Emmanuel Sanders Is Being Undervalued in Fantasy Football

Injuries and a down year in 2017 have driven down Emmanuel Sanders' price tag, making him a big-time value in 2018 fantasy drafts.

Recency bias plays a prominent role in fantasy football, as evidenced by where Todd Gurley (RB11) and DeAndre Hopkins (WR15) were drafted in 2017 according to FFCalculator. Many owners were scared off of them due to poor 2016 outputs, and those who ended up drafting them were rewarded handsomely.

Various players entering 2018 could fall into this bucket, but Emmanuel Sanders stands out the most. He is coming off a horrendous 2017, where he dealt with a nagging ankle injury and incompetent quarterback play. These factors led to his worst season in a Denver Broncos uniform.

Since then, John Elway has upgraded the QB to Case Keenum and Sanders has shined in the slot role throughout the preseason.

We have seen his ADP increase more than a full round (7.07 to 6.06) since the start of the preseason, but that increase still might not be enough.

Sanders in Denver

Prior to last season’s unfavorable situation, Sanders had been a consistent WR2 in his three healthy years in Denver.

While some argue two of those seasons came with the great Peyton Manning, we all remember the noodle arm Manning dealt with in 2015.

We also can’t forget, that Sanders was able to post 1,032 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns in 2016 with Trevor Siemian and a sprinkle of Paxton Lynch at quarterback.

Below are Sanders season averages from 2014-2016 while in Denver.

Seasons Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns PPR WR Finish
2014-2016 (3 Year Average) 138.0 85.3 1,190.3 6.7 14.7

Over that same span, he also handled a 23.2% team target share and a 20.3% red zone target share.

Not only are those output numbers super impressive, Sanders also ranked sixth among all wide receivers over that time in terms of total air yards.

Air yards have a strong correlation to predicting wide receiver production as concluded by Josh Hermseyer of 4for4.

Wide Reciever Air Yards (2014-2016)
Mike Evans 6,491
DeAndre Hopkins 6,101
Julio Jones 5,917
Antonio Brown 5,548
T.Y. Hilton 5,438
Emmanuel Sanders 5,332
Odell Beckham Jr. 5,259

That is quite an impressive list of wide receivers for Sanders to be in company with, but when looking at current ADP in PPR leagues, Sanders is being drafted as WR29, while all those other guys are being taken as WR12 or better.

The gap makes sense, as Sanders is not necessarily the number one option on the Broncos, while all the other receivers are "the man" for their respective teams. But these air yard numbers do show us that Sanders's ceiling may not be far behind what the rest of that group offers, especially when factoring in draft cost.

Sanders has proven his worth in Denver in all sorts of different quarterback situations, and if he bounces back fully healthy this season we could see his numbers positively regress back to the mean.

The Adam Thielen Role

With the addition of Case Keenum, Denver is looking to get their passing game back on track in 2018. Keenum had a career rejuvenation in Minnesota last season, throwing for 3547 yards and 22 touchdowns.

While we all remember the insanity of Stefon Diggs playoff catch, Adam Thielen was actually Keenum's favorite target. Thielen saw 142 targets, which was 47 more than anyone else on the Minnesota Vikings.

Half of Thielen offensive snaps came lined up in the slot, and according to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted on 25.0% of his slot routes, which was the highest rate in the NFL.

If this year's preseason is any indication, Emmanuel Sanders will fill this role for Keenum in Denver. In the Week 3 dress rehearsal, Sanders primarily ran his routes from the slot.

If we take those preseason numbers, and the fact that the Broncos have physical freaks in both Demaryius Thomas and Courtland Sutton as outside receivers, and no proven tight ends on the roster, we should expect to see plenty of 11 personnel, pushing Sanders primarily in the Y receiver role (slot).

Sanders is in line for some high volume in this role, which is something that he is accustomed to, having topped 110 targets in four of the seven seasons in which he has played at least 12 games. That includes three seasons of 135 or more targets. Our projections currently have Sanders seeing 140.3 targets.

Getting a receiver who projects to see 8-9 targets per game at the position Sanders is currently being drafted seems like a pretty good bargain for fantasy owners.

Putting It All Together

Things are lining up for Sanders to be capable of a nice bounce back season in 2018. He has looked healthy and developed a good rapport with Keenum throughout preseason.

On top of the new bill of health and taking over the Thielen volume slot role, the Broncos face the NFL's 11th-easiest pass defense schedule, according to our models

Keenum was able to support two top twenty fantasy receivers in 2017, and the Broncos, prior to last season, produced two top twenty fantasy receivers of their own in three straight seasons (2014-2016).

Sanders and Thomas look to continue that trend in 2018 in what should be an improved Broncos offense.

Sanders floor should be pretty safe with the projected volume, and he should also provide a nice ceiling as displayed by his big air yards and Thielen's top ten PPR receiver finish last season.

In his three healthy seasons as a Bronco, Sanders has never finished outside of WR20, and now fantasy owners continue to undervalue him, as shown by his current PPR ADP of WR29.