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An Early Look at Fantasy Football Sleepers
John Tuvey
May 31, 2013
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Despite the inevitable changes that tweak rankings between Memorial Day and Kickoff Weekend, The Huddle’s early sleepers article consistently identifies value picks. Last year four of the six early sleepers outperformed their final average draft position, led by Carolina tight end Greg Olsen (ADP 16, final ranking sixth among tight ends). Willis McGahee missed joining that group by just one spot (ADP 23, final ranking 24th) despite playing in just 10 games due to injury. And as for Darius Heyward-Bey (ADP 39, actual ranking 50th)… sorry ‘bout that.

But enough about the past; it’s time to prove ourselves once again. Whether your league simply can’t wait and holds its fantasy football draft in June, or you just want a head start on preparations for the more typical August draft, it’s never too early to line up your sleepers. And we’re here to help.

QUARTERBACKS

It’s easy to dislike Jay Cutler, if for no other reason than facial expressions that range from “Roberto Garza is wearing my jersey again?” to “I just chugged a gallon of sour milk.” But burned fantasy owners have yet to forget how he turning the explosive potential of a Mike Martz offense into multiple seasons of mediocre numbers and fantasy heartbreak.

For crying out loud, last year Cutler scored fewer fantasy points than Christian Ponder!

So it should come as no surprise that Cutler’s current ADP hovers in the middle of the QB2s, the 19th quarterback off the board with an expected draft position in the 12th round.

But much has changed in Chicago, and all of it favors bigger and better numbers from Cutler. Let’s start at the top, where Marc Trestman takes over as the Bears’ head coach. It’s a seismic shift in philosophy from the defensive-minded Lovie Smith to Trestman, who has a reputation as a quarterback whisperer. His impressive NFL resume includes quality seasons from Steve Young, Bernie Kosar, and Jake Plummer as well as Rich Gannon’s 2002 MVP campaign.

Trestman then took his knowledge north of the border, where Anthony Calvillo averaged better than 5,000 yards a season and won two MVP awards and two Grey Cups in five years with the Montreal Alouettes. More importantly, at least in regards to what Cutler has had to deal with the past couple of seasons in Chicago, Trestman’s version of the West Coast offense dramatically reduced the number of sacks Calvillo suffered. The season prior to Trestman taking over, the Alouettes surrendered 68 sacks in 625 pass attempts; Trestman’s offense cut that number to 22 in 712 dropbacks.

Cutler still has Brandon Marshall at his disposal, as well as emerging talent Alshon Jeffery and yet another big target in new tight end Martellus Bennett. And Trestman’s passing game heavily involves the running back—again, playing to a strength of the Bears’ personnel: Matt Forte is as good a pass-catching back as there is in the league.

Cutler hasn’t had a 4,000-yard season since leaving Denver, nor has he cracked the top 10 quarterbacks in fantasy scoring as a Bear. But he was the third-ranked fantasy QB in 2008, when he averaged 38 pass attempts a game. Trestman’s quarterbacks in Montreal averaged more than 35 throws a game, suggesting Cutler will get a real opportunity to cut loose this year. Cutting loose should make Jay happy, and a happy Cutler is a productive Cutler—which in turn makes the fantasy owner who snags him at a backup-level price equally giddy.

RUNNING BACKS

Shonn Greene was a top-15 fantasy back last season. Let that sink in for a second.

Greene’s 1,063 utterly pedestrian yards, at 3.8 yards a carry, came on a Jets team with almost no passing threat, behind an offensive line that opened more holes for the backs (fourth in the NFL at 4.38 adjusted line yards per carry, according to Football Outsiders stats) than you might expect. Contrast that with the Jets’ 0.45 open field yards, third-worst in the league, and it’s clear Greene got what was blocked and nothing more.

So it’s no surprise the Jets let Greene walk this offseason. And for a while it looked as if Joe McKnight, and later Mike Goodson, might wind up as the beneficiary of Gang Green’s combo platter of zero passing game and an effective offensive line. But when the Jets pulled the trigger on a trade to add Chris Ivory to their backfield mix, a legitimate fantasy sleeper was born.

