The term sleeper in fantasy football has become so overused that it’s tough to tell exactly what it means.
For our purposes, we want to identify players whose floor/ceiling combinations or pure upside makes them players you can confidently target before their current ADP (average draft position).
If you get caught dozing in your drafts, you may miss an opportunity to realize a hefty profit on the following selections:
Stefon Diggs, WR, MIN
The biggest knock on Diggs is a lack of red zone usage. It’s warranted and that makes Diggs a better sleeper target in PPR leagues at any point in the fourth round or later.
Matt Harmon, creator of Reception Perception, found that Stefon Diggs improved across the board in his second season and outpaced NFL averages substantially in success rates against man defense, zone defense, press coverage, and on contested catch rate.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 7, 2017
Diggs finished 14th among qualified WRs in PPR fantasy points per game last season, but his season flies under the radars as injuries derailed his second half.
Prior to landing on the injury report in Week 12 against the Lions, a game he ended up missing, Diggs averaged 17.2 PPR fantasy points per game, which would have been seventh best in the league.
Duke Johnson, RB, CLE
In PPR leagues, Duke Johnson is a primary target in the 7th-8th rounds, especially if utilizing a Zero RB strategy. Johnson possessed the perfect combination of every week starter and a realistic upside scenario if things break the right way.
Let’s start with every week starter. Johnson finished 2016 ninth in targets per game at the RB position with 4.6 and was fifth in total targets at the position with 74. The average PPR score for RB24 last season was 11.69, and the average for RB36 was 7.85. Johnson eclipsed those marks 31% and 50% of the time respectively last season, meaning he was startable about half the time in 12-team leagues.
All indications from training camp are that Johnson’s receiving expectations should be heightened. While coach comments this time of year can be meaningless, it is meaningful that Johnson is expected to replace Andrew Hawkins as the team’s slot receiver. The already acceptable floor on Johnson is rising.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Johnson was usable last season despite finding the end zone just once all year. While he’s not going to serve as the team’s goal line back, there is literally nowhere to go but up in that department.
Of players with at least 100 touches last season, 40 of 63 scored at least 5 TDs while Johnson was one of only five players to fail to reach the end zone more than once. The average TD rate per touch was 3.5%; Johnson’s 0.8% mark was 63 out of 64 players. Of course, Johnson is in a role that will lead to a poor TD rate per touch percentage, but it’s unlikely to be as low as it was last season.
Matt Kelley passionately makes the case for Duke Johnson as a high upside pick. Johnson rated in the 70th percentile in PlayerProfiler.com’s College Dominator metric and 91st percentile in College YPC. In his final season at Miami he rushed for 1,652 yards.
Last year, Johnson upped his YPC to 4.9. So while Johnson may not be an every-down back, there is more rushing upside here than he gets credit for.
And any rushing upside is a bonus, as Johnson’s receiving work alone should pay off a 7th-8th round tag. He’s not going to supplant Isaiah Crowell for early down work, but if Crowell gets hurt, Johnson has the skills to replace a good chunk of that workload. The other option to fill in for Crowell is rookie RB Matthew Dayes, one of the more unathletic backs in the league.
Rex Burkhead, RB, NE
Unlike with Duke Johnson, there is not much of a floor that comes with Rex Burkhead as he heads to a Patriots team with a loaded backfield featuring former Buffalo Bill Mike Gillislee, receiving back James White, and an electric rusher and pass catcher in Dion Lewis.
At four to five rounds later, though, you get massive upside. We’re talking top 10 RB upside.
Why? The biggest if when it comes to Burkhead is whether or not he will receive the requisite opportunity to be fantasy relevant, but 1) the Patriots offense will provide high leverage opportunities for someone and 2) Burkhead has the skills to take advantage of these opportunities if given the chance.
Where upside comes from for running backs is through receiving work and goal line work. The Patriots targeted running backs on 23.64% of passes last season, the third highest rate in the NFL. They also ran the ball 39 times at the opposition’s 5-yard line or closer, the most in the NFL and nearly double the average of the 31 other NFL teams. Lead back LeGarrette Blount scored on 13/29 attempts (45%) in this split.
As far as Burkhead's talent, he lacks straight line speed but has the size to run between the tackles, has excellent agility, and is a good pass catcher out of the backfield.
Burkhead finally saw some meaningful volume last season, averaging a respectable 4.6 YPC in the same offense that led Giovani Bernard to 3.7 YPC and Jeremy Hill to 3.8 YPC. Burkhead also caught 17 passes on 20 targets, outpacing both Bernard and Hill in Catch%, albeit over a small sample. Here's a taste of Burkhead out of the backfield as a pass catcher in the NE offense:
Play Rex Burkhead. Angle route TD pic.twitter.com/lq9YNhS9H5
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) August 20, 2017
With Mike Gillislee dealing with a hamstring injury, it's possible that Burkhead gets his opportunity sooner rather than later.
Andy Dalton, QB, CIN
In our piece about Buffalo Bills players and their redraft values, we mentioned 1) that you should draft your quarterback late and 2) Tyrod Taylor was a late round QB target.
While Andy Dalton is an excellent late round QB target in all scenarios, his floor is a nice fit alongside a riskier option like Taylor. Dalton is currently being drafted as the 19th quarterback off the board.
Yes, Dalton had a disappointing 2016 campaign, finishing 17th in standard fantasy points per game. However, he finished in the Top 10 in points per game twice in the three seasons before that, and he enters 2017 with arguably his best supporting cast, including a healthy AJ Green and Tyler Eifert and explosive rookies John Ross (WR) and Joe Mixon (RB).
Keep in mind, Dalton had some pretty bad luck in 2016. He lost AJ Green and Tyler Eifert for a combined 12 games due to injuries and posted a career low 3.2 TD% (percentages of pass attempts that went for TDs). In Dalton’s previous five seasons, his low TD% was 3.9 and average was 5.02. While that might not sound like a big deal, a 5.02 TD% for Dalton in 2016 would have added 10.3 passing TDs to his total. That would have been enough to swing Dalton from the 17th best per game scorer at the position to the sixth best scorer at the position.
Now, there is some push and pull here with volume. Dalton is unlikely to match his career high 563 pass attempts from a year ago, but even reasonable expectations should put Dalton approaching 4,000 yards and 25 TDs.
Michael Leone is a former Buffalo News sports clerk who has won several daily fantasy sports championships and is a contributor to DailyRoto.com. His column will appear weekly at [BN] Blitz.