Football is a fickle sport; every year, there are seemingly dozens of no-namers who breakout and lead fantasy squads to victory over teams of all-stars who had terrible seasons. Predicting just who the next Jared Goff or Adam Thielen is not as easy as it sounds. But numbers don’t usually lie, so I looked to statistics to try and gain some insight on who could be sneaky late-round sleepers and help you win your league this year.
2017 PPR position ranking in parentheses.
Patrick Mahomes (QB50) – When the Chiefs traded up in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Mahomes, the team made it clear that it saw Mahomes as the quarterback of the future. After trading Alex Smith to the Redskins, Kansas City paved the path for Mahomes to ascend to stardom. In a meaningless Week 17 game last year, Mahomes somehow racked up four “money throws” (Tom Brady had 13 over the course of the entire season). His SPARQ-x score is in the 99.8th percentile, so he is an athletic god. (Also, he can throw the ball 62 miles per hour!)
While Texas Tech went 5-7 his junior year, Mahomes proved he was capable of putting the team on his back. He exemplified this in the last game of that season when he threw 46 times for 586 yards and six touchdowns with 0 interceptions. His supporting cast in Kansas City is far superior to anyone he played with in college, with Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt able to wear down defenses and Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins capable of burning secondaries for massive gains. While Deshaun Watson may have flashed more in his rookie season and Mitch Trubisky is perhaps a sexier pick in Chicago, the stage is primed for Mahomes to break out in 2018.
Jameis Winston (QB22) – Winston has played in the NFL for three years and has yet to exhibit the same kind of prolific passing qualities that warranted the Buccaneers drafting him first overall. However, he started to show some promise at the end of 2017 and was the highest scoring quarterback over the final five weeks last year. On the season, he was #2 in air yards per attempt (5.1) and #6 in money throws (18). His completion percentage was either average or above average for nearly all depth of passes less than 30 yards downfield. Although he was super inconsistent (he had six games with a QB rating of 90+ and five with 80 or lower), and has been throughout his career, if he can stabilize his performances, he could be exactly what Tampa Bay (and the rest of the league) is expecting.
Interestingly, Winston’s best and worst performances came against the same team last year: against the Panthers in Week 8, he posted a pathetic 49.2 passer rating but his rating of 131.1 in a Week 16 loss to Carolina was his highest of the season. Winston has had time to adjust to the NFL, and if he can get his turnovers under control (75 career interceptions and fumbles), the league will have to adjust to him.
Jerick McKinnon (RB17) – Since he was drafted in 2014, McKinnon has split carries with at least one other back in Minnesota, never amassing more than 570 rushing yards. In San Francisco, McKinnon is far and away the lead back in a group that has a total of 112 career attempts between them. McKinnon made the most of his opportunities with the Vikings, racking up the 17th most fantasy points in 2017 on just the 42nd highest opportunity share (39.3%). He will also have a chance to boost his production in the receiving game, as Kyle Shanahan likes to pass to his running backs. Carlos Hyde had 88 targets last year, and 27.3% of all 49er passes in 2017 went to a running back. McKinnon had just two drops on 68 targets and can step in immediately as a three-down back.
Beyond the on-the-field statistics, McKinnon is an athletic freak, with a SPARQ-x score in the 100th percentile at 155.7. That’s just insane. With an RB1 carry load and a track record of making the most of limited opportunities, McKinnon has a real chance to put his otherworldly physique to use and lead one of the league’s most exciting offenses.
Kenyan Drake (RB33) – Jay Ajayi’s 2016 breakout overshadowed Drake’s rookie season and stole any momentum the latter had coming into last season, but once Adam Gase shipped Ajayi to Philadelphia, Kenyan Drake showed that his head coach made the right decision. He had been overshadowed by Ajayi for much of his early career, but Drake was the #8 running back in fantasy over the final five weeks of 2017.
Drake amassed 444 rushing yards during those games, which is on pace for 1,421 yards over a full season (but who knows if he would’ve kept up the pace). This year, his only competition is an aging Frank Gore, brought in mainly for veteran mentorship, and rookie Kalen Ballage, who is probably going to be used more for passing downs. In just a few games, Drake displayed efficiency with speed and power, ranking fourth in yards created per carry (1.98) and seventh in yards per carry overall. No one knows if he can carry the load for a full season, but if he can keep the starting role for 16 games, Drake could be a top-tier fantasy running back.
Marlon Mack (RB48) – The Colts drafted Mack as a speedy, big-play complement to Frank Gore, who promptly left for Miami a year later. Mack sat behind Gore for his rookie year but still impressed in his 30.7% opportunity share. According to PFF, the backup was #1 in breakaway run rate on 93 carries and was also 11th in yards created per carry (1.55 yards).
