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This article is about a 13-minute read.
A big part of a successful draft is finding players after Round 10 who will surprise. The quest for deep sleepers is one all fantasy players undertake. We asked our staffers for help finding them. To focus our search, we will go through each division. Today, the NFC North.
And to clarify, by Deep Sleeper, we are talking about players who generally not drafted in the first 10 rounds.
By my count, I see five Lions, four Vikings, three Bears, and three Packers who are generally taken in the first 10 rounds, so Chicago and Green Bay are my first thought to look for value. Given the uncertainty on the depth chart for WR2 for both teams, I decided to look at it from a different perspective - by position. Seven running backs, six wide receivers, two quarterbacks, and most telling for me, no tight ends.
T.J. Hockenson is my guy from this group, by far. He is the best tight end in the division and as our Jason Wood broke down earlier this summer, he is a sleeper TE1 candidate that could be poised for a breakout. While there is great debate about grabbing a tight end early this year, by sheer numbers only four teams are going to have a Top 4 tight end after the first five rounds or so in drafts this season. Finding value tight ends, especially later in drafts, can make or break your starting lineup. Hockenson is my pick here.
I love Hockenson and agree that's the best answer.
However, to add some variety and a viable candidate next in line for me, it's easily Packers running back A.J. Dillon. As good as Aaron Jones is as a player, he had a career year in 2019 and the Packers followed up by drafting Dillon in the second round.
NFL teams don't draft a running back this early and reward a back like Jones a new deal. As slippery of a runner as Jones is as a runner between the tackles, last year was Jones' first complete season without missing time due to injury.
The Packers want a back who can handle a high volume of touches and Dillon is that workhorse. Here's what I shared with 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio subscribers about running back workloads:
Lance Zierlein reports at NFL.com that scouts are concerned about Dillon's odometer after earning 866 touches in 35 games during his three-year career at Boston College. Other than missing three weeks in 2018 with an ankle injury, Dillon has remained healthy despite averaging 24.7 touches per game during his career.
Every few years, there's a prospect where someone is questioning if his college workload has worn him down. My contention is that unless there are physical signs of breakdown--a major injury, a chronic injury, or a slew of minor-to moderate injuries that aren't related--a back that excels with a heavy workload is a significant asset.
Unless the NFL is aware of something in Dillon's medical records that haven't' been made public, his workload should be a massive positive. I've highlighted this before in past RSP publications.
When examining the attempts leaders in college football from 2000-2012, 50 percent of the backs that earned a shot in the NFL delivered at least one season with a minimum of 975 yards--and 50 percent of these qualifiers made multiple Pro Bowls, including Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, and Ladainian Tomlinson.
Although I haven't examined this for several years, LeVeon Bell (2012), Jay Ajayi (2014), Derrick Henry (2015), and Phillip Lindsay (2017) are four of the seven qualifiers (the rest Montee Ball, Devin Singletary, and Donnel Humphrey) with NFL experience that earned at least 975 yards. All four of these qualifiers earned a Pro-Bowl appearance.
Of these four backs, only Ajay was an injury concern, and it had to do with a knee issue that wasn't due to college injuries.
When examining players who earned at least 700 carries during their college football careers, we see a list of players who had long and productive careers in the NFL. Here is the list and their total rushing attempts as collegians:
- Cedric Benson (1,112)
- DeAngelo Williams (969)
- Michael Turner (940)
- Benjarvus Green-Ellis (920)
- Mewelde Moore (910)
- Ray Rice (910)
- Bobby Rainey (895)
- Matt Forte (833)
- Darren Sproles (815)
- Jacquizz Rodgers (788)
- Darren McFadden (785)
- Kareem Hunt (782)
- Demarco Murray (747)
- Steven Jackson 743)
Dillon has better agility than characterized, he has the burst to reach the perimeter, and he's an excellent pass protector who should thrive as a blocker in the NFL once he acclimates to the variety of fronts and assignments that made the pro game more challenging.
