Don't Forget About Emmanuel Sanders in Fantasy Football

Sanders has a lot of question marks entering 2016, but don't overlook him on draft day.

Emmanuel Sanders is a curious case.

He finished the 2014 season as the fifth-best fantasy football wide receiver (WR5) in PPR formats and as the WR7 in standard-scoring leagues, but prior to that year, he broke the top 65 just once in four seasons: 2013 when he was the WR32 in PPR and WR34 in standard leagues.

The jump to the top of the position had a lot to do with his joining the Denver Broncos and playing alongside Peyton Manning. So, the same situation -- playing with Manning -- entering 2015 led him to be the 16th receiver taken in standard fantasy football drafts and 15th in PPR setups, according to Fantasy Football Calculator.

He wound up as the WR18 in each scoring system, pretty much paying off his price tag but not posting top-seven marks by any stretch.

Entering 2016, Sanders has fallen to the WR31 in PPR setups and WR29 in standard leagues for reasons that, well, confuse the heck out of me.

Peyton Manning Was Terrible in 2015

If you want to knock Sanders for entering 2016 with an uncertain quarterback situation, fine. One of the trio of Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, and Paxton Lynch will be throwing him the ball, and needless to say, none have a track record that suggests Sanders can flirt with the top five again.

But here's the thing -- in addition to the fact that Sanders is being drafted not as a WR2 but rather as a WR3 -- Peyton Manning was legitimately terrible in 2015.

According to our Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Manning lost the Broncos 7.95 points worth of expected scoring in 2015 on 346 drop backs, a mark that ranked him 33rd among 37 passers with at least 200 drop backs.

We might as well hammer home how bad this was. On a per-drop back basis, Manning lost the team 0.02 expected points. The league average at the quarterback position was 0.11 in 2015. Manning was about 0.13 points per drop back worse than an average passer.

And Sanders still finished as the WR18.

Yes, part of that was because he played also with Brock Osweiler, whose 0.08 Passing NEP per drop back was pretty darn close to the league average, but with below average quarterback play over the full season, Sanders finished as a top-20 fantasy asset, thanks to 137 targets.

We could be more skeptical if he was being drafted as a top-20 receiver, but he isn't.

And He Outplayed Demaryius Thomas By a Lot

I'm not even coming close to saying that Sanders is a better receiver than Demaryius Thomas, but Sanders was actually pretty good in 2015 despite the quarterback issues.

Check out his Reception NEP per catch and per target numbers -- as well as his Reception Success Rate (the percentage of catches that led to NEP gains for his offense) -- compared to the other receivers on his teams in the past four seasons.

Sanders Team Rec Tar Rec NEP/Rec Team Avg Rec NEP/Tar Team Avg Success% Team Avg
2012 PIT 44 74 1.18 1.12 0.70 0.65 86.36% 84.54%
2013 PIT 67 112 0.81 1.11 0.48 0.69 73.13% 82.25%
2014 DEN 101 141 1.24 1.14 0.89 0.75 87.13% 85.45%
2015 DEN 76 137 1.26 1.06 0.70 0.62 88.16% 82.98%

I know there are a lot of numbers there, but we'll break it all down. Remember, in 2012, Sanders was the WR66 or so in fantasy formats, so he wasn't any kind of useful asset, but his efficiency was promising.

On a per-catch basis, Sanders added 1.18 points to his team's expected output, better than the rest of the Steelers' receivers as a whole (1.12) and better than the league average for receivers (1.15). Per-target, Sanders (0.70) again topped his teammates' mark (0.65) and the league average (0.66). Same with his Success Rate.

Now, in 2013, he took a step back in terms of efficiency while jumping up to the WR32 in PPR formats (roughly where he's being drafted now) and fell below his teammates' and the league average in each of the three efficiency scores.

In his breakout season, Sanders posted a 1.26 Reception NEP per catch, significantly better than his teammates' 1.14 and the league average of 1.10. His Reception NEP per target (0.89) dominated his teammates' 0.75 and the league average of 0.66. Success Rate? Same story again, as the league average mark (84.84%) didn't live up to his 87.13%.

Here's the kicker: his 2015 rates in Reception NEP per catch (1.26) and Success Rate (88.16%) actually built on his 2014 marks. Now there's an eye-opener and no mistake.

His per-target rate (0.70) dropped to roughly the league average (0.67) but still outpaced Denver's collective 0.62 when factoring out his production.

Let's throw that right up against Demaryius Thomas' efficiency in the same offense.

PlayerRecRec NEP/RecTarRec NEP/TarCatch Rate%Success%
Emmanuel Sanders761.261370.7055.47%88.16%
Demaryius Thomas1051.031770.6159.32%81.90%

The volume edge belongs to Thomas, as it should, but while Thomas was basically the average Broncos receiver in terms of efficiency, Sanders pretty much dominated.

Again, this isn't to imply that Sanders is the better receiver but rather that Sanders' game might be less reliant on quarterback play than Thomas' (and we're not just looking at a one- or two-game sample -- it's 137 and 177 targets). That and Sanders isn't the defense's primary worry, so that's just good news for us.

Certain Volume

Aside from Thomas, the Broncos have no sure things at pass-catching positions other than Sanders, and you're exercising wishful thinking if you think that players with 130-plus target potential are growing on trees around Sanders' average draft position.

It could very well be ugly, and Sanders might be frustrating to roster, but unless his efficiency drops off the earth out of nowhere, he's going to outperform his draft position. Even if he's a low-end second receiver, he's going to be a useful asset.

And sure, he's surrounded by some upside picks such as Donte Moncrief and Jordan Matthews and other safe veterans such as Eric Decker and Larry Fitzgerald, but just make sure you don't ignore Sanders for too long on draft day.