Let the Games Begin? August 18, 2016  |  Scott Cedar


I’m always excited for the Olympics. Until they actually start, that is, and I remember there’s a reason I don’t watch swimming, archery, or horse jumping the 3 years and 49 weeks between Olympics.

Excitement, followed by letdown… sounds a lot like fantasy football sleepers! We spend all summer drunk on excitement about these unearthed gems who will lead us to fantasy glory. But the truth is, once the season starts, our sleepers often fail to live up to the hype.

Everyone has their own definition of sleeper. To me, a sleeper is someone going in the latter half of the draft, not taken to start but with the upside to become an every-week starter. Unfortunately, the data shows this group doesn’t always produce as we hope:

 

  • Running Backs: Even in last year’s bloodbath, 16 of the top 24 running backs were drafted in the first half of the draft, and only five were drafted after Round 10.

 

  • Wide Receivers: Wide receiver was even more top-heavy, with 19 of the top 24 receivers taken in the top half of the draft, and only four going after Round 10.

 

  • Quarterbacks and Tight Ends: Quarterbacks and tight ends are more sleeper-friendly (that’s why we draft them later). Last year, 7 of the top 12 quarterbacks and 6 of the top 12 tight ends were drafted outside of the top 12 at their respective positions.

 

As you read through my list of 2016 sleepers, keep in mind your early-round picks are the foundation of your team, and your sleepers (especially at running back and wide receiver) are more likely to disappoint than summer’s eternal hope leads you to believe. Nevertheless, everyone discussed below has a legitimate chance of breaking out and helping you win your fantasy league. In the Olympic spirit, I’m awarding a gold, silver, and bronze for each skill position.

 

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Quarterback

Gold:

Remember 2012? The year of Gangam Style, Linsanity, and the Mayan apocalypse? Back then, running quarterbacks were all the rage. The mania fizzled with the deaths of Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, but remnants of fantasy football’s Konami Code remain. Last year, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson had the 1st and 3rd most rushing attempts among quarterbacks, and not coincidentally, finished as QB1 and QB3.

So why is Tyrod Taylor, who finished 2nd in quarterback rushing attempts, being drafted as the 16th quarterback this year? And why does 8-foot tall Chewbacca live on Endor with 2-foot tall Ewoks? None of this makes any sense!

In 2015, Taylor’s first year as a starter, he rushed 104 times for 568 yards (5.5 ypc—better than Newton and Wilson) with 4 touchdowns. On rushing alone, Taylor scored 81 fantasy points, nearly 6 per game. Taylor also excelled as a passer. He didn’t get much volume—his 380 attempts were only 24th in the league. However, he was efficient and didn’t make mistakes, as shown by his 8.3 adjusted yards/attempt, 5th best in the league. Taylor profiles similarly to other top fantasy quarterbacks who countered low volume with high efficiency and mistake-free play: Newton, Wilson, and Andy Dalton (QB4 before getting injured Week 14).

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.11.08 PM

 

Taylor was a good runner, an efficient passer, and has the benefit of throwing to Sammy Watkins (WR4 in the 2nd half of 2015). I think he’s an every-week starter with top 5 upside.

 

 

Silver:

Kirk Cousins: Even Washington doesn’t believe in Cousins, but with elite weapons, including the DeSean Jackson effect, he too has top 5 upside.

 

Bronze:

Teddy Bridgewater: I’m vomiting as I type this, but why are we writing off 2015’s most accurate QB, only 23 and moving into a dome with improved weapons?

 

Running Back

Gold:

I love Jerick McKinnon like a fat kid loves cake.

McKinnon’s an off-the-charts athlete, with a 147.5 SPARQ score (anything over 140 is elite). While athleticism isn’t everything, McKinnon’s flashed every time he’s been given a chance. His 4.8 ypc was 9th in the league in 2014, and in limited carries last year, McKinnon improved to 5.2 ypc. McKinnon is also an effective pass-catcher, with 48 receptions for 308 yards over the past two years. McKinnon even earned red zone work last year, with more touches (10) than 2014 vulture Matt Asiata (7). Adrian Peterson is 31 years old, and if he gets hurt, McKinnon’s a league winner.

But what if AP doesn’t get hurt (or susp… nevermind)? I think McKinnon can still have value. Peterson wore down over the course of 2015, dropping off in both volume and efficiency:

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.18.26 PM

 

During that stretch, the Vikings began easing Peterson’s workload, transferring snaps and touches to McKinnon. His 7.0 ppg over that stretch aren’t particularly usable, but 1.17 points per touch is extremely efficient. If the Vikings give him even a slight uptick in touches to keep Peterson fresh, McKinnon can be a viable RB2 or flex, in the mold of Charles Sims (RB22 on 9.8 touches/game).

McKinnon’s efficiency gives him a floor, and if the years finally catch up to Peterson (already nursing a minor injury, and with bad equity juju), McKinnon has as high a ceiling as anyone.

 

 

Silver:

Charles Sims: Efficient runner (4.9 ypc). Proficient receiver (11.0 ypr). Run-heavy offense (8th in attempts). Sims is startable even with Doug Martin around, and an RB1 in any game Martin misses.

