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Fantasy Playbook: Which Positive Regression Candidates Are Due for a Breakout?

From Leonard Fournette to Saquon Barkley to even, yes, Odell Beckham Jr., some underperforming fantasy football playmakers could soon explode for patient players. Who is worth betting on?

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The word regression typically comes with a negative connotation, evoking the image of a player who’s taken a massive step back. But regression goes both ways, and that can be crucial in fantasy football. Take Cardinals wideout Christian Kirk, who came in to this week as one of the league’s best positive regression candidates, particularly in the touchdown column: Prior to Sunday, Kirk had seen the second-most targets (53) among all players who had failed to find the end zone, and had been the Cardinals’ top receiver in just about every meaningful fantasy metric, including target share (23 percent), air-yards share (29 percent), and Josh Hermsmeyer’s weighted opportunity rating (0.55). As all of Kirk’s numbers seemed to portend, the second-year pro ended that drought in Arizona’s wild 30-27 loss to the Buccaneers, erupting for 138 yards and three touchdowns and posting an NFL-high 37.8 PPR points (pending Monday Night Football).

Kirk rewarded patient fantasy managers who kept him in lineups on Sunday despite his 3.6-point outing last week—and his performance served as a reminder that volume and opportunity are two of the most powerful indicators for future fantasy production. With Kirk’s predictable breakout in mind, let’s look forward to a few other players who are due for the same type of positive regression down the homestretch.

The Jets’ surprisingly fun 34-27 win against the Giants provided a couple of high-profile examples. All-world running back Saquon Barkley was puzzlingly invisible in the high-scoring affair, and carried the ball 13 times for one yard on the day while adding five catches for 30 yards to notch a disappointing 8.1 PPR points. It was just Barkley’s second single-digit output this season (he notched 7.7 points in Week 3 against the Buccaneers), and won’t help the consensus top preseason pick move up the scoring leaderboard. Barkley, who came in to the week as the per-game RB8 with an 18.2 PPR-point average, seems to be moving in the wrong direction—but he remains a prime positive regression candidate. The versatile back’s underlying usage is strong: He came in to this week second only to Christian McCaffrey in PFF’s expected fantasy points per game metric (19.5), meaning he’s getting the types of high-value touches that typically lead to big fantasy points. Much of his relative fantasy struggles this season fall to a lack of touchdown luck: After scoring 15 times in 2018, Barkley has just three touchdowns in seven games this season. According to ESPN’s opportunity-adjusted touchdowns metric, he came in to the week with 1.7 fewer touchdowns than expected from a statistically average running back. Barkley is decidedly not an average player; as the unquestioned leader in the New York offense, his fantasy-relevant volume should remain strong (assuming he’s not too “banged up” to miss time next week)—so don’t be surprised when the scores start to come in bunches.

As for Barkley’s counterpart in that matchup, Jets star Le’Veon Bell was nearly as ineffective, carrying the ball 18 times for just 34 yards—1.9 yards per carry—but did manage to find pay dirt and punched a 1-yard run into the end zone in the fourth quarter. Along with four catches for 34 yards, Bell finished with a solid 16.8 PPR points, putting him on track for a RB1 finish this week. Bell has had an up-and-down season for the, uh, mercurial Jets, and like Barkley, he has underperformed with just three touchdowns on 187 touches (0.9 fewer touchdowns than expected coming into the game). That lack of touchdown luck makes him a positive regression candidate for the rest of the season—but more than that, Bell’s second-half outlook is particularly rosy because of the cupcake slate of defenses the Jets face down the stretch. Bell has a chance to feast against Washington, Oakland, Cincinnati, and Miami in the next four weeks.

The Jaguars were off this week, but we can’t talk about positive regression candidates without pointing to running back Leonard Fournette, who might take the cake when it comes to a lack of touchdown luck this season. The third-year pro came in to this week as the overall RB5 thanks to a league-high 214 touches, but has scored just one total touchdown on the year. That’s an incredible 4.3 fewer scores than expected, and, for reference, 13 fewer touchdowns than that of Aaron Jones, who’s touched the ball a total of 170 times. Fournette has elite usage as the unquestioned lead back in the Jacksonville offense—and he’s due to start scoring in droves, especially if Nick Foles’s return to the field provides a spark for the Jaguars offense.

