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Tandem Sleepers
Dennis Leonard
August 24, 2005

Okay, I made that term up. But a sleeper is basically a player that is flying under most people’s radar; a player not everyone is targeting. At least, not early. Tandem sleepers are two such players whose combined value exceeds the sum of their parts. To borrow a 1990’s buzzword: there’s “synergy.”

Let me be clear: I do NOT recommend specifically targeting any of these tandems. What I recommend is that you follow your draft plan and adjust to the value that falls to you. And when you get past the mid point and everything starts to look the same – when you’re ready to gamble some long odds – take a look at this list and see if both parts of any of these combinations are still available. If so, consider adding one. They may offer more upside than that second kicker or fifth wide receiver you were going to draft instead. You’ll notice that I’ve focused almost exclusively on the running back position, which seems to be a popular with the kids these days.

BRONCOS – RB: Mike Anderson and Quentin Griffin

Once again, the Broncos’ backfield is an open competition. I’ve advocated Mike Anderson a lot. And I think other folks are starting to, as well. While Anderson’s value is rising, he can still be drafted late; maybe the seventh or eighth round. He has held onto Denver’s #1 running back spot and Tatum Bell has failed to close the gap enough. ( Anderson has run the ball 11 times against first team defenses so far this preseason averaging 4.6 yard per carry; Bell has run the ball 19 times for a lesser 3.8 yards per carry and has played after Anderson).

For the last two seasons Denver has gone through a number of starting running backs, with the guy starting the season as the #1 not finishing as the #1. But Denver is only three years removed from using only one primary RB (Clinton Portis) for basically the whole season. So anything is possible, so long as Anderson produces and stays healthy. But, at a minimum, he should start at least a few of the early games this season.

If you secure Anderson as a like a #4 running back, then a late (likely final) round gamble on Quentin Griffin – who is not healthy enough to contented right now, but could later this season – makes more sense than for the public at large. Griffin has had made some hay with his past starting opportunities and is battling back pretty well from a 2004 knee injury. It looks like he’ll be capable of playing this season; just not right now. Maurice Clarrett is not a serious contender and may be cut or demoted to the practice squad. Ron Dayne, who is having his usual fabulous preseason (29 carries for 4.9 yards per carry), has never been useful in a real game and may not even make the roster. In fact, Dayne is still listed as Denver’s #4 RB, behind the injured Griffin.

That leaves Bell, Anderson, and Griffin in what is at most a three man race. And two-thirds of the Denver backfield – including the current starter – is a pretty decent #4 running back, given the late round value. This tandem is especially useful for squads facing Week 3 RB byes. Because in week three Denver faces Kansas City, who was fairly soft against the run last year. So Anderson should be able to hold on to the starting spot for at least long to be useful as an early bye week replacement for Jamal Lewis, Domanick Davis, Kevin Jones, or Clinton Portis. Griffin adds virtually free (though not guaranteed) insurance that in the event Anderson can’t go, you’ve still got Denver’s starting back.

BROWNS – RB: Rueben Droughns and William Green

Cleveland’s backfield is also an open competition, though coupled with injury risk. Lee Suggs is the presumptive starter and seems to be drafted in the fifth or sixth round of a 12 team league. However, I think his stock is falling on news of nagging, minor injuries that have already cost him some time; he has only taken 3 snaps in preseason so far. And a running back by committee is also possible for the Browns. Enter Droughns and Green.

Droughns is typically viewed as Suggs’ handcuff. If Droughns falls too far – and you’re looking for mid-draft running back depth – you steal Droughns. Then you add William Green before anyone else, which should still be in the late rounds. Depending on how preseason unfolds, you may walk away with a starting running back, or at least part(s) of a potentially productive running back by committee. And even if Suggs does start at some point in the season, he has proven – presently and historically – that he has trouble staying healthy.

I’ve seen Droughns go as early as the early 7 th round of a twelve team draft. However, I wouldn’t consider him good value until the eighth or ninth. FYI, after Week 2 of preseason, both Droughns and Green are averaging 3.8 yards per carry. But Green has taken more than twice as many snaps (19) as Droughns (8). And Green has scored a touch down; Droughns has not. Food for thought, anyways.

PANTHERS – RB: Eric Shelton and Nick Goings

Unlike Cleveland and Denver, there isn’t really an open running back competition in Carolina. DeShaun Foster is the Week 1 starter in Carolina, barring a preseason injury. And that’s precisely why Carolina’s back up running backs have tandem sleeper value: injury risk. If you are unfamiliar with Foster, he has been injured before. Badly. And there are lots of backs behind him in a seemingly unsettled pecking order.

It is worth noting that Nick Goings has been the first off the bench during preseason games thus far. Goings is also currently listed as the #2 back on Carolina’s team depth chart. (No, it does not appear Goings will play fullback; Brad Hoover is currently listed as the #1 FB). And yet, nobody is targeting Goings. Amazing. Sure, he has only run the ball six times in two games for a mediocre 3.0 yards per carry. But he *should* be considered the presumptive back up to a very injury-prone Foster. Yet he can typically be had with the last or second to last pick in most drafts. Again, amazing.

Instead, everyone is targeting rookie Eric Shelton. That’s fine. ( Shelton has taken more carries than Goings (15), but has earned only a marginally better 3.1 yards per carry. Neither has scored on the ground). Just draft Shelton first, assuming he slips farther than he should. But I wouldn’t draft Shelton sooner than the tenth round. Stephen Davis is also in the mix as an unlikely candidate for starting duties later in the season, but I personally view his chances as more remote than either Shelton or Goings’. However, if you like Davis more than Goings, Davis can be drafted about the same time: last round.

