Is there anything more rewarding in fantasy football than having a twelfth-round draft pick turn out to be a fantasy superstar? Not for my money.
Researching and drafting sleepers is the most exciting part of this game. Anyone can pick up a fantasy magazine, come to the draft, and make their first, second, and third round picks with ease. But as the names start to get a little less familiar, the draft starts to get a lot more challenging.
Owners who don’t prepare for the later stages of their draft are setting themselves up for failure. If you aren’t able to draft any mid- or late-round players who pan out, you’ll likely struggle to score points consistently. Injuries and bye weeks will cripple you. On the other hand, if you manage to land the next Santana Moss, it could catapult your team to a championship.
Here are six tips that can help you draft sleepers that win league titles.
1. Gauge Player Opportunity
It’s a funny thing about fantasy football; your players need to be on the field to score points. As you’re compiling your rankings and identifying sleepers, it’s important to think about the environment surrounding players to determine how likely (or unlikely) they are to get playing time and touches.
Does the team have a new head coach? Is there a new playbook that will work in the player’s favor? Is he behind an aging veteran or an unproven rookie depth chart? Does the regular starter have injury issues? Behavioral issues? Contract issues?
All of these environmental factors can foreshadow an opportunity for a second- or third-string player to get on the field and break out. Take Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker for example. In 2005, Parker was a relative unknown in training camp. He was third on the depth chart behind Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. When both Staley and Bettis started battling some nagging injuries in the preseason, it became easier and easier to see that Parker was going to get his shot.
Or look at Seahawks WR Bobby Engram. Prior to 2005, Engram had been a #3 WR for most of his career. Even though Koren Robinson was no longer with the team, most owners were still evaluating Engram based only on what he’d done in the past. Robinson’s departure opened the door for a starting spot on one of the NFL’s top offenses. Engram capitalized by posting five or more receptions in nine of the 13 games he played. Owners who were savvy enough to recognize Engram’s opportunity were rewarded with a nice player all season long.
Which players will have opportunity knock on their door in 2006? Here are a few I’ve identified:
Phillip Rivers, QB, Chargers
With Drew Brees gone, it’s Rivers’ turn to benefit from having the NFL’s top RB and TE at his disposal.
Samkon Gado, RB, Packers
Ahman Green returns but he’s coming off a devastating thigh injury and will miss much of camp.
Jabar Gaffney, WR, Eagles
Gaffney is a former second-round draft pick who could excel in a new offense that’s desperate for a WR help.
2. Resist Popular Opinion
Preseason is a treacherous time for fantasy owners. All sorts of media sources are evangelizing their player predictions. It’s easy to get sucked into the hype. Some of the sales pitches are even more convincing than that midnight infomercial about the magic stain remover that gets everything out of your clothes.
Make it a goal this year to stay off the bandwagons. The reality is that while a player may look really good on paper, things frequently turn out quite differently. Take Kerry Collins in 2005. The fantasy world anointed Collins as one of the top fantasy QBs before he even played a down for the Raiders. With Randy Moss, Jerry Porter, and LaMont Jordan at his side, how could Collins not throw 30+ touchdowns and 4,000+ yards?
If you have the willpower to resist the hype, it can work to your advantage in compiling a winning sleeper list.
Last season, one of the top fantasy magazines ran a cover story headline that read, “Tatum Bell: The Most Important Player In Your Draft.” Bell’s preseason value was sky high. Those who were blinded by this false hope got burned. Bell was a good player, but not worth the early pick it took to get him.
However, if you weren’t swayed by the popular opinion, you would’ve seen the value in drafting Mike Anderson several rounds later. And you would’ve benefited from his 12 touchdowns.
The critical point here is not that popular opinion is always wrong. It’s that popular opinion causes player values to go up and down. Within this constant state of flux are an abundance of juicy opportunities. Some of the best sleepers are players who the masses have perceived as “low value” but in reality have good upside.
Here are a few players whose values could drop too low during the preseason:
Aaron Brooks, QB, Raiders
Collins’ failure last season could have the masses avoiding Brooks like the plague.
Chris Brown, RB, Titans
Tennessee drafted LenDale White, but will need the more experienced Brown to block for their rookie QB.
