Commentary

What's next for Peyton Hillis in 2011?

Updated: September 1, 2011, 11:22 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

What exactly does "regression" constitute for Peyton Hillis?

32 Questions

"Regression" is a concept that, over the past decade or so, has inserted itself into the lingo we prominently use throughout fantasy sports.

Its specific definition goes something like this: "A measure of the relation between the mean value of one variable (e.g., output) and corresponding values of other variables." In English, and as it pertains to fantasy football, regression means the probability that a certain player's statistics, typically those that were unexpectedly good or shockingly poor, will even out to more reasonable levels over time.

Hillis is your prototypical example of a regression candidate.

What Hillis did in 2010 -- rush for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns and scoring 13 touchdowns overall -- was something that only 59 players in the history of the NFL have ever done (and they have done it on 106 total occasions), and he did it despite practically zero track record entering the season.

Another way fantasy owners might describe him: "One-year wonder," except that I disagree that these concepts are one and the same. There is a definitive difference: A one-year wonder typically has one meaningful fantasy season and is an out-and-out bust the next, while a regression candidate remains useful the subsequent season but merely stacks up as a more ordinary performer.

[+] EnlargeHillis
Andrew Weber/US PresswirePeyton Hillis failed to crack double digits in ESPN standard leagues over the final five weeks of the 2010 season.

Hillis remains a fantasy asset, if at the bare minimum because he remains an NFL starter with a healthy amount of job security. We've ranked him 25th overall and 13th among running backs; ESPN's Live Draft Results reveals an ADP of 25.5, 24th overall and 13th among running backs. In other words, both we and the fantasy community regard him as a clear No. 2 running back and third-round pick.

That's a noticeable drop-off from Hillis' 2010 standing. He finished last season as the No. 15 scorer overall, No. 4 among running backs, and placed fourth overall in Christopher Harris' Value-Based Drafting analysis. In short, Hillis was a No. 1 running back a year ago, so the question is fair: Are we expecting him to regress too much, about the right amount, or -- gasp! -- not enough?

Hillis' numbers paint the picture of a "Mr. Reliable"; far from a boom-or-bust performer, more of a steady, consistent type. He had but five runs of 20-plus yards, a number exceeded by 20 others; his longest run was 48 yards, a number exceeded by 30; and his yards-per-carry average was 4.4, an almost-dead-center 11th out of the 23 backs who had 200-plus attempts. At the same time, he was stuffed behind the line just 12 times, 46th-most in the NFL; and his 4.4 percent stuff rate was second-lowest among players with at least 100 rushing attempts, behind only Michael Bush (5-for-158, 3.2 percent).

From a fantasy angle, Hillis was as reliable as they come, yet he wasn't one of the game's top home-run hitters. He was sixth among non-quarterbacks with 10 double-digit fantasy point performances but 11th among non-quarterbacks, with only three games of 20-plus fantasy points. Hillis' appeal was his trustworthiness on a weekly basis; he was one of only six running backs in the league to play all 16 games, score 200-plus points and never give his owners a zero.

In terms of raw, on-the-field skills, Hillis' strength is his size -- 6-foot-4, 250 pounds -- and strength, which gives him the ability to break tackles, move the pile and scamper to the perimeter quickly and effectively. He's not a speedy back, but he is tough to bring down; his 14 broken tackles were 14th-most in the NFL, his 663 yards after contact ranked fifth and his 2.5 YACO-per-carry average was fifth-best among players with at least 200 rushing attempts.

Hillis is also a standout in the passing game; he ranked sixth in the league in targets (77) and fourth in receptions (61), and had the fourth-most touches of any running back on third down (39).

The opportunity present for Hillis is also substantial; he'll be the Cleveland Browns' starting running back from Week 1, a spot on the depth chart ahead of the fresh-off-ACL surgery Montario Hardesty and challenged by no other viable backs on the roster except turf-toe battling Brandon Jackson and virtual unknowns Quinn Porter and Armond Smith. Hardesty, if healthy, should cut into Hillis' workload as the season progresses, but the prospects of it being significant early are slim, considering his injury questions. Hillis should be a 15-20 touch back at least through September, running behind an offensive line that boasts two steady performers in left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack, even if the unit as a whole ranks below-average.

If what you're concerned about, however, is his quarterback, fret not. Here are Hillis' stats in two sets of eight-game splits, the ones started by Colt McCoy and the ones started by either Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace:

Though that represents a slight downgrade in performance, remember that four of those eight McCoy starts came against the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers (twice), teams that ranked among the four stingiest defenses in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs.

One of those Ravens and one of those Steelers matchups came in the season's final two weeks, and Hillis' lackluster performances -- 48 combined rushing yards, 56 total yards and four combined fantasy points -- are often cited as a evidence of potential 2011 regression. Forgive him those matchups to a degree, but it's important to remember that Hillis' late-season swoon wasn't a mere two-game trend. It also included games against the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals the three weeks before that, during which time he totaled 224 rushing yards, 279 scrimmage yards, zero touchdowns and 23 fantasy points.

That is as fair a case for regression as any.

Another way to examine him: Hillis and Arian Foster became the 20th and 21st running backs in the history of the NFL to absorb an increase of 250 or more carries from one season to the next, counting only non-rookies. Addressing subsequent-season workloads, of the 19 who previously did it, 12 saw a decrease in touches the following year, nine saw their touches decrease by at least 100 and five by at least 200. In terms of subsequent-season effectiveness, 14 of those 19 saw their yards-per-carry averages drop, and 14 saw their rushing yards-per-game average drop. And of the 11 running backs who did it since 1992, when "stuff" totals -- the number of carries that went for negative yardage -- became available, seven were stuffed at a greater frequency in their follow-up campaigns.

Here is the combined performance of those 19 running backs, both in the year they experienced that workload increase and the following season:

Put those eight categories together and that group regressed in production by approximately 15 percent during their follow-up seasons, whether you're addressing either rushing performance or scrimmage numbers.

A 15 percent decrease in performance for Hillis, applied directly to his 2010 fantasy point total, would result in a 185-point campaign. Had he managed that many a year ago, he'd have ranked 13th among running backs … exactly the spot both where we have ranked him this preseason and where his ADP ranks.

It seems that Hillis' regression is being almost perfectly projected!

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.