Between now and the time you walk into your final fantasy drauction this September, you’ll hear the word “sleeper” mentioned more than any other word except perhaps “change” - this being an election year and all.
You’ve got your sleepers, and as the season draws nearer you’ll get to read and hear about everyone else’s sleepers as well. Since I like to run with the popular crowd, I’ll toss my sleepers out there for your consideration as well.
A quick note: there are as many ways to look at sleepers as there are personalities in Clinton Portis’ head. For the purpose of this exercise, I’m defining a “sleeper” as a player who wasn’t an every-week starter in 2007 and, based on average draft position at Mock Draft Central, isn’t widely considered a starter at this point heading into 2008.
Matt Schaub, QB, Texans
As much as it hurt watching the second round roll by without a pick, the Texans shouldn’t regret the trade that landed them Schaub. His numbers in Year One in Houston were somewhat subdued; first, because he missed five full games and parts of three others due to injury and second because his best receiver, Andre Johnson, was out of the lineup for half of the eight full games Schaub did play. When the duo was together, however, it was pure magic: seven of Schaub’s nine touchdowns came in those four games, and while he averaged a shade over 200 yards per game for the season he topped 250 yards per tilt with a healthy Johnson in the lineup.
Schaub’s injury risk should be lowered by an improved offensive line, thanks to the addition of first-round pick Duane Brown and renowned offensive line coach Alex Gibb. And with the running game banking on Ahman Green and Chris Brown, who between them single-handedly bump Band-Aid stock six bucks per share, it’s clear the Texans are counting on Schaub and the passing game to provide the bulk of their offense. You won’t have to rely on Schaub as your starter, as his ADP according to the good folks at Mock Draft Central was 127 - middle of the 11th round in a 12-team league. But as a backup with tremendous upside, Schaub is an opportunity waiting to explode.
Thomas Jones, RB, Jets
Part of the reason Jones’ ADP sits at 59 - the end of Round Five in a 12-team league - is that he was a complete and utter failure in his first season in New York. Jones didn’t score his first touchdown until Week 13 and by the time he added another in Week 17 it was far too little far too late. So at least a fraction of your league, burned by Jones in 2007, won’t be back for more.
You, on the other hand, can look forward to something more in line with what Gang Green thought they were getting when they traded for Jones prior to last season: 22 touchdowns and 4,007 yards from scrimmage in three years with the Bears. Working in Jones’ favor is a revamped offensive line that still features two of the brighter young talents in the league in Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson as well as free agent acquisitions Alan Faneca (a seven-time Pro Bowler) and Damien Woody. Leon Washington may see some third-down work but Jesse Chatman isn’t much of a threat to steal a significant portion of Jones’ carries. Projecting as a third fantasy back, Jones’ upside of 90 yards from scrimmage per game and eight or more scores on the season - remember, this offense produced 15 rushing scores in 2006 - provide a nice insurance policy and allow you to take some chances with your first two backs.
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants
The Giants’ postseason success came with Brandon Jacobs averaging about 16 touches per game; in fact, if you extrapolate Jacobs’ four-game playoff performance over a full season you’d make his fantasy owners perfectly happy with 900 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns. That means there’s plenty of room in the Big Blue backfield for another ball-carrier - especially if Tom Coughlin hopes to keep Jacobs fresh and healthy for a run at a title defense.
Last season backs other than Jacobs received a dozen or more carries nine times in 20 games. Of course, in four of those games Brandon was a scratch, but this team isn’t that far removed from the Jake/Tiki Barber tandem backfield that a reprise would be out of the question. As Derrick Ward works his way back from a broken leg he may find that his role has been usurped by Bradshaw, who contributed 235 yards from scrimmage on 52 touches during the Giants’ Super Bowl run. If you’re scoring at home (or even if you’re by yourself), you’ll note that’s more yardage than Jacobs amassed during the playoffs. While Ward can’t be ruled out of the picture - at last check he was expected to be close to 100 percent by the start of training camp - and Jacobs is still the Giants’ go-to guy, scooping up Bradshaw at his ADP of 124 (end of the 10th round in in a typical 12-team draft) is at worst good Jacobs insurance and could potentially yield a yardage-league fiend at a bargain-basement price.
Robert Meachem, WR, Saints
Over the past two seasons, the Saints’ passing game has produced 9,049 yards and 55 touchdowns. Marques Colston has taken the lion’s share (2,240 yards and 19 scores) and Reggie Bush takes a bite as well (1,159 and four)… but that leaves plenty for a second receiver to emerge. David Patten is both old and short, Devery Henderson can’t catch, and Lance Moore is, well, Lance Moore.
On the other hand, Meachem was the team’s first-round pick in 2007 but lost the bulk of his rookie campaign to a knee injury. Healthy through the Saints’ early mini-camps, Meachem has impressed the coaching staff and could very easily claim second banana duties by the time September rolls around. When you consider that New Orleans’ “other” wideouts have produced 3,556 yards and 23 touchdowns, think about what happens if Meachem is able to consolidate two-thirds of that production into one true No. 2 receiver. I’ll do the math for you: an 1,100-yard, eight-touchdown season, comparable to what Wes Welker produced in 2007; viewed another way, a few yards less than Chad Johnson or a touchdown more than Torry Holt. This from a wide receiver with an ADP of 201 - undrafted in a 12-team league with a 16-round draft.
