Indicators of WR Wake-Up Calls
By Ryan Hester
August 27th, 2011

Mid-August to early September might as well be called "Sleeper Season." Everyone is looking to grab that guy in Round 6 or later who finishes the year ranked higher at his position than the round in which they drafted him. Those are the guys fantasy owners remember and smile about in future years as they arose from "sleeper status" and finished the year as elite players.

At a position like running back, these guys can be harder to find due to the fact that teams only start one running back. Even in committee backfields, only one half of the committee sees the field at the same time - this is the very reason why fantasy owners dread the "RBBC" system when implemented by real-life teams. Due to this fact, many running back sleepers happen because of injuries or from poor play by #1 RBs that leads to his backup getting an opportunity and (yes, this is going where you think it is) running with it.

Personally, I feel as if I'm more effective at predicting good performance than bad - maybe it's just more positive and fun. Wide receiver is a position where two (and sometimes three) players per team can be not just fantasy-relevant but incredibly important during the course of the season, making wide receiver sleepers a bit more predictable. PPR leagues reward slot men like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola. This system can work for all leagues but works best in leagues that don't reward a point for a minimal gain.

The system starts by asking, "where do the most productive fantasy receivers make their plays?" Last season, prior to my drafts, I assessed what many of the league's top WRs had in common. Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne, etc. are all big players (in size) capable of making big plays (in yardage and fantasy points). These big plays mainly happen on the perimeter of the field and - of course - near the endzone. In order to excel in both of these areas, big receivers separate from coverage using their strength and can out-jump it even when they don't. I used this thought to identify receivers I wanted on my team.

Using just height, however, isn't enough. There are many tall receivers stuck in terrible situations or who can't get themselves on the field. Roy Williams' sporadic career personifies this. David Gettis is young and is 6'3" but was stuck on Carolina's league-worst pass attack last year and couldn't escape the fantasy value quagmire known as Jimmy Clausen (too bad we won't get to see Gettis with Cam Newton this year due to his ACL injury, but I digress).

I examined other factors such as where the player finished the prior year, how old the player was/how much experience he had in the league, and where his team's passing attack finished the prior season. The following patterns developed.

Indicators for Known Commodities Ready for "The Leap"

Since 2008 (three seasons), 19 players have been drafted outside of the top-12 WRs but finished the season inside the top-12. Of those 19:

  • Eleven (11) finished in the top 36 the year before (showing they were known commodities and/or rising assets).

  • Of the 11, the average height was 6'2" and only ONE was below 6'0" tall - Greg Jennings at 5'11" (again, taller means more dangerous on the perimeter and in the redzone).

  • Of the 11, the average age was 24.8 years and average experience in the league going into that season was 2.4 years (young players are more explosive, and today's NFL is trending toward getting younger players on the field sooner).

  • Of the 11, the average previous year finish of their team's passing attack was 8.3 (players already on very capable passing units who just needed more opportunity within them).
  • For example, here are some players who were drafted in middle rounds of various leagues over the last three seasons that performed like early-round picks. Green highlighting means the player is at or above the desired height; is at or under the average age and years of experience; finished last season ranked between 9 and 36; and was on a team whose passing attack was 9th or better (because the average was 8.33). Yellow highlighting means the player was very close but outside of those desired ranges.

    Player - Year (Final Rank)
    Height
    Prev Year Rank
    Prev Year Team Pass Rank
    Age
    Exp
    Calvin Johnson-2008 (WR3)
    6'5"
    34
    9
    23
    1
    Greg Jennings-2008 (WR4)
    5'11"
    12
    2
    25
    2
    DeSean Jackson-2009 (WR7)
    6'0"
    33
    6
    23
    1
    Hakeem Nicks-2010 (WR7)
    6'0"
    28
    9
    22
    1
    Mike Wallace-2010 (WR6)
    6'0"
    27
    11
    24
    1
    Jeremy Maclin-2010 (WR12)
    6'0"
    36
    10
    22
    1

    Breakout Candidates for 2011

    Instead of providing a breakdown on each player's situation (my colleagues and I have done this exhaustively in our rankings, comments, and articles), I'll simply show a chart of the Indicators met by each player and one sentence or less on why I've listed them.

