Spotting guys who have overperformed their opportunity and those who have been on the wrong side of what we’ll call variance — because “luck” is so crass — can help us with waiver wire additions, start-sits, and sneaky DFS plays, if you’re into that sort of thing.
That’s my goal with the Regression Files: Pinpointing players seemingly due for regression to the mean, for better or worse.
We’ll start with players who have run cold of late, and who might be due for something of a bounce back in Week 12 and beyond.
Regression Candidates (The Good Kind)
Kenny Pickett (PIT)
That the Steelers offense gained more than 400 yards in Week 12 against the Bengals — something it had not done during Matt Canada’s entire tenure as OC — seems like a fake stat. I assumed it was, in fact, made up, because it defies belief that a team could not crack the 400-yard mark in almost three full seasons. Truly a remarkable feat in the worst way possible.
Pickett’s passing profile changed dramatically in his first Canada-free game. His 8.5 air yards per attempt represented a significant jump from his season-long mark of 7.2. He set season-high marks in average depth of target and adjusted yards per attempt. Suffice it to say Pickett, for once, was pushing the ball downfield (The Athletic has a useful breakdown of exactly how Pittsburgh’s passing attack changed in Week 12).
Pickett remains a touchdown regression candidate. At 1.9 percent, his 2023 TD rate is lower than every quarterback but Daniel Jones. Pickett has six touchdown tosses on 314 passes this season. I know, it seems impossible.
An offensive scheme designed to gain yards and score points should do the trick for Pickett as he prepares to face a heinous Arizona defense giving up the league’s second highest EPA per play. Only the Broncos allow a higher completion rate over expected than the Cardinals. The Regression Reaper should be on Pickett’s side in Week 13 (and maybe beyond).
Christian Watson (GB)
The Regression Reaper finally made his way to Green Bay last week and oversaw Watson finally being less-than-depressing for fantasy purposes. Shout out to the Reaper.
Watson on Thanksgiving caught five of seven targets for 94 yards and a touchdown against the sieve-like Lions secondary.
The touchdowns might keep coming for Watson, who has underperformed bigly compared to the kind of high-value opportunity he’s seen. Watson is second in the NFL with 13 end zone targets this season. He’s tied for the team lead with Romeo Doubs, who has so often spit in the eye of the Regression Reaper and run red hot inside the 20. Watson? Not so much.
The Packers in Week 12 finally utilized Watson’s deep ball prowess. He soaked up 51 percent of the team’s air yards, and his average depth of target (22) was easily a season high. Is this the kind of receiving profile that portends reliable PPR stat lines? It is not. Does a glut of air yards and end zone looks give Watson as much fantasy upside as any wideout outside the top-10? Yes.
Jordan Love has certainly found something with his deep ball over the past couple games. He’s completed four of his eight attempts of more than 20 yards downfield for 122 yards and two touchdowns over those two games. One potential problem for deep ball maven Watson: Love over those two contests has thrown downfield on just 11 percent of his attempts.
Marquise Brown (ARI)
Brown, our prayer yards champion, has compiled more air yards (348) than all but six receivers since Kyler Murray’s Week 10 return to the Arizona lineup. In Week 12, when Brown had six grabs for 88 yards against the Rams, he trailed precisely no one in air yards. Hollywood had prayer yards aplenty in negative game script, gobbling up 48.5 percent of the Cardinals’ Week 12 air yards.
It made for a halfway decent fantasy day, though again it was without a touchdown. Brown has just four touchdowns on the season; he hasn’t found paydirt since late October.
Murray’s passing profile has been a vexing mixed bag in his three 2023 outings. He’s been miserably inaccurate, especially on intermediate passes, completing just 41 percent of his throws between 10-19 yards. Kyler hasn’t exactly been nails on deep throws either, completing five of his 15 attempts of more than 20 yards downfield; his 33 percent mark ranks 18th among quarterbacks over the past three weeks.
For Brown’s purposes, however, it’s vitally important that Kyler is pushing the ball downfield in a way we did not see during Kliff Kingsbury’s horizontal raid reign of terror. Kyler’s 9.5 average depth of target is far higher than his 7.2 aDOT from 2022. For better or worse (it’s definitely for worse), Brown has lined up almost exclusively on the boundary this season. His lack of slot routes means he’s not seeing the kind of layups that smooth over PPR stat lines. That means Hollywood will remain a boom-bust WR3 option who has as much boom upside as any wideout outside the elite tier. The prayer yards could soon be answered. Praise be.
Terry McLaurin (WAS)
The absurdly pass-heavy Washington offense should be able to fuel a nice little run for its top wideout if regression comes through the way I think it will.
Third in pass rate over expected (trialing on the Bengals and Chiefs), the Commanders have been above their expected drop back rate in six of their past seven games. It’s why, as you might have guessed, Sam Howell leads the NFL in pass attempts, completions, and yards. Howell’s touchdown rate (3.7 percent) ranks 20th out of 32 qualifying signal callers. There’s no reason to think the Commanders will try to establish it in the season’s final month; that should mean plenty of volume for McLaurin.
