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An Early Look at Some 2011 Fantasy Sleepers
John Tuvey
June 23, 2011
 

While the owners and players have yet to end their stalemate, preparations for the 2011 fantasy season must proceed. So even though 100-plus players will change teams once free agency opens, here’s a preliminary look at sleeper candidates for the coming season.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Buffalo
Waiting a few rounds and picking Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick as your fantasy QB may pay off in 2011.

QUARTERBACKS

This year’s crop of quarterbacks is remarkably deep, with the likes of Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, and Eli Manning still on the board in Round 7. Wait four to six more rounds, however, and you can still pick up Ryan Fitzpatrick, who outperformed Schaub, Ryan, and Manning on a per-game fantasy basis last year.

Fitzpatrick has no one challenging for his job, a proven veteran target in Lee Evans and an emerging star in Steve Johnson. The Bills should also get more from sophomore C.J. Spiller this season, particularly as a pass-catcher—further boosting Fitzpatrick’s numbers.

Clearly you aren’t drafting Fitz as your starter. But if you’re snagging him as a backup the only bind you’re likely to find yourself in is whether or not he’s outperforming your higher-drafted starter.

Much of Jay Cutler’s 2010 campaign was a disappointment, from his fantasy underachieving—wasn’t the marriage of Cutler and Mike Martz supposed to yield massive fantasy numbers?—to his controversial injury-related exit from the NFC title game.

Yet despite the wild inconsistencies, Cutler outperformed Joe Flacco and was within a point per game or less of Ryan, Schaub, and Josh Freeman. Those names will be gone by the end of the sixth round; Cutler will still be on the board in the ninth. In other words, you can get similar numbers—plus the tangy zip of the upside Martz’s passing game provides—along with three rounds of players as a bonus.

RUNNING BACKS

According to MyFantasyLeague’s ADP there are 29 running backs being taken before BenJarvus Green-Ellis is selected. How is that even possible? Green-Ellis was a top-20 fantasy back last season, with five- and three-game scoring streaks; in fact, the only back to score more rushing touchdowns was Arian Foster.

If the Patriots had spent a draft pick on Mark Ingram, then maybe I’d be listening to subdued expectations for BJGE; however, that’s not how New England’s offseason played out. Instead, the aging triumvirate of Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, and Kevin Faulk are all slated for free agency, replaced on the roster by rookies Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Vereen is more suited for third down duty, and while Ridley could swipe a handful of Green-Ellis’ touches as it stands right now BJGE is looking at a steady supply of double-digit carry games—something he did in 13 of 16 regular-season games last year. That should allow him to easily outperform his current eighth-round ADP.

It would be easy to sit back and let whomever drafts Adrian Peterson in your league pick up his handcuff, Toby Gerhart; the earliest Gerhart has gone off the board is the 10th round, with an average draft position that plants him around the 16th round—the 62nd back off the board. But consider that Minnesota’s new offensive brain trust comes from Atlanta (new OC Bill Musgrave) and Carolina (new line coach Jeff Davidson), and over the past three seasons no NFC teams have run the ball more or with more success than the Falcons and Panthers.

And while that’s good news for AP owners, it’s also a boon for those who stash Gerhart away. You already know the second-year back capable of stepping in when needed; witness his 22-76-1 against the Redskins when Peterson went down and 16-77 when AP missed the game against Chicago. But did you know that last year both Carolina and Atlanta had two backs who cracked the top 43 in fantasy production? Put another way; both Jason Snelling and Jonathan Stewart averaged roughly the same fantasy production in 2010 as Shonn Greene. There aren’t 60 backs with more fantasy upside than Gerhart, with or without AP on the field for 16 games. So don’t give the Peterson owner in your league piece of mind and another fantasy producer—at least not without paying dearly.

Once the lockout is lifted and free agency commences, the Dolphins are likely to find a back to help second-round pick Daniel Thomas carry the workload. But let’s say DeAngelo Williams follows John Fox to Denver and Miami has to play the cards they’ve been dealt; who’ll pick up the slack in an offense that has seen running backs handle the ball an average of 500 times a season over the past three years? Right now, that somebody appears to be Lex Hilliard, who touched the ball all of one time last season and has just 44 NFL touches to his credit. A deep, deep sleeper to be sure, but stranger things have happened so at least file away the name for future reference.