Packers pass catcher Davante Adams ranks at or near the top of the positive regression candidate list, too. After scoring 35 touchdowns in the last three seasons, Adams has been held scoreless this season. It doesn’t help, of course, that he missed four games to a toe injury, but after coming in to Sunday with 2.0 fewer touchdowns than expected, he racked up another 10 scoreless targets against the Panthers to match the Chargers’ Mike Williams as the league’s most-targeted receiver (57) without a touchdown. With a 65 percent weighted opportunity rating on the year—sixth highest among all players—the underlying passing game volume is certainly there for a massive stretch run. It’s hard to imagine Adams’s touchdown drought lasting much longer.

Finally, let’s not forget about Odell Beckham Jr. The Browns’ underwhelming offseason addition had another disappointing outing on Sunday, reeling in just five of 12 targets for 57 yards in the team’s 19-16 win against the Bills. And yeah, Beckham drew blanket coverage from elite cornerback TreDavious White, but it was the latest in a series of subpar performances for the superstar pass catcher—and didn’t exactly paint the picture of an impending breakout. It’s not that difficult to imagine Beckham’s struggles continuing for the rest of the year in the Browns’ mostly dysfunctional offense under Freddie Kitchens. But it’s worth noting that Beckham’s volume metrics remain promising: He’s tied for the team lead in target share (25 percent), leads Cleveland in air yards share (37 percent), and has posted a weighted opportunity rating of 0.64, which is tied for seventh among all players. I’m less confident in Beckham’s chances for a massive stretch run than I am for most of the players on this list, but it’s impossible to ignore the consistent opportunity for fantasy points he’s getting in the Browns offense.

OK, on to the rest of the happenings around the league.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: WR Darius Slayton, Giants

Slayton showed out on Sunday, grabbing 10 of 14 targets for 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The explosive rookie is quickly becoming one of quarterback Daniel Jones’s most trusted targets—on Sunday, he joined a short list of first-year wideouts this decade to record multiple two-touchdown games—and with Sterling Shepard’s status uncertain (concussion), the fifth-rounder out of Auburn has the chance to solidify his role on the outside for New York. Slayton has been a boom-or-bust option in the past month (he’s scored 34.1 points, 1.6 points, 19 points, and 4.8 points in his last four games, respectively), but with potential for an extended role down the stretch, he’s an attractive waiver wire add this week as the Giants head into their bye.

Slider: QB Jared Goff, Rams

The unstoppable Rams offense from last year seems like nothing more than a vague, distant memory at this point. Quarterback Jared Goff’s struggles continued in the team’s 17-12 loss to the Steelers, with the $134-million man completing just 22 of 41 passes (his fifth straight game with a sub-60 percent completion rate) for 243 yards and two interceptions to net just 3.7 fantasy points. Goff’s struggles trickled down to his receiving corps, of course, too: The normally reliable Cooper Kupp, who came into the weekend as the overall WR5, was held catchless on four targets. And Todd Gurley—once one of the most dangerous pass-catching backs in the game—was again a nonfactor in the team’s air attack, catching zero of four targets while finishing with 12 rushes for 73 yards (for 7.3 PPR points).

Riser: WR Jarvis Landry, Browns

Beckham may have struggled in this game, but Landry reeled in nine of 10 targets for 97 yards and a touchdown (good for 24.7 PPR points) in Cleveland’s come-from-behind victory over the Bills. The veteran has been the most reliable option in the Browns passing game, picking up some of the slack from Beckham’s sluggish start. Landry caught a touchdown in his second straight game and has now notched double-digit PPR points in five of his last six outings.

