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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 South.
And to clarify, by Deep Sleeper, we are talking about players who generally not drafted in the first 10 rounds.
With both Tampa Bay and New Orleans with six players each and the Falcons with five in the Top 120, this comes down to digging through the Panthers' depth chart. Several candidates emerge, all tied to the Carolina passing game - quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, wide receivers Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel, and tight end Ian Thomas. All have legitimate claims to the top NFC South Sleeper title, but I tend to lean toward Robby Anderson, who I mentioned earlier this summer in the Top WR on a New Team article:
My pick for this category is Anderson, who moves from the Jets to Carolina this year. Anderson could arguably be considered rather undervalued right now, for two main reasons. First, he reunites with his former coach Matt Rhule, and second is that he signed a starter-type contract ($20M over two years). Anderson averaged over 750 yards and six scores over the past three seasons, putting him in the Top 36 at wide receiver. As long as Anderson sees starter snaps and is a part of the new passing game, he should push again for fantasy WR3 numbers, making him a solid value pickup at his current ranking outside of the Top 40-50 wide receivers.
Both Ian Thomas and Teddy Bridgewater are close second and third place votes for me, but Anderson is the best value with a bigger relative upside, especially if the passing game falls into place for the Panthers.
I will go with Russell Gage. He was second (with 12) on the team in redzone targets, only behind the now-departed Austin Hooper (18). Gage is a solid receiver who will benefit if either Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley misses time.
In those four starts, Gage had 33 targets. Interestingly, two of those games were against Tampa Bay. In those two contests, Gage had 23 combined targets, 15 receptions, and 144 yards.
Still just 24 years of age, Gage is still growing and maturing as a receiver after only having 26 career collegiate receptions at LSU.
I'm going with Falcons running back Qadree Ollison. He will enter year-two third on the depth chart behind Todd Gurley and Ito Smith. If Gurley struggles or is forced to miss time, Ollison not Smith may be the better replacement. As a rookie, Ollison scored four short touchdowns on five attempts all inside the three-yard line. If Gurley does need to be replaced, Ollison has a chance to be the one who can become fantasy-relevant. As a senior at Pitt Ollison averaged 6.3 yards-per-carry and gained 1,213 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. He has the size and build to be an effective goal-line threat at the very least.
How deep are you both drafting here, guys?
All those players feel like waiver wire shots in the dark that are going to be in the free-agent pool well after Week 1.
Part of the reason I emphasized Carolina here is that you can get a player in a starting role in Rounds 11+ while the players you mention are all at least one injury away from a prominent role.
While I like the Ollison pick and Haseley knows why. I will roll with a player with a draftable ADP: OJ Howard.
Howard scared me a bit before the draft as a potential underachiever, but the scheme, surrounding talent, and his individual talent are all factors that make him a potential top-12 fantasy tight end even with Rob Gronkowski in the fold.
Curtis Samuel. Playing with the highly inaccurate Kyle Allen, Samuel was able to establish career highs in targets, catches, and yards while matching his high of 7 touchdowns. He has improved in each of his first three seasons and gets the benefit of improved quarterback play in 2020.
Pasquino has it right, it's Robby Anderson. Anderson gives the Panthers an added dimension that neither D.J. Moore nor Curtis Samuel can, and while they all have to acclimate to Joe Brady's system, Anderson comes aboard with a deep connection to head coach Matt Rhule. Anderson was basically out of football until Rhule gave him another chance and pushed him into his breakout season at Temple, which led to the NFL. Anderson says Rhule is like a father to him, and you can be sure he'll play harder for Rhule than he ever did in New York. Anderson will have 700-800 yards and 5+ touchdowns if he stays healthy, and he'll outperform everyone on the roster aside from Moore.
Curtis Samuel was ninth in air yards in 2019 with 1,608 which was good for ninth among wide receivers. He converted that into only 627 receiving yards, a nearly impossible feat. Seven of the eight wide receivers above him in air yards finished as top 24 seasonal finishers. Of the 23 wide receivers with more than 1,300 air yards, only Samuel and Robby Anderson finished with fewer than 1,000 yards. Samuel’s role as a high volume threat down the field is potentially lucrative and 2019 was almost certainly on the bad side of variance. There are questions for sure, including whether Teddy Bridgewater can elevate his play, but Samuel is well outside the top 150 in ADP with a proven ability to draw significant opportunities. If he can cash in more of those opportunities in 2020, he has the opportunity to outperform ADP.