Expect Dillon to cut into Jones' red-zone touches this year. Even if Dillon wasn't a Packer, expecting Jones to come close to repeating his 16-touchdown season from 2019 would be unrealistic.
I have Jones earning 45 percent of the backfield's carries in 2020 and Dillon at 28 percent. However, I have Dillon and Jones splitting rushing touchdowns equally and near-equal split three ways between Dillon, Jones, and Jamaal Williams for targets.
I'm projecting low-end fantasy RB3 production for Dillon this year and like Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins, Dillon could have a stretch of RB1 weeks after midseason that gives him a league-winning potential.
I have to admit that Dillon is also a very solid pick, Matt. Nice call. I have similar positive outlooks for Dillon in Green Bay.
I agree with Matt and Jeff on AJ Dillon. He is going off the board 50+ picks later than any of the other second-round rookie running backs. Even simply as an injury handcuff to Aaron Jones, he is worth selecting at ADP. When you factor in he has upside even without a Jones injury, he makes for a great target.
At tight end, I prefer Irv Smith over T.J. Hockenson at their current ADPs. Both had similar rookie seasons and project for similar roles in their teams' passing attacks. Plus, Hockenson is coming off of a major ankle injury and may not be 100% entering camp. With Smith going off the board about 60 picks later than Hockenson, I will take that discount on a player who I believe has similar upside.
Smith is my preferred player here. In my recent Upside Only article on selecting late-round tight ends, I wrote the following about Smith:
Smith runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and caught 44 passes with 7 touchdowns on a 2018 Alabama team where he shared targets with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. With Stefon Diggs gone and Kyle Rudolph aging, Smith has a chance to see a significant increase in targets.
Now imagine Smith, two years further developed, on a team with only Adam Thielen and a breaking-down Kyle Rudolph as proven pass-catching competition. Smith could approach 60 receptions and half a dozen touchdowns, which would have been good enough for top-10 status at tight end last season.
I'm biased, having written the T.J. Hockenson Player Spotlight, and making the case for him ascending to TE1 status this year, most likely. But I love the choice of Irv Smith as a deeper sleeper you can draft for free even in deep leagues at the tail end of your draft plans. Smith has the two-way pedigree to be on the field at all times, and was it not for the annoying longevity of Kyle Rudolph, Smith would already be on the fantasy radar. As Ryan noted, even with Rudolph hanging onto a roster spot, the team traded away Stefon Diggs and rookie Justin Jefferson has to deal with the pandemic and will assuredly not be fully-formed as a contributor for weeks into the season, if not longer.
This feels like the perfect topic and venue to make a soapbox pitch for Ryan Nall in Chicago. The running back room is not crowded for the Bears with David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen, and Ryan Nall. If Montgomery were to miss time, Nall is the lone bigger body on the depth chart and has enough movement and receiving game chops to be a higher workload option. Cohen would absolutely be involved but could see him sticking more in the 1B role for carries if Montgomery is out more than becoming a 20-touch player. Nall is a deep league special more than 'target him in Round 13-15 of stock formats' but becomes a viable injury-away speculation play if the Bears depth chart does not see an addition before Week 1.
I appreciate Chad's mention of Nall because he's an excellent receiver who played a bit of H-Back at Oregon State. He's sudden enough with his footwork to do effective work from shotgun despite is size. While I suspect the Bears will acquire a veteran if Montgomery gets hurt, Nall has shown some of his skills on the field during his past two years in the NFL. He's a fun option worth knowing about.
I think Hockenson is a great pick. It seems like there is a decent amount of buzz about him but he can still be found in TE2 territory and that's a great gamble to make.
But since we are all in agreement on Hockenson, I want to bring up Allen Lazard here. Since Aaron Rodgers finished with 26 touchdown passes in 2019 while Aaron Jones had 16 rushing scores it is easy to think the Packers didn't throw the ball as much last year. But they were still 8th in the league with 569 attempts, and Rodgers was in the top ten for touchdown passes despite the 4.6% touchdown rate.
Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdez-Scantling were the hot names last summer to take over the number two role behind Davante Adams, but that situation has changed dramatically. Lazard got into a game for meaningful snaps in Week 6, but his role took off in Week 7. At the time he garnered high praise from Rodgers, and his role continued to expand at the expense of the other receivers on the roster. Now, Allison has moved on to Detroit, taking the second-most snaps on the team and 56 targets with him, and Valdez-Scantling took a clear backseat by the end of 2019.
Lately, there are even more stories about Rodgers and his relationship with Lazard growing. It looks as though the quarterback will lobby for Lazard to get the #2 spot for 2020 with no meaningful addition of a receiver in the draft. Obviously Devin Funchess was expected to challenge for playing time, but his opt-out leaves the path clear for Lazard to take the next step. He averaged 4.7 targets per game despite fighting with Allison to grab the role for himself. If he establishes himself then there is a path to 100-110 targets on a team bereft of pass-catching options. I'm keeping my eye on Lazard leading up to drafts.
I am here with Matt, Jeff, and Dan sharing the love of A.J. Dillon. Dillon is a physical phenom. In any week Aaron Jones misses a game, Dillon is a top 18 weekly play. Dillon is the ultimate asymmetric bet as there is little risk stashing him on your bench while he produces league winning upside.
Chicago also has a prominent member of Team Big Running Back in Ryan Nall. At the combine, Nall had a 105 speed score and a 6.95 3-cone drill at 232 pounds. After entering college as a hybrid type player, he transitioned to running back in his sophomore and junior seasons and caught 49 passes in 21 games. That combination of size, athleticism, and receiving production is rare and could be fantasy viable if the athletically inferior starter David Montgomery misses time.
I also like Hockenson. He is part of a core of tight ends I'd feel comfortable with in the middle rounds of drafts so I can feel comfortable waiting on the position.
Hockenson has the most upside of any NFC North player going outside the first ten rounds. He missed four games last year and still led all rookie tight ends with a 14% team target share. There is room for Hockenson's role to expand, and not just because he should be healthier this year. Offensive coordinator Darrel Bevel sounds excited to get Hockenson more involved in the passing game, Danny Amendola's role as the No. 3 option in the passing game is tenuous, and Logan Thomas' departure is going overlooked.
Thomas exceeded 20% of the team's offensive snaps in eight out of the 12 games Hockenson was active. He was also targeted seven times inside the red zone, which matched Hockenson's total. Absorbing those snaps and scoring chances are all Hockenson needs to challenge the top-10 tight ends. And if he has grown into his paws, top-5 isn't out of the question.
There is value everywhere in this division.
- In Minnesota, I could write about Kirk Cousins, Irv Smith, and Olabisi Johnson
- In Chicago, cases can be made for Ryan Nall, Anthony Miller, and Jimmy Graham
- Detroit has T.J. Hockenson
- In Green Bay, we have A.J. Dillon
The name I landed on was the very first one mentioned, Kirk Cousins.
Cousins attempted 160 fewer passes from 2018 to 2019 and saw his lowest career passing yardage as a full-time starter. He also lost Stefon Diggs and it was the least productive year as a rusher for Cousins. Why then should there be optimism in 2020?
For a start missing one game, the meaningless finale of the season had a devastating effect on his end of year numbers. An average game sees him finish as a borderline QB1 despite all the relatively low numbers. Minnesota was able to dictate the offense through the run game relentlessly last year and even a slight move towards the passing game boosts his numbers significantly. The addition of Justin Jefferson in the draft and further development of Olabisi Johnson and Irv Smith should all help make a more balanced offense and push Cousins back toward being a low-end QB1. We have to remember he was a top 10 quarterback for four straight years and just re-signed with the team. I’d rather the odds that 2019 was the outlier and not the four years before.
You guys have provided some super answers. I'd like to summarize my thoughts on four players that fit the category of sleeper in the NFC North.
