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Shaking the “Sleeper” Myth and Using Your Late Picks Wisely


I’m an 80s baby, so, like most of my generation, The Princess Bride played a major role in my early pop-culture consciousness. While most people remember the hulking physique of Andre The Giant or the crowd-pleasing chant of Inigo Montoya (“Hello…”), one part that stuck with me was Inigo’s calm criticism of his boss’ use of the word “inconceivable”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’m reminded of this short phrase every August when the fantasy community discusses “sleepers”– guys who will win us money and change our fantasy fortunes.

I too have suffered from sleeper obsession, which is why I decided to take a deeper dive to see what really makes for a good “sleeper.” What I found is what we keep using a term that doesn’t mean anything close to what we think it means. Most commonly, a “sleeper” is referred to as a late-round pick (usually round nine and later) who could provide major value during the season. We’re often told to stack our bench with sleepers in the hopes that one or two will pop and help us win our league. The only problem is, sleepers don’t win titles.

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Looking Back at Popular 2018 Sleepers

Among the top-10 players who were rostered by championship-winning teams last year (according to ESPN 10 team leagues), only one – Nick Chubb - was a sleeper. The rest were players drafted in the early rounds who vastly out-performed the rest of their cohort: Christian McCaffrey, Travis Kelce, Adam Thielen, Saquon Barkley, Tyreek Hill, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Zach Ertz, Alvin Kamara (and then Bears D/ST).

The only other questionable sleeper on that list is Pat Mahomes. However, QBs drafted late are so commonplace that it’s not really fair to classify them as sleepers in the same way you would a RB/WR drafted that late.

Our obsession with searching for sleepers is hurting the way we build rosters. We’re so focused on hitting a home run, connecting on a Hail Mary, landing a knockout punch, etc. when, more often than not, a good late-round pick will take a good team and elevate it to a title-winner, not win a title single-handedly.

So, if we’re not using the late rounds to draft players who will propel us to championships, then what should we be doing?

Glad you asked because that’s essentially the goal of this piece.

If we use the accepted idea that picks starting in round nine are where we begin to identify “sleepers” then there are a few things to look at when making picks in that range:

  • Search for an opportunity (Yes, that seems obvious, but we’ll cover some good stats)
  • Find the right team scheme
  • Look for college production and NFL experience
  • Identify fantasy friendly skillsets

I used the same method with 2017 stats and roles in order to see which 2018 late-round picks we could have been drawn towards. Turns out, a lot.

James Conner, James White, Matt Breida, TJ Yeldon, Robert Woods, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, Kenny Golladay, Dede Westbrook, Tyler Lockett, George Kittle, Jared Cook, and Vance McDonald all would have popped using this methodology. All were drafted – on average – after pick 100, and all finished with starter value in 12-team half PPR leagues.

With that settled, here we go:

 

Search for Opportunity

Part One: Snaps

This seems like the easiest criteria to check off, but we often get mislead by news coming out of training camp or our own look at a depth chart. The key is not to believe a team has a weak position and find a player who fills it. The easiest way to identify opportunity is to look at snap counts.

A player can’t contribute if he’s not on the field.

Snap count more accurately reflects how a team feels about a player than targets or final stats. There are many factors that go into final season stats, but the simple fact is, if a team believes in the talent of the player, they put him on the field.

Snaps is also better for players on new teams than looking back at the “targets are up for grabs.” A play call doesn’t guarantee the throw or run goes to one specific player. This means you can’t sub a player into a new team or role and assume the targets of the player he’s replacing. However, you can more accurately assume the player is on the field as often as the guy whose job he took.

Part Two: Quality Snaps

 Another common narrative is that not all snaps are created equal. Unlike our fascination with sleepers, this idea is actually true. In fantasy sports, touches that lead to touchdowns are significantly more valuable than those that don’t. Don’t just search for opportunities, search for ones that are more likely to lead to results of significance.

For example, in 2017, Oakland passed the ball in the red zone the sixth-most in the NFL. Jared Cook was third on the team with nine red zone targets. Michael Crabtree led the team with 14. In 2018, Crabtree played with Baltimore, so it made sense to think that Cook, who was often on the field in the red zone, would get more opportunity. In 2018, his touchdowns increased from two to six.

 

College Production 

It’s relatively simple, but, more often than not, successful NFL players were successful college players. Constant media coverage pulls us to the guys taken in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, but the later round picks with great production often provide more return on investment in fantasy.

