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2014 Fantasy Football Sleepers: 44 names to consider
Fantasy football championships routinely are won by identifying the correct sleeper targets. You won't always be right, and mitigating the damage is important when you aren't. In other words, avoid being the overzealous owner who reaches by four rounds to grab a player based on the promise of what he might do. That doesn't mean you cannot select a sleeper earlier than what "the book" says but understand you are removing some of the value gained if you do. Smart drafting is all about relative value.
The following players have varying degrees of sleeper potential attributed to them, and some of them are simply undervalued. This list will evolve as the offseason progresses, so be sure to check back for additions and subtractions.
Already listed in our "Breakout Players" article, Tannehill is in an awesome situation to shine. He is barely being selected as a QB2 in many leagues, nevertheless I expect top-12 results. Despite being sacked a whopping 58 times in 2013, Tannehill improved his accuracy (60.4 percent), touchdowns per completion (14.79), and rating (81.7). Rating doesn't matter directly for fantasy purposes, but it lends to the bigger picture. A new offensive coordinator -- Bill Lazor -- comes from Philly with his high-flying vertical attack, which will benefit from an improved offensive line. This system suits RB Lamar Miller better, and wideout Mike Wallace should feel right at home in a DeSean Jackson-like role. It may not always be pretty, but you can expect nearly 4,200 yards and at least 30 total touchdowns from Tannehill in Year 3.
Rebound candidate? Yeah, that applies, too. I'm going with sleeper, because he has the potential to be a top-five passer in 2014. Offensive-minded head coach Jay Gruden will give Griffin more freedom at the line of scrimmage, and the athletic passer is 100 percent healthy entering the season. He has a new toy in wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and tight end Jordan Reed is a blossoming threat. RG3's schedule is awesome. He won't run as much as in his rookie year, but Griffin still can contribute worthy ground stats that enhance his value.
Rookie quarterback Derek Carr is already making noise, but even if he eventually takes over the starting gig this season, Schaub was a low-risk investment. The Raiders have a better offensive line, receiving corps, backfield and defense, in theory. You can't entirely forget last year happened for Schaub, but diminish the bad, because luck was not on his side most of the year, and Houston was generally a mess. He's a reasonable No. 2 fantasy passer, more so if you have a premier QB1.
Sleeper? Probably not, by definition, anyway. He had a career season in 2013 and spun that into a starting gig for Lovie Smith in Tampa. Undervalued? That's more like it. Production could be inconsistent, and matchups against Carolina and St. Louis to begin the year won't help his cause. It gets easier, though, with tilts at the Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New Orleans Saints -- a good three-game barometer for his mettle. McCown's sked gets much easier, facing the Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta again, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, as the year wears on. McCown comes off the board near the tail end of standard drafts, yet he could produce numbers more closely in line with the tail end of the starting crop.
Manuel has a year of experience, so the game should slow down for him in this pass-friendly system. He has respectable weapons and a potentially lethal running game to rely on. You could do worse as a flier QB2 to back up an elite No. 1.
Yes, he was pretty bad last year, but he wasn't that bad. The team around him has improved in a big way, including an upgraded line, backfield, and cast of receivers. Michael Vick doesn't appear to be a threat to his job, and Smith could take a huge step in Year 2, especially if he was humbled at all. Flier QB2 or QB3 in deep leagues.
A full offseason to digest the playbook, along with lowered expectations, Richardson is on the rise in fantasy leagues. He may not be a value pick as the offseason moves along, but the third-year back offers a lot to like. He can catch the football -- rather well, actually -- and has three-down appeal. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and Vick Ballard (knee) are coming back from serious injuries. Quarterback Andrew Luck should take a huge step forward, which will only help Richardson face fewer stacked fronts. You might be able to get him as a third back, and he has weak RB1 upside. Consider firm No. 2 returns to be worth the investment.