 

Bronze:

DeAndre Washington: With Latavius Murray both ineffective (32nd in ypc) and unable to maintain pace (3.4 ypc in 2nd half of 2015), Washington is already stealing reps behind one of NFL’s best offensive lines.

 

Wide Receiver

Gold:

Last year, 41 players had at least 100 targets. Only two of them were rookies. So why am I confident Giants’ rookie Sterling Shepard will reach this mark?

 

Volume and opportunity. The Giants’ 623 pass attempts last year were 6th in the league, and after Odell Beckham Jr. takes his 25% of the targets, it’s wide open. Victor Cruz is a 30-year-old receiver coming off a nearly 2-year hiatus, and a torn patella tendon is a brutal injury with few success stories. The remainder of the depth chart is Dwayne Harris (69 catches in 4 years) and a pu pu platter of receivers (combined 10 catches last year).

By process of elimination, Shepard’s the #2 option. Shepard’s senior season at Oklahoma was productive (86 receptions, 1,288 yards, 11 TDs) and remarkably consistent (only one game <50 yards), and his crisp route-running makes him a perfect fit for Ben McAdoo’s quick-hitting offense. Last year, Rueben Randle—the personification of your dad’s “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” speech—earned 90 targets as the Giants’ #2 receiver. Given Shepard’s fit and the lack of other viable receivers, he can bump this tally up enough to reach triple-digits.

What should we expect Shepard to do with 100 targets? Well, he has a doppelgänger that may provide guidance:

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.19.24 PM

In Cobb’s age-22 season, playing slot receiver in a similar system to McAdoo’s, he broke out with 104 targets for 80 catches, 954 yards, and 8 touchdowns, finishing as WR18. I think the 22-year-old Shepard can provide similar output, giving you consistent weekly production and a top-24 finish. Not a bad ROI for the 39th receiver off the board.

 

 

 

Silver:

Kamar Aiken: 96 reception/1,225 yard pace in games Steve Smith didn’t play, and the only receiver in Baltimore’s pass-heavy offense without a glaring weakness.

 

Bronze:

Nelson Agholor: ADP has fallen from 60th in 2015 to 199th this year, but his disappointing rookie season may be explained by an ankle injury and incredibly difficult CB schedule. I’d gamble on Agholor in the 14th round before Jordan Matthews in the 6th.

 

Tight End

Gold:

Here are the best first- and second-year tight ends seasons since 2000:

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.20.25 PM

To give some context, Crockett Gillmore was last year’s TE12 in ppg, with an underwhelming 6.5. Over half of this list—the best rookie/sophomore tight ends over the past 15 years—were within half a point or worse. It’s no secret tight ends develop slowly, but people get impatient.

Oh, hi Eric Ebron. Entering year 3, Ebron is viewed somewhere between disappointment and bust, being drafted 16th among tight ends according to Fantasy Football Calculator. In reality, Ebron’s rookie year was bad because of course it was going to be bad. His age-22 season, though unimpressive, was right in-line with other age-22 tight end seasons. Ebron’s developing slowly, as should’ve been expected, but he showed material improvement in year 2:

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.21.03 PM

The breakout is coming. Ebron was more efficient last year, now all he needs is volume. It just so happens the Lions have tons of passing volume to offer. They’ve finishing 1st, 1st, 5th, 11th, and 6th in passing attempts from 2011-15, and Calvin Johnson’s retirement leaves 149 targets (including 16 red zone targets) up for grabs. After starting only 8 games in 2015, Ebron is the unquestioned starter and should see the majority of tight end snaps and targets. If all of this adds up to just one more target per game, and Ebron doesn’t improve at all from 2015, he’ll finish with around 65 catches for 750 yards and 5 TDs—roughly 105 fantasy points, a low-end TE1. Given Ebron’s pedigree (top-10 pick in 2014) and the improvement he showed from year 1 to year 2, there’s upside for far more.

 

Silver:

Dwayne Allen: No longer sharing with Coby Fleener, and new OC Rob Chudzinski ran the offenses producing one-hit-wonders Kellen Winslow (TE4 in 2007) and Jordan Cameron (TE5 in 2013).

 

Bronze:

Will Tye: Great athlete (how many tight ends returned punts in college?) who carved out progressively larger role with 16.5% target share (6.4 targets/game) from Week 6 on.

 

Defense

3, 10, 12, 2, 4, 18, 13, 6, 16, 18, 5, 15, 4, and 31.

That’s how John Fox’s defenses have ranked since 2002, using Pro Football Outsiders’ DVOA. That last number, 2015’s Chicago Bears, stands out as the only time Fox coached a bad defense. The Bears invested heavily on defense in the offseason, bringing in Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, and Leonard Floyd. This Bears team won’t have us debating who would win in a fight between Fox and a hurricane named Fox, but his strong track record suggests da Bears will surprise.

 

Kicker

I ran 2015 kicker data through my complex algorithm, and this year’s sleeper is… Josh Brown!

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.21.34 PM

*****

By the time the NFL season starts, I won’t remember a single non-NBA athlete from this Olympics. A month after that, I won’t remember why on Earth I liked half the players on this list. I’m excited all the same, because hitting on a sleeper feels like winning the gold.

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