I love Robby Anderson in theory. In practice, I have yet to see Teddy Bridgewater deliver on the targets where Anderson made his game Pro-Bowl caliber.
Unless Bridgewater improves the weakest part of his game, the Panthers are successful incorporating long-developing deep crossers as a consistent and unstoppable pattern, or Will Grier or Phillip Walker overtake Bridgewater with great success, I don’t like Anderson’s upside.
Anderson and Samuel are both viable picks here, but they're going to cannibalize each other's value. And as Matt points out, Anderson's talents don't align with the tendencies his quarterback has shown. So instead of deciding between which Carolina receiver to select here, the answer is to select the man throwing the ball to them (and to D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey as well).
Bridgewater is a high upside dart throw due to his weapons, his aggressive pass-first coaching staff, and his team's defense (which shall afford him many opportunities to play in high-scoring games if Bridgewater and the offense can keep up their end of the bargain). The article linked above is the 2020 version of the 2019 article that identified Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Dak Prescott as late-round high-upside quarterback selections.
This is one of the tougher divisions to pick a true sleeper considering the options available. I agree with Matt on O.J. Howard. Stacking up the Tampa Bay offensive talent, there is a hole at WR3 (pending the development of strong metric prospect Tyler Johnson, but Day 3), and the team is loaded at tight end. Howard has shown big-play ability and highlight ball skills down the seam in his opening years but strong volume has not been unlocked for the former Round 1 selection yet. Even as a secondary option in the offense, I can see Howard as a streamer and a potential flex option. Also, what if Rob Gronkowski turns into more of a blocker than a receiver, or has lost a step, or misses time? Howard can rise into a more prominent fantasy outlook.
I'd love to see some commentary on one of the really good, sleeper tight ends in Ian Thomas. I was close to calling him my sleeper as well. Here was my commentary on him earlier this year:
Thomas inherits the starting role at tight end for the Panthers this season as veteran Greg Olsen has moved on to Seattle. Thomas had limited opportunities behind Olsen in his first two seasons, but he played more during the final five games last year in Carolina, turning 26 targets into a respectable 15-132-1 stat line. Projecting that over 16 games gives 48-442-3, which is nearly identical to the staff projections - but this likely represents the floor for Thomas rather than his upside. Thomas was only on the field for 50% of the snaps in three of those same five games last year, and in the two games he played 60+ snaps he racked up nine receptions and 80 of those yards along with his only touchdown. Carolina’s offense is changing now with Teddy Bridgewater and new wide receivers, so the number of targets Thomas will see each contest may vary widely, but he certainly represents a solid fantasy TE2 with upside if he flourishes in the new scheme.
I agree with Thomas from the perspectives of athleticism and a perceived increased role with Olsen gone. But with Moore and Samuel emerging last year, McCaffrey a mortal lock for at least 100 targets (averaged 134 the past two seasons), and Anderson in town, can we really project Thomas to step in and get all of Olsen's targets from 2019?
When an offense has multiple viable targets whose shares are hard to project, that can be an indicator to look at the quarterback instead of attempting to crack the code of the target share.
Ryan, a longtime friend of Footballguys, Rumford Johnny, aptly refers to the strategy you're describing as "taking the syrup over the pancakes". It's been a good rule of thumb over the years, and I agree Bridgewater has a path to a QB1 season. His short and intermediate accuracy dovetails nicely with the after-the-catch ability of McCaffrey, Moore, and Samuel. And as you said, it seems a foregone conclusion their defense is going to land them in plenty of NFC South shootouts.
I've had Thomas on the late-round tight end breakout list for the last two years running. I see him commanding 80-90 targets in his first season out from behind Greg Olsen's shadow, which is enough volume for an athlete of Thomas' pedigree to crack the top-12 at the position. There's upside too if he earns Bridgewater's trust in the red-zone. Moore, Samuel, and Anderson aren't exactly built to highpoint end-zone throws like Thomas, who goes 6'4", 260 lbs., with an explosive 36" vertical jump.
As others have said, this division either has studs or afterthoughts. Very few players from this division are worth drafting that would be considered a normal sleeper. I can only see five in Robby Anderson, Ian Thomas, O.J. Howard, Teddy Bridgewater, and Curtis Samuel. My favorite in this group is Ian Thomas.
