Fantasy football 2015 draft preview: NFC sleepers
The idea of a fantasy sleeper doesn’t really exist anymore. Back in the old days, when we were all still drafting with magazines—not up-to-the-second rankings on the Internet—there were players you could keep hidden from the rest of your leaguemates. Now, the lifecycle of a player labeled a sleeper goes something like this:
Day one: Player is identified as a sleeper.
Day two: Information on said sleeper is disseminated to the public.
Day four: Six more columns on the same sleeper come off the presses.
Day six: The sleeper’s ADP starts to rise. Think of this as him waking up.
Day seven: The worst owner in your league stars the sleeper’s name on his cheat sheet, then looks around suspiciously to make sure no one else is around.
Day eight: The sleeper is no longer a sleeper.
We still use the term sleeper because it’s fun and we all generally know what it means. However, words have their definitions tweaked over time. Language is a living organism that must adapt with the times, and the word sleeper is desperately overdue for a facelift. Where it once meant “player no one is talking about,” sleeper now simply means “undervalued.” With that said, below are the most undervalued fantasy players in the NFC.
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
The conventional wisdom around fantasy circles now is that Russell Wilson is a top-three quarterback, while Kaepernick is no more than a backup with upside in one-quarterback leagues. I couldn’t agree more when it comes to Wilson, but I think Kaepernick is being severely undersold. Here are each of their lines from last season, leaving out one crucial stat. And to be clear, I am merely using Wilson as a basis for comparison. I am not coming close to suggesting he is overvalued, or that Kaepernick is a better fantasy option.
|Pass yards||Pass TDs||Yards per attempt||Completion percentage||INTs||Rush attempts||Rush yards|
Wilson clearly had the better season across the board, but this doesn’t look like the gap typically created between the quarterbacks who finished the season ranked third and 16th, as Wilson and Kaepernick did, respectively, in standard-scoring leagues. The one number I left out, however, tells the story. Wilson had eight rushing touchdowns last year. Kaepernick had one. Do you realize how hard it is to carry the ball 104 times and rack up 639 yards on those totes, but reach the end zone just one time? Prior to last year, I would have said it was impossible.
Heading into the 2014 season, a quarterback had run for at least 500 yards on at least 100 carries 12 times in NFL history. The fewest touchdowns any of those quarterbacks had was four (Randall Cunningham in 1989), and their average was 7.7 rushing scores per year. Last season, three quarterbacks reached the necessary marks. Wilson had eight touchdowns, Cam Newton (103 carries, 539 yards) had five, and Kaepernick had one. If he runs the same number of times for the same number of yards—and his per-start average translates to 575 rushing yards per year—there’s no way he hits pay dirt only one time this season.
The 49ers quarterback has an easy 18-to-24 more points in him this year simply from the rushing touchdowns resultant from his annual production on the ground. On top of that, he never misses games (Kaepernick has started every game for the 49ers since taking over for Alex Smith in 2012), has two potentially explosive backfield partners in Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush, and underrated receiver duo with Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Don’t overlook Kaepernick this season.
Darren McFadden, Dallas Cowboys
Everyone in the fantasy community seems ready to hand the starting running back job in Dallas to Joseph Randle. Randle is also dealing with a strained oblique that has cost him time at the beginning of training camp. McFadden is the only back who has been a starter before, and while he has usually disappointed, he’s still worthy of having on your sleeper radar on draft day.
McFadden, of course, is dealing with an injury of his own, and has yet to practice because of a balky hamstring. Still, his average draft position is was down in the middle of the ninth round of a 12-team draft. Meanwhile, Randle’s stock resembles that of Apple from the beginning of this decade. It hasn’t stopped rising since the middle of June, evidenced by this chart courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator, and now sits at 32, making him the eighth pick in the third round of a typical 12-team draft.
McFadden has made a career out of underwhelming his real-life teams and fantasy owners, but he’s still just 27 years old and is playing behind the best offensive line of his life. Don’t overlook what leaving the Raiders can do for a running back. McFadden played with JaMarcus Russell, Jason Campbell, Terrelle Pryor and Derek Carr in Oakland. The best receiver in his time there legitimately may have been Darrius Heyward-Bey. If McFadden can carve out a significant role in the Dallas offense, he will be a draft-day steal.
Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins
How quickly we all forget. Three years ago, in Garcon’s first season in D.C., he had 44 catches for 633 yards and four touchdowns in just 10 games, translating to a 70 receptions, 1,013 yards and six touchdowns over a full season. The following year he seemed to realize that potential, playing all 16 games and hauling in 113 passes for 1,346 yards and five scores. Then last season everything collapsed in Washington, taking Garcon down with the wreckage. He caught 68 balls for just 752 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games, finishing as the No. 54 receiver in standard-scoring leagues.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Garcon’s ADP this season is in the 10th round of a 12-team draft, making him the 44th receiver off the board. That’s simply far too low for a player from whom we’ve seen much better days. Garcon is essentially paying for the sins of the entire 2014 Washington offense when the structure around him was far more to blame for his lackluster season the he himself was.
