Finding deep sleepers in Fantasy Football has gotten harder.
It used to be easy! Watch some preseason film, read some reports from training camp, see who fits in with their offense the best, make a couple of phone calls and foresee a pathway for a guy to make sweet Fantasy production.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s still how I do things, but teams are making it harder and harder. Not as many teams are putting their starters out there in preseason games. Practices are still musts for the starters but there isn’t any film on that for Fantasy analysts to nerd out to. Reports from practice are plentiful and usually in agreement with each other, but those can be read by anyone. And no one talks on the phone anymore, it’s all texts and Twitter DMs.
I sound old. I feel old. This is the 10-year anniversary of Alfred Morris‘ rookie year, which is when this annual deep sleeper thing got started (thanks, #ALF). We’ve had some hits (Darren Waller, Kenny Golladay, Jonnu Smith) and some misses (do NOT @ me with Tajae Sharpe trash talk) with lots of guys in-between who were uneven as rookies but eventual NFL stars (Tyler Eifert, Michael Gallup, Elijah Moore), but all in all we’ve taken some good shots on winning late-round picks. The whole goal is to find someone who would otherwise be the top waiver-wire pick after Week 1 and a potential starter for at least half of the year.
So, let’s get this cooking.
Dave’s Sleeper of the Summer
The reports from training camp on Isaiah McKenzie were spectacular for most of August. Shoot, those reports started in June when beat guys were saying he and Josh Allen were winning reps against the defense. Coach Sean McDermott said he was “potentially stepping into a full-time role” in June and Allen effectively admitted McKenzie was the Bills‘ slot receiver who will win by “using his speed and his quickness,” per an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
But if you don’t want to take it from them, that’s fine. Take it from the guy who McKenzie is replacing:
We got a glimpse of what McKenzie is capable of last year. Replacing a banged-up Cole Beasley against the Patriots, McKenzie turned 12 targets into an 11-125-1 stat line. Somehow that wasn’t enough to convince the Bills coaching staff to use him more at that point, but this is the same staff that took 14 weeks to finally trust Gabe Davis last year. They’re a little cautious.
McKenzie is the perfect kind of yards-after-catch weapon the Bills need, and that’s the trait they’ve focused on adding the most this offseason. Having him play the slot is doubly delicious. Consider this:
- Allen was second among all quarterbacks in total targets to a wideout who lined up in the slot in 2021 (163), and first in 2020 (170).
- In fact, at least 25% of Allen’s total throws went to a wideout who lined up in the slot in each of the past three years, though he was dramatically more efficient with them in 2020 and 2021.
- Despite limited play, McKenzie actually led all Bills wideouts in touchdowns from the slot in 2020 (five). He had just one in 2021. Naturally that doesn’t include any scores he caught from out wide. Of those six touchdowns, four came in the red zone, so he wasn’t just a deep-ball guy.
- Beasley caught 82 passes in each of his past two seasons with at least a 73% catch rate per year. McKenzie’s catch rate was at least 76.9% per year.
As for a target crunch in Buffalo, remember that this offense is completely reliant on Allen. This team attempted 655 passes in 2021 and 596 in 2020. They do not care about being balanced. Their effort to improve their run game is proof of this. There’s room for three receivers to total 400 targets and still have a preposterous 200-plus to spread to everyone else.
Finally, the Bills have given McKenzie the starter’s treatment this preseason — he’s worked with the first team in practice and only played in preseason games Allen played in. He’s run his routes well, too. A late-August lower-body injury is something the team is being careful with, but it’s reportedly not a serious injury.
Everything is in line for the 27-year-old to take a step forward. All you have to do is take him with a pick after 120th overall. I’m doing this in every draft I’m in. Expect a Flex starter return — at minimum.
The late-round sleeper tight end to snag
I’m calling on a sixth-year breakout for David Njoku. Really it’s all about having the best opportunity of his career to finally collect a lot of targets. His prior career high in that category? It’s 88 in 2018, and that was a season where he posted career-highs with 56 grabs, 639 yards and four scores.
He’s beating that this year.
Njoku is essentially the second-best target on the Browns behind Amari Cooper. He isn’t necessarily quick in his movements but he has good speed for a large, 6-foot-4, 245-pound athlete. I expect him to be prioritized in the red zone as well as on crucial third downs, not to mention play-action passes.
My favorite stats on Njoku? His catch rate has gone up in each of his past three seasons (from 50% to 65.5% to 67.9%). That’s happened as his average depth of target (aDOT) has gone up in each of his past three seasons (6.4 to 7.4 to 8.2). And his yards after catch per reception have also gone up in each of his past three seasons (from 3.2 to 4.6 to 6.9).
Njoku’s path to being the Browns’ primary tight end was blocked by Austin Hooper in 2020 and 2021 — Hooper had 70 targets in 2020 and 61 targets in 2021. Expect most of those to fall to Njoku (a few will also end up in Harrison Bryant‘s hands — but those are the Browns’ only two tight ends).
Lastly, there’s Jacoby Brissett. Trusting him to cultivate Fantasy numbers for his pass-catchers is like trusting Jerry Jones to be quiet and humble. But Brissett threw a preposterous 28.6% of his targets to tight ends last year while with the Dolphins, and 27.7% to Colts tight ends in 2019. In Kevin Stefanski’s two years as coach, the Browns have been top four in target share to tight ends each season. Pretty sure Deshaun Watson will find him reliable once he gets on the field late this year, too.
After rewarding Njoku with a rich extension this offseason, everything points to him being a volume-driven tight end with the Browns. He’s your late-round tight end streamer to begin the year, especially with matchups against the Panthers and Jets in Weeks 1 and 2.
The super-late PPR sleeper running back to get
We’re reaching deep on this one, and frankly it’s not one I’m entirely comfortable with. In fact, I was literally told by a reliable Chiefs observer that Jerick McKinnon would not be their feature back.
That’s OK. I still think he has a chance to be as close to a solid Fantasy back as this iteration of the Chiefs offense can have. Considering his barely-existent ADP, that’s a win for Fantasy managers.
When we last saw the Chiefs play meaningful football, McKinnon was playing at least 70% of the snaps. That was in three 2021 playoff games when he had a minimum of 12 PPR points in each. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was coming back from injury and participated in two of those games, and their running back depth really wasn’t that impressive then. McKinnon might have seen work out of desperation.
But the truth is that Edwards-Helaire isn’t a complete back. Rookie Isiah Pacheco has looked more explosive. Veteran Ronald Jones flashed more power than I remember seeing from him in the past. Each of these guys could take away from each other, but none of them will play in as many passing downs and two-minute offense situations as McKinnon.
And the Chiefs figure to pass a lot.
McKinnon has gone undrafted in plenty of drafts. He’s probably on your waiver wire and he’s definitely worth your last pick. With a possible floor of 9 or 10 points per game in PPR and a ceiling of 26 PPR points (that’s what he racked up against the Steelers last January), he deserves a bench spot on your team ahead of other backs who probably don’t have his floor or his upside. I wouldn’t be that surprised if he played the majority of the snaps among Chiefs running backs this season while also leading them in targets by a wide margin.