Running back Zac Stacy played admirably in 2013, but he is not talented enough to be the fantasy darling as often professed. "Three yards and a cloud of dust" aptly explains Stacy's game, and he's just an average pass catcher. St. Louis drafted the versatile Mason, and the rookie is already threatening Stacy's job security. The grasp isn't as firm as some want you to believe. Pass on Stacy in the first two rounds and take a shot on Mason in the Rounds 6-8 territory. He, at worst, will be a third-down pass receiver in this conservative offense. I am a firm believer that talent eventually wins out. Mason is an RB3 target.
Here's the hitch: How much playing time will the talented Robinson see? Sean Payton is notorious for rotating his backs. Darren Sproles is gone, and that wasn't by accident. Pierre Thomas cannot do it all by himself, and the Saints declined to pick up the 2015 contract option for Mark Ingram. That, too, wasn't an accident. Travaris Cadet could cut into Robinson's time, although it seems unlikely. K-Rob has top-20 fantasy potential -- key word -- but doesn't deserve a matching selection. At the right price, and tempered expectations (just realize what you're getting), Robinson could be a steal as a No. 3 running back.
While there was some internal disagreement about including Ridley, I feel the door hasn't closed on him just yet. He is the best overall running back in this backfield and would have been traded away if Bill Belichick was entirely done with Ridley's fumbling ways. Ridley is the only true touchdown threat in this backfield, now that LeGarrette Blount is gone, and he could approach 1,000 rushing yards. PPR owners should consider Shane Vereen the more sensible target, however. Ridley is an RB2 at the price of a third fantasy back. Enjoy!
Knowshon Moreno (knee) is already on the mend, even if the prognosis has him ready well before Week 1. Daniel Thomas has proven himself to be a less-than-desirable fantasy commodity, and Miller, while underachieving, hasn't been terrible in his short NFL career. Miami's passing game should open up more lanes, as should a vastly improved offensive line, as long as center Mike Pouncey (hip) returns as scheduled.
Yes, he is also in our risky player feature. Tate is still a sleeper. What good sleeper candidate isn't risky? Tate could be a combinational contributor for fantasy owners, but his biggest drawback is an utter lack of durability. Don't agree too loudly ... an IR trip for Tate may follow. Cleveland's offense should be heavily reliant on the running game, especially if wide receiver Josh Gordon is indeed suspended for the season. This works as a double-edged sword, though, allowing defenders to stack the box with regularity. Rookie running back Terrance West could snipe goal line work, however, and that lowers Tate's worth in traditional formats. Tate is risky, I know! The veteran's PPR appeal is somewhere in the neighborhood of RB3 on draft day, since Tate could catch somewhere near 60 balls this season.
Running back Rashad Jennings does nothing to instill excitement in me. By virtue of the potential for touches alone, the overachieving Boston College alum deserves fantasy attention. Oh, and he is still more talented than Jennings. At some point in 2014, head coach Tom Coughlin will realize that Williams gives them the best chance to win games. Hopefully it isn't woefully too late. Fresh off a 355-carry, 2,177-yard collegiate season, Williams is remarkably fresh, having just 359 total career touches in his first three years at BC. Target the 6-foot, 227-pound Williams in standard scoring. He offers nothing in the way of PPR appeal.
Frankly, my gut made this pick. Something inside of me is screaming that Matt Forte will succumb to a significant injury in 2014. I'm probably way off-based, but if that were to happen, Carey is the back you must own. He could be a beast in this system. Even if Forte manages to stay healthy after a 363-touch season, Carey might be involved in the passing game to limit the wear on the veteran to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Target Carey as a sly fourth running back, if you play in leagues that reward receptions. He is a must-handcuff for Forte owners.
The similarly built Danny Woodhead caught 76 balls in San Diego last year under new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt's guidance. McCluster could shine in a new system and surroundings after never living up to expectations in Kansas City. The Titans have a young team and an improved offensive line. Their receivers are capable blockers, which will help McCluster in space. It isn't outlandish to think he could catch 65-plus passes in his first year with Tennessee. Can he hold up to the pounding? Debatable, for sure, but he can't be any more fragile than that other "DMC" in Oakland who is drafted much higher. PPR-only for McCluster.
