2019 Fantasy Football Sleepers: Industry is too low on Lamar Jackson, Kalen Ballage and Tyrell Williams
Heath Cummings unveils 12 early sleepers for the 2019 Fantasy Football season.
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With the popularity of Fantasy Football, the idea of a true sleeper is a little bit silly. If you're paying attention, you probably know of just about every player who might help you win a 12-team league. So I try to take a couple of different approaches to this column. In June, I look at the consensus rankings on Fantasy Pros to tell you who the industry is sleeping on. In July, my 2.0 version will be based on actual ADP, likely from NFFC. Then, late in August, I'll give you a deep sleeper for every team.
For now, let's focus on the guys the industry is way too low on.
Lamar Jackson took over as the starting quarterback for the Ravens in Week 10 last season. From that point forward he was tied with Aaron Rodgers as the No. 12 quarterback in Fantasy on a per-game basis. That's in standard CBS leagues. In leagues that award just four points per passing touchdown, he was even better. That makes it really strange that he doesn't even crack the top 15 in consensus rankings because they're largely based on leagues with that scoring.
It could be because the Ravens have been vocal about Jackson. More passing and less running does not make people enthused about Jackson as a starter. Admittedly, Jackson was a poor passer in 2018. But take a look at these passing numbers for rookies over the past three years:
Jackson's floor may just be better than where the consensus ranking has him, and his ceiling is sky high. I project him for 3,300 passing yards, 700 rushing yards and 25 total touchdowns. That's a startable quarterback in all formats and a borderline difference-maker in four-point per passing touchdown leagues. Not bad for a guy who is basically free on draft day.
Dak Prescott is another quarterback who is being ranked closer to his floor than what we should actually expect from him. Prescott has never finished below 14th at the position, yet is somehow being ranked below that mark now. Prescott's rushing gives him a good floor (at least 282 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns every year of his career) but his upside has been most evident whenever he's had a No. 1 receiver.
In 2016, back when Dez Bryant still was a No. 1, Prescott was a top six quarterback in Fantasy. In 2018, after the team acquired Amari Cooper, Prescott was the No. 10 quarterback in Fantasy. As long as Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott stay healthy, we have no reason to expect anything other than Prescott being a starter in Fantasy in all formats. If you're waiting on quarterback in the draft it's hard to find a better option.
Before we get too far into this, I have a confession to make. I am a Bruce Anderson truther. I believe the undrafted rookie may just be the best running back in Tampa Bay. If I had any courage, he'd be here in Peyton Barber's place. But I'm going to save Anderson for the deep sleeper article. Besides, we need to highlight how silly Barber's ranking is.
The starting running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is currently ranked eight spots behind the backup running back, Ronald Jones. Yes, that Ronald Jones. I've softened my stance on Jones, and there has been some positive buzz, but by far the most likely outcome is that Barber is starting Week 1 for a Bruce Arians offense. Does that mean you'll want to start him at running back in Fantasy? Probably not, but he'll be a very solid flex.
I expect the efficiency of the running game will improve under Arians and the backs will be more involved in the passing game. There may not be anyone who holds onto this job all season and it may not be a feature role, but Barber's consensus ranking makes him look like a handcuff and makes him a bargain for the 15-20 touches per game you'll get at the start of the year.
Ballage has only Drake ahead of him in Miami, and if you listen to new coach Brian Flores, it's not even clear Ballage is behind. This is a competition heading into camp with multiple possible outcomes. The most likely may be that Drake wins a feature role, but that's also the only outcome that makes Ballage a bad pick at this ranking. If all he does is earn the Frank Gore role from 2018, you've stolen a flex. If he wins the job outright? You may have just won your league.
The Raiders drafted Josh Jacobs in the first round and all of a sudden it's like Jalen Richard doesn't exist anymore. I don't believe the Raiders feel the same way. Marshawn Lynch and Isaiah Crowell averaged 17 touches per game in 2018, and Richard still earned 81 targets and ranked as a top-30 back in PPR. And that was with some pretty unfortunate touchdown luck (123 touches, 866 yards, one score).
Richard will still be involved in the passing game as Derek Carr's safety valve. He doesn't have the upside to draft as high as he'll finish in PPR, but the consensus ranks suggest you won't have to.
His name is Alexander Mattison, and there's a million things he hasn't done. But just you wait.
In all seriousness, Mattison has done plenty; he just did it at Boise State where few people noticed. In his senior year, he ran for 1,415 yards and 17 touchdowns. Watching him on film, the immediate sense you get is this is a dude that goes forward. Before and after contact, which is a desirable trait if the Vikings plan to use Mattison as they've used Latavius Murray the past two years.
