Knowing which players might regress is a helpful little thing in not falling for lineup-setting pitfalls that can make your Sunday afternoons so wildly frustrating.
I’m going to use this space every week to highlight players who are overproducing (or underproducing) based on their workload, playing time, and opportunity.
These players, as you may have guessed by the title of this series, are running hot (or cold), and it’s important to identify these guys before we make our excruciating weekly start-sit roster decisions.
I’ll often reference “the process” in this column, for without good process, we have nothing. Other common and possibly annoying fantasy analyst terms that will make frequent appearances in this space: Volatility, luck, variance, air yards, target share, route participation, and expected touchdowns. Spotting players who are running hot (or cold) can be useful for both redraft and DFS purposes; it’s the ugly plays that often win the big bucks in large-field DFS tournaments.
Week 1 is a little tricky because, well, it’s the regular season opener and no one has played a meaningful snap since last February. I’ll base most of the below analysis on so-called regression candidates from the 2022 season. By Week 3, we’ll have enough data to move away from 2022 numbers.
Geno Smith (SEA)
This is not a plea for you to reconsider starting Geno this week against what should be an atrocious Rams defense. He’s a rock-solid option with Seattle sporting a hefty 25.75 implied total.
I would like to gently note, however, that Geno’s 2022 touchdown rate of 5.3 percent was well above his career rate of 4.1 percent. The Seahawks last year weren’t exactly pass heavy where it counts the most: Geno averaged a lowly 1.5 green zone pass attempts per game. He ran red hot on those inside-the-ten attempts, turning a whopping 36 percent of those throws into touchdowns. That was about as good as Patrick Mahomes.
Geno will be fine as a fantasy option this season. I think his touchdown production could be a tad frustrating though.
Ryan Tannehill (TEN)
Hopefully you’re not in the kind of dark place that requires you to start Tannehill in a one-QB league. But if you are, godspeed. I will host a candlelight vigil for your fantasy team.
Like with Geno, this is not necessarily about Week 1. Tannehill, taking on a stingy New Orleans defense that last year gave up the eighth lowest drop back EPA, profiles as a strictly superflex option.
Fantasy managers should be aware of what may be some regression opportunity for Tannehill in 2023. His touchdown rate -- which sat at a pretty 7.3 percent during his first two seasons in Tennessee — has been around 4 percent for the past two years. And his air yards conversion rate has slipped from north of 60 percent from 2019-2020 to 51 percent last year without a marked change in average depth of target (aDOT).
Perhaps Tannehill, 35, has reached the quarterback cliff a few years earlier than most and he has little chance of rediscovering his 2020 form. But if not -- if you believe a terrible receiver group and injuries are to blame -- then the addition of DeAndre Hopkins and the possible emergence of Treylon Burks and Chig Okonkwo could offer Tannehill the best set of pass-catching weapons of his career. He could be a valuable option in deeper leagues this season.
Brian Robinson (WAS)
Robinson, as Rotoworld’s Zachary Krueger mentioned in August, had a bunch of lousy touchdown luck in 2022. Coming back from a gunshot wound in Week 5, Robinson saw 52 percent of the Commanders’ rushing attempts (to Antonio Gibson’s 31 percent) and managed just two rushing touchdowns on nearly 800 rushing yards. He totaled three scores, well short of his 5.8 expected touchdowns.
Robinson was the team’s preferred short-area ball carrier. His 14 rushes from inside the ten yard line led the Commanders and, accordingly, his 118 expected fantasy points were tops among Washington backs.
Robinson told reporters in August that he feels better both physically and mentally headed into his sophomore NFL season — hardly a surprise considering the nearly-tragic circumstances of his first pro campaign. If Robinson is the Commanders’ primary rusher and goal line back — and by all indications, that will be the case — his Week 1 prospects could hardly be better when accounting for where Robinson was taken in 12-team redraft leagues. The Commanders are seven-point home favorites against the dead-on-arrival Cardinals. It doesn’t really matter who Jonathan Gannon starts under center; Washington should see plenty of positive game script, the kind that fuels a run-heavy attack.
Graded by Pro Football Focus as last year’s fifth worst rush defense, Arizona struggled against the run and allowed the third most running back touchdowns in 2022. If they weren’t so awful against the pass, the Cardinals would’ve been gouged to an even greater degree on the ground.
Joe Mixon (CIN)
Probably you’re setting and forgetting Mixon as a Week 1 fantasy starter against Cleveland. So I won’t waste too much time telling how horrifically inefficient and (perhaps) unlucky Mixon was in 2022.
He had nine rushing touchdowns, which doesn’t sound all that bad until you realize his expected rushing scores sat at 13.6 by the end of 2022. Mixon managed to turn a mere six of his 29 inside-the-ten carries into touchdowns. Only Jamaal Williams had more green zone rushes than Mixon last season. He just so happened to convert that opportunity into 15 green zone scores.
Only Austin Ekeler, per my compatriot Zach Krueger, has more expected touchdowns than Mixon over the past two seasons. This week Mixon takes on a Browns defense that was among 2022’s most extreme run funnels — meaning opponents ran at a high rate in all situations. No team allowed a higher EPA per rush than the Browns last season. Mixon is in a quietly fantastic spot to start the year.
Diontae Johnson (PIT)
I may have been arrested and held without bond if I didn’t mention Johnson in a touchdown regression article. I’d rather not go to prison, so here’s Johnson, in all his touchdown-less glory.
