The number 1 mistake fantasy hopefuls make when evaluating players is using the “eye test,” meaning they rely on their assessments of players more heavily than actual statistics. In some sense, fantasy football seems somewhat unpredictable when you use this strategy; player performance has very high variance from year to year when factors, such as injury and schedule, are in play. In this article, I identified players, purely from a statistical standpoint, who are being severely undervalued for their ADP, meaning they have a high probability of being a “sleeper” pick for this year. ADP (average draft position) is based on data from PPR leagues on ESPN, Yahoo, and FantasyPros. Let’s take a look at this year’s sleeper picks.
Marcus Mariota, QB – Tennessee Titans; ADP – 99
As I have mentioned in my previous articles, when evaluating potential in players, you should only be looking at two things: opportunity and talent. Fortunately for fantasy owners, Marcus Mariota has one of the best combination of these two things in the league, but is still going off the draft board in the 9th round! Outside of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees, Mariota may very well be the most talented quarterback in the league with his elite skill set and dual-threat abilities.
After getting off to a very slow start in the 2016 season, Mariota caught fire from weeks 5 to 12, as he was the single highest scoring player in fantasy football over that 8-week span. Given that the fantasy football regular season is only 13 weeks long, this means that Mariota was the highest scoring fantasy player for a majority of the season, which he by no means is getting credit for given his current ADP. Most critics will point out that Mariota slumped heavily at the end of the season. However, Mariota faced the two best defenses in football in Denver and Kansas City and was injured in the game against Jacksonville, which provides a reasonable explanation to all three weeks. The most promising thing about Mariota is that he achieved this incredible run with Rishard Matthews as his top receiver. Matthews is certainly a talented receiver, but now with Decker, Davis, and Taylor also on board, I can’t even begin to imagine Mariota’s potential for this upcoming season.
In terms of opportunity, the only quarterbacks who are better off than Mariota are Tom Brady (with the late addition of Brandin Cooks to the best receiving corps in football) and Jameis Winston (who now has a loaded receiving corps with the additions of OJ Howard and DeSean Jackson). Everything that has happened this offseason has been for the benefit of Mariota; after having one of the worst wide receiver groups in football, the Titans went out and drafted Western Michigan standout Corey Davis and nifty slot receiver Taywan Taylor, and signed a prominent red-zone threat in Eric Decker. On top of having a loaded receiving arsenal, which now includes Davis, Decker, Matthews, Taylor, and Walker, Mariota plays behind an elite offensive line and has the best 1-2 running back punch in football, which both divert attention away from him and helps play-action.
The Titans have the 6th easiest schedule in football this year, which should allow Mariota to thrive against these sub-par defenses. Mariota is poised to have an astounding season, and it is laughable that he is still on the board in the 9th round.
Isaiah Crowell, RB – Cleveland Browns; ADP – 34
Yes, before you start laughing, I know that Isaiah Crowell is on the Cleveland Browns, which have been regarded as one of the most laughable franchises in professional sports over the past decade. Despite playing on one of the most abysmal offenses in NFL history last year (this year’s Jets are soon to join that list as well), Crowell finished with excellent numbers, as he was the 14th highest scoring back in both PPR and non-PPR formats.
In terms of opportunity, Crowell potentially gained more this offseason than any other player in fantasy football at any position. In March, the Browns first went out and signed Kevin Zeitler to the richest contract in NFL history for a guard, only to later that day sign JC Tretter, another lineman. With these two signings, the Browns rival the Cowboys and Titans for the best offensive line in football, which should prove very valuable to Crowell’s 2017 prospects. What’s potentially even more beneficial to Crowell’s potential is the Browns’ overall improvement on both sides of the ball; after drafting Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, and DeShone Kizer, signing Kenny Britt, and now having a healthy Corey Coleman, the Browns are poised to be a much better team. Since the Browns will be much improved from last year, they will spend more time on offense, which consequently means more carries for Crowell. In fact, Crowell was the only top-20 running back last year to have fewer than 205 attempts, meaning that Crowell has huge potential with extra carries.
