Fantasy Football Week 5's Most Important Long-Term Trends
One of the big unknowns going into any particular fantasy draft is rookies. You could have a Cam Newton (352 fantasy points in 2011, 4th among all QBs) just as easily as you could have a Blaine Gabbert (101 fantasy points in 2011, 28th among all QBs). Pretty much everybody knew what you were going to get out of Andrew Luck and RGIII, and so far this season, they have delivered in a big way. Luck has been right on point with expectations as a fantasy backup, registering 49 fantasy points (FP) in three games played. RGIII, meanwhile, has exceeded all expectations in being the first player - let alone rookie - to reach the century mark in fantasy points this season.
But what about the rest of the rookies? We decided to examine their seasons, as well as look at the Chargers' passing attack, and more in our long-term trends watch this week. Fantasy football is a season-long war, but winning the individual battles is easier when you know the math.
After his 438 yard Hartline-aganza against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Ryan Tannehill is now owned in 3.8% of ESPN fantasy leagues. Brandon Weeden is coming off of two 300+ passing yard games in the past three weeks; he's owned in 3.1% of ESPN leagues. Russell Wilson, er, exists; he's owned in 14.0% of ESPN leagues. Each of these three rookies have one thing in common besides a lack of NFL experience: if you own them in your fantasy league, you're absolutely nuts.
As it stands, there are seven NFL QBs with a negative passing NEP value. That means that every time these QBs have dropped back to pass this season, they have on average lost expected points for their team when compared to the average player's skills, even though passing is a more efficient manner of moving the ball than running. Some of these names in the league's botom five QBs make sense; Michael Vick can't distinguish green jerseys from other colors, and Blaine Gabbert has remained trapped in his own personal Remember the Titans sequel. But it's the other three names in the bottom five that interest me: Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, and Brandon Weeden. That's right, these three rookies are among the least effective QBs in the entire league.
Strangely enough, Wilson had a +8.35 NEP value entering week 4, meaning that he singlehandedly lost his team about 10 expected points on Sunday against the Rams just by playing so poorly. That places him in 28th, fifth from last, among all starting QBs. Tannehill gained his Dolphins three expected points this past week, but he had done so poorly in weeks 1 through 3, averaging over -4 NEP per game, that he still remains next-to-last on our list. And Brandon Weeden is the dead last QB in the entire league with at least 50 passing attempts. His -12.65 NEP puts him on pace to end the season with -50.6 passing NEP, which would be worse than all but four starting QBs over the past two seasons (2010 Jimmy Clausen, 2011 Sam Bradford, 2011 Tim Tebow, 2011 Blaine Gabbert).
Run, run, and run some more
But while the curse of the Young Guns has effected most of the rookie QBs this season, the rookie running backs are performing A-OK. The three rookie starters rank #5 (Alfred Morris), #8 (Trent Richardson), and #23 (Doug Martin) on the overall fantasy points chart so far this season, and each has established himself as the bonafide starter for his team.
Morris is the surprising name, having been a last-minute starter in Washington after the depth chart was Shanahanized and Roy Helu and Evan Royster sent to the bench. But for once, Shanahan has decided to stick with his initial back of choice, and it has paid dividends. Morris has not been the most efficient runner with only an average 32% success rate, but he has made up for his lack of quality quality with quantity. As I noted on Monday, Morris has received 85% of all carries from the Redskins backfield this season, propelling him to tie for third in total carries among all running backs. Morris has a tough next two weeks with Atlanta and Minnesota, but he follow up that stretch with three straight games against teams in the bottom half of all defenses in the Giants, Steelers, and Panthers. He is likely to keep his big season going.
Trent Richardson came into the fantasy draft season with a "Boom or bust" flashing neon light over his head. On one hand, he was arguably the best rookie running back talent the league had seen since Adrian Peterson. On the other hand... I mean, the Cleveland Browns, man. But in the end, he has been a bit of both; he has turned into a productive fantasy back because the Browns would not let him be anything else. His -0.20 NEP per rush is in the bottom half of all running backs this season, and his 28% success rate is below average as well. But when finesse doesn't work, hit them with brute force: his 64 rushing attempts are 15th among NFL backs, and his 21 targets in the passing game rank in 5th. The Browns are doing everything possible to make sure the ball stays in Richardson's hands, and because of that push, he'll continue to get his numbers.
Out of the three rookie backs, Doug Martin may be the most confusing to figure out. His -0.17 NEP per rush ranks slightly better than Trent Richardson, but his 21.1% success rate is absolutely putrid. But in limited action, LeGarrette Blount has not been much better; he has registered -0.22 NEP per rush on his 13 attempts this season. Because they don't have any better options, Tampa does not look like they will be abandoning Martin any time soon. He has rushed the ball on 70% of the Buccaneers' rushing attempts this season, and his 15 targets in the passing game are good for third on the team. The issue for Martin's fantasy stats isn't the team's gameplan: Tampa has rushed the ball 101 times this season as compared to only 119 passes. It's that Tampa has not spent much time with the ball. The Buccaneers have the least number of first downs in the league (60) and are tied for the worst third-down conversion percentage with Washington (25.5%).
All of this is to say that if other RBs are faced with an opportunity, do not back down from starting them just because they are young. Ronnie Hillman and Daryl Richardson are both on the depth chart behind older backs (Willis McGahee and Steven Jackson, respectively). If they are thrust into the lead back role in the coming weeks, age will not play a significant factor (and may even be a positive factor) in whether they perform well.
Ride the Lightning
The past two weeks, the Chargers passing attack has been some of the biggest disappointments in fantasy football. Despite being in our top ten QBs each of the past two weeks, Philip Rivers put up a whopping two FP in week 3 and a respectable but still 18th in the NFL 14 FP in week 4. Malcom Floyd, his supposed #1 target who we had as the most effective WR in the NFL entering week 3, has promptly put up fantasy totals of five points and two points in the past two weeks. And San Diego residents might want to start putting Antonio Gates's name on milk cartons in the area; he has put up a total of 11 FP on the season in three games played.
So why does numberFire's projections still have the Chargers players as must-starts, not only this weekend but moving forward? For one, it's been efficiency. Philip Rivers's +0.18 NEP per pass is tied for 13th in the NFL with Drew Brees, and he was in the top ten of the category as recently as last week. Of the Chargers' receivers, only Robert Meachem (40%) and surprisingly Antonio Gates (56%) have a catch rate below the league average of 60%, and considering Gates has not had a catch rate below 63% since 2006, I expect him to return to normalcy soon.
Playing even more in the Chargers' favor, though, is the upcoming schedule. This week, they face the #31 opponent-adjusted defense in the NFL in the Saints, who have given up at least 27 points in each of their games so far this season. From there, they have a tough game against the Broncos (#4 defense) and a bye, but follow that by playing the Browns (nine of their 10 TDs allowed have been passing), Chiefs (#20 opponent-adjusted defense), and Buccaneers (have allowed a league-high 1,374 passing yards).