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Top bounce-back candidates

8/20/2014

The crew on the Fantasy Focus Football podcast can often be heard saying, "The hate has gone too far," when discussing a player the market has soured on -- too harshly in its opinion -- for whatever variety of reasons. In this piece, we're looking into players previously considered top commodities at their positions that, after disappointing 2013 seasons, have seen their stock deflated heading into 2014. The core question being, has the "hate gone too far" with some of these fallen stars? Who is due to bounce back?

Investors must determine whether an underwhelming campaign is an outlier in an otherwise positive series of seasons or a foreboding trend of things to come. Are the wheels coming off, or was it just a momentary flat that influenced the dip in production?

We'll begin this investigation behind center with Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who finished 14th in ESPN standard scoring at the position last season.

The case for Matt Ryan (and Roddy White)

Missing two of his three best targets for a portion of the season resulted in an 18 percent dip in fantasy production from 2012 (291 points) to 2013 (239) for Ryan. The table below details the production dependency we've seen from Ryan to his top three targets over the past three seasons, or since Julio Jones came to the Falcons.

Matt Ryan production breakdown (2011-13)

Since 2011, the conversion rate for quarterbacks is 23.1 attempts per touchdown pass. Ryan registered a subpar 25 attempts per TD in 2013 after posting a healthy 19.7 rate from 2010 to 2012. If Ryan converted his 651 passing attempts last season at his 2010-12 clip, he would have posted 33 touchdowns (and ranked fourth among QBs in fantasy points, one point behind Cam Newton). Had Ryan's star receivers been healthy, it's entirely conceivable for that 19.6 att/TD rate to have been achieved.

Ryan's per-target fantasy point production (0.59) to Jones since 2011 compares favorably to other special connections, such as Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson (0.55) and Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall (0.44). Forgiving his injury-plagued 2013, White posted the second-most fantasy points among receivers from 2010 to 2012 in both standard and PPR scoring. Jones is appropriately priced as an elite commodity, but White is going off the board as the 19th wide receiver in ESPN live drafts, pick No. 51 on average. Just like his QB, there is bounce-back profit written all over White this season.

Ryan ranks fifth in QBR since 2010, fourth in yardage and fantasy points, sixth in touchdowns and, arguably most importantly, second in pass attempts. The Falcons passed the ball 56 percent of the time in 2011, 62 percent in 2012 and a league-high 67 percent in 2013. Even with these positive production trends, Ryan simply isn't an exciting commodity to investors. You can find him as late as the ninth or 10th round, as Ryan is going as the 12th QB in ESPN live drafts at pick 88.6 overall on average.

Finding value isn't difficult at quarterback this season, but I would argue that Ryan is the premier value of all these capable quarterbacks past the top trio of arms, even despite losing the trusty Tony Gonzalez. We basically just witnessed Ryan's statistical floor in 2013, and I would argue we have yet to see him hit his production ceiling. At the helm of one of the league's pass-heaviest offenses, with a duo of superstar wideouts, Ryan is reasonably capable of producing a top-five season at the position simply by returning to his 2010-12 att/TD clip while meeting our realistic projection of 627 attempts.

The case for Victor Cruz

Only Peyton Manning and Colin Kaepernick outscored Cruz in Week 1 last season. And then the rest of the season happened. After a three-salsa-dance debut, the New York Giants wide receiver was tied with Brandon LaFell for 44th among wide receivers in standard points the rest of the way. It was an ugly season for Cruz and his investors alike. Thanks to the down season, Cruz is currently going 18th among WRs in ESPN live drafts, at pick 47.3 overall.

New Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is installing a receiver-friendly West Coast scheme ported over from Green Bay, one that plans to feature Cruz from the slot as well as out wide. "I do see myself as a Randall Cobb," Cruz told the New York Daily News earlier this offseason. "I'm excited to be all over the field this year."

A higher-volume role would be welcomed, especially since Cruz has always been a big-play and big-game producer. Since 2011, Cruz has posted double-digit fantasy points in 43 percent of his games, with 19.5 percent of his outings topping 20 fantasy points. In that same span, only Calvin Johnson (15) has more games with at least 20 standard fantasy points than Cruz's nine. Also in the past three seasons, only Johnson (18) and Brandon Marshall (13) have more outings than Cruz (12) that include at least 100 receiving yards and a touchdown registered. Cruz was already somewhat of a boom-or-bust fantasy producer given the nature of his bunched scoring history, and last season we likely witnessed the worst case of his scoring pattern given Eli Manning's awful season.

A positive correction is on the way for Manning and the Giants' passing personnel in general. Despite a historically bad 2013 season, the larger sample suggests Manning at least returns to league-average play. Manning finished in the top 10 in passing scores each year from 2009 to 2012 and averaged more than 28 passing touchdowns. He posted an above-league-average 19.2 att/TD in that span before falling all the way to a lowly 30.6 att/TD last season. Even just a return to a league-average att/TD conversion range would propel better seasons from Manning's targets, namely Cruz.

The case for Heath Miller

You might not remember it, and you might not believe it, but Pittsburgh Steelers TE Miller scored the fourth-most standard fantasy points at the position in 2012. It's true, though: Miller posted 71 receptions, 816 yards and 8 TDs that season.

Coming off an ACL injury suffered late in that stellar 2012 campaign, Miller was an afterthought in leagues last season. Despite scoring just once in 2013, some underlying metrics, such as a stellar 74.4 percent reception rate and career-high 30.8 routes per game, suggest Miller remains an important target for Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger attempts to current Steelers (2011-13)

Targets inside 10-yd line, current Steelers (2011-13)

Roethlisberger's red zone chemistry with Miller is also worthy of mention, as 19 of the quarterback's 40 passing attempts inside the 10 last season -- including 11 of his 14 touchdowns from that distance -- went to departed targets Emmanuel Sanders (10 targets, 5 TDs) and Jerricho Cotchery (9 targets, six TDs). Sanders and Cotchery take with them 113 receptions, 188 targets and 1,342 yards from last year's passing game.

Despite Miller receiving basically zero fantasy hype heading into the season (ADP 15th among TEs, at pick 134.8 on average), a return to top-10 fantasy production at the position, and arguably higher, could be on the way given this valuable void in the passing game and a proven rapport with Roethlisberger.