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Sleepers can mean different things to different fantasy managers. We’re referring to players that we feel provide upside compared to their draft day cost, otherwise known as average draft position (ADP). Let’s look at our favorite early sleepers of the fantasy football draft season.
Rankings noted using FantasyPros half-PPR Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) and Consensus ADP.
Brandon Aiyuk (SF) ECR WR36 | ADP WR39
Fantasy managers are still trying to figure out what went wrong with Brandon Aiyuk during the first half of last season. He was hyped up after an impressive rookie campaign but suffered a hamstring injury during training camp, making him unreliable in the starting offense. Through Weeks 1-7, Aiyuk had just one weekly finish inside the top-25. He also averaged an abysmal 0.63 yards per route run — a mark that ranked 98th out of 102 qualifying WRs. Woof.
But give credit to Aiyuk for turning his season around during the second half. His yards per route run increased substantially (2.16, 13th), and he averaged 13.1 PPR fantasy points per game as the WR24. The former first-round pick also ranked sixth in yards after the catch per reception (6.9).
If Aiyuk can roll over his second-half production into 2022, he could be a smashing fantasy value in a similar way that Deebo Samuel was viewed in 2021. His overall disappointing sophomore campaign should not overshadow his electric rookie season.
There’s a lot of general ambiguity about how the San Francisco 49ers’ offense will look with Trey Lance under center, but we know the upside is sky-high from a fantasy perspective. There’s no denying Aiyuk’s talent/production when given the opportunity, and there’s a chance he could form a special downfield connection with Lance’s rocket arm.
49ers’ wide receiver coach Leonard Hankerson also believes that Year 3 is the perfect time to expect Aiyuk’s impending breakout .
Take the chance on a suppressed Aiyuk, who won’t cost nearly the arm and leg that Deebo will cost to draft. Their target rate per route run was nearly identical (21%) during the second half of the season.
Christian Kirk (JAC) ECR WR41 | ADP WR42
Everything came together for Christian Kirk in 2021 because he was finally used from the slot. Unsurprisingly, Kirk established career highs across the board in targets (112), receptions (83) and receiving yards (1,035) while filling the void left by an injured DeAndre Hopkins. He also finished top-20 among all WRs in PFF receiving grade versus man coverage (87th percentile) and in separation percentage (83rd percentile).
Kirk commanded a 21% target share without Hopkins in the lineup and averaged 13.8 fantasy PPR points per game — a top-10 per-game average. In addition, he finished with the second-most receiving yards from the slot among all wide receivers.
Kirk should stay kicked inside with the Jaguars after the team received little production from that position in 2021. Marvin Jones and Laviska Shenault ranked in the bottom 10 with 1.30 yards per route run from the slot. Kirk ranked 13th with 1.80 yards per route run from the slot. He is shaping up to be the new Amari Rodgers for Trevor Lawrence, operating from the inside.
Rodgers was Lawrence’s go-to receiver during the quarterback’s final year at Clemson, so it makes sense why the Jags would spend so aggressively on a slot WR. And without much more in the way of established competition on the wide receiver depth chart, it’s not crazy to think Kirk can lead Jacksonville in targets, especially if he earns Lawrence’s trust early in the summer. Early OTA reports are that the two are building a strong connection.
Kirk’s 74% targets to slot rate ranked eighth among all WRs — a mark eerily close to the number generated by Jags slot receiver Jamal Agnew. Agnew went through a midseason stretch (Weeks 5-10) when he led Jacksonville in targets.
At worst, Kirk takes shape as a strong WR3 asset who can elevate to WR2 status quickly with an up-and-coming quarterback in a pass-heavy offense.
Ancillary Jaguars’ WRs Zay Jones and Laviska Shenault are also intriguing fliers in the later rounds to take dart throws on in a pass-heavy attack.
Jones played so well down the stretch in 2021 that he earned himself a three-year, $30 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The former Raider averaged a 25% target share, 10.7 half-point fantasy points per game (27th) and 12.8 expected half-point fantasy points per game (18th) in the team’s final five games, including playoffs.
He also led the team in total air yards (1,136).
The wideout is bound to be overlooked in fantasy despite a strong 2021 finish, so consider me a buyer in the very late rounds. Jones will be a starter on the outside and inherit the wide receiver role previously occupied by Laquon Treadwell. The former first-round pick finished the final six weeks of the fantasy season 10th in receiving yards with 381 — 64 per game.
Jones, like Treadwell, also finished the last five weeks top-10 in PFF receiving grade versus man coverage — further bolstering Jones’ case as a future playmaker on the boundary.
Shenault looks the odd-man out as a carry-over from a previous regime, but don’t be too quick to bury a player who is better than many perceive based on his team-leading 21% target rate per route run on 99 targets.
Especially considering the wide receivers going into Year 3 drafted in Round 2 who have eclipsed 170 targets since 2018 is a solid group to be associated with. Those names include JuJu Smith-Schuster, D.K. Metcalf, Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool, Courtland Sutton, A.J. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and Christian Kirk.
Remember, folks — targets are earned and are a sign of skill. So don’t write off a player coming off an abysmal season where the deck was stacked against him fully to produce. Shenault having a huge Year 3 wouldn’t be all that strange to witness.
If Deebo Samuel could overcome a super-low average depth of target (aDOT) and sophomore slump, Shenault might still have a chance to break out — whether it be in Duval or elsewhere.
I’d probably classify Jones as the better value fantasy asset – the best bet to beat ADP – while Shenault remains the true sleeper due to his wide range of outcomes.
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Allen Lazard (GB) ECR WR40 | ADP WR44
The Packers have the fourth-most vacated target space from last season, creating an opportunity for veteran Allen Lazard to step up and post career-high numbers.
Aaron Rodgers trusts Lazard after they have spent the last four seasons together, and their chemistry was on full display over the final five weeks of the 2021 regular season.
Allen Lazard stock ⬆️⬆️⬆️ pic.twitter.com/Shug3gFfjZ
Lazard was the WR8 in PPR scoring on the back of 21 receptions for 290 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Someone on Green Bay will have to replace Davante Adams‘ elite red-zone production, and Lazard looks to fit the mold at 6-foot-5.
The former Iowa State product has also stepped up in Adams’ absence before, most notably back in 2020 against the New Orleans Saints. With Adams sidelined, Lazard caught six of eight targets for 146 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Kadarius Toney (WR – NYG) ECR WR45 | ADP WR46
It remains to be seen how the Giants’ new coaching staff views Kadarius Toney heading into Year 2. They were rumored to trade the polarizing wide receiver before the NFL Draft, and the selection of Wan’Dale Robinson early in Round 2 isn’t a vote of confidence that will see an ultra-expanded role in Year 2.
However, what is clear with Toney is his talent. He flashed future target-magnet potential after posting 2.14 yards per route run (11th) and commanding a 25% target rate per route run in 2021 — tied for 7th best in the NFL in 2021.
His 92nd percentile PFF receiving grade versus single coverage suggests that Toney can win wherever he lines up.
The second-year WR is worth the upside in the later rounds, but don’t be afraid to cut ties early on if he’s not featured in Big Blue’s offense like he was last season under the new regime.
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