Putting the Fantasy Sleeper to BedAl Bello/Getty Images
It happens right around this time every year. Some weekend in late July or early August, I head to a wedding and get introduced to somebody who is unfamiliar with my work but very excited to hear I’m a football writer. This new friend has the same question every time. By now, I know it’s coming: “Hey, do you have any fantasy football sleepers for this year?”
While I always try to give a good-faith answer,1 the truth is I really don’t have any sleepers. I obviously watch my fair share of football and can probably go deeper on team rosters across the league than the typical guy in your fantasy league, but overexposure isn’t why I’m stumped for sleepers. I don’t have a good answer for that question because I don’t think fantasy football sleepers really exist. There was a bygone era in which the concept made sense, and there’s obviously value in finding talent that other people don’t recognize, but in 2015? It’s a term we need to retire.
I think people love sleepers because it’s the most obvious way for a fantasy football participant to look educated before the draft and smart afterward. It’s a way that inexperienced or casual owners try to catch up to the rest of their league while simultaneously proving the value of their endless research.
It’s also an easier place to stand out with your choices. The beginning of a fantasy football draft can be incredibly valuable, but your choices are further subject to draft position and the decisions of the players around you than they are later in the draft. At a certain point, the decision-making processes in the first two rounds of a fantasy draft can emulate the mechanical, rote style of chess openings, dictated by a selection order you might not find out about until the day of the draft.
Let’s say you wanted DeMarco Murray, whose Average Draft Position by the end of last August had him coming off the board 13th.2 If you picked fourth, you basically had to write Murray off; you would have been laughed at for taking him there. But by the time your second pick arrived, there was little chance Murray would still be on the board.
If you were in love with a late-round sleeper like Ladarius Green (who had a 2014 ADP of 139), on the other hand, you were probably going to get him if you committed to doing so in the ninth or 10th round. Even better, because sleepers are so desirable, you’ll often see the opposite treatment. Take a late first-rounder like Murray a few picks too early last year and you’ll get laughed at for your naïveté. Take a fast-rising sleeper like Green two rounds too early and you’ll often get jealous comments. With Murray, fellow owners would have assumed you were just dumb; with Green, they would have assumed you knew something they didn’t.
Obviously, Murray turned out to be fantasy football’s MVP last season. Green … not so much. Sleepers aren’t supposed to pan out at the same rate as top-15 picks, of course, but that’s one of the problems. We don’t know what qualifies as a successful sleeper, because there’s no strict definition of what a sleeper might be. That’s one of the myriad conceptual problems with the term:
1. A sleeper can mean just about anything. There’s a vague definition of what a sleeper represents that basically amounts to “undervalued fantasy football player.” The general idea seems to be to focus on late-round picks who are worth more than their draft status suggests, but even that’s murky. A player with an ADP that falls in the 12th round of most drafts can be a sleeper. That’s fair. But what about an eighth-rounder? Or what about a fourth-rounder who ends up playing like a much better value? Emmanuel Sanders fit that definition, and he was on sleeper lists last year. (More on them in a minute.)
2. There’s no definition of success. Likewise, because we don’t know what a sleeper is, there’s no way to really tell what qualifies as a successful campaign for a player identified as one. Sanders was a clear success, but what about somebody like Darren Sproles? He was ranked 33rd in ADP among running backs heading into 2014 and finished 27th. Was he a successful sleeper?
3. The act of looking for sleepers is too common. It was one thing to think about players on the back of rosters 20 years ago, when the Internet was barely a blip on most people’s radars and the vast majority of fantasy football leagues were being played offline. There were no fantasy football websites, and most draft information boiled down to people reading the same two or three magazines everyone else in their league had access to. The idea of a talented player with a shot at meaningful playing time slipping through the cracks was far more credible before Sunday Ticket and Rotoworld. Today’s typical fantasy participant is far smarter and a much more sophisticated consumer of information than the average fantasy participant was back when sleepers were becoming a thing.
