According to the old adage, you’re either getting better or getting worse. Hardly anyone stays the same.
And that certainly applies to the players’ stats and stocks in our NFL fantasy world.
Of course, attempting to forecast and identify which direction a particular player is headed is our early-August mission here at The Huddle, and thankfully there are a few telling factors which can aid us in our endeavor.
Players coming off injuries and half or full seasons spent on IR obviously are the top progression candidates, but we’re going to bypass that low-hanging fruit for now and focus on the realistically unsustainable stats and the changes in situational opportunities.
A wide receiver with fewer than 100 targets but double-digit touchdown catches a season ago? An obvious candidate to take a fantasy tumble.
A quarterback with 600-plus pass attempts and fewer than 25 TD passes last year? Or a tight end moving from a supporting role to a starting gig with high-powered offense this season?
Both prime choices to post bigger and better stats this coming campaign.
Those factors in mind, we’ve identified 14 candidates – seven likely headed up and seven seemingly headed in the opposite direction – whose fantasy numbers should take noticeable and meaningful turns in 2016.
We’ll start with the chief regression candidates. (Really helpful hint: You’ll likely want to avoid these first seven – particularly at higher-round prices set by last year’s numbers – in your upcoming fantasy drafts and attempt to buy low on the latter seven).
Easy, right? Here goes …
Cam Newton – In nearly every league and format, Cam was fantasy’s top point producer last season, he’s still owns one of the position’s most lethal set of legs and now he’s getting his best wide receiver back in Kelvin Benjamin. So why the “hate?” Well, Newton’s 2015 season happened to be the first 30-plus TD-pass/10-plus rushing-score season (35 and 10) in league history. It also was only the fifth season in NFL annals in which a quarterback has tossed 35 or more TD passes in fewer than 500 passing attempts. However, the other four QBs who accomplished the feat – Steve Young in 1994, Kurt Warner in ’99, Peyton Manning in ’04 and Tom Brady in ’10 – threw, on average, 13.3 fewer scoring passes the following year. Even Cam’s 10 ground TDs were somewhat of an anomaly as he only had 11 total over the previous two seasons. That’s a few too many statistical outliers to suggest Newton will approach repeating his 2015 figures.
Danny Woodhead – This 5-foot-9, 200-pound dynamo not only led the Chargers in rushing (three) and receiving (six) touchdowns and yards from scrimmage (1,091), he tied for the running back league lead in receptions (80) and finished third among RBs in PPR scoring with 243 points. Not at all bad for a 30-year-old back coming off a horrific broken leg the prior season. But considering Woodhead had two more receiving scores than any other back in the league, accounted for a full 75 percent of the Bolts’ rushing TDs (yeah, they only had four) and knowing that fellow RB and 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon will have to be better following a bust of a rookie season in which he scored zero – as in none – TDs in 219 touches, it’s easy to forecast Woodhead’s numbers tailing off noticeably this fall.
Doug Baldwin – How crazy productive was the finish to the Seattle wideout’s 2015 season? Considering Baldwin only had three receiving TDs through the first 11 weeks, went scoreless in the season finale at Arizona and still finished tied for the league lead with 14 touchdowns, it was certifiably insane. For those not so quick with the math, that’s 11 receiving TDs in the intervening five games – on all of 29 receptions. Off-the-charts insanity. And when it’s taken into account that Baldwin entered 2015 with 15 career TD grabs in four seasons – with a previous season high of five – and his 2015 turned out to be one of 13 seasons since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger in which a pass-catcher has had 14 or more receiving TDs on fewer than 80 catches, it doesn’t take an MIT degree to figure out that Baldwin’s 2015 numbers are going to be out of reach this time around.
