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 NFC teams. The article on AFC 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.
Dallas Cowboys: TE Blake Jarwin
Jason Witten has returned to the field to start for the Cowboys again. However, questions surround Witten’s return, mainly about how much gas is left in the tank for the 37-year-old. Witten’s stats have steadily declined since his 2012 Pro Bowl appearance until before his one-year retirement. During Witten’s stint as a commentator, Blake Jarwin split time with Geoff Swaim, who has now moved on to the Jaguars. The 25-year-old Jarwin was quiet up until the last 4 weeks of the season when he broke out for 20 receptions for 228 yards on 25 targets. This included a 3 touchdown performance against the Giants in Week 17. With Geoff Swaim gone and Witten and Jarwin clearly headed in different directions, it’s only a matter of time until Jarwin becomes the starter. Jarwin isn’t even being considered in drafts at TE36 but could become an asset later this season. Keep him in mind on the waiver wire.
New York Giants: WR Cody Latimer
Odell Beckham Jr. is gone, Golden Tate is suspended for the first 4 games, and Corey Coleman is done for the season after tearing his ACL. Enter Cody Latimer. He has 5 years of NFL experience despite being only 26 years old. Coaches love him and he’s showing growing chemistry with Eli Manning. Expect lots of check-downs to Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram, but with Giants figuring to be playing from behind in most of their games, they’ll have to stretch the field. After Sterling Shepard, Latimer should be the next downfield target. He isn’t being drafted in most leagues, but keep an eye on his early-season performances, as he could become fantasy relevant very soon.
Philadelphia Eagles: WR DeSean Jackson
Jackson moves back to Philly after stints with the Redskins and the Bucs. He’ll start opposite of Alshon Jeffery, moving Nelson Agholor to the slot. Jackson finished WR32 in 2018 and it seems that many expect his production to falter on a better team this year, as he’s currently being picked WR46. However, Jackson may actually see an uptick in targets as he moves from the clear fourth option in Tampa to the probable third in Philly. The combination of Tampa throwing for the most yards in the NFL last season and Jackson’s league-leading 18.9 yards per reception allowed for WR3 numbers even as a fourth option. The Eagles still passed the 7th most in the league last season and Jackson will be the sole deep threat. I expect Jackson to at least maintain last year’s production, but you can get him for a discount in 2019.
Washington Redskins: WR Trey Quinn
Injuries limited Quinn to only 3 games in his rookie season, but he flashed potential, posting 9/75/1 in that short time. Now, Quinn is poised to make a leap in his second year. He is locked in as the starting slot receiver, and coach Jay Gruden praised him, saying “he’s confident, he’s quick, he’s got strong hands, he’s physical, and he’s tough”. It helps that the Redskins’ receiving corps is one of the thinnest in the NFL after cutting Josh Doctson, consisting of Quinn, veteran Paul Richardson, and rookies Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon. Quinn should see the field a lot and could develop into a safety blanket for Case Keenum and/or Dwayne Haskins. At WR89, Quinn isn’t being drafted in 12 team leagues. As a slot receiver, there’s a cap on his potential, but he could become a useful asset in PPR leagues.
Chicago Bears: WR Riley Ridley
The RB, QB, and TE situations in Chicago are all very clearly defined so I’ll take a dart throw at WR. This is one of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL with 6 players who can all contribute. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller don’t qualify as sleepers, leaving Cordarrelle Patterson, Javon Wims, and Riley Ridley as the next best. Patterson is a swiss army knife type player who HC Matt Nagy will probably use to give defenses different looks and for his patented trick plays. He’ll have some big plays but won’t be used enough or in ways that lead to consistent fantasy production. Wims is my runner-up sleeper. He’s done nothing but impress everyone since being drafted in the 7th round in 2018, but I just think Ridley will play more. Ridley has an NFL-ready route tree and should be able to spell any of Robinson, Gabriel, or Miller. If one of them goes down, watch out for Ridley.
