Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders Are Undervalued in Fantasy Football Again

Nobody seems to like Thomas and Sanders, and you should be taking advantage of their draft cost this season.

Look, I get it. Fantasy football is supposed to be fun.

It's not fun to draft Frank Gore. It's not fun to draft Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton. It's not fun to draft Emmanuel Sanders, and honestly, the luster of Demaryius Thomas has dulled a good bit, too.

But it is fun to win in fantasy football. And that's what these types of players can help you do. Not every pick in your draft has to be a swing for the fences, a boom-or-bust dart throw.

Yet Sanders -- and to a degree his teammate, Thomas -- remain undervalued in fantasy leagues because of their roles on a not-so-thrilling offense, led by either Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch under center.

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Thomas is drafted, on average, with pick 3.05, making him the 14th receiver off the board in 12-team, PPR leagues. Sanders is all the way down at 7.04 (WR34).

Those are low. Here's why.

The Case for Thomas

Thomas finished as the WR16 in PPR leagues last year -- actually outperforming his ADP (WR18) -- in his first season without Peyton Manning since Thomas' emergence.

That WR16 finish was his worst since that breakout 2012 campaign. It's not bad when your low-water mark is a firm WR2 in fantasy leagues.

Demaryius Thomas PPR Rank ADP Rank PPR ADP
2016 16 18 3.06
2015 10 4 1.09
2014 2 2 1.07
2013 1 6 3.01
2012 6 22 6.06

Yes, Thomas' apex has been somewhat tied to Manning, though it's a fair reminder that Manning was terrible in 2015 and that the Denver Broncos ranked 24th in passing efficiency by our metrics in 2016 (and 25th in 2015).

Even with spotty quarterback play in the past two seasons, Thomas has managed to produce five consecutive seasons with at least 90 catches and 1,000 yards. Just nine players (including Thomas) have produced at least five seasons at that baseline in NFL history.

And, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) model, Thomas has had some bad luck in the touchdown column in the past two seasons. Thomas should have scored 1.54 more touchdowns than he did in 2016 (so, 6.5 touchdowns rather than the 5 he posted) and 1.96 more in 2015 (when he had 6).

You could chalk that up to his inability to score, but he had 11 touchdowns in 2014, 14 in 2013, and 10 in 2012. He did overachieve in the touchdown column, according to his Reception NEP, but there's a solid chance he sees some positive touchdown regression in 2017.

Demaryius Thomas PPR Rank Reception NEP TDs Expected TD Difference
2016 16 89.01 5 6.54 -1.54
2015 10 107.73 6 7.96 -1.96
2014 2 140.59 11 10.45 0.55
2013 1 130.03 14 9.65 4.35
2012 6 114.05 10 8.44 1.56

Yes, Thomas is still nearly three full scores in the black, but with his 18 red zone targets last year and 19 the year before, he has to see some extra scores soon (right?). (Also -- and sorry for the parentheticals -- he had 39 red zone targets in 2014. Don't hold that against him.)

And even if all of his touchdown success was Peyton Manning related, you're still getting a bit of a discount on one of the most reliable receivers -- one who has five or six touchdowns in a down year -- available in the game of fantasy football. And he's not even the most obvious value at his position on his team.

The Case for Sanders

Sanders also has been outproducing his ADP in recent years, aside from a slight negative return on investment in 2015, when he was still a top-20 PPR receiver.

Emmanuel Sanders PPR Rank ADP Rank PPR ADP
2016 20 33 6.11
2015 19 15 3.08
2014 5 17 4.04
2013 32 43 11.04

Sanders doesn't have the same production streak that Thomas has (understandably), but he has produced at least 75 catches and 1,000 yards in three straight seasons, only one of which came with a prime Peyton Manning. Only 57 players in NFL history have had at least three seasons of 75 catches and 1,000 yards.

Sanders has actually been most consistent in terms of his overall usage (141 targets in 2014 and 137 in 2015 and 2016), but his production has dipped each year.

And like Thomas, he's underperformed in the touchdown column in the past two seasons, relative to his Net Expected Points production.

Season Rec NEP Targets Rec Yds TD Exp TD Diff
2016 87.77 137 79 1,032 5 6.45 -1.45
2015 95.39 137 76 1,135 6 7.03 -1.03
2014 125.70 141 101 1,404 9 9.32 -0.32

So, it's always possible that Sanders just isn't cut out to churn out touchdowns. He drew just 8 red zone targets in 2015 (after 19 in 2014) but got back to 18 in 2016, the same number as Thomas.

And, frankly (for what it's worth), Sanders has outplayed Thomas in the past two years.

YearFull NameRec NEPRecRec NEP/RecTarRec NEP/T
2016Demaryius Thomas89.01900.991440.62
2016Emmanuel Sanders87.77791.111370.64
2015Demaryius Thomas107.731051.031770.61
2015Emmanuel Sanders95.39761.261370.70
2014Demaryius Thomas140.59111
2014Emmanuel Sanders125.701011.241410.89

Thomas holds the volume edge in catches, targets, and Reception NEP, but Sanders outpaced Thomas in Reception NEP per catch in the past two seasons and per target in the past three.

None of this is to say that Sanders is better -- plus, they're not used in the same role offensively -- but Sanders is no slouch in this offense, and his WR34 ADP is just hard to comprehend.


To me, all of this sounds good, and it sounds like both Thomas and Sanders are undervalued at their current costs.

And that's before adding in the fact that Mike McCoy is returning to the coaching staff as the offensive coordinator. McCoy was the Broncos' offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2012 (Thomas' breakout season) before operating as the Chargers' head coach for four seasons.

McCoy's mission is to build an offensive scheme around his players, and their two go-to options are still Thomas and Sanders.

Of course it's fair to be skeptical of a team that has ranked in the bottom third of passing efficiency for two seasons straight, and it's reasonable not to want to target the top receivers on that type of team.

But at their respective prices and with reason to believe the offense can improve under McCoy, Thomas and Sanders look to be two clear value picks in fantasy football right now.