Regression Candidates Through Week 17: The Year in Review

This year was tumultuous, but we finally made it. What do the prospects for 2015 look like as well?

What a year this has been in the NFL. I didn’t intend for this article to start this way, but while thinking in retrospect about the 2014 season that was, we have very much come full circle in a lot of ways. We started this offseason cycle with a lot of horrid off-the-field events and suspensions for star players, and -- weirdly -- we end the regular season with an on-the-field issue and a suspension for a star player.

More so, though, I think we all were a little terrified about the ripple effect that the tragic events that have been coming to light lately would prove to riddle professional football -- that it would be a disease of the sport, not of individual players and teams. I think there is something to that idea, but more on that later. What really happened, though, was that aside from isolated incidents, football came back. And it was beautiful and amazing just as it’s always been.

In the same way, players have seen their values shift and regression bring them back to norms, or we end up with a clearer, newer understanding of them. Those new understandings are what we’re going to look at today. In this last 2014 edition of Regression Candidates, we’ll see who has underperformed and who has outdone themselves this year, as well as a recommendation on how to value them going into next season.

Ready for a Fresh Start: Fantasy Underachievers

Most of the names on these lists have been seen once or twice this year, but Tony Romo’s is one of the most prominent and recurring. A perpetually underrated NFL and fantasy player, he finished just five points outside of the fantasy quarterback top 10 this year even after missing one game. Romo -- drafted in the 12th round this year, just one spot ahead of the Texans defense on average (per ESPN average draft position) -- finished fourth among all quarterbacks in Total Net Expected Points (NEP). He was extremely valuable to his Cowboys all year, especially on the back of his second-ranked Passing NEP on a per drop back basis (second only to Aaron Rodgers). We never recommend drafting quarterbacks highly in your fantasy drafts, and Romo proves that -- yet again -- you can find values late that will be just as good as the early-round options. Tag him for your fantasy squad in 2015 too.

Another player who emerged from the mud of the late rounds this season, C.J. Anderson has proven to be another Regression Candidates MVP this year. He ranked 11th in fantasy scoring this season but was a stellar third among all running backs with at least 50 carries in Total NEP. This was with fewer than 200 carries, the only elite option with below this mark. Anderson was also an amazingly versatile and efficient option: he ranked second both in per-attempt Rushing NEP and per-target Reception NEP among all backs with at least 100 carries. Anderson is an exceptional talent in a fantastic system and should be in the consideration for a second-round redraft pick in fantasy next year provided the Broncos stick with him as the number-one back.

In the best rookie wide receiver class in recent memory, there were so many bright spots that the highest-selected one may actually have been outshone this year. Nonetheless, Sammy Watkins still has a very good chance to be the best player in this rookie class of receivers when all is said and done. Watkins ranked just 27th in fantasy scoring among all wide receivers but was 19th in Total NEP at the position this year. This was still behind three of his rookie peers, but Watkins’s Target NEP was so significantly lower than other top receivers due to poor quarterback play that I believe any upgrade to the passer for Buffalo in 2015 will skyrocket Watkins into the top 15 at the position by year’s end.

Eric Decker was a top-20 receiver in the NFL this season. You heard me. Even with atrocious quarterback play on the Jets, Decker finished as the 20th-best wide receiver by Total NEP. His fantasy scoring put him at just 28th at the position, however, and I think this is a similar scenario to Watkins’s. Decker’s Target NEP actually ranked 19th in the league as well, but a lackluster per target Reception NEP indicates that the routes he was used on were shorter to compensate for lack of quarterback competence. If the Jets draft another possession receiver to take pressure off of Decker, these peripherals should rise, as should his fantasy effectiveness in 2015.

Hoping This Year Never Ends: Fantasy Overachievers

Hailed for the last few years as “Aaron Rodgers 2.0,” Andrew Luck has finally made his own name and ended comparisons between himself and Rodgers. Luck has proven himself a completely different player than the fully-automatic Packers’ passer, instead offering a huge volume of throws with surprisingly lower rates. His sixth-ranked Passing NEP is marred a bit by his needing the third-most drop backs in the league to reach that mark, and his per drop back Passing NEP rank comes in at eighth. His Passing Success Rate, too, is easily the lowest among top-10 quarterbacks, and his normally prolific Rushing NEP wasn’t enough to boost his Total NEP rank beyond eighth at the position this year, even though he ranked second in fantasy scoring. Luck has a good career ahead of him, but I still expect 2015 to be more vintage Peyton Manning (fourth-seventh among quarterbacks) than prime Aaron Rodgers top-three).

There were 73 running backs in the NFL this year with more than 50 carries. Andre Ellington -- despite ranking 20th in fantasy scoring -- ranked 66th in Total NEP among those rushers. He was atrociously bad in terms of effectiveness (73rd in Rushing NEP) and efficiency (64th in per-attempt Rushing NEP). While one might be able to credit part of that to his foot injury, his only real boon was unchallenged volume of touches, as he was on pace for 300-plus rushes through Week 11. I don’t expect that to continue into 2015, as the Cardinals will likely draft or sign someone to take pressure off of Ellington, who is more of a speed back than a bell cow. This year will be Ellington’s high point of fantasy value.

Mike Wallace is Eric Decker’s bizarre-world twin; he was the 18th-best receiver by fantasy scoring but ranked 32nd in Total NEP. I hope this year puts to rest the belief that Wallace is still an elite fantasy option and we can just accept him for what he is: a very high upside fantasy WR3. His peripherals tell the whole story: even with a solid Target NEP, indicating at least average quarterback play, Wallace still had a sub-60% Reception Success Rate (indicating that he wasn’t effective at converting plays) and a 0.67 Reception NEP on a per target basis (ranked 38th in the league). Wallace should be drafted as a fantasy WR3, but I imagine people won’t be able to shake his per-play upside and draft him too high yet again.

Of the 81 receivers with at least 60 targets this season, Kendall Wright ranks just below the midpoint at 54th in Total NEP, despite his 36th-place rank in fantasy scoring at the position. I believe that a lot of Wright’s lack of success was due to poor quarterback play (his 51st-ranked Target NEP indicates as much), but his 67th-ranked Reception NEP on a per-target basis also shows that he himself was not a great weapon for this Titans offense. With a better passer at the helm, and if he can convert more yardage after the catch, I have great confidence that Wright will be fantasy-worthy as a solid WR3 again in 2015.

Julius Thomas was considered an elite option at the tight end position this season, but due to missing five games with injuries, he didn’t even broach 500 yards receiving this year. He ranked seventh in fantasy scoring at tight end primarily on the back of his 12 receiving touchdowns but came in just at 11th in Total NEP at the tight end position. He highly underperformed his draft day value and his real fantasy value, but this was almost exclusively due to a diminished target total thanks to the injury. His Reception NEP on a per target basis ranks first by a longshot even among tight ends with at least 20 targets. Thomas should once again be considered in the elite tier of tight ends next year.