Regression Candidates Through Week 7: Dexter McCluster Is Our Leading Man

Dexter McCluster has a good chance to step out of the fantasy stage's wings and into the limelight.

When I was an actor, spacing rehearsals were always my least favorite thing.

We would have been working for weeks -- maybe months -- in one room, and things would start to get pretty polished. You feel successful and proud of the work you’ve rehearsed. At that point, we’d move to the real stage and adjust the movement, the entrances and exits, all of it to fit the new space. The new setting and movements would throw everyone’s lines off, and they would be less focused on really interacting with each other than making sure not to fall off the edge of the platform. Even worse, for some reason the director never understood that a complete run-through of the play was never going to happen that day, so everyone would leave frustrated.

As they say, however, the show must go on.

In time, of course, we’d get used to the real stage, real costumes, and all the hubbub of the full production, but spacing rehearsals were always a big hitch in the process.

This is where some of our fantasy football players are at in their seasons so far. Some who have struggled with production so far will begin hitting their marks, finding their light, and looking like showstoppers from here on out. Others were rehearsal room all-stars but will choke in the limelight.

We intend to suss this out in this column: which players through Week 7 are fantasy football leading men and which are merely chorus line material?

And All That Jazz: Fantasy Underachievers

This is your friendly reminder that Ben Roethlisberger has been progressing well in his recovery from a severe MCL sprain that sidelined him in the middle of Week 3 and may have a chance to start for his Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8. Roethlisberger was thought to have a much more serious injury at first, but he’s been a game-time decision each of the last two weeks and should have no limitations in practice this week. If someone dropped him, you need to pick him up right now; although he’s played just two and a half games this season, he’s still got just six fewer fantasy points than Nick Foles. Despite his 31st-place ranking in per-game fantasy scoring among quarterbacks, he still ranks a decisive first in Total Net Expected Points (NEP) per play among quarterbacks with at least 50 opportunities.

I really feel bad for Tennessee Titans fans who have to watch head coach Ken Whisenhunt shackle this team with bad offensive schemes and worse play-calling. Still, butchered though the talent on this team is, there is some fantasy value in the likes of running back castoffs Dexter McCluster and Antonio Andrews. McCluster -- a washout offensive weapon who came over from the Kansas City Chiefs -- and Andrews -- an undrafted rookie in 2014 who was thought to be just a plodding power back -- have formed two-thirds of the most unlikely backfield committee ever. With Bishop Sankey ineffective and David Cobb slow to return from injury, they could still see value for a while, McCluster especially. McCluster and Andrews currently rank 48th and 50th among running backs in per-game fantasy scoring, respectively, but they are 19th and 17th in Total NEP per play among backs with at least 40 opportunities.

With Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal out with injury, Marquess Wilson had himself two consecutive 6-catch, 80-yard days in Weeks 4 and 5. Even with both returned and healthy in Week 6, he still caught 2 passes for 54 yards on 4 targets. Wilson is at his best when he’s the top option in an offense, but he still has major upside as a secondary weapon. Jeffery and Royal should both be good to go, coming off of the Chicago Bears’ bye week, but Wilson is still worth a look for the future. He ranks just 47th in per-game fantasy scoring among wide receivers, but is 44th in Reception NEP, 30th in Target NEP, and 9th in Reception NEP per target among wide receivers with at least 30 targets on the season.

Chris Hogan is another player who has gotten run because of injuries to his teammates, and he’s performed very well in limited action. On 29 targets, he’s reeled in 20 catches in relief of Percy Harvin and Sammy Watkins. Despite playing as the third or fourth receiver at best in the Buffalo Bills’ offense, Hogan has three games with at least 5 targets, and two with 50 or more yards. If he gets cemented in a more solid role, he could provide good, cheap value down the stretch. Hogan currently ranks as the 56th-most prolific wide receiver in per-game fantasy scoring but is 20th in Reception NEP per target among wideouts with at least 30 targets on the season.

Send in the Clowns: Fantasy Overachievers

We’ve been down on him for a long time, but Matthew Stafford just isn’t cutting it in fantasy circles anymore. The former first overall pick has all of the gunslinging mentality that Brett Favre did but none of the weirdly innate feel. I highly doubt the firing of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will do him much good; while he’ll be allowed to whip the ball downfield more, his efficiency will likely diminish with added attempts. Stafford is tied for 12th among fantasy quarterbacks in per-game scoring, but is 32nd in Total NEP per play among quarterbacks with at least 50 drop backs.

Matt Jones looks like he might be able to unseat Alfred Morris from the Washington backfield in the future, if he hasn’t already. The third-round rookie out of Florida has a 4.0 yard-per-carry mark on 63 rushing attempts so far this year and also has the versatility to be a solid pass-catching back in the future. That said, he’s not been horrendously effective this year on the fantasy field, as there is a moderate timeshare in the Washington running back corps. In per-game fantasy scoring, he’s the 40th-highest running back. Even worse, his Total NEP per play (-0.04) puts him 57th among running backs with at least 40 opportunities.

Brandin Cooks was supposed to be a catching machine in 2015, as Drew Brees’ last young, high energy receiving target for the New Orleans Saints. So far he’s found the catches but not the yards that should go with them. Despite being on pace for 80 receptions and having no game with fewer than 4 catches, Cooks has just four of seven games with 50 or more yards receiving. It’s been a weird year for the diminutive wideout, and it shouldn’t get much better: he ranks 34th in per-game fantasy scoring among wide receivers but is just 49th in Reception NEP per play among receivers with at least 30 targets on the year.

The struggles of Doug Baldwin can be mainly blamed on the offense he works in. Quarterback Russell Wilson has reached 250 passing yards in a game just twice this year and has tossed a minute 8 touchdowns in seven games. With how little value there is in this passing attack, not to mention how many mouths there are to feed, between Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, Jermaine Kearse, and Marshawn Lynch, Baldwin’s slice of the weekly receiving pie will continue to be very small. He ranks 46th in per-game fantasy scoring among wide receivers but is a paltry 51st in Reception NEP among wide receivers. If he ever got more volume, he’s an upswing candidate -- his Reception NEP per target ranks 38th -- but that’s unlikely to occur.