Late-Season Bloomers: WRs

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One good way to identify potential sleepers is to take a closer look at the late-season game-by-game stats. Oftentimes a player will make a splash, major or minor, in the final few weeks of the season and then take that momentum into the following year. Sometimes this is a product of an injury to a player ahead of him on the depth chart, and sometimes a team is just ready to give him an opportunity for one reason or another.

I’m working on a larger targets study, but thought it would be useful to parse out fantasy points per game and targets per game for the final six weeks (L6) of the season and compare it to the first 11 weeks (F11). Why choose the final six games? Well, everyone is past their byes at that point and the sample size is not too small nor too large.

In the table below, you’ll find the 25 WRs who saw their fantasy points per game (in PPR formats) increase the most from W1-W11 when compared to W12-W17.

A few random thoughts:

— There he is at #1: Jerome Simpson. He was all set to be a hot middle round sleeper in fantasy drafts, but the Bengals’ decision to draft A.J. Green, coupled with Carson Palmer’s threats of early retirement have put a huge dent in his stock. He’s still a tantalizing young talent, but instead of being a WR1 with a decent QB throwing to him, he’s looking at WR2 targets from rookie Andy Dalton. He’s worth a flier in the later rounds, but he’s no longer a middle round talent.

— What’s lost in all the Greg Little talk is that Brian Robiskie turned in some solid play over the last six weeks with 20 catches and three TDs during that span.

— Pierre Garcon’s game really took off at the end of the season. He racked up 34-378-5 over the L6 games. Moreover, his reception rate (percentage of targets that he converted into catches) went from 48.5% in the F11 to 69.4% in the L6. Considering his Rec% was 51.1 in 2009, it’s not clear if the light truly went on or if he just had a hot streak. Either way, he’s a player to consider in the middle rounds since he has (the injury-prone?) Austin Collie ahead of him.

— Jason Hill posted 10-233-1 over the final four games for the Jaguars. He had 13 targets over the final two games and is primed to become Jacksonville’s WR2 since the team just re-signed the 26-year-old to a two year deal. Hill is a burner who ran a 4.32 40-yard dash and my combine comparison spreadsheet says he most resembles Johnny Knox, Devin Aromashodu and Pierre Garcon in terms of build and athletic ability. The Jags are a run-oriented team, but there aren’t too many WR2’s with his upside available in the 16th round.

— Deion Branch is currently being drafted WR40 after finishing 2010 at WR31. Plus, he was traded midseason so we have to account for his depressed numbers in his first four weeks in Seattle. When extrapolated to a full 16-game season, his pace after rejoining the Patriots was 70-1027-7, which are WR18 numbers. The downside? He’s 31 and has been injury-prone throughout his career.

— Jacoby Ford became fantasy relevant over the second half of the season, though his value was definitely enhanced in leagues that reward individuals for return TDs. Still, 8.5 ppg in a PPR league is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a rookie. If he can get his Rec% (46.3% on the season) up into the high 50’s or low 60’s, he’ll have a breakout season.

— Mario Manningham took advantage of Steve Smith’s absence and posted some very nice numbers as the Giants’ WR2. Smith underwent microfracture surgery on his knee, so if he isn’t 100%, Manningham could easily take over as Eli Manning’s second-favorite target. Smith’s contract situation is also up in the air, so Manningham is a high-risk, high-reward pick in the 7th round.

— If Ben Obomanu can win the WR2 job (and the Seahawks can find a capable QB to throw him the ball), he’d be worth a late-round flier in deeper leagues.

— Jordy Nelson actually saw a decrease in targets over the L6 games, but did more with them fantasy-wise by catching both of his TDs during that span. And let’s not forget the 21-286-2 that he posted in the playoffs. He’s currently being drafted in the 7th round, so fantasy owners are assuming he’s going to win the Packers’ WR2 job. At that price, he better.

— Anthony Armstrong could be the Redskins’ WR1 heading into the season if the team doesn’t re-sign Santana Moss. Washington drafted three WRs, so they appear to be going young at the position.