James Conner was a 3rd round draft pick and likely more famous for his courageous battle with cancer than he was for his on-field production. However, he ran for 1,765 yards and 26 TDs his sophomore year at Pittsburgh and 1,092 yards and 16 TDs his senior year, after battling cancer.

Matt Breida went undrafted, which led many casual fans to assume he came out of nowhere. However, he posted 1,485 yards on the ground and 17 TDs his sophomore year at Georgia Southern and 1,609 yards rushing and 17 TDs his junior year. The dude could always play.

Notice how I went to college production and not Combine numbers.

 

NFL Experience

In looking at the list of the 20 highest-performing late-round picks from last year, only three of them – Chubb, Calvin Ridley, and Phillip Lindsay were in their rookie season.

Yes, this is partially because the best rookies are drafted earlier in fantasy drafts, but it’s also because NFL playbooks are hard to master and earning playing time is difficult.

Fantasy communities are also notoriously attracted to the new shiny thing, and choose the buzzed-about rookie over players one or two years out of college (Conner, White, Golladay, Kittle). That’s often a mistake.

 

Fantasy-Relevant Skills 

Once we have guys who will be on the field, in position to do damage, and with a history of success, we need to know that he can be dangerous with the ball in his hand. For this, we can’t simply look at stats, because players that have been dominant in the NFL are already being drafted early.

One of my favorite under the radar stats in Yard Per Touch (YPT). It’s easily found on Pro Football Reference and, as the name suggests, tracks how many yards a player gets every time he touches the ball. Yards = points in fantasy football, so the more effective a player is at turning every opportunity into yards, the more we want him on our team.

Elite WRs (WR1s and 2s) tend to finish between 12.5 yards per touch (Davante Adams) and 15 (Tyreek Hill). Which is why Golladay’s 16.8 and Woods’ 13.7 in 2017 should have jumped out.

For running backs, numbers above 6 are elite but tend to skew towards backs who factor into the passing game. Tarik Cohen comes in at 6.9, and James White at 6.5. Anything above 5.5 is elite for a bell cow back (Gordon – 6.1 and Saquon 5.8). Brieda’s 5.1 in 2017 should have caught our attention, like Yeldon’s 6.

So now that we’ve figured out what makes a good late-round pick, let’s take a look at some of my favorites for this year

 

Donte Moncrief (WR, PIT)

One of my top late-round options, Moncrief is currently going 149th in half PPR leagues. Last year, while playing with Indianapolis, he finished with 13.9 yards per touch (YPT). Now he’s in Pittsburgh, which threw the most passes in the red zone of any team in the NFL last season. Moncrief should help replace Antonio Brown, who was on the field for 95% of snaps last year. JuJu Smith-Schuster saw the field on 84% of snaps as #2, so the role is certainly ripe for success. Moncrief’s main competition, James Washington, saw snaps decrease as the 2018 season went on. From Week 10 on, he saw 46%, of snaps, but from Week 12 on, that number falls to 29%. Moncrief was a relatively successful college player in an Ole Miss system that didn’t produce big passing numbers. He finished with 979 yards (14.8 yards per catch) and 10 TDs as a sophomore and 938 yards (15.9 ypc) and 6 TDs as a junior.

 

Mohamed Sanu (WR, ATL)

Sanu is another boring vet I like to take late in drafts. Last year in Atlanta, he finished with 12.1 YPT and played on 78% of snaps, which is more than Calvin Ridley, the young gun who people think is going to take the next step. Sanu was on a below average Rutgers team, but was immensely successful in his junior year, finishing with 1,206 yards and 7 TDs. Atlanta throws fourth-most in the red zone, so if Sanu is going to be on the field that often, he’s likely to enjoy some big weeks.

 

Brian Hill (RB, ATL)

I apparently like the Atlanta offense. Last year, Tevin Coleman saw 56% of the offensive snaps. He’s now in San Francisco. In limited playing time last year, Brian Hill recorded 7.9 YPT, which is exceptional. Despite being a fifth-round draft pick, Hill was a dynamic college player. He had 1,631 yards rushing and six TDs as a sophomore at Wyoming and finished his junior season with 1,860 yards rushing and 22 TDs. Devonta Freeman is a smaller back coming off an injury, and Atlanta likes to rotate their running backs a lot. I love Hill as a late bench stash whose role in the offense could grow.

