In the realm of fantasy football, there are few more subjective terms than “sleeper”. Everything from your scoring system to the size of your league to the caliber of your competition comes into play when talking about who might be a sleeper. Maybe the more appropriate term is “player with upside”, as in these guys won’t be drafted as a fantasy starter but have the potential to significantly outperform their current anticipated draft status.
In any event, with almost two months before the start of training camp—and then another month until fantasy drauctions and the start of the season—expectations and draft values could change significantly. But for now, at least, here is a cast of characters with upside I’m looking to add in the latter rounds of my draft or auction.
David Garrard, QB, Jaguars
It wasn’t but a year ago that Garrard was a sexy fantasy pick, a borderline top-10 guy on many boards. After a sluggish start that yielded just one touchdown in the first three games, however, many forgot about him. Pity; Garrard’s final numbers, while a tick off the level he established during his 2007 coming-out party, placed him right in that borderline top-10 range.
One year later, Garrard has fallen back to after-thought status. His current ADP falls in the range of the 10th round, the 17th quarterback off the board according to Mock Draft Central. Of course, plenty has changed in Jacksonville—but most of those changes would seem to indicate an uptick in Garrard’s production from a year ago. For starters, the Jaguars beefed up their wafer-thin receiving corps with veteran Torry Holt and three rookies expected to challenge for immediate playing time. Jacksonville also used its first two picks to upgrade an offensive line that surrendered 42 sacks last season—twice as many as Garrard had ever experienced before. Finally, the Jags closed the curtain on the Fred Taylor era, turning the feature-back gig over to Maurice Jones-Drew—without question the better pass-catching back of the two. And sans a second back, wouldn’t it make sense for Garrard to call his own number an extra time or two at the stripe?
Garrard doesn’t project to be anyone’s fantasy starter. But if you’re waiting on quarterbacks, it’s always a smart move to grab two—and Garrard might just surprise you by outproducing a half-dozen guys who’ll be drafted ahead of him.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs
As it stands right now, Larry Johnson is playing the role of happy camper in Kansas City. But it wasn’t all that long ago that the Chiefs were considering whether or not to outright release their former first-round pick. So while KC enters rebuilding mode, it’s clear there is little commitment to LJ as the cornerstone of their ground game.
And with Todd Haley at the helm, the Chiefs’ commitment to the ground game in general has to be questioned as well. Last year Haley’s Arizona offense ranked 27th in fantasy points produced by the running back position—though that was still four spots higher than the Chiefs. Of note, however, was this statistical nugget: the Cardinals ranked 13th in receptions by running backs. At least some of that can be attributed to the sheer volume of passes the Cards threw (second only to the Saints), but it gives you an idea of what Kansas City’s offense might look like. The Chiefs certainly don’t sport the wide receiver tandem Arizona did, and no longer do they have a tight end to dump off to—though Haley’s offense virtually ignores the position, anyway. Matt Cassel preferred the short game last year (hence Wes Welker’s catch total), and KC’s line will reinforce that policy as Cassel will likely have even less time to get rid of the ball than he did while being sacked 47 times last year.
What does this all mean for Charles? He’ll be on the field when the Chiefs face third downs, a situation KC is likely to find themselves in frequently this season. There’s PPR value right out of the gate. Factor in Johnson’s ability to find the sidelines—he’s sat out a dozen games the past two seasons for injury and suspension-related reasons—and Charles could also see more work as the feature back; in his lone game with double-digit carries as a rookie, Charles torched the Buccaneers for 106 yards on 18 carries in Week 9. He has the speed to make things happen when the ball is in his hands—and between the new scheme, the need for quick passes, and LJ’s apparent lack of a future in KC, he should find the ball in his hands plenty in 2009.
Jamal Lewis, RB, Browns
There are numerous similarities between the New York Jets heading into 2008 and the Cleveland Browns heading into 2009. Last year Jets head coach Eric Mangini had a 30-year-old between-the-tackles back coming off a 1,000-yard season with limited touchdowns, a dynamic third-down back looking for more touches, and a pretty decent offensive line. The results? While Thomas Jones ceded more touches to Leon Washington, his yards per carry and total yardage increased—and his touchdowns skyrocketed.
This year the venue changes, but Mangini once again finds himself with a third-down back—in this case, Jerome Harrison—he wants to get the ball to and a veteran feature back—Lewis—who turns 30 just before the season starts—who put up mediocre numbers the previous season. If you anticipate an uptick in the Browns’ running back workload—while the numbers were down last season, two years ago Cleveland’s backs handled the rock just one less time than Jets’ RBs in 2008—and project Mangini’s fondness for Harrison to lead to a Washington-type share… that should still leave 300 touches, 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and double-digit touchdowns for Lewis.