No receiver is further under his expected fantasy output than McLaurin over the past month. He has run ice cold. McLaurin over the past three games has a 38 percent air yards share in the Washington offense (he had 41 percent of the air yards against Dallas in Week 12). Jahan Dotson is second with a meager 14 percent air yards share over that span.
Though McLaurin’s targets per route run (21 percent) remains lower than in recent seasons, pure, uncut passing volume should do the trick for him in the coming weeks.
Evan Engram (JAC)
Engram now has the lovely little distinction of leading the NFL in targets without a single touchdown. Engram — who has run the fourth most tight end pass routes — has 80 targets without finding pay dirt. It’s quite the accomplishment, one that has chipped away at the sanity of those who drafted Engram in August.
T.J. Hockenson and Travis Kelce are the only tight ends with more targets than Engram through Week 12. He narrowly missed a score last week against the Texans; Trevor Lawrence underthrew his wide open tight end.
The problem, as you may know if you’ve looked into Engram’s goose egg in the touchdown department, is that he is not at all involved in the Jaguars’ red zone offense. He has three inside-the-20 targets all season and only one inside the ten yard line. It’s not that the Jags are ultra run heavy in the scoring area. They’re 15th in red zone pass rate over expected. It’s just that Engram is not in the touchdown-scoring plans. It’s been Calvin Ridley or bust inside the 20 for Jacksonville in 2023.
Engram drafters should hold out some hope that regression will eventually hit. The hyper-athletic Engram is seventh among tight ends in yards after the catch per reception, meaning he is one of the league’s few tight ends who can make things happen after the catch. The resurgent Jacksonville offense has averaged 3.3 red zone possessions per game over the past three weeks — the eighth highest mark in the NFL. I believe in Engram’s potential to score at least one (1) touchdown this season.
Regression Candidates (The Bad Kind)
Brandin Cooks (DAL)
Cooks is averaging a whopping 12.7 yards per target over his past two (excellent) games. His fantasy points per route run is more than double what it was before Week 11. Cooks, in other words, has done a lot with a little as the Cowboys passing attack takes no prisoners.
An aDOT of nearly 13 is not exactly what we’re looking for in finding reliable PPR producers. Cooks’ air yards and downfield opportunities in the suddenly pass-first Dallas offense should offer some boom weeks, but there will be down games that leave Cooks drafters crestfallen about their new secret weapon — a WR3 in WR1 clothing. Cooks’ 12.3 percent target share over his past two blowup performances is going to draw the ire of the Reaper sooner or later.
Jakobi Meyers (LV)
Meyers in Week 12 finally got going in the post-Jimmy G era. He caught six of seven targets for 79 yards and a score in Vegas’ loss to the Chiefs. That ended a streak in which Meyers — who functioned as the de facto WR1 with Jimmy Garoppolo under center — was a distant second option to Davante Adams.
Still, his 20 percent target share in Week 12 doesn’t inspire much confidence. Then there’s this: Meyers has scored six touchdowns on his 11 red zone targets this season, including one against KC last Sunday. That’s the sort of hyper efficient production that’ll be tough to rely on down the stretch.
It doesn’t help much that the Raiders are 4 percent below their expected drop back rate since Aidan O’Connell took over at quarterback. The Raiders very much want to be a run-first offense that funnels targets to their alpha wideout. Meyers, more times than not, will be left out of that equation.
Rashee Rice (KC)
I’m going to pretend that I don’t enjoy being a party pooper, that the role of Debbie Downer is one I do not relish: Rashee Rice’s Week 12 production probably can’t last.
That is, of course, unless Rice finally sees a bump toward a full complement of pass routes in the Kansas City offense. His 66 percent route rate in Week 12 against the Raiders netted eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown on the strength of a hefty 42 percent targets per route run (TPRR) rate. Not to dismiss Rice’s superb 29 percent TPRR on the season, but 42 percent is quite a leap — one that likely won’t carry over no matter which KC receiver misses time.
Rice, clearly, has been boosted by the play of his all-universe QB. How do we know this? Because his expected receiving fantasy points are in the range of Jayden Reed, Tutu Atwell, and Robert Woods. Rice just has to get more routes before fantasy managers can bank on him as an every-week WR2 option.
Pat Freiermuth (PIT)
When you clicked on this article you would have bet the kid’s college found that the Muth would land in the negative regression space, and you would have been right. I will not double your child’s college fund though. I’m sorry.
Free from the terrors of Matt Canada’s offense, Freiermuth in Week 12 caught nine of his 11 targets for 120 yards against the Bengals. HIs slot usage was encouraging (49 percent) and his aDOT (9.7) was far higher than his season long aDOT (7.5). That’s good. We’ll take that.
Reasons for skepticism that Freiermuth can keep up the top-end tight end production include his route participation rate, which was 61 percent against the Bengals. Darnell Washington continued to eat into Muth’s routes. It didn’t matter much since Freiermuth was targeted on an unseemly 48 percent of his routes. His targets per route run was a slightly lower 14 percent coming into Week 12.
The Bengals, as you might know, are a screamingly good matchup for tight ends (and anyone else running slot routes). Freiermuth took full advantage of that; you gotta hand it to him. I’m not sure you have to jam Freiermuth into your fantasy lineups though.