Is Roy Helu really firmly entrenched as the third-down back? Seastrunk had no experience in that role at Baylor, but he is awfully athletic and warrants a roster spot as a fifth fantasy back.
RBs Arian Foster and Andre Brown come with durability concerns. A new coaching staff likely means little loyalty to either veteran, if Blue were to play well in their absence. He has more long-term value than 2014 worth, however.
There is no question Murray is a physical specimen to behold, but how much does he have upstairs? Digesting an NFL playbook will be instrumental in his involvement. RB Darren McFadden is fragile, and tailback Maurice Jones-Drew has how much left in the tank? Tuck away Murray's name in deep setups.
You know my love for Hopkins, if you aren't a stranger to my blogs. He said the offense was tough for him to pick up earlier this offseason, but he has plenty of time to sort out that issue. Andre Johnson's seemingly nearing departure will affect Hopkins more than any other factor. Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback is not the issue (not great, but not a problem). AJ leaving means double-teams all day long for the talented second-year receiver (not great, but also not a problem). Johnson staying means single coverage for Hopkins more often than not (ideal situation). Stay tuned, and mark him down just a fraction if AJ indeed pouts his way out of town.
A West Coast system will allow Randle to move around the field to take advantage of mismatches. Tim Heaney penned about him in his Breakout Players release, and I feel so strongly about Randle that his inclusion as a sleeper is a must. The new offense is about improving precision and efficiency. Simplifying Randle's role is imperative, however, because he struggled mightily with advanced concepts in 2013. New York's selection of first-round wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring) can only help, since defenses will have to thin their coverage. Randle could score 10-plus times, if all goes right; he is an ideal fantasy flex receiver in upcoming drafts.
Another one of our breakout candidates for 2014, Stills will be given every opportunity to replace Lance Moore and increase his involvement. Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is getting all of the fantasy love, but Stills is the smarter choice and should be far more dependable than the even faster newcomer. This offense is built on spreading the ball, creating mismatches, and utilizing timing to exploit holes in zone coverage. Stills averaged a league-high 20.0 yards per reception and proved to be a dangerous deep threat as a rookie. He is a WR3 target for aggressive drafters.
Maybe he is a better "deep sleeper" by most estimations, yet Holmes has my full attention. He stands 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, giving quarterback Matt Schaub a huge, athletic target. Holmes played 10 games last year, starting four, and managed a 25-431-1 line. The 26-year-old receiver is mature and has stood out during the offseason program. Can he surpass Denarius Moore? No question. Rod Streater? Maybe. James Jones? Probably not (money dictating). Production will be inconsistent, and Holmes may struggle against better NFL cornerbacks, but you need to take a late-round gamble on him.
Woods is running as the No. 2 in Buffalo and for good reason. Let's presume Sammy Watkins is anything close to what he is billed to be, Woods will see a lot of single coverage. He managed 40-587-3 in 2013 as a rookie with laughable quarterback carousel. A Week 10 ankle injury cost resulted in a goose egg and cost him Week 11. Woods returned and cobbled together an acceptable five-game stretch to close out the year. A healthy EJ Manuel quarterbacking the offense, more talent around Woods, and a second year for the game to slow down, the young receiver is a budding asset.
Early reports say rookie tight end Jace Amaro is struggling to pick up the Jets' system. Wide receiver Eric Decker is more of a deep threat. Stephen Hill has struggled to stay on the field. Conflicting reports suggest running back Chris Johnson will have a large role, while others say he will be limited. Regardless, there is enough contrast and uncertainty believe Kerley may be the Jets' steadiest receiver. Kerley could be a PPR gem who sees reliable weekly targets from fledgling quarterback Geno Smith (presuming he holds off Michael Vick). Kerley is an uninspiring but safe No. 4 fantasy receiver at a WR5 or better price tag.
Very polished for a rookie, Matthews is learning all three positions and could be a Day 1 contributor in Chip Kelly's high-flying system. Are there enough passes to go around with running back Darren Sproles in the mix and tight end Zach Ertz expected to have a larger role? It sure seems like it. Matthews could be a touchdown machine and may be the best receiver on Philly's roster right now. He has No. 4 draft worth but could turn heads out of the gates.
