Rich Schultz /Getty Images
By ggramling
October 31, 2014

Keith Goldner

numberFire.com

It seems like just days ago that Adrian Peterson was being taken at the top of fantasy drafts everywhere, while Nick Foles was the quarterback who could do no wrong.

Well, it has actually been about eight weeks, because we are already at the NFL season’s midway point. That means it’s time to look back and check out some of the biggest surprises in the NFL so far—including the good (Golden Tate), the bad (LeSean McCoy), and the ugly.

To evaluate players and teams, we look at their efficiency so far using our internal metric at numberFire.com, Net Expected Points (NEP). A quick refresher on NEP:

NEP compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. Every situation on a football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation (given down, distance-to-go and yard line). For example, the Chiefs may be playing the Steelers, facing a third-and-two on the 50. That’s a ton of variables, but numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be “expected” to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the “expected” point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That’s Net Expected Points.

Keep in mind, we are just looking at the surprise performances. The fact that guys like Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers are dominating is to be expected.

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Quarterbacks

The Good: Tom Brady (+69.1 Passing NEP, 50.2% Passing Success Rate)

Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, without question. Last year, though, he was unquestionably average. Brady ranked No. 14 among all starting quarterbacks with a passing NEP of +68.7, or +0.10 passing NEP per play—right around what the league average has been since 2000. Most people thought that without the proper offensive weapons around him and with his age getting up there, Brady was on the way out.

He started slowly in 2014, and some were even clamoring for the start of the Jimmy Garoppolo era. But since being dominated by the Chiefs in Week 4, Brady has been on point. He currently ranks No. 6 in the NFL with +71.8 total NEP, behind only the other elite quarterbacks: Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. He has already eclipsed last year’s passing NEP total as he is averaging +0.23 points per play, more than double last season.

The Bad: Nick Foles (+18.3 Passing NEP, 42.5% Passing Success Rate)

Foles came into the year as the quarterback of the future for Chip Kelly's high-octane Eagles offense. In 2013, Foles was the league's fourth most efficient quarterback despite having only 346 pass plays. He posted a ridiculous +108.7 passing NEP—a season with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions will do that.

Enter 2014. Foles has 12 touchdowns through seven games, but is tied for third in the NFL with nine interceptions. That is 4.5 times as many interceptions as all of last year. Foles is the No. 22 quarterback so far this year in total NEP and has a dismal passing success rate of 42.5%.

Running Backs

The Good: Ahmad Bradshaw (+27.2 Total NEP, 50.0% Run Success Rate)

Bradshaw played in just three games in 2013 after joining the Indianapolis Colts, carrying the ball 41 times for +4.8 rushing NEP—a solid figure for any running back. He came into 2014 pegged for a second-string role behind Trent Richardson, and at age 28 seemed to be heading into the twilight of his career.

This year he has certainly gotten playing time, although he still does not receive No. 1 running back carries. Despite his role, Bradshaw has been the No. 3 most efficient back in the league, mostly thanks to his contributions as a receiver. He has added +31.8 NEP on receptions so far in 2014 and has been able to maintain an impressive 50.0% run success rate. Only Le’Veon Bell and Matt Forte have been more efficient.

The Bad: LeSean McCoy (-10.6 Total NEP, 37.7% Run Success Rate)

In 2013, his first year in Chip Kelly’s running scheme, McCoy was the most efficient rusher in the NFL, adding +37.1 rushing NEP and a ridiculous 51.3% success rate on 314 rushing plays. On top of that, McCoy added +31.1 NEP in the receiving game and finished the year 0.4 NEP behind the No. 1 overall running back, Jamaal Charles, at +68.2 total NEP added.

Sensing a theme with these Eagles? After scoring 11 touchdowns in 2013, McCoy has just one so far this year. His -10.6 total NEP is the second-worst total in the league, ahead of only Alfred Morris and Donald Brown. To make things worse, his success rate has dropped by almost 14% to a below-average 37.7%. McCoy could certainly get things going again if the Eagles supercharge their offense, but so far, this has been a season to forget.

Wide Receivers

The Good: Golden Tate (+64.7 Receiving NEP, 68.8% Catch Rate)

Tate has been the primary beneficiary of injuries to Calvin Johnson, serving as Matthew Stafford’s go-to-receiver. Tate has done everything possible to fill Megatron's enormous shoes. Through Week 8, Tate is No. 5 in the NFL in receiving efficiency, behind only Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton, Demaryius Thomas and Jordy Nelson. Tate’s 2013 was no joke either, adding +75.2 as Russell Wilson’s primary target, but if he continues to perform even close to the same level, he will surpass last year’s total in two to three weeks.

Honorable Mention: Steve Smith comes in close here as well after a huge resurgence in Baltimore.

The Bad: Cordarrelle Patterson (+23.1 Receiving NEP, 51.0% Catch Rate)

After a solid rookie year, Patterson was one of the hottest up-and-coming prospects in the NFL. Unfortunately, he has never had much help from Vikings quarterbacks—though that could change if Teddy Bridgewater progresses as an NFL passer. Out of receivers with at least 25 receptions in 2014, Patterson has the worst NEP on targets of any receiver, at -10.0. He has only caught 51.0% of balls thrown his way and even on those 25 receptions, he has added only +23.1 receiving NEP.

Last year, Patterson added +45.8 NEP. This season, he’s on pace for similar numbers—not the expected improvement for a young, potential standout receiver.

Tight Ends

The Good: Antonio Gates (+56.7 Receiving NEP, 64.0% Catch Rate)

Much like Tom Brady, many thought the Antonio Gates era was over. Gates, now 34, is near the tail end of his Hall of Fame career and the Chargers have a young talent in Ladarius Green waiting for a chance to shine. Gates had a solid 2013 ranking as the No. 8 tight end, adding +63.6 NEP, but struggled with injuries and gave up many snaps to Green.

Philip Rivers is an MVP candidate, and Gates has been his top red zone target, adding +56.7 receiving NEP on just 32 catches. His +1.13 receiving NEP per target, a measure of his per play efficiency, is the best in the league among any tight end or wide receiver with more than 10 catches. Only Rob Gronkowski, and only because of his domination of a toothless Bears defense in Week 8, has added more to his offense on receptions than Antonio Gates.

The Bad: Vernon Davis (+11.4 Receiving NEP, 60.9% Catch Rate)

Davis finished 2013 as the No. 6 tight end in the NFL, but thanks to injuries and a plague of dropped passes, he has been brutal this year. Davis is the No. 30 ranked tight end and adds only +0.49 NEP per target, less than half of Gates’ league-leading production. With only 14 receptions on 23 targets through Week 8, Davis is on pace for his lowest totals in both since his rookie year back in 2006.


Keith Goldner is the Chief Analyst at numberFire.com - the leading fantasy sports analytics platform. Follow him @keithgoldner and check out numberFire on Facebook or Twitter 

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