Slow Starters and How to Spot Them

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Patrick Yen

Just a guy trying to make a living doing what he loves, writing about sports. Eagles and 76er's fan, but currently live in Ohio so I have a soft spot for those teams. The Ohio State University graduate, Go Bucks! Come chat, always willing to talk sport, video games or my current love, Masterchef Australia!

Some guys just need some time to get going. Every year there’s always a couple guys that didn’t do what you thought they might for most of the season. Slow starters so to speak. But come playoff time, they come through. In fact, more often than not you see these guys come in and win you your league.

So how do you identify these guys? How do you get these buy low candidates that perform late? Well, let’s take a look at a couple from this year and see what patterns emerge.

(Data taken from PPR scoring. Player must have played at least half the games per time period to qualify. Unless specified, periods are broken into weeks 1-8 and weeks 9-16.)

1. David Montgomery: RB 8.7 PPG Difference

From Andy Clayton-King, AP

The first name that comes to mind for 2020 slow starters has got to be David Montgomery. He went absolutely hamburgers (a compliment) over the last eight weeks, where he was the third highest scoring running back in the league with 21.9 points per game. It wasn’t just a couple big games either. Starting from week 12, Montgomery didn’t go under 20 a single time. Montgomery was a beast on the ground, cashing in an absurd seven times in those five weeks while averaging 106 yards per game on 5.6 yards per carry. A remarkable turnaround from last year, and from earlier in the season.

Even with the fantastic five game stretch he had, he only averaged 4.4 yards per carry on the year, a middling mark that ranks him tied 26th with a number of other backs amongst qualified RBs per Pro-Football-Reference. This means his first half was not so good. Montgomery had a mediocre to bad rookie year depending on who you asked, and followed that up in much the same fashion in the first half on 2020. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry as a rookie. In the first half of 2020 he averaged… 3.7 yards per carry. His fantasy numbers were actually pretty decent on volume alone. He played in the first eight games unlike many running backs, and even in points per game he was RB 24, right on the edge of RB 2. He got saved by a couple of high volume receiving games after week three when Tarik Cohen went out, but it didn’t compare to the running explosion he had later on.

How did it happen?

The important point here isn’t how he did. The important part is how could we have predicted his explosion. There are two possible explanations to Montgomery’s performance beyond Montgomery just becoming a god-like runner overnight. One was identifiable the other not so much. Starting with the unidentifiable one, Montgomery got a new play-caller, which I’m not sure was predictable. Bill Lazor, the offensive coordinator, took over for the head coach Matt Nagy week 10. There wasn’t an immediate turnaround, as the team looked pretty dreadful against the Vikings that week. But after the bye when Montgomery came back and Trubisky regained his starting job the offense took off. Clearly the play calling helped some.

The more obvious factor was Montgomery’s schedule. His five game run was against what would end up being the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th worst run defenses of 2020. So there are two things we can look for from Montgomery’s big end to the year to predict breakouts, defensive schedule and play calling or coaching changes.

2. T.Y. Hilton WR: 8.1 PPG Difference

While overall it was another down year for Hilton in a continuingly troubling trend, he did salvage his season and possibly the season for his owners late. His production in his solid second half pretty much boiled down to a three week stretch between weeks 12-14 where he scored 18.1, 25 and 25.6. All four of his touchdowns came from this stretch, as did 38% of all his yards and 32% of all his catches. Even his games after his big stretch weren’t bad. In weeks 15 and 16 he had his 5th and 6th highest scoring games after all. Granted his 6th highest scoring game was nine points, but still.

The fact that his 5th and 6th highest scoring games were 11.1 and nine should tell you something about his rough start to the season. Many people gave him the benefit of the doubt for a poor season last year, citing injury, first year without Andrew Luck, and he had been fantasy dynamite almost every year since 2013. Which led to his rather lofty draft position at ADP 57 and WR 24, meaning he was drafted to be an every week starter. He did not return that, scoring an extremely poor 6.7 points per game in the first eight weeks. His high was a 12.9 point performance in week five, which was also his only double digit performance until his run began in week 12. In simple terms, not playable.

How did it happen?

Just like Montgomery (and probably most of these guys) matchups played a pretty big role. He played the No. 4, 8 and 12 worst defenses against wide receivers in his hot streak. To be fair with Hilton, he played worse defenses or just as bad at other moments in the season, so it wasn’t the WHOLE reason, but it can’t have hurt.

The other factor was QB play. Philip Rivers really upped his game in the second half of the year. He himself could’ve been in this group of slow starters. Games 1-8 Rivers had more yards, but his TD-INT ratio was 10-7. In games 9-16 Rivers was a much better 13-3. Perhaps it just took Rivers a bit to get used to a brand new group of receivers and a new offense.

One last factor that may have played into Hilton’s renewed season was the “emergence” of Michael Pittman Jr. Pittman had a solid weeks 9-11 and was starting to get a lot of hype. Right after that Hilton had his breakout performances. Perhaps a shift in defensive attention did Hilton some good. Things to look for in a possible breakout candidate? From Hilton, we see schedule, improved QB play and another receiver starting to demand attention as potential clues.

3. J.D. McKissic RB: 7.8 PPG Difference

From Root Street Journal

McKissic sort of came out of nowhere to be a solid fantasy contributor in the back half of the season. He took the title of receiving back specialist from James White and really ran away with it. He averaged a great 15.9 points per game from weeks 9-16, good for RB 12 amongst qualified players. While he did benefit from two games where he got to be the feature back, even without those two games he only went under double digits once. Not bad for just a pass catching RB. He went from 4.7 targets per game in the beginning of the year, to 8.7 (nearly double).