Fellow rookie wide receiver Marqise Lee is a wildcard with this recommendation. Robinson is a totally different type of player, bringing size and strength to a receiving corps that is missing wideout Justin Blackmon (suspended indefinitely). The 6-foot-3, 210-pound rookie could be a go-to red zone threat for quarterback Chad Henne. Robinson has spent the offseason absorbing the playbook and learning his role. Robinson doesn't warrant a draft selection earlier than the waning rounds, unless he has a strong camp and/or preseason.
"Someone has to catch passes" is the mantra here. Oftentimes, that is a lame excuse to call someone a sleeper, but Cleveland paid handsomely to acquire Hawkins from the Cincinnati Bengals. Hawkins is a really, really small dude. You are justified in your worries that he won't make it through a season. Browns wideout Miles Austin is a really, really fragile dude. We all know he won't make it! Built 5-foot-7, 170 pounds of slot-receiving fury, Hawkins hauled in 51 balls for 533 yards and four scores in 14 games during the 2012 season. A similar line in Cleveland could be considered a respectable return for owners taking a late stab in reception-compensating setups.
Beasley is coming off a 39-catch season in the Big D and could see a larger role in 2014. He is a great fit for the slot and should become a safety blanket for quarterback Tony Romo (back), while defenders are focusing on Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Beasley may be an injury liability, but he could catch 50-plus balls for PPR owners.
While the rookie's volume of targets won't be eye-popping, WR Brandon Gibson (knee) was on pace for more than 60 receptions and six touchdowns before a season-ending injury last year. Landry should win the No. 3 job in Miami's new pass-friendly system. "New" is the operative word, so a similar role is not guaranteed. Landry is a clutch receiver whose savvy will endear him to the coaching staff. He's a late-round flier in the deepest of leagues.
After Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh's receiving cast is rather uncertain. Newcomer Lance Moore offers another veteran presence, but he has a new system to learn and chemistry to build. Bryant has a tremendous amount of physical talent and should be on your short list of late-round gambles. His skill set could make him a valuable red zone threat. Take a chance on him as a WR5.
Battling with Louis Murphy for the No. 3 receiver spot, Owusu has consistently drawn praise during the young offseason. He has size at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and brings the brains of a Stanford product to the table. While defenses are focusing on Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and even Doug Martin from the backfield, Owusu could reap the rewards of underneath single coverage. Leave him for the waiver wire, but remember Owusu's name if he starts the year with a PPR bang.
Forgive my lack of enthusiasm about anything that is KC wide receiving corps, but Hemingway has a little potential out of the slot, from where he caught his two touchdowns a season ago. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe may be in great shape and saying the right things, but history is against him. WR Donnie Avery's injury past and KC's offensive philosophy are his enemies. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Hemingway could excel in a short-area passing game by exploiting matchups with his size and reliable route running. Watch the second-year receiver on the waiver wire in standard formats.
This universal sleeper deserves your attention, but you must temper your expectations. Green is still the No. 2 tight end behind veteran Antonio Gates, even though new offensive coordinator Frank Reich will employ a lot of sets to keep both players on the field. Green will have several big outputs, but his lack of reliability could be maddening. The young tight end saw five or more targets in three games last year. Gates was targeted no less than six times in each of those games, proving the two can coexist on the field. He'd be a weekly play if that happened every game, finishing with roughly 50 receptions. Optimistic, no doubt, but within reach. Green is not a No. 1 fantasy tight end, and he likely will be overzealously drafted in most leagues. Anything after Round 9 is fair value.
Some dude named Anthony David Gonzalez retired this offseason, which opens 121 targets from last year. While not all of Tony Gonzalez's looks will be made up by the position, Toilolo had a year to learn from the assured Hall of Famer. WRs Roddy White, Julio Jones (foot) and Harry Douglas will help shield Toilolo from having to do too much, but the young Stanford product will be free to use his 6-foot-8 frame mostly against single coverage to make him a weekly touchdown flier. TE2 value, at a minimum.
