Five (Actual) Sleeper Fantasy Football Wide Receivers
Five (Actual) Sleeper Fantasy Football Wide Receivers
Unlike discovering “sleeper” running backs, there is more logic in trying to identify wide receiver talent. Carries are mostly distributed in a linear fashion and inefficient players can continue to receive carries because teams just run the ball. NFL teams refuse to think of the run-pass dichotomy in a different way. However, on any given pass play, there are four or five eligible pass catchers running routes and the best wide receivers/tight ends/running backs will earn a disproportionate amount of a teams’ targets.
This is because targets are an indicator of skill. Better players are open more often, or at least able to create situations in which quarterbacks feel comfortable throwing at the said player. Therefore, when trying to identify “sleepers” at the wide receiver position, we need to attempt to not only decipher playing time but if players will be able to earn that disproportionate target share if given playing time.
This grouping of wide receivers are mostly young and mostly accomplished at the NFL level but have both the requisite skill and paths to playing time that could lead to earning WR2+ value after the 150th pick of high stakes fantasy leagues.
Miles Boykin, Baltimore Ravens
Boykin has become something of a favorite of mine over the last few weeks as I have analyzed the potential target tree for the Baltimore Ravens. To begin with, we expect the passing tree to be more fruitful for Balitmore this season. Lamar Jackson threw only 401 passes last year, fewer than Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones who did not even play 16 games. The Ravens were ruthlessly efficient in a way that just might not be possible this year. This simple fact should get the Ravens closer to 500 passing attempts (I currently have Lamar for just over 511 pass attempts).
For his part, Boykin does project to have a ceiling in the NFL. He is 6’4, 220 pounds and ran a 4.42 40 before the Ravens drafted him in the third round last season. Despite playing only 425 snaps (fewer than Seth Roberts and Willie Snead), Boykin scored three touchdown on only 22 targets. His upside case is pretty clear in terms of playing time as well. Hayden Hurst and his 457 snaps with 39 targets (fifth on the team) are now in Atlanta and have not been replaced. Boykin clearly offers more ceiling than Chris Moore or Willie Snead and normal year-over-year growth would have him starting opposite Marquise Brown with Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle.
Even in a very efficient offense, Boykin’s small role in 2019 was one of those most efficient segments.
The team is also saying the right things about Boykin. “Miles Boykin, we’re really going to load his plate a lot more this year and really ask a lot of him this year,” Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said. “We really feel like he’s going to take a giant step.”
Generally speaking, freak athletes who are on one of the three best offenses in the NFL and have clear paths to playing time are players that we should be targeting in our drafts. Boykin fits the bill and I will be drafting him heavily this year.
Jalen Hurd, San Francisco 49ers
Hurd was not able to play in any games for the 49ers last year due to injury but he is the sort of “positionless” player that is perfect for Kyle Shanahan’s system. He was a running back the University of Tennessee, tallying a 1,475-yard season with 14 touchdowns while playing over Alvin Kamara and John Kelly as a sophomore then. Hurd then transferred to Baylor in 2018 and played as a wide receiver, leading the team in receiving over future second-round pick Denzel Mims in his lone season as a receiver while also rushing for 209 yards and three touchdowns.
The team plans on using Hurd as a “big slot” wide receiver but have also referenced him playing tight end, full back and running back in the past. Now, Kyle Shanahan is known for getting enamored with players who never end up having an on-field impact (Joe Williams, for example) but Hurd might actually be skilled enough to fulfill the grand ideas the team has. To be clear, Hurd does have some athletic limitations as he ran a 4.69 40-yard dash but the role the 49ers might have him projected for can be done without being a Miles Boykin-level athlete. Something I have tried to get better at over time is listening to what a team tells us about how they view a player as opposed to trying to judge true “talent level” from the outside. Hurd is an example of where this is useful.
With Deebo Samuel recovering from a Jones fracture, Emmanuel Sanders departed, and Brandon Aiyuk behind the eight ball as a rookie in the CoVid-19 offseason, this a make-or-break season for Hurd. His potential as a multi-use player (rushing, receiving, blocking) should get him on the field if healthy in an efficient offense. While not as high of a priority target as Boykin, Hurd clearly has a ceiling outpaced by his sub-150th overall ADP.