Slider: The Entire Colts Offense

Hoyer was a disaster in relief of injured Jacoby Brissett, completing just 18-of-39 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. That ineptitude against the typically dreadful Dolphins defense didn’t exactly boost the fantasy output for the guys around him: Wideout Zach Pascal, a popular waiver wire add this week, mustered just two catches for 26 yards on seven targets; Eric Ebron turned 12 targets into just five catches for 56 yards; and Marlon Mack was held under double-digit points (9.2) despite carrying the ball 19 times. Jack Doyle caught the Colts’ lone touchdown, leading the way with 13.4 PPR points. Until Brissett returns, avoid Colts skill players if you can.

Riser: TE O.J. Howard, Buccaneers

Howard has been one of the most disappointing fantasy tight ends this season and came into the Week as the overall TE41. But in the Buccaneers’ 30-27 win over the Cardinals, the super-athletic pass catcher finally showed up, reeling in four of seven targets for 47 yards and a touchdown—his first trip to the end zone since November 4, 2018. The Cardinals have hemorrhaged points to opposing tight ends all year, so it’s tough to read too much into this relative explosion for Howard, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for the third-year pro.

Slider: RB Latavius Murray, Saints

Murray made the most of his opportunity to lead the Saints backfield with Alvin Kamara on the sideline during Weeks 7 and 8, notching 30-plus PPR points in both outings. But with Kamara back in action, the veteran back posted an absolute dud on Sunday, totaling just 19 yards on seven touches to net 3.9 PPR points. The Saints offense was, overall, uncharacteristically awful against a terrible Falcons defense, so Murray has a chance to bounce back next week against the Buccaneers. But with Kamara back to hogging the passing game target-share (10 targets to Murray’s two), Murray’s ceiling is capped.

Riser: QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bears

Trubisky got a much-needed confidence boost in the Bears’ 20-13 win over the Lions, tossing three touchdowns to net 19.7 fantasy points. That performance cements the embattled signal-caller a spot as a QB1 this week (he’s the overall QB8 coming out of Sunday), with just his second top-12 week this season after finishing 2018 as the QB11 in fantasy points per game. Trubisky remains an extremely low-volume passer and surprisingly limited runner, making his fantasy value dicey at best. But at the very least, this game should hold calls for backup Chase Daniel at bay for at least a week.

Slider: WR Robby Anderson, Jets

Anderson couldn’t take advantage of a juicy matchup against the porous Giants secondary, registering just one catch for 11 yards on three targets (2.1 PPR points). Anderson’s set for another advantageous opponent next week as the Jets face off against the Redskins, but with Jamison Crowder sucking up all the oxygen in the team’s passing game, the big-play threat is nothing more than a desperation flex option at this point after failing to score double-digit PPR points in four straight games.

Cutting Up the Pie

LeSean McCoy gets sent to the Chiefs’ bench

McCoy was a surprise healthy scratch prior to Kansas City’s 35-32 loss to the Titans on Sunday—reportedly a load management strategy meant to keep him fresh down the stretch—which paved the way for Damien Williams to dominate backfield touches for the second straight week. Williams, who logged 19 carries for 77 yards and added five catches on five targets for 32 yards (13.9 PPR points), appears to have the edge on the lead back role in Kansas City, making McCoy—who got just three carries last week—a risky play going forward, fresh legs or not.

The Browns split roles in Kareem Hunt’s return

Nick Chubb retained his lead-back role for the Browns on Sunday, carrying the ball 20 times for 116 yards while playing 83 percent of the offensive snaps. But in his first game back from an eight-game suspension, Hunt had a fantasy-relevant role as the team’s passing-down back in Cleveland’s win over the Bills, seeing nine targets and finishing with seven catches for 44 yards. Hunt is looking like a viable flex option down the stretch.

David Johnson returns to Arizona’s backfield

Johnson returned to the field after missing most of the last three games to an ankle injury. He was not effective in Arizona’s 30-27 loss, carrying the ball five times for just 2 yards while adding one catch for 8 yards and losing a fumble. That performance doesn’t bode well for Johnson’s outlook the rest of the year, and it also ate into the bottom line for the explosive Kenyan Drake, who led the team with 10 carries for 35 yards (while adding six catches for 6 yards). The Buccaneers have been stingy against opposing running backs this season, so we’ll have to wait until next week to see how Arizona divvies up backfield snaps, but if the pass-happy Cardinals end up going with a running back timeshare—which could also include Chase Edmonds, who is currently out with a hamstring injury—it could be tough to trust any Cardinals back.