Detroit Lions: WR Marvin Jones
Kenny Golladay is the popular pick from this receiving corps, going as WR19 right now. Last season he broke out, posting 70/1063/5 on 119 targets. Golladay was no doubt impressive, but this breakout came with the trade of Golden Tate in October and Marvin Jones’ struggles with injuries, which caused him to miss 7 games and the last 6. In these last 6 games without Tate and Jones, Golladay recorded 31 receptions for 462 yards on 58 targets, nearly half of his season’s production. In other words, Matthew Stafford had nowhere else to throw late in the season. Now, Jones is back and being drafted WR38. Jones was on pace for 110 targets last season and surpassed 100 targets in each of the 3 previous seasons. Jones isn’t going anywhere and all signs point to a bounce-back season if he can stay healthy.
Green Bay Packers: WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Throughout the summer, one of the most intriguing position battles has been for the second spot in 2 receiver sets between Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison. Valdes-Scantling looks to have won this battle, while Allison should primarily play out of the slot. Valdes-Scantling is currently being drafted WR44 and Allison WR47. Both will have major roles in the offense, but Valdes-Scantling is the much better value. For Aaron Rodgers’ probable second favorite target, he’s being drafted too low. The top two receivers for the Cardinals and Broncos are all being drafted before MVS right now, even though they’re splitting targets from Kyler Murray and Joe Flacco instead of Rodgers. Look for Valdes-Scantling in the mid-to-late rounds as a flex with WR2 upside.
Minnesota Vikings: RB Alexander Mattison
Dalvin Cook is the unquestioned starter in Minnesota, but he’s also unquestionably injury prone. Cook tore his ACL 4 games into his rookie season and missed 5 games last year. Latavius Murray, Cook’s fill-in last year, has moved to the Saints, leaving 3rd round pick Alexander Mattison as the clear backup heading into this season. It’s not just Cook’s injury history that makes Mattison attractive though. According to The Athletic’s Jay Glazer, Mattison has drawn rave reviews all offseason and could even carve out a role in short-yardage situations. At RB53, Mattison is a low-risk, high-reward target late in drafts.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Ito Smith
With Tevin Coleman’s move to San Francisco, Smith becomes the backup to Devonta Freeman. Smith had one of the best summers of all Falcons with HC Dan Quinn stating: “he just has a knack, even though he’s not a bigger guy, inside of the tackles. It’s making a guy miss, change of direction. I think that’s what makes him so unique, it’s his change of direction and he can really put his foot in the ground and violently explode to one side.” Smith finished last season RB53 as a third-string back but is being drafted lower, despite moving up on the depth chart, at RB61. Freeman also has a long injury history. Last season, he dealt with a sports hernia, knee contusion, and bone bruise in his foot, ultimately allowing him to only play in 2 games. This led to Coleman finishing RB18. If Smith can fill Coleman’s role with and without Freeman on the field, he has huge fantasy potential. Smith is at least a lock to have a better fantasy season than last, for the price of a worse season.
Carolina Panthers: WR Curtis Samuel
Devin Funchess’ move to Indianapolis has contributed to a huge amount of fantasy hype around D.J. Moore heading into the fall. However, Curtis Samuel is the one turning heads this summer. The Charlotte Observer named him the training camp offensive MVP and Ron Rivera’s quoted as saying he’s “light-years” ahead of where he was as a rookie. Moore and Samuel finished last season WR38 and WR42 respectively, and are now being drafted WR27 and WR39. Moore is being drafted as a breakout candidate, but wait for Samuel, who has outperformed Moore this offseason.
