Higgins caught eight of nine targets for 111 yards against the Bills, and missed out on a short touchdown when he was tackled by the skin of his shoelaces in the second half, and another score when he stepped out of bounds at the two yard line before leaping into the end zone. It’s been a story of air yards conversion for Higgins this season: Coming into Week 9, he had converted a miserable 29 percent of his air yards into actual, real life receiving yards. That was well short of his career 61 percent conversion rate.
Then came Sunday night, when Higgins converted 88 percent of his air yards (his season-long rate climbed to 37 percent). Mercifully, we saw his average depth of target sink to 9.1, considerably lower than his 11.4 aDOT on the season. That means, in short, that Higgins saw the sort of targets that can smooth over otherwise-uneven performances. We can work with this kind of usage. With a seemingly healthy Joe Burrow going brrrrr once again, look for Higgins’ regression to continue in the coming weeks.
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 10 and beyond.
Regression Candidates (The Good Kind)
Tyler Allgeier (ATL)
Allgeier, to the everlasting chagrin of Bijan Robinson drafters, is 21st among running backs in expected fantasy points through Week 9 (Bijan is 12th). That’s what happens when a back is fed touches in the green zone. That Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, sans mustache, talked up Allgeier’s short yardage and goal line abilities this week probably means Allgeier will remain the team’s primary option where it counts the most.
There are a mere seven running backs further under their expected fantasy production than Allgeier. That might be concerning if the Falcons had made any effort this season to be a balance offense. They haven’t, at least check. In fact, Atlanta is dead last in pass rate over expected (-8.4 percent). The Falcons have had a single game in 2023 with a drop back rate over expected. We can bank on continued volume for Allgeier and, to a lesser extent, Robinson.
Allgeier has been a far worse rusher in 2023 than he was as a rookie in Smith’s scheme. Today he’s 26th in rush yards after contact per attempt; in 2022, he was sixth. Allgeier was fifth in Pro Football Focus’ elusive rating last season; today he ranks 29th. If Allgeier gets back to his rookie year form and is slightly more efficient in the season’s second half, he should be a (very) useful fantasy option in deeper formats and for managers scraping bottom at the running back spot.
Alexander Mattison (MIN)
I have made every effort over the past two months to avoid putting Mattison in this space because, simply put, he’s really quite bad, per every conceivable metric. I won’t bore you with the details, but trust me when I say Mattison — again, according to all human measurements — is below replacement level.
Thankfully, as I outlined in July, it doesn’t matter if a running back is bad. NFL coaches don’t care at all if a back isn’t producing, isn’t getting more than what’s blocked, isn’t doing anything with their pass game opportunities. Coaches like reliable running backs, even if they are reliably mediocre. Mattison fits that bill.
Cam Akers’ Achilles tear, unless he consults with Dr. Aaron Rodgers about quick fixes to the catastrophic injury, will end his 2023 season and plunge Mattison into something close to an every-down role in the Minnesota offense. It’s not as if Mattison has wanted for opportunities this season: He’s seventh in the NFL in total opportunities (rushes plus targets) with 156. That accounts for 30 percent of the Vikings’ total team opportunities. It makes little sense, yet we must accept it, for acceptance is often the first step in not sucking in fantasy football.
Akers from Week 7-9 logged 28 rushes to 40 for Mattison. In Week 8 against Green Bay, Akers had nine carries while Mattison had 16, and Akers saw most of the green zone snaps. He was eating into what had been a safe rushing workload for Mattison. I expect Mattison to reclaim more (maybe all) of that workload with Akers sidelined.
Mattison’s pass-catching role is as good as a running back’s can be. Only six backs have run more pass routes than Mattison this season and no back has more red zone targets (10) than Mattison. This, naturally, has led the three touchdown receptions inside the 20 yard line. Unless Ty Chandler suddenly seizes that route-running, pass-catching role in the pass-first Minnesota offense, Mattison’s PPR prospects should include a solid floor, at worst. No running back is further under his expected fantasy points than Mattison. I know: You’re shocked.
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Marquise Brown (ARI)
My interns threatened to strike if I wrote up Brown again in the Regression Files. I worked out a deal that included some of my kids’ best Halloween candy and the interns called off the work stoppage. So here’s Brown again, featured in this (good) regression space.