- T.J. Hockenson - He appears to be a popular pick here. The Lions offense is blooming, he is clearly the main tight end threat on a team that primarily uses one tight end. He has the talent to be outstanding. Perhaps that path to greatness starts in 2020. I like this call.
- Irv Smith - I love the player, but I'm concerned a little about the offense using more 12-personnel where Kyle Rudolph is also in the fold. Perhaps the addition of Gary Kubiak at offensive coordinator will result in more 11-personnel with one tight end, but the presence of both has me less excited about Irv Smith this year.
- Jace Sternberger - Boy, the NFC North does have plenty of young emerging tight ends. It seems clear the Green Bay will trot Sternberger out as their primary tight end in 2020, but will Aaron Rodgers target him? Historically, that has not been the case with Rodgers and tight ends. Since 2010 the Packers have thrown 330 touchdown passes. 53 went to tight ends, while 244 were thrown to wide receivers. In all, only 16% of all touchdown passes went to the tight end position. That's my biggest concern.
- A.J. Dillon - I'm excited about the power and drive that A.J. Dillon brings to the league. He is a monster on the field at 6'0, 247 pounds. He's not far off from Derrick Henry, and I've seen Dillon make Henry-like moves. The concern is the level of involvement he'll have in 2020. He may get some stray goal-line touchdowns because Green Bay will want to capitalize on his size and power, but is he ready for full-time duty? Not with Aaron Jones still in the mix. In order for Dillon to become a weekly start, Jones will need to be out of the picture and we can't count on that.
I share the same enthusiasm for T.J. Hockenson as everyone above. He has the elite prospect profile and, due to a steep learning curve for rookie tight ends and injury, he fell short of expectations. That isn't much of a surprise, but it should quell our enthusiasm for his prospects going forward. He's one of my most owned players so far in this drafting season.
I also share the same love for A.J. Dillon. I think he's unfairly profiled as a straight line, size/speed freak, who is limited to early-down work only. I may be in the minority, but I think he offers plenty of upside in the passing game as well, but I don't think he will kick Jamaal Williams to the side that easily given Williams' strengths in that aspect of the game. Dillon is super athletic and could potentially be their lead back as early as 2021, but for redraft considerations, I think he has the potential to carry the ball 100 times and steal 50% of the goal line work to provide a nice late-round addition with RB1/RB2 upside if Aaron Jones is sidelined for any reason.
Since those two were already covered, I didn't want to add my $0.02 worth without bringing my own player to the table. I don't think anyone mentioned Anthony Miller yet. The underwhelming Bears offense last year was largely sunk by poor play from Mitch Trubisky. Miller has fought his own demons with nagging injuries, but his game is like a rose that takes time to blossom. The Bears lost a lot of targets in the offseason with the departure of Taylor Gabriel, and I'm not sure I could or should expect Allen Robinson to have another season commanding 153 targets. Not as long as Miller is healthy. I don't anticipate Jimmy Graham being a big hurdle for Miller (as the clear-cut WR2) to see a healthy increase in targets. Miller caught 36 passes in the second half last year and based on the explosiveness and big-play ability he showed as a rookie and in college, I expect positive touchdown regression. Our current projections for Miller err on the safe side, but I believe it's well within his range of outcomes to finish as high as 70 catches, 900 yards, and 6 or 7 touchdowns. He's a nice bargain based on where he's available in drafts this summer.
Anthony Miller is my guy here, entering his third season, the Chicago receiver was much like the Bears offense in general last season which was inconsistent. 614 of his 656 yards last season came in 8 games averaging 77 yards per game during that time which is outstanding for a wide receiver being drafted as low as he is. The problem is that he averaged just 5 yards in his other 8 games last season. With Nick Foles having the leg up on Mitchell Trubisky expect the quarterback play to improve which will only help Miller and if he can find consistency for where he is being drafted he could be an outstanding sleeper this year especially as the aforementioned Taylor Gabriel departing the team.