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REWIND – Reviewing My Very Deep Sleeper Series from 2018 (S3, E1 Luke Willson)

June 16, 2019 11:54 PM
June 18, 2019 10:10 AM

REWIND – Reviewing My Very Deep Sleeper Series from 2018

My wildly popular ‘Very Deep Sleeper’ series was brought back by FantasyPros for its fourth season. In celebration, and preparation, and review – I’m going to post last year’s series, 17 articles in all, daily with new commentary for 2019.

My concept of the VDS series was to take a look at a dozen or so players who were way off the grid (like way off the grid/very deep ADPs or not even showing in top 100-150+ positionally on FantasyPros) for the upcoming fantasy season and try and make a case for them as shocking breakouts that year. I hoped if just one panned out each year that would be pretty amazing…these are like taking half court shots in basketball.

Well, we have had that one-a-season success and then some. The VDS series gave birth to Tyrell Williams eons before most people knew who he was. Given-up-for-dead Tyler Boyd was a sweet hit from our VDS series last preseason. A number of players have emerged from the VDS series…even if it was a year or two later. My goal is to educate on the player, at a minimum, and then hope 1-2 of them really pop at some point.

Let’s look back at the 2018 season, in the order they were published…and I’ll add some commentary from ‘the now’ as I’ve re-read it.

My first VDS report in 2018 was on Luke Willson, and that was a major flop to start the series out on. Willson was signed to a decent deal by the Lions at the same time Eric Ebron was let go. Of all the tight end hopefuls the Lions had...Willson was ‘the best’, so I thought.

Unfortunately, he got hurt in the preseason and lost time and opened the door for other tight ends to show their wares. On top of injury, the Lions’ offense was a mess and none of the tight ends made much of a difference. Once Willson got healthy, he was in a sad rotation of guys barely getting targets.

Willson only had a one-year deal for 2018. It didn’t work. He signed with Oakland this offseason, but his upside hopes of becoming a relevant fantasy tight end have all but died.

Feel free to read the pitch on Willson as a deep sleeper, from last year, but with sad, funeral music playing in your head in the background.


Last year’s piece, as it was...

Very Deep Sleeper: TE Luke Willson, Detroit Lions (Season 3, Episode 1)

NFL Draft bust (way off expectations) Eric Ebron is no longer a Detroit Lion. He was a prospect sold to all of us by all the draft media as ‘the next Jimmy Graham’ – and that was such a scouting fraud. There was almost nothing about Ebron’s prospect profile that smacked of Jimmy Graham…but that ship has sailed. Ebron is gone from Detroit.

Most of my clients at Fantasy Football Metrics immediately asked (with excitement), upon Ebron’s (overdue) departure – is now the time for Michael Roberts (Lions 5th-round draft pick tight end from 2017)? They ask this because of our positive scouting grades on Roberts last pre-draft and our general enthusiasm for his play in the 2017 preseason – one of the best TE prospects in the 2017 class according to our computer scouting models. Roberts seems like an obvious answer to the Ebron void…and, thus, an obvious fantasy sleeper for 2018.

So why would I promote Luke Willson instead of Michael Roberts?

I’m not anti-Michael Roberts, not at all, and I could see this being Roberts’s breakout opportunity as well. I’ve thought about Roberts for the Very Deep Sleeper series list for 2018. However, the more I look at the data…the more I’m pro-Luke Willson in this race today; his profile fits for fantasy better than Roberts’s at this stage. I’ll explain…

First, let’s get re-introduced to Luke Willson.

Willson’s Pro Day, pre-Draft profile: 6’5.3”/251, ran a 4.51 40-time with a stellar 1.53 10-yard time. He also posted high-end TE prospect numbers with 23 bench reps, a ‘wow’ 38.0” vertical, and a 7.08 three-cone time. Wilson is an excellent athlete – he was a Canadian Junior National Team baseball player in his youth and was considering a move to Major League Baseball (working out for the Toronto Blue Jays). He was also drafted in the Canadian Football League. He was ultimately drafted in the 5th-round of the 2013 NFL Draft by Seattle…and chose to play in the NFL over the CFL or MLB.

How good is Willson’s athletic profile? When I take the entirety of my tight end prospect database and search for the tight ends who are 6’4.5”+/250+, ran under a 4.60 40-time and had a 35”+ vertical in pre-Draft testing, I get six names back:

Jimmy Graham

Greg Olsen

Jordan Cameron

Bucky Hodges

Fendi Onobun

Luke Willson

Onobun was a college basketball player who tried to convert to NFL TE and hung around for a few years before fading off. Bucky Hodges is in his 2nd-year in the NFL and is more WR than TE. Jordan Cameron was a great athlete drafted strictly off his Combine/athletics abilities (because he did almost nothing in college) and he became one of the top tight ends in the league for a moment…before injury killed off his career prematurely. Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen are probably headed to the Hall of Fame.

What has Luke Willson been doing in the league since 2013? He was a jack of all trades WR-FB-TE for Seattle as a rookie and then became a de facto starting tight end in 2014 when original starting TE Zach Miller got injured. Things were looking up for Willson for his NFL career and then Seattle acquired Jimmy Graham in 2015 and Willson became his backup; becoming a tight end known for his blocking primarily and noted under-the-radar receiving skills. If you thought Jimmy Graham was underutilized in Seattle’s offense (and he was, grossly so) then his backup, Willson, was a ghost in the passing game, mostly.

