Author: Wes Harrell (McCormick ’21)
Through my seven years of fantasy football experience, I’ve learned that winning your league doesn’t always come down to your star players, but rather from your depth and finding diamonds in the rough. Everybody knows the big names, so finding value in the later rounds of your draft and on the waiver wire is paramount. The key to finding these sleepers is identifying players with a defined path to usage in their team’s offense. Even if a player is talented, they still can’t provide anything for your fantasy team if they are stuck behind four other running backs on the depth chart. The most common path to fantasy-relevant usage for a sleeper is an injury to a player ahead of them on the depth chart. However, good sleeper candidates can also come from strong training camps and preseasons or playing a position that their team lacks depth in. A perfect example of a sleeper who ended up being a league winner is Kareem Hunt in 2017, his rookie season. The Chiefs drafted Hunt 86th overall in the 3rd round and he was listed as the third running back on the depth chart. At the beginning of training camp, buzz started to build around Hunt impressing coaches and reporters. Fast forward to the end of the preseason and Spencer Ware, the starting running back, had torn his ACL, leaving him out for the season. Then Hunt had beaten out Charcandrick West, Ware’s backup at the start of training camp, for the starting job. Hunt went on to win the rushing title that year. While sleepers with as much success as Kareem Hunt are extremely rare, he’s still a great example of what we should look for: a player talented enough to move up the depth chart and make an impact with the right opportunity.
Before we dive in, there’s one last point I want to make: sleepers and breakout candidates are different. Breakout candidates are usually players who haven’t posted great fantasy stats in the past but have shown flashes and have a clear path to finally having a great fantasy year. A prime example for this year is Panthers WR D.J. Moore. Moore finished WR37 in ½ point PPR (points per reception) leagues last year but is being drafted as WR23 right now. He’s being picked higher because he showed a lot of potential in his rookie season, but mainly because Devin Funchess (the Panther’s former WR1) is now on the Colts. Moore has a clear path to increased usage this season and the ability to capitalize on it. Breakout candidates are popular picks to have good seasons and get drafted higher than sleepers. Now let’s move on to the good stuff in sleepers.
(This article is on AFC teams. The article on NFC teams can be found here.)
All average draft position (ADP) references and positional rankings come from FantasyPros ½ point PPR which takes a composite ADP calculated from Yahoo, Fantasy Football Calculator, and Fantrax drafts. Stats from prior seasons come from Pro Football Reference. All news is current through 9/5/19, the first day of the NFL season.
Buffalo Bills: QB Josh Allen
The Bills are loaded with sleepers. John Brown is a great value at WR59 and Devin Singletary has incredible potential, especially after the release of LeSean McCoy. However, I’m going to pick Josh Allen. Allen is the rare running quarterback not named Lamar Jackson who hasn’t been getting much hype. It seems that Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Jackson have all been getting the second-year hype, but Allen actually averaged more fantasy points per game than any of them all last year. Much of this has to do with his rushing efficiency. Last year Jackson ran for 147/699/5 while Allen ran for 89/631/8. That’s 4.76 yards-per-carry for Jackson compared to 7.09 with 3 more touchdowns for Allen. Allen also had more fantasy points per game than household names: Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Marcus Mariota, and Derek Carr, to name a few. This list doesn’t include any fantasy studs, but they’ve all been seen as at least serviceable starters not long ago. Allen finished QB20 last year, and if he takes a step forward as he should in his second year, there’s no reason he couldn’t become a top 15 fantasy quarterback. However, he’s currently being drafted QB23, below his value last year. With Allen, you’ll get a high upside pick for almost no risk.
Miami Dolphins: RB Kalen Ballage
This team is going to be awful, both in real life and fantasy. With a crowd of uninspiring receivers, several tight ends likely to split time, and some combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen making starts at quarterback, we look towards the backfield. Kenyan Drake is being drafted RB21, Kalen Ballage at RB87, and rookie Myles Gaskin has potential but likely won’t have much of a role this year. Last year, Drake and Frank Gore split carries with Ballage mixing in, flashing 5.3 yards-per-carry. Now, Gore is in Buffalo, leaving over 150 carries up for grabs. Drake is still listed as the starter for the Week 1 matchup against the Ravens, but he’s also missed the last two weeks with a toe injury. Expect Ballage to spell Drake in Week 1, with high potential to take over the majority of touches as the season progresses. Ballage is an easy late-round pick with the potential to out-snap his 5th round counterpart.