After coming to the attention of fantasy managers during the absence of Greg Olsen in 2018, Thomas played well in his rookie season and some of us had high expectations heading into 2019. That didn’t end well, but by some strange coincidence, he started seeing the ball in the final five weeks of the season in both years. A new coaching group and a new quarterback create some doubt about where Thomas projects, but sometimes it takes a while for tight ends to become all-round threats in the NFL. At the moment, he has upside to take late in drafts and is an easy cut should he be overlooked early again.
I'm on board the optimistic outlook for the Panthers for fantasy purposes, but I can't extend that to Samuel and Anderson individually. When doing my rankings I couldn't find a way to project either one for a significant role over the other. I came to the exact conclusion Ryan did, namely, that I think they're going to eat into each other's opportunities enough that I'm not going to want to have either guy. I say this, also, as a guy who has been a huge Anderson fan in the past. I want to like him but I'm worried about him switching teams, quarterbacks, and competing with the talent there for touches.
Instead, I'm going to throw a second vote at Russell Gage. After Mohamed Sanu was traded last year Gage averaged 7.3 targets per game, a full-season pace of 116 targets. Now, some of those games were without Calvin Ridley, and a couple without Austin Hooper, so expecting 116 isn't realistic. However, it shows that if an injury occurs he is more than capable of picking up the slack and being a solid option. And injury aside, Gage is playing on a truly pass-happy offense and has plenty of time in the system. That can't be said for Hayden Hurst who likely won't command the same looks Hooper did in 2019. I think it's possible Gage earns 100+ targets, with the potential for so much more in a high volume offense if there is an injury ahead of him.
I struggle to see the value of taking Gage as a solid sleeper pick with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Todd Gurley and likely Hayden Hurst all getting more attention from Matt Ryan. At best that leaves Gage fifth in the target pecking order.
For Carolina, someone is going to be third in targets after D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey. I'm willing to go out there and say it will be Anderson, with Ian Thomas and Curtis Samuel fighting for the 4th / 5th spots.
I'll take a player with the third-most targets on the team over a fifth-most at best.
It's a limited field here. As others pointed out, by virtue of filtering out nearly all of the viable Saints and Falcons, there are only a handful of players that are both draft worthy and not in the Top 150. In descending order of projected points, they are Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson, and O.J. Howard.
Of those, I'm interested in Samuel the most. I believe his game and overall skill set is a better match for Teddy Bridgewater's game and style. Robby Anderson may have a leg up with experience in Matt Rhule's offense from college, but I like Samuel's versatility as a receiver and runner and I believe he could be a nice post-hype "sleeper" after disappointing in 2019. I still view Samuel as an ascending player. The new offense and Bridgewater should help Samuel get more touches with a higher degree of variety or creativity perhaps.
I like that Samuel is productive in the red zone. With back-to-back seasons scoring seven times while his touches have gradually increased, I don't see him as a regression candidate to score less. Christian McCaffrey will probably have a difficult time staving off regression in that area, but some of that could be a gain for Samuel and others.
The poor quarterback play inevitably hurt Samuel as it did the entire Panthers offense. I believe we'll see an improved catch rate and probably even a few more targets above the 107 he warranted last year. Add in the probability that Samuel can also contribute as a runner (13 of his 19 carries came in the last 8 games in 2019) and he's scored 3 touchdowns in that capacity the last two years.
With a modest increase in touches (25 carries and 60 receptions) offset by a slight decrease in touchdowns (6), I have him projected for 880 total yards and in PPR formats around WR42. Keep in mind he finished WR42 and WR35 in 2018 and 2019. At this point in the draft, you want to target players with upside over steady contributors. In my view, Samuel's floor is much safer than Robby Anderson's, or many others on the board, but his upside remains to be seen. Any regression for receptions or touchdowns for McCaffrey could easily be Samuel's gain. Don't let whatever bad taste you have in your mouth based on last year's expectations blind you to what a good overall football player that Curtis Samuel is and I think he's still finding his groove.
I'll gladly add him as my WR5 or WR6 (depending on how the draft goes ahead of this point) all day long and six times on Sunday.
I agree with David that Curtis Samuel is my favorite deep sleeper of this group as he is a young speedy receiver who played running back at Ohio State and is still learning the position so if there is a player to grow into an opportunity and role it should be Samuel. With an improvement at the quarterback position, Samuel should have the opportunity to see 800+ yards this year especially if the team dials back Christian McCaffrey's workload in the receiving game a little bit.