There is nothing I love more in a fantasy player than their coach publicly saying that they are committed to using that player more. After signing Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter this offseason, Browns coach Hue Jackson came out and told media that the Browns would be more committed to using Crowell this off-season. Jackson continued to say that Crowell has the potential to “take it to another level” this season with the additional carries and Browns’ vastly improved offensive line.
Crowell stands to heavily benefit from the Browns’ off-season transactions, as they will give him much more “opportunity” than he had last year. Crowell will undoubtedly put up solid RB2 numbers, and with this new upside, likely even RB1 numbers, which make him a huge steal at his current ADP.
Pierre Garcon, WR – San Francisco 49ers; ADP – 77
Pierre Garcon has consistently been one of the most underrated fantasy football players over the past couple of years, and this year is no exception. Coming in as the premiere threat for the San Francisco 49ers, Garcon is the clear cut WR1 for San Fran, but his draft position at #77 certainly is not reflecting that.
As the #1 target in San Francisco, Garcon has immense upside because of the volume of targets he should receive. As one of the worst teams in the league, San Francisco will be playing from behind nearly the entire season, meaning that they will have to throw the ball a substantial amount. Although Brian Hoyer is a shaky quarterback at best and certainly a downgrade from Kirk Cousins, Garcon should see a huge bump in his targets from last year, and consequently better fantasy performance even with decreased efficiency. Garcon should also see more red-zone targets, which are quite valuable for fantasy, as he no longer will lose them to the posterizing Jordan Reed or deep threat Desean Jackson.
In one of the most intriguing headlines of the offseason, Kyle Shanahan became the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, meaning that Garcon is reunited with his old coach. Although they last played together in 2013, Garcon was one of the league’s best receivers, as he led the league in receptions. Historically, the top wide receiver has flourished under Shanahan’s system, including Garcon himself in 2013, Andre Johnson in his glory days in the late 2000s, and most recently, Julio Jones. Shanahan’s system fosters great production for the lead receiver, so this certainly gives good reason to expect big things out of Garcon this year.
Going off the board at #77, Pierre Garcon presents a very low-risk player with tremendous potential upside, which makes him a great sleeper pick for this upcoming season.
Kyle Rudolph, TE – Minnesota Vikings; ADP – 73
The tight end position is by far the least flashy position in fantasy football, as year after year, the position has been a letdown. Riddled by injury and poor performance, many fantasy owners reach on tight ends to get an “old reliable” type, such as Greg Olsen, instead of waiting for value at the end of the draft. This is a rookie mistake.
Kyle Rudolph presents tremendous value in all formats, particularly in PPR leagues, because of his high target volume. Rudolph led not only the Vikings, but also the entire tight end position with an impressive 132 targets. Rudolph took a huge step forward last year with this increased volume, as he previously averaged 28 yards per game on three targets, while this past year he averaged 52 yards per game on five targets. This is not to say that Rudolph wasn’t targeted in the red zone either; Rudolph ended the year with an impressive seven touchdown receptions.
The Vikings’ offense simply is one of the best offenses in the league for tight ends. Not only does the offensive coordinator support an offense that relies heavily on the tight end, but also Bradford has historically targeted his tight end at a very high rate. This tight end happy offense, along with less defensive coverage because of a healthy Stefon Diggs, should allow Rudolph to build on his career numbers from last year.
After an impressive 2016 campaign that was not inflated by ridiculous red zone statistics, Rudolph is poised to have yet another strong season in 2017. His ADP, on the other hand, does not reflect this, making him a good value pick.
Data courtesy of ESPN, Football Reference, CBS Sports, and Fantasy Pros. Thanks for reading!
Written by Jason Platkin
Cover Photo Credits: Sports Illustrated