Ivory averaged 5.1 yards per carry in limited opportunities with the Saints, a workload bemoaned by many fantasy owners who salivated at the thought of Ivory seeing increased touches. And no wonder: in the seven games where Ivory saw 15 or more carries he averaged 98 yards (at a robust 5.75 yards per carry) and scored four times.

Clearly Ivory is capable of getting more than what is blocked, so the numbers Green put up feel like a baseline. That would make Ivory at minimum a fantasy RB2 producer, with obvious big-play upside. Getting that sort of potential in the ninth round as the 41st running back off the board—Ivory’s current ADP—certainly mitigates any risk that Ivory might not hold up to an expanded workload. You can always add Goodson (if he stays out of jail) or McKnight as a last-pick handcuff; after all, if the Jets’ offensive line can make Greene look competent they can make any back a serviceable fantasy helper.

Guess which team led the NFL in fantasy points scored by running backs last year? Surprise! It was Tom Brady’s Patriots, and it wasn’t even close; not only did New England set the pace with 26.6 RB fantasy points per game, that was two more points per game than second-place New Orleans and four more points than any other team.

So it makes sense that Stevan Ridley, a top-10 producer last year, has an ADP in the third round and is one of the first 20 backs off the board. However, even with Ridley so effective last year Danny Woodhead’s contributions earned him a top-25 ranking among fantasy backs. With Woodhead now in San Diego, the Patriots are looking for someone to step into those stats—and that someone is Shane Vereen.

You may remember Vereen as the back the Patriots drafted a round earlier than Ridley back in 2011, who was expected to contribute earlier but battled a hamstring injury as a rookie and a foot injury last year. More recently, Vereen dropped 124 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns on the Texans in New England’s playoff win last season—catching five balls (after just eight regular-season grabs all year) to demonstrate he’s capable of taking over Woodhead’s third-down duties.

Bill Belichick’s revolving door backfield can be frustrating for fantasy owners, but there’s plenty of numbers to go around. Ridley still looks like the lead dog in this committee, but ball security issues have landed him in Belichick’s doghouse in the past, and he didn’t have a 100-yard game over the second half of last season. Even Ridley himself has acknowledged that Vereen’s role is increasing, and if it encompasses Woodhead’s third-down numbers plus his own explosive change of pace back productivity, Vereen will dramatically outperform an ADP that slots him in the eighth round as a low-end RB3, the 36th back off the board.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Be it the plain orange helmets or the dink-and-dunk offense, the Cleveland Browns have been boring for quite some time. Last year, however, Josh Gordon single-handedly tried to change that. The supplemental draft pick caught 50 balls for 805 yards and five touchdowns despite missing OTAs and not having played any football since the 2010 college season.

As if a year of experience and a full session of offseason work isn’t reason enough to like Gordon’s prospects, instead of trying to break short West Coast offense routes Gordon will put his speed to significantly better use in Norv Turner’s more vertical, more aggressive offense. Despite the restrictions of last year’s offense Gordon averaged a robust 16.1 yards per catch, eighth in the NFL; now he’ll be playing the role that produced better than 17 yards per catch for Vincent Jackson and Danario Alexander in San Diego.

Gordon has already expressed excitement with the Browns’ new offense. “Defenses will be shocked to say the least with how much we’re running down field,” Gordon told the Akron Beacon Journal. “I’ve never ran this much as a wide receiver ever in my life, and that’s a good thing.”

If you’re throwing in with Gordon you’re banking on Brandon Weeden being at least somewhat productive. But like Gordon, Weeden should thrive in a new offense that plays more to both his and Gordon’s strengths. Last year’s numbers placed Gordon 38th among wideouts in fantasy scoring, and despite the litany of reasons for optimism his ADP is a mere eight spots higher—the 30th receiver off the board, with an ADP that lands him early in the seventh round. A year of experience alone should be enough for Gordon to climb five spots in productivity; mix in the new offense and Gordon should easily achieve WR2 status, with enough big-play upside to climb even further.

The Jaguars are another team whose passing game inspires mostly yawns from fantasy owners. Yet despite Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne combining to set the quarterback position back a decade or so, Cecil Shorts still produced numbers (55-979-7) that ranked him 21st among wideouts in fantasy points per game.