4. Everyone’s looking for the same sleepers. The pool of talent worthy of serious consideration in fantasy football just isn’t very large. In a 12-team, 16-player league, once you throw out the kicker and defense3 slots, teams are rostering a total of 168 players. A good chunk of those players — let’s say 48, for the first four rounds — aren’t often going to be considered sleepers. That brings it down to 120 candidates. A lot of them are going to be low-ceiling veterans who are worth rostering but who will also never be called a sleeper. In 2014, those were the Shonn Greenes and Dwayne Bowes of the world. Maybe there’s another 40 of them. Now we’re down to 80. Perhaps there are a few guys on the waiver wire who would qualify and don’t get drafted.
So that leaves us with what, 100 sleeper candidates in a typical draft year? It’s going to be awful hard to come up with that one player in 100 whom nobody else is considering. It’s even tougher given how many sleeper candidates fit the same archetypes. The vast majority of sleepers are young, often in their first or second year as a pro. Many of the others have switched teams, schemes, or both. If it’s a player whose role seems likely to open up as the season goes along, like Carlos Hyde last season, virtually everybody in your league is going to be aware that’s the case, most notably the person who drafted the incumbent (in this case Frank Gore) a few rounds earlier.
5. The real sleepers are the guys who are going to go undrafted. I don’t doubt that fantasy football writers know more about third- and fourth-string running backs than the typical fantasy football owner, and in the right context, that information can be useful. The problem is that those players become relevant only during the season. The vast majority of them aren’t going to be drafted in August, because the things that need to happen to make them valuable happen only during a season. Nick Foles was a great sleeper in 2013, but he came into the season as a backup quarterback; there was no way anybody would have included him as a “sleeper” pick because it looked like meaningless information.
As a result, sleeper picks and lists from fantasy football writers often look very similar, hitting many of the same archetypes. The rookie running back. The second-year wideout. The athletic tight end who showed flashes in a limited role. The nature of trying to write useful, relevant columns for readers combined with the realities of fantasy drafts dictate that many of the same names pop up over and over again.
The 2014 Sleepers in Review
To get an idea of how last year’s sleepers fared, I compiled 20 lists of 2014 fantasy football sleepers from notable websites. That includes ESPN’s fantasy site, of course, along with other large football sites, fantasy-football-specific sites, and a few nationally distributed newspaper pieces.
I tried to be as fair as possible. I aimed for sleeper columns written close to the beginning of the season, since they were most likely to affect the largest number of fantasy drafts. I didn’t include lists for PPR leagues, dynasty leagues, or lists of “deep” sleepers. I went exclusively with lists of 20 players or fewer to try to avoid sleeper lists that included half the league. And I didn’t include pay sites, because I’m cheap. The idea was to emulate what a casual-to-average-intensity fantasy football participant would have seen if they went looking for 2014 fantasy football sleepers on Google at the end of August, just before their draft.
The lists named 110 players a combined 275 times, ranging in notability from Tom Brady to Lache Seastrunk. There were 15 players who were named on five or more lists. Let’s run through those 15 sleeper candidates and see how they fared. And let’s start with the sleeper who appeared on more lists than anybody else:
Justin Hunter, WR, Titans
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 40
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 694
That’s not pretty. Hunter had exhibited flashes of big-play ability during his rookie season in 2013, including a pair of 100-yard games late in the season. He then had a monster preseason, finishing second in the league to Allen Hurns with 217 receiving yards. With a bigger role in Tennessee’s offense and the presence of coach Ken Whisenhunt, it was easy to get on the Hunter bandwagon.