New Orleans Saints: WR Tre’Quan Smith
The Saints annually have one of the NFL’s best passing offenses. The passing attack will no doubt center around Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara again, but Drew Brees’ third favorite target could be any of Ted Ginn, Tre’Quan Smith, or tight end Jared Cook. Cook should fill in well for Ben Watson, who signed with the Patriots this offseason, but I’m most excited about Tre’Quan Smith. Ginn has been listed ahead of Smith on depth charts throughout the summer, but it’s only a matter of time until one big-play threat usurps the other. Ginn is 34-years-old and missed 11 games due to injury last season. Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Smith flashed his explosive playmaking ability in his rookie season with a 3/111/2 performance in Week 5 and a dominant 10/157/1 display in Week 10. Smith is currently being drafted WR57 and Ginn WR63, making them both late-round picks. I’d take Smith with his potential to be an impact player by the fantasy playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Peyton Barber
It’s not often that a starting RB can be considered a sleeper, but this is a unique situation. Barber led the Bucs backfield with 254 touches last season. Jacquizz Rodgers had 71 and Ronald Jones II had just 30. Yet, Jones’ ADP is actually 5 spots ahead of Barber’s at RB42 vs. RB47. This backfield is going to be a committee, but there is no indication at all that Jones is going to get more touches than Barber. There has been tons of hype around Jones leading into this season as he has put on weight and looked good in training camp, but he’s still completely unproven compared to the dependable Barber. Additionally, the departure of Rodgers this offseason leaves touches on the table. Jones will certainly absorb some of those and Dare Ogunbawale should mix in, but Barber could also see an increase in touches. This job is Barber’s to lose. Take advantage of his low ADP and get a slightly boring but great value at RB.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Michael Crabtree
The Cardinals drafted three receivers in the spring, all of whom have generated buzz, but none of whom will start Week 1. Instead, the Cardinals brought in veteran Michael Crabtree at the end of the preseason, and he’s been listed as a starter for Week 1. This was a great signing, as Crabtree gives rookie Kyler Murray another big experienced target. Since Crabtree was signed so late, he’s available on waivers in a lot of leagues and is definitely worth keeping an eye on early in the season.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Darrell Henderson Jr.
This one’s easy. Todd Gurley’s knee arthritis isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, making the Rams’ backup RB a valuable commodity. The Rams didn’t have a 1st round pick in this year’s draft and traded up to get Henderson at 70th overall, ahead of Bears’ RB David Montgomery, whom everyone’s been raving about this offseason. This is both a signal of Henderson’s potential and Gurley’s knee problem. Henderson is a superior pass-catcher to last year’s backup, Malcolm Brown, and is listed as the backup heading into Week 1. He’s coming off the board at RB42 right now. This is a little high for my liking, because it’s ahead of players who will have much larger roles right away like Latavius Murray and Miles Sanders, but take him every time in keeper leagues.
San Francisco 49ers: WR Marquise Goodwin
Goodwin is a classic case of the boring steady veteran being undervalued in favor of shiny new young players. Goodwin is listed as a starter on the Niners’ depth chart but is being drafted WR70, far behind two other Niners’ receivers Dante Pettis and rookie Deebo Samuel. Pettis, who had a solid rookie season and is a favorite to have a breakout season, is being drafted WR42. Samuel is going at WR60, which really has no logical justification, as he’s listed as a third-stringer on the depth chart. This phenomenon of reaching for rookies is something to be wary of. Don’t let yourself get too excited over any rookie as they’re not all going to be Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt, or Phillip Lindsay. Pettis may be in line for a breakout season, but the real value lies with Goodwin. Also, don’t draft Deebo Samuel anywhere near his current ADP.
Seattle Seahawks: WR Jaron Brown
Seahawks receivers have been ravaged by injury. David Moore has a fractured shoulder that may land him on the IR. D.K. Metcalf had a minor knee procedure that kept him out for much of the preseason and leaves him questionable for Week 1. This means that after Tyler Lockett, Jaron Brown should be the second option to start the season. The Seahawks didn’t give Brown much of a chance last season, but he did catch an impressive 14 of 19 targets. He’s not draftable right now, but keep an eye on the Seahawks’ injury problems and Brown’s performances early in the season. He could become fantasy relevant in a hurry.