The signs of summer are beginning to pile up: Kids are getting out of school, the NHL and NBA playoffs are entering their third month, and fantasy football magazines are hitting the newsstands. Sure it’s early, and average draft positions—not to mention depth charts and fantasy rankings—will see plenty of tweaking before September. But while there’s almost three months between now and the kickoff of the NFL season, what better way is there to spend your summer than mulling over your favorite sleepers for your upcoming fantasy drauction?
As you stoke those heated debates—be they over a few beverages at a nearby establishment or within your own mind as you ponder your late-round draft strategy—here are a few players with upside to keep in mind. And while I’m not particularly adept at blowing my own horn, it’s certainly worth noting that in this very column last year Huddle readers were alerted to three bona fide 2009 fantasy studs—Jamaal Charles, Miles Austin, and Visanthe Shiancoe—who weren’t being drafted as starters.
Chad Henne, QB, Dolphins
For those of you who remember Dan Marino for his acting in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective rather than his pass-throwing prowess, the thought of a Dolphins’ offense that moves the ball through the air might be difficult to comprehend. Last year only four teams threw fewer TD passes than Miami’s 14, and Dolphins’ quarterbacks ranked 26th in fantasy scoring. However, over the final five weeks of the season, Henne’s strong finish to the 2009 season was good enough for eighth in fantasy scoring; his 1,449 yards over that span ranked fifth—ahead of Brees, Favre, Rodgers, Brady, and both Mannings, among others—and no one completed more passes.
Take that strong finish, accomplished with the likes of Davone Bess, Brian Hartline, and Greg Camarillo as his primary targets, and add to that a talented wideout with three straight 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons in Brandon Marshall. If Henne can put up numbers that project to a season of 4,435 yards (more than Aaron Rodgers last year) with no receivers, imagine what he can do with Marshall to throw to.
Also factoring into the mix is the state of Miami’s running game. Ricky Williams is 33 and is coming off his biggest workload since 2003 even though he’s started a total of 14 games over the past six seasons, while Ronnie Brown is coming off a serious foot injury that has him iffy for the start of training camp. In other words, you can’t bank on 450-plus quality carries from Dolphins’ backs again this year.
Extrapolating Henne’s final five games over a full 16-game slate is, admittedly, overly optimistic. However, expecting 17 other quarterbacks (Henne’s ADP of 126 puts him in the 11th round and ranks 18th among QBs) to put up better fantasy numbers than a guy with a new stud receiver, a dinged-up ground game, and a gaudy 277 yards per game average over his last five games... well, that’s just silly. So when the quarterback talent drops off a dozen or so players in, don’t fret; grab Henne as a backup with significant upside.
Michael Bush, RB, Raiders
Just prior to the draft, Raiders coach Tom Cable indicated he wanted one primary ball-carrier to emerge from his backfield committee. There’s little doubt this was a subtle “put up or shut up” to former fourth-overall pick Darren McFadden, who thus far has been able to hid behind even bigger first-round bust JaMarcus Russell in the Oakland doghouse. Two months later, Cable has already backtracked and talked about using both of his young backs in a committee.
By August, would it surprise anyone if Bush is the primary ball-carrier, with small doses of McFadden mixed in?
It’s not just that Run DMc has been more Limp DMc, missing seven full games in two years due to injury while being limited in several others. He’s also been largely ineffective, with a career average of 3.9 yards per carry and one 100 yard game to his credit—and that was back in Week 2 of his rookie season. Meanwhile, Bush and Justin Fargas have filled in the gaps more than admirably; last season Bush had the most fantasy points of any Raiders back, ranking 43rd to Fargas’ 47th and McFadden’s 53rd.
Bush has also bested McFadden at just about every statistical measure along the way: career yards per carry (4.6 to 3.9), 100 yard games (three to one), even ball security (three fumbles in 254 touches for Bush, eight fumbles in 267 touches for McFadden.
If Oakland is looking for a back to hold up to a primary workload, it’s clearly going to be Bush. In 10 career NFL games with double-digit carries, Bush has three 100-yard games and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Since McFadden’s 21-164 “breakout” back in September of 2008 he hasn’t even topped 75 yards in eight games with double-digit totes, averaging almost a yard less than Bush—and a paltry 3.9 ypc if you take out that one big game against the Chiefs.
Want a back who can run between the tackles? It’s clearly not McFadden, who has averaged 3.5 yards per carry running inside and has demonstrated a propensity for going down on first contact. Bush’s inside average, meanwhile, is a half-yard better. And with former o-line coach Cable coaching up two rookie upgrades along the Oakland line—tackle Jared Veldheer and guard Bruce Campbell—that number should only improve.
