Fantasy Football: Sleepers for Every AFC Team
Every year in fantasy football drafts team owners scramble to find "sleepers," under-the-radar players or late round picks that can be the sorts of steals that lead teams into the fantasy playoffs and on to a championship.
In all honesty the term "sleeper" has been used so often and in so many contexts over the past several years that it can be hard to identify exactly what a sleeper even is, much less find an example of one on each team.
With that said, I've never shied from a challenge, so here's a team-by-team breakdown of the AFC, with one player per team who either qualifies as a sleeper, a deep sleeper or a sleeper so deep that Rip Van Winkle would be jealous.
Where noted, average fantasy draft positions are taken from MyFantasyLeague.com.
Buffalo Bills: David Nelson, WR
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Wide receiver Donald Jones is currently perched atop the depth chart at WR2 for the Buffalo Bills, but as training camp and the preseason approaches expect that to change.
Third year pro David Nelson was much more productive than Jones last season, reeling in 61 catches for 658 yards and five touchdowns, good for 38th in fantasy points at his position.
Should Jones somehow hang onto the number two spot, Nelson will see plenty of time in the slot, and given that he's being drafted outside the top-70 wideouts Nelson is well worth an end of the draft flier pick.
Miami Dolphins: Davone Bess, WR
Marc Serota/Getty Images
With wide receiver Brandon Marshall now in Chicago the Miami Dolphins are woefully thin at the position entering this season, but the simple fact is someone is going to have to catch passes in South Florida.
The best bet to lead the Dolphins in that category in 2012 is fifth-year veteran Davone Bess, who had 51 catches for 537 yards and three touchdowns in 2011.
Bess posted at least fantasy WR3 production in both 2009 and 2010, and if he can approach that production this year Bess will obliterate his present ADP of WR67.
New England Patriots: Stevan Ridley, RB
Winslow Townson/Getty Images
The departure of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in free agency has created a vacuum in the New England Patriots' backfield, and second-year pros Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley will battle to fill that void in training camp.
As Bill Belichick is wont to do, this has all the makings of a committee attack with both backs getting touches throughout the season.
In fact, this could break down to an almost even split, with Ridley likely taking on the early-down and game-closing "bruiser" duties that Green-Ellis performed last season.
Green-Ellis turned those duties into a top-30 fantasy finish last year, and while Ridley may be hard pressed to match "Law Firm's" 11 scores, he's also a good bet to better Green Ellis' pedestrian 665 rushing yards.
New York Jets: Chaz Schilens, WR
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Ha! You thought I was going to say Tim Tebow, didn't you!
This one's going pretty deep, especially since fifth-year wide receiver Chaz Schilens isn't being drafted among the top-100 players at his position and has never topped 400 receiving yards in a season.
However, Schilens is penciled in right now as the Jets' second wide receiver. While rookie Stephen Hill will be nipping at his heels throughout training camp and the preseason, Hill faces a steep learning curve after playing in an option offense at Georgia Tech.
I'm not saying Schilens merits a draft pick, but if he can hold onto the starting job, at least early in the season, then Schilens could make for an attractive waiver target for fantasy teams that are hit hard early by the injury bug.
Baltimore Ravens: Anquan Boldin, WR
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
After five career 1,000 yard seasons and seven top-25 fantasy finishes at his position it seems kind of silly to label Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin a "sleeper."
However, with the ascension of youngster Torrey Smith, and after catching only 57 passes last year, many fantasy owners have turned their backs on the 31-year-old receiver, and Boldin has fallen outside the top 40 in most fantasy drafts this summer.
The 10th-year veteran has finished that low in fantasy points exactly once in his standout career. With Smith drawing away coverage, and allowing Boldin to return to the second receiver role he thrived in for so long in Arizona, the stage is set for a bounce-back campaign from Boldin.
Cincinnati Bengals: Bernard Scott, RB
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
For whatever reason, the Cincinnati Bengals appear unwilling to hand the reins in their running game over to fourth-year running back Bernard Scott as the departure of starter Cedric Benson led to the arrival of BenJarvus Green-Ellis to fill that same role.
Scott has shown flashes of ability as a runner and receiver in limited opportunities. His chances to produce in the early going this year will likely be limited to third-down work. But should Green-Ellis go down, the door would swing wide open for Scott to get his moment in the sun.
That's enough to make Scott worth a stash in deeper fantasy football leagues, especially for Green-Ellis owners.
Cleveland Browns: Benjamin Watson, TE
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
It's kind of hard to pick a fantasy sleeper from among the Cleveland Browns as the entire offense appears to have been in a coma since 1999.
However, if there's one player that could surprise people, and is getting absolutely no love in fantasy drafts, it's veteran tight end Benjamin Watson.
Granted, rostering Watson is a risky move as the trio of concussions that marred the ninth-year pro's 2011 campaign raise huge concerns over his availability for the 2012 season.
With that said, rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden is going to need both a veteran check-down option and a receiver that can actually catch the ball. (Yes, I'm looking at you Greg Little)
Watson showed the ability to do both effectively with a top-10 fantasy finish in 2010. If he can stay on the field, Watson could provide ridiculous value as a late pick in large leagues or early season waiver snag.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Jonathan Dwyer, RB
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The torn ACL suffered by starting running back Rashard Mendenhall in January leaves his status for the early part of the 2012 season very much in doubt.