Mack is a threat in the passing game too: the total air yards on passes his way was -63 yards due to a bevy of screens and dump-offs, yet he had 283 YAC and ended with 225 total receiving yards on just 21 targets. While in college, he forced the most missed tackles of any AAC RB in 2016 and forced nine missed tackles in the NFL last year. Freed from the shadow of Frank Gore, Marlon Mack now has all of the opportunities he needs to break the ankles of defenders across the NFL as well as the hearts of your fantasy opponents.
Tyrell Williams (WR45) – He’s currently listed as WR2 on the Chargers depth chart, but who knows how long Keenan Allen will stay healthy. Williams is 6’4” and runs a 4.48 40 yard dash, and that’s pretty scary. He was #3 in production premium last season (+33.5), #4 in yards per target, and #9 in target separation, so he is certainly a formidable receiver for Philip Rivers to target. Williams only had a 12% target share last season, but without Antonio Gates (for now) and Hunter Henry, that should probably go up.
When Allen was sidelined in 2016, Williams target share was 21.1%, so it reasons that he is Rivers’ second favorite target (behind Allen). 2017 rookie Mike Williams sorely disappointed, and outside of seven-year veteran Travis Benjamin, there are few receiving options for the Chargers. Tyrell Williams signed a 2nd-round tender with Los Angeles this past offseason meaning he is playing in a contract year, which may give him added motivation to burn defenses.
Adam Humphries (WR51) – Am I double dipping on Buccaneers players? You bet your butt I am, but there’s no rule against it. Last year, Humphries was the third best wide receiver in catch percentage (73.49%) and 6th in avg separation. Per airyards.com, he was also seventh in Receiver Air Conversion Ratio (RACR) on receivers with at least 50 targets last year. He recently signed a one-year “prove-it” deal, so similarly to Tyrell Williams, he is in a contract year.
Currently the #3 receiver in a talented but thin Bucs receiving corps, which experiences a big drop-off after Mike Evans, Desean Jackson, and Humphries. Tampa Bay has two talented tight ends, however, so targets could be directed in their favor instead of Humphries. Adam Humphries is a sneaky breakout option who could be a good FLEX play in the aforementioned Jameis Winston can step up his play.
Brice Butler (WR94) – Sure, he’s been in the league for five years now, but it’s better late than never for him to break out. Butler had a +72.4 production premium (albeit on just 23 targets) and a QB rating of 130.0 when targeted last season, even though he was buried on the Dallas depth chart. He will likely be the third target on a Cardinals team with a massive upgrade at QB this offseason, regardless of who is starting Week 1.
I can reasonably assume Larry Fitzgerald will remain primarily in the slot and rookie Christian Kirk switches between the slot and out wide, so 6’3” Butler should have a good amount of deep shots and outside targets. According to airyards.com, he had an above average catch rate on most distances. I like big and fast (4.42) receivers, and Butler easily checks those boxes for me, so I am pretty biased when it comes to his potential. After years spent behind Cowboys stars Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley, Brice Butler has a chance to start on a relatively thin Cardinals roster and show the NFL that he is capable of being a productive fantasy receiver.
George Kittle (TE19) – I guess I like the 49ers’ offense, this being my second choice from San Francisco’s squad. Kittle was the fourth-most targeted player on the 49ers’ roster once Garoppolo took over, behind Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, and Carlos Hyde (now replaced by the aforementioned Jerick McKinnon). With Jimmy G, Kittle had a 1.68 RACR (ranked #3 for TE during that span) and also racked up the most yards after the catch for all tight ends during those weeks. According to playerprofiler.com, he was #14 in target premium in 2017, as well as #10 in catch rate.
The San Francisco offense has a chance to take off this year, and Kittle should be a prime benefactor of a high-flying passing attack. If that wasn’t enough, Kittle is athletic, as evident by his 124.1 SPARQ-x score, (89th percentile) and his 4.52 40 time at 6’4” and 247 lbs. The Gronkowskis and Kelces of the fantasy world dominate the headlines, but George Kittle has a chance to help you dominate your opponents.
Austin Hooper (TE17) – Hooper is entering his third year in the NFL, which is the proverbial “make-or-break” year for most players. In the Falcons’ offense, Hooper has more than enough opportunities to carve out a decent fantasy share and warrant being a starting tight end. Last season, he was sixth in YAC for tight ends last year and ninth in production premium, per playerprofiler.com. Perhaps more impressive is his average target separation of 2.09 yards, ranked second in the league.
The man can get open, all he needs is for Matt Ryan to throw him the ball. Hooper had the third highest target share in the Atlanta offense in 2017, and he could even see an increase now that Levine Toilolo is on the Lions. While the Falcons now have a trio of stellar wide receivers in Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and rookie Calvin Ridley, Matt Ryan should still look to Hooper often to take advantage of the mismatches the 6’4”, 4.72 40-time tight end creates.