You know the stat by now: Johnson in 2022 somehow, some way, saw 140 targets and did not log a single touchdown. It seems impossible, I know. The analytics nerds will never recover. The entire Pittsburgh offense is all but destined for massive touchdown regression (the good kind) in 2023, and what better time to start than in Week 1 against the 49ers.
Johnson in 2022 was 14th in red zone receiver targets (17) and again — I cannot emphasize this enough — didn’t score a touchdown. He was ninth among receivers in expected fantasy points. Maybe you drafted Johnson as your WR3 or WR4 this summer, but you should look very strongly into jamming him into your Week 1 lineup even in a less-than-desirable matchup against a San Francisco defense graded by PFF as 2022’s fourth best coverage unit.
Marquez-Valdes Scantling (KC)
I’m not sure who would be in position to force MVS into their Week 1 lineups unless you’re in a 14-team league with multiple flex spots. If so, this one’s for you.
Valdes-Scantling was his usual frustrating fantasy self in 2022. He posted the league’s second worst routes per touchdown rate, with a targets per route run (16 percent) outside the top-100 wideouts. He scored two touchdowns on 81 targets. You have to give it to Marquez though: The man did his wind sprints and got some good exercise.
But wait, there’s more! MVS was second in air yards among Kansas City pass catchers, just 30 air yards shy of team leader Travis Kelce. Probably not to your great surprise, MVS ranked fourth among receivers in downfield target rate (27.7 percent). The nature of Valdes-Scantling’s role in the Chiefs offense is going to be volatile and usually maddening for fantasy purposes. Even so, he ran bad throughout the 2022 season. In fact, he had the league’s sixth lowest rate of catchable targets last year.
He’ll likely remain the primary deep target for Patrick Mahomes. Against a Detroit defense that gave up the second highest yards per pass attempt (7.5) last season, that’s good enough for me. Travis Kelce (knee) possibly missing Thursday night's game would free up close to 30 percent of KC's targets. Some of those might filter to Valdes-Scantling.
Darius Slayton (NYG)
Slayton, whether we like it or not, is New York’s No. 1 wideout coming into the season. Last year he functioned as Daniel Jones’ top receiver from Week 5 on, though it didn’t generate much in the way of touchdowns. Slayton had a pair of scores on 71 targets and a dominant 35 percent air yards share.
It doesn’t help that the Giants in 2022 were among the run heaviest teams, or that Daniel Jones plainly and simply refuses to throw downfield (or make any tough throws at all). Slayton’s opportunity should be locked in, however, unless and until rookie Jaylin Hyatt emerges as the team’s WR1. Consider Slayton as a flex option in 12-team leagues in New York’s opener against Dallas.
Christian Kirk (JAC)
If you took Kirk in a 12-team league, you’re probably starting him in a pretty sweet matchup against the Colts. That’s fine. I won’t publicly chastise you for this, nor will I come to your home and chastise you. This is my pledge.
In keeping with this column’s theme, Kirk ran hot in 2022, particularly in the green zone, where he converted all six of his targets into touchdowns. He scored a career high eight touchdowns; seven of them came in the red zone.
Enter potential alpha wideout Calvin Ridley and a little touchdown backsliding and Kirk could profile as a WR3 instead of a locked-in WR2 option. But again, you’re starting him against a Colts defense that should be generous to opposing passing attacks.
Cole Kmet (CHI)
Kmet had a mind-bending touchdown run last season — one that put me, a committed Kmet fader, in a coma for ten days. It was a dark period.
The Bears tight end caught five touchdowns on 11 receptions from Week 8-10. On the season, he ran as hot as any tight end in the game: On a measly ten red zone targets, Kmet scored six touchdowns. Unless his route participation takes a jump and the Bears become way more balanced on offense in 2023, fantasy managers starting Kmet are chasing last year’s unsustainable touchdown production.
Cade Otton (TB)
Is this a tough sell? It is. Nevertheless, I persist in telling you that Otton — his team’s third-best pass catching option at best — scored just two touchdowns on 65 targets in 2022. No tight end had a worse route per TD rate than Otton, who finished sixth in tight end pass routes in Tampa’s pass-heavy Brady-era offense.
Things have changed in Tampa Bay, as you may have heard. The Bucs have undergone what some might call a quarterback downgrade in switching from the for-now-retired Tom Brady to journeyman Baker Mayfield. Even so, Otton might be due — to use a technical term — if he continues running a solid route share in the Tampa offense. I will concede that his targets per route run rate (16 percent) from 2022 does not inspire much confidence.
The Bucs will likely be chasing points against the heavily favored Vikings in Week 1. That could easily lead to a bunch of routes and targets for Otton, who makes for a viable streamer and a halfway decent DFS run-back option alongside a Vikings stack.
Hunter Henry (NE)
It’s only a matter of time before the Patriots’ Mike Gesicki Experiment blows up and Bill Belichick pulls the plug. Old Bill isn’t here for a tight end who won’t block and thinks he’s a wide receiver.
That leaves Henry as the Patriots’ main pass-catching tight end, someone who will be on the field far more than Gesicki because he does novel stuff like run block and pass block. Legendary Upside’s Pat Kerrane has shown this is a key in finding tight end fantasy production.
Henry ran colder than cold (ice cold) last season, with two touchdown grabs on 59 targets. None of his eight targets inside the red zone resulted in touchdowns. Facing an Eagles team that could force New England to pass more than they’d like in the season opener, Henry has the makings of a worthwhile waiver wire option and a cheap way to stack the Eagles-Patriots game in DFS. I’m guessing this will not be a widely targeted game on the main slate.