In kicking Russell to the curb this spring the Raiders demonstrated they’re no longer offering free passes for first-round picks who fail to live up to expectations. The fantasy football public isn’t quite convinced, with McFadden still going off the board in the sixth or seventh round (ADP of 81, the 31st running back taken) and Bush a round or two later (ADP of 98, the 36th back selected). But when push comes to shove, there’s little doubt who the more productive Raider runner is going to be: bet on the guy who makes it to the field, doesn’t put the ball on the ground, breaks the occasional tackle, and in short is the better NFL back. Even the formerly dysfunctional Raiders, who now seem to be pointing in the right direction, will figure this out sooner rather than later.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Jets
WHAAA?!?! A sure-fire Hall of Famer a sleeper? Is that even legal? When the ADP of that HOFer puts him in the 11th round, yeah, it’s all good.
But allow me to digress for a moment. In the interest of full disclosure, had this article been penned about a month earlier it would be LenDale White and not LT in this spot. White was in shape, reunited with a college coach that fed him the ball, and poised to be a 200-plus carry back behind an Alex Gibbs offensive line; all signs pointed towards fantasy dynamite. Instead, LenDale’s apathy and general malaise cost him his roster spot in Seattle; thankfully, it happened before most rational people had their draft. But keep an eye on the Seahawks, because Alex Gibbs is still the line coach there and whomever they anoint as their primary ball-carrier will be fantasy gold. Just a warning to those of you hoping it will be Justin Forsett: the trades for White and Leon Washington and their current search for a back suggests that, for whatever misguided reasons, they aren’t willing to trust Forsett with the majority of the carries. Unless, of course, everybody else gets hurt or performs so poorly they have no other choice. You know, like last year. So we’re sayin’ there’s a chance. And now, back to your original program.
Now that you’ve had a little additional time to adjust to the thought of the one-time consensus first overall fantasy pick being relegated to sleeper status, let’s talk about why.
It’s been painfully obvious over the past two seasons, as LT has fallen from first to seventh to 19th in fantasy scoring among running backs, that he’s lost a step or two. But despite missing two games last year, despite losing touches to Darren Sproles, despite a banged-up offensive line, despite losing his bellcow status in the offense to Philip Rivers and the passing game... despite just about everything possible going wrong, Tomlinson was still at worst a solid RB2 in almost every scoring format imaginable.
That said, he’s clearly no longer a feature back. The mileage associated with 3,400 NFL touches and a decade as the NFL’s top back have taken their toll. You’re not going to see LT produce another 28 touchdown season, and after topping out at 730 last year his 1,000-yard days are likely behind him as well. But as his dozen touchdowns last year proved, he still has a nose for the stripe.
You’ll note that veteran backs who changed teams and actually amounted to something did so in a goal line role: Corey Dillon with the Patriots, Jerome Bettis with the Steelers (though he still had some solid yardage campaigns with them as well), even all the way back to Marcus Allen with the Chiefs. It’s a role that isn’t taxing to a 30-year-old body, yet it capitalizes on their years of experience in a productive manner.
It will also help the Jets ease Shonn Greene into his role as the team’s back of the future. After a strong showing in last season’s playoff run, Greene is creeping into the first round in some drafts and definitely going off the board a good six to eight rounds earlier than Tomlinson. But despite the playoff performance he still has just 108 regular season NFL carries to his credit and is hardly a proven commodity. Moreover, Greene is a bit of a fumbler—three in those 108 touches last year, a higher ratio than purported butterfingers Adrian Peterson. And with only one reception in his NFL career, including the playoffs, it’s clear that LT will at minimum have third down duties to himself.
So you’re not getting the mid-2000s Tomlinson; you’re also not paying the steep price required to secure his services back then. Instead, you’re getting the veteran, pass-catching and quite possibly goal-line portion of a committee headed by an inexperienced fumbler, running behind a solid offensive line on an offense that ran the ball more than any other team in the NFL last year. And you’re getting it at a bargain-basement price to boot.
Devin Hester, WR, Bears
Much of the Mike Martz hype in Chicago is misguided, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way for you to capitalize. First, let’s debunk the notion that Martz’s arrival will suddenly lead to 5,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns for Jay Cutler. With the arrival of their new quarterback last year, Da Bears have already made the transition from a club Walter Payton would recognize into an aerial circus, ranking eighth in the league in passing attempts—their first single-digit showing this millennium.
So let’s be more realistic and assume more modest increases for Cutler and the Bears’ passing game; the significant changes will come in how that production is distributed among the receivers. Martz offenses ignore the tight end, which means that the Bears’ leading receiver from 2009, Greg Olsen (60-612-8), is unlikely to reprise that role this season. Earl Bennett (54-717-2) isn’t an ideal fit for a Martz offense and at present is battling Javier Iglesias for the WR4 spot, so his numbers will drop off as well. Add in the projected upticks and there should be an additional 800 or so yards and half a dozen touchdowns for the top three wideouts to divvy up.
If the current ADPs are to be believed, Devin Aromashodu (ADP 102, WR 33, somewhere in Round 8-9) will be claiming the lion’s share of those numbers. Johnny Knox (ADP 138, WR 46, Round 11-12) is the next most popular Bears wideout, with Hester bringing up the rear at ADP 141, WR 47, Round 11-12. And while I’m on board with both Aromashodu and Knox as decent sleepers, if you’re going to give me Hester—the team’s second-leading receiver last year—in the same draft position or later, I’m more than happy to take him instead.
