Regression Candidates Through Week 1: Steve Smith Owners Beware

Steve Smith posted big numbers in Week 1, but don't be fooled - he's bound to regress.

It always seems like Week 1 of the NFL’s regular season brings to us a cornucopia of surprises in its results. Week 1 is a magical place where fourth-string undrafted wide receivers can lead the league in scoring for one shining moment, while a 31-year-old career journeyman quarterback is a top-10 fantasy football option. In fact, it seems like Week 1 was so odd yet again that I wouldn’t be surprised to have heard this on Monday Night Football…

“Let’s take a quick commercial break for our sponsors. This is Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season, brought to you by Hurns, Crowell, and Anderson, makers of the products Huh?, What?!, and I Don’t Even…”

In all seriousness, there are always wacky results from small sample sizes of data, and one game of football is about as small as you can get when it comes to predictions. Still, we as fantasy football players are always looking for value in production, and this game we’re about to play is all about regression to the mean. So, which Week 1 wonders will be total duds, and which are prospective risers?

Don’t Buy The High

Before anything else, we have to understand our terms here, right? When looking at Net Expected Points (NEP), what you are looking at is a score – measured in expected points – that tells you exactly how much a player advanced his team’s chances of scoring on all drives combined. This helps to provide a clearer picture of a player’s contribution on the field. By comparing NEP scores and fantasy scores, we’ll see if anybody’s high NEP score suggests an upswing in fantasy, or a low NEP score suggests they’re just a fantasy mirage.

Let's first look at new Baltimore Ravens wideout, Steve Smith. First, 14 of Smith’s 17 points came from one play with busted coverage, where he romped for 80 yards and a score late in the fourth quarter. Prior to this, he’d seen 14 targets, converting a mere six of them into receptions for a paltry 38 yards. How bad is this in terms of NEP? Smith’s 0.70 Reception NEP on a per target basis ranks 27th among all players targeted five or more times in Week 1. This is not the mark of efficient play, and it’s going to be a long season if Smith owners rely on busted coverage big plays for their player to have value.

Another wide receiver with a high likelihood of a return to earth is Minnesota Viking Cordarrelle Patterson. I’ve been a well-documented critic of Patterson since he began his career, as he's known to be unpolished as a route-runner and was used primarily as an oversized running back in 2013. Sure enough, here we are again: 16 of Patterson’s 18 points came from rushing plays. In the passing game, Patterson is still as raw as can be, with only three catches on five targets for a measly 2.32 Reception NEP and a horrendous 0.46 per target Reception NEP.

Where Patterson did his damage is in his 8.03 Rushing NEP, which, while impressive, will not be the result every week. As a fantasy owner, I appreciate when a coaching staff announces that it will find any way to get a player the ball. However, in order for Patterson to become anything more than a true boom-or-bust proposition, he will have to become a legitimate receiving threat.

A candidate among the running back population is the Denver Broncos’ Montee Ball. His Total NEP performance was low enough to put him outside the top 25 at the running back position among runners with seven carries or more in Week 1, despite a 13th ranked fantasy point output (13 points). Most of this was due to a 30th-ranked Rushing NEP, but only two targets in the receiving game won’t help either. He wasn’t as valuable or efficient a runner as we think, so let’s hope he keeps getting massive work.

Take Them Low, Daddy-O

One of our shockingly low NEP performers in Week 1 was Jamaal Charles, running back extraordinaire for the Kansas City Chiefs. His Total NEP for Week 1 put him at 38th out of 44 running backs with seven or more carries. Even more shocking was the meager two fantasy points he accumulated in standard leagues. So, why do I think that Charles is due next week? For one, Denver’s run defense was among the worst in Week 1, ranking 24th in the NFL according to our metrics. This is kind of shocking, considering they only dealt with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw. Charles also likely won't receive a paltry 11 opportunities again, or heads will roll in Kansas City. Having obtained only four targets in Week 1, the versatile and lethal-in-space Charles should expect a massive uptick in receiving value from here on out.

Larry Donnell might actually be worth a legitimate look moving forward. A lumbering former undrafted free agent, this tight end snuck into the void the Giants had at the position and surprisingly hasn’t let go of it through the entire preseason. Accumulating a solid 11 fantasy points this week, Donnell’s Reception NEP of 9.13 put him in the top 10 for the week among all pass-catchers, and his per target efficiency doesn’t hint at much, if any, regression (1.14; 16th among pass-catchers with at least three targets). With no one on the depth chart to truly challenge him, Donnell could be a sneaky value for fantasy owners in deeper leagues. Our own Keith Black documented this well on Tuesday.

Dwayne Harris had a surprisingly valuable day for a receiver, too, ranking in the top 25 in Total NEP (6.05). Part of this was due to one solid running play, but perhaps the five fantasy points he picked up in Week 1 could sustain or even grow if the Cowboys keep finding themselves in dire shootouts as the season goes on (hint: they will).

Finally, quarterback Ryan “Fitzmagic” Fitzpatrick had a competent day by NEP standards, accumulating a 10th ranked 9.09 Passing NEP, as well as a fifth-ranked per drop back efficiency for Passing NEP. He even added a solid 2.02 Rushing NEP to his total for the week. Could Fitzy have been the answer in Houston the whole time? Maybe not for the franchise’s future, but he should be a nice bye week option in standard fantasy leagues (or a good backup in deeper or two quarterback), as his 13 fantasy points appear ready to rise.