We can’t take away much from Arizona’s Week 9 concession to the Browns. Clayton Tune was sacrificed to Myles Garrett and company and the Cardinals managed a truly stunning 58 total yards on offense. This is where I tell you Brown had a 76 percent air yards share (39 air yards) in the Tune Meltdown Game.
It’s par for the proverbial course for Brown, who now has a cool 40 percent of Arizona’s air yards and has more total air yards than all but eight wide receivers on the season. The potential return of Kyler Murray in Week 10 — an outcome that apparently is not on Jonathan Gannon’s busy mind — could turn these Hollywood prayer yards into something slightly more tangible.
A word of caution: Kyler in 2022 was not the best air yards converter. In fact, he was quite bad. His air yards conversion rate in Kliff Kingsbury’s dysfunctional offense was just 44 percent, around Marcus Mariota and Carson Wentz. It’s quite the remarkable rate considering Murray had the league’s third lowest aDOT in 2022. Hopefully a new offense leads to better results for Murray and his prayer yards getter, Hollywood Brown.
KhaDarel Hodge (ATL)
"Who", you ask, perplexed and agitated.
Hodge, with Drake London sidelined with a groin injury and Mack Hollins out with an ankle issue, led the Falcons in targets (6) and air yards (135) in Week 9 against Minnesota. Hodge’s 69 percent route rate led the team, which is nice. That he ended up with three grabs for 61 scoreless yards doesn’t really matter for our purposes.
If London remains out in Week 10 — maybe even if London is active -- Hodge could have a role in the run-first, run-always Atlanta offense. Taylor Heinicke reportedly said he was more comfortable with Hodge than any other Falcons pass catcher headed into Week 9, perhaps because he worked with Hodge on the second-team offense before taking over the starting gig from Desmond Ridder.
Hodge very nearly came down with a 20-yard touchdown in the Falcons’ loss to the Vikings. Though the Falcons remained well below their expected pass rate with Heinicke under center, Hodge could be a sneaky fantasy option if London remains sidelined in Week 10 against the Cardinals.
Cooper Kupp (LAR)
Things are bleak for Kupp drafters, who waited with inhuman patience for their guy to get healthy only to watch his fantasy prospects wither away with Matthew Stafford’s finger injury. Nevertheless, you persist.
While Kupp in Week 9 had six targets to seven looks for both Puka Nacua and TuTu Atwell’s seven, he dominated air yards with a 50 percent share from Brett Rypien. Over his past three miserable outings, Kupp is 12th among wideouts in air yards. His plummeting air yards conversion rate is thanks entirely to Rypien’s shortcomings and Stafford’s immense accuracy struggles before his Week 8 finger injury.
You have to keep on keeping on with Kupp in your lineup. His Week 7-9 top-20 weighted opportunity rating — a blend of air yards share and target share — demands you do.
Chig Okonkwo (TEN)
Okonkwo, the latest in a line of tight ends who were super-efficient in a run-first offense, has predictably not been fantasy viable for much of the season. He has a mere two games with more than four targets in the Titans’ hyper-conservative offense, 26th in pass rate over expected through Week 9.
We’ve seen Okonwo’s target-commanding ability sink in 2023. Last year, he saw a target on 26.2 percent of his pass routes, leading to some pretty hot fantasy lines (thanks to an absurd and sustainable 7.8 yards after the catch per reception). That target per route run rate has fallen to 17.7 percent this season. That, however, comes with a silver lining: Chig is running a decent number of routes of late, unlike his limited 2022 route-running usage.
Okonkwo has run a route on 68 percent of Tennessee’s drop backs this season, or 25 routes per game. Just last week, he was sixth among all tight ends with 37 routes (67 percent route rate). And in two games with Will Levis under center, Okonkwo is second on the Titans in targets (10). It’s not much, but it’s something. He’s in a pretty good spot in Week 10 against a Tampa defense that has allowed the eighth most tight end receptions this year and was just roasted by Dalton Schultz in Week 9. The Bucs have bled fantasy points to pass catchers lining up in the slot and Okonkwo is running about 65 percent of his routes from the slot. You could (probably) do worse than Chig this week.
That the Titans showed last week that they were willing to air it out a bit (3 percent over their expected drop back rate) can’t be bad for Okonkwo.
Regression Candidates (The Bad Kind)
Gus Edwards (BAL)
Gus Bus is wrecking the analytics nerds week after week, taking no prisoners, stiff-arming the Regression Reaper, and just rolling into the end zone again and again. Stop asking if I’m triggered. You know the answer.
