I hate the word “sleeper.” After years of abuse by fantasy writers, it has lost all meaning. Is a “sleeper” just a player that you’ll be happy to have on your team at the end of the year? Is it a player that may not help you in September, but could win you a championship in December if you hold on to him long enough? Can a sleeper be drafted in the first four rounds? By how many rounds must a player outperform his ADP to be a successful sleeper? Can a sleeper be a popular pick among analysts or high-stakes players? If a player starts being taken three rounds earlier than he was earlier in the summer, is he still a sleeper?
I don’t have definitive answers to any of these. You can go out and find opinions on both sides of every question I just posed. My only stance is that if everyone else in the fantasy football industry gets to continue beating this dead “sleeper” horse without any accountability in regards to what they’re actually saying, I may as well join in.
(All analysis is intended for leagues with PPR scoring. All stats are per FantasyData, unless otherwise linked.)
Chase Edmonds (Arizona Cardinals, ADP: 110, RB44)
Chase Edmonds is both an ideal zero-RB target and a high-upside bench stash for any draft build. Ranking 7th in breakaway run rate in the league last year (min. 50 carries), we know he has the juice to break off long gains even without workhorse volume. On a fast-paced and improving Cardinals offense, he could have standalone value in deeper leagues even without overtaking Kenyan Drake. Edmonds’ game log from 2019 reveals his weekly upside:
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After making the most of limited touches in weeks 5 and 6, and finally exploding in week 7 with the backfield to himself, Edmonds suffered a strained hamstring in week 8, leading to the Cardinals trading for Drake. What might have been if not for the hamstring injury cutting short Edmonds’ breakout? Savvy fantasy drafters may find out this year.
Arizona is an absolute treasure trove of fantasy points for running backs. Aside from the likely improvement of sophomore QB Kyler Murray, the Cardinals ranked 4th in the league in pace of play last year. This is consistent with head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s philosophy and can be expected to continue into 2020. Drake ranked 14th in the league in light front carry rate last season, a stat that usually leans toward pure third-down backs. Drake also ranked 7th in carry rate out of the shotgun formation. Simply put, Arizona’s tendency to spread the field out and use three and four-receiver sets leads to plenty of room for their running backs to operate, especially as defenses sell out to stop the pass.
While Drake is clearly set up to succeed, it’s important to remember he has never shouldered a bell-cow role for a full season, neither in Miami nor in his college days at Alabama. Drake also ranked outside the top 45 in juke rate (evaded tackles per touch) last season, coming in below the likes of Devonta Freeman, Carlos Hyde, and Leonard Fournette. This suggests Drake didn’t do very much on his own and could falter over a full 16 games, opening the door for Edmonds to eat into his workload and enjoy the same positive environment. The chasm between their ADPs makes the decision of which to bet on fairly easy.
Jonnu Smith (Tennessee Titans, ADP: 157, TE16)
Ranking second at the position last year in both yards per target and target separation, Jonnu Smith’s talent is obvious. Sporting an 84th-percentile speed score and 3rd-round draft capital, the 25-year-old is primed for a breakout at any moment. With Delanie Walker, Tajae Sharpe, and Dion Lewis leaving behind a combined 98 targets, Smith’s time could easily be this season. Perennial disappointment Corey Davis is Smith’s main competition for the #2 target recipient behind A.J. Brown, while the much-improved Ryan Tannehill is returning as the Titans’ signal-caller.
At the team level, the Titans ranked 31st in total passing attempts last year and 30th in total plays. It would be nice if these numbers would tick up for more total passing volume, and it could happen if Tennessee begins seeing more negative game scripts, but there are certainly no guarantees given the team’s history of slow pace and run-focused offense. Smith doesn’t need this to happen in order to break out given the aforementioned vacated targets, but it would certainly help.
Smith’s ADP is right around similarly breakout-ready tight ends, but his easy path to targets and steadily-increasing snap share in the second half of last season makes him my favorite of the bunch.