Terry Glenn, WR, Cowboys
His value took a big hit with the arrival of Terrell Owens, but Glenn will still produce via the long ball.
3. Study the Trends
Over time, trends have emerged in fantasy football. Many are well known and time tested. Others are just beginning to emerge. Understanding these tendencies can help you identify sleepers.
For example, it’s a widely held belief that wide receivers frequently break out during their third year in the league. This trend has been validated year after year, with players from Rod Smith and Eric Moulds to Plaxico Burress and Steve Smith becoming stars in year three.
A new trend that is in its infancy is that small, fast wide receivers are beginning to out-produce their bigger, more physical counterparts. In 2005, nine of the top 15 yardage gainers among receivers were under 6’0” and weighed 200 lbs. or less. Will this trend hold up in 2006? No one can say for sure, but it’s worth a late-round gamble on a small wideout who has upside.
By studying historical numbers over the last few seasons, you can identify emerging trends that will help you pick better sleepers. Here are several players that have excellent potential based on the two trends I cited above:
Reggie Williams, WR, Jaguars
Third-year wideout who many people have already written off as a bust.
Mark Clayton, WR, Ravens
The next Steve Smith.
Samie Parker, WR, Chiefs
The small, lighting-quick Parker will give KC the #1 WR they’ve been missing for years.
Michael Jenkins, WR, Falcons
Is this the season Jenkins, a third-year wideout, and Michael Vick finally get on the same page?
4. Identify Players With Momentum
Momentum can be a powerful force in football. One team can be dominating a game for three quarters, but an untimely sack or interception can shift can shift the contest in the opponent’s favor. In fantasy football, momentum can play an important role, too.
Players who close out the season strong one year often use that success as a springboard to even greater things the following season. That was certainly the case for Carson Palmer, who finished 2004 with 11 touchdowns in his final four games. In 2005, he continued his climb, eventually becoming one of fantasy football’s top two quarterbacks.
Momentum can also build through the preseason and carry over into the regular season. It happened for Kevin Curtis last season. Curtis led the NFL with three preseason touchdowns and ranked third in receiving yardage. His hot streak continued in the regular season, where he racked up 801 yards and six scores. Mike Anderson was another player whose strong preseason gave way to regular season success.
Who is coming off a hot finish to the 2005 regular season and is poised to build off that momentum? Here are some players to consider:
Ryan Moats, RB, Eagles
Closed out the 2005 season with three touchdowns in the final four weeks.
Mark Clayton, WR, Ravens
Finished the season with strong performances in three of his final five games.
Jerramy Stevens, TE, Seahawks
Scored three touchdowns in his final four games of the regular season.
5. Start a Youth Movement
When you’re prowling for sleepers late in your draft it’s best to pursue younger players — guys who have been in the league five years or less. The reason is that a young pup like the Bengals Chris Perry has a much better chance to become the next Marshall Faulk than Marshall Faulk does of re-emerging as a top five RB. Although Faulk is a more well-established player, Perry’s upside makes him a much stronger pick.
As always, there are exceptions. In 2004, Curtis Martin was considered long in the tooth. His value had hit rock bottom. Martin was frequently still available on draft boards in the eighth round or later. He went on to lead the NFL in rushing that season.
Players like Martin and Jerry Rice are a rarity though. You’re better off in the long run choosing young players who are just entering the prime of their careers versus veterans who are closing theirs out.
Here are a couple more young guns who could be on the brink of greatness:
Troy Williamson, WR, Vikings
Williamson has deadly speed and will have an increased role with Nate Burleson out of the picture.
Cedric Cobbs, RB, Broncos
Will compete with Ron Dayne for the right to split carries with Tatum Bell.
6. Trust Your Gut
No matter how much you crunch the numbers and study the stats, when draft day comes, instinct will play a big role in your team’s success. That’s what makes the game so fun . . . and, at times, so frustrating.
When your name is called and it’s time to make your tenth-round draft pick, stride confidently to the podium. Recall all the research you gathered. Remember all the newspaper articles. Consider the SportsCenter sound bytes. But don’t ignore the little voice in the back of your head. More often than not, it has something good to say.