    The chart is sorted by my opinion of "best value" based on a combination of where the player is being taken and their chances of finishing in the top-12 despite being drafted outside of it. While it's unrealistic to expect each of these players to finish as a #1 fantasy WR this season (there are only 12 places, and the guys being drafted in the top-12 are being drafted there for a reason), keeping these Indicators for Success in mind can help in determining which players might be worth taking over others being drafted in the same range. Therefore, I'll provide a list of others being drafted close to these players who I would NOT take over the guys listed.

    Player (8/22 ADP)
    Height
    Prev Year Rank
    Prev Year Team Pass Rank
    Age
    Exp
    Mario Manningham (70)
    6'0"
    17
    10
    25
    3
    Austin Collie (69)
    6'1"
    31
    1
    25
    2
    Dez Bryant (41)
    6'2"
    47
    6
    22
    1
    Jeremy Maclin (61)
    6'0"
    12
    9
    22
    2
    Kenny Britt (72)
    6'3"
    21
    25
    22
    2
    Michael Crabtree (110)
    6'2"
    32
    18
    23
    2
  • Mario Manningham - His #17 finish last year came when he wasn't even a full-time starter. Now he is. Opportunity knocks. Comparable ADP's I Rank Below Manningham (ADP): Brandon Lloyd (53), Steve Johnson (57), Percy Harvin (59), Jeremy Maclin (61), Anquan Boldin (62), Chad Ochocinco (63), Austin Collie (69).

  • Austin Collie -This predicted breakout season for Collie would have been last year if his season wasn't shortened by injuries. Comparables: Steve Johnson (57), Percy Harvin (59), Anquan Boldin (62), Chad Ochocinco (63).

  • Dez Bryant - I'm willing to overlook Bryant's lack of the "Previous Year Finish" Indicator because there are obvious reasons as to why when remembering that both Bryant and his QB, Tony Romo, missed multiple games last season. Like Collie, Bryant could have already had his breakout year without the injuries. Comparables: Reggie Wayne (28), DeSean Jackson (31), Dwayne Bowe (34), Mike Williams (36), Brandon Marshall (43).

  • Jeremy Maclin - His illness is no longer a mystery, but it's still scaring fantasy owners. He's being drafted as the #22 WR so far this preseason. While finishing in the top-12 this season might not be as high a possibility as it would be for the others on this list due to a possible slow start, Maclin still has all the makings of another breakout year. Comparables: At an ADP of 61, it's still difficult to find a player being drafted ahead of Maclin that I personally would draft behind him. If Maclin lasts until the mid-70's, however, I have him ranked ahead of both Sidney Rice (76) and Pierre Garcon (78).

  • Kenny Britt - The only Indicator Britt is lacking is that Tennessee finished 25th in passing last season. Starting Rusty Smith and going through Vince Young drama played a role in that. Veteran Matt Hasselbeck can help to steady that pass attack and makes this Indicator less important, if not moot, for Britt. Comparables: Sidney Rice (76) and Pierre Garcon (78), Santana Moss (79), Julio Jones (80).

  • Michael Crabtree - If his foot heals and he starts in San Francisco, his talent alone makes him a candidate here every year. Comparables: Braylon Edwards (103)
  • Reaching Deeper

    At this point, readers might be thinking that these are obvious criteria or that with the ADP's of these players, you might not be able to get more than one or two of them. There are some deeper sleepers who were drafted outside the top-12 since 2008 that also finished inside of it. Using the same five Indicators, three are within the same range (height, age, and experience) but two very different and yielded results close enough to each other to be significant.

    Using the same 19 players drafted outside the top-12 that finished inside of it, less the eleven were used previously, leaves eight remaining. Of those 8:

  • Six of the them were ranked 73 or higher or didn't play the previous year

  • Of those six, the average previous year finish of their team's passing attack was 17.9 (middle of the road passing units)

  • The other factors of age, experience, and height were consistent with the averages above
  • Here is a chart of some of the deeper sleepers from 2008-2010 that jumped into the top-12. Green highlighting means the players fell within or above the average of the Indicator (same as before with height, age, and experience; 73 or worse in previous year's finish; and between 16 and 20 on previous year pass rank). Yellow means they were just outside the Indicator average. I'll also highlighted a "zero" in Years of Experience yellow due to so few rookie receivers becoming elite in their first year.

