Identifying Sleepers - Intro
By Jeff Tefertiller
June 15th, 2010

How Do I Identify Sleepers?

One of the toughest things for fantasy owners is to identify sleepers for the upcoming season. What players can I draft that should substantially outplay their ADP (Average Draft Position)? This is a question we all should be asking ourselves. Well, there are indicators as to which players should be left for dead and which might offer great opportunities to succeed. This is the first article in a series that will take a closer look at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions. We will use a specific list of criteria in order evaluate sleepers. These are general rules and should be taken as such. We will try to find as many players that fit multiple categories. The same list of rules will be applied to all three positions and are applicable for each.

All leagues are not created equal. There are all types of fantasy leagues. Some have large starting lineups. Some employ 10 teams and some 16 teams. Some leagues utilize an odd scoring system or starting lineups. Given the difficulty in appeasing all of the varieties of leagues, this series will focus on standard 12 team leagues with standard scoring. Since these rules are general, the methodology should work for all leagues.

In order to detect and identify sleepers, we must identify what we are using to evaluate the players. The criteria will give us key indicators of things to keep an eye out for when seeking sleeper prospects. Below are some of the situations to examine when looking for a sleeper or breakout candidate:

  • A player cannot be considered a sleeper if you never would foresee starting the player on your fantasy team under even the most extreme circumstances in a normal league. Some of the notable players that come to mind are Jake Delhomme, Julius Jones, Roy Williams, or Deion Branch. There are many, many others that fit into this category. I would be hard-pressed to think of any string of events that would make me desperate enough to insert one of these players into my fantasy team's lineup. With these guys, there will be players that are better options on the waiver wire, so no need to select in a draft. Most fantasy football enthusiasts can name several players at every position that would never start a game in fantasy football no matter what.

  • The potential sleeper must be able to produce at least two starting levels higher than pick used for RB and WR, and one for QB (i.e., fantasy WR5 has to have ability and situation to produce at WR3 level, if not better). There is no need drafting a back as RB4 on your team that can only hope to attain RB3 status. Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney fit this bill. These two backs have virtually no shot at being a Top 35 rusher in 2010. This is where the risk/reward comes into play. If the player does not have the talent or situation to produce at a high level, let someone else draft him. When drafting a WR5 or WR6, there is no reason to take a guy that cannot put up WR3 numbers if given the right scenario. A couple of players I like in this category are Chris Chambers and Tashard Choice. Chambers outplayed Dwayne Bowe last season and was a fantasy starter once he joined the Chiefs. If anything were to happen to Felix Jones or Marion Barber, Choice would once again be thrust into playing time for the Cowboys. This would immediately make him a RB2 candidate with an inexpensive price tag.

  • The very best sleepers have to rely on few other things to happen. A NFL RB2, who only needs one injury (or to outplay one player) is more attractive than one who is a RB3 or even RB4 on their respective team, regardless of the talent they may or may not possess. Tim Hightower becomes attractive because he looks to be the lone beneficiary if something happens to Beanie Wells, who battled injuries in college. He outproduced Wells last season and could do so again this year. Hightower is a better sleeper option than Jerious Norwood or James Davis because each would share carries no matter what happens to the other backs. Many great sleeper opportunities come from situations where the starting job is up for grabs. In these cases, the lower ranked of the two in competition emerges as the sleeper at a great price. We will examine the situation closer in the running back article, but Michael Bush is prime example of this criteria. He and Darren McFadden are battling to be the starting running back for the Oakland Raiders. With the high draft pick used on McFadden, fantasy owners are still expecting big things from him while practically ignoring Bush. But, the Raider coaches have announced an open competition. So, why not gamble on the cheaper of the two backs?

  • Every sleeper is judged purely based on potential outcome versus pick used. This is relatively simple. When judging the sleeper upside of a player, it becomes a matter of pick used (ADP) versus what the player can achieve. It is purely risk versus reward. There is no need to accept risk without a good potential reward.

  • We will attempt to identify sleepers at different levels. Many times, fantasy owners look for sleepers that are outside of the Top 50 at the position. There is little risk in the pick, but offers a slim chance of reward. How many low ranked wideouts can be fantasy starters? Not many. In the subsequent articles, we will examine sleepers of differing ADP, each with a different risk and reward for the fantasy owner.

  • Fantasy owners need to look for anything that has changed in situation: changes in teams, changes in personnel in front of player, changes in coaching staffs, etc. This is one of the biggest keys to finding sleepers. A change in any variable could alter the situation from one to avoid to one that is very favorable. Fantasy owners are encouraged to look for changes in team personnel and coaching staff. The passing games in Seattle and Chicago should be given extra consideration change in offensive personnel and philosophy. In addition, fantasy owners should pay close attention to Mike Sims-Walker this season. He goes from splitting targets with Torry Holt to being the unquestioned primary target of David Garrard's passes. The Jaguars only have youngsters Mike Thomas and Jarett Dillard and perennial disappointment Troy Williamson as potential wideouts. None are a threat to Sims-Walker getting the majority of Garrard passes. Thomas and Dillard each showed flashes last season, but are not the threat of Brandon Marshall's former college teammate. Williamson has battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his professional career.

  • Pay attention to points per game stats for an injured player from the year before. This is another of my favorite things to look at to identify sleepers. This one variable enabled us to predict the breakout of Matt Schaub last season. He averaged twenty fantasy points per game through eleven weeks in 2008. So, Schaub we knew Schaub could be a stud if he stayed healthy. One player that jumps out this year is Michael Turner. Turner had an awesome 2008 season. He followed that up with a hot start to 2009 before yielding to injury. Turner is now back healthy and ready to anchor the Falcon rushing attack. He is only one year removed from 1699 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Others in this category that are worth keeping an eye on are Jerome Harrison and Arian Foster who each flashed talent at the end of the 2009 season. Neither is being counted on to be the lead ball carrier for their respective team, but could easily lead their club in rushing.
  • These rules will help us locate and identify sleeper candidates. There will be three more articles in the series, one each for position: quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. The next installment will address the quarterback position. Since most leagues start just 12 passers a week, we will focus on fantasy options that have a chance to be a fantasy starter, and produce big numbers when they do get an opportunity. When looking for sleeper plays, I tend to focus on players drafted later that can be viable fantasy starters. The key is potential. If the player falters, there are similar players fitting the above criteria available on the waiver wire.

    Please feel free to email me at tefertiller@footballguys.com with any questions or comments. You can also find me on Twitter.