Earlier this offseason I penned a sleeper article and surprisingly I’m still willing to go to bat for each of the players listed in that epic tome. But that’s not enough; you need more. So I’ll dig a little deeper in the vault, hope those who play in one of my many leagues aren’t paying attention, and reveal another slate of sleepers.
As with the previous article, for the purposes of this exercise I’m defining sleeper as a player who wasn’t an every-week fantasy starter in 2007 and based on ADP isn’t widely considered a starter at this point heading into 2008.
Matt Leinart, QB, Cardinals
I was on board the Leinart Party Boat heading into last season, but evidently an offseason of beer bonging at Chez Matt has helped me forget the pain of Leinart’s shoulder injury and Kurt Warner stealing his scores. Everything that was in place last year—an improved offensive line, two elite-level receivers, a defense that will likely force the Cards to put points on the board to stay in games—remains, with the added bonus that Leinart has a much better grasp of the offense this time around. Hey, Joe Namath made a living studying the playbook while hot-tubbing with attractive females; why can’t Leinart?
You can get Leinart 10 rounds into a typical 12-team draft, with 20 other quarterbacks projected to go off the board ahead of him. Would it be so bad to spend your first nine picks shoring up every other position on your roster, then nabbing Leinart in R10 and Warner as insurance a round or three later? You’ll have to scramble in Week 7, but you’ll have options (Lions at Texans, Bears vs. Vikings, Ravens at Dolphins). Or maybe you take Leinart as your QB2; if he doesn’t pan out, you’re not left for dead, and if he produces in that offense the way he’s capable of you’re more than set at the position. Either way, there’s no denying that for a little bit of risk you can grab a whole lot of upside in Leinart.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
Johnson’s ADP has certainly climbed since his 66-yard explosion in the Titans’ preseason opener hit YouTube… but it’s still sitting around 95, with 30-plus backs going off the board before Johnson is selected. The thunder to Johnson’s lightning, LenDale White, still sports an ADP 30 picks higher, yet Jeff Fisher has already indicated that the pecking order for Tennessee’s No. 1 back is hardly set in stone. And RBBCs aren’t exactly what fantasy owners dream about when their head hits the pillow.
But the Titans may be a little different. For starters, you know this team isn’t going to throw; Fisher’s track record suggests he’ll run the ball at least 400 times this season, an assertion backed up by Vince Young’s lack of success throwing the ball. White’s touches will come between the tackles while OC Mike Heimerdinger finds creative ways to get the ball in Johnson’s hands. And as you saw from the highlight reel, it only takes a few touches for Johnson to make an impact. Your best bet would obviously be to handcuff both Titan backs, maybe adding “Titans RB” as your third back with your sixth and eighth selections. There’s plenty of upside in such a duo, and you may even find yourself starting both backs—with White getting the goal-line work and Johnson piling up the big plays.
Kevin Walter, WR, Texans
You have to look at least twice to believe Kevin Walter’s numbers from last season. Not that they were elite or anything, but a guy who ranked 25th amongst wideouts in catches, 31st in yardage, and 38th in touchdowns is a borderline fantasy starter in most leagues. Yet there he sits at No. 58 among wide receivers on the ADP charts; in a 12-team league he’d typically be on the board in Round 14, squeaking onto a fantasy squad as a fifth receiver. There are plenty of indications that he’ll outperform those less-than-lofty expectations.
Start with last year’s numbers, which weren’t merely a product of his one big game (12 for 160 against the Jaguars in week six). Aside from that tilt he had five or more catches six times, 60-plus yards six times, and scored all four of his touchdowns over the second half of the season. Three of his touchdowns came after Andre Johnson returned to the lineup, so while he wasn’t the lead dog he wasn’t just an afterthought either. Oh, and lest you think it was some backup bond Walter and Sage Rosenfels concocted, note that two of Walter’s three biggest games came with Matt Schaub at the helm. Walter is starting opposite Andre, meaning he won’t be the primary focus of the defense’s attention. And if the oft-injured Johnson misses time, Walter has proved capable of stepping his game up to a WR1-level. In other words, there’s no reason he can’t at least replicate last year’s numbers—meaning you’ll get a quality fantasy WR3 with upside at a WR5 price.
Kevin Boss, TE, Giants
Old habits die hard. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Eli Manning still hears Jeremy Shockey’s voice in his head, complaining about getting him the ball more often. But Shockey is now a Saint… well, at least he’s in New Orleans… and Boss has inherited his role in the Big Apple.
Don’t get me wrong: Boss is not Shockey—not yet, and maybe not ever. Aside from his four-catch, 50-yard effort in the regular season finale his numbers were quite pedestrian. But Eli has grown used to looking for the tight end in this offense; the position has averaged 75 catches, 800 yards, and six touchdowns a season the past three years. Obviously, the bulk of those digits have come from Shockey. But let’s say Boss gives you 80 percent of those numbers—without the whining, preening, or tattoos. Not only will that make Tom Coughlin happy, a 60-640-5 season would rank Boss comfortably within the top 10 in each of those categories. For a tight end with an ADP of 170—in other words, in a typical 12-team league he’s still on the board in Round 15—those are numbers worth taking a swing at.
Taylor Mehlhaff, K, Saints
I tried to avoid flooding this article with rookies; as you can see by the inclusion of Chris Johnson above and Mehlhaff here it wasn’t entirely successful (though in my defense various drafts of this article included Tim Hightower, Josh Morgan, and Dustin Keller so there was at least a little self-editing). The reason is pretty simple: why take a veteran you know is nothing special when the alternative is a rookie who may also be nothing special but also has the tangy zip of upside?
That’s essentially the dilemma the Saints face with their kicker. Sure, they could keep the utterly average Martin Gramatica, but unless they need to keep him around to enter a local version of “Dancing With the Stars” or the team can save money by only paying a child fare for him on road trips… why not give the rookie a shot? Mehlhaff was solid in college, and if all else is equal coming out of training camp expect the Saints to stick with the guy they drafted instead of the guy they picked up off the street. That means it may very well be Mehlhaff handing kicking chores for the potent Saints offense, and your last-round pick turning into this year’s Nick Folk. Worst-case the Saints do keep Tiny Dancer over Mehlhaff and you have to go back to the waiver wire to pick up a kicker. Isn’t that where Folk came from last year?