Sports Reference Blog

Find Your Own Dang Fantasy Football Sleepers!

Posted by Jonah Gardner on August 18, 2016

Have you heard about Kevin White? The 2nd-year wide receiver for the Chicago Bears who's basically a rookie? The 6'3, 210 lb physical pass catcher who's poised for a breakout in a Chicago offense that needs a second option besides Alshon Jeffery?

If you play fantasy football, the answer is probably yes. That's because just about every fantasy expert has cited Kevin White as one of this year's best fantasy football sleeper picks. The sleeper is a time-honored fantasy tradition; everyone who's played in a fantasy league has a story about a 15th round running back or waiver wire flyer who ended up swinging an entire season.

But, just as much, the idea of the sleeper is flattering to the owner. Anyone can win with Rob Gronkowski and Julio Jones; it takes a true genius to sift through the hay stack to find needles like Devonta Freeman and David Johnson.

There's just one problem with this approach; everyone's probably looking at the same list of sleepers that you are. All of your league-mates are just a quick Google search away from all the same articles you've been reading about who to target in the latter rounds of your draft or the end of your auction. That's why every year you find yourself bidding $15 for Duke Johnson and wondering how your life has gotten to this point.

So, like the saying about the hungry guy who wants a fish, I'm not going to catch this year's best sleepers for you, even though I definitely have a 100% accurate list of them that would make me look like a genius in five months. Instead, I'm going to show you how to find your own sleepers, using some tricks in the Pro-Football-Reference Play Index. Come draft day, you'll be chuckling to yourself as you watch someone draft Kevin White in the 8th round, knowing you've got your own set of sleepers sure to lead you to fantasy success.

First, you need to know what you're looking for. On a basic level, we're looking for players who underperformed, or didn't perform at all, in the 2015 season, but who are likely to do better this year. One way to do that is look at who performed well on a per game level, but was not necessarily a leader on a season level. For searches like this, I like to use the Season Finder. Here, for example, are receivers who had 80 receiving yards per game but didn't crack 1,000 receiving yards on the season:

Query Results Table
Games Receiving
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm Lg G GS Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G Ctch% Y/Tgt
1 Keenan Allen 2015 23 3-76 SDG NFL 8 8 89 67 725 10.82 4 90.6 75.3% 8.15
2 Alshon Jeffery 2015 25 2-45 CHI NFL 9 8 94 54 807 14.94 4 89.7 57.4% 8.59
3 Steve Smith 2015 36 3-74 BAL NFL 7 7 73 46 670 14.57 3 95.7 63.0% 9.18
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

According to ESPN's average draft position, Alshon Jeffery is going around the very end of the 2nd round while Keenan Allen is going towards the end of the third round! Yet, on a per game basis, they were both better than receivers like A.J. Green or Allen Robinson, who are going ahead of them. And Steve Smith is being drafted 133rd, just two spots ahead of the New York Jets' defense.

If you do the same search with RBs, you just get one result: Le'Veon Bell. Which gets at why some of these players are going later: the likelihood (or certainty, in Bell's case) that they will miss time. While Steve Smith faces an uphill battle in recovering from an Achilles injury at age-37 (and the prospects for being a productive WR at that age aren't super promising unless your name is Jerry Rice), he had also played at least 14 games in every season since 2005 until last year. And there's no reason to think Jeffrey or Allen can't bounce back.

Of course, there's more to scoring in fantasy than just yards. Fortunately, PFR has fantasy points (according to the formula used by in the Play Index. So here are non-QBs who were worth 10 fantasy points per game, but under 100 total for the season:

Query Results Table
Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm FantPt FantPt
1 Keenan Allen 2015 23 3-76 SDG 94.5 11.81
2 Le'Veon Bell 2015 23 2-48 PIT 87.2 14.53
3 Jamaal Charles 2015 29 3-73 KAN 80.1 16.02
4 Arian Foster 2015 29 HOU 55.0 13.75
5 Carlos Hyde 2015 24 2-57 SFO 70.3 10.04
6 Dion Lewis 2015 25 5-149 NWE 84.2 12.03
7 Joseph Randle 2015 24 5-151 DAL 64.1 10.68
8 Steve Smith 2015 36 3-74 BAL 85.0 12.14
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

Hey, there's Smith, Allen, and Bell again! But, perhaps more important are a pair of players who no one's going to be drafting this year: Arian Foster and Joseph Randle. While we've identified them as sleepers, they've been replaced. But, what this is telling us is that replaceable running backs were still able to perform well, on a per game basis, behind the offensive lines of the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys. While neither Ezekiel Elliot nor Lamar Miller are sleepers this year, this search will give me a little more confidence to target them aggressively. And while we all know the pain of drafting a New England Patriots RB, I'm at least gonna look at Dion Lewis over people like Jeremy Maclin and DeMarco Murray, who are going around him.

