With fantasy football growing in popularity every year, the prospect of identifying sleepers, let alone deep sleepers, becomes that much more challenging. Then you add in the fact that the field of talented analysts also grows every year, and there are basically no stones left unturned. Well, all that being said, that doesn't mean I'm not going to give my best effort at Steinstossen and flip a few stones to shed light on some deep sleepers I like right now.
I did my best to highlight players whose ADP is well into the double-digit rounds of both FantasyFootballCalculator.com and MyFantasyLeague.com, two places where mock and real drafts are already taking place. I include both ADPs after each player's name, based on 12-team drafts for FFCalc and MFL10s. This list is very likely to change as we progress through the offseason and learn even more about these players and how these teams will look come September, but for now, here are some of my favorite super late-round targets.
Even though they'll soon need to pay Jarvis Landry (and potentially DeVante Parker), the Dolphins committed good money to Kenny Stills in the form of a four-year, $32 million dollar contract extension with $20 million guaranteed this offseason. In football and often fantasy, money talks, and it's important to see where teams are investing their dollars. Stills' case isn't simply one of wasted money, though. Head coach Adam Gase has long been a fan of Stills' game, and started deploying him in new ways in 2016 other than simply as a deep threat. The result led to Stills posting a career-high nine touchdowns and falling just short of other career marks. Drawing a connection between Stills' improved play and the contract he received, it's entirely possible last season was just the tip of the statistical iceberg.
Stills has yet to cross 1,000 yards in his career and there are several impediments to a true breakout campaign (the aforementioned Parker, a more run-focused offense, Ryan Tannehill, etc.), but considering his draft price right now, Stills presents an immense value. Parker is going five rounds earlier in mocks, and 84 picks earlier in MFLs (71st overall!). Parker is a physical talent, but struggles to consistently create separation as frequently noted by Reception Perception guru and NFL.com writer Matt Harmon and has been called out by the top brass in Miami to step up his game. Landry will lead this group in targets, while Stills and Parker vie for No. 2 duties. Parker could finally take the next step and pass Stills, but is that chance really worth the far more significant draft investment it'll take to roster him? For me, I'd much rather sit back and let Stills fall to me. At worst, I'll have a matchup-based flex option, and at best I'll have found a potential WR2 in the final rounds of most drafts.
For a brief moment in Carolina, Ginn found new fantasy life catching deep bombs from Cam Newton. He crossed 700 receiving yards in back-to-back years (and for the first time since 2008), while also scoring 14 touchdowns -- more than he had in the previous eight years of his career combined. Now in New Orleans, Ginn is being undervalued in an offense likely looking for him to carry over the same dynamic he brought to Carolina, except on the fast track of the Superdome.
The departure of Brandin Cooks via trade to the Patriots opens up 117 targets in the Saints passing game, but more importantly also 27 percent of the air yards (the total number of yards thrown toward a receiver on a play in which he is targeted). For a quick primer on air yards and why they're important, check out this piece from Josh Hermsmeyer. The reason I bring this stat up here is that it could help indicate how Ginn could slide into a primary part of Cooks' workload in New Orleans, especially from a fantasy perspective. Last year, Cooks was targeted 26 times on passes of 20-plus air yards (11 catches, four TDs), while Michael Thomas and Willie Snead saw eight and six looks, respectively. Ginn led the Panthers in that category as well, with 18 targets, eight catches and four touchdowns. The Saints seem to have signed Ginn to fill the void left by Cooks as a big-play threat. Even though Ginn won't come close to approaching Cooks' 117 targets, his role as the lid lifter will make him an excellent late-round best ball or touchdown-only candidate. His production will be volatile week to week (this is Ted Ginn, after all), but those big weeks could be worth the headaches -- especially since Ginn is barely even considered right now in most drafts.
Yes, we've done this dance before. A long-time favorite of the NFL Fantasy Stronghold, Kamar Aiken's name has been scrawled in digital ink on this website more times than I'd like to count. However, once again he's entering the season in a situation where he could return some nice fantasy value given his current asking price.
The Colts offense relies heavily on the right arm of Andrew Luck, yet last year players like Chester Rogers were seeing significant and meaningful snaps at wide receiver. As much as the fantasy and draft communities might like Donte Moncrief or Phillip Dorsett (more so the former), neither has truly delivered yet in their young careers. Enter Aiken, who was told when he signed that there would be "open competition" in the receiving room. While it might be hard to unseat the hyper-talented Moncrief, Aiken could easily surpass Dorsett. Moreover, with Dwayne Allen out of the picture and Moncrief often injured, the team might be considering Aiken a red-zone weapon. Allen scored 13 red-zone touchdowns from 2012 to 2016 -- the most on the team in that span -- on just 29 targets. Aiken was a solid red-zone threat for the Ravens in his own right, hauling in eight touchdowns on 18 targets over his three years with the team. A now fully healthy Luck should help lift all of the parts of his passing game, and Aiken could find himself in a decent spot to produce. A late-round, capable wideout attached to a high-scoring offense is hard to ignore in bigger leagues.
