In the never-ending quest to find the next big thing, I think I pride myself most in catching wide receiver sleepers. Running backs can fake it, to a degree, with a good O-line and a strong offense around them; almost any runner can look good with 200 carries and 50+ targets in the passing game. Quarterbacks who blow up quickly balloon in price, and bad players are replaced without much headache because of the positional depth. Tight ends have been a ‘blah’ position for a while now outside of a top few options and the last one to blow up was nearly unpredictable. Wide receivers are different to me though. In looking for wide receiver sleepers, my goal is to find guys with the opportunity to break into at least the WR2 range, but they should have some upside at being a WR1. Also, each of these players should be had at a bargain…I’m talking outside the WR3 draft range, and probably outside the top-75 in ADP. Anyone who succeeds from that point on was a steal. They are someone who will help you win a championship. They are sleepers. Let’s take a look at last year’s PPR top-12 receivers:
What stands out? Each player on the list saw a minimum of 130 targets, 86 receptions, 1,000 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Eight of twelve players had 145+ targets and 100+ receptions, and nine of twelve had 8+ touchdowns. That means that our sleeper should have the upside for huge volume in their offense. On top of that, 10 of these 12 players were the stud receiver on their team. Only Juju Smith-Schuster and Stefon Diggs finished top-12 while not being ‘the guy’ on their roster. So in looking for sleepers, they need a path to being the guy on their team, and they need a high volume of targets to work with. Who fits the mold for the coming season? Let’s take a look.
Note: Every player on this list is currently at ADP 95 or later. My goal was to pick guys that no one has much faith in right now.
I just made a rule for myself about picking guys who could be their team’s number one, but I’m going to immediately break it by picking Marquez Valdes-Scantling as my first sleeper. Why does MVS deserve the special treatment? It’s simple: Aaron Rodgers is his quarterback. When you have one of the best all time throwing you the ball, you get special considerations. Here is MVS’s one season in the league so far:
This isn’t a world-beating statline, but Valdes-Scantling is in line to be the second receiver for the Packers this year. He has amazing opportunity assuming he doesn’t do anything to ruin it. What I want to highlight is how Aaron Rodgers’ number two receivers have done in the past. Here is a look at every Packers’ #2 wide receiver since 2011.
Note: an asterisk marks a year in which Aaron Rodgers missed 7+ games in the season.
So let’s break down the data. The average Packers #2 receiver over the last 7 years averaged 900+ yards and 9 touchdowns a season. This number is actually lower than it should be given that Aaron Rodgers missed half of 2017 and half of 2013. These were the lowest two performances, and it’s crazy to think the average could be pulled up even further. How do these points per game stack up against the league? Last year, a complete season at this pace would have been good for the WR15 overall. Okay, the Packers #2 receiver needs to be taken seriously. I’ll leave you with two caveats here: listen to camp news and make sure Maruqez Valdes-Scantling is still the favorite for starter work and make sure Rodgers stays healthy. If either of these changes, feel free to abandon MVS. Assume all signs are go, I see MVS as a minimum WR2 this season. (If you are higher on Geronimo Allison for the coming year, much of the same would apply to him)
Dede Westbrook quietly finished as Jacksonville’s best receiver last year on a team that was going nowhere. The Jaguars finished 26th in passing yards (3,109) and tied for 30th with only 15 passing touchdowns. These are terrible numbers, and they are even bad for Jacksonville; for reference, the Jaguars had 3,500 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2017 and 3,700 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2016. For his part, Westbrook finished with 66 receptions, 717 yards, and 5 touchdowns to finish 33rd overall. Westbrook accounted for 19% of team targets, 20% of team targets and 33% of the touchdowns. What if I applied these numbers to the 2016 or 2017 offense? Let’s see what happens:
So if we assume the offense improves at least a little, it’s hard to imagine Westbrook not doing even more this year. Jacksonville’s offense was about as bad as it can get, and Westbrook still managed a WR3 finish. What about the other guys on the roster? The Jaguars let Donte Moncrief and T.J. Yeldon (second and third on the team in targets, receptions, and touchdowns last year) leave in free agency. They didn’t make any moves to bring anyone in either. This may not be my favorite passing attack in the league, but I don’t see how Westbrook doesn’t just fall into the WR2 range by default. If things did improve, he would have a chance to be a league winner this season.
So I mentioned picking guys with a road to being the #1 on their team, right? Keke Coutee is currently checks depth chart the #3? Okay, your skepticism is fair. Just hear me out. Deandre Hopkins is the bonafide #1 on the Texans and nothing short of a trade or a massive injury would change that. Isn’t Will Fuller the #2? Well…here are the stats from the four games that Fuller and Coutee both played in last year:
When they were both healthy and playing, Coutee bested Fuller in every category but touchdowns. Here is what it would look like if we expanded this out to a full season:
I’ll admit that this is a comically small sample size, but that would make for a pretty excellent rookie season for Coutee. As it was, though, he was also hurt and he missed 10 games due to nagging hamstring issues. He did make it back for the playoffs and had an impressive statline against the Colts–14 targets, 11 receptions, 110 yards, and a touchdown. Coutee has the makings of a difference maker. We know Will Fuller can’t stay healthy; three pro seasons with a mountain of injuries don’t lie. For Coutee there is still a chance. Outside of nagging hamstring issues last season, Coutee has stayed healthy for his college and pro career. He could break out this season, and all it costs is a pick in the 11th round to invest. I love the upside in what looks like a great offense, and if everyone stays healthy this one should pay off.
So of the four wide receivers I picked, three of them are backups. Are they, though? I’ll admit that I almost picked Allen Robinson here, but I decided to go for another discount special. Anthony Miller is currently going at the end of the 11th round and he is the Bears #2 receiver at the moment. Here’s the thing: he has the talent to surpass Robinson and become the one by the end of this season. You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about Miller after last year. He dealt with a shoulder injury all season, missed a game, and finished with under 500 yards as he muscled through. What he also showed, though, was the makings of an excellent receiver with his play and his penchant for scoring touchdowns (7). According to PlayerProfiler, Miller is a similar player to Victor Cruz. For those with a short memory, Cruz was a monster on the field and a media darling before injuries shelved him for good. Can Miller match up to suck a lofty comparison on the field? Let’s look at some tape:
Here, we see Miller stutter step his defender to create tons of space. Miller gets up for the catch (a slight overthrow by Mitch Trubisky) and turns around to run up field. He’s hit as he turns, but he shrugs off the contact and breaks free for the score. Let’s take a look at one more play.
Here we see Miller immediately create space in the end zone. However, the throw is late and a little off target. Miller adjusts back to the inside and catches the ball despite contact from his defender. It’s an impressive adjustment for a young receiver in his first year, and Miller makes the kinds of heads up plays leading me to believe he’s about to take a big step forward. I’ll definitely invest in the 11th round.
If there is a takeaway from all of this, it’s that you can wait at WR this season. I just gave you four strong sleepers, and I easily considered another half dozen guys (Allen Robinson at pick 81, Marvin Jones at pick 95, Dante Pettis at pick 78, and Curtis Samuel at pick 114 to name a few) typically available in the 7th round or later. I’m not necessarily promoting a zero-WR strategy, but you shouldn’t be afraid to pass at the position early if other values present themselves. Remember that ADP will shift towards popular names as more and more people draft, and you can take advantage by choosing these overlooked players.
(Photo by Jeff Halstead/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)