Fantasy Football: The art of identifying a sleeper

Fantasy football sleepers can win your league but how do you find the right ones?

Sorry baseball, fantasy football has become America’s pastime. The fictional sport has taken the sports world hostage, providing a new source of entertainment and giving some fans new reasons to follow real football.

Every fall, countless NFL fans flock to the internet to craft their favorite fantasy football team, only for most of them to realize that this probably isn’t their year. Winning that elusive title can do more than just secure you bragging rights or a hefty deposit into your bank accounts; a championship solidifies all the hard work and research that went into your winning roster.

In most cases, the best fantasy football teams strike gold in the later rounds of their draft by selecting a player who capitalized on their enormous potential. These “sleepers” are the reason why your best buddy came out of nowhere to beat you in your fantasy league.

Let me help you return the favor by outlining the three factors you should look for when targeting potential fantasy football sleepers.

Fantasy Football Sleeper Identifier No. 1: Vacated Touches/Targets

Any time a team has a big hole to fill, immediately look at possible replacements. Ask yourself: Which teams are losing star players and who’s next in line to fill those voids? Those questions can be a huge indicator for who could get the ball more.

If you weren’t aware, touches refer to how many times a player actually gets his hands on the ball. This number is higher for running backs and excludes quarterbacks. Targets refer to how many times a player was passed the ball. Whether he caught it or not will be reflected as receptions.

Touches and targets are like matter in that can neither be created nor destroyed. Of course, a team can unveil a whole new offensive system that muddles how last season’s statistics could translate to the current season. But that can be positive in some cases, which we’ll delve into another time. While the number of touches and targets will always vary a bit between seasons, the bottom line is that this assessment has proven to be a key factor in identifying breakout players.

Take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example. In 2018, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson combined for a whopping 179 targets. Both left Tampa Bay in the offseason, leaving a boatload (no pun intended) of targets available.

The result? Chris Godwin and newcomer Breshad Perriman saw 190 total targets, though Godwin was the primary benefactor with 121 passes thrown his way. This helped the third-year receiver experience a breakout season in which he was third in receiving yards and tied for third in receiving touchdowns.

Simply put, vacated touches/targets means more opportunities for someone else. Teams with the most vacated touches ahead of this season are the Texans (16.7 touches per game), Falcons (15.5), Rams (15.5) and Chargers (13.7). Teams with plenty of available targets are the Falcons (16 targets per game), Texans (14.3), Cowboys (11.9) and Jets (11.7).

Fantasy Football Sleeper Identifier No. 2: Starting Opportunity

Clearly, you can’t get the ball if you’re sitting on the bench. As you get into deeper rounds, the players’ opportunities become more dependent on a starting job. Cases may vary, but it makes the most sense that you take a guy who has an easier path to being a starter.

If you have room for a hand-cuff, then it’s fine to draft one. However, drafting a hand-cuff means that you’re solely dependent on an injury to the starter, and that may never come. The safer bet is to choose a player who is vying for a starting job or — if available — is already penciled in as a starter.

Remember Chris Carson’s breakout season in 2018? On average, he was the 29th running back taken (according to FantasyPros), yet he finished as the 14th-highest scoring running back in standard leagues and 15th in PPR leagues. In 2017, the Seahawks had five different starting running backs. The following season, only three of those players returned and only two — Carson and Mike Davis — started at least a game.

There was no solidified starter at a heavily featured position, and Carson was the one to bust through. Look for similar situations this season, such as the Rams’ backfield or the Eagles’ receivers.

Fantasy Football Sleeper Identifier No. 3: ADP-Related Upside

A player’s average drafted position, ADP, is the holy grail of finding sleepers. Of course, a player can’t be “slept on” if his ADP is too high. As your fantasy draft moves along, a player’s upside becomes more and more valuable.

Eventually, the later rounds become shots at players with high ceilings because almost all late-round players — who aren’t quarterbacks — tend to be in similar positions. For example, late-round running backs are usually second- or third-string players who have not been proven they can be consistent starters.

Whereas your first couple picks should be relatively safe, your final few picks should mostly be focused on a player’s upside because your later selections usually never last on your roster. When it comes to drafting sleepers, consider how they match up to players around them on draft boards. Some questions to consider:

  • What is the likelihood that this backup player becomes the starter?
  • Is this player being undervalued because he’s a rookie?
  • What are the ceilings/floors for players being drafted at around the same time?
  • In PPR leagues: Could this player provide more value as a receiver than this other player?

Honorable Mention: Your Gut

Each fantasy owner will have his or her own thoughts about each player, and most often, they will let those thoughts override any logic or common sense. While disregarding all trends and statistics can be short-sighted, sometimes you just know in your gut that you’re right about a player.

For example, some people knew that Alvin Kamara was way too talented to stay behind Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson in 2017, so they took a flier on the rookie. To say the move paid off would be an understatement. Kamara finished as the fourth-best non-QB despite sitting at third on the depth chart to start the season.

Next: Ranking every starting running back in 2020

The point is that if you feel like there’s a stud who is just too good to pass up, take him. In the case of Kamara, the above criteria didn’t apply. When it comes to fantasy football, don’t be afraid to follow your gut. After all, it’s just a game.

All fantasy stats were taken from Pro Football Reference’s fantasy database and 4for4’s advanced fantasy football metrics unless stated otherwise.