Those numbers are hardly a certainty, and that’s why Jamal is going off the board in the eighth round, roughly the 37th back taken. That’s an RB4 in most leagues, and you aren’t likely to find many RB4s—or RB3s, for that matter—with such a clear line on carries as well as a legitimate shot at RB1 numbers. Doesn’t hurt that the Browns close against the Chiefs and Raiders in Weeks 15 and 16, either. You laugh, but did anyone see Thomas Jones as a top-five fantasy back last year? At least one sleeper article saw the potential.
Miles Austin, WR, Cowboys
With the departure of Terrell Owens, there’s a clear-cut opportunity in Dallas. At present Patrick Crayton is the presumed starter opposite Roy Williams, but there is statistical evidence to suggest that Austin is equally—if not better—suited to pick up TO’s slack.
Assuming Williams stays on the field for all 16 games—something he’s done exactly once in five pro seasons—and based on a career average of slightly better than four catches a game, he’s in line to account for about half of Dallas’ WR catches. Roy’s yards-per-catch average hasn’t topped 13.1 since 2006 and bottomed out at 12.0 ypc last year—10.4 as a Cowboy; moreover, just one of his seven touchdowns the past two seasons has come from more 21 yards out. Those numbers hardly suggest he’s the guy to replace the three 50-plus yard TDs Owens scored last year alone. While both Austin and Crayton scored from beyond midfield last year, who do you like to step up that long-ball production—the 30-year-old with one NFL season above 14.3 yards per catch, or the 24-year-old who topped 21 ypc last year and whose career average is 19.7?
Of course, Austin’s sample size is smaller than Crayton’s. But at 6-3, 216 Austin is more of a TO clone than the 6-0, 203 Crayton, and with the potential for an overall reduction in passing game numbers (should Dallas make the logical move given their personnel and commit more to the run) you may as well swing for the fences with the deep threat. After all, Jason Witten may be Tony Romo’s BFF but he alone can’t make up the entirety of the 69-1,052-10 the Cowboys kicked to the curb.
Chansi Stuckey, WR, Jets
There are better than eight targets per game—and the resulting 72 catches and six touchdowns—up for grabs in New York, but nobody seems to be biting. Despite currently sitting atop the Jets’ WR2 depth chart, Stuckey’s current ADP has 74 wideouts going off the board before him with a pick in the 17th round of a 12-team draft. David Clowney is actually five spots ahead of Stuckey on the ADP board, though at that lower range odds are pretty good that neither is getting picked.
Hey, somebody has to step in on the heels of Laveranues Coles’ departure, which created the aforementioned statistical void. Are nervous drafters concerned about a decline in the Jets’ quarterback play? Would it surprise them to learn that despite the marquee name, the production Gang Green received from the position fell within a one-fantasy-point-per-game range that included Kyle Orton and the Bears, Chad Pennington and the Jets, Gus Frerotte and the Vikings, and Trent Edwards and the Bills. You really think Mark Sanchez or Kellen Clemens can’t at least approximate that? Would you feel better knowing that Rex Ryan saw first-hand a rookie put up ballpark numbers that came within about a point and a half of the Jets’ average?
You certainly don’t have to go out on a limb in adding Stuckey to your roster; if your draft goes 17 rounds, he should be there waiting for you. And the potential upside is obvious; if he picks up even half of Coles’ numbers and adds them to his own you’d be getting solid WR3 numbers (something north of 65-750-6) at a WR5 or better discount.
Visanthe Shiancoe, TE, Vikings
Shiancoe certainly didn’t lack for exposure last season, yet for some reason a top-five fantasy tight end who can expect something between a mild and significant upgrade at quarterback still isn’t going off the board as a starting fantasy tight end. Granted, he’s not that far off the fringe, with an ADP of 14th at his position. But that still means he’s available with your last pick if everyone else in your 12-team league has a tight end and doesn’t get greedy.
Certainly, there is evidence he’ll be hard-pressed to match last year’s numbers. Despite ranking in the top five in fantasy points he was 16th in catches and 20th in targets at his position; the lofty ranking comes in no small part from his seven touchdowns. And with Percy Harvin cutting into his slot time and Sidney Rice healthy there’s plenty of competition for the limited passing scores on a run-first team. On the flip side, Shank will see better balls from a more accurate quarterback; Sage Rosenfel’s completion percentage is five points better than Tavaris Jackson’s, and as Owen Daniels’ productivity attests Sage knows where his tight end is located. And if the Vikings finally consummate their pursuit of Brett Favre, what No. 4 has done for his tight ends is the stuff of fantasy legend.
One guy or gal in your league who won’t forget is the Shank owner from last year; something about Shiancoe’s 136 and two in Week 16 likely earned him a pal for life. With opposing defenses focused more on Adrian Peterson and Harvin than on a tight end whose name knocked several contenders out of the National Spelling Bee, he’s set to increase that friend count in 2009. And you don’t even have to act fast to get him. Is there any other position where the fifth-best fantasy performer from last year can be yours for the low low price of anywhere from a ninth- to 14th-round pick?