It just didn’t work. Hunter, who caught 42.9 percent of his targets as a rookie, didn’t see that figure rise whatsoever — it actually fell to 41.8 percent. The Titans cycled through mediocre options at quarterback, and while Hunter still put up the occasional big play, he didn’t see enough volume to justify the hype. He had just 28 catches for 498 yards and three scores before suffering a lacerated spleen in Week 13 that ended his season prematurely.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 48
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 60
Despite catching just six passes in 12 games as a rookie, Wheaton’s hype grew as the preseason went along by virtue of his seemingly guaranteed role in the Steelers offense. With Emmanuel Sanders gone and the depth chart thin after Antonio Brown, Wheaton seemed like a lock to be the team’s second starting wideout, a role that had generated steady work for the likes of Sanders and Mike Wallace in years past.
Again, though, things went awry. Ben Roethlisberger and the coaching staff seemed to lose trust in Wheaton after a sluggish, inconsistent start to the season, and when Martavis Bryant burst onto the scene, Wheaton and the rookie began to split snaps and touches. Wheaton’s 53-644-2 line wasn’t worth the preseason attention, and he’ll be splitting time with Bryant again in 2015. Roethlisberger said Wheaton is going to break out in 2015, but then again, he also said Wheaton was going to surprise people last year.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 7
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 37
It’s hard to fault analysts for expecting that the talented Vikings tight end would be healthier and a meaningful part of a Norv Turner passing attack that always seems to reward tight ends, but Rudolph missed seven games with various injuries, including a sports hernia. He finished with 24 catches for 231 yards and two scores.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 42
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 68
Again, it’s easy to understand the logic: The Falcons were likely to be better in 2014, and with Steven Jackson collecting Social Security, it was only going to be a matter of time before Freeman took over as the starter. And again, it just didn’t happen; Jackson held on to his job, and with the Falcons concerned about Freeman’s ability as a pass-protector, he spent the season rotating with Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers. Freeman finished with 473 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. He’s in line for a much larger role this season, but that’s a little too late for 2014 owners.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Ravens
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 38
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 69
I’m as shocked as anybody this one didn’t work out. Preseason speculation wondered whether Ray Rice would struggle with the lingering effects of his 2014 hip ailment while expecting Pierce to return to the form of his promising rookie campaign in 2013. Rice never played after the video of his domestic assault hit the Internet, and Pierce had an effective 22-carry, 96-yard performance in a Week 2 win over the Steelers, but his prospects quickly faded. Pierce missed the next two games with a strained quad, which gave Justin Forsett a chance to break out; Forsett dramatically outplayed him afterward, costing Pierce his fantasy relevance. He finished the year with just 366 rushing yards and two scores before being cut after a March DUI.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 47
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 15
Finally, a breakout! Hopkins was being taken 17 picks after Hunter in fantasy drafts, which seems crazy given that he received nearly three times as many targets during their rookie seasons of 2013. His role in the offense continued to rise last year, and while Hopkins was inconsistent, he did enough in his big games (like the 238-yard, two-score performance against Hunter’s Titans) to justify the preseason projections.
Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 11
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 14
If I make it seem like I was ahead of the curve and knew that players like Hunter or Wheaton weren’t going to break out, please let me say that’s not the case here. I was all in on the Ertz bandwagon, drafting him for both of my fantasy football teams. What I ended up getting was an uninspiring season; Ertz was just good enough to keep on the roster but never good enough to be more than a fantasy disappointment. His role expanded, but nowhere near as much as it seemed it would in the preseason; he finished with 58 catches for 702 yards and three scores, with much of that coming in a 15-catch, 115-yard Week 16 loss to Washington.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 37
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 57
The Hyde breakout never took, in part because the 49ers weren’t the team most people expected. They weren’t winning anywhere near as frequently as they had been in years past, which meant fewer carries to go around. Gore stayed healthy and took the bulk of those touches, leaving Hyde with steady backup work. He failed to post more than 11 carries in a game, and his role decreased as the season went along. Hyde averaged just over six carries per game during the second half of the season before suffering an ankle injury in Week 15 that ended his campaign.