 

Matt Breida (RB, SF)

Even with the aforementioned Coleman in SF, I still like Brieda. People seem to be forgetting about what he did last year, when he was healthy. His success on the field saw him finish with 6 YPT and play 38% of all snaps. The team leader was Jeff Wilson with 67%, but he doesn’t seem to be in the conversation this year. We already covered what Breida did in college. He’s a player who has always succeeded and has a better NFL track record than Coleman. Sign me up.

 

Michael Gallup (WR, DAL)

The Cowboys are often thought of as Zeke’s team and likely will be in the event that he re-signs. However, Gallup is being severely overlooked. In his rookie season last year, he finished with 15.4 YPT and was on the field for 66% of snaps. The Cowboys need to replace Cole Beasley, who had 65% of snaps, and the team leader, Amari Cooper (81%), is battling a foot injury that led to a managed workload. Gallup was one of the more successful collegiate WRs in the 2018 draft, finishing with 2,690 yards (15.3 ypc) and 21 TDs in his two seasons at Colorado State. He’s great value at pick 150 and, if Cooper’s foot injury keeps him out, Gallup could be this year’s Golladay or Lockett.

 

Geronimo Allison (WR, GB)

I might be stretching my methodology a bit here because Allison was not incredibly successful in college. 882 yards and three TDs on a very bad Illinois team doesn’t jump out too much. However, he finished with 15.2 YPT and played 72% of snaps in his rookie season last year. Randall Cobb, who played 79% of snaps, is gone and Green Bay threw the second-most passing attempts in the red zone, so Allison is in a tremendous situation for success, even with the Valdez-Scantling hype. He should be going way higher than his current 125 ADP.

 

Tre’Quan Smith (WR, NO)

Smith was one of those home run hitters who didn’t make a major season-long impact last year, but it’s year two and time to watch out. He has 15.3 YPT and played 57% of snaps last year, which was third to Ted Ginn, who is not getting any younger. The other options in New Orleans who played a lot of WR snaps do not inspire a ton of confidence – Keith Kirkwood (43%), Austin Carr (31%), and the since cut Cam Meredith (31%). Smith has an opportunity to gain significant targets and has a great collegiate track record: a sophomore season of 853 yards and five TDs before exploding on a dynamic UCF team and finishing his junior year with 1,171 yards and 13 TDs. All of which makes Smith attractive at pick 160.

 

Zay Jones (WR, BUF)

Everybody loves to stay away from Bills players in fantasy, but with Josh Allen in his second season that may not be the best decision anymore. Zay had a tremendous collegiate career, finishing his junior year with 1,099 yard and five TDs before leading the NCAA with 158 catches his senior year, totaling 1,746 yards and eight TDs. Last year, his second in the NFL, he finished with 11.4 YPT and played 89% of the Bills snaps. He was on the field for 90% of snaps after week 10 when Robert Foster began breaking out, so the arrival of John Brown likely won’t impact that. What’s more interesting is that Jones was the second-most targeted player in red zone by team percentage. He was targeted on 39.5% of the Bills’ red zone passing attempts, trailing only Davante Adams’ 41.9%. With Josh Allen still the QB and the Bills two new WRs – Brown and Beasley – not red zone options, Zay might still be the guy to score TDs in Buffalo, which makes him well worth pick 214.

Because I couldn’t help myself, here are two more guys I like that meet most of the criteria:

  • Malcolm Brown (RB, LAR)- 5 YPT last year, and the Rams run 6th most in red zone. Gurley’s knee injury led to a real RB split, so if Guryley’s knee acts up, I think it will be Brown over Henderson, and he’s being taken at pick 212.
  • Devin Funchess (WR, IND) - In Carolina last year, Funchess had 12.5 YPT. Indianapolis is in the top-five in red zone throws and they need to replace the 61% of snaps that Dontrelle Inman ran. Not to mention the ineffective snaps of Ryan Grant (66%) and Chester Rogers (51%). He’s worth a gamble at pick 140, even with Jacoby Brissett at QB.

 

Final Advice

Keeping in mind everything written above, a clear strategy starts to bubble to the surface.

  • The early rounds of our draft should be dedicated to filling out our roster with running backs. Ideally, I’d draft at least four RBs in the first eight rounds; there just don’t seem to be a bunch of guys with a high likelihood for value later than that.
  • Take guys that others don’t think are “sexy.” Safe is not the same as “not sexy.” Safe options in the late rounds can help your team more than filling your roster with guys like Deebo Samuel, Darwin Thompson, and DK Metcalf.
  • Feel free to add one young, flashy rookie in the last few rounds. Fantasy should also be fun. Add one of these young guys that you really like and hope for the best. Just don’t count on it.

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