— One player not on this list that I’d like to discuss is Mike Wallace. His fantasy points per game decreased by 0.9 in the L6, but his targets per game rose from 5.6 to 7.0. For a player who is often used as a deep threat, Wallace had a terrific Rec% (61.2), but he was only targeted 98 times during the season. That’s the second lowest (to Manningham) of any of the WRs who finished in the WR20. One concern I have about Wallace is that his Rec% will fall back to his rookie levels (54.2%), so it’s good to see that his targets increased over the L6 games. If he gets 7.0 targets per game, that would be 112 for the season, which is much more in line (but still low) when compared to the other WRs in the Top 10.

Falling in love with Ryan Fitzpatrick all over again

One of the big winners coming out of the NFL Draft was Ryan Fitzpatrick. The fact that the Bills didn’t take a QB with any of their nine draft picks was a vote of confidence for their current starter. Had Buffalo picked a QB in the first round or two, he may have begun the season as the starter, but chances are that he would have been benched as soon as the losses started piling up. That would have made Fitzpatrick a risky pick in fantasy drafts.

Fast forward a few days and he’s suddenly looking like a great value pick once your draft gets into the middle rounds (10th-12th). According to the #Draftmaster ADP over at Pro Football Focus, Fitzpatrick is currently the 20th QB off the board in the middle of the 12th round. I suspect that his ADP will rise to the 10th or 11th rounds given the Bills’ draft, as he could pass David Garrard, Matt Cassel and Mark Sanchez, creeping up into the QB17 range. That’s where I have him in my initial QB rankings for 2011.

Let’s take a look at Fitzpatrick’s per game numbers as compared to those three QBs, because I bet there are still some nonbelievers out there:

As you can see, Fitzpatrick compares pretty favorably to the aforementioned three QBs in almost every category. On a per game basis, he scored the second-most fantasy points in this group. (Keep in mind that I did remove Garrard’s Week 6 game against the Titans, when he was knocked out in the second quarter. I also removed Mark Sanchez’s Week 17 game against the Bills, where he started but left the game without attempting a pass.)

Considering the Jaguars drafted Blaine Gabbert in the first round, and have been toying with replacing Garrard for some time now, it certainly appears that he may have a short leash heading into 2011. If the Jaguars start losing, I’d expect they’d plug Gabbert in to get him some experience heading into 2012. Garrard’s strength of schedule looks to be about 5% tougher this season, while Fitzpatrick’s projects to be 4% easier. For what it’s worth, Matt Cassel’s schedule looks 7.6% tougher while Sanchez’s projects to be 3.9% easier.

To me, Ryan Fitzpatrick is a no-brainer when picking from this group, which is why I have him ranked #17. The Bills have a tendency to fall behind in games, so assuming he plays a full season, I could easily see him finish in the QB12 to QB14 range. I actually think he should be placed a tier higher, with Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford and Joe Flacco. Let’s take a look at how his numbers compare to those players:

Note that I used Matthew Stafford’s last eight games, which includes six games from the 2009 season, and excluded his Week 1 game against the Bears in which he was injured.

Again, Fitzpatrick compares favorably to the other players in this group. He has the second-highest fantasy points per game average, the most rushing yards and is right there with the leaders in passing yards and touchdowns. In fact, given his running ability, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t run for a TD or two last season — I’d expect that to change in 2011. The only characteristic that these other four players have that Fitzpatrick doesn’t is a first-round arm. It is highly unlikely that Stafford, Flacco, Cutler or Bradford (all drafted in the first round) are going to get benched at any time this season, but Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round pick, no doubt has a shorter leash.

(For what it’s worth, Stafford, Flacco, Cutler and Bradford all have similar (within 1.7%) schedules as 2010, while Fitzy’s projects to improve by 4%.)

Bottom line: I love Fitzpatrick as the second QB taken in a committee-approach, possibly with one of the aforementioned players. He’s a great value once the rounds hit double-digits, and with no other viable QB to threaten his job, we can draft him with confidence that if he’s healthy, he’s probably the starter in Buffalo.

The Bills didn’t do anything to improve their receivers in the draft, but with the up-and-coming Stevie Johnson anchoring one side, Lee Evans on the other, Roscoe Parrish and David Nelson over the middle, and C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson out of the backfield, Fitzpatrick should have plenty of weapons to utilize. The Bills’ offense isn’t good enough to press the Patriots or Jets for the division crown, but they’re certainly good enough to put up points in garbage time, and that’s all you need in fantasy football.