Ted Ginn – On the subject of outlier statistical wide-receiver seasons, we also had 2015 Theodore Ginn Jr. The speed-burning Carolina wideout finished 90th in the league with 44 receptions – the likes of Javorius Allen (45), Brian Hartline (46) and Steve Smith (46 in seven games) all finished with more – but was one of the league’s 13 players who accumulated double-digit receiving scores with 10. That was one more TD grab than Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans and Jimmy Graham had last season – combined. In his previous eight NFL seasons, Ginn had totaled 11 receiving TDs on 211 catches. So, yeah, with Benjamin coming back to reassume the Panthers’ No. 1 WR role, Ginn’s 2016 arrow is pointed down – straight down.
Tavon Austin – The former eighth-overall pick in the NFL Draft started to resemble, well, the eighth overall pick in the NFL Draft last season, scoring 10 TDs, including five receiving and even four rushing. After totaling offensive seven TDs in his first two seasons, that was good enough to vault Austin into the fantasy starting-wideout conversation as he finished 21st overall at the position for the season. But nine scores on only 104 offensive touches? Get out. Even if his offensive touches increase for a fourth straight season, Austin’s 2015 touchdown rate hardly is sustainable.
Tyler Eifert – Even setting aside the fact that the Cincy tight end is recovering from May ankle surgery for an injury suffered in the Pro Bowl – what have we been telling the NFL about that game? – Eifert’s break-out 2015 season (74 targets, 52 receptions, 615 yards and a tight-end-most 13 TDs) looks way too good to be repeatable. The 2013 first-round pick only had managed two scoring receptions in 16 games over his previous two seasons, but matched that total in last year’s season opener and never looked back, recording three more multi-TD-catch games to account for nine of his 13 scores. Despite ranking 12th or lower at the position in targets, receptions and yards, Eifert’s end-zone proficiency enabled him to finish a sixth among fantasy tight ends with 140 points. But it’s easy to foresee his TD totals – and his fantasy stock – falling off fast, even in the (unlikely) event he does manage to return by Week 1.
Richard Rodgers – It was simply he perfect 2015 storm for the second-year Packers tight end: An injured and absent No. 1 wideout in Jordy Nelson, a struggling WR corps and ground game, a position virtually all to himself and a reliable-pass-catcher-needy Aaron Rodgers distributing the ball for all 16 games. The end result was 85 targets, 58 receptions, 510 yards, a team-leading eight TDs and 100 standard-scoring fantasy points – good enough for a ninth-place finish among tight ends. Now enter, though, free-agent TE Jared Cook, factor in Nelson’s upcoming return and account for a slimmed down and rejuvenated lead back in Eddie Lacy, and it readily becomes apparent that the numbers of the TE Rodgers likely are headed for a tumble.
Other regression candidates – Russell Wilson, Jeremy Hill, Devonta Freeman, David Johnson, Gary Barnidge
Matt Ryan – The ATL signal-caller finished a disappointing 16th among fantasy quarterbacks last season, thanks largely to his 21 TD passes – his lowest single-season total since his rookie year of 2008 – and a career-most 21 turnovers, including 16 interceptions. Among QBs with at least 400 attempts last season, only the Vikings’ second-year Teddy Bridgewater (3.13) and the Ravens’ Joe Flacco (3.39) had lower TD percentage than Ryan’s 3.42-percent mark. But there’s reason for hope – and bounce-back fantasy figures. The Falcons added free-agent WR Mohamed Sanu in the offseason while drafting TE Austin Hooper in the third round. Those additions – along, of course, with the continued health and stud play of No. 1 wideout Julio Jones – should help boost Ryan back closer to QB1 territory where he resided in four of the previous five seasons while averaging 28.6 scoring passes per year.
Melvin Gordon – As aforementioned, the highly-touted rookie’s 2015 season was a near-devastating disappointment as he ran for only 641 yards, added 192 more on 33 receptions and failed to cross the goalline on 217 offensive touches, resulting in a 44th-place finish among fantasy backs. And that after finishing his 2014 senior season at Wisconsin ranked second in the nation with 32 total TDs. To put 2015 in historical perspective, Gordon became only the 10th player since the merger to amass at least 200 touches in a season and not find his way into the end zone. The last players to accomplish the ignominious feat were Marcel Shipp and Kevin Faulk in 2003. But even after Gordon’s January microfracture knee surgery, the Bolts aren’t about to give up on the back they traded up to select in the first round to draft a year ago as they’re going to give him every opportunity to succeed. And, barring further health issues, there’s most definitely nowhere for Gordon to go but up.
Giovani Bernard – Bernard outgained fellow Cincy back Jeremy Hill by 329 yards (1,202-873) on 35 fewer touches last season but finished with 27 fewer standard-scoring fantasy points, thanks to the latter’s 12-2 TD advantage. Hill only had four more red-zone rushing attempts (36-32) than did Bernard, so it really was more about cashing in opportunities than usage. In all, it was simply a down season for Bernard in the TD department as he had cashed in eight and seven scores, respectively, in his first two seasons on a comparable number of touches (226 and 211). Now perhaps, the, the pendulum will swing back Bernard’s way with his pass-catching prowess seemingly a valuable weapon with Eifert’s health issues and the off-season departures of No. and 3 WRs Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
Mike Evans – In his second season in Tampa, Evans finished with 26 more targets, six more receptions and 155 more receiving yards than he did as a rookie, but wound up with 38 fewer fantasy points. Look no further, of course, than his 2015 regression from 12 to three TDs. Dropped passes were a huge problem for Evans as he led the league in that dubious category with 11. That’s also reflected in his 50 percent catch rate (74 of 148 targets), which was the worst mark among the 42 players with 100 or more targets a season ago. Now entering his second year with sophomore QB Jameis Winston, the better familiarity – and (hopefully) hands – figures to translate into a rebound season for Evans.
T.Y. Hilton – Evans, in fact, was the only player with a lower catch percentage last season than the Colts’ Hilton (51.5 percent) among the 100-plus-target contingent. Of all the Indy pass-catchers, Hilton appeared to be the most affected by Andrew Luck’s nine missed games as his receptions (82 to 69), yards (1,345-1,124), TD grabs (7-5) and catch rate (62.6-51.5 percent) all dipped precipitously from the previous season in which he finished as fantasy’s 10th-ranked overall wide receiver with 178 points. In 2015, Hilton fell out of WR2 territory, dropping to 24th with 142 points. Now with a healthier Luck returning, perhaps a return to the WR1 ranks is in the cards for his favorite target.
Coby Fleener – Hilton’s former teammate won’t reap the benefits of Luck’s return, but another change – this one in locales – is shaping up just as nicely for the Saints’ new No. 1 tight end. Over the last three seasons, New Orleans tight ends have averaged a 126-target-82-reception-976-yard-11-TD season stat line. That equates to 164 fantasy points (standard scoring), which would’ve trailed only Rob Gronkowski (184) a season ago. Fantasy general managers certainly have taken note of this and, a result, Fleener currently owns the fifth highest tight end average draft position – coming off the board only behind Gronk, Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen and Travis Kelce. Still, it’s not like Fleener is entering new territory as he did finish as fantasy’s sixth-ranked tight end only two years ago with a 51-774-8 campaign. Sure, Fleener isn’t the most gifted or athletic of the current upper-echelon tight-end crop, but fewer have a better situational opportunity than he does this coming campaign in the Big Easy.
Ladarius Green – Mirroring Fleener, Green is another tight end moving from a positional time share (San Diego) to a starting gig in a high-powered offense (Pittsburgh). Only this move could even be more beneficial for Green as his career-best season a year ago only amounted to a 37-429-4 stat line on 63 targets while playing (once again) in the shadow of future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Gates. Meanwhile, over the last four seasons in the Steel City, now-retired TE Heath Miller averaged 88 targets, 64 receptions, 676 yards and three TDs per year. This season, Ben Roethlisberger’s bunch is without suspended No. 2 wideout Martavis Bryant for the entire year and will be missing the services of stud RB Le’Veon Bell for likely at least the first four games. In total, it’s a prime opportunity for the fifth-year tight end Green to break out in a big way.
Other progression candidates – Ryan Tannehill, Lamar Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Torrey Smith, Dwayne Allen