Luke Willson just became a top fantasy football sleeper in NFL free agency

by Neil Dutton ·

Eric Ebron‘s reign of terror in Detroit is over. The former first-round draft selection is now making his home in Indianapolis as a member of the Colts. With a gap on their roster where their tight end should be, the Lions signed former Seahawk Luke Willson to a one-year, $2.5 million deal. This signing has attracted very little fanfare, but Willson’s advanced stats, metrics, and analytics player profile demands the attention of fantasy football enthusiasts.

Welcome Luke Willson!

This is not the first time that PlayerProfiler has urged you to take a chance on Willson, I acknowledge. But things have changed since he was hailed as an overlooked über athlete back in 2016.

Willson was not a mega producer at the college level, evidenced by his 15.0-percent (39th percentile) College Dominator Rating. In his four years with Rice, Willson had 78 receptions for 986 yards, with nine touchdowns. His touchdown rate of 11.5 percent was probably the most impressive of these numbers, and something to remember as we move forward. Willson has 89 career receptions on 139 targets for 1129 yards and 11 touchdowns. Underwhelming counting stats aside, Willson has shown a knack for catching touchdowns, evidenced by his 12.3-percent touchdown rate, which carried over from his college career.

Stuck behind Jimmy Graham last season, Willson’s numbers don’t exactly leap off the page. A 9.10-percent Dominator Rating, coupled with a 6.70 percent Hog Rate, tells us that he was not a primary weapon on the Seahawks offense. Although, if we look closely we see that he was fairly dependable when called upon. Willson posted a 42.6 Production Premium and a 34.2 Target Premium in 2017. He caught 68.2 percent of his targets, with a 50.0 percent contested catch rate. Perhaps most importantly for readers, Willson also averaged 2.47 fantasy points per target.

Luke Willson Advanced Stats and Metrics Profile

Taking the stats out of the equation for a minute, Willson is an exceptional athlete. Willson ranked in the 90th percentile or better in four of the five key workout metrics, highlighted by his 4.56 40-yard dash and 117.0 Speed Score. Even is lowest athletic measurable, Agility Score, is considerably better than former Lions tight end Eric Ebron.

Willson finds himself atop the tight end depth chart for his new team. This is after the Lions released Eric Ebron and saw their second tight end Darren Fells sign with the Cleveland Browns. It may come as a surprise to some that this position puts Willson in prime position to become a fantasy asset in 2018.

The Lions and Tight Ends

Jim Bob Cooter became the Lions offensive coordinator during the 2015 season. From Week 10 to Week 17 that season, the Lions targeted their tight end on 16.2 percent of their passing plays. In the two full seasons since, this number has jumped to 19 percent. It’s not as if the Lions and Matthew Stafford were spreading it around multiple tight ends during this time, either.

Check out Luke Willson on PlayerProfiler’s Updated Dynasty Rankings:

According to Sharp Football Stats, between 2016 and 2017 the Lions lined up in 12 personnel on 13 percent of their offensive snaps. This is the fourth lowest in the NFL. By contrast, the Lions rolled out in 11 personnel, with a single tight end, 75 percent of the time. This was the second highest rate in the NFL. At the time of writing, that one tight end is looking like being Willson.

It’s worth pointing out that, for all his flaws, Ebron amassed the No. 10 most PPR points at the tight end position over the last two seasons.

Willson, as already stated, averaged 2.47 Fantasy Points per Target, while Ebron came in with 1.55. When targeting his not so identical namesake, Russell Wilson’s QB Rating in 2017 was 127.5. Stafford’s when targeting Ebron was 91.9. For comparison, Stafford posted 93.8 when targeted T.J. Jones. Crucially, especially with a gunslinger like Stafford at quarterback (Stafford had the 5th most Danger Plays with 36), Willson was better at getting open than Ebron. In 2017, Ebron had 1.80 yards Target Separation. Willson had 2.14 yards.

As mentioned, Willson is ridiculously agile in comparison to Ebron. Ebron’s 11.94 Agility Score was good for the 13th percentile. With Willson’s Agility and his ability to get open, this could improve Stafford’s production when the field contracts. He completed just 50.0 percent of his red zone pass attempts in 2017. As a great man once said, are you not entertained!?!?

Luke Willson Fantasy Outlook

According to the latest ADP data at FanBall, Luke Willson is going off the board in round No. 21 as TE45. If you don’t want to take a Gronk or a Kelce in the fourth round of your drafts (very wise) but are too lazy to stream the tight end position, then Willson could be the late round tight end for you. Dynasty owners should probably find a way to get him on the end of their rosters too, just in case.

Willson is only signed for one season with the Lions. But if you wait to see what he does in 2018 he’ll be too expensive before 2019. Would you be able to live with yourself next year when he’s a solid TE1 in fantasy, knowing that you read this and (despite being entertained, of course) you did nothing and let another owner in your league pick him up?