Khiry Robinson, RB, Saints
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 48
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 60
Robinson, who was being taken 12 picks before Chris Ivory according to that late-August ADP, had shown some flashes of brilliance during a 54-carry rookie season. It seemed like Robinson would take over for the departed Ivory in New Orleans’s rotation, but Mark Ingram (whose ADP was 40) finally exhibited signs of life during the preseason and took the job himself. When Ingram went down with an injury, Robinson assumed those duties, but he then lost playing time after a fumble against the Lions and went down with a forearm injury that cost him nearly two months. By then, Ingram was entrenched as the feature back, and with both the former first-rounder and C.J. Spiller signed to contract extensions, Robinson’s buried on the depth chart.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 16
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 6
The highest-ranked “sleeper” on this list during drafts, Sanders was very clearly a bargain who outplayed even the rosiest of draft projections. He posted seven 100-yard games in 11 weeks before his output slowed, which likely owed to Denver’s move toward a run-first approach and Peyton Manning’s infamous injury. Some would say he didn’t fit on a list with the Freemans and Robinsons of the fantasy world, but Sanders greatly exceeded expectations.
Kenny Stills, WR, Saints
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: undrafted
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 37
Stills wasn’t listed among the 57 wide receivers who were coming off the board in 12-team leagues, but by the end of the year, he was worth a roster spot. He posted a catch rate of nearly 76 percent despite serving as a deep threat, finishing with the highest percentage gap between his expected catch rate and actual catch rate per receiving plus-minus. Led by the 162-yard torching he laid on the brutal Steelers secondary in November, Stills finished with 931 receiving yards and three scores. He’ll be a candidate for sleeper lists again in 2015, albeit now as a member of the Dolphins.
Ladarius Green, TE, Chargers
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 13
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 52
Our cautionary tale. Green was actually being taken five picks ahead of teammate Antonio Gates in fantasy drafts, with owners breathlessly falling for the third-year tight end’s field-stretching speed. Gates promptly outgained Green by 595 yards and 12 touchdowns, as the anonymous Green never became a meaningful part of the offense and ended up producing just 22 fantasy points all season. Gates beat that against the Seahawks in Week 2, when he scored 27 points on three touchdowns and 96 receiving yards.
I’d also be skeptical of Green if I was a fantasy owner this time around. His role promises to grow with Gates suspended for the first four games, but the reality is that Green simply isn’t the same sort of player. He’s a monstrously tall target who can run fast downfield and stretch defenses. That doesn’t fit into the quicker throws Philip Rivers makes in this offensive scheme, and it doesn’t match up with Gates, who mostly torments defenses these days by poking holes in their zones across the middle of the field. Fans wanted Green to be the next Gates last year; he looks more like the next Jared Cook right now.
Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 18
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 8
Hey, we’ll take it. Kelce wasn’t able to ramp up his snap count to a typical starter’s share as he recovered from microfracture surgery, but he was wildly efficient as a receiver when he did make it onto the field, catching more than 77 percent of his targets. He was the most traditional definition of a sleeper: a guy who was only borderline draftable but ended up as a solid starter.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 35
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 17
And likewise, Benjamin was able to justify the August chatter with an effective debut season. He hit hardest during September and faded some as the year went along, but the overall totals — 1,008 receiving yards and nine touchdowns — were a pleasant return for a guy who was being taken just after the Seattle defense in fantasy drafts.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Jaguars
Pre-Draft Positional ADP: 19
Actual Positional Rank, 2014: 61
Sadly, the list ends with the sound of a sputtering engine. Gerhart seemed assured a heavy workload in Jacksonville, but he was alternately abysmal and injured, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry and gaining just 512 yards from scrimmage during a wildly disappointing season. He lost his starting job to converted quarterback Denard Robinson, and after the Jags picked T.J. Yeldon in the second round of this year’s draft, Gerhart’s roster spot for 2015 isn’t even guaranteed.