Part of that structure was how the coaching staff in Washington deployed him last year. Garcon got just 105 targets last season after receiving 184 in the previous year. In addition, those targets were frequently of less value. In Garcon’s monster 2013 campaign, he had 21 targets on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, and 42 that were between 10 and 19 yards. Last season, he had just 14 deep targets, and 21 that were from 10 to 19 yards downfield. Put another way, Garcon had less opportunity last year, and what chances he did have were typically of the dink-and-dunk variety.
Expecting Garcon to get back to the heights of 2013 would be a bit ambitious, but another season with less than 800 yards and just three touchdowns is even more unlikely. While you shouldn’t count on him as anything more than your fourth receiver, he’ll easily turn a profit at his 108.8 ADP.
Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions
Let’s just go ahead and forget about Ebron’s rookie season. It’s clear from his overall usage—he played more than 60% of Detroit’s snaps in just three games—and 49 targets that, for whatever reason, he wasn’t a huge part of the team’s offense in year one. Instead let’s focus on what he can do for the team in 2015.
The Lions offense could potentially be very dangerous, with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell comprising a strong group around Matthew Stafford. Right off the bat, we know that means Ebron will have plenty of room to operate in the middle of the field. If Johnson is healthy for 16 games, the Johnson-Tate pairing could end up being the best in the league.
Defenses aren’t going to have the luxury of paying too much attention to Ebron, and he looks ready, at least in training camp, to take advantage. Owners should always take praise in August with a grain of salt, but the Lions are saying all the right things about the second-year man out of North Carolina. A year ago at this time, Ebron was boasting that he pretty much had the mental side of the game figured out. Now he’s drawing rave reviews for his professionalism and discipline from the front office. At 6’4” and 265 pounds, Ebron can be a big weapon for Stafford in the red zone. A 65-800-5 season is completely within his reach, and that would almost certainly make him a top-10 tight end.
Torrey Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Since entering the league in 2011, Smith has been one of the most regularly underappreciated fantasy receivers. Here are his end-of-season ranks by year in standard-scoring leagues: 22, 23, 21 and 19. His average season comes out to 53.25 catches for 897.75 yards and 7.5 touchdowns. Over the last four seasons, Smith is 24th in the league in receiving yards and 10th in receiving touchdowns, ahead of Antonio Brown, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson, all of whom have essentially played the same number of games as the 49ers’ new receiver.
Despite this awfully steady track record, Smith is the 46th receiver selected in a typical 12-team draft, and has a consensus ranking of 40th at the position on FantasyPros. Nothing in Smith’s history suggests that there will be anywhere near 39 to 45 receivers more productive than him this season. Even if you aren’t high on him or the San Francisco offense, you are betting against four years of history for a player who is still just 26 years old. Anquan Boldin is the de facto No. 1 receiver for the 49ers, but Smith is really a 1a-type who shouldn’t be hurt by Vernon Davis or Reggie Bush. He’ll also be the team’s primary deep threat, a status he shared with Steve Smith in Baltimore last year. Torrey Smith had 21 targets on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, catching eight of them for 250 yards and five touchdowns. Prior to 2014, however, the fewest deep targets he had in a season was 36. That’s evidence of Steve Smith, who indeed had 17 such targets from Joe Flacco. Now that he’s in San Francisco, Torrey Smith won’t have nearly as much competition for those high-value targets as he did last year. He’s a low-end WR2 at a WR5 price.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: A year ago at this time, Stafford was widely seen as the No. 4 fantasy quarterback. With Johnson, Tate, Abdullah, Bell and Ebron at his disposal, he won’t be lacking weapons.
Brian Quick, St. Louis Rams: Quick was on his way to a breakout season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He should dominate the targets from new Rams quarterback Nick Foles.
Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Winston has a trio of big weapons in his passing attack, highlighted by second-year star Mike Evans. If he can quickly develop a rapport with the Texas A&M product, as well as Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, we could eventually be discussing him as the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Eddie Royal, Chicago Bears: Royal reunited with Jay Cutler, with whom he had some of his best years in Denver, this offseason. With rookie Kevin White still slowed by a shin injury, Royal could be in the starting lineup for the Bears Week 1.
Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers: After Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, who’s going to catch passes in the Carolina offense? Jonathan Stewart? Stephen Hill? Jerricho Cotchery? The rookie out of Michigan landed in an ideal spot, at least in terms of getting an immediate opportunity.