In a sport as unpredictable as football (at least by using the eye test), predicting stats for the next season is next to impossible. However, if you look at “America’s Game” using statistical analysis, it is fairly predictable. Our picks for this year’s sleepers (under the radar stars) are supported by our statistical analysis, not the eye test, and hopefully are as predictive as we believe. Our sleeper picks for the 2016 NFL season are below. Enjoy!
Sleeper Pick: Quarterback – Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
ESPN’s 14th ranked QB; Our 10th ranked QB
Kirk Cousins finished last year with 341 fantasy points (average of 21.3 points per week), making him the 10th ranked QB for the 2015 NFL season. Despite his sluggish performance through the first 6 weeks, Cousins did a complete 180 starting in Week 7 and became one of the top scoring quarterbacks. After Week 7, Cousins churned out an impressive 260 points (average of 26.0 points per week), scoring more points than all but 15 quarterbacks did the entire season!
DeSean Jackson, Washington’s primary receiver, missed the first 7 games of last season due to a hamstring injury. And wouldn’t you know, upon DeSean Jackson’s return, Kirk Cousins went on a tear, performing better than nearly every quarterback in the back half of the season. Additionally, Kirk Cousin’s success was directly correlated with Jordan Reed’s (Washington’s elite tight end) success during the back half of the season.
As long as DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed manage to stay healthy for most of the season, it’s a very fair bet that Kirk Cousins will either repeat or exceed his performance, thus justifying us ranking him as the 10th quarterback for the 2016 NFL season.
Sleeper Pick: Running Back – Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
ESPN’s 29th ranked RB; Our 18th ranked RB
Danny Woodhead finished last year with 153 fantasy points (average of 9.6 points per week), making him the 11th ranked RB for the 2015 NFL season. Despite turning 30 last season, Woodhead showed no signs of slowing down as he recorded career highs in receiving yards, touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage.
In his two full seasons in San Diego, Woodhead finished with the 19th (2014) and 11th (2015) most points among running backs. With his quarterback, Philip Rivers, staying ahead of his age (6th, 9th, and 10th in fantasy points in last 3 seasons), it seems inconceivable that Woodhead would finish as the 29th ranked RB barring an injury. On top of that, both Antonio Gates and Keenan Allen are healthy this season, which should help him perform even better.
As long as Woodhead manages to stay healthy (which he has in the past), it seems quite unrealistic that Woodhead would finish as the 29th ranked RB. Based on his past performance, we project him to finish much closer to the 18th ranked RB.
Sleeper Pick: Wide Receiver – Torrey Smith, San Francisco 49ers
ESPN’s 42nd ranked WR; Our 22nd ranked WR
Torrey Smith finished last year with 88 fantasy points (average of 5.5 points per week), making him the 48th ranked WR for the 2015 NFL season. Last season happened to be an extraordinarily weak one for Smith, as he recorded 100 fewer yards and 7 fewer touchdowns than he did in the prior season. Based on his superior past performances, we can expect Smith to regress to the mean this next season, and record at least 200 more yards and 3 more touchdowns in the 2016 NFL season.
What’s even more promising for Smith’s next season is that the top receivers under Chip Kelly have flourished (Chip Kelly just became the 49ers coach). Over the past 3 seasons, all of Chip Kelly’s top receivers have finished as at least the 20th ranked WR; Desean Jackson finished 9th in 2013, Jeremy Maclin finished 10th in 2014, and Jordan Matthews finished 19th in 2015.
Smith, who recorded a blistering 4.36 on his 40-yard dash time in 2011, plays a very similar style to Jackson and Maclin, both speedsters as well. As shown above, Jackson and Maclin both flourished under Kelly, and we have no reason to believe any differently for Smith. That being said, ranking Smith as the 22nd WR is quite justified.
Sleeper Pick: Tight End – Coby Fleener, New Orleans Saints
ESPN’s 6th ranked TE; Our 4th ranked TE
Coby Fleener finished last year with 69 fantasy points (average of 4.3 points per week), making him the 17th ranked TE for the 2015 NFL season. Fleener did not perform very well last year, but we can likely conclude that was due to his quarterback, Andrew Luck, missing most of the season with injuries. However, in the 2014 NFL season, Fleener performed spectacularly, posting 125 fantasy points (Luck was healthy the whole season).
What’s extremely promising about Fleener’s next season is that tight ends absolutely flourish under the Saints’ pass attack. In his final 3 seasons in New Orleans, Graham averaged a league-leading 173 fantasy points. However, last season, Graham played for the Seattle Seahawks and was only on pace to score 102 fantasy points before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 12. After Graham left in 2014, Benjamin Watson assumed the starting role as the tight end for the New Orleans Saints. He scored 119 fantasy points last season, 24 more than he had previously done in any other season, despite being 35 years old.
It appears that simply being part of the Saints passing attack gives at least a 40-50 fantasy point bonus per season. If Fleener had this advantage, he would have scored 170 and 112 fantasy points in 2014 and 2015. However, considering Luck was hurt in 2015, we project that his total will be around 150 fantasy points this year (would have ranked 4th among TE’s last year), thus justifying us ranking him the 4th ranked TE for this season.
Data courtesy of ESPN, Football Outsiders, Football Reference, CBS Sports, and Fox Sports. Thanks for reading!
Article written by Jason Platkin
Photo Credits: KEN MURRAY/ICON SPORTSWIRE, Tom Pennington/Getty Images, Howard Smith | USA TODAY Sports Images, Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America, AP Photo/Darron Cummings