Is Leonard Hankerson a Post-Hype Fantasy Football Savior in 2015?

Undrafted in both redraft and dynasty leagues, can Leonard Hankerson be the fantasy surprise of 2015?

One of the most impressive video game studios around these days is Ubisoft. They have created breathtaking, panoramic series like my beloved Assassin’s Creed. They not only develop great games but also they’re very forward-thinking. On the first load screen of every Assassin’s Creed game, a small notice says, “This work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.”

Ubisoft realizes that no team is complete without a variety of skills and perspectives, especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter.

This got me thinking about my role -- both in the football community and the numberFire team -- and I realized: I am the wet blanket of rookie hype.

While I am passionate about rookie scouting and the potential these players bring to the league, some people go way too far in assuming certainty for them. It’s my job to question and challenge those assumptions.

Thus, I bring to you the Atlanta Falcons’ wideout corps. One of the pass-happiest teams in the league has only two “sure things,” but they’ve typically been friendly to the third-string wide receiver as well. Former slot man Harry Douglas has departed to Tennessee, which leaves a void for someone to fill. Most assume it will be rookie Justin Hardy, but what about post-hype sleeper Leonard Hankerson? Can this oft-injured acquisition be a late-round fantasy savior for teams in 2015?

Nothing Is True

Let’s look at the big picture first. We know that superstar Julio Jones and veteran Roddy White still occupy the top two spots in this offense, so it’s not as if competition for targets is wide open. Still, Matt Ryan is asked to chuck the ball a lot for the Dirty Birds; just how exciting is the Atlanta offense for the third receiver?

The table below shows the annual opportunities in total (quarterback drop backs) and target allocation to the third and fourth pass-catchers on the team over the past five seasons. Is there room enough for Hankerson and Hardy to contribute?

YearDrop Backs3rd Target4th Target

To put this in perspective, the Atlanta Falcons have ranked in the top-10 of the league in offensive passing plays the last four years in a row and have been top-five in three of those four. They love to air it out, and with the terrible defense they’ve had recently, it’s become a necessity.

Fortunately, new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is no stranger to this style either. Most people know him as the architect of Alfred Morris’ rookie breakout when he led Washington to one of the run-heaviest NFL seasons in recent memory in 2012. His teams, however, have been in the top-10 for most offensive passing plays three of the past five years as well. He adapts his scheme well to fit his personnel, and with the Falcons, that will likely mean an air raid gameplan.

But let’s look at the real nugget of these data. More than 150 targets on average go to the third- and fourth-string pass-catchers on the Falcons annually, and last year, glorified offensive lineman Levine Toilolo sucked up an extra 53 targets that aren’t accounted for here. There is more than enough bounty to go around in this offense for multiple pass-catchers to make an impact, and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.

Everything Is Permitted

We know there’s plenty of pie to be shared in the Atlanta offense now, but will Hankerson get a slice of it? Hankerson was a 2011 third-round pick by the Washington Redskins, as a highly athletic project out of Miami. Injuries derailed his early career, and he fell behind veteran acquisitions in the pecking order in Washington, functioning mainly as a situational deep threat when on the field.

His 6’ 1”, 211-pound frame yields 4.43 speed, however, and he has incredible vertical explosiveness and solid change-of-direction ability. One of the darlings of the metric community, Hankerson has all the potential in the world on a physical basis, but the big knock on him was a lack of focus in his catching and a lack of quick-twitch explosiveness.

With all this in his favor, has he translated it to production? We can figure that out with the help of our signature metric at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so that they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Hankerson’s production since 2011 in terms of Reception NEP and Target NEP, as well as his ranks among receivers with at least 50 targets. How has he stacked up?

YearRec/TargetRec NEPPer-TargetTarget NEP
201113/1914.71 (DNQ)0.77 (DNQ)4.25 (DNQ)
201238/5743.39 (67th)0.76 (t-24th)32.51 (33rd)
201330/5031.95 (81st)0.64 (t-47th)5.38 (69th)
20140/10.00 (DNQ)0.00 (DNQ)-0.72 (DNQ)

This is a little bit nerve-wracking to see in a player you might be drafting in your fantasy leagues. Hankerson’s catch rate and per-target Reception NEP have all decreased every year he’s been in the league, as he’s accumulated more and more injuries. One has to imagine that that kind of wear and tear will diminish effectiveness over time (see: McFadden, Darren), but there is some strong upside here. Had Hankerson played more than four games his rookie year, his Reception NEP would have been a solid 58.52, good for 43rd among receivers. That’s not bad for a rookie wideout as a third option on a team, being spoiled by the 2014 class aside.

His breakout 2012 showed the potential he could have, as he ranked inside the top-25 in per-target Reception NEP and even in the top-40 in Target NEP, showing his progress on route-running and reliability. The 2013 season, however, was when injuries caught him again -- limiting him to 10 games.

Much of his failure can also be attributed to his quarterback, Robert Griffin III, falling apart on the field, and poor quarterbacking offering him little to work with. He still made a lot out of what he was given, ranking even with Greg Jennings, T.Y. Hilton, and DeAndre Hopkins in per-target Reception NEP that year. 2014 was wholly unseated by injuries and can be considered just a lost season.

Understanding Into Contentment

Hankerson has all the physical tools in the world to succeed, has reliability in his quarterback and in his offensive scheme, and is healthy yet again. He’s flashed potential in limited sample sizes before, and -- even if he’s the fourth receiver on the team -- will be offered a target load greater than he saw in Washington.

Hardy, while a solid player in his own right, is no shoo-in for the tertiary role in Shanahan’s offense, and Hankerson easily outpaces him in the measurables department.

Am I saying that you should take Hankerson with a costly pick? No way. But with the kind of potential that Atlanta’s offense and Hankerson himself hold, he’s well worth a flier with your last pick in your draft. He’s going undrafted in both redraft and in dynasty leagues, so do yourself a favor and try to catch lightning in a bottle; he may surprise you and save your season.

After all, it takes all kinds to make a team.