The abrupt and unforeseen retirement from Andrew Luck sent fantasy football players into a frenzy nearly immediately. Not only was an outstanding Quarterback retiring in his prime, but it was so close to the start of the season, on the weekend when many were drafting their 2019 fantasy rosters. I fortunately did not own any Luck shares, nor any Colts position players (outside of Hines and Doyle) for that matter. However, I had been in discussions in one league to acquire TY Hilton to a team on the cusp. After Luck’s bombshell announcement, I felt like I had dodged a bullet that the trade for TY had not been finalized. I mean, Brissett is obviously worse than Luck, so all of the position players we were counting on to produce at a high level immediately needed to be downgraded, including TY… right? Well, yes, maybe, but not as much as you may think.
Who is T.Y. Hilton?
Let’s frame our discussion by looking closer into the recent performance of the player in question, TY Hilton. Hilton has yearly PPR finishes of WR12, WR22, WR5, WR27, and WR14 the past five seasons. He has achieved those finishes while only averaging 5.6 touchdowns per season, and ranking 16th, 14th, 4th, 25th, 21st in the league in targets in each of those seasons. He has relied on his speed to get behind the defense and reel in long passes, ranking first in the NFL over the last 5 seasons in yards per reception (minimum of 250 total receptions).
What Were We Expecting?
As the news broke of Luck’s retirement, many of the initial takes from a fantasy perspective revolved around the position players within that offense dropping in rankings. Most of that talk was in the context of redraft, but even when updating my personal dynasty rankings I found myself dropping TY Hilton from WR14 to WR20 based off of recent events (as I researched for this article however, I had to revisit that decision). Analysts for ESPN, CBS Sports, and NFL.com to name a few were all dropping Hilton down to low-end WR2 status for 2019. While I do not necessarily disagree with this take, I think that some of the action being taken and conversation taking place is reflecting a more drastic drop in Hilton’s value that is truly necessary. For those looking for TY Hilton to continue producing at his career average rate (approximately 125 targets, 72 catches, 1150 yards, 5 touchdowns), I don’t think much has changed. If anyone was chasing top-5 WR upside (which Hilton has only accomplished once in his career), I think that possible outcome is the one that was severely hampered.
As mentioned before, Hilton has finished on average as the WR16 in fantasy the last five seasons. Many look to 2017 when Hilton was tethered to Jacoby Brissett for an entire season, and in doing so see his only season since his rookie year with less than 1,000 yards receiving, and only 57 catches for that entire season. However, looking deeper into the 2017 season we see many stats that lead me to believe that a change to Brissett at QB does not spell disaster for Hilton in 2019 and perhaps beyond. In his ‘down’ 2017, Hilton actually compared favorably to his career best 2016 in Average Targeted Air Yards, Percentage Share of Team’s Air Yards, and Yards Per Reception. The main differentiation was in targets, which of course resulted in fewer catches and yards, and then Catch Percentage.
In 2017, the Colts as an entire offensive unit struggled. Pro Football Focus ranked their offensive line 25th in the league, allowing 182 Quarterback pressures on the season. As a result, the team struggled to move the ball ranking last in the league in first downs per game (16.7) and 23rd in the league in total plays from scrimmage (994). In 2018, an improved offensive line helped their running game efficiency from a Yards Per Carry perspective (4.2 in 2018 vs. 3.7 in 2017), as well as their passing game (QB sacks dropped from 56 to a league-low 18). While I am not saying Jacoby Brissett is as talented as Andrew Luck, I do believe the situation around him in 2017 differs greatly from the situation he will have in 2019. As such, I would expect the team to be closer to last season’s 1070 total plays from scrimmage than 2017’s total of 994.
Looking at the percentage of team play calls that were pass plays, the Colts topped 60% in 2016 and 2018, but were only at 55% in 2017 according to Sharp Football Stats. If the Colts do decide to revert to their more conservative ways in 2019 with Jacoby at the helm, but still see an increase in total plays run due to a better offensive overall, it is not unlikely that Indy attempts somewhere in the neighborhood of 570 passes. That would be an uptick of nearly 100 from Brissett’s 2017 season and would still be a fairly modest estimate that would have ranked middle of the league last year.
My Seasonal Prediction & Short / Long-Term Strategy
Let me preface this section by saying I estimated passing attempts, targets, catch percentage, and yards per reception using the below thought process. The result was organic – i.e. I did not try to make my projections meet any certain threshold.
Taking TY’s average percentage of team targets from the last five seasons (22%), and assuming at least 570 passing attempts for the Colts in 2019, that comes to 125 targets (which would actually be more than he had with Luck in 2018). However, the quality of the targets also matter, which was something Jacoby and TY struggled with during their 2017 campaign. The 52.3% catch rate they posted was well below TY’s career average of 57.7%, and Jacoby’s 59% completion percentage was well below the league average that year (62%) and would have been even further from the inflated 2019 average completion percentage of 65%. If we believe the improved offensive line play and additional experience Jacoby Brisset has gained will mean Jacoby improves from 2017 (keep in mind, he has been taking first team reps all offseason), we can begin to project what TY Hilton’s stats may look like for 2019. Assuming even a 55% catch rate for TY Hilton (which would still be below his career average), 16 Y/R (in line with his career average), my personal projection:
125 targets, 69 catches, 1100 yards, 6 TDs = 215 fantasy points
Where have we seen this stat line before? Not only is it nearly identical to his 2015 season, but it is also in line with his average season throughout his seven NFL seasons (as previously mentioned).
Not only that, but in my opinion this projection is on the rather conservative side of Hilton’s range of outcomes. As such, I don’t think TY Hilton should see his redraft ADP fall off much, and I would still be comfortable selecting him in the third round. For dynasty, I am looking to capitalize on owners that may be panicked, or just generally less excited to own a nearly 30 year old WR that is no longer tied to an elite QB. I would love to ‘buy low’ on Hilton, but even if the current owner is not looking to give him away, recent events have at least opened a buy window altogether that may not have existed for him before. All in all, I would encourage everyone to take a deep breath and avoid panicking when it comes to TY Hilton.