Regression Candidates Through Week 7: Don't Sleep on Mark Ingram
I used to be really interested in the Magic: The Gathering book series a few years back, especially when I was still playing the card game. For those of you who aren’t major nerds like me, “MTG” is a fantasy trading card game that uses creatures and spells to simulate magical battles between players. I’ve gotten hooked on the books again, and in particular on the Ravnica expansion.
Bear with me: Ravnica is a world where urbanization has gotten so out of control that the central city covers the entire face of the planet. The social and magical ecosystem is held together between nine warring guilds by a fragile, balancing alliance called the Guildpact, and the problem occurs when the guilds break that pact.
In the same way that the Guildpact is a stabilizing force on Ravnica, regression is our main stabilizing force in predictive analytics. Sometimes a player will outperform or underperform their underlying peripheral numbers, but we can’t expect that to continue. It’s then up to us to figure out where their regression to the average will take them.
So, in the spirit of Ravnica's Guildpact, which players through Week 7 in the NFL have more magic to show and which are tapped out?
Mana Burn: Fantasy Underachievers
There were underrated offenses we pegged coming into this year to be highly productive: Chicago, Atlanta, the New York Giants; I don’t think many of us saw Tony Romo and his Dallas Cowboys being this impressive of an offensive machine. With an offensive line that knows how to block and the highly productive revelation of a healthy (knock on wood) DeMarco Murray, these Cowboys look like the real deal. In our Adjusted Offensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Cowboys rank third in the NFL as a team. This begs the question: why is Romo a paltry 11th place among fantasy quarterbacks in average weekly scoring? Romo comes in at fourth among quarterbacks with over 100 drop backs in Passing NEP, and is even better (third) in the same metric on a per drop back basis. With two top-notch receivers and balance around him, if you can trade for Romo, I would do it - he’s been surprisingly good.
Similarly, Carson Palmer enjoys the benefit of a top-tier receiver tandem and a much-improved offensive line as well. He may not be a surprise for most people, but if someone dropped him during his injury recovery, grab him. He ranks outside the top 25 in ESPN fantasy’s average weekly scoring (they count inactive weeks toward the weekly average), but is still 13th in Passing NEP despite missing three weeks of action (and is 7th in per drop back Passing NEP). The shoulder injury is clearly not a problem, and he has total job security in the desert.
Once a hot sleeper name, then on the scrap heap for redraft leagues, and now possibly hot again, Jerick McKinnon has given his fantasy investors more of a headache this year than the housing market did in 2008 (is that still a relevant joke?). Despite his 45th-place rank among fantasy running backs this season, he currently ranks 22nd in Total NEP among backs with 35 rushes or more. He figures to be getting the lion’s share of the work in Minnesota now, too, as he out-touched Matt Asiata on a three-to-one ratio this past week and put up over 100 yards on 19 rushes. McKinnon is certainly a talented runner, and the offense in Minnesota finally looks competent for the first time in years with Teddy Bridgewater throwing the ball. McKinnon has major breakout potential coming here.
Mark Ingram also will be looking to bounce back in a big way starting this week. The former first-round pick for the New Orleans Saints currently ranks 38th in average weekly fantasy scoring among running backs, but is 15th in Total NEP among backs with 30 or more rushes this season. Even more interesting is his per attempt Rushing NEP, in which he is tied for first in the league. I don’t know what he ate this offseason, but I hope he shares it with me - this is a changed player, and he should be lethal if given the right amount of touches.
Tapped Out: Fantasy Overachievers
The exact opposite of his underachieving peers, we had a feeling that Jay Cutler would be leading the Chicago Bears to a usurpation of the Packers stretch of NFC North titles this year. At the outset, they were scoring machines, but the NEP data always pegged them as overreaching. Sure enough, Cutler put up a pretty ugly seven-spot in Week 7. The NEP data still has him outproducing his true performance - another regression should be in the works for him. Cutler is sixth among fantasy quarterbacks in average weekly scoring, but comes in at a mediocre 16th in Total NEP among quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs, and a horrendous 27th (out of 36) in Passing NEP per drop back. While he looked like he’d fixed his skittish tendencies in the pocket earlier this year, these are clearly starting to surface again, and without some major Marc Trestman wizardry, Cutler may regress to a pumpkin.
I’m a well-documented Lamar Miller detractor: I have the bumper sticker, the lapel pin, and I even carry the card with me (it’s laminated). I’ve never thought he was a special talent, merely fast as all-get-out. With a pretty sizable volume of touches, he’s produced the ninth-most weekly fantasy points on average among runners, but those extra receiving touches are really his only value. Miller ranks 28th in Total NEP among running backs with 30 or more carries, and where he's losing value – literally – is as a runner. His -1.24 Rushing NEP ranks 30th among backs, and his efficiency on a per rush basis is just 29th. Ride him until he drops, but don’t be surprised when he does falter.
One unsurprising victim of this impending offensive collapse for Chicago is wide receiver Brandon Marshall. This high-volume possession receiver hasn’t been particularly productive yet in 2014 anyway (mainly due to injury), ranking a pretty mediocre 22nd in average weekly points among wideouts after being drafted, on average, in the second round of fantasy drafts. He ranks just 35th in Total NEP among wide receivers with 30 or more targets, and somehow is even worse on a per target basis for Reception NEP, falling outside the top 50 at the position. Marshall hasn’t been right for a while, and his poor production is confirmed if not further supported by this data. If he still shows poorly after the Bears’ bye in Week 9, I’d try to get out from under this leviathan.
Larry Donnell’s breakout sheen may be beginning to wear off. The Giants’ offensive breakout is due for major regression in and of itself, but Donnell especially may be suffering. Head coach Tom Coughlin is a known loather of the “fumblitis” disease, and Donnell’s two recent crucial-moment fumbles may have him calling the tight end’s number less frequently in upcoming games. Add in that Donnell, despite his ranking as the 10th-highest fantasy tight end on a weekly average scoring basis, sits at an uninspiring 17th among tight ends with 15 or more targets this season, and I’m looking elsewhere for my streaming option at the position this week.