My Favorite Dynasty Buy Low: Emmanuel Sanders
If you want to have a shot at winning your dynasty league, you’ve got to get players on your team who will provide outsized returns relative to the cost to acquire them. Based on his dynasty ADP, most people think Emmanuel Sanders is no longer a top-24 dynasty wide receiver. He’s currently the 36th WR off the board in dynasty startups. I think this price gives us a pretty nice discount considering his expected fantasy output.
In a sense, it’s incorrect to use the term “buy low” about Sanders. There’s very little chance his value will increase, and thus little chance for a “sell high” opportunity. If you buy Sanders now, you’re buying him at what is likely to be his highest price for the rest of his career. As Pat Kerrane’s recent research has shown, veteran WRs tend to lose value. Therefore if you’re trying to maximize value, Sanders isn’t the player for you. But value isn’t all we’re after in dynasty. If, rather than maximize value, you actually want to win your league, then read on.
Production and Opportunity
In another sense, it’s perfectly appropriate to use the term “buy low” with Sanders. He gives you the opportunity to buy elite-level production at a price far lower than what you would normally have to pay for it. Sanders has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in each of the three seasons since he arrived in Denver. He is one of only six players to compile at least 250 catches, 3,000 receiving yards, and 20 receiving touchdowns over that span.
Each of the other players to meet these thresholds has been a first-round pick in dynasty startups at some point over the last three years.
Sanders is the only player among this group who has never had a first-round ADP. I’m not saying he should be going in the first round today, but his current ADP has him in the seventh round of dynasty startups, significantly lower than other players who’ve accomplished what he has. It’s true, his counting stats are the lowest of this group, but his per-target efficiency is on par with his peers.
The comparison that’s most useful is with Sanders’ teammate, Demaryius Thomas. Sanders and Thomas have had the same quarterbacks over the last three years, so we can really compare apples to apples. Sanders is more efficient than Thomas by almost every measure. He sports a higher touchdown rate, converts more yards per target, and exceeds his expected production by a greater amount. He also has a higher catch rate, despite being targeted at least two yards deeper than Thomas on average.1
Thomas is currently being drafted within the top-24 WRs in dynasty startups. The main factor driving that ADP difference can be seen in the first table above, where Thomas easily paces Sanders in targets. However, the gap has been narrowing. Visualizing their target numbers over the last three years makes this clear.
Sanders also missed one game last season. On a per-game basis, he was targeted more than Thomas in 2016.
Furthermore, targets are not the only measure of volume we have at our disposal. As mentioned above, Sanders’ average depth of target (aDOT) is significantly higher than Thomas’. This means that although Thomas beats Sanders in total targets over the previous three years, it was actually Sanders who led in total air yards during that time—and that gap is widening.
This combination of a narrowing target gap and a widening air-yards gap means that in 2016, Sanders led Denver receivers in weighted opportunity rating (WOPR), a metric invented by Josh Hermsmeyer that combines a player’s share of team targets and his share of team air yards into a single number.2
All this is to say, Sanders beats Thomas in efficiency and nearly equals (and by some measures, beats) him in opportunity. Yet there are over a dozen WRs between them in dynasty ADP. Sanders is undervalued not least because, based on production and opportunity, he deserves to be drafted much closer to Thomas. But maybe there are other reasons to keep Sanders lower on dynasty draft boards.
Surely the biggest reason Sanders is outside the top-24 WRs in dynasty is his age. He turned 30 in March, putting him on the wrong side of the WR age curve. However, it’s important to remember that the age curve being curved at all is just an artifact of the large sample size. NFL careers rarely resemble a curve that shows a gentle decline after peaking around age 27.
Rather, NFL players more typically experience relatively stable production followed by a dramatic drop-off, perhaps due to injury or a change in their situation. As players age, more of them experience severe decreases in production or even leave the NFL altogether. This is reflected in a league-wide age curve as a gentle decline over the entire position. That is to say, although wide receivers as a group age gently after peaking around age 27, an individual wide receiver’s career rarely looks like this. This is an important point because it means that, absent a way to predict injury reliably, we actually have little reason to expect that a healthy productive receiver in a stable situation will see a decline based purely on the fact that he is one year older than he was a year ago.
Indeed, Hermsmeyer has shown that receivers entering their thirties are among the most consistent producers in the NFL. Nearly everyone is aware that receivers peak around age 27 (which means, importantly, only that age 27 is the most common age for a wide receiver to peak, not that all or even most receivers experience a decline after age 27). But this means that receivers who are able to maintain their production past that age are available in dynasty at a significant discount, despite the fact that they are actually the most likely to continue to produce at a high level.
The most consistent pair of ages in Hermsmeyer’s analysis is 30-31, meaning that receivers who produce at age 30 are better bets to continue that production at age 31 than any other age cohort is to continue their age N production at age N+1. Sanders isn’t quite there yet (that is, he hasn’t yet produced at age 30), but I’m suggesting you buy him a year early. The 29-30-year-old age pair is also one of the most consistent.
There is one remaining reason dynasty drafters may be wary of taking a chance on Sanders: his quarterback situation. We don’t yet know who will start most games for the Broncos in 2017, but whoever it is, we don’t expect him to be very good. Neither Trevor Siemian nor Paxton Lynch has yet played even a full NFL season, and neither showed more than the briefest flashes of above-average quarterback play.
This is a non-factor, however. Sanders’ QB situation will be no worse than it was last year, and arguably no worse than it was the year before that. In each season he accumulated more than 75 catches, more than 1,000 yards, and at least five touchdowns. Sanders has shown over the last two seasons that he is able to transcend poor quarterback play. In fact, he accomplished one of the most amazing feats imaginable: he is the only receiver who was able to make Brock Osweiler look good.3
The Broncos recently reunited with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. His teams have finished in the top 10 in passing yards each of the last five seasons, and in the top half of the league in pass attempts in four out of those five years. Meanwhile, they’ve made few upgrades to their running game. Many signals indicate the Broncos will implement a more pass-heavy attack, which would benefit Sanders even further.
Emmanuel Sanders has produced at a near-elite level for the last three years. He is at an age when we can reasonably expect his production to continue. And he has shown that he is relatively immune to poor quarterback play. The Dynasty ADP App currently has his trade value at around rookie pick 1.10. The 10th rookie drafted this year is Alvin Kamara.
If you tell me I can trade a rookie who was underwhelming as a prospect and is entering a situation where his upside is capped by his almost certain lack of meaningful rushing work, and in return I get a receiver who consistently amasses at least 75 catches and 1,000 yards and should be able to do so for at least a couple more years, I’m hitting accept without giving it a second thought.4 At his current price, Sanders is a player I’m trying to buy everywhere that I don’t already own him.
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- Sanders’ aDOT in 2016 was 12.3 yards to Thomas’ 10.3. In 2015 Sanders’ aDOT exceeded Thomas’ by more than three yards. (back)
- Sanders’ 2016 WOPR was 0.63, while Thomas’ was 0.59. (back)
- And note that included among Osweiler’s receivers are two of Sanders’ peers from the 250/3000/20 club, neither of whom could turn Osweiler into a decent quarterback. (back)
- In practice this trade seems hard to get, but it’s enough to give you an idea of the crazy value available on Sanders. (back)