Hester seems to be an ideal fit for what Martz wants out of his wide receivers: there’s no questioning his speed, and his ability as a return man speaks to what he can do YAC-wise. He’s also the one Bears wideout who’s actually “done it” already; while Knox and Aromashodu flashed bits of their upside last year, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding them—including which one will start opposite Hester.
So when the Martz hype hits your draft and Chicago’s second and third receivers go off the board earlier than they should, remain calm. If ADP is to be believed, you’re going to get the No. 1 wideout in a Martz offense 40-plus receivers in—and laugh all the way to a winning season.
Mike Thomas, WR, Jaguars
You actually don’t have to go back to the days of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell to find the last time the Jaguars provided to fantasy-relevant wide receivers; in 2005, Ernest Wilford chipped in 681 yards and seven touchdowns alongside Smith’s 1,023 and six. Since then, the wingman in Jacksonville hasn’t topped four touchdowns, and the 722 yards Torry Holt produced in 2009 was the best by a Jags WR2 by more than 100 yards.
Enter Thomas (ADP 195, WR 65, Round 16-17), who produced 453 yards and a touchdown as a rookie last year despite making just four starts and missing the first two games completely. Extrapolate his looks and catches in those four starts and you’re looking at triple-digit targets and a solid 80-catch season. Those numbers aren’t far-fetched when you consider that the Jaguars will have to replace Holt’s 51-722, and that Troy “Hands of Stone” Williamson is Thomas’ only competition (and we use that term loosely) for the starting gig opposite Mike Sims-Walker.
Another trend in Thomas’ favor is that the Jaguars’ Pro Bowl quarterback, David Garrard, is being pushed to perform better. Not that Luke McCown would be a significant upgrade, but if Garrard can continue building on some of the more positive aspects of last year—his yards-per-attempt creeping back up into the 7.0s, his interceptions on the decline—he’s bound to bring another receiver’s numbers with him.
And Sims-Walker is no sure thing, either. While MSW was the go-to guy early in the year, over the final six games Thomas had more catches for more yards, outperformed him straight-up in four of the six games (and we’ll call the one catch for six yards vs. one catch for five yards debacle vs. Miami a draw), and matched his touchdown total. Who’s to say that Thomas hasn’t usurped Sims-Walker as Garrard’s favorite target? As a solid WR2 with the potential to be his team’s WR1, Thomas has at least as much if not more upside than half of the 64 receivers regularly going off the board ahead of him.
Fred Davis, TE, Redskins
It’s a different kind of year at tight end, with no true sleeper candidate jumping out. You could make a strong case for seven different TEs (Davis, Gates, Clark, Celek, Gonzo, Witten, Finley) to be among the first off the board at their position, and then there’s another half dozen or so with serious upside—though you can’t really call Kellen Winslow or Owen Daniels a sleeper.
Visanthe Shiancoe (ADP 133, TE 14, Round 10-12) could qualify, but that wouldn’t exactly be news to Huddlers as he appeared in this very column last year and rewarded those astute readers with the sixth most productive fantasy season at his position. Zach Miller is another candidate, but the Huddle rankings position him at a solid #8, and it would be tough to provide a compelling argument that he’ll outperform one of those top seven. Rookies like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Jimmy Graham in New Orleans, and Jermaine Gresham in Cincinnati are intriguing, but they’re still first-years.
That leaves me to reach a bit for Davis, with an ADP of 191 (Round 15-16), the 21st tight end off the board; he’s the best candidate among the deep tight ends to put up fantasy starter numbers. Despite not seeing significant action until Chris Cooley went down with an injury in Week 7, Davis finished 15th in fantasy scoring among tight ends. So we know he’s capable if given the opportunity.
The Redskins added tight end lover Donovan McNabb in the offseason, and he’ll be running a Mike Shanahan offense under the direction of Kyle Shanahan. In other words, throw the productivity of guys like Brent Celek, Shannon Sharpe, and Owen Daniels in a blender and you’ll get some idea of what Washington tight ends can produce. So we know the opportunity could be there.
Of course, with Cooley back from his broken leg to claim his starting spot it appears as if Davis will have to fight just to get on the field. But a look at the Redskins’ wide receiver depth chart suggests that perhaps the Shanahans have another plan.
“Whatever it is, our best player is going to be out on the field,” Kyle Shanahan said following the Redskins’ first minicamp. “If we feel two tight ends are better than three receivers, we’ll put two tight ends out there and go with two receivers. It’s whatever your personnel is, and you have to adjust that way as a coach.”
You’re not drafting Davis as your starter; the position is too deep for that to be necessary. But once you get to the dime-a-dozen portion of the program, why settle for the ho-hum of Bo Scaife or Kevin Boss when there’s a guy who scored six touchdowns in the final 10 games of last season still out there? Whether he’s a handcuff to Cooley or just a late-round swing-for-the-fences kind of pick, there are plenty of scenarios in which Davis could give you a competitive advantage at the tight end position.