Identifying Sleepers - Wide Receivers
By Jeff Tefertiller
June 15th, 2010

Fantasy players are constantly searching for the next sleeper wide receiver. Each wants to be the one that discovers the great player that his leaguemates have never heard of like Marques Colston a few of years ago or even Miles Austin last season. This is the fourth and final article in the series that explores how to find sleepers in your fantasy league. Since every league is different, this series will concentrate purely on standard scoring, 12-team leagues. The methodology of looking for sleepers will be the same for wide receivers as it was for the quarterback and running back positions. In addition, we will try to find players that meet at least one, hopefully more, of these rules. Below is the list that will be employed to identify sleepers:

  • A player cannot be considered a sleeper if you never would start the player given any circumstance in a normal league.
  • The potential sleeper must be able to produce at least two starting levels higher than pick used (i.e., 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. For quarterbacks, one starting level is enough.
  • 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, regardless of talent.
  • Every sleeper is judged purely based on potential outcome versus pick used. This is relatively simple - it is a matter of risk versus reward.
  • Fantasy owners need to look for anything that has changed in situation: changes in teams, changes in personnel in front of player, changes in coaches, etc.
  • One key for future breakout can be the points per game stats for an injured player from the year before.
  • Now, let's get started on looking for sleepers at the wide receiver position. We will judge these wideouts according to their draft position (ADP) and their chances of being a fantasy starter. Since most leagues start 36 or 48 receivers each week, we will only consider pass catchers outside of the Top 60 at the position. The focus will be on identifying sleeper candidates that have the ability to be a fantasy WR3, or better.

    1. Jabar Gaffney has been a favorite of Broncos coach Josh McDaniels since their days together in New England. It seems as though he has been around since dinosaurs walked the earth, but Gaffney is only 29 years of age. Most remember his less than stellar years with the Patriots and wonder why anyone would identify Gaffney as a sleeper. In his first season in Denver, the lanky receiver grabbed 54 balls for 732 yards and a pair of scoring catches. This was good for a WR51 finish. So, with Brandon Marshall traded to the Miami Dolphins, it is a shock that Gaffney is being selected as the WR70 in fantasy drafts. Giving even more optimism is the great production from the last two games of the 2009 campaign. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in week 16, Gaffney caught seven of his eight pass targets for 69 yards and two touchdowns. Then, the next week with Marshall sitting out, Gaffney had a career game as quarterback Kyle Orton locked onto him. Gaffney was targeted a whopping 19 times, catching 14, for 213 yards. With Marshall now gone for good, Denver hopes to replace him with rookie Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is a promising rookie with good upside, but is still quite raw and is just now recovered from a fractured foot. Rookies have a difficult time making an impact as it is, much less ones with a late start. Thomas is not a big threat to earn a big role in the offense, not to mention the trust of Orton. This should only elevate Gaffney to the role of primary receiver in the Mile High City. With a price of a pick in the 17th or 18th round of a draft, he is a great sleeper. Gaffney has shown the ability to be the top receiver in Denver.
    2. Chris Chambers signed with the Kansas Chiefs in the middle of the season after being released by the San Diego Chargers. Chambers outplayed teammate Dwayne Bowe by a wide margin. In his nine games as a Chief, Chambers had four games with 11.9 or more fantasy points. In those nine weeks, he caught 36 passes for 608 yards and four touchdowns. This was good for an average of 9.4 points per game. Chambers still is able to produce fantasy numbers for his owners. Primarily on his numbers in Kansas City, Chambers finished the season as WR27. If his ten-game stint as a Chief is prorated to a full season, it would be good for WR17. He should improve with an offseason to work with the offense and coaches. It is difficult to imagine this level of production coming from a player signed in the middle of the season. Chambers has a good rapport with quarterback Matt Cassel and is a good bet to produce as a fantasy starter once again. He has been a fantasy starter (WR36 or better) in six of his nine seasons in the NFL. Chambers has an ADP of WR61 in the 14th round of fantasy drafts. What a great value for a proven receiver in a good situation.
    3. Mike Thomas is a solid sleeper prospect this season. Gone is Torry Holt and his 103 pass targets, leaving only Thomas, Jarett Dillard, and Troy Williamson to fight for passes opposite Mike Sims-Walker. The Pac 10's all time leading receiver is small in stature, but very quick in his breaks. He is able to beat the jam. He had a promising rookie year with 48 receptions and 453 yards in only 14 games. This was as a rookie, playing the slot. He has a chance to start as a wideout, giving Thomas a chance to be a fantasy starter. The Jaguars, namely quarterback David Garrard, threw for more than 3,600 yards last season. Even if Sims-Walker gets in excess of 1,000, as expected, there are plenty of surplus yards to vault Thomas into an every-week fantasy starter. He is already strides ahead of fellow second-year pass catcher, Dillard, as each makes a push to start. Williamson was starting to play well before injury early last season. With his history of inconsistency and injury, it is best not to depend on Williamson for much. Thomas has a chance to emerge this season as a weapon for Garrard. He offers tremendous value for fantasy owners as the 74th wideout off fantasy boards and player 198 overall. Thomas is talented. He did not become the Pac 10 all time leading receiver by mistake.
    4. Johnny Knox has been the darling of new Chicago Bear offensive coordinator, Mike Martz. Martz surprisingly stated that Knox is leading the race to be a starter, over Devin Aromashodu. He worked as a starter in the OTAs, verifying the claim. As a low-drafted rookie last season, Knox still was able to make a difference, especially with his blazing speed. He totaled 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. Starting in a Martz offense could easily catapult Knox to fantasy starter status. He currently has an ADP of WR60, taken at the beginning of the 14th round. Knox could make a big splash if he continues to learn the offense and score points with his new offensive coordinator. It is crazy to think that Knox is being drafted lower than his 2009 WR56 finish.
    5. Malcom Floyd held out of voluntary OTAs but signed his restricted free agent tender a few days ago. He has flashed big play ability the last few years. Floyd is expected to start across from emerging star Vincent Jackson this season. But, there is a chance that Floyd could see his role increase significantly. Jackson is already looking at a one or two game suspension for his off the field issues. Now, there is a chance that Jackson will hold out, at least until training camp ... and possibly into the season. Another change in the situation is the loss of a great receiving back in LaDainian Tomlinson, who was replaced by rookie Ryan Mathews. This could lead to more targets for Floyd. He finished the last two seasons as WR57 and WR54, respectively, but is being drafted as WR62. The threat of a Jackson suspension and holdout should be enough to give fantasy owners hope that they could have a sleeper at the wide receiver position. Floyd should outproduce his ADP once again, but there is hope for a big season replacing Jackson.

    Sleepers appear at the wide receiver position more than any other. As a rookie, Anquan Boldin finished as the WR4 with a WR88 ADP. Antonio Bryant had a monster season in 2008 after being out of football for all of 2007. In both situations, each could have been identified using the above criteria. Whether for the players listed above, or others, fantasy owners can utilize the above rules to identify sleepers at all positions.

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