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Fantasy Football: Buy or sell small sample sizes?

Fantasy football analysis can be subjected to small sample sizes, whether that means injury-shortened seasons, a month or two in a starting role or a young player making typical progress. Even a full 16-game slate leaves room for statistical aberrations that can skew our perceptions. Throw in coaching decisions and scheme changes, and there's plenty of reason to further investigate all small sample sizes when it comes to the NFL. 

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The 2019 season offered several small sample sizes worth looking into. I've identified six players who I think will either continue on last year's trajectory and be worthy of their current ADPs or fall back down to Earth. And I'll buy and sell a handful of other players at each position based on my personal 2020 fantasy football rankings for good measure.

Quarterbacks:

Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina Panthers | ADP: QB26 – Buy

Teddy Bridgewater hardly turned heads in fantasy when he took over for Drew Brees during Weeks 3-7. He was the QB18 over that period and was in full-blown game-manager mode. Bridgewater still managed two top-eight fantasy finishes, highlighted by a QB4 spike in Week 5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The way the New Orleans Saints deployed Bridgewater was not conducive to high fantasy production — dinking and dunking his way down the field with an extremely low aDOT (6.1) that ranked 34th of 35 qualifiers. It should not be assumed that the Carolina Panthers under new offensive coordinator Joe Brady will use Bridgewater in a similar manner. Brady’s offense at LSU ranked 15th in aDOT (9.6) with Joe Burrow at quarterback.

When Bridgewater was asked to throw deep in 2019, he posted the second-best (57.1%) adjusted completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 14 deep ball attempts.

Head coach Matt Rhule also proclaimed his excitement about Bridgewater’s ability, specifically referring to his trio of receivers in D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel all as deep-threats.

With a plethora of offensive weapons around him, Bridgewater can lean on his proficiency as an accurate quarterback (81.6% adjusted completion percentage, fourth among qualifiers) and vastly outperform the sample we saw from his last season, especially considering there’s a good chance the Panthers are going to be playing catch-up quite often.

Carolina had the third-most dropbacks when losing by at least seven points in 2019. In Bridgewater’s starts last season, he ranked 14th in total dropbacks when losing by at least seven points.

Bridgewater is not in a Russell Wilson “Let Russ Cook”-type of situation, but at worst he will get to eat a tad bit more on his new team. #LetTeddyEat

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions | ADP: QB12 – Sell

Matthew Stafford was lights-out during the first nine weeks of the 2019 NFL season, ranking as the QB6. He put up career-high numbers in terms of yards per attempt (8.6) and quarterback rating (106.0) while earning the seventh-best PFF passing grade (81.6) in the league, which was the second-highest grade of his career (2013, 83.2)

The addition of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell brought aggressive downfield play-calling to the Lions — Stafford’s aDOT ranked first in the league (11.4). But it remains to be seen whether Stafford was putting up long-term sustainable numbers considering he was averaging 2.4 passing touchdowns per game (6.5% touchdown rate), which is two percentage points higher than his career average (4.5% touchdown rate).

It’s noteworthy as well that Stafford faced an extremely easy schedule early on in 2019. Of the nine teams the Lions faced, only two finished 2019 with top-10 coverage grades on defense: the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. Stafford didn't throw a TD against Green Bay on the road, but against Minnesota he launched four at home to Marvin Jones. That game heavily inflated Stafford’s touchdown total on the season.

Before his injury, Stafford ranked second in the league in touchdowns passes (19), but there should be some concern for regression. Twelve quarterbacks threw at least 17 touchdowns from Weeks 1-9 in 2018. Only Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson were able to repeat the feat in 2019. Ryan Tannehill’s probability for regression in 2020 has been well considered, but the opposite has happened when it comes to Stafford's small 2019 sample. 

Entering 2020, Stafford does not have the luxury of a similarly easy opening strength of schedule, with just one of his first four games projecting as a favorable matchup (Arizona Cardinals, Week 3). He opens the season versus the Chicago Bears (he didn’t play them in 2019), who earned top-15 PFF coverage and pass rush grades in 2019.

There should also be cause for concern that Stafford is coming off a major back injury. And as of this writing he is on the COVID-19/Reserve List. The Lions heavily invested in the backup quarterback position this offseason by signing career backup Chase Daniel to a three-year $13.05 million contract.

The upside is there for Stafford to be a productive fantasy quarterback in 2020, but he seems more destined to fall in the category of a matchup-based streaming option rather than an every-week starter.

Honorable mentions:

Drew Lock, Denver Broncos | ADP: QB23 – Sell
Dwayne Haskins, Washington Football Team | ADP: QB29 – Buy

Running Backs:

Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles | ADP: RB9 – Buy

There have been plenty of debates around Miles Sanders projected usage in the Philadelphia Eagles offense, with optimists latching on to his usage down the stretch after Jordan Howard’s injury. The naysayers continue to refer to Doug Pederson’s historical tendencies to never feed just one running back.