In 2017, Willson would play 30-50% of the offensive snaps in most games with Jimmy Graham as the primary tight end. Willson would be used mostly as a blocker and occasional surprise receiver…and he scored a career-high 4 TDs last season on just 15 catches.

If you look over Willson’s football career, back to his days at Rice…you don’t see any exciting output/season stats. Just glancing at it, you’d blow right past Willson as a serious receiving threat for Detroit today but doing so would cause you to miss a hidden opportunity.

In college, playing for Rice, he worked in a very weak passing game that was oriented towards the run game with tight ends as blockers. Willson played in a restrictive offense with weak QB play…AND was behind teammate and top college tight end Vance McDonald for his career. The Rice situation did not allow Willson’s athletic skills to shine at all (nor did it help Vance McDonald a lot either).

Despite the low output in college, Willson was so athletic and worked out so well pre-Draft, he was a #158 pick in 2013. He made the roster as a rookie, which was not an assured thing from a 5th-round ‘reach’ pick tight end. He worked up into a starter by year two but then Seattle/O-C Darrell Bevell did not make the tight end a true pass game weapon and then Jimmy Graham showed up and was harnessed by the same problem – and Willson was lost in the shuffle and the offense.

Willson still played a role despite Graham’s presence. Willson was a top blocker for them and worked some special teams.

Willson’s totals over five years may not be eye-catching, but his work in games where he saw four or more targets in any game with Seattle are pretty promising. In 17 career games in his career (regular or post-season), where he saw 4 or more targets in a game, Wilson produced:

6.0 FF PPG (8.9 PPR) on 2.9 catches (4.4 targets), 41.9 yards, 0.29 TDs per game

Consider that the numbers above workout to 14.5 yards per catch…which would have been 4th best among NFL tight ends in 2017 (with 30 or more receptions).

He caught 66.2% of his targets in those 4+ target games…so, he has reliable hands – he’s also been on the ‘hand’s team’ on onside kicks. It’s not that Willson can’t catch…hardly the issue for a former Major League Baseball prospect.

All those numbers (above) on an average of 4.4 targets per game – and most of his 4-or-more-targets-in-a-game games, were exactly 4 targets in the game.

Getting too cute with the numbers…jack those 4.4 targets per game by 50% to a more NFL starting TE-like 6.6 targets per game and a 50% jump in his output would yield 4.4 catches, 62.9 yards, 0.44 TDs per game – 8.9 FF PPG (13.3 PPR).

The 13.3 PPR PPG…would have been 4th best among fantasy TEs last season.

*Eric Ebron averaged 5.4 targets per game last season (4.3 per game before their BYE week, 6.0 per game after their BYE, 8.0 per game the final 4 games of 2017). The average of the top 10 most targeted TEs per game in 2017 was 6.4 per game.

I’m not saying Willson will be a for sure top four fantasy tight end in 2018/assume he will see 6+ targets a game, but I’m more so trying to show that there’s a production potential hiding in the weeds with Willson if he does get into a trusted role. If I knew he would be the full-fledged 80%+ snap count tight end for the Lions in 2018…I bet he would be a top 10 fantasy TE1, and a possible top 5 guy. He has that kind of athleticism.

The big question is – is Luke Willson going to be the starter over Michael Roberts in 2018? Will he play 80% of the offensive snaps in most games or split with Roberts?

Here’s the case for Willson as the main starter for the Lions this season…

-- He’s the most experienced tight end on the Lions roster – five seasons of quality play for Seattle.

-- He’s the best blocker at this stage of all the Lions tight end’s careers.

-- He’s more athletic and more of a receiving threat than Roberts or Levine Toilolo (who is also on the Lions’ depth chart). Roberts may be a nice weapon down the road but he’s still honing his skills at the NFL level still. Even if Roberts really comes on this preseason – Willson is the advanced weapon of the group. Toilolo is an end zone threat at 6’8”, but he’s a bit stiff…and Willson is no shorty at 6’5”+ (with a 38.0” vertical).

-- The Lions did NOT draft a tight end in 2018. Everyone thought they would with Ebron gone…they didn’t. Part of the reason why has to be confidence in Willson on the depth chart. Right now, it’s Willson v. Roberts for the starting job.

-- Willson sits atop the first Detroit depth charts that I’ve seen in 2018 (but there’s a ways to go until opening day).

Willson was grabbed by Detroit in free agency before they had even jettisoned Ebron. Willson is currently the most experience, most athletic, best blocking tight end on the Lions’ roster. How can he not be assumed the starter for 2018?

You might be fantasy-excited by the up-until-now-buried Trey Burton landing in Chicago with his big contract, and I am too. You assume him the main starter and discount Adam Shaheen as not-a-threat. Why not the same excitement for up-until-now-buried Luke Willson? I know you’re excited by Burton because he is SOOO athletic and could be a great ‘move’ tight end a la Jordan Reed (I do too)!!!


6’2.1”/224, 4.62 40-time, 1.62 10-yard, 30” vertical, 7.14 three-cone = Burton/2014

6’5.3”/251, 4.51 40-time, 1.53 10-yard, 38” vertical, 7.08 three-cone = Willson/2013

We all think 2018 is ‘Trey Burton unleashed’! What if the bigger, more athletic Luke Willson also gets unleashed? If he does, he’s a TE1 potential sitting on most dynasty and fantasy league’s free agency list today.

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About R.C. Fischer

R.C. Fischer is a fantasy football player analyst for Fantasy Football Metrics and College Football Metrics. 

Email rc4metrics@gmail.com

Learn more about RC and the Fantasy Football Metrics system >>