    Player - Year (Final Rank)
    Height
    Prev Year Rank
    Prev Year Team Pass Rank
    Age
    Exp
    Antonio Bryant-2008 (WR7)
    6'1"
    n/a
    16
    27
    5
    Sidney Rice-2009 (WR8)
    6'4"
    88*
    25
    23
    2
    Brandon Lloyd-2010 (WR1)
    6'0"
    126
    13
    29
    7

    Identifying these types of players is much more difficult. Their Indicators have a bit more range to them, and some players aren't hitting all of the indicators. Looking back, though, a guy like Sidney Rice - who was missing the Previous Year Team Passing Rank Indicator - went from Tarvaris Jackson to Brett Favre at QB. Brandon Lloyd was injured in game two of 2009 - making 2010 his first full year with Josh McDaniels calling the shots.

    Breakout Candidates for 2011

    Again, this chart will be sorted by best value incorporating ADP relative to chances of a top-12 finish.

    Player (8/22 ADP)
    Height
    Prev Year Rank
    Prev Year Team Pass Rank
    Age
    Exp
    Andre Roberts (224)
    5'11"
    92
    31
    23
    1
    Arrelious Benn (187)
    6'2"
    83
    17
    22
    1
    Emmanuel Sanders (174)
    5'11"
    85
    14
    24
    1
    Antonio Brown (230)
    5'10"
    132
    14
    23
    1
    Eric Decker (269)
    6'3"
    133
    4
    24
    1
    Denarius Moore (209)
    6'0"
    n/a
    23
    22
    0
    Brandon Gibson (254)
    6'0"
    61
    21
    23
    2
    Danario Alexander (191)
    6'5"
    99
    21
    23
    1
    Michael Crabtree (110)
    6'2"
    32
    18
    23
    2

    This may seem like a lot of players, but keep in mind that with the two Steelers and the two Rams listed, it's an "either/or" situation - not both. If Emmanuel Sanders continues to be injured and is passed by Antonio Brown, Brown's the pick. If Brandon Gibson hangs on as starter in St. Louis, Danario Alexander doesn't belong here.

    Andre Roberts' lone missing Indicator is his team's passing game from last season. I think the Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton terribleness can be attributed to that. Kevin Kolb will have to throw to someone when Larry Fitzgerald is double and triple-teamed, and Roberts can rip the lid off a defense deep. That's why he's at the top of this list for me.

    Arrelious Benn is another "all-green" player. It's interesting that he and Jeremy Maclin are the only ones as I compare Benn to Maclin. He was an all-purpose threat in college, running short, intermediate, and deep routes; he plays opposite an established WR who emerged the season before; and he has a young, mobile QB getting him the ball. His ACL tear and need to fight for his job back are the only things keeping him from the top of this list.

    Eric Decker is opening eyes in Broncos' camp - particularly those of his head coach. And John Fox may be run-first, but his old Carolina teams had two fantasy-relevant WRs multiple times.

    Denarius Moore could be this year's Mike Williams of Tampa. He was a mid-round pick in the NFL draft, will be a late-round pick in fantasy drafts, and has physical gifts that are allowing him to dominate camp - suggesting he also has the mental gifts to grasp the scheme and overcome typical rookie pitfalls.

    How can Michael Crabtree be on both lists? Simply put, he perplexes me every year. Again, he always has the talent to be a breakout star, but his injuries have gotten him off to slow starts, and his attitude hasn't led to a team-friendly approach necessary to have a whole season of big games.

    Summary

    Again, these lists aren't the end-all, be-all for drafting (see the FBG rankings page for those). But they can help with the common middle-round malaise of fantasy drafts - where owners can talk themselves into (and out of) almost everyone on the board. There's always a positional drop-off. Some say it's WR25. Others may say WR30. Either way, keep these guys in mind if available after that drop-off when it's hard to decide between players to fill out important roster positions of WR3, WR4, and beyond.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to hester@footballguys.com.

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