Identifying fantasy football sleepers and under-the-radar players is one of the most fun parts of our fake game, but the process has changed over the last few years with so much information now at our disposal.
With a fresh new crop of rookies comes the opportunity to find draft-day bargains. When it comes to dynasty drafts and rookie sleepers for redraft leagues, we have to dig pretty deep. That's why I've embarked on a search for what I like to call “true sleepers” — small school and Day 3 draft picks who could surprise early in the NFL.
In my quest to find the next James Robinson among the 2021 rookie running back class, I first wanted to take a trip down memory lane and call out some of Robinson’s numbers that could have been key indicators of his success at the next level.
First, Robinson’s dominator rating at Illinois State was absurd — 45% for his career. It ticked up as high as 48% during his 2019 season. These are just astronomically high market share numbers compared to anyone else in the 2020-21 draft classes.
Which brings us Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson, who was by far the highest-ranked running back in this class in terms of dominator rating.
Jaret Patterson has sleeper fantasy potential ???? pic.twitter.com/mrxFrIY1OX
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) February 12, 2021
Patterson's 33% career dominator rating still pales in comparison to Robinson’s unreal 45%, but the gap closes when we just look at their final-season ratings: Patterson (43%), Robinson (48%).
This appears to be an important factor when considering late-round and undrafted RBs — they need to have taken over their offenses. Phillip Lindsay earned an extremely high dominator rating (37%) during his last collegiate season before melting faces as an undrafted free agent.
At 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, Patterson is a little smaller than Robinson (5-foot-9, 215 pounds). But both those guys are quite a bit bigger than Lindsay (5-foot-7, 184 pounds). That could help Patterson maintain a role longer in the NFL — Lindsay’s size has limited him as a three-down back in recent seasons despite his above-average efficiency.
Patterson also just plays bigger than his size, breaking tackles and consistently picking up yardage after contact. He finished sixth in total missed tackles forced (47) and eighth in rushing yards after contact per attempt (4.7) last season.
Robinson forced 71 missed tackles (11th) and led the nation in yards after contact per attempt (1,340) in 2019.
Missouri’s Larry Rountree pops off the stat sheet like Patterson due to his insanely productive senior season. He rushed for over 900 yards and 14 touchdowns, earning a 42% dominator rating. That mark was the second-highest among 2021 running back class — no easy feat against SEC defenses.
Roundtree isn’t likely going to blow anybody away with his speed or athleticism, but his steady production early at Missouri can’t be undersold. He rushed for 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore.
His size at 5-foot-10, 216 pounds also suggests he can handle a heavy workload, as he did in college. His 211 carries in 2020 were fourth-most in the nation.
Another candidate who could be this year’s James Robinson — the Ragin’ Cajun himself, Elijah Mitchell. He ranked first in career yards per snap (3.58), second in yards per snap (4.5) in 2020 and sixth in PFF rushing grade (92.8) among the top 22 running backs in this class.
Mitchell has an obvious NFL skill set with a combination of size, speed and explosiveness. If given the opportunity, he could catch on somewhere and be productive just like Robinson.
The 2018 season provides a glimpse of his upside — that's when he was most involved in the passing game. Mitchell caught 20 passes for 349 yards and finished third in yards after the catch per reception (16.1).
His efficiency as a pass-catcher elevated his yards per snap to 4.50, which was the second-highest single-season mark among running backs in the 2021 draft class (Chuba Hubbard: 5.51)
Mitchell’s overall dominator rating is the one key piece missing from his profile that could potentially put him over the top, but that’s because he played alongside other great college backs.
Trey Ragas has been there since Mitchell’s freshman year and has two seasons of 86-plus PFF rushing grades on his resume. Ragas is eligible to be drafted this year and might have his fair share of suitors after finishing third in forced missed tackles per attempt (0.35) in 2020.
Leaders in forced missed tackles per carry in 2020:
???? Javonte Williams (0.48)
Rhamondre Stevenson (0.36)
Trey Ragas (0.35)
Tank Bigsby (0.34)
Frank Gore Jr. (0.34)
Zonovan Knight (0.34)pic.twitter.com/HJgnRnjTzZ
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) February 26, 2021
Like my approach with running backs, I wanted to take a dive back into the prospect profiles of the Day 3 rookie wide receivers who popped last year: Darnell Mooney and Gabriel Davis. What, if anything, stood out?