The duties of lead back in the Pittsburgh running game will now fall to third-year pro Isaac Redman. While Redman has shown the ability to move the chains, he has also demonstrated a maddening tendency to put the ball on the ground.
Should Redman struggle or go down with an injury of his own (it's been known to happen with running backs), then the next man up in Pittsburgh would be second-year pro Jonathan Dwyer.
Dwyer topped 100 rushing yards on only 11 carries in a game against the Tennessee Titans last year. Given the unsettled situation with the Steelers ground game, the former Georgia Tech standout is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Houston Texans: DeVier Posey, WR
Bob Levey/Getty Images
It seems as though for years the Houston Texans have been searching for a wide receiver to complement All-World performer Andre Johnson. This year the Texans rolled the dice again in the NFL draft selecting Ohio State wideout DeVier Posey in the third round.
The 6'2", 210-pounder is presently mired behind veteran Kevin Walter on the depth chart, but it may not stay that way for long.
Walter is a capable pro, but the 30-year-old has no explosiveness at all, and his inability to instill any fear in opposing defenses is a big part of why Johnson is constantly blanketed in coverage.
Posey has a lot of catching up to do after his senior season at Ohio State was all but wiped out by suspensions, but there's a lot of time between now and opening day.
If Posey can get caught up, he has the potential to add a dimension to the Texans' passing game that Walter cannot. Look for Posey's role in Houston's offense to grow as the season progresses, and his fantasy value will grow right along with it.
Indianapolis Colts: Austin Collie, WR
In 2010, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie seemed to be poised for a breakout season, racking up nearly 500 receiving yards and six scores through the first six games.
Then a series of concussions hit and Collie has been a fantasy afterthought ever since.
That may be set to change this year. According to The Sacramento Bee, Collie recently said he's symptom-free and "doing great." The fourth-year pro is slated to start opposite Reggie Wayne for the Colts.
Granted, Collie's injury and the presence of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Indianapolis are red flags. However, Collie is barely cracking the top-50 wide receivers in ADP. So long as he can stay on the field, his fantasy production should better that draft slot by a significant margin.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Rashad Jennings, RB
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
It's hard enough to have faith in a fantasy starter on the Jacksonville Jaguars' putrid offense (except running back Maurice Jones-Drew), much less find a sleeper among this mess.
With that said, although Jones-Drew was the NFL's leading rusher last year and a top-five fantasy back, he's also a player with quite a bit of wear on his tires with a bum knee and a bee in his bonnet about the size of his paycheck.
Enter backup Rashad Jennings. Jennings gained 459 yards and scored four touchdowns for the Jaguars in 13 games in 2010 before a sprained MCL wiped out his 2011 season.
Jennings has averaged over five yards a carry in limited action and shown flashes of considerable talent. A large part of the reason why the Jaguars seem to be in no hurry to cut MJD a fat check is that they may feel a more-than-adequate replacement is waiting in the wings.
Fantasy owners who use a first-round pick on Jones-Drew would be well-advised to handcuff Jennings with a late selection. Given his RB62 ADP, Jennings represents a very low-risk late pick that could pay huge dividends down the road.
Tennessee Titans: Nate Washington, WR
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Although wide receiver Nate Washington led the Tennessee Titans with 1,023 receiving yards last year, the eighth-year veteran is receiving very little attention in fantasy drafts being selected well outside the top-50 wide receivers.
Let other fantasy owners worry about Kenny Britt's knees and Kendall Wright's NFL learning curve. Take Washington as your WR4 (or even WR5) and reap the rewards of a player that finished in the top 15 last year.
Denver Broncos: Ronnie Hillman, RB
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
The Denver Broncos made quite the offensive overhaul this offseason. The team brought in quarterback Peyton Manning and added third-round pick Ronnie Hillman to back up starting running back Willis McGahee.
All it takes is one play for Hillman to become the lead back on what should be a fairly prolific offense in 2012. The rookie is a necessary handcuff for McGahee owners, and a potential sleeper pick as an RB5 in fantasy drafts.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tony Moeaki, TE
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
After a promising 2010 season, many fantasy pundits looked at Tony Moeaki as a potential breakout candidate at the tight end position in 2011, but a preseason knee injury sent those wishes up in smoke.
However, Moeaki will reportedly be ready to go for opening day. With an ADP of TE23, Moeaki is a great upside pick late in drafts, especially as a backup for fantasy owners that drafted an elite starter at the position.
Oakland Raiders: Mike Goodson, RB
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
As electrifying a player as starting running back Darren MacFadden is, the fact is he has trouble staying on the field. The fifth-year pro has yet to play in more than 13 games in a season.
That makes it absolutely imperative that fantasy owners investing a first-round pick on McFadden back him up with Mike Goodson.
In fact, Goodson is also an excellent sleeper candidate in his own right. The fourth-year pro may well be the most likely backup ball-carrier in the National Football League to see significant action this year. Goodson has shown he can do damage on the field when afforded the opportunity.
San Diego Chargers: Eddie Royal, WR
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
After catching over 90 passes for nearly 1,000 yards as a rookie wide receiver, Eddie Royal saw his role shrink significantly with the Denver Broncos. After a 19-catch 2011 season Royal departed Denver for sunny San Diego.
Royal joins a crowded San Diego receiving corps and will battle Vincent Brown for slot snaps. Should the fifth-year pro win that battle he's apt to open quite a few eyes in fantasy football leagues this season.