Why Philip Rivers, DeMarco Murray may see a regression this season
By B.J. Rudell, special to SI.com
The quarterback you drafted in the seventh round is playing like a second rounder. The running back you grabbed off waivers a few weeks ago has helped propel you to three straight wins. Life is good.
But it doesn’t mean life will always be this good.
The reality is, after reaching unexpected heights, most players’ fortunes are destined to drop. The only question is how low.
The following eight players are at risk of underperforming as the season progresses, making them strong sell-high candidates:
QB Jay Cutler
Cutler is having a career year, which ironically is not a good sign. Sure, he’s tied for third in fantasy points among quarterbacks and is on pace for a career-high 35 passing touchdowns. He has arguably the top tailback in the league and one of the league’s top receiving corps. But there are signs that this glorious ride will veer off course.
He’s thrown more than two touchdowns in a game only four times in his last 45 contests, during which time he’s averaged only 227 passing yards per game. By comparison, the perennially mediocre Eli Manning -- a good barometer for a fantasy player’s worth -- has tossed more than two scores 10 times, and has averaged 248 passing yards, during his last 45 games.
No one should expect Cutler to maintain his current pace. Although capable of posting career numbers, he’ll likely finish the year outside the top seven fantasy quarterbacks.
QB Philip Rivers
After enjoying his best season in 2013, Rivers is headed for yet another one in 2014. He’s on pace for 4,683 passing yards and an unearthly 40:5 touchdown to interception ratio. Nothing to worry about, right?
Wrong. Rivers got off to a blistering start last year (three 400+ yard games in his first five), only to tail off dramatically, with six one-touchdown efforts in his final 11 contests. The combination of a soon-to-return Ryan Mathews and potential breakout running back Branden Oliver should cut somewhat into Rivers’ touchdowns. Meanwhile, his 71.8 completion percentage during his last five games is higher than Drew Brees’ all-time, single-season record. What Rivers has achieved cannot reasonably be expected to continue.
Being mindful that his fantasy playoff schedule (Patriots, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs) is no cakewalk, the veteran San Diego quarterback should settle into low-end QB1 territory by midseason.
RB DeMarco Murray
Murray is on pace for an unfathomable 2,093 rushing yards and 16 scores, and a troubling 424 carries -- a rushing total that would nearly double his season high and exceed the single-season NFL record. The concern is heightened by the fact that he’s missed eight games in his first three seasons due to injury.
Watch for Murray’s average weekly carries to drop from 26.5 to 18-20, as the talented Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle get more involved. That will downgrade Murray from the top fantasy running back to around fourth or fifth by season’s end -- that is, if he avoids injury.
RB Justin Forsett
When the season started, most prognosticators believed Ray Rice and/or Bernard Pierce would lead the Ravens’ rushing attack all year. Now it’s Forsett who appears best positioned to carry the mantle. But if you’re on this bandwagon, it’s time to jump off.
The 28-year-old journeyman’s best season was his rookie campaign in 2009, when he amassed 969 total yards and five touchdowns on 155 touches. Five years and three changes of scenery later, he’s tallied a remarkable 6.4 yards per carry, and is on pace to exceed his record backfield workload by 45 percent. Meanwhile, don’t count out the much younger Pierce (23) or Lorenzo Taliaferro (22), who are on the verge of eating into Forsett’s numbers.
Forsett is currently the eighth ranked fantasy tailback. As tempting as it is to anticipate more of the same, a more realistic expectation is to close out the year well outside the top 20.
WR Mike Wallace
Wallace is off to his best start since 2011, back when he was regarded as one of the NFL’s top young wideouts. The Dolphins’ top pass target was a disappointment last season, tying teammate Brian Hartline for 26th among fantasy wide receivers. So should we accept Wallace’s strong 2014 numbers as a sign of things to come?
Buying into Wallace means buying into formerly prized quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who only a week ago was on the hot seat. Tannehill’s dismal 6.16 yards per pass attempt (fourth to last among all NFL quarterbacks) belies Wallace’s early ability to make plays after the catch. But this contradiction cannot continue: Wallace won’t always be able to compensate for Tannehill’s inaccurate arm.
Racking up a little over 10 fantasy points per game in standard scoring leagues, Wallace should see that average drop to seven or eight by season’s end, making him no better than a low-end WR2.
WR Eddie Royal
Five scores in his first six games? We’ve seen fast starts from Royal before:
• 2008: Two touchdowns in the first two games
• 2010: 163 yards and a touchdown in the first two games
• 2013: Five touchdowns in the first two games
In his other seasons, Royal has never garnered more than 345 passing yards. Few fantasy receivers have oscillated more dramatically between hero to "why did I start this guy?" status. Players with spotty track records who exhibit Royal-like outbursts usually fall well short of building on those numbers. After all, following last season’s five-touchdown surge, Royal averaged only 39.8 receiving yards and 0.23 scores per game. In other words, for those who grabbed him too late, he was a complete bust.
Eventually, Keenan Allen will assert himself as the Chargers’ consistent number one receiver, leaving Royal with unpredictable -- and frequently limited -- production.
TE Larry Donnell
Raise your hand if you tried to snatch Donnell off waivers after his three-touchdown revelation two weeks ago. Now raise your other hand if his goose egg this past weekend made you regret the decision.
Despite being on pace for an impressive 728 yards and incredible 11 touchdowns, Donnell has three things going against him. First, only once has an Eli Manning-led team produced a tight end with more than 626 yards, and none have had more than seven touchdowns. Second, Donnell is on the verge of being Manning’s fourth target behind Reuben Randle, rising star Odell Beckham and Preston Parker. Third, Manning has never thrown more than 31 touchdown passes in a season, and is unlikely to exceed that mark this year.
With a limited role and scoring opportunities, Donnell is merely a TE2 with occasional fantasy starting value.
TE Dwayne Allen
The better half of a two-tight-end tandem that includes Coby Fleener, Allen has been a touchdown machine in the early going. But his yardage (42 per game) leaves much to be desired. T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne remain the primary targets in Andrew Luck’s passing game, while backfield mates Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw average a combined 30.5 touches per game.
Allen’s flirtation with TE1 status simply won’t last. Targeted only 4.5 times per contest, he’s a boom-or-bust TE2 who’s nearing the end of a booming stretch.