The Injury Report

Here are a few injuries to monitor for this week.

RB Saquon Barkley, Giants: Barkley got “banged up” in the Giants’ loss to the Jets on Sunday, according to head coach Pat Shurmur, but the team—and Barkley—were mum on the details. The extraordinarily tough runner would have to have a pretty serious injury to miss time, but keep an eye on the injury report this week.

RB Devonta Freeman, Falcons: Freeman sustained a foot injury in the team’s impressive win over the Saints and did not return. With Ito Smith on injured reserve, the team turned to Brian Hill, who carried the ball 20 times for 61 yards. If Freeman misses time, Hill would get the start in the team’s matchup against Carolina next week.

TE Austin Hooper, Falcons: Hooper suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Falcons win and did not return. If the overall fantasy TE1 is forced to miss time, the Falcons may have to turn to veteran Luke Stocker.

RB Ty Johnson, Lions: Johnson left the Lions’ loss to the Bears in the first half with a concussion and did not return. J.D. McKissic (10 rushes, 36 yards; six catches, 19 yards) and Paul Perkins (seven rushes, 9 yards; one catch, 9 yards) took over in the backfield, but neither was especially effective.

Smash the Add Button

Here are a few must-add players to target on this week’s waiver wire.

WR Darius Slayton, Giants (rostered in 10 percent of Yahoo leagues): Slayton’s rapport with fellow rookie Daniel Jones is impossible to ignore. With Sterling Shepard’s status for the rest of the season up in the air, Slayton is poised to see his role grow down the stretch. The Giants are on a bye in Week 11, but grab Slayton before the rush.

RB Brian Hill, Falcons (2 percent): With Freeman’s future availability uncertain, Hill has the opportunity to slide into a starting role for the Falcons in their matchup next week with the Panthers. Hill is a 6-foot-1, 219-pound banger who could see plenty of action in Atlanta’s backfield even if Freeman returns.

RB J.D. McKissic, Lions (21 percent): McKissic is not a between-the-tackles type of runner, but he’s effective in the passing game and could see his snap rate go up if Ty Johnson misses time. The veteran back has seen 11 targets in the past two games, and caught a touchdown pass in Detroit’s loss to the Raiders last week.

QB Nick Foles, Jaguars (20 percent): Minshew Mania is, for now, officially over, and the Jaguars have turned back to Foles to lead the offense through the stretch run of the season. For QB-needy teams or those looking for bye-week fill-ins, Foles is a good option. The Jaguars will face off against a reeling Colts squad next week—and if you’re the type to look a little further forward, Jacksonville will draw a bad Buccaneers defense in Week 13, then the Raiders and Falcons in the heart of the fantasy playoffs in Weeks 15 and 16, respectively.

WR Andy Isabella, Cardinals (1 percent): Isabella just keeps making things happen when given the opportunity. The explosive rookie grabbed three catches for 78 yards on just 26 snaps against the Buccaneers and has now caught six of six targets for 174 yards and a touchdown on the season. The Cardinals may have no choice but to ramp up his usage from here on out. Stash him now if you want to get ahead of his real breakout.

The Watch List

Here’s a pair of players to add to your waiver wire watch list. Be ready to pounce.

RBs Patrick Laird and Myles Gaskin (both zero percent), Dolphins: Kalen Ballage was incredibly inefficient starting in place of the suspended Mark Walton, carrying the ball 20 times for just 43 yards. Neither Laird (who got a pair of carries) nor Gaskin (one target) have a big role in the team’s offense right now, but that could change if Ballage continues to struggle. The Dolphins backfield isn’t producing much for fantasy, but any shaky running back rotation is worth keeping an eye on.