The Real Sleepers
OK. So most of those guys were a waste of time. It happens. Let’s approach it the other way. Where were the actual sleepers hiding last year? Could we have had any clue whom to pick with those late-round picks last August? I went through and put together a quick team of real sleepers. I’ll also note if they were on any of the sleeper lists I referenced for this piece.
The undrafted notation means five of the 10 players on this team weren’t being selected in the average 12-team fantasy draft at the end of August; Eli Manning, for example, wasn’t among the 18 quarterbacks who were being selected in typical drafts last year. He was a waiver-wire pickup in most leagues, and while he wouldn’t have been a superstar, he ended up as a starting-caliber quarterback.
Much of that had to do with his stud wide receiver, who was one of the most important players in fantasy football. Odell Beckham was struggling with a hamstring injury for much of the summer, and with his return to action unclear at the end of August, he was basically off the fantasy radar altogether. Despite being taken with the 12th overall pick in the NFL draft, he wasn’t mentioned on a single sleeper list. Miles Austin, Aaron Dobson, and even Hakeem Nicks (mentioned on three sleeper lists!) were all being taken ahead of him. Both he and Mike Evans, who didn’t have the same preseason injury concerns, were grossly undervalued.
Among running backs, only Jeremy Hill fit the traditional sleeper mold, and if you were going to target a second-round rookie back, most probably would have gone for Hyde or Bishop Sankey before Hill, given how high folks were on Gio Bernard this time last year. Indeed, they each had a higher ADP than Hill did in August.
Other players simply couldn’t have been highlighted. Veterans like Ben Roethlisberger, Manning, and Gates don’t fit our traditional definitions of a sleeper. The more anonymous stars were sleepers who could never have credibly made a pre-draft sleeper list. Forsett was fourth on the Ravens depth chart at running back in August and atop it by early October. C.J. Anderson was third on Denver’s and needed both Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman (and arguably Manning) to get hurt to claim his spot.
Go to Sleep
It’s tempting to take all of this and use it as evidence that fantasy football writers don’t really know what they’re talking about. That’s not the point, and I don’t think it’s accurate. If there’s anything I learned from looking into sleepers, it’s how the construct simply doesn’t fit the way it might have 20 years ago. There are players who outperform expectations, but it’s exceedingly difficult to identify them beforehand, even after you’ve narrowed the idea down to a player type or a vulnerable spot on a specific team.
The evidence suggests we should be less concerned with finding sleepers on draft day and more about finding those same underappreciated talents on a week-to-week basis during the season. Beckham was an afterthought on the waiver wire in September and maybe the best receiver in fantasy football by the end of November. Anderson was totally irrelevant until mid-November, after which point he suddenly averaged nearly 21 fantasy points per game.
Even if you don’t have some preternatural ability to see stars showing up out of nowhere, you do have the ability to pay attention. There was a two-week window at the beginning of Beckham’s season when he picked up 72 yards and a touchdown that also coincided with Victor Cruz’s nasty season-ending injury; even if he wasn’t the phenom he would eventually become, a heads-up owner could have seen more opportunity coming and made Beckham something of a priority in free agency or trades.5
That’s where the sleepers lie in fantasy football. It’s not some magical player you’re going to draw out of a hat in August who nobody else has ever heard of, and it’s probably not even some player you’re significantly higher on than anybody else, because nobody’s instincts are that great and everybody’s looking at the same guys at the same time.
Your best shot at finding a sleeper is in September, October, and November, when you can outwork and outprepare the rest of the people in your league in a way that you can’t in August. Playing situations are more fluid, and without a magazine or website literally ranking players in order of their expected value over the remainder of the season, less-prepared owners are more likely to make mistakes. And because you can always dump a player on the bottom of your roster after a week, thinking about sleepers as a midseason acquisition makes it more likely you’ll eventually stumble upon that player who creates value for your team. The old fantasy sleeper is dead. Long live the new one.
Filed Under: 2015 NFL Preview