Regression Candidates Through Week 5: Willie Snead Is a Bringer of Hope

New Orleans Saints' wide receiver Willie Snead is injecting life -- and hope -- into this downtrodden offense.

The National Football League is a wild and woolly place. I would like you to muse on the fact that the top six wide receivers by ESPN’s preseason fantasy football average draft position (ADP) are all either injured or suffering through awful offensive struggles.

Just two of those receivers -- Julio Jones and Antonio Brown -- rank in the top-20 at their position through Week 5’s action, and only Odell Beckham has a chance to jump into that tier after Week 6.

I am in the business of predicting based on previous results, and none of this makes sense. The epitome of this effect is the 2015 version of Josh McCown throwing for more than 300 yards and 2 touchdowns for three consecutive weeks after what happened in 2014.

When Cleveland Browns fans still have hope after Week 5, you know something is topsy-turvy in the NFL.

Fortunately for us prognosticators, the crazy performances tend to fall back to earth with enough time. Variance regresses to the mean, and that’s what we need to be aware of when looking at early-season outliers. You should be more than willing to spend your fantasy free-agent dollars on players who are the real deal, but know which players may be shams-in-hiding.

That’s what we’ll look at this week: which fantasy football players through Week 5 are really rocking and rolling, and which are brown-bag bad?

Cardiac Kids: Fantasy Underachievers

Ryan Mallett just cannot catch a break, can he? The guy took a nap in the locker room in preseason, and then Brian Hoyer was given the Houston Texans’ starting quarterback job. He came out of the game in Week 5 to catch his breath after a shot to the chest, Hoyer went in to relieve him, and it was for good. Hoyer goes into Week 6 as the Texans’ new/old starting quarterback, and his 36 fantasy points in the last two weeks are intriguing. Even though he’s a game manager, the Texans will be down often, which may lead to added pass attempts for Hoyer. Hoyer ranks 11th in per-play Total Net Expected Points (NEP) among quarterbacks with at least 50 drop backs, despite his 30th place rank in per-game standard fantasy scoring.

The New York Giants are not in a good way this year. Just last week, we watched as they had to outduel the shoddy San Francisco 49ers’ offense in the dying moments of Sunday Night Football. That game was the least-exciting version of “shootout football” I’ve ever seen, but Shane Vereen is going to benefit from these mishaps in the stat sheet. Vereen -- the passing-down back for the Giants -- caught 8 passes for 86 yards and a score last week, and this is emblematic of his usage. With just 25 carries on the year, but 20 receptions, Vereen is going to see much of his work when the Giants are down. Fortunately for him, they seem to be playing catch-up often. Vereen ranks as just the 33rd-best running back by per-game fantasy scoring, but he’s seventh in per-play Total NEP among running backs with 25 or more opportunities.

If you didn’t know his name before Week 5, you probably do now. Allen Hurns was the least-heralded player among the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 2014 rookie wide receiver class, as they spent early picks on Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee, but Hurns went undrafted. He exploded in Week 1 of 2014 but gradually faded back into obscurity, as did the Jaguars’ offense. Now, however, he has three consecutive games with 70 or more yards and a score, including back-to-back 17-point games. Hurns ranks 13th in per-game fantasy scoring among wide receivers, but is eighth in raw -- and second in per-target -- Reception NEP among wide receivers with at least 20 targets.

Old eras end and fade, and new eras have to begin. With the fading of Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, and the old-look New Orleans Saints’ offense that attained 5,000 yards passing and more than 40 touchdowns on a regular basis, Willie Snead appears to be the dawn of a new age in the bayou. The undrafted 2014 rookie has seen at least 6 targets in each of the past four weeks and has 230 yards receiving on just 12 receptions over the last two games. Snead is performing as the 29th best wide receiver in per-game fantasy scoring, but ranks as the 21st receiver in raw Reception NEP, and -- remarkably -- the ninth-best in per-target Reception NEP. The sun looks bright for the Saints with Snead in the fold.

Red Rights: Fantasy Overachievers

It’s not like Colin Kaepernick has been particularly great in the fantasy sphere. The fourth-year San Francisco 49ers starter has had just two games with more than 10 fantasy points this season, but those two games were explosive. One of them was last week against the Giants, where Kap threw for 262 yards passing (just his second game with more than 170 yards) and 2 touchdowns (only his second game with a passing touchdown). His ratio of scores to turnovers is 5-to-6, and even a steady diet of an average of 40 rushing yards per game can’t salvage that. Kaepernick ranks 17th among quarterbacks in per-game fantasy scoring, and just 28th in per-play Total NEP among quarterbacks with 50 or more drop backs.

I’m impressed. The man known as the “Muscle Hamster” in his time in college had an incredible rookie year, but then dropped off the face of the earth from thereon. Now, we’re finally seeing vintage Doug Martin once again, and boy is it fascinating. What we need to take into account after Martin’s 158 combined yards and 3 total touchdowns in Week 5, however, is that this came against the Jaguars, with the Buccaneers walloping them; that won’t happen often. It was a game where they could grind away time with Martin, and he should regress over the next few games. Martin ranks fifth in per-game fantasy scoring among running backs, but just 41st in per-play Total NEP among backs with at least 25 opportunities.

We’ve discussed two former undrafted rookies who are impressing, but I can name one highly-drafted rookie that’s been a fantasy trap since he entered the league: Tavon Austin. He’s done just enough to tempt us back in these past two games, accruing 144 total yards and 3 touchdowns on just 13 touches. This kind of production is not sustainable, and we’ve seen these outbursts from Austin before. Don’t get suckered in by a gadget player who is getting unused in the St. Louis Rams’ horrid offense: Austin ranks 18th among wide receivers in per-game fantasy scoring, but is 49th in per-play Total NEP among receivers with at least 20 targets, and 54th in raw Reception NEP.

There’s no shame in aging, but there may be in poor performance. The Detroit Lions are seeing both occur simultaneously in Calvin Johnson's 2015 campaign. After 2014 made him seem very mortal, Johnson is looking even more human than he has before. Quarterback Matthew Stafford's struggles certainly aren’t helping, but a wide receiver is only as good as his offense. The numbers back up this sick feeling, as he ranks 39th among wide receivers in per-game fantasy scoring, but is just 52nd in per-target Reception NEP among receivers with at least 20 targets. Bizarrely, his raw Reception NEP is 30th among these same, indicating that he probably should be better. Yet when the offense is as inefficient as Detroit has been, he’s unlikely to improve quickly.