Mike Zimmer made it clear last year he wants to run the ball, and the team was almost 50-50 run-pass after they fired Jon DeFilippo. That type of split leaves plenty of room for a Dalvin Cook breakout and 8-to-12 touches a game for Mattison. If those touches include the short yardage work, Mattison could approach the seven touchdowns Murray averaged in Minnesota. And if Cook gets hurt, you may have a league-winner.
With the addition of Antonio Brown, it makes sense that people are sleeping on Tyrell Williams. It's also a mistake. The Raiders have 361 targets to replace from last year's team, and the lion's share of those should go to Brown and Williams. We've only seen Williams receive more than 100 targets once in his career, in 2016 when he caught 69 passes for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns.
I've projected Williams for 108 targets this season (120 is well within range) at 8.9 yards per target, and it might be conservative. That's the same average he posted in 2016 but nearly a full yard below his career average. It also puts him in line for 961 yards. He's scored once every 15 targets in his career, which would set an expectation of seven touchdowns this year. If you want to drop that one due to Derek Carr, you're still looking at a high-end No. 3 receiver with upside.
I can only assume Williams' consensus rank is going to climb as we get closer to the start of the season.
We don't know exactly what this Dolphins offense will look like, but we do know it will be influenced by what the Patriots ran in New England. That offense leans heavily on the slot receiver, and Albert Wilson is the best slot receiver on the roster. While the Dolphins have indicated all of the receivers will move around, I'd expect Wilson will spend more time inside than anyone else.
It's quite possible if Wilson hadn't gotten hurt last year, his sleeper appeal would have expired. In the six games before he was injured he caught 23 passes for 359 yards and four touchdowns. His 72% catch rate combined with an average of 15.6 yards per reception was already earning him more targets. If WIlson can make that type of impression on his new coaching staff and quarterbacks, he could be an enormous value on draft day.
A month ago I may have put Marqise Lee in this spot. But Lee still isn't all the way back from the gruesome injury he suffered in 2018, which should open the door for Keelan Cole. Truth be told, this offense doesn't yet have a No. 1 receiver, and it didn't much matter when Nathaniel Hackett was running the offense and Blake Bortles was throwing passes. But I expect a new look with DeFilippo and Nick Foles in town.
Dede Westbrook should lead this offense in targets, and Cole is an excellent complement. In his rookie season he averaged 17.8 yards per catch. He can stretch the field while Westbrook works the middle. There's plenty of bounce-back appeal here for Cole in an offense I expect to be slightly more pass-happy.
One other name to pay attention to in Jacksonville is D.J. Chark. He has plenty of upside, and I'll start drafting him if he earns buzz at camp. He may even join Anderson in the deep sleepers piece.
If you really like Lamar Jackson in Fantasy, and he's really not going to run as much, you're going to find one of his receivers a value. That's because none of them are being drafted. And you might as well start with the guy they took in the first round.
In theory, Marquise Brown is the perfect fit for Jackson. He doesn't necessarily have to have high volume because of his big-play ability. He also has the speed to create enough separation for Jackson to feel comfortable throwing him the ball. I expect the Ravens to be creative with their first-round pick and use him in a variety of ways. If Jackson improves as much as some recent sophomore quarterbacks, Brown could be an absolute star.
He just has to get healthy first.
Once you get past the top six or seven tight ends on draft day, you can forget about any semblance of feeling good about your pick. You're either taking an old tight end who looked awful last year, a young tight end who has never done anything or a boring tight end who you'll instantly regret. Or you could just take Jordan Reed.
Yes, I know Reed is injury-prone and almost certainly won't play 16 games. I don't care at the end of the draft. You're basically streaming anyway, so why not draft someone who can be great until he gets hurt?
Reed, in a down year, scored double-digit PPR Fantasy points in more than half of the games he started and finished. He was one of the best tight ends in Fantasy on a per game basis in 2015 and 2016. Coach Jay Gruden says Reed is healthy, and Washington doesn't have a receiver on the roster that would make you worry about targets.
I understand not paying up for Reed's upside, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a better late-round draft pick.
Will Dissly is still recovering from his knee injury, but all signs point to him being ready for Week 1. So it might be a good time to remind you what he did in Week 1 last year: three catches, 105 yards, one touchdown. The following week he caught another three passes for 42 yards and another score. Two weeks later he was out for the season. While he won't repeat those numbers, it's worth noting Dissly was third on the team in targets through three weeks. He was also second on the team in receiving yards.
With Doug Baldwin gone, there is an opening for targets, especially in the red zone. As long as Dissly is a full-go by the third preseason game, he'll be one of my favorite late-round tight end targets.
So what sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which RB2 can you wait on until late? Visit SportsLine now to get 2019 Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that called Andrew Luck's huge season, and find out.
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