Laurent Robinson, WR, Falcons
The Falcons don’t have nearly the firepower of the Saints, but the addition of Matt Ryan at quarterback and Sam Baker up front to protect him should ensure that the passing game only goes up from last year. Inserting Mike Mularkey as offensive coordinator helps as well; a quick study of his past offenses reveals a run-heavy approach (think of Michael Turner as a younger, faster Jerome Bettis) that, when it throws, throws almost exclusively to the wide receivers. In 2001, when Mularkey’s Steelers led the NFL in rushing they also had two 1,000-yard wide receivers, and in his two years as Pittsburgh’s OC wideouts accounted for almost 75 percent of the team’s catches. Last year Atlanta wide receivers had a 60 percent share of the passing game action.
So what’s available for Robinson, who has been running with the starters through mini-camp and seems poised to take over the complementary role to Roddy White? Last year Atlanta wides outside of White contributed 1,274 yards and seven touchdowns. Mix in Alge Crumpler’s 444 and five (surprisingly, the ex-tight end Mularkey’s offenses rarely use the position as a receiver) and that’s 1,700 yards and a dozen scores up for grabs - more, because this offense won’t throw 70 passes to the running backs like it did last year, and even more if the Chris Redman/Matt Ryan entry offers an upgrade from last year’s Falcon quarterbacking. Now say that Robinson claims a two-thirds majority of the second wide receiver stats and you’re looking at 1,100 and eight - numbers that I noted above compare favorably to what Chad Johnson, Torry Holt, and Wes Welker posted last season. Misguided mockers have Michael Jenkins with an ADP of 202, and Robinson doesn’t even register amongst the top 235 selections; personally, I’d rather hitch my horse to the tangy upside of the second-year stallion from Illinois State.
Zach Miller, TE, Raiders
JaMarcus Russell takes over at quarterback for the Raiders this year, which is great news for Miller on multiple levels. For starters, Russell’s lone NFL scoring strike went to Miller in week 17, so there’s already a burgeoning relationship here. Next, young quarterbacks tend to lean heavily on their tight ends at the front end of the development process. It’s an easy read as the rush is closing in and a shorter pass, a safety valve young signal callers embrace. Third, look at Miller’s numbers from last year; his 44-444-3 quietly matched the production of Alge Crumpler, a perennial fantasy pick whose ADP is 75 spots higher heading into 2008.
Toss out the first month of Miller’s learning curve as a rookie - a pedestrian seven catches for 54 yards - and you can see the genesis of a very good NFL tight end. Miller scored all three of his touchdowns after the bye and caught three or more balls nine times in 12 games for the second-worst passing offense in the league. Uptick those numbers slightly with Russell under center the potential for a season with 600 yards (comparable to Jeremy Shockey and Dallas Clark) and five scores (matching what Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow produced last year) jumps off the page. If you’re not inclined to go early for Gates, why not wait until the very end of your draft or auction and snag a guy who could be every bit as productive as the vast majority of the other guys drafted three, four, even six rounds earlier?
Josh Scobee, K, Jaguars
Sort your kickers by 2007 scoring and you’ll have to scroll waaaay down to find Scobee, who missed eight games after straining his quad in pregame warm-ups prior to the season opener. But double the 62 points he produced in half a season and he would have been a top-eight fantasy kicker. The injury is in his rear view mirror - he converted 14 of 16 treys after returning in week 11, plus he averaged 64 yards per kickoff and posted 13 touchbacks - and the Jaguars added parts to an offense that ranked sixth in the NFL in scoring last season.
With Scobee adding threes and PATs, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest he won’t be a top-10 - or better - kicker this season. Good luck finding him amongst the 16 kickers who place in the top 235 ADP at Mock Draft Central. But hey, if you’d rather have Jason Elam (ADP 183, kicking for a Falcons team that averaged nine points less than the Jaguars last year) or Matt Stover (ADP 200, booting for a Ravens squad that averaged eight points less than Jacksonville)… well, there’s only so much I can do to help you.
Seattle Seahawks D/ST
As if you needed further proof beyond the success of “American Idol” that the masses are idiots, Mock Draft Central’s ADP suggests 13 defenses will go off the board before the typical drafter gets around to selecting the Seahawks. All Seattle did last year was rank sixth in points allowed, fourth in sacks, fourth in interceptions, and scored five return touchdowns. Evidently people would rather have the name recognition of the Ravens and Jaguars, neither of whom bested Seattle in any of the aforementioned categories.
Of course, those same brain wizards opted for “Skating with the Stars” over “Arrested Development”, so there’s no question those of us with a brain are fighting an uphill battle. Here’s an opportunity for revenge and to take advantage of the less fortunate amongst your league. You’re already waiting on a defense, why not snag a top-five unit with your last pick and laugh all the way to the league title?