Another good way to identify sleepers is to find players who have already broken out, but did it so late that not everyone may have noticed. Here, for example, are the top running backs in the last four games of the season:

Query Results Table
Rk Age Tm FantPt
1 David Johnson 24 CRD 77.80
2 Tim Hightower 29 NOR 69.60
3 Rashad Jennings 30 NYG 62.10
4 DeAngelo Williams 32 PIT 60.10
5 Todd Gurley 21 RAM 55.60
6 Matt Forte 30 CHI 52.40
7 Isaiah Crowell 22 CLE 50.50
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

David Johnson, of course, no longer qualifies as a sleeper, but Rashad Jennings (ADP: 87.6) and Isaiah Crowell (ADP: 130.2) certainly do.

Looking at the extremely recent past is one way to identify underpriced assets, but another is to gaze much further back in time. For example, here are the leaders in fantasy points among WRs since 2013

Query Results Table
Rk Player FantPt
2 Antonio Brown 697.0
3 Demaryius Thomas 619.3
4 Brandon Marshall 553.8
5 Calvin Johnson 548.3
6 A.J. Green 532.6
7 Julio Jones 495.2
8 Eric Decker 491.7
9 Dez Bryant 485.5
10 Alshon Jeffery 475.9
11 DeAndre Hopkins 465.3
12 Emmanuel Sanders 463.7
13 T.Y. Hilton 457.8
15 Odell Beckham 427.3
16 DeSean Jackson 415.8
17 Larry Fitzgerald 414.1
18 Jordy Nelson 409.3
19 Golden Tate 402.4
20 Randall Cobb 401.4
21 Doug Baldwin 400.6
22 Anquan Boldin 398.5
23 Julian Edelman 388.8
24 Torrey Smith 373.8
25 Michael Floyd 373.3
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

Some of these players took a step back in 2015 and are paying the price for it among fantasy owners. T.Y. Hilton, for example, has an ADP of 42.2, despite the fact that still had a pretty decent 2015 when you account for the fact that he spent half the year catching passes from someone who was in the NFL when Bill Clinton was President. Similarly, Torrey Smith is going 9 spots after the Arizona Cardinals' defense, despite having been a Top 25 WR from 2013-15.

Another common type of sleeper is the rookie taking a big second year leap. Getting the hang of an NFL offense can sometimes take a year, some coaches don't trust rookies, and, in many cases, roster construction and incumbent players block rookies from getting real playing time until their second year.

Query Results Table
Rk Player Tm Att Y/A
1 Marcus Mariota TEN 34 7.41
2 Thomas Rawls SEA 147 5.65
3 Karlos Williams BUF 93 5.56
4 David Johnson ARI 125 4.65
5 Tevin Coleman ATL 87 4.51
6 Ameer Abdullah DET 143 4.17
7 Cameron Artis-Payne CAR 45 4.07
8 Jameis Winston TAM 54 3.94
9 Jay Ajayi MIA 49 3.82
10 Javorius Allen BAL 137 3.75
11 Duke Johnson CLE 104 3.64
12 Jeremy Langford CHI 148 3.63
13 Matt Jones WAS 144 3.40
14 David Cobb TEN 52 2.81
15 Mike Davis SFO 35 1.66
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

These are players who had more than 30 rushing attempts but fewer than 150, in order of rushing yards per attempt. Despite the conventional wisdom that Ameer Abdullah (ADP 96.9) had a weak 2015, he was actually really good on a per carry basis, perhaps enough to take up a larger role. Similarly, Tevin Coleman (ADP 128.1) gained 0.5 yards per attempt more than Devonta Freeman, meaning he could be a good sneaky play late in your draft. And Marcus Mariota (ADP 117.9) has some serious upside if he gets to run a little more.

Mariota brings us to the matter of finding a quarterback. In some ways, identifying sleepers at QB is less important, since the replacement level at that position is so high. But that also means it's essential to have a good understanding of who you're picking. Stats like QB rating and even passing yards and TDs don't necessarily do a good job of showing a QB's total performance. Fortunately, there are some advanced stats that can clarify that for us.