McKissic’s slow starter status could be attributed to a new team and a RB room that was kind of in turmoil. While Gibson emerged as the starter, after Adrian Peterson’s release and Derrius Guice’s arrest we didn’t know what was going on and the WFT probably weren’t sure either. Not only was McKissic a new player to the organization, they also had a new coach. In his first game McKissic got three carries and five targets but only one reception. In the game after he got eight rushes but zero targets. After that he finally settled into his role as a pass catcher out of the back field. His efficiency stayed relatively the same throughout the whole year, meaning his breakout was due to increased volume.

How did it happen?

Obviously the drastic increase in targets and touches overall helped in the second half. But more touches will help all players produce more. The question is, why did McKissic get more touches? Like I said above, it’s very possible the coaching staff was simply experimenting with his role, along with the RB room as a whole, before settling in.

Another factor might the revolving door they had at QB. McKissic ended up playing with three different QB’s in his first year in Washington. He did by far the worst with Kyle Allen. Allen targeted McKissic on just 13.7% of his passes. McKissic’s targets with Dwayne Haskins was a pretty similar 15.4%. His mark with Smith? 23%. Then again, in Haskin’s games after week 8 he also targeted McKissic on 23% of his passes.

Perhaps the biggest factor as it is with most pass catching running backs is the win-loss splits. McKissic had five games over ten targets, four came in losses. His next two highest target games also came in losses. There are some patterns we can look for due to McKissic. A player that is integrating into a new team could be primed for a second half burst as he gets used to things. For pass catching running backs we might look for teams that are probably going to lose a lot. And we can pay special attention to QB changes and how the player performs with each QB individually.

4. Diontae Johnson WR: 7.1 PPG Difference

There was a ton of hype for Johnson at the beginning of the season. Pittsburgh, especially when Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, has always produced top level fantasy wide receivers no matter who it was. Johnson seemed poised to take the crown as the next big WR for the Steelers. Two things the Steelers keep producing are wide receivers and pass rushers. Unfortunately if you were waiting for Johnson to break out you were waiting for quite a long time. Injuries really took the wind out of his sails in the first eight weeks, as is the case for many slow starters. He played games without finishing them, one of the worst situations for a fantasy owner to find themselves in. This led to a pedestrian 10.9 points per game.

But if you were patient with Johnson it paid dividends, especially in the playoffs. He jumped up to number eight in the league with 18 points per game over the final eight games, propelled by an unbelievable volume of targets that gave him a pretty large floor. He averaged 12 targets per game in the back half of the season. and only dipped below double digits once (in targets and fantasy points), in week 14.

How did it happen?

This one is fairly straight forward. Injuries really derailed Johnson. It was never anything major, a tweaked hamstring, a freak back injury, a concussion, but they kept removing Johnson from games, often early which tanked his fantasy numbers. But even in the first half when healthy he was basically the same guy as in the second half. In his four games where he had over 70% offensive snap participation in weeks 1-8, Johnson still averaged double digit targets. This came in spite of the fact that one of those games was when he hurt his hamstring but played through it against Baltimore.

Despite somehow developing drop problems in the second half of the season (he leads the league with 10 drops) it only affected him once, in week 14 against Buffalo. This caused him to have another game with low participation. Bottom line when Johnson played a normal complement of snaps Roethlisberger looked his way a lot and Johnson delivered from a fantasy perspective.

So we learn from Johnson to look for players that have struggled solely due to small injuries. Most importantly, they need to be injuries to different parts of the body, not a recurring issue that could signal a deeper issue with the player’s body. For Johnson, it was three different injuries to three different places, suggesting he simply suffered from some bad luck.

5. Marvin Jones Jr.: 5.9 PPG Difference

From Raj Mehta, USA TODAY Sports

Marvin Jones Jr. has always been a steady name in fantasy. Rarely a fantasy star, but a safe flex. He didn’t start that way this year however, averaging just 9.5 PPR points per game, slotting him in at WR 59. Talk about slow starters. Jones Jr. had two games under five, and just three games in the double digits in his first eight weeks. He averaged a decent 5.3 targets per game, but caught under 60% of them and wasn’t really a big play threat either. He averaged just 12.05 yards per reception.

However Marvin Jones Jr. probably didn’t hurt fantasy owners with his entry into the slow starters club as he was the 36th WR taken on average. Plus, if you stuck by him he rewarded you with solid games down the stretch. He went to WR 17 on a PPG basis, ahead of names like D.K. Metcalf and JuJu Smith-Schuster. His targets jumped up to 8.4 per game, and his catch percentage improved by eight percent. His yards per target and reception stayed the same, so his increased volume carried the day just like with McKissic.

How did this happen?

We end this article with an easy one. Why did Jones Jr’s targets spike? The guy in front of him suffered a season ending injury. Golladay only managed five games, and only four where he played the majority of snaps. All of them were in the first half of the season. In the four games that Golladay played over 50% of the snaps Jones. Jr averaged just four targets and 2.8 receptions. In the games without Golladay he averaged eight targets and 5.1 receptions. Pretty much double the volume. Case closed on this one. If the guy is suddenly going to get a ton more opportunity due to injuries to the guys in front of him, he’s a break out candidate.

Others Receiving Votes

Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Darren Waller also had massive jumps in production from the first eight weeks to the last. But they went from really good to absurd so I’m not sure I’d call them slow starters. Brendan Aiyuk had a similar situation to Marvin Jones Jr. where multiple pass catchers ahead of him went down. D’andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, and Cam Akers all represent rookie running backs that got their shot late on in the season. None of them became major game-changers week to week though. Logan Thomas benefitted in much the same way McKissic did. Jonathan Taylor had a good start, faded in the middle and then had an incredible final four games (he was RB 3 over that time, behind Kamara and Montgomery.)

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