Mooney not only posted a 33% career dominator rating at Tulane, but he also broke out during his freshman year at age 19. Davis’ 24% career dominator rating was less impressive, but he also posted an early breakout at age 19.
Hitting on these key thresholds is extremely important when drafting in the later rounds, and Cade Johnson checks those boxes.
The South Dakota State Jackrabbit earned a 34% career dominator rating — second-highest among the top 24 wide receivers in the 2021 class behind only Rashod Bateman (35%).
Johnson’s breakout age came a tad later at age 20, but he made it count. As a redshirt sophomore, he caught 67 passes for 1,332 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. That earned a 45% dominator rating, the second-highest among the breakout seasons I sampled in my dominator rating piece.
Johnson also ranked among the top WRs in this year's class with a 91.0 PFF receiving grade (third) and 0.621 EPA/play added when targeted (fourth).
The speedy receiver’s draft stock took a toll after he was unable to play this past fall because the team’s season was canceled. All he could do was attend the Senior Bowl with the hope of increasing his value, and that’s exactly what he did.
Johnson graded out as one of the best receivers in the one-on-one drills and showed how he earned the 2,500-plus receiving yards in his last two full seasons.
We can’t talk about wide receiver sleepers without bringing up Florida State’s 6-foot-4, 210-pound Tamorrion Terry. He's a freaky athlete with size who checks off a lot of boxes when it comes to dominator rating.
His 32% career dominator rating ranks sixth in the draft class, and he broke out at age 20 — his first real season playing college football after redshirting as a freshman.
As a junior, Terry recorded a 36.0% dominator rating on the back of 1,187 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. His upward trajectory plateaued in 2020, but his measurables and the possibility that he could further develop are intriguing.
The Florida State product has been mocked as a fourth-round pick, per GrindingTheMocks.com, which will most likely make him an afterthought in rookie drafts.
But if Mooney and Davis have taught us anything, we want to chase big-play upside with our late-round picks. We find that in players who create chunk gains — Mooney and Terry both averaged over 20 yards per reception in a collegiate season. Davis finished fifth in deep-ball receptions in his final year at UCF.
UCF’s Marlon Williams doesn’t check off either early breakout age (21) or career dominator rating (16%), which is why he finds himself on the honorable mention list. It really wasn’t until former teammate Gabriel Davis graduated that Williams was able to post a 36% dominator rating in 2020 with almost all his production coming from the slot.
He finished second in the nation in receptions (67) and first in yards (999) while playing 95% of his snaps from the slot last year.
Williams also finished second in forced missed tackles after the catch (22), which is a true testament to how he can overpower smaller defensive backs with his 6-foot and 215 pound frame.
Among the top 24 receivers in this class, Williams ranks fifth in career success rate (52%) when targeted and fifth in EPA/play added (0.604) when targeted.
Unfortunately for the projected seventh-round selection, that’s where the accolades stop, as he comes with major concerns due to lack of speed, explosiveness and separation skills.
The 2021 PFF Draft Guide actually suggests that Williams might be better suited to convert to running back. His profile is similar to that of a poor man’s Deebo Samuel or Amari Rodgers — relying on playing from the slot and creating carnage with the ball in their hands.
If you miss out on drafting Rodgers in your rookie draft, Williams could be a nice consolation prize a round or two later.
Stevie Scott III is definitely an under-the-radar prospect to keep tabs on throughout the draft process. His 27% college dominator rating (sixth in the class) stands out, along with his extremely impressive freshman season.
At just 18 years old in 2018, SS3 rushed for 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns. His production continued over the next two years when he earned dominator ratings of 24% and 29%, the latter being his single-season high.
Scott post career-highs in receiving production as a sophomore: 29 targets, 26 catches, 211 receiving yards. He showed the ability to operate as a three-down back at Indiana and has the requisite size — 6-foot-2, 231 pounds — the NFL covets at the running back position.
It also helps Scott’s case that he seemed to have a nose for the end zone. The big back scored 32 touchdowns in three college seasons — eighth-most in the draft class.