Adjusted Yards per Attempt is a stat that, as the name suggests, tweaks yards per attempt to be more informative. It adds yards for a passing touchdown and subtracts them for an interception (it doesn't track rushing stats though). If your league also dings QBs for sacks, you'll want to use Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, which accounts for yards lost to sacks. Here's the Top 12 in AY/A

Passing Table
Rk Tm AY/A
1 Carson Palmer* ARI 9.1
2 Russell Wilson* SEA 9.0
3 Andy Dalton CIN 8.9
4 Tyrod Taylor* BUF 8.3
5 Tom Brady* NWE 8.3
6 Cam Newton*+ CAR 8.2
7 Drew Brees NOR 8.0
8 Ben Roethlisberger* PIT 7.8
9 Kirk Cousins WAS 7.8
10 Alex Smith KAN 7.6
11 Jay Cutler CHI 7.4
12 Marcus Mariota TEN 7.4
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.


Passing Table
1 Carson Palmer* ARI 8.41
2 Andy Dalton CIN 8.17
3 Russell Wilson* SEA 7.73
4 Tom Brady* NWE 7.48
5 Drew Brees NOR 7.26
6 Cam Newton*+ CAR 7.19
7 Ben Roethlisberger* PIT 7.15
8 Kirk Cousins WAS 7.14
9 Tyrod Taylor* BUF 7.10
10 Eli Manning* NYG 6.74
11 Jay Cutler CHI 6.71
12 Alex Smith KAN 6.48
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

However, these stats can be kind of hard to understand in terms of scale, since they're so new. That's why I prefer AY/A+ and ANY/A+. These are index stats, like OPS+ and ERA+, that show how well above or below average a QB performed in a stat category. While their main utility is for better appreciating a QB's numbers in the era he played, they can also be good for understanding just visualizing how a QB performed against the mean.

Query Results Table
Advanced Passing
Rk Player Tm AY/A+ ANY/A+
1 Carson Palmer ARI 132 134
2 Andy Dalton CIN 129 131
3 Russell Wilson SEA 131 124
4 Tom Brady NWE 120 120
5 Drew Brees NOR 115 116
6 Cam Newton CAR 119 116
7 Kirk Cousins WAS 112 115
8 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 111 115
9 Tyrod Taylor BUF 120 114
10 Jay Cutler CHI 106 108
11 Eli Manning NYG 104 108
12 Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 97 104
13 Case Keenum STL 98 104
14 Josh McCown CLE 106 104
15 Philip Rivers SDG 103 104
16 Alex Smith KAN 109 104
17 Jameis Winston TAM 101 104
18 Matthew Stafford DET 104 103
19 Derek Carr OAK 100 102
20 Brian Hoyer HOU 103 102
21 Matt Ryan ATL 99 102
22 A.J. McCarron CIN 106 101
23 Blake Bortles JAX 101 98
24 Marcus Mariota TEN 106 98
25 Aaron Rodgers GNB 102 98
26 Sam Bradford PHI 92 95
27 Brock Osweiler DEN 98 95
28 Ryan Tannehill MIA 101 95
29 Teddy Bridgewater MIN 99 92
30 Blaine Gabbert SFO 96 92
31 Matt Hasselbeck IND 90 92
32 Joe Flacco BAL 86 91
33 Johnny Manziel CLE 89 86
34 Kellen Moore DAL 78 84
35 Andrew Luck IND 77 82
36 Tony Romo DAL 76 81
37 Colin Kaepernick SFO 87 80
38 Nick Foles STL 71 77
39 Peyton Manning DEN 68 74
40 Zach Mettenberger TEN 56 56
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/17/2016.

Now we're getting somewhere. Last year, Aaron Rodgers (ADP 20.4) performed, on a per attempt basis, worse than Matt Ryan (ADP 119.4) and on par with Mariota. Andrew Luck (ADP 43.5) had a worse season (on the field) than Johnny Manziel!

That's not to say that Rodgers or Luck aren't likely to bounce back, but more that its not necessarily worth paying a premium for a quarterback when even the best ones in the league can have mediocre to poor seasons. While we have the idea that QBs are steady from season-to-season, there's actually quite a bit of volatility, even among the elite. Instead, use those high picks on RBs, WRs, and Gronk and snag two top 10 ANY/A QBs like Carson Palmer (ADP 66.7), Tyrod Taylor (ADP 110.1), Andy Dalton (ADP 116.3), or, if you like to live your life on the edge, Jay Cutler (essentially undrafted).