JAGUARS – RB: LaBrandon Toefield and Alvin Pearman

Let’s play a little word association. I say some words and you note the first thing that enters your head. Ready? Ok, here we go: Fred Taylor.

Did “durability” leap out at anyone? Didn’t think so.

Fred Taylor will play in preseason’s Week 3, so we should know more about his status soon. But don’t fool yourself: as with the Panthers, the Jaguars back up running backs have tandem sleeper appeal because Fred Taylor carries massive injury risk.

Currently, only Toefield and Pearman are serious contenders as Taylor’s back up. Toefield is currently listed as the #2 running back by the Jaguars; Pearman the #3. Neither really distinguished themselves in camp, though both have done pretty well during preseason. Toefield has carried the rock 13 times for a blah 3.0 yards per carry. Pearman – running against second team defenses – carried the ball 19 times for a more impressive 4.5 yards per carry. To be frank, I recently drafted Toefield in the eleventh round of a 12-team, fifteen round draft and Pearman was still available late in the fourteenth round. That’s a pretty low-cost investment for something that could easily turn into a starting Jaguar running back sooner or later. I’m gambling on sooner.

VIKINGS – RB: Mewelde Moore and Moe Williams

I’ve been keeping pretty quiet about Moore for selfish reasons. Though, I happened to call a friend Sunday night while he was in the middle of a draft. He was pretty upset at a seventh round mistake that cost him much needed running back depth. His next pick was in the ninth. I told him to target Mewelde Moore, who was still there. I explained that while Michael Bennett is technically the Vikings starter, apparently the only coach backing Bennett is the head coach, Mike Tice. Everyone else wants to give Moore a shot. And that with a late round addition of Moe Williams, he’d have the only two healthy Vikings running backs, in the event Bennett couldn’t play. “Not a bad idea,” he said.

Monday rolls around; there is news of Bennett having a “mild” neck injury and he isn’t expected to start the third preseason game. I can feel Moore’s value starting to rise. Tuesday rolls around and all of the sudden Bennett might not be good to go in Week 1 of the regular season. Bummer, for me at least. (Well, and Bennett). Tuesday night rolls around and I notice Moore has carried the ball 11 times for 86 yards in two games for an astounding 7.8 yards per carry. Hey, at least my buddy got to draft him real cheap before the news broke. If your draft is soon, hopefully Moore stays at least partially off your league mates’ radar screens.

Bennett will still probably get drafted first, but his value is about to dip some, so you may want to adjust your cheat sheet. During your draft, if the Bennett owner in your league does not draft Moore by around the seventh round of a 12-team draft, Moore becomes a legitimate target for everyone. While Moe Williams is guaranteed to get goal line carries, he would also likely carry the load if Moore and Bennett could not. Thus, a late round addition of Williams makes more sense for someone with Moore on their roster. (Williams has only carried the ball four times for eight yards so far). Ciatrick Fason has an impressive 7.4 average yards per carry, but is also hurt and won’t play for at least two more weeks. Therefore, the only totally healthy Vikings’ running backs right now are Moore and Williams, who can both be drafted cheaply, relative a most other running backs with a very strong potential to start. Also consider that once Moore or Williams gets a chance to start, Bennett may never get his #1 spot back.

EAGLES – RB: Ryan Moats and Reno Mahe

Just turn away from this grotesque abomination. This combination is only for the most desperate of fantasy teams; likely someone who neglected the running back position in a 16 or more team league.

Correl Buckhalter's knee has put him out for another NFL season. That leaves Brian Westbrook, Moats, and Mahe as the only healthy Eagles’ running backs.

Westbrook is obviously going to be a high-round pick. But due to his smallish-stature and previous history of moderate injury, his owner should be insuring against that injury risk with either Moats or Mahe. If I owned Westbrook (and I do) I’d handcuff Moats, who is similar to Westbrook in style and stature and has proven productive in preseason thus far (10 carries for 5.7 yards per carry and 2 rushing TDs). Westbrook’s owners would be wise to handcuff Moats before the late rounds of their draft. If you can get to him first, the only other healthy back is Mahe, who can easily be had in the final round of any normal draft. This tandem is a total desperation move. And it only works if: (1) Westbrook isn’t playing; and (2) you beat his owner to Moats. But hey, Westbrook is in a contract year and the Eagles may want to see what they have in Mahe or Moats later in the season. So Westbrook doesn’t have to get hurt for this tandem to work.

BROWNS – WR: Antonio Bryant and Braylon Edwards

Drafting late round wide receivers is tricky. Especially if you are still looking for that guy who will likely be the first receiver off your bench in the event of an injury or a bye week. There are always late round gambles at the receiver position. Isn’t it always great when you see a low-risk, high upside #4 or #5 WR late in the draft? For example, being assured of drafting the Browns’ #1 WR this year in the last third of your draft would be a pretty good. The problem is, nobody has a clue whether that is going to be Edwards or Byrant. So draft both. The worst case scenario is that you end up with the Browns’ first *and* second best wide receiver.

Edwards will likely be the first off the board in most drafts. He could go as early as the ninth round, or as late as the twelfth, in a twelve team league. Bryant can typically be had later. While this strategy may take up two roster spots, it should nevertheless accomplish the intended goal. However, both Bryant and Edwards have been making some noise in preseason, so their values may get bumped up a little.

CONCLUSION

Mining for late round value is always tough. You should go into every draft with a few upside names to look for in the last half of the draft, to work in with your starting defense and kicker, and your back up quarterback. Hopefully some of the tandem sleepers above help expand your list of names a little.