NEP Studs and Duds Through Week 6: The Unreliable Marques Colston
The theme of this week's piece is opportunity. A player's fantasy success hinges not only on how well he's playing, but also on how much opportunity he gets. First, I'll highlight two NEP studs who are playing well, but may not get enough opportunities to fully capitalize on their upside. Then I'll highlight two NEP duds who are playing poorly, but whom I believe will still provide good value for the rest of the season.
Note: For an explanation of Net Expected Points (NEP), read the intro to this article.
Marques Colston (0.84 Rec NEP/Target, Ranked 16th of 78 Qualifying WRs)
No, that's not a typo - Colston really has played well this season. The touchdowns haven't come yet, which JJ Zachariason discusses here. But even with his failures to reach pay-dirt, how can Colston rank only 46th in fantasy points amongst wide receivers when he's still the primary wideout in the high-powered Saints offense? Furthermore, why is Colston finding touchdowns so hard to come by in the first place? The table below provides clarity:
Colston’s net expected points per target have been remarkably consistent throughout his career, which makes sense given that he’s been paired with Drew Brees the entire time. The real problem is, through six weeks of 2013, he's averaged a career-low 5.7 targets per game. On the surface, this seems like the perfect buy-low opportunity. But will he actually start seeing more targets?
In 2013, the Saints offense seems to be more gameplan-specific than ever. The perfect example is Week 5 versus Chicago, when Drew Brees targeted wide receivers on only six of his 35 attempts. In that game, running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas combined for 12 targets, while tight end Jimmy Graham saw 11. Fullback Jed Collins actually had one less target (five) than all the wide receivers combined!
Colston - who most often lines up in the slot - has suddenly become the odd man out of the Saints offense. They have a plethora of other weapons they can use to exploit more desirable matchups.
Graham and Sproles arguably create the biggest mismatches against coverage of any players at their respective positions, so they’ll continue to be the offense's primary targets.
When Brees wants to go deep, he has speedier options than Colston at his disposal, such as Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem. Throw in the fact that coach Sean Payton has made it a point to recommit to the run, and it’s not a recipe for fantasy success for Colston.
We still have Colston projected as a WR2, and if past history is any indication, he could end up as one. My issue with him is consistency. It’s nearly impossible to predict who will be featured in Payton’s game plan in a given week.
Given the team's options at tight end and running back, Colston is not a guy who will draw targets by default just because he's the team’s primary wideout. He's also not much of a deep threat, making him volume-dependent and touchdown-dependent. With his red zone prowess and Brees under center, multi-touchdown games are always in the cards, but who knows when? I view him as a decent WR3 but a shaky WR2.
Zac Stacy (0.10 NEP/Rush, Ranked 6th of 52 Qualifying RBs)
There are two questions on the minds of fantasy owners regarding Stacy: 1. Can he continue to hold on to the Rams starting job? 2. If he does continue to start, is he a RB2 or a flex player?
The table below should answer question number one:
In his two starts, Stacy has outperformed former starter Daryl Richardson in every way imaginable. Unlike Richardson, Stacy’s rushes net out to an overall positive contribution to his team’s scoring chances. Looking at both runners’ success rates, it’s clear that Stacy has been a better, more consistent runner. Nearly half of Stacy’s runs contribute positively to the Rams expected points, while barely a quarter of Richardson’s do.
Stacy has already forced seven missed tackles on 33 rushes this season, while Richardson had only four on 58 totes. While the Rams run blocking isn’t very good, Stacy does know how to find small creases and is able to push the pile well after contact. In fact, he averages a hefty 3.0 yards after contact, good for third-best in the NFL.
Stacy is averaging a solid 4.9 yards per carry, but has only been targeted three times so far in the passing game. I’d expect this to improve because he will be on the field a lot - he logged 81 percent of the snaps in his last start.
Stacy has one all-important factor capping his upside: touchdowns. In 22 games under Jeff Fisher, the Rams have scored just five rushing touchdowns. That includes an entire season with Steven Jackson. The Rams prefer to throw close to the goal line, which saps Stacy of precious short-touchdown opportunities. That strategy has been working fairly well thus far in 2013, so I doubt it will change much over the last 10 games.
Ultimately, I think Stacy’s upside is capped at low-end RB2 because he’s not likely to reach the end zone much despite his physicality as a runner. He’ll still be a very useful plug-in, though I’d prefer him at flex rather than RB2.
Ray Rice (-0.20 NEP/Rush, Ranked 47th of 52 Qualifying RBs)
Rice has been yet another disappointing RB1 this season, and the NEP metrics confirm that he hasn’t been running well. So what’s wrong?
Firstly, the Ravens offensive line has been bad. This was never more evident than when watching them get stuffed on four consecutive goal line carries last Sunday against the Packers. In fact, Rice’s yards per carry average stands at an abysmal 2.8 on the season. He has been very consistent producer in the past regardless of the circumstances around him, so let’s dig deeper.
Rice sustained a hip injury early in the year, and he may not be fully recovered. He has always been a great receiver, but this season, he's averaging only 4.4 yards per reception. This is despite having never averaged less than 7.8 throughout his entire career. This can't be blamed on the offensive line, which leads me to believe his hip is still an issue.
Rice's effectiveness at breaking tackles has been cut in half this season: he's only forced a missed tackle on four percent of his 71 carries, down from eight percent last season.
Rice still averages 18.2 touches per game, and that counts Week 4, where he wasn’t at full health and received only five carries. In other words, Rice is still a true feature back despite the presence of talented backup Bernard Pierce. Rice is likely to steadily improve as the season progresses and he gets healthier. Even if his efficiency doesn’t improve, he can survive on volume alone.
We have Rice projected as the 10th-ranked running back for the rest of the season. Until he can show that he’s fully over his injury, he’s more of a borderline RB1 than the sure bet that he’s been in the past. I’d monitor Rice’s health - if he comes up with more nagging injuries, he'll be more of a RB2. But if he gets progressively healthier, he’ll provide the same value that he always has.
Chris Johnson (-0.19 NEP/Rush, Ranked 45th of 52 Qualifying RBs)
The artist formerly known as CJ2K isn’t even on pace for 1K this year - he’s only averaging 54.5 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Should owners be worried? No. Or at least, not more than usual.
If you drafted Johnson, you knew what you were getting into. He can win you a week, but then lose you three in a row. He’s the epitome of boom or bust. Getting over 20 touches a game and ranking sixth in the NFL in rushing attempts, Johnson has volume on his side and is still a threat to break a big play any time he touches the ball. When he does, his stats will even out. You just have to keep him plugged in your lineup and hope for the best.
Despite Johnson’s weekly volatility, he’s been consistent on a seasonal basis in the last two years, ranking 12th amongst running backs last season and 16th the year before that. This season, I think he’s more likely to finish in the high teens than the low teens because he’s been stripped of goal line work and he’s also on pace for a career low in receptions. He works best in lineups that have consistent producers at other positions (especially RB1) to offset his weekly volatility.