Sleeper Alert: Brandon LaFell

Sleeper Alert: Brandon LaFell

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor), last update Jun 1, 2012

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in both 2012 and 2015 for a total of five Top 5 seasons in the last six years. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-15 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate draft rankings. 

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The sleeper talk started to swirl around Carolina WR Brandon LaFell this week when Adam Schefter answered a question from a reader about the Panthers receiving corps. Here's the exchange:


Q: Do you think there is a possibility that the Carolina Panthers could trade up in the draft to go after Justin Blackmon? I know defense is a huge concern and rightly so, but a receiver like Blackmon to pair with Cam Newton and Steve Smith seems like it could be worth giving up a second-round pick for. -- Jeff (North Dakota)
A: Don't see it, Jeff. If Blackmon managed to slip to Carolina's turn, it would have to be interested. But Carolina really likes Brandon LaFell and the Panthers believe he's poised for a breakout. It doesn't mean they're not interested in adding more receivers. It just means it's hard to see them trading up in Round 1 to get one.

Whenever a receiver's name is used in the same sentence as the word "breakout," it's going to perk a few ears. 
Here's a look at how LaFell has performed in his first two seasons in Carolina:
Year G Targets T/G Rec Yds Y/R TD Rec% FP (Std) Rank FP/T (Std) Rank
2010 14 76 5.4 38 468 12.3 1 50.0 52.8 80 0.69 99
2011 16 56 3.5 36 613 17.0 3 64.3 79.3 56 1.42 16
He was used more extensively in his rookie season (2010) than he was last year. His Fantasy Points / Target (FP/T) jumped from 0.69 in 2010 to 1.42 in 2011, likely due to an increased understanding of the NFL as well as a big improvement in QB play from Jimmy Clausen/Matt Moore to Rookie of the Year Cam Newton. His FP/T ranked #16 amongst all WRs with at least 30 targets in 2010.
The Panthers haven't shown much interest in re-signing Legedu Naanee, who gobbled up 75 targets, which represented nearly 15% of Newton's throws in 2011. In fact, LaFell averaged more targets over the final eight games (4.0) than did Naanee (3.1), so LaFell was the team's WR2 by the end of the season. Jeremy Shockey (62 targets) is also unlikely to return unless he's willing to scale back his asking price. That's 137 targets that could potentially be distributed to other Carolina receivers. 
Provided the team doesn't add another quality WR this offseason, LaFell's floor is probably 75 targets. But if he gets the average number of targets for WR2s around the league (about 85) and produces at or near the same level of FP/T (1.25-1.42) then he should produce around 106 to 121 fantasy points. Those are WR29-WR38 numbers. That would make LaFell a solid to fringe WR3 in 12-team fantasy leagues. (Note: In a previous study, I found that high-FP/T WRs who saw a 40%+ jump in targets the following season experienced a 12% drop on average in FP/T, which is how I came to 1.25 FP/T in the above example.)
Another thing to note about LaFell is his very healthy Yards Per Catch (YPC). He averaged 17.0 YPC in 2011, which ranked #16 amongst WRs that saw at least 30 targets. His Rec % (i.e. receptions divided by targets) was 64.3%, which was well ahead of the average (54.0%) for those WRs who averaged more than 16.0 YPC. His TD rate (8.3% of his catches resulted in TDs) was a bit low for the average (10.3%) of the same group, so he's also a candidate to catch a few more TDs in 2012 as he potentially regresses to the mean.
Keep in mind that David Gettis is scheduled to return from ACL surgery in 2012. He actually outscored LaFell in 2010 (69 to 53) even though he saw nine fewer targets. Still, with around 130 targets to divvy up, it's not hard to see a bigger role for LaFell along with a sizable role for Gettis. Even if Gettis gets his 2010 targets (67) that leaves 63 additional targets for other Carolina receivers.
If the Panthers don't pick a WR in the first few rounds of the draft, and don't add anyone of note before training camp, I'd expect LaFell to emerge as the team's WR2 and get the 85+ targets that go along with that role. It's not ridiculous to believe that his targets could push triple digits if things break his way. If that happens, he'll be drafted as a fantasy WR4/WR5 with fringe WR2 potential.
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