Regression Candidates Through Week 4: The Sunny Side of Josh McCown

No one expected much from him coming into 2015, but Josh McCown is looking better and better as the weeks go by.

I’ve realized lately that I’ve become a lot more cynical. I trust things I see less, and I’m quicker to judge than I have been in the past. It’s reflected in my Twitter account, it’s reflected in my interactions with folks in my day-to-day life. I’ve realized that I approach things with a more distrusting attitude than I used to, and I don’t like that.

So, to that end, I’ve made myself a pledge to be more positive in how I speak and think. There’s already too much negativity in the world; we need forces of optimism to counteract them.

That’s one small thing I can do to contribute.

When we think of the connotation of the term “regression,” we think of a net loss, a reduction or devaluation of something. In statistics, however, regression simply means a return to the average or the expected -- and that can be very positive. When initial value is low but all signs point to it improving, that’s cause for hope and positivity in regression.

For our fantasy players, we know we get upset or worried when they don’t perform well, especially through four weeks of action. Remember, though, that at this time last year, Odell Beckham was just an afterthought in most leagues, and we all know how he turned out.

So today I want to focus on the simplest way of understanding regression: optimism and pessimism. Which fantasy football options through Week 4 are glasses half-full or glasses half-empty?

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: Fantasy Underachievers

No one had high expectations for him, but Josh McCown has actually turned this stagnant Cleveland Browns team around after being named the 2015 starting quarterback. He’s by no means the most clutch passer in the league, but he really hung in there on Sunday and nearly delivered the Browns to their second win of the season. Counting on 20 or more fantasy points a week from McCown is a bad strategy, but he has two consecutive weeks at this mark, just after returning from a concussion. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric suggests even bigger things could be in store for him: despite his lowly 27th-place ranking among fantasy quarterbacks, McCown ranks 12th in Total NEP and 11th in Passing NEP. He’s definitely turned a bad situation into something worth hoping on.

Speaking of bad situations, that’s what Arizona Cardinals’ running back David Johnson finds himself in around nearly every turn. When dealing with injuries in training camp, head coach Bruce Arians questioned his toughness and work ethic. After he scored a touchdown on his first touch of the NFL football, Arians said he still looked raw. What does a guy have to do to get appreciated around here? In case the coaching staff decides to trust the most dynamic back on their roster, you need to invest in him too. David Johnson may have the 14th-best fantasy score among running backs, but he comes in at the 2nd spot in Total NEP. He’s actually first in per-play Total NEP, as he’s done this damage on just 24 offensive touches; if he’s given more volume, who knows how good he could be?

Remember T.Y. Hilton? Many fantasy players have thrown him on the trash heap along with injured quarterback Andrew Luck. Sure, without his exceptional passer, Hilton seems mortal, but he’s still the same shifty, yards-after-catch machine he’s always been. The only difference is that Hilton hasn’t scored a touchdown yet this year. He is still on pace for 88 receptions and 164 targets -- both career-highs. There’s plenty of time for him to score. Hilton is tied for 38th in standard fantasy scoring, but we still see him as the 22nd-best wide receiver by Reception NEP.

Talk about seeing beauty in the middle of madness, but tight end Gary Barnidge is the second Browns player to be mentioned in the positive section this week; now that’s optimism. Barnidge has earned it, though, as he now has two consecutive weeks of 6 receptions, at least 75 yards, and one touchdown. He’s rapidly becoming one of McCown’s favorite targets, and on a team devoid of truly transcendent pass-catchers he could seriously make an impact. Barnidge ranks seventh in tight end scoring in fantasy but second in Reception NEP. He even has a better per-play Reception NEP than Rob Gronkowski. How’s that for a silver lining?

I’m Just a Little Black Rain Cloud: Fantasy Overachievers

Everyone loves the dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks, due to their ability to produce value in multiple ways. Cam Newton has been one of these versatile marvels for years, but there is still uncertainty in his playing profile, as the way he’s racking up fantasy points doesn’t seem entirely sustainable. Newton has only surpassed 200 passing yards once this year, and despite passing for 7 touchdowns so far, has turned over the ball 3 times already. With this kind of ineptitude through the air, he has to rack up value on the ground in order to produce for your fantasy teams. He does have double-digit rushing attempts in three of his four games this season, but expecting that to continue is a risky proposition. Newton ranks third in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks right now, but he’s a distant 13th in Total NEP. Be wary, is all.

I’ll admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of Joseph Randle. The frenzy about him as a surefire NFL starter, however, makes me even less interested in him. We saw how risky he can be on Sunday night, when he reached the ball across the goal line and barely missed it being punched out of his hands for a fumble. He was promptly benched for Darren McFadden (which never bodes well for anyone’s career), and despite his status as the top dog on the depth chart behind a great offensive line, neither our numbers nor I buy it. He's in a committee and is actually producing worse than McFadden and the now-injured Lance Dunbar on a per-play basis. Randle may rank as the fifth-best standard scoring fantasy running back, but he ranks as just the 28th-best by Total NEP.

I never thought I would believe that a Green Bay Packers’ receiver was overrated, but here we are. Randall Cobb has had a rough year so far, losing his buddy Jordy Nelson to a season-ending injury, suffering his own AC joint sprain, and having James Jones return to the team and steal the show with touchdowns everywhere. Still, the Packers’ passing game has become the most conservative it’s been in years, and Cobb’s yards-per-reception mark is at a career-low 11.6. So despite him being on-pace for career-highs of 100 receptions, 144 targets, and 16 touchdowns, he’s still not excelling in the advanced metrics. Cobb ranks as the 10th-best wide receiver in fantasy right now, but his Reception NEP shows he’s performing as the 19th-best.

I bet Eric Decker would likely give up a lot if he got to play with a quarterback like the 2013 version of Peyton Manning again. It’s hard enough when you leave that behind, but it’s even worse when you’re rooting to have Ryan Fitzpatrick under center because Geno Smith is the alternative. Still, Decker’s season isn’t going horribly, all things considered. Aside from a knee injury that kept him out of Week 3, Decker’s on pace for almost 800 yards and 12 touchdowns. That said, he’s only on pace for 80 targets, and his fantasy value has been highly touchdown-dependent. He ranks 26th among wide receivers in fantasy, but his Reception NEP ranks him 37th among the same. Just remember, Eric: it could always be worse.