On the surface, a Rams wide receiver doesn't inspire a ton of fantasy confidence. However, Kenny Britt was the WR26 last year amidst that disaster, so there could be potential with offensive wunderkind Sean McVay coming in as the head coach. And we also can't forget that 275 targets were freed up with the departures of Britt, Brian Quick and Lance Kendricks in free agency. When you add all of this together, it presents a situation where newly signed free agent Robert Woods could fall into a ton of targets and opportunity in Los Angeles. Reports from Rams headquarters are that McVay would like Tavon Austin to expand his role beyond gadget plays to more of a DeSean Jackson-esque style of play. Doing the math from McVay's offenses in Washington, that would leave the Pierre Garcon role to Woods. Garcon wasn't a fantasy revelation in Washington under McVay, but he averaged 110 targets per year in a much more crowded pass-catching group than what the Rams offer. It's not impossible to imagine a scenario where Woods sees 120-plus targets, amasses close to 1,000 yards, and finds his way into the end zone a handful of times. That might not seem like much, but that'd put him squarely in the WR3/flex mix, and his draft cost right now is essentially free.
I recently selected Richardson with my final pick in an industry mock draft, which drew plenty of questions on Twitter. My reasons were simple: 1) I believe in his upside, 2) I wanted to shine a spotlight on him, and most importantly 3) it's a mock draft in May, calm down. Consider No. 2 for a moment though, as so far this offseason Richardson has largely been, well, nonexistent in fantasy football discussions. Which is rather surprising considering the highlight-reel catches he made all throughout the playoffs (see video for reference).
Insane playoff catches aside, the more important factor giving Richardson deep sleeper status is the very real opportunity he could find in the Seahawks offense in 2017. For starters, the Seahawks have increased their team pass attempts in five consecutive years (2012 - 405, 2013 - 420, 2014 - 454, 2015 - 489, 2016 - 567). Granted, the 78 attempt jump from 2015 to 2016 was likely aggravated by the injuries sustained in the running game, but the fact remains the team has passed more frequently in each subsequent year of Russell Wilson's career. Doug Baldwin is entrenched as the No. 1 target, with Jimmy Graham sliding in as the No. 2. Tyler Lockett would theoretically be the third-best option, but let's not forget he's coming off a broken tibia and fibula suffered in late December. Even if he hits the field early in the season, odds are he'll be far from 100 percent (just look at how long it took Thomas Rawls to recover from a similarly timed injury last year).
That leaves Richardson, the uninspiring Jermaine Kearse (who barely caught 50 percent of his 2016 targets), and third-round rookie Amara Darboh to compete for the No. 3 gig. Of that trio, my money is on the former second-round pick with 4.4 speed to take hold of the job and run with it. Richardson has size, speed, natural play-making ability, and momentum from the postseason working in his favor. His early years were derailed by massive injury misfortune. If this Seahawks passing game takes another step forward in 2017, Richardson is primed to succeed.
With Ladarius Green on the shelf with injuries for much of last year, Jesse James became a low-key tight end streamer, providing some useful fantasy weeks to desperate players. Now that Green is completely out of the picture after being released, it looks like it's time for the outlaw to ride again. In limited work last year, James tied with Antonio Brown for the team lead in targets (seven) and touchdowns (three) inside the 10-yard line. Martavis Bryant will likely steal some of those targets now, but James' 6-foot-7 frame will be hard for Ben Roethlisberger to ignore close to the end zone. James and Green combined for 94 targets last year as the team's two-headed "No. 1" tight end, and Heath Miller averaged 88 targets per year from 2012-2015. There will be opportunities for James outside of the red zone, too. Players in deeper leagues or those looking for a low-cost streaming tight end to start the year should give James a look.
The fantasy industry has been growing increasingly reliant on a seemingly inconsistent formula in recent years. It breaks down like this: If a team has an aging/veteran running back AND that same team drafts a RB in the third round or later, then that rookie runner unequivocally is a sleeper who will usurp the starting job from said veteran. Look, I'm as guilty as anyone of buying into this philosophy. After all, I was in the caboose as the David Cobb and Kenneth Dixon hype-trains careened off the fantasy cliff in each of the past two seasons.
