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:
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 NFL.com) in the Play Index. So here are non-QBs who were worth 10 fantasy points per game, but under 100 total for the season:
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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:
|1||Ezekiel Elliott||2015||Ohio State||289||1821||6.3||23|
|2||Leonard Fournette||2015||Louisiana State||300||1953||6.5||22|
|4||Jay Ajayi||2014||Boise State||347||1823||5.3||28|
|6||Donnel Pumphrey||2014||San Diego State||276||1867||6.8||20|
|8||Jordan Lynch||2013||Northern Illinois||292||1920||6.6||23|
|16||Kevin Smith||2007||Central Florida||450||2567||5.7||29|
|20||Larry Johnson||2002||Penn State||271||2087||7.7||20|
|21||LaDainian Tomlinson||2000||Texas Christian||369||2158||5.8||22|
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:
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.
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.