New England Patriots: WR Phillip Dorsett
The Patriots have a crowded backfield as always. While Tom Brady and Ben Watson are unquestioned starters, the receiving corps is thin and loaded with uncertainty. After Julian Edelman, nothing is a sure thing. Josh Gordon has been reinstated by the NFL, but he has missed all of camp and only played in one preseason game. Patriots fans will also hold their breath to see if Gordon can last the whole season, which he’s struggled to do due to his off-field issues. The hyped first-round pick N’Keal Harry has landed on the IR with an ankle injury and won’t be available until Week 9. 31-year-old Demaryius Thomas spent the offseason rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles and was cut by the Patriots, before being resigned after Harry’s placement on the IR. That leaves Phillip Dorsett. He’s played in 36 games for the Pats the last two seasons; while this stat may seem insignificant, Edelman is the only other receiver with as much experience in the offense. Ben Watson won’t be able to fill Gronk’s shoes either. There are targets up for grabs, so Dorsett has a clear path to a role in the offense. Dorsett is currently being drafted WR116 while Demaryius Thomas is going WR67, which makes no sense to me. Get Dorsett with one of your last picks or off waivers instead of spending a pick on a 31-year-old who made the very last roster spot.
New York Jets: TE Chris Herndon IV
Herndon had a promising rookie season posting 39/502/4 with 5 double-digit scoring games in PPR formats. His chemistry with Sam Darnold grew noticeably throughout the season, and as both him and Darnold progress, Herndon should only become more productive. He finished TE15 last season but is being drafted TE22 right now. Most of this has to do with the fact that he had been issued a 4-game suspension to start the season after a DUI. Even with the suspension, he’s being drafted too low. Herndon should immediately become the starter once he returns, as there’s no serious competition for his job, and has the potential to become a top 10 TE for the rest of the season. Stash him until Week 4 or target him on waivers Week 2 or 3 before his suspension is up.
Baltimore Ravens: WR Miles Boykin
The Raven’s 1st round pick, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, is one of the most electric rookie receivers in the league, but keep your eye on 3rd round pick Miles Boykin out of Notre Dame. Brown has the blazing speed to play outside but is only 5’9” and projects more as a catch-and-run slot receiver. On the other hand, Miles Boykin is 6’4” and gives Lamar Jackson a huge target at the Z. Boykin drew rave reviews from everyone inside the Ravens organization at the beginning of training camp. Fellow receiver Willie Snead IV has compared Boykin to the Saints’ Michael Thomas, and Ravens’ staff writer Clifton Brown says that if there was an MVP for camp, Boykin would be a strong candidate. Boykin should become a go-to red-zone target, but his value will depend on how much the Ravens run the ball and how improved Jackson’s accuracy is. Boykin is going undrafted at WR125 so you can get him for free if you need receiver depth.
Cincinnati Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert
Tyler Eifert has a well-known problem with injuries. He’s missed a whopping 53 games in 6 seasons. This public concern is the best explanation for his being drafted TE23 right now. However, all signs point to a bounce-back season for Eifert. He is finally healthy, while AJ Green will miss multiple weeks after having ankle surgery. Eifert is already a huge red-zone concert, catching 13 touchdowns in his 2015 Pro Bowl season, and with Green’s injury, he will be the go-to red-zone target. Game script should also benefit Eifert as the Bengals project to play from behind a lot this season. Eifert’s ADP means he’ll more than likely be available on the waiver wire. Pick him up for tight end depth with upside.
Cleveland Browns: WR Rashard Higgins
It’s hard to find a sleeper on the most-hyped team of the offseason, but Higgins fits the bill. Higgins was reportedly starting ahead of Antonio Callaway in 3 receiver sets, even before Callaway was hit with a 4-game suspension to start the season. Higgins and Mayfield have great chemistry and Freddie Kitchens’ offense is likely to feature Higgins more. When Kitchens took over the offense in Week 9 of last season, the Browns began using more four-receiver-and-empty sets, utilizing Higgins more. Additionally, as Mayfield has gotten more comfortable escaping pressure and making throws outside the pocket, Higgins has become one of his favorite targets downfield. According to Sharp Analysis, 43% of Higgins’ targets came over 15 yards downfield, of which he caught 17 of 23 for 390 yards and 3 touchdowns. Of course, the Browns have added Odell Beckham Jr., but if Higgins can stay ahead of Callaway in the pecking order, he’ll surely see an increase in targets. Higgins finished last year at WR58 but is being drafted as WR110. Get him for free off waivers or take a late flier.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Donte Moncrief
Moncrief had a solid season last year with the Jaguars, posting 48/668/3, good enough for WR55. He gets a quarterback upgrade from Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler to Big Ben while moving into the second option in an offense trying to replace Antonio Brown’s 104/1297/15 and 168 targets. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, James Washington, and James Conner will soak up some of these targets, but that still leaves a gaping hole for Moncrief to fill. While I am almost willing to guarantee Moncrief finishes much better than last season’s WR55, he’s being drafted WR58. This makes absolutely no sense! Draft him.
Houston Texans: RB Carlos Hyde
After his lackluster preseason, Hyde was almost certainly going to get cut by the Chiefs, but the Texans swooped in to trade for the running back help they needed after Lamar Miller tore his ACL. Now, Hyde has gone from possibly being out of a job to plugging in as most likely the Texans’ early-down back. Duke Johnson should get the passing down work, but Hyde has very little competition for carries. Hyde has a very low ceiling, having averaged below 4 yards-per-carry for each of the past 3 seasons, but the guaranteed touches make him a necessary pick late in drafts. If Hyde can rediscover some of his early career form, he could have flex appeal.