But, let me tell you, the stretch from Weeks 11-16 when Sanders was averaging close to 20 touches per game — averaging 18.75 fantasy points per game and ranking as the RB3 — that was no fluke. His usage resulted in more yards from scrimmage and receptions. He also only scored four of his six touchdowns on the season during that time, which hardly seems like an outlandish number considering how his usage increased.

For the pessimists who still don’t buy-in, just know that Sanders’ 179 carries on the season were the most by a running back in the Pederson coaching era — and Sanders accumulated them in just 11 starts. He only played more than 50% of the team’s snaps in seven games. Sanders is going to be the go-to guy in the Eagles’ backfield — they wanted him to be the guy even before Howard’s injury.

This has been vastly overlooked, but the fact of the matter is that Sanders was playing more than Howard to start the 2019 season. During the first three weeks of the season, Sanders had more carries (33 vs. 25) and played more snaps on offense (95 vs. 59).

The Eagles have yet to add a veteran running back of consequence (sorry, Devonta Freeman). All indications are pointing to Sanders’ haters looking silly after a huge Week 1 performance when he commands the lion’s share of touches. 

Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals | ADP: RB11 – Sell

Unlike Sanders, during his breakout after being traded to the Arizona Cardinals, Kenyan Drake was especially dependent on touchdowns. He scored eight TDs in as many weeks, which vaulted him to RB4 with an average of 19.55 fantasy points per game from Weeks 9-17. During this stretch of games, Drake also averaged four targets per game.

Looking ahead, there’s some real concern that Kyler Murray won’t check down to Drake as much as the fantasy community would hope, hurting his volume in the passing game. Murray attempted the fourth-lowest percentage of check-downs to running backs in 2019.

There should also be major touchdown regression from Drake, considering the team’s addition of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The average total rushing touchdowns scored by the lead running back in an offense that featured Hopkins is just under six touchdowns — the high was only eight (in a full season).

Hopkins is going to see plenty of looks in the red zone in 2020 considering he has accumulated the second-most red-zone targets (113) and most red-zone receiving touchdowns (29) over the past three seasons.

Murray is also a threat to eat into Drake’s touchdowns — the dynamic young QB had 19 rushing attempts inside the 20 but came away with just three rushing scores. Over the past two seasons, any quarterback that has had at least 19 red-zone rushing attempts has averaged six touchdowns.

Once Drake landed in Arizona, he was superb. But spouts of production have been nothing new for him, and paying a late-first-round pick or early second for a player the Cardinals did not extend long-term is too rich for my blood. Give me all the Chase Edmonds in the double-digits.

Honorable mentions:

Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills | ADP: RB23– Sell
Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers | ADP: RB28 – Sell
Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns | ADP: RB29 – Sell
Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers | ADP RB55 Buy

Wide Receivers:

Will Fuller V, Houston Texans | ADP WR32 – Buy

Every season seems like a small sample size when it comes to Will Fuller, who is entering his fifth season and has still yet to play a full 16-game season. He played in 12 games in 2019 (including the postseason) and compiled 759 receiving yards but scored only three touchdowns — albeit all in one game. Only Randall Cobb (three), Deebo Samuel (three) and Robert Woods (two) had more yardage but equal or fewer touchdowns than Fuller in 2019.

With Hopkins no longer in the offense, you better believe that quarterback Deshaun Watson will be looking Fuller’s way frequently. He was already heavily targeting Fuller with Hopkins in the offense — Fuller's targets per route run rate (20.1%) ranked second on the team. 

In the 10-game sample size when Fuller was healthy and did not leave a game due to injury in 2019, he flirted with WR1 numbers, averaging 14.32 fantasy points per game. In these games, he was heavily used as a red-zone target — he actually saw more red-zone targets (21 vs. 14) and end-zone targets (7 vs. 5) than Hopkins.

With Hopkins’ huge chunk of red-zone looks gone from the offense in 2020, you should feel great about starting Fuller every week — just pray we can get a full 16 out of the guy.  

Marvin Jones Jr., Detroit Lions | ADP WR36 – Sell

Like Fuller, Marvin Jones has put up big numbers when he has been healthy. He has three seasons on his resume with at least nine touchdown receptions, the latest coming in 2019. His nine touchdowns were tied with Darius Slayton for the most scored by a player with fewer than 800 receiving yards last season. Touchdown regression is coming, folks, and this would not be out of the norm for Jones based on his career.

The last two times Jones reached at least nine touchdowns (2013, 2017), his TDs dropped by almost 50% in both subsequent seasons. Being touchdown-dependent for fantasy is not always a winning proposition because of the volatility of scoring, especially considering he plays with Kenny Golladay who had 11 touchdown receptions himself last season.

Jones averaged 14.65 fantasy points per game and was a top-15 wide receiver through nine games with Stafford in 2019. Since I'm selling the Lions’ quarterback's small sample, I'm also expecting Jones to take a hit.

It doesn’t help matters that Jones is coming off a 2019 campaign that saw him rank dead last in YAC per reception both with Stafford (1.9) and without him (1.7). If you sell Stafford, you have to sell Jones, too.

Honorable mentions:

Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears | ADP WR50 – Buy
Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts | ADP WR66 – Buy

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