WIDE RECEIVERS

The Rams featured a revolving door at wide receiver last season, with six different players catching balls from Sam Bradford in 2010—and that didn’t even include perpetually injured Donnie Avery. So the cluster of wideouts that includes Avery and UFA Mark Clayton as well as rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas and holdovers Brandon Gibson, Laurent Robinson, Danario Alexander, and Mardy Gilyard has put something of a damper on expectations for Bradford’s favorite target from his ROY campaign.

Really? You’re scared off by two rookies, two sophomores, and a gaggle of guys who missed an average of seven games each last season and five the year before that? The majority of those players were still around when Danny Amendola was pacing the Rams in targets in nine games last year, and their injury track record hardly suggests they’ll stand in the way. Instead, consider that Amendola comes off a season in which he had exactly the same number of targets as Wes Welker—and now he gets Josh McDaniels, the guy who helped make Welker a PPR deity, calling his plays. With a current ADP that puts him in the 10th round, the 40th wideout off the board, he’s all but guaranteed to outperform his draft position.

Last season the Chargers had the league’s top offense, a feat they accomplished despite having the services of Vincent Jackson for only five games. Jackson is still unhappy about his contract, and while he’s been slapped with the franchise tag it’s no lock he’s back in San Diego this season.

The same can be said for Malcom Floyd, who may have the opportunity to test the free agent market once the lockout is lifted. However, there are two differences. First, Jackson will cost you on average a mid-third round pick; Floyd’s ADP is 95 picks later, right around the 11th round. And the second is that Floyd actually outperformed Jackson on a per-game basis last year, averaging roughly the same number of fantasy points each week as Larry Fitzgerald, Marques Colston, and Jeremy Maclin to rank 16th among wideouts.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but with Jackson still disgruntled and Floyd still penciled in as a top target for Philip Rivers it only makes sense to snap up a legitimate fantasy starter 10 rounds deep in your fantasy draft.

On many fantasy boards the Texans own both the top running back and top wide receiver. But you have to dig all the way down to the 118th receiver—a 30th-round ADP in a 12-team league—to find Kevin Walter. Jacoby Jones, a perennial tease who’s also a potential free agent, appears 37 spots higher on the ADP list; even Dorin Dickerson, who was drafted as a tight end/wide receiver hybrid and has yet to record his first pro catch, has a higher ADP than Walter.

And yet it’s Walter who will most likely be Andre Johnson’s wingman in Houston—a role with great potential, considering that defenses will be focusing their attention on AJ and Arian Foster. Even if Jones does return he’s hardly reliable, and his best fantasy production to date was 5.7 points per game last year, a number Walter has topped three of the last four seasons—including last year. For the price of the last pick in your draft you can get a half-dozen targets a game and a half-dozen touchdowns a season, with the potential for a significant uptick over that.

TIGHT ENDS

The Huddle’s preliminary rankings have Jermaine Gresham and Dustin Keller as top-10 tight ends; ADP doesn’t even have them as starters in most leagues, with both going off the board in the 12th round as the 16th and 15th tight ends, respectively. It’s a deep year for tight ends so this may be splitting hairs, but the upside exists for both Gresham and Keller to dramatically outperform their average draft positions.

Free agency could gut the Jets’ receiving corps, providing even more opportunities for Keller; last year with Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes still on the roster, Keller was targeted 101 times—more than Kellen Winslow or Vernon Davis. The fact that he hasn’t scored since Week 4 of last year only serves to keep a lid on his draft-day value; he was the Jets’ most-targeted receiver in the postseason and should only see his looks going up if Edwards and/or Holmes depart.

Gresham will also benefit from a thinning of the heard, with both Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco likely gone from Cincinnati. The Bengals will also have a new, TE-friendly West Coast offense and could be turning to rookie Andy Dalton or inexperienced quarterback Jordan Palmer—and you shouldn’t need to be reminded how much young QBs tend to lean on their tight ends. Already the 12th-most targeted tight end last year, Gresham is in line for a serious jump in looks—and a corresponding increase in production.


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