An unsettled battle at tight end could result in a committee approach, but Robinson's athleticism could position him nicely for an increased role. New York's shift to a West Coast system will translate to more involvement from the position, and Robinson has the most intrigue of the group. He is a physical mismatch for most linebackers and even some strong safeties. Watch this one through training camp and into the preseason. Robinson has TE2 worthy and low-end No. 1 upside.
Kansas City's receivers lack the ability to inspire, and quarterback Alex Smith isn't a master of the deep passing game. Veteran tight end Anthony Fasano has durability concerns of his own and is a better blocker than receiver. Zero catches under his NFL belt, Kelce is a true sleeper. The upside is palatable, even for a player coming back from a torn left ACL. A year removed from surgery in October, Kelce is a sneaky TE2 who could shine in 2014.
Look, this is somewhat of an educated guess. Oakland has Nick Kasa and David Ausberry as options at tight end, too, after 2013 13-game starter Jeron Mastrud was allowed to walk after the year. Ausberry and Rivera are athletic enough to matter for fantasy purposes. The benefit of the doubt goes to Rivera, simply because he produced during limited time last year, and Ausberry is made of glass. Monitor this situation, but be confident that Oakland will throw a lot of short passes to tight ends this season.
Counting on TE Jermichael Finley (neck) to play again for the Packers is ill-advised. He may never play again, period. Green Bay spent a third-round pick on nimble tight end Richard Rodgers, and it is looking increasingly likely that the rook will start in 2014. Veteran Andrew Quarless was re-signed, and he has a certain comfort level with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. TE Brandon Bostick (foot) is overweight returning from injury. Stay tuned, but don't invest heavily in the rookie pass-catching tight end.
Kickers are a dime a dozen, and most owners use them based on their matchups. Sturgis could be an exception, as an improving Dolphins offense has him on the upswing. A so-so rookie year behind him, the Florida export made from 54 yards out last year. However, 50 percent of his misses came from 50 yards or more, which means it could go both ways. Draft him once the elite names are off the board.
Rookie kickers aren't particularly reliable, but Freese has shown poise and resiliency in his time at Boston College. He began his career 22-for-25 in 2010 before stumbling to a 62.5 (10-for-16) as a sophomore. He went on to make 38 of his next 40 field goals, including all 20 last year. His career long is 52 yards. Detroit's offense should provide ample field goal tries and 40-plus extra-point kicks. Freese is a mid- to low-end No. 1 fantasy kicker.
Defensive teams/special teams
A feeble preseason schedule could cause this group to soar up draft boards, so be prepared to spend. New head coach Lovie Smith brings his famed Cover 2 defense back to the Bucs. An improved pass rush should fuel turnovers from a strong defensive backfield. Tampa Bay's schedule is rather friendly, too, with matchups against the Atlanta Falcons (twice), Carolina Panthers (twice), Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints (twice), Baltimore Ravens, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. This D has top-10 prospects.
The Packers will be more aggressive this year, and they've added the defensive personnel to allow for it. A quality schedule should be ripe for the pickin', with six matchups against shaky divisional foes, as well as contests with the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints. This group will be better for owners whose scoring doesn't penalize for points allowed. They're a midrange target, if you're aggressive, but their sleeper value is as a late DT1.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was retained by incoming head coach Jay Gruden. The veteran coordinator will give the first-year head coach a reliable, proven mind to manage the defense, which allows Gruden to focus on his specialty, the offense. This group isn't draftable in standard formats, unless you are one of those owners who wastes a pick on a second defense in a 16-round draft. Consider the 'Skins (if that is still there name by the time the season begins) for their appealing matchups against the Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys (twice), Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants (twice), Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. This defense could be streamed more than Netflix in 2014!
Oakland spent the majority of their offseason collecting defensive talent at every level. They have a tough schedule, but a few matchups make them a waiver wire target to remember. The Raiders' new-look defense plays the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills, on the tempting side of the spectrum. Stream away!
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