How to Evaluate Late-Season Streaks & Slumps (Fantasy Football)
Late-season developments are always hard to work with. If a player you’ve trusted all year starts to slump in Week 11, you’ll be facing a tough start/sit decision come playoff time — especially because you’ve got so little time to adjust.
Fortunately, you’ll have time to unpack what these trends can mean as you prepare for next season. It’s not much consolation if, say, Amari Cooper’s late-season struggles cost you a playoff game in 2019, but you’ve got to move on — next year awaits!
Kinds of Streaks and Slumps
Let’s start by identifying the different types of streaks and slumps: players can improve or fade in terms of either usage or efficiency. When it comes to usage, a player’s basic counting stats like receptions, snaps, targets, or passing attempts can trend up or down. Similarly, how effective each player is at maximizing those opportunities, or their efficiency, can vary from game to game. Efficiency metrics include yards per catch, yards per carry, average depth of target, completion percentage, or touchdowns per touch.
Slumps in player usage don’t always correlate with downticks in efficiency. Sometimes a running back can thrive on fewer carries, or a wide receiver can turn their one target into a 50-yard touchdown. Similarly, increases in player usage don’t always mean boosts on the stat sheet, as not all players are good enough to meet their coaches’ expectations.
Now, let’s figure out what kinds of streaks or slumps you should care about — and which ones you shouldn’t.
Streaks that Matter (or Don’t Matter)
Both streaks in player usage and efficiency can matter, but player usage is what you’ll want to track. If a player earns five or six snaps per game for the first half of the season, only to break out and play twenty or more, that’s a trend worth following. That shows their coaching staff has confidence in them. Similarly, a wide receiver who earns more targets as the season comes to a close has likely won the trust of his quarterback.
Streaks in efficiency matter far less for year-to-year success. If a running back finishes the season with consecutive 100-yard games, for example, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to repeat that come next year. Players’ efficiency tends to regress to the mean unless they are incredibly talented or horrible. So while you might be tempted to draft that waiver-wire receiver who exploded from Week 14 onward, there’s a good chance they won’t maintain that momentum.
Lastly, some streaks in player usage don’t even matter. Sometimes a player will see a ton of new snaps after their teammate goes down. Other times, a coach will give a backup a shot as a last-ditch effort to save their job — only for the team to part ways with their staff going into next season. Some organizations even rely on a player late in the year, only for them to bring in a new guy in free agency. So while some usage streaks matter, they matter most if:
a) It wasn’t because they were filling in for an injured teammate with a secure job.
b) Their supporting cast (offensive line for running backs, quarterback for wide receivers and tight ends) stays the same.
c) Their coaching staff (their head coach and offensive coordinator) remains the same.
d) The team fails to add another player at the position.
Slumps that Matter (or Don’t Matter)
Similarly, player usage is what matters most when it comes to slumps. You should avoid players who get fewer snaps after falling out of favor with their coaching staff, and you should take note if a player’s backup begins to earn more of the starters’ snaps.
Efficiency slumps, again, matter less. If a running back’s YPC over the last three weeks drops to 2.1, but their career average is 3.7, you can safely expect a rebound next year. Because things like injuries and matchups can heavily affect a player’s effectiveness late in the year, late-season slumps through a small sample size of games should not throw off your draft-day decisions.
There are some usage slumps that you can safely disregard, too. Injuries can cause a coach to limit a player’s snaps, while other coaches rest their guys if their team locks in a playoff spot. Likewise, overwhelmingly positive game scripts at the end of the year can give receivers fewer opportunities despite their potent offenses. You should care about a player’s slumps in usage stats if:
a) It can’t be blamed on a late-season injury (to them or their supporting cast).
b) Their supporting cast remains the same or loses vital pieces.
c) Their coaching staff remains the same, or it changes to a different scheme that’s less friendly to their skillset.
d) The team chooses to add another player at the position.
If you’re worried about a player’s late-season performance limiting their upside going into next year — or you think that the last three weeks revealed the next big thing — pump the brakes. Players will regress to their averages efficiency-wise, and there are lots of qualifying factors that can explain changes in a guy’s playing time. And while you should still consider streaks or slumps in a player’s usage when making your 2020 player rankings, only do so if their situations meet the conditions listed above.