Pick the brain of hardcore fantasy football players on any topic, and you are sure to get a wide range of answers. There are few absolutes in this game. Player evaluations and expectations differ, even at the top of the totem pole.
For every drafter who sees value in using an early pick on the undisputed best quarterback in fantasy football, Peyton Manning, there's a guy who will not touch him because of age concerns. Some will use a first-round pick on Julio Jones because of the implied upside. Others will gladly pass on him since their only memory of Jones from last season is dropping him after he was placed on injured reserve before Week 6. Many owners will want a point-per-reception machine as their RB1 while others will want a runner with a nose for the end zone.
Again, opinions on players vary.
All owners will have their personal "Do Not Draft" list and flow through a draft dodging the disdained. Most will leave the draft feeling good about their starting lineup heading into Week 1. Of course, there will be winners and losers in these early rounds as many top-tier players get injured, underperform or exceed expectations. You can't win your league with the early picks, but you can surely make things difficult for yourself if a handful of key pieces turn into busts. In reality, however, leagues are won with savvy, late-round roster adds that become weekly assets.
Enter, the sleeper.
In the second half of a draft, deviation from average draft position (ADP) increases, and selections become even more a matter of personal taste. It's in this portion of the draft that you can aggressively target your list of sleepers. With your anticipated core lineup already established, the goal in the second half of your draft is to combine a happy medium of safe insurance selections with high-potential picks that other owners aren't focused on. It's the sleeper breakouts that can jump-start a roster to the next level. The trick is identifying the right candidates to draft. Your competition is relying on short, subjective news blurbs regarding rookies and other unknowns coming from camp to form opinions. You can do better than that.
As fantasy sports have evolved, the anonymity of "sleepers" has decreased. Because of the spike in content outlets and social media usage, there are few secrets left unexposed. The information train accelerates year after year. Translation: You need to dig deeper, and take matters into your own hands to find diamonds in the rough that others aren't targeting. Have no fear, because it's doable.
Here are a few steps to help you make more informed selections in later rounds that can ultimately carry you to a championship.
Step 1: Define Your Sleeper Category Preference
Understand your own personal pain tolerance for variance. Are you comfortable rostering players who have little guaranteed playing time at the start of the season? Will you have the patience to stash and hold rather than make a panic drop at the first sign of danger? Sleepers carry a wide-range of risk, potential and upside.
First, there are the rookie sleepers. Within this broad category, you have the hyped rookies who often carry a steeper price tag followed by the mid-round, late-round and free-agent rookies. All share the distinct characteristic of being unproven commodities at the NFL level and have undefined timelines to in-game usage as a result
Next, there are the second- or third-year players who were hyped at one point but either because of injury or slow development became forgotten. Of the sleeper types, these potential gems have the most unforeseen upside as they are more familiar with the speed of the NFL compared to their rookie counterparts and have fewer obstacles to gaining quick traction in a new-found opportunity.
A fully balanced roster should have at least one sleeper from each category. In reality, there is room on most rosters to stash more of the late-round flier types. Having these players take up 20 percent of your roster space is reasonable
Step 2: Review the Closing Stretch
As an owner's teams are eliminated from the fantasy playoffs or contention, the corresponding attention to detail tends to dissipate. You may not remember who went off last December either. Particularly in cases of coaching regimes that remain intact, younger players gain playing time down the stretch with an eye toward the following season. Check out last year's end-of-season box scores. Which players saw an uptick in targets down the stretch? Use our Snaps tool to discover these late-season spikes in relevance.
Step 3: Make Research Fun
Research is work, and nobody likes to do extra work. But you will be surprised how much game film is at your fingertips. YouTube hyped rookies, undrafted free agents, second-year players who saw curtailed reps as a rookie. Add "highlights" to your search, and you are all but guaranteed to find endless clips of exhilarating plays at the pro and college level. It may sound like a fruitless exercise, but our eyes are our best resource for spotting talent. In-game footage of a breakaway run or tackle-busting touchdown often tells us more than NFL Combine data.
Look for positive body language and confidence. For every star at the NFL level, there are hundreds who come up short. Search for that "It" factor that jumps off the screen and commit these guys to your bank of sleepers. You already have a more-informed opinion of potential future stars than your competition.
Step 4: Embrace the Preseason
Your significant other is angry at you for lost weekend evenings. League mates poke fun at you for using spare time to watch preseason games. Let them be.
Actually, don't upset the wife. Kindly apologize and set the DVR.
But really watch the games. Not just the first quarter when the top of the depth chart gets in some reps; watch the second string. Watch the fourth quarter. Look for guys making special plays. Look for receivers who are getting multiple targets with the game on the line. Which receiver was continuously No. 1 in the quarterback's progressions? Which running back showed a burst through the line or turning the corner? Did the young quarterback have a quick release? Did he appear comfortable in the pocket? We want raw talents who show the potential for further evolvement and aren't intimidated by the speed of the NFL.
You may not find the need to come out of your draft with every player who caught your eye, but you will be in a position to make better waiver-wire decisions during the season since you are more familiar with the available options.
Step 5: Seek Out Opportunity
Unanticipated stars often develop because of circumstance. Look for teams that are void of known elite talent at particular positions. Focus on the handful of players being given an opportunity and develop a personal preference. Similarly, look at teams that run a heavy dose of plays through one player. Many coaching regimes have specific system tendencies that cater to a given style. If that featured player goes down, the "next man up" rule applies, and he may be in line for heavy volume. While quality over quantity is a valid perspective in analyzing talent, volume is underappreciated.
Step 6: Make Football a Year-Round Sport
You're busy, and time is valuable. But you love football. So, watch some more college football, particularly during the bowl season. Some players thrive in the limelight, which often translates well to the NFL level.
Follow the NFL Draft, both before and after. Pay attention to what teams are saying about their new future pieces. All the while, you should understand that player development comes with indefinite time. Don't dismiss a previously-touted player just because of a less-than-sensational rookie season. Absorb the scouting reports and don't be afraid to stay the course with a player you believe in.
Step 7: Be Flexible, Diversity and Have Fun
The most fulfilling experience within fantasy football circles is being the first on board with a hidden gem. That's serious bragging rights there. Form opinions with substance and then don't be afraid to take shots in your draft. Aggressive risk-taking trumps conservative drafting in the later rounds. You will get more full-season value out of players with higher ceilings and lower floors than options that will provide marginal production.
Professional football scouts aren't immune to getting their analysis wrong. Chances are some of your personal sleepers aren't going to pan out either. If you are drafting in multiple leagues, diversify the players you are targeting deep in the draft. It's OK to have a handful of favorites that you proclaim as "your guys," but be reasonable and consider alternative options. Along the same lines, if a situation with one player changes, don't be left holding the bag. Cut ties and move on to another risk-reward player on the verge of a major opportunity.
Take ownership of your sleepers. Talk them up after your draft. Be prideful of the extra work you put in, and let your competition know about it.