Hunter Renfrow, Oakland Raiders
Far and away the least sexy name on this list, Renfrow was actually the most productive of any of these five players as a rookie for the Raiders. Despite looking like an IT Tech from Connecticut, Renfrow was targeted 71 times in 13 games for the Raiders and scored four touchdowns over that time frame as a rookie in an offense that passed for only 22 total touchdowns.
In an absolutely loaded WR class that is going to provide with at least one if not multiple all-time talents at the position, Renfrow finished with the eight most total PPR points of all rookie wide receivers in 2020. Now, a massive chunk of his PPR came from two plays where he took slant routes to the endzone from on his own side of the field but guess what? The same is true of Mecole Hardman and even for AJ Brown who was mostly spurred on by big plays. For a player with limited athleticism like Renfrow, it should be viewed as positive and not a negative that he initiated big plays as a rookie.
Even more than any other player on this list, Renfrow is stepping into a clearly established role in this Raiders offense. Though the team drafted Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, and Lynn Bowden Jr., that is mostly a response to the fact that they had to play Zay Jones and Keelan Doss at wide receiver last year due to the departure of Antonio Brown. In fact, Renfrow is more of a threat to Darren Waller than the new WR additions are a threat to Renfrow. I never like players like Renfrow but this is clearly setting up a scenario where is one of the cheapest 100 target wide receivers in fantasy football.
James Washington, Pittsburgh Steelers
I am giving everyone on the Steelers a pass for 2019. Football Outsiders had Mason Rudolph as the second-worst QB in terms of QBR for 2019 and his grade also would have been the second-worst in 2018. Develin Hodges was somehow, even worse than that. Despite the popular “shower narrative” (James Washington and Mason Rudolph were college teammates”), it was Diontae Johnson who stepped up while JuJu Smith-Schuster battled injuries.
Except… that story is not entirely true. Washington lead the Steelers in receiving yards and yards per target. While Johnson had more expected points generated via his targets, that is to be expected for a player who sees his targets at a lower aDOT and therefore is able to convert his targets into receptions at a higher rate. In at least a theoretical sense, Washington is the much higher upside player in a full-time role because how far down the field he is targeted.
Washington lead the Steelers in Air Yards (YBC on ProFootballReference) by a country mile and also lead the team in aDOT with a minimum of 20 targets. There are also some hopeful comps for Washington if we look at players who had less than 1,000 yards, more than 50 targets and were drafted in the second round or higher, including DaVante Adams.
Essentially, Washington was an elite prospect (33% Dominator Rating, 18-year old breakout age, with a 20.4 yards per reception in college) who tested decently at the combine, was drafted highly by a great passing team and has a projectable role with oceans of upside. He can be had for free in your drafts this year.
Laviska Shenault, Jacksonville Jaguars
Shenault has become one of my favorite players to draft in 2020. He remains free in high stakes leagues and the Underdog Best Ball Championship while presenting an absurd level of upside. To begin with, Shenault was drafted in a group of wide receivers that historically project well as a high second-round pick who broke out at age 19 at a Power Five school.
The Rotoviz Sim Scores for Shenault are hilarious, essentially a compendium of some of the best wide receivers in the NFL at the moment.
When Michael Thomas, A.J Brown, JuJu Smith-Shuster and DeAndre Hopkins make up the four closest comps for a player, you should be very interested in drafting that player. When that player goes to a team that dedicated 291 targets to DeDe Westbrook, Leonard Fournette and Chris Conley the year before they drafted him, you should be even more interested.
The Jaguars spent the offseason trying to trade Fournette and became disenchanted with Westbrook as he struggled with injury through the second half of the 2020 season. Both of these things lead to them selecting Shenault with the 10th pick of the second round. In college, not only was Shenault an elite run-after-the-catch prospect who could bully defensive backs down the field, he ALSO played wildcat quarterback and rushed for 280 yards and seven touchdowns while at Colorado.
There is perhaps no player who offers more upside and less risk than Shenault in all of fantasy football right now. Immediately, he projects for at least WR3 duties on a team that threw the third-most passes in the NFL last season while also having the upside of straight-up beating out Conley/Westbrook for targets while also seeing “carries” in a sort of hybrid, rookie-year Cordarelle Patterson role. As an example, in Patterson’s rookie year, he has 77 targets and only 12 rushes while scoring seven times. Shenault will never be the athlete that CP was but has a more projectable role right away in the NFL.
Draft Laviska Shenault with impunity.