Cam Newton (New England Patriots, ADP: 125, QB14)
With Jarrett Stidham now injured and Cam Newton now the clear starter in New England, we need to hope his ADP doesn’t climb any further (though anyone who thought Stidham would start over a healthy Newton was kidding themselves). Cam is the cheapest proven option at the QB position offering the rushing skill set that fantasy drafters covet.
As I wrote in my New England Patriots team preview, Newton was the fantasy QB4 on a per-game basis for his last stretch of fully healthy games in 2018, and he ranked first in play-action completion % that season. Newton has delivered in the late rounds for fantasy drafters before, including during seasons with even worse weapons than he will now enjoy in New England. Much of the public opinion that has shifted against Newton in recent years is based more on narrative than on actual numbers. Aside from his lost 2019 season, he has never ranked lower than QB14 on a per-game basis, including multiple top-5 finishes.
At Newton’s ADP, he is all upside, and his low floor stemming from the possibility of injury does not matter in traditional, 1QB leagues. Even with a conservative projection of 80 rushing attempts (which would be a career-low), Newton has the potential to be a real difference-maker on the ground and through the air this year.
D’Andre Swift (Detroit Lions, ADP: 58, RB28)
D’Andre Swift has been lost in the shuffle of exciting young rookie running backs this year. Possessing excellent size-adjusted speed, high 2nd-round draft capital, and a versatile skill set that he was able to show off at Georgia, Swift could very well capture a majority share of the Lions backfield with only Kerryon Johnson in his way. Johnson had the 5th-highest drop rate at the position last year, and with last season’s backfield target leader J.D. McKissic no longer on the team, Swift should have no trouble securing work on passing downs right away.
As we’ve seen in the past couple of seasons, Kerryon also isn’t very durable. His 23rd-percentile BMI probably has a lot to do with that. The punishment his body has taken has also impacted his explosiveness – Johnson ranked just 48th in the league in breakaway run rate last year. It seems he would be a much better fit in a complementary role behind Swift, and any serious injury would result in Swift rocketing up in fantasy value.
Though a 5th-round ADP appears scary at first-glance for such a murky backfield, Swift is going later than nearly every proven veteran option at the position, such as David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, and Melvin Gordon. The Lions’ offensive line may finally improve this year with the addition of Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right tackle, who should be an upgrade in the running game. 3rd-round rookie guard Jonah Jackson should also help to reinforce the right side. This Lions team in general could be in for an offensive explosion this year, propelling Swift to an Alvin Kamara-like rookie season.
Christian Kirk (Arizona Cardinals, ADP: 121, WR47)
Everything I previously said about the Arizona Cardinals offense in regards to Edmonds should also be a boon for Christian Kirk. Though Kirk was in and out of the lineup due to injury last season, he was the most heavily targeted player on the team while active, cresting a 24% target share. The addition of the league’s premier target hog De’Andre Hopkins would normally be a concern, had it not suppressed Kirk’s ADP to ridiculously low levels.
Receivers like Hopkins that change teams often underperform relative to expectation, as I covered in my article on how to spot early-round busts. Just ask Odell Beckham last season. There should still be plenty of targets going Kirk’s way, just as there were for Jarvis Landry in 2019. With Hopkins’ arrival, Kirk will be able to play more in the slot, a more natural position for a receiver of his stature and skillset.
Kirk should also have much better luck in the touchdown department this year. Despite ranking 9th in the league with 11 receptions inside the 20-yard line, Kirk scored only 3 touchdowns last season. Some positive regression along with the overall improvement of the offense should help Kirk’s fantasy production in this realm.
Finally, as a reminder, Kirk had an incredibly dominant college career at Texas A&M, breaking out his freshman year at age 18, never going under a 25% target share, and enjoying heavy usage on special teams. All these indicators point to a potential third-year breakout that can be had at a heavy ADP discount.
(Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)