The Jags didn’t upgrade at quarterback in the offseason, but since we’ve already seen what Shorts can do with the current crew that shouldn’t be an issue. Shorts should also get out of the gate quickly, as teammate Justin Blackmon will miss the first month of the season due to running afoul of the league’s substance abuse policy. While it means Shorts will draw the opposition’s top cover corner, it also means he’ll see a larger share of the targets.

There’s also hope that upgrades to the Jacksonville offensive line and a new offense designed to help Gabbert make quicker, more definitive reads and get rid of the ball sooner will bolster the passing game as well. Mix in Maurice Jones-Drew’s combo platter of injury, dissatisfaction with his contract, and off-the-field legal issues and for at least the first month Shorts will be Jacksonville’s primary offensive playmaker.

And yet after producing under similar circumstances last year, Shorts’ ADP lands him in the seventh round, barely a fantasy WR3 as the 34th receiver off the board. Seriously, the expectation among drafters is that despite not having Blackmon to siphon looks and with the potential for improved quarterback play, Shorts will be worse than last year? Please, take advantage of fantasy football’s obvious disgust with all things Gabbert and treat yourself to a real value in Shorts.

What does Steve Smith have to do to get some respect? The Rodney Dangerfield of fantasy wide receivers recorded a second straight 1,000-yard season—his seventh overall—and ranked 25th among wideouts in fantasy scoring. That puts him on the cusp of being a WR2, yet his ADP heading into 2013 positions him barely as a WR3, the 36th wide receiver off the board with an ADP that lands him in the eighth round.

Sure, at 34 Smith is no spring chicken. But last year’s 16.1 yards per catch was the third-best mark of his 12-year NFL career, so he’s not slowing down at all. Cam Newton is still at the helm in Carolina, and he still has a fondness for throwing Smith’s way with 267 targets over the past two seasons. And the Panthers didn’t add anyone to threaten Smith’s role as the alpha male in their passing game.

Bottom line, while there is no longer a ton of upside to Smith’s game there is also no reason to think it will tail off this season. Let others prematurely bury Smith’s fantasy career; getting WR2 production at WR3 or WR4 prices is how you build a winner, and all signs point to Smith being a solid value at his current ADP.

TIGHT ENDS

Despite a revolving door of players at the position over the past four seasons, the Giants have received steady, if unremarkable, production from their tight ends. Since 2009 Giants tight ends have caught 56, 57, 55, and 59 passes and scored 5, 7, 5, and 6 touchdowns. That’s middle-of-the-pack productivity as a team, though last year Martellus Bennett housed the vast majority of those numbers for himself and clocked in as the 14th most productive fantasy tight end—ahead of, among others, Vernon Davis, Aaron Hernandez, and Jermichael Finley.

This year the Giants will break in their fourth new starting tight end in as many seasons, and this time they’ve brought in a true pass-catching threat in former Raider Brandon Myers. Last year Myers finished fourth in targets and receptions and ninth in fantasy scoring among tight ends despite the myriad struggles of the Oakland offense. Much of that productivity was jammed into a seven-game midseason run in which he averaged seven catches for 61 yards a game and scored all four of his touchdowns—a run capped by a monster 14-130-1 outing against the Browns in Week 13. For the final month of the season Myers was an afterthought, with just 10 catches and 85 yards, though at least part of the drop-off could be attributed to the separated shoulder Myers played through all season long.

It’s unlikely Myers will see triple-digit targets again; the 90 Bennett saw last year was the most for a Giants’ tight end—by a wide margin—since Jeremy Shockey’s 93 in 2007. But Myers is also the best pure pass-catching tight end the Giants have had since the Shockey era. He’ll appreciate the quarterback upgrade to Eli Manning, while Manning will enjoy having a solid target over the middle of the field—and in the red zone. And if the contract issues of either (or both) Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks affect their availability, maybe Myers does get Shockey-like looks.

The potential for Shockey-like productivity from a tight end with an average draft position in the 13th round makes Myers an intriguing sleeper candidate. And the consistent productivity of the tight end position in New York puts a baseline on Myers’ stats that still outperforms an ADP as the 19th tight end off the board. Either way, Myers is a solid alternative to throwing an early pick at Rob Gronkowski (ADP: Round 2) or chasing the frustration that is Jermichael Finley (ADP: Round 10).


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