Fantasy Football: Regression Candidates Through Week 4

For most teams, we've reached the quarter pole mark of the 2018 NFL Regular Season. It's been a wild ride so far, and we have seen some truly great and not-so-great performances. Clever 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

Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

Week 4 was a wild one in the NFL -- a house of horrors for NFL defenses, and an offensive show for quarterbacks:

One of those passers was Indianapolis Colts signal caller Andrew Luck, who has been working his way back from injury and tossed for 464 yards and four scores en route to a QB3 finish in fantasy football.

Unfortunately, it may have been a one-week blip. Among the 28 passers with 100 drop backs or more, Luck checks in an abysmal 20th this season in numberFire's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back metric (0.07).

In terms of Passing Success Rate (48.21%), which is the percentage of drop backs that result in a positive NEP, it only gets mildly better as Luck checks in 15th.

Coming up, Luck faces a New England Patriots defense that held Ryan Tannehill to only 100 passing yards in Week 4, and a New York Jets defense that ranks 3rd in our per-play pass defense metrics, so expecting a repeat performance from a few days ago doesn't seem likely.

Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons

Four games into his NFL career, Calvin Ridley is certainly turning some heads:

The rookie beast now has six receiving touchdowns, and if that doesn't stand out to you, keep in mind that All-World wide receiver Julio Jones has nine scores combined dating back to the start of the 2016 season.

But what he's doing is even more accelerated. Check out the top-five fantasy wide receivers so far this year, and the rate at which they are finding the end zone:

Name Targets Catches Rec TDs
Adam Thielen 56 40 2
Michael Thomas 44 42 3
Tyreek Hill 32 23 3
Mike Evans 39 29 3
Cooper Kupp 32 24 4
Total 203 158 15
Average 40.6 31.6 13.5

The most important number is in the bottom right-hand corner. On 203 targets, this group has scored 15 times, or one score per 13.5 targets. Ridley has scored six times on 21 targets, or once every 3.5 targets.

In Week 4, Mohamed Sanu out-snapped Ridley significantly, as Ridley was on the field for only 54% of offensive plays, and he saw nine targets to Ridley's six. With Jones the clear alpha dog in the scheme, expect Ridley to slide back soon.

James White, RB, New England Patriots

Fantasy football's RB7 in half-point-per-reception (PPR) leagues is none other than James White, who is an integral part of the New England offense. But a deeper peek into White's numbers shows this may come crashing down to Earth quickly.

White has built an impressive resume on a hefty role in the passing game, catching 22 passes for three touchdowns. Currently checking in fourth among running backs in targets (30), it's the work load in the running game that gets a bit frightening.

White's 21 carries rank 50th among running backs, and peering into Week 4, it appeared to showcase a glimpse of what's to come. With Rex Burkhead hitting Injured Reserve, Sony Michel toted the rock the majority of the time on the ground, carrying the ball 25 times for a solid 0.05 Rushing NEP per carry mark.

Among 52 running backs with 20 carries or more this season, White has been in the middle with a Rushing NEP per rush mark of 0.01 (23rd). He will still have a passing game role, but with Michel overshadowing him in carries 25 to 8, it could be hard to maintain this lofty ranking.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings

Tight end has turned into a very tough position to find solid performers in yet again, especially with injuries to players like Tyler Eifert, O.J. Howard, and Rob Gronkowski all coming in Week 4 alone. Kyle Rudolph clocks in as TE6 this season, but that may be a bit of fool's gold. It's been largely built on two receiving scores, and he ranks only ninth among tight ends in targets.

In reviewing Rudolph's Reception NEP per target among tight ends with 10 targets or more, he dips further down to 11th in the rankings (0.79).

Looking ahead to next week, he's got a very tough matchup on tap with the Jets, who have allowed under 35 receiving yards to tight ends in three of the first four contests. This all means Rudolph could be out of a weak top-10 in the tight end group in the next few weeks.

Positive Regression Candidates

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

It's been a bit of an auspicious start for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots from an offensive perspective:

It's easy to pick and choose your data set, but the reality is that through four games, Brady sits as fantasy football's QB19. That is definitely not what we are used to seeing from the Patriots' quarterback, who was QB3 last season and is consistently among the league's elite.

If last week was an indicator, things could be back on the rise soon. Brady put together a beautiful performance, throwing for 274 yards and three scores, and if his efficiency can match up to his fantasy performance, he will rise in the rankings in the next few weeks.

Brady ranks slightly better, at QB14 in terms of Passing NEP per drop back (0.16), and he ranked sixth among passers with 20 drop backs or more in Week 4 (0.42). With Julian Edelman set to return from suspension, look for Brady to get back on track in the near term.

Ezekiel Elliot, RB, Dallas Cowboys;

Tossing a running back into this list that already ranks as RB4 seems a bit off. But when you look at the top scores, there's a major gap from the top three and Ezekiel Elliott:

Name Fantasy Points Points Per Game
Alvin Kamara 118.6 29.7
Todd Gurley 97.7 24.4
Melvin Gordon 93.5 23.4
Ezekiel Elliott 77.6 19.4

While chasing down Kamara may be a tall order, Elliott still sits four and five points-per-game behind some of the other top backs in 2018. Can he crack into that group?

All signs seem to point to yes. In terms of Rushing NEP per carry, Elliott has been a boss, posting a mark of 0.17, good for sixth among running backs. His impact on the passing game has been huge as well. His 22 targets may not stand out, but keep in mind that he posted 38 targets and 40 targets across the entire last two seasons.

The volume appears to be there for the Dallas Cowboys back, as he has the third-most carries in the league. Pair that with his 95% snap rate in Week 3, the second-highest mark among running backs, the bell cow back could be bothering Gordon, Gurley and Kamara shortly.

Tarik Cohen, RB, Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears absolutely hammered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4, and that led some hot takes, including one from Dirk Koetter:

With a very large lead and a perfect positive game script, that meant it was the perfect time for Jordan Howard season, right?

Not so fast, my friends. The RB23 in fantasy football, Tarik Cohen stole the show, out-touching Howard 20 to 11. He was outstanding on those touches, catching seven passes for 121 yards and a score and rushing 13 times for 53 receiving yards.

While Howard has out-rushed Cohen 64 to 27 in terms of total carries in 2018, Cohen has been the far more efficient back, posting a Rushing NEP per carry mark of 0.22 (versus Howard's mark of -0.11), and Cohen ranks second in Rushing Success Rate (59.26%) versus Howard's rank of 22nd (42.19%).

With more production like we saw in Week 4, look for Cohen to steal more of the spotlight.

John Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have shot up to second in our team rankings, and that's in large part to a team that's excelling on both sides of the ball. Free agent acquisition John Brown has certainly made his mark on the team in 2018.

Part of an offense that ranks 11th in pass-to-run ratio (1.62), Brown may only be WR18, but he's got many things working to his advantage. Brown leads the league in the league in Average Target Air Yard (TAY), or the average distance in air yards of a target thrown, with a mark of 21.9. He's also one of six receivers that have over 40% of his team's TAY, with a mark of 44.05%.

One other key to Baltimore's success is their pace -- they rank second in terms of time needed to run an offensive play (24.32 seconds), which can lead to more opportunities for Brown.