Back to 2017 though, that same formula is being aggressively applied to Marlon Mack in Indianapolis right now, whose ADP sits in the 12th round on Fantasy Football Calculator and the 11th round of MFL10s. That is patently absurd. First of all, we're nearly investing a single-digit round pick in a rookie who is backing up future Hall of Famer Frank Gore (yes, I believe Gore should be in the Hall, save your @s). Secondly, this takes for granted the presence of Robert Turbin, the true deep fantasy sleeper worth drafting late in Indy.
When it comes to actually investing a draft pick in backup/handcuff runners, the best strategy is ... don't. JJ Zachariason over at NumberFire wrote up a great article as to why drafting handcuffs is foolish, which you should read here. However, if you play in a larger league and need depth/upside, it's critical to consider the tangible opportunities said back could find in the season.
Turbin saw just 82 opportunities in 2016 (targets and carries), but 49 percent of them came in the final five games, as did five of his seven touchdowns. During that period, Gore and Turbin played 52 and 40 percent of the snaps, respectively, versus a 63 to 22 split in the games prior. Before drafting Mack, general manager Chris Ballard hinted that he hoped Turbin could "progress even more on first and second down and take some of the load off (Gore)." He did intimate that the decision would be up to the coaching staff and Turbin's offseason performance, however. So yes, Mack could out-play Turbin this offseason and land as the full-fledged backup. What's more likely, though, is in the event Gore does get injured or cedes more work to another player, the primary beneficiary will be the veteran, not the fourth-round rookie. Turbin is also likely to remain the favorite in scoring situations, as he saw 14 attempts inside the 10-yard line to Gore's 19 last year. Turbin is by no means a sexy fantasy pick, but it's looking like he could be the 2014 Matt Asiata to Mack's Jerick McKinnon. Everybody in fantasy picked up McKinnon and pretty much agreed he was the better athlete/overall player. But Asiata received the scoring chances ... and finished as the RB16 that year. "Talent" and "tape" are important in fantasy but don't always win out. This could be one of those cases.
I know I literally just decried handcuff backs in the Turbin blurb, but Washington will certainly merit consideration in deeper leagues. Marshawn Lynch will be the featured back in Oakland, but it's worth questioning his health given that he's 31 and the last time we saw him on an NFL field he was battling multiple ailments. Jalen Richard flashed big-play ability last year, but Washington was used slightly more in a traditional back sense. He saw more carries and snaps in the backfield than Richard, who was moved around the field more often. In the event Beast Mode was to miss time, the Raiders would likely revert back to the committee approach they employed for most of last season. Yet, reading the tea leaves, Washington could be the slightly better option than Richard in that situation, though both would be hot ticket waiver-wire priorities.
As mentioned in the Turbin section, when looking for deep sleepers at running back, actual opportunity is what we need to chase. For Foreman, the team seems to want him to spell Lamar Miller frequently, giving him a decent amount of weekly touches. His fantasy upside comes in regards to his potential as a goal-line back. Miller converted five of his eight rush attempts inside the 5-yard line into scores, but the team might see fit to use the bigger, more powerful Foreman in those situations in 2017. If Foreman does inherit that role, he could be a matchup-based flex option in standard leagues, in the vein of Mike Gillislee last year. If not, owners can cut him loose with no hesitation, or stash him in case Miller suffers some sort of injury.
Allen Hurns' fantasy career is a tale of two different seasons. In 2015, he was a fantasy darling, finishing 14th at his position and helping countless owners to titles. Then comes 2016 and with it myriad injuries, casting Hurns into obscurity behind the Albino Tiger himself, Marqise Lee. Now in 2017, Hurns is an afterthought ... but should he be?
It's foolish to think a healthy Hurns will fall right back into his old target share (17 percent) and score touchdowns on nearly 10 percent of his targets again as he did in 2015. However, he was a capable downfield threat for the Jaguars in 2015, tying for the seventh-most 20-plus yard receptions that year with 19. If he comes back to full health and pushes Lee for the No. 2 role, he might have some boom-or-bust potential. There could also be more touchdowns to go around in Jacksonville if Blake Bortles' touchdown rate settles between the 5.8 he posted in 2015 and 3.7 last season. Of course, the new run-heavy approach under Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone could make this all a moot point after they drafted Leonard Fournette to help take pressure off Bortles. This is a deep sleepers list published in early June, what else do you want from me!
The "Why the hell not?" stash-worthy all-stars: