The NFL is already dealing with injuries and that’s shaking up offenses. But overall, this is a much lower-scoring season and some top players just haven’t gotten fully on track. None of the current Top-5 running backs were first-round picks other than Saquon Barkley at the end of August. It’s hard to put a finger on why the overall league is scoring less and seeing greater changes to top player in their position. But it’s all worth tracking and then mining for fantasy value as teams transition.
Here’s six things to think about this weekend:
1.) Better With Age? – The prevailing wisdom for many years is that running backs become more productive later in the year while wide receivers start out hot and then cool as passing games go against worse weather and field conditions, and team scoring invariably declines. So I compared the first three weeks from the last five years against the last three weeks of the fantasy season for the two positions. I only considered the Top-25 fantasy scorers from the position in those weeks as the likely starters. Interestingly, I was wrong.
Running backs did become more productive at the end of the year, and then they stopped for the last two years, actually declining from their earlier stats.
Wide receivers lose points at the end of the season, though nothing that dramatic. And this is for the Top-25 wideouts in each of the final three weeks. That’s still a healthy 20+ points each week on average. So less, but not that much.
Bottom line, even running backs now get worse at the end of the year. And worse year to year.
2.) Wide Receiver vs. Running Back
The expectation here was that the wideouts would do better in the first three weeks, and then give way to the running backs later in the season. This is the comparison between the two positions for the Top-25 scorer each week.
This was expected. Those first weeks of the season tend to have higher scoring games, the best weather, and go against many defenses that are trying to install new schemes and personnel. So yeah, wideouts are better than running backs to start the year.
The difference between the fantasy points of the 25 best fantasy scorers in each of the final three weeks of the fantasy season between running backs and wide receivers has not only changed, but it gets worse every year. There is still an argument to be made regarding week-to-week consistency, but this only considers a three-week block.
Putting this all together, top running backs and receivers decline in the final three weeks. But the running backs decline is much sharper than with wide receivers. And it gets worse every year. It bucks conventional wisdom, but don’t be afraid to stick with, or trade for, top wide receivers later in the year.
3.) WR Romeo Doubs (GB) – The second rookie that the Packers drafted attracted all the hype this summer. He was part of the basket-full of marginally productive wideouts for the first two weeks. He caught four passes for 37 yards in the Week 1 embarrassment in Minnesota, then just two receptions for 27 in Week 2. But playing in Tampa Bay against one of the best defenses, Dubs ended with eight catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. He caught each of his team-high eight targets.
Better yet, he was praised by HC Matt LaFleur, who said, “He’s got the body movement skills. He’s got the explosiveness. He plays on his insteps, gets both feet in the ground, and that allows him to get off bump coverage. And the game is certainly not too big for him.” Sammy Watkins landed on injured reserve and Allen Lazard has a lock on a starting spot. Doubs may be the rare rookie wideout that matters in Green Bay. This week against the solid Patriots defense should further define his place in the game plan. The schedule clears up nicely for the next month or so.
4.) QB Zach Wilson (NYJ) – The Jets are only 1-2, but Joe Flacco has been serviceable if not an asset. He’s thrown for over 285 yards in every game and totals five touchdowns on the year. But he was always a placeholder for Wilson who was the 1.02 pick last year. And he only managed 2,334 yards and nine scores over 13 games as a rookie. But he had almost no weapons aside from Elijah Moore, so the Jets drafted Garrett Wilson, who has already impressed.
So far, Moore hasn’t repeated his productive ways of last season. But Wilson already logged his first 100-yard game and has been better than Moore each week. There’s no denying that the schedule is not a friend this year. But there are plenty of fantasy points that will come from this offense. This week versus the Steelers will be a great test to see what Wilson does in his first game with an upgraded set of receivers.
5.) WR Kenny Golladay et al (NYG) – The Giants just lost Sterling Shepherd to injured reserve, and he was easily the primary wideout with 13 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. The Giants have David Sills and Richie James as the other starters, and both are playing beyond expectations though that still doesn’t say much. Kenny Golladay is spending time with the second-string which is probably a waste of his $17.750 million salary this year. Kadarius Toney is supposed to be a starter but is out with a hamstring injury and is constantly dinged up and underperforming. Wan’Dale Robinson was their second-round pick that also hasn’t played with a knee injury.
This is one of the oddest set of wide receivers in the league. The most talent of the group are either injured or fell from favor. Losing Shepherd means that they have to replace him. That should spell a chance for Golladay to start. Something has to happen on this offense in the next month to straighten out the receivers and get them productive. The Giants surprised at 2-0 but then couldn’t hang with the visiting Cowboys using a back-up quarterback. Their two-game hot start may be their only winning streak if they cannot get healthy, productive receivers on the field.
6.) Carolina Panthers – Christian McCaffrey hasn’t practiced for two days with a quad injury. As not shocking as that is, the entire offense revolves around him and if he doesn’t play or is limited, things will change. His backup isn’t even clear, with Chuba Hubbard returning for his second season and D’Onta Foreman coming over from the Titans, where he covered for Derrick Henry from Week 9 and onward. The official depth chart has Foreman as the No. 2 but both backs likely play.
But the passing game has been stuck in first gear under Baker Mayfield. That’s not a killer as long as McCaffrey is cranking 100-yard games. But he’s already hurt and the Panthers are at home in three of the next four weeks. Facing the Cardinals, 49ers, Rams, and Buccaneers are not going to be won by rushing. If McCaffrey is out this week, it pushes Mayfield to throw more than 30 passes for the first time as a Panther. And D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson are always going to lead in targets if only because there are no other real options at receiver.
The Panthers offense has been unbelievably bad outside of McCaffrey. They are going to have to make changes soon or Matt Rhule has to be on a hot seat.