But please, let’s get real. Gus has scored a touchdown on 25 percent of his rushing attempts over the past three games. For the love of muh math, he had two scores on just five carries in Week 9’s demolition of the Seabags. Edwards has found the end zone on seven of his 12 inside-the-ten rushes and six of his eight carries inside the five. Surely this is related to teams panicking about Lamar making a fool of them on run-pass options. It also can’t sustain.
Edwards has been all but a non-factor in the Baltimore passing offense, running a route on 23 percent of Lamar Jackson’s drop backs and seeing three targets over the team’s past three games (one of those targets resulted in a 66-yard reception). Gus is getting away with it in the most maddening ways possible.
The Week 9 emergence of speed merchant Keaton Mitchell could (should) turn the Ravens backfield into a messy three-way split between Gus, Mitchell, and Justice Hill. As Rotoworld’s Zachary Krueger mentioned, Hill was used in cleanup duty in last week’s blowout of Seattle. That could mean a Gus-Mitchell split going forward. Maybe.
For people interested in what kind of upside Keaton Mitchell might have going forward:
* Handled four carries for 8, 9, 9, 11 yards when the score was 7-0 in Q2.
* Last rush came at 11:27 mark in Q4.
Justice Hill had six ruATTs AFTER that 11:27 mark when starters were pulled.
— Zachary Krueger (@ZK_FFB) November 6, 2023
It’s possible you don’t have a better running back option than Edwards if you’re struggling at the position in a deep 12-team league or a 14-teamer. This is just a warning that the Reaper is coming for Gus Bus. You might want to trade him and cash in on his mind-melting touchdown rate. If you keep him in your lineup, know he is nothing more than a touchdown-dependent back.
Rashee Rice (KC)
I agonized for days — or minutes, it’s hard to say — over whether to place Rice in the good regression or bad regression part of this article. Because, as you might recall, the rookie has been uber efficient but has not seen a full complement of snaps and routes in the KC offense. One would think solid play would result in more playing time. And one would be wrong.
Kadarius Toney knows what it’s like to be wildly efficient on few routes and targets and never get a sniff at a full set of routes. Now it’s Rice’s turn. In Week 9 against the Dolphins, Rice was stuck at his usual 60 percent route rate and caught both of his targets for 17 yards and a touchdown. The efficiency continued but the role is not — so far — expanding.
We’ve seen Chiefs pass catchers get away with it in previous seasons — think Jerick McKinnon in 2022 — because KC is so unapologetically pass heavy in the red and green zones. Patrick Mahomes’ 50 inside-the-20 pass attempts lead the league by a healthy margin. Andy Reid's offense, to no one's surprise, has the league's second highest pass rate over expected in the red zone. Sometimes that’s going to result in a weird number of touchdowns for a guy not being regularly targeted. So far in 2023, that’s been Rice.
Rice’s 11 red zone targets this season rank seventh among all wideouts. It’s more than guys like A.J. Brown and Jaylen Waddle. Rice has caught four of his five inside-the-ten targets for three touchdowns. He’s run hot -- real hot. Maybe he retains that high-value role in the Kansas City offense and continues to get by on touchdown production. If he doesn’t, Rice becomes unviable for any fantasy format, no matter how deep, because he’s not playing enough snaps and running enough routes. Sometimes it is that simple.
Gabe Davis (BUF)
How can a receiver who has two goose eggs in three weeks be in this part of the Regression Files? Have I made a mistake and placed old Gabe in the wrong section? I have not. Incredibly, I have not.
Only 12 receivers are further over their expected fantasy points than Davis. In other words, even with those two recent zero-catch games, Davis is running statistically hot in 2023. He’s caught a touchdown on 10.6 percent of his receptions this season, up from 7.4 percent in 2022. Davis has been on the right side of variance on downfield targets, scoring a touchdown on 16.2 percent of his deep ball opportunities this season. Last year, that rate was 12 percent. Probably you have to keep starting Davis in a Bills offense with the league’s fourth highest pass rate over expected. Be aware that the Regression Reaper might keep coming for the boom-bust Buffalo wideout.
As long as Dawson Knox is sidelined, Bills slot guy Khalil Shakir will likely be a far more reliable PPR option than Davis.