Indianapolis Colts: QB Jacoby Brissett
In the aftermath of Andrew Luck’s retirement, many have written the Colts off. However, Jacoby Brissett is an experienced backup who’s more than capable of leading this offense. Brissett finished QB20 in 2017 after Luck missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. The Colts finished 4-12, but a lot has changed since 2017. The Colts are stronger and deeper at every offensive position group, giving Brissett the weapons he needs to improve on his QB20 performance from two years ago. The Colts have also clearly placed their confidence in Brissett, signing him to a two-year, $30 million contract. He’s currently being drafted QB29, meaning that he’s going undrafted in most leagues. Brissett is an upside fantasy backup pick that should be targeted at the end of drafts.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Dede Westbrook
Westbrook led the Jags in receiving last year with 66/717/5 last season, so this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking sleeper pick. However, he’s still being undervalued. Westbrook finished WR35 in 2018 but is being drafted at WR41 despite a quarterback upgrade from Blake Bortles to Nick Foles. On top of this, the Jaguars wide receiver situation is in flux. The team’s second option receiver from last season, Donte Moncrief, has moved on to the Steelers, and Marqise Lee begins training camp on the PUP list as he’s still recovering from a torn ACL. Westbrook has a chance to become more of a go-to guy this season with a better quarterback. I think he should improve on his 2018 season, but he’s being drafted like he’ll be worse.
Tennessee Titans: WR Tajae Sharpe
Sharpe is probably the fourth most well-known Titans receiver after Corey Davis, new signing Adam Humphries, and 2nd round pick AJ Brown. However, Sharpe had the best training camp out of all 5 and is listed as a starter opposite of Davis to begin the season. Originally expected to play mainly a special teams role, ESPN recognized Sharpe as the Titans’ surprise offseason standout as he became a receiver Marcus Mariota leaned on in camp. His ADP is WR119 so grab him off waivers or as a late-round flier.
Denver Broncos: TE Noah Fant
Fant wasn’t even the first tight end from Iowa drafted this year, with T.J. Hockenson going 8th overall to the Lions, but Fant was still Denver’s first-round pick. Despite being taken 20th overall, I have heard little hype about Fant. He’s listed as the number 2 tight end on Denver’s depth chart behind Jeff Heuerman, but I don’t see that lasting long. Fant is by far the Broncos’ most athletic and best downfield threat at tight end. He needs to improve his blocking to really separate himself from the other tight ends, but I think he’ll win the starting job either way. At TE21, you can get him off waivers for some depth with upside.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Mecole Hardman
Running back Darwin Thompson has been a popular Chiefs’ sleeper pick for most of the summer, but he has a difficult road to touches with the addition of LeSean McCoy to a backfield that already includes Damien and Darrel Williams. I’ll pick the blazing-fast Mecole Hardman instead. The Georgia product jumps out on film as a carbon copy of Tyreek Hill. It is unclear who will get more work in 3 receiver sets to start the season, Hardman or Demarcus Robinson, but Hardman clearly has more potential. Hardman is a big play waiting to happen, which he’s showcased this preseason, slashing 6/88/2 on 10 targets with 59 of his 88 yards coming after the catch. At Georgia, Hardman was used as a swiss army knife, and it’s hard to see Andy Reid not doing the same. The Chiefs are a perfect match for Hardman’s skill set and he could be an impact player by the end of the season. Target Hardman late in drafts.
Los Angeles Chargers: RB Justin Jackson
Melvin Gordon is holding out for a new contract, but whether or not Gordon is traded, this conflict doesn’t look like it will be resolved anytime soon. In Gordon’s absence, there seems to be an assumption that Austin Ekeler will take over the lion’s share of work. This has Ekeler quickly rising up draft boards to RB29, and his ADP will likely continue to rise as long as Gordon holds out. Meanwhile, Justin Jackson sits back at RB44 after an impressive rookie season in which he compiled 341 total yards and 2 touchdowns on just 65 touches. Though Ekeler is being drafted significantly higher, the two split first-team reps in training camp. Ekeler should handle passing down work, but Jackson has a strong receiving prowess too, with 9 yards per catch last year. Ekeler should get the most work in, but take a late-round flier on Jackson, as this is certain to be a committee.
Oakland Raiders: WR Tyrell Williams
The Raiders made one of the most high-profile moves of the offseason when they traded for Antonio Brown. However, behind Brown, they are thin at the receiver position. Tyrell Williams, who played for the Chargers last year, should see plenty of opportunities. Williams was solid last season, finishing WR46 with 41/653/5 on 65 targets. He is currently being drafted WR56 despite moving to an offense with fewer weapons. Additionally, Williams has had a strong offseason and extra time to develop a rapport with Derek Carr, as Antonio Brown continues to deal with a foot injury. Expect an improvement on last year from Williams while drafting him for a discount.