Fantasy Football 2014: How Searching for Sleepers Affects Mock-Draft Strategy

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Fantasy Football 2014: How Searching for Sleepers Affects Mock-Draft Strategy
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No word is used more in my life during the month of August than "sleepers." I literally think about sleepers in my sleep. Anybody else who writes about fantasy or is obsessed with it will tell you that they do the same.

But over the years, I've made some rules about how I divide my attention when it comes to seeking out sleepers. You see, not all sleepers are created equally. I've basically disappeared for days on end obsessing over that second-string running back that may or may not eventually get playing time but, oh mandoes he really pop on tape.

No more of that. I have a system now, and, wouldn't you know it, I'm going to pass it along to you. You're welcome.

In my book, there are three types of sleepers:

  1. Value Sleepers: These are players everyone is familiar with, but for whatever reason they are being drafted too low. Maybe they are coming off of a down year or an injury, or other players at the position are being hyped. This is the type of sleeper you start looking for around the fourth or fifth round.
  2. Breakout Sleepers: These are the players who have the chance to finally post career years but, because they haven't done so yet in the NFL, are available further down in the draft. Think of a guy like Alshon Jeffery last year.
  3. Deep Sleepers: These are the players a lot of the guys in your league haven't even heard of yet. Guys with potential, sure, but maybe not the opportunity to shine just yet. Sometimes, you might not even be drafting them, just monitoring them in case they get a shot and run with it. Unearthing this player can be the difference between winning your league and ending another year in disappointment.

The way they are listed above is how you should prioritize these players in your draft research. The point in any draft, regardless of format, is to maximize value with every single pick.

Generally with your first two or three picks you want to be playing it safe. You can survive missing out on a player who absolutely blows up with your early picks, but you can't survive screwing up those picks altogether. When in doubt early in your draft, select the player you trust.

But after that, you want value, value, value. Let's take a look at some of the best values in fantasy drafts right now, using the Fantasy Pros' aggregate ranking of average draft position from ESPN, CBS, NFL.com and Yahoo! leagues.

Top Value Sleepers
Player Position Team ADP
Cam Newton QB Carolina Panthers 52
Robert Griffin III QB Washington 55
Ryan Mathews RB San Diego Chargers 37
Rashad Jennings RB New York Giants 50
Ray Rice RB Baltimore Ravens 69
Trent Richardson RB Indianapolis Colts 72
Stevan Ridley RB New England Patriots 81
Wes Welker WR Denver Broncos 41
Victor Cruz WR New York Giants 43
Jeremy Maclin WR Philadelphia Eagles 76
Jordan Cameron TE Cleveland Browns 60

Those are the players I'm circling on my draft list as I compile my own rankings, because I know I can nab them for great values. Those are the guys that might not help me win my league because of their awesome upside, but at that very least will free me up to take some chances later in the draft.

Take the case of Victor Cruz. Pretty much everything that could go wrong with the New York Giants did go wrong, from a shoddy offensive line to Eli Manning throwing an astonishing 27 interceptions, and everything in between.

And yet, with the world falling apart around him, Cruz still caught 73 passes for 998 yards and four scores in 14 games. Given the big numbers he posted his first two years, it's safe to say we've just identified Cruz's floor. 

Turns out his floor is higher than the ceiling of many a wide receiver. You could wait until the fifth round and still get a player who was a either a low-end WR1 or high-end WR2 in his first two seasons. And Cruz believes a change in offensive coordinators—Ben McAdoo is installing his West Coast offense—will stoke the passing game again, per Howie Kussoy of the New York Post:

...Cruz believes once the team gets up to speed with the new offense, the pace of the new system will revive last year’s 28th-ranked attack.

'That [quicker] tempo is what we needed, I felt like,' Cruz said before Monday’s practice. 'We’re all guys that want to get up on the ball and make plays and make things happen...It’s something that’s going to be different for us, but I think that’s going to be beneficial for us, for receivers like myself and Rueben [Randle], guys who like to make plays and like to do things fast and keep the defense off balance.

'It’s definitely all up to us in order to make plays and catch the ball...turn those small plays into bigger plays, which I know we have the talent to do that.'

Breakout sleepers are obviously trickier to identify. A lot of times here, you are looking for young players who seem on the cusp of greatness or maybe even rookies who are in perfect situations for them to thrive. Here are the players I think could fit that bill this year:

Breakout Sleeper Candidates
Player Position Team ADP
Johnny Manziel QB Cleveland Browns 134
Andre Ellington RB Arizona Cardinals 31
Toby Gerhart RB Jacksonville Jaguars 48
Bishop Sankey RB Tennessee Titans 58
Ben Tate RB Cleveland Browns 63
Michael Floyd WR Arizona Cardinals 62
T.Y. Hilton WR Indianapolis Colts 68
Kendall Wright WR Tennessee Titans 85
Terrance Williams WR Dallas Cowboys 97
Jordan Reed TE Washington 88
Zach Ertz TE Philadelphia Eagles 123

Yes, many of these players may not have that breakout campaign this year. It happens. But for most of them, you won't be paying a premium to find out, and their upside justifies a mid-round pick.

Keep in mind that, while a player like Andre Ellington is going in the fourth round in 10-team leagues based on his ADP, there is also a ton of uncertainty at the running back position, so you are going to be taking chances on players at that position earlier than you should be taking chances on players at other positions. In that regard, Ellington is still a player that could give you excellent value in the fourth round.

Plus, all indications are that the Arizona Cardinals are going to do everything in their power to get him as many touches as possible without wearing him down or risking injury. Consider the following from Kent Somers of AZCentral.com:

The Cardinals would like to get the ball to Ellington 20 or so times a game, but want to limit his carries inside the tackles. He's more dangerous 'in space' as a receiver, plus they want to keep him healthy the entire season.

Using Ellington out of the backfield as a receiver, or lining him up at receiver, comes with risks. In a one-back formation, it leaves the backfield empty, meaning quarterback Carson Palmer had better get rid of the ball quick when blitzed.

Having another back in the game is one way to counter that.

So yes, Ellington could be in line for a major breakthrough this year. Even in the fourth round, he seems like a pretty strong value.

Finally we get to deep sleepers, the absolute crapshoot of fantasy football drafts. Some of these players, like San Diego tight end Ladarius Green and Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, you should absolutely be drafting in the later rounds if you like their upside. 

Other players, like Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray and Arizona Cardinals receiver John Brown, are players you need to be ready to pounce on at some point in the season on the waiver wire if they suddenly find themselves fantasy-relevant. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

But it's also important to remember that you can't get lost into researching these guys, because the chances of landing a deep sleeper in the draft are so, so, so low. So many folks obsess over identifying sleepers that they lose the forest for the trees and begin taking chances on sleeper candidates way too early in the draft.

Remember, you might not win your league in the first three rounds, but you can absolutely lose it there. The opposite holds true—you might win your league in the later rounds, but you aren't going to lose it there. Giving too much weight to the later rounds and ignoring your draft strategy early on is a great way to blow a draft.

By all means, do your preparation. Just keep perspective when it comes to where you focus the majority of your attention when compiling your personal rankings. If you identify the right value sleepers; nail a breakout sleeper or two; and maybe, just maybe land a deep sleeper, you're well on your way to winning your league.

 

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