years have an incredibly high and consistent floor:

Year2012201320142015
Targets143142184177
Receptions9492111105
Receiving Yards1,4341,4301,6191,304
Touchdowns1014116
Fantasy Points297.4319.0338.9271.4
Overall PPR FinishWR5WR1WR2WR9

First, it’s important to recognize how extraordinarily rare it is for a starting wide receiver to play four seasons without missing a game. How many other top 50 wide receivers by 2016 average draft position do you think have played 64 games in the last four years? Fifteen? Ten? Five? There’s one.

The only other wide receiver with an ADP in top 50 that hasn’t missed an NFL game in the last four seasons is Torrey Smith.

As Jacob Rickrode’s Elite 24 shows, health has been a streak killer for several of the best. Four straight WR1 seasons are rare enough, but there are only five instances of someone doing it five straight this century:

Elite 24 Dynasty Wide Receivers

Part of the reason Thomas sticks out so much from an historical perspective is simply by being the only one who has such a run of sustained health in today’s new NFL, which passes more than ever. The league record for total touchdown passes was broken for a fourth consecutive year last season, and when looking at total raw production, it seems damn near every young wide receiver is setting records.

But Thomas is special a bit beyond that.

Nine other players have had at least 140 targets four seasons in a row, since 1992 when the data for targets is available on ProFootballReference. Seven of them continued for a fifth season, with three managing the feat six straight, and only Brandon Marshall achieving seven straight, where his streak ended in 2013.

In league history, only five players (Thomas, Jerry RiceMarvin Harrison, Torry Holt, and Larry Fitzgerald) have had 90 receptions for four consecutive years, with only two managing a fifth year, and only Holt achieving the mark six straight times, where his streak ended in 2007. Even 80 receptions in five straight years is exceptionally rare, with only thirteen players ever pulling that off.

Three. That’s how many players in league history have ever had 1,300 yards four years in a row. Thomas, Harrison, and Holt. That’s it. Ever.

Again, Holt is the lone exception to pull it off five times in a row, ending his streak after six years. Only sixteen players have had even 1,100 receiving yards four seasons in a row, and only eleven of them were successful making it five.

A lot of people are predicting more touchdowns for Thomas this year, after his six last year was the first time he failed to have at least 10 during his magical run. And perhaps there’s something to that, as six touchdowns five years in a row is by far the most common of the things he’s trying to do. There are 49 players who have had six touchdowns five years in a row. A harder thing to achieve, or at least way to frame this, is that six touchdowns would give him 47 in five years. Only four wide receivers (Bryant, Marshall, Eric Decker and Calvin Johnson) have 47 combined touchdowns over the last five seasons.

If this article had been written on Thomas last year, it may have suggested the touchdowns were likely to come down, as only 22 players have had ten touchdowns three years in a row, with only ten doing it four years in a row.

EXPECTATIONS

To put all that another way, in order for Thomas to achieve his minimum 140 targets, 90 receptions, 1,304 yards, and six touchdowns from the last four seasons, he would have to do something only Holt ever has. And that’s only 256 fantasy points, which was WR13 last season (Brandin Cooks), which would be lower than any of Thomas’ last four finishes. In order to resemble himself, Thomas has to be one of the rarest consistently productive wide receivers of all time, or at least something close to it.

Whether it’s the unease of betting on historical oddities, or Denver’s quarterback situation, or Thomas’ production declination last season, something has fantasy players shook. Here’s what his current WR16 ADP implies, our composite projections, and what our Sim Scores app says Thomas’ range of outcomes is:

WR16ADP
2015 WR16231.2
ADP Expectation WR16209
Rotoviz Projection262.4
WR Sim Score App195.2 - 284.8

I don’t think any part of our 153-target, 92-reception, 1,237-yard, eight-touchdown composite projection (currently based off 14 different writers) is particularly aggressive or unreasonable. Thomas’ ADP is admittedly curiously low considering the only knocks against him are narrative-driven, such as betting against historical outliers. While garbage time matters, even if it doesn’t matter as much, Thomas has been on excellent teams for his entire streak. The idea the defense and running game is so good that the game flow will keep his opportunity down doesn’t seem to have ever applied to him. As far as quarterback play, Tyler Buecher explains that there’s no way it could be worse than it was last year.

So is that it? The only thing keeping fantasy players from diving in on Thomas is the idea that no one can outperform at such a high level for so long? Buecher frames it as a positive, and evidence in his argument why Thomas could lead the league in targets.

I’ll be perfectly upfront: I don’t know if it’s a good thing. I don’t know if his having done what he’s done the last four years makes it more likely, or less likely, that he does it for a fifth. It might be neither. I have no issue with Thomas’ current ADP, and the idea his having stayed healthy for so long makes him likelier to get hurt doesn’t seem intuitive. His streak will eventually end, but a large swath of fantasy players seem a bit overconfident in predicting the timing for his price to be so low.

14Team Mocker

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