The player: Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
The SI rank—Beller: No. 9 QB, No. 75 overall | Fitz: No. 17 QB, No. 135 overall
The consensus rank—No. 8 QB, No. 77 overall
Blake Bortles finished fourth in QB fantasy scoring last year, but nearly everyone in the fantasy community believes that his numbers will regress this year. If a statistical haircut is inevitable, the question is whether the regression barber will just take a little off the top or give Bortles a buzz cut worthy of the U.S. Marine Corps.
There’s no question that Bortles took a big step forward last year after a turbulent rookie season. The No. 3 pick out of Central Florida in 2014, Bortles threw 11 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions in his first season, a ratio that suggests he was lost in the supermarket. Interceptions remained a problem last year—he was picked off a league-high 18 times—but Bortles tied for second in the NFL with 35 TD passes. His completion percentage actually dipped a bit from his rookie year, going from 58.9% to 58.6% in ’15, but his yardage per pass attempt jumped from a woeful 6.1 to a respectable 7.3. As a rookie, Bortles threw for 2,908 yards in 14 games. Last year, he finished with 4,428 passing yards in 16 games, the seventh-best total in the league. And after being sacked a league-high 55 times in ’14 ... um, well, he was once again the NFL’s leading sackee in ’15, eating dirt 51 times. (Perhaps it’s time for Bortles to start mastering the art of the throwaway.)
Much of Bortles’s 2015 fantasy success was volume-driven. He finished sixth in passing attempts and led the league in both red-zone attempts and deep-ball attempts.
Bortles also generated an inordinate share of his passing stats late in games last year, including a number of times when he faced soft coverage from prevent defenses in the latter stages of Jacksonville losses. Bortles had 1,442 fourth-quarter passing yards last season, along with 14 fourth-quarter TD passes—three more than he produced in all of 2014.
Bortles tied Aaron Rodgers for most red zone passing attempts last season with 97, and Bortles’s 45 passing attempts from inside the 10-yard line were tops in the league. He threw 25 TD passes from inside the red zone and 19 TD passes from inside the 10. As a result of throwing so many passes at close scoring range, Bortles produced touchdowns on 5.8% of his throws. To put that number into perspective, NFL all-time touchdown leader Peyton Manning had a career TD rate of 5.7%, and Dan Marino and Brett Favre both had career rates of 5.0%.
That sky-high rate is destined to fall, and there’s also reason to believe that Bortles will attempt fewer passes close to the goal line and fewer passes overall.
The Jaguars gave a five-year, $32.5 million contract to free-agent running back Chris Ivory, who’ll team up with last year’s second-round draft pick, T.J. Yeldon, to give the Jaguars a more formidable running game and a more balanced offense. (Jacksonville ranked 27th in rushing yardage last season and tied for 30th in rushing attempts.) Ivory’s physical running style makes him an obvious candidate for work near the goal line, which could mean fewer short TD throws for Bortles.
Also threatening Bortles’s passing volume is the off-season renovation of the Jacksonville defense, which now boasts a treasure trove of young talent. The Jaguars drafted versatile defensive back Jalen Ramsey with the No. 5 pick this year, then got a second-round discount on linebacker Myles Jack, whose knee problems spooked a lot of teams. Defensive end Dante Fowler, the No. 3 pick in 2014, will make his Jaguars debut after missing his rookie season with a torn ACL. Jacksonville also handed a $90 million contract to free-agent DE Malik Jackson, a young standout for the world-champion Broncos last season. If the defense jells, the Jaguars should find themselves playing with a lead more often than they did in last year’s 5–11 campaign, and second-year offensive coordinator Greg Olson won’t need Bortles to air it out as much as he did in ’15.
So, yes, there are reasons to expect some statistical slippage from Bortles. But there are also reasons for optimism. The Jaguars have one of the better WR tandems in the league in Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Robinson blossomed into a star last season, rolling up 1,400 receiving yards and 14 TD catches. At 6' 3" and 215 pounds, he has an enormous catch radius and excels at hauling in contested balls. Hurns has become a dangerous vertical threat. He had 1,031 receiving yards and 10 TDs last season while averaging a robust 16.1 yards per catch. Bortles also has a fine pass-catching tight end in Julius Thomas.
It’s also worth mentioning that despite his penchant for taking sacks, Bortles is a good runner who can add a bit of fantasy value with his legs. After running for 419 yards as a rookie, he had 310 rushing yards and two TD runs last season.
A final bit of optimism: Although it’s likely that Bortles will throw less often than he did last season, a more balanced offense featuring an improved running game could help Bortles become a more efficient passer. A quarterback’s job gets easier when the defense must respect the run and when pass rushers can’t pin their ears back and rush the passer on nearly every snap.
Regression is inevitable. It’s quite possible that Bortles could play better than he did in 2015, missing far fewer throws and improving upon a mediocre completion rate, yet still accrue fewer fantasy points. Bortles’s positional ADP as of mid-July, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, was QB8. I think most drafts will have at least one owner who gets hypnotized by his ’15 numbers and drafts him as a top-10 quarterback. At that price, your best move is to back away.