Call them sleepers. Call them flyers. Call them what you will. The final rounds of a fantasy draft are where legends are born. Strike gold there and you’ll have a story to tell your grandkids. Well, perhaps not, but landing a productive player with one of your final draft picks will give you instant street cred among other league owners. More importantly, it’ll give your team a leg up on the competition.
I’m a bit of a late-round fantasy junkie. I spend far too many hours surfing the web and browsing blogs with the hopes of finding that special, sneaky player who will take the NFL by storm. Prospecting for these late-round gems is more of an art than a science. Analyzing stats and crunching numbers doesn’t help much. It’s all about identifying opportunities for players to get in the game and make an impact.
Depending on the size of your league, your last draft pick probably falls somewhere between the 140th and 180th picks overall. For purposes of this article, I’ve identified players who meet three criteria:
- Average draft position (ADP) of 140 or higher.
- Favorable opportunity to turn in quality fantasy performances before Week 5.
- Upside to become an every-week fantasy contributor.
Jabar Gaffney, WR, Patriots
Gaffney closed out the 2007 regular season with touchdowns in four of the Patriots final five games. This was with Donte’ Stallworth still on the team. Stallworth is now catching passes for Cleveland, so Gaffney is positioned to become an even more integral part of the New England attack. Grab him late and look for consistent production. If Randy Moss’ hamstrings tighten up on him (as they’ve been known to do), Gaffney could quickly become a Top 20 WR.
Leon Washington, RB, Jets
Brett Favre completed over 85 passes to Green Bay running backs in 2007. In contrast, New York Jets running backs caught just 64 passes last year. Favre is the master of dump offs, swing passes and screens. Look for Leon Washington to make an immediate impact in PPR leagues as he becomes Favre’s favorite security blanket. If Thomas Jones continues to show his age, Washington could see his rushing attempts go through the roof, as well.
Robert Meachem, WR, Saints
Meachem flopped as a rookie but showed up for the Saints 2008 training camp focused, hungry and most importantly healthy. Now he’s the frontrunner to start opposite Marques Colston. Meachem hauled in four receptions for 129 yards in the preseason opener and cast aside any doubts about his health. Look for the former first round pick, to get a stranglehold on the starting position over the enigmatic Devery Henderson and the aging David Patten by the time preseason wraps up. The Saints are poised to regain the form they showcased in 2006 when they were one of the NFL’s highest-scoring offenses. Meachem could be an important part of the Saints scoring juggernaut and has the potential to end the season with around 850 yards and 6-7 TDs, which would make him starter material.
Chris Perry, RB, Bengals
Rudi Johnson continues to nurse a hamstring injury. Maybe the team is taking a cautious approach with their workhorse RB. Maybe there’s more to the injury than they’re letting on. Whatever the case, backup Chris Perry is having an outstanding training camp and preseason. At the very least, it looks like Perry will split the carries with Johnson. If Johnson can’t stay on the field, Perry appears fully capable of becoming the primary ball carrier. Draft him as a handcuff to Johnson or take him as a prospect with plenty of upside.
LaMont Jordan, RB, Patriots
An ADP of 190 . . . are you kidding me? Are people really not aware that Bill Belichick has the Midas touch when it comes to veteran players? Guys like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Corey Dillon and Sammy Morris were once castoffs who Belichick turned to fantasy gold. The mere possibility that Belichick could do the same for Jordan makes him worth your final draft pick—if not a mid-round pick. I consider him to be one of the most undervalued fantasy players entering the 2008 season. When was the last time Belichick signed a veteran free agent and didn’t give him a role? If Jordan ends up making the team (and at this point it’s a good bet he will), I’m projecting around 700 yards rushing with double-digit TDs as Jordan closes out games in the fourth quarter and snipes goal-line carries.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
Two years ago Donte’ Stallworth thrived with a healthy Donovan McNabb under center. Stallworth averaged 19.1 yards per reception and scored five touchdowns in his only season with Philly—a season in which he only played 11 games. Rookie DeSean Jackson possesses many of the same traits as Stallworth, including blinding speed. Look for Jackson to fill the deep-threat role the Eagles so desperately need. Considering Andy Reid’s pass-heavy offense, 800 yards and seven TDs seems like an achievable goal for the rookie.
Eddie Royal, WR, Broncos
The Broncos grabbed Eddie Royal in the second round of this year’s draft. They probably would’ve been satisfied to get a contribution from him in the return game, but he appears to have beaten out Darrell Jackson for the starting job opposite Brandon Marshall. With Marshall facing a suspension to start the season, suddenly Royal could be the team’s top WR out of the gates. He’s drawn rave reviews this preseason from the coaching staff, teammates, and even opponents. After facing him in the preseason, Cowboys safety Roy Williams described Royal as shifty and predicted he’d do great things in Denver. Among the crop of 2008 rookie WRs, Royal seems to have the most “stud” potential.
Steve Slaton, RB, Texans
Alex Gibbs is in the house. Gibbs masterminded the hugely productive zone-blocking scheme in Denver and Atlanta, which led to big-time stats from Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Warrick Dunn among others. Wherever Gibbs goes, RB productivity is sure to follow. Which takes us to Houston and one of the most intriguing backfield situations for fantasy owners. The Texans brought Gibbs in and he quickly re-tooled the offensive line and had a voice in the selection of Steve Slaton in this year’s draft. At 5’9” and 201 lbs., Slaton is a tad on the small side, but so was Dunn. Look for him to emerge as the cream of the RB crop in Houston by Week 4. If he bulks up during the 2009 offseason, he could become keeper material. Note: Rumors that Ahman Green could be cut have heightened the awareness of Slaton so his ADP continues to climb.
Courtney Taylor, WR, Seahawks
The Seahawks receiving corps is battered. Starters Deion Branch and Bobby Engram will both be on the sidelines when the season opens. Given what we know about Mike Holmgren’s tendency to throw the football, there’s a tremendous opportunity for a sleeper to emerge at WR. The fantasy world has been anticipating a breakout season for Nate Burleson for three years. Don’t reach for him early. Burleson won’t fare well against opponents’ top defenders—never has, never will. Instead try to catch lightning in a bottle by nabbing one of Seattle’s unsung young WRs. Courtney Taylor, a second year wideout who will assume Engram’s position through the Week 4 bye, is one of my favorite late-round flyers. At this point, he appears to be completely off the fantasy radar.
Dennis Northcutt, WR, Jaguars
Hey, you in the points-per-reception league. Don’t sleep on Northcutt. The Jags didn’t expect him to be their go-to receiver this year, but the reality is Northcutt may be the best they have by default. Jerry Porter was the team’s key offseason acquisition but he had hamstring surgery and will miss all of preseason. Let someone else in your league take the gamble on Porter’s bum hammy. The fact that he’s on a new team and hasn’t practiced with them yet doesn’t bode well. Reggie Williams led the team with 10 TDs last year but injured his knee during training camp. The rest of the WR unit is filled with busts like Matt Jones and Troy Williamson. Northcutt is the stabilizer and will lead the team in WR receptions. Write it down.