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Very Deep Sleeper: Luke Willson (Fantasy Football)

May 3, 2018

Should Luke Willson (pictured) garner more excitement than Trey Burton?

R.C. Fischer discusses deep sleeper candidate and Detroit Lions tight end Luke Willson in Season 3 of his Very Deep Sleeper series for FantasyPros.

This piece is part of our article program that features quality content from experts exclusively at FantasyPros. For more insight from R.C. head to Fantasy Football Metrics.

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Draft bust tight end Eric Ebron is no longer a Detroit Lion after he was released by the team this offseason. He was a prospect sold to all of us by all the draft experts as ‘the next Jimmy Graham‘ – and that was a scouting fraud. There was almost nothing about Ebron’s prospect profile that smacked of Jimmy Graham…but that ship has sailed.

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’ fifth-round draft pick tight end from 2017) to emerge? 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’ 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’ at this stage. I’ll explain…

First, let’s get re-introduced to Luke Willson. Here’s a glimpse of 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 fifth-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:

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 second 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 the incumbent 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 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 receive, and he scored a career-high high TDs last season on just 15 catches. If you look at 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.

Playing for Rice University, he worked in a feeble 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 the #158 pick in 2013. He made the roster as a rookie, which was not an assured thing from a fifth-round tight-end ‘reach.’ He worked up into a starter by year two, but then Seattle offensive coordinator 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. As a result, Willson was lost in the shuffle and the offense.

Willson still played a role despite Graham’s presence, and was a top blocker for them and worked on some special teams units. His 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 is pretty promising. In 17 career games in his career (regular or post-season), where he saw four 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, and 0.29 TDs per game.

Consider that the numbers above work out to 14.5 yards per catch…which would have been fourth best among NFL tight ends in 2017 (with 30 or more receptions). He caught 66.2% of his targets in those four+ 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 — that should hardly be an 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 four-or-more-targets-in-a-game games were exactly four targets in the game. 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 fourth 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 four 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 six+ 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 five guy. He has that kind of athleticism.

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? Those are the big questions

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 ends.
  • 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 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…but they didn’t. Part of the reason why has to be confidence in Willson on the depth chart. Right now, it’s Willson versus Roberts for the starting job.
  • -Willson sits atop the first Detroit depth charts that I’ve seen in 2018 (but there’s a way to go until Opening Day).

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

You might be excited by the up-until-now-buried tight end, Trey Burton, landing in Chicago with his big contract, and I am too. You assume he’d be the main starter and discount Adam Shaheen as a non-threat. Why isn’t there the same excitement for 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)!

Consider…

  • 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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