Fantasy Football: Regression Candidates Through Week 2
We're only a couple weeks into the 2018 NFL regular season, but savvy fantasy football owners are looking for opportunities to buy low and sell high on potentially unsustainable performances. We spend the entire offseason predicting what will unfold once the action starts, but we can now finally react to actual data and information.
By detailing both negative and positive regression candidates, the hope is that we will uncover some of the truths behind what we've seen so far this year.
Negative Regression Candidates
Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
After two weeks into the season, Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers ranks as fantasy's QB4. No slouch last season, ranking third in numberFire's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back with a mark of 0.26, Rivers has continued that hot play to begin 2018, checking in third for that same metric (0.46).
But while Rivers was great from a Passing NEP per drop back perspective in 2017, his Passing Success Rate of 48.74% -- the percentage of drop backs that result in a positive NEP -- dropped him back to 12th. It's also important to note that in this smaller sample size in 2018, Rivers has faced the Kansas City Chiefs, who rank fourth-worst in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, and the Buffalo Bills, who rank third-worst.
Rivers, who is tied for third in the league with six touchdown passes, now faces the unenviable task of playing against the crosstown Los Angeles Rams, who are third-best against the pass by numberFire's metrics.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Nah, probably not. Last year, among passers with 150 or more drop backs, Bortles ranked 19th in Passing Success Rate (45.70%), and checked in at 16th in Passing NEP per drop back (0.11) over 547 drop backs.
While Bortles has been solid, he ranks 14th this season in Passing Success Rate (48.10%), so it's likely we start to see Bortles slide back soon.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tyreek Hill. Michael Thomas. DeSean Jackson. Stefon Diggs. A.J. Green. Those are the top-five fantasy wide receivers in 2018, and one of those things seems not like the other, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver currently ranks as the WR3 in half-point per reception (PPR) leagues.
How did he build this rep? So far this year, Jackson has snagged every target thrown his way (nine), notching three touchdowns. In peeking at Jackson's Average Targeted Air Yards (TAY), which measures how far a wide out is being targeted down the field with his passes, Jackson has showcased his deep play ability by ranking third in the league with a mark of 21.9 air yards per target. Travis Benjamin and James Washington, who both lead Jackson, have combined to catch two passes.
Unfortunately, Jackson will not catch every target thrown his way, so last year's WR43 in half-PPR leagues could be sliding back soon, but he does remain a solid fantasy play for 2018.
Jesse James, TE, Pittsburgh Pirates
With career-high water marks of 39 and 43 receptions in 2016 and 2017, including a career-best 372 receiving yards last year, Jesse James' monster Week 2 output of 5 catches for 138 yards and a score was only bested by Travis Kelce. So given that his quarterback has dropped back to pass 101 times in 2 games, should we expect 2018 to be the breakout campaign for James, who ranks second on the Steelers in receiving yards (198) so far?
It doesn't look likely. The aforementioned porous Kansas City pass defense contributed to high, efficient volume last week, so this level of passing prowess won't be sustained every week. If we look closer at the target distribution for the Steelers this year, James actually checks in fourth on the team in targets behind Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner.
James certainly shapes up as a viable commodity in a pass-happy offense, but it seems difficult to imagine he holds his position as fantasy's TE1 the rest of the year.
Positive Regression Candidates
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
It's tough to make an argument that this season's QB6 has major room for upside growth, but Cam Newton appears on that trajectory. So how does he get there?
Last year, Newton ranked as fantasy's QB4, but in looking at his passing metrics, among quarterbacks with 150 drop backs or more, Newton was a mediocre 27th in Passing Success Rate (42.69%). With only so-so passing numbers, Newton shot up those ranks by leading quarterbacks in rushing attempts (139), rushing yards (755), and rushing touchdowns (6).
With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner in the fold, concerns arose that Newton's rushing abilities could be harnessed, but if the first two games are any indication, it seems to be an unfounded fear. Newton has 18 carries through the first 2 games, and he has made some solid strides over his first 76 drop backs, rocketing his way to seventh in Passing Success Rate (53.95%).
Fold in the egregious New Orleans Saints and Bucs pass defenses in the NFC South, and a top-three fantasy season from Newton seems well within reach.
Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
The simple answer is that it's largely due to the ineffectiveness of current starter Jamaal Williams. Fifty-one running backs have rushed the ball 10 times or more on this young season, and the Packers running back ranks 38th in Rushing NEP per carry (-0.15) on 31 carries. Peeping Rushing Success Rate, Williams checks in only slightly better at 31st (35.48%).
That's critical to consider when looking at how good Aaron Jones was in 2017. Among runners with 80 carries or more, Jones ranked second-best with a Rushing NEP per carry mark of 0.17, and he tied with Duke Johnson for a league-best 50.0% Rushing Success Rate. Dude was ballin'.
It will be critical to monitor Jones' usage moving forward, but if he steps back into his lead back role, he will get a great chance to make a splash facing numberFire's 10th-worst rushing defense in the Washington Redskins this week. Look for Jones to potentially be a huge weapon once again.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
So things have been a bit tumultuous to start the 2018 NFL season in Pittsburgh, as the perennial AFC contender has started an ugly 0-1-1 which has led to some interesting exchanges:
Trade me let’s find out https://t.co/4OeepI78zy
— Antonio Brown (@AB84) September 17, 2018
While Antonio Brown likely won't be traded, fantasy owners that spent a first round draft pick on the wide receiver aren't exactly thrilled with him settling in at WR16 in half-PPR leagues formats, even if it's two games into the year.
However, nearly everything else suggests that AB should be rising up fantasy ranks soon. While Ben Roethlisberger's attempts are likely to slow down a bit, Brown possesses 33 targets through 2 games, which is an NFL-best mark and a 32.7% target market share. Brown also ranks ninth in the league in Target Air Yard Percentage (TAY%), or the percent of targeted air yards by a team's passing attack (40.82%).
With a heavy workload in an offense that currently ranks fourth in pass-to-run ratio (2.21), look for Brown to be at or near the top of fantasy wide receiver rankings soon.
Marvin Jones, WR, Detroit Lions
If fantasy owners are frustrated with Brown's production this season, they have to be even more frustrated with Marvin Jones, who ranks as just the third-best fantasy wide receiver on his own team, sliding in behind Golden Tate and Kenny Golladay.
Like Brown, Jones' owners have plenty of reason to feel optimistic, including heavy red-zone usage:
End-zone target leaders through Week 2 Sunday Night Football, via data from nflscrapR:
6: AJ Green, Marvin Jones
4: Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Odell Beckham
3: Eric Ebron, John Brown, Nelson Agholor
— Brandon Gdula (@gdula13) September 17, 2018
Tied atop the league with A.J. Green in red-zone looks, that's not the only reason to buy-in on Jones, last season's WR9 in half-PPR formats. In looking at TAY, Jones ranks seventh-best in the league (18.0 TAY), showcasing his ability to go deep and easily topping the marks for teammates Golladay (13.2) and slot man Tate (6.6).
As the WR37, Jones barely checks into the WR4 grouping today, but as part of a pass-happy offense that leads the league with a 3.24 pass-to-run ratio, look for Jones to start marching up fantasy ranks soon.