We can also do searches like this on College Football Reference, in order to look for first year players who might be worthwhile. For example, are you curious what Ezekiel Elliott's game will look like in the NFL? Here's everyone who had 1,800 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns in a season since 2000:

Rk Player Year School Att Yds Avg TD
1 Ezekiel Elliott 2015 Ohio State 289 1821 6.3 23
2 Leonard Fournette 2015 Louisiana State 300 1953 6.5 22
3 Derrick Henry 2015 Alabama 395 2219 5.6 28
4 Jay Ajayi 2014 Boise State 347 1823 5.3 28
5 Melvin Gordon 2014 Wisconsin 343 2587 7.5 29
6 Donnel Pumphrey 2014 San Diego State 276 1867 6.8 20
7 Bishop Sankey 2013 Washington 327 1870 5.7 20
8 Jordan Lynch 2013 Northern Illinois 292 1920 6.6 23
9 Tre Mason 2013 Auburn 317 1816 5.7 23
10 Stefphon Jefferson 2012 Nevada 375 1883 5.0 24
11 Montee Ball 2012 Wisconsin 356 1830 5.1 22
12 Ka'Deem Carey 2012 Arizona 303 1929 6.4 23
13 Montee Ball 2011 Wisconsin 307 1923 6.3 33
14 Toby Gerhart 2009 Stanford 343 1871 5.5 28
15 Shonn Greene 2008 Iowa 307 1850 6.0 20
16 Kevin Smith 2007 Central Florida 450 2567 5.7 29
17 Ray Rice 2007 Rutgers 380 2012 5.3 24
18 Matt Forte 2007 Tulane 361 2127 5.9 23
19 DeAngelo Williams 2004 Memphis 313 1948 6.2 22
20 Larry Johnson 2002 Penn State 271 2087 7.7 20
Rk Player Year School Att Yds Avg TD
21 LaDainian Tomlinson 2000 Texas Christian 369 2158 5.8 22
22 Damien Anderson 2000 Northwestern 293 1914 6.5 22
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/18/2016.

Being on a list with LaDainian Tomlinson certainly bodes well for Elliott (and Tennessee Titans' RB Derrick Henry), but you could have said the same thing about Melvin Gordon or Bishop Sankey. One good check for this is to go to the team's page and look at their SOS, a measure of the strength of opposition their team faced.

Last year, Elliott's Ohio State Buckeyes faced a schedule that was 3.81 points tougher than the average team, which was the 36th most difficult schedule in 2015. In contrast, Gordon's Wisconsin Badgers team in 2014 faced the 52nd toughest schedule, and their average opponent was just 1.91 points tougher than the average team. This is rough, since its the full team rather than just the defense, but it does give us a little more confidence in Elliott's ability to make the jump to the NFL, considering he's used to somewhat tougher opponents.

We can also try to reverse engineer this. Here are the five teams who faced the toughest schedules in 2015:

Rk School SOS ?
1 Alabama 7.46
2 Southern California 7.39
3 Maryland 6.83
4 Louisiana State 6.79
5 Michigan State 6.58
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/18/2016.

We can feel a little better about taking guys like Henry or keeping an eye on really deep sleepers like Kenyan Drake and Aaron Burbridge knowing they performed against the toughest teams in college football.

Lastly, we can try to predict who might score more touchdowns this year. One good way of predicting that is seeing who had a lot of touches and targets in the Red Zone, but didn't score, in the Game Play Finder. For example, Giovani Bernard got 30 carries in the Red Zone and averaged an excellent 4.73 yards per carry, but scored on just two Red Zone plays. While part of that is because he plays with Jeremy Hill, a very accomplished goal line back, it might be worth placing a small bet on Bernard out-performing that, even by just another TD or 2.

Similarly Gary Barnidge got 23 targets in the Red Zone, from QBs like Johnny Manziel and Josh McCown, but just 8 TDs. Perhaps with Robert Griffin, he can convert a few more into TDs.

So this is just a rough guide. With the Season Finder, Game Play Finder, and array of other tools on Pro-Football-Reference, you can put together a list of sleepers that will help you dominate even the most hardened and intense fantasy league. On the other hand, if all your sleepers are back on the waiver wire by week 2, I can sleep soundly knowing none of this was my fault since I didn't actually recommend any players to you. Seems like a win-win for all of us.

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