2012 Fantasy Football Sleepers to Watch for in Training Camp

Rob TongContributor IIIJuly 13, 2012

2012 Fantasy Football Sleepers to Watch for in Training Camp

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    Hope reigns supreme these days.

    Now is the time when every non-star is a potential sleeper, when big things are expected and weaknesses are ignored.

    But savvy fantasy football owners know that not every sleeper comes through—right, Shonn Greene?

    It's best to view everyone's projected sleeper lists with a critical eye and see if the question marks get answered in training camp.

    So here are several sleeper candidates with some issues that need clarification during upcoming training camp before you call out their names on draft day.

Quarterbacks to Watch in Camp

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    Josh Freeman has a lot of new weapons, so he is everyone's popular sleeper pick. But sometimes a quarterback doesn't mesh right away with his new receiver—right, Santonio Holmes?—so fantasy owners would be advised to observe how Freeman does in camp with Vincent Jackson. It could be bliss, or it could be Rex Grossman-Muhsin Muhammad redux.

    Ben Roethlisberger is still trying to grasp new coordinator Todd Haley's offensive system. Receiver Mike Wallace is holding out. It's best to observe how fluidly the Steelers offense is progressing in camp and the preseason if you're interested in taking any Steeler—like receiver Antonio Brown—for your fantasy team.

    Like Freeman, Jay Cutler has a lot of new weapons. But unlike Freeman, Cutler's new receiver Brandon Marshall is actually an old receiver from their Denver days. And new Bears quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates is actually the old offensive coordinator from their Denver days. Even so, Cutler bears watching because his offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL, and it will be interesting to see how coordinator—and former O-line coach—Mike Tice will minimize the line's weaknesses.

    Eli Manning gains a new running back in David Wilson but loses a key veteran receiver in Mario Manningham. The favorite to replace Manningham is talented rookie Rueben Randle. But Randle is a rookie, after all, and Manning will likely lose the services of receiver Hakeem Nicks for the first couple of games. Will the Giants run the ball a bit more this year as a result? The preseason could give us some signs.

    Andy Dalton has a lot of new weapons. The upside is that receiver A.J. Green gets some help in carrying the load. The downside is that these new weapons—guard Kevin Zeitler, wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones and tight end Orson Charles—are all rookies, which will necessitate a learning curve. How will this impact the passing game?

Running Backs to Watch in Camp

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    Fred Jackson had a monster season before hitting the Injured Reserve. This year, he's 31 years old. As I've explained in an article about fantasy players who will regress, the magic age for RBs to fall off a cliff statistically is 30. The unusual thing about Jackson is how little mileage he has—only 817 career carries and 175 career receptions. Will the abnormally low mileage help sustain the 31-year-old Jackson to another fantastic season? Or is this the season where Jackson will hit a wall? Camp might provide some clues.

    Reggie Bush shocked most—if not all—of the fantasy world when he was a productive fantasy RB in 2011. Was last year a mirage? Will Bush still be as productive in new coordinator Mike Sherman's offense? Or will former second-round pick Daniel Thomas be the better fit? Don't draft Bush unless you've at least had a chance to see how things are playing out in Miami's training camp.

    Isaac Redman is the favorite to win the starting job in Rashard Mendenhall's absence. But fantasy owners need to know if Redman has the tools to potentially keep the starting gig even when Mendenhall returns to action later in the season. This will help you decide whether Redman is worth a mid-round pick or merely a late-round flyer.

    BenJarvus Green-Ellis found a new home in Cincinnati, but will it be worth consideration for fantasy purposes? How much will coordinator Jon Gruden use the running game, especially with all the new passing toys at his disposal? Does Green-Ellis have any juice left in the tank to be a viable RB2 or flex option, or is he merely a fantasy backup? Camp will reveal some answers.

    After some success late last year, Donald Brown is widely projected to be the starting running back for the Colts, but that's kind of like being the tallest midget. The question is whether Brown can produce consistently enough to warrant consideration in fantasy drafts. New Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will need some semblance of a running game in order to prevent defenses from pinning their ears back and chasing him back to the locker room. So keep an eye out to see how Brown does this preseason.

Wide Receivers to Watch in Camp

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    Plenty of fantasy owners like Philip Rivers' chances of bouncing back this year, but a huge chunk of those hopes are pinned squarely on sophomore receiver Vincent Brown's odds of breaking out this year. If he flops, he's likely going to take Rivers down with him because a gimpy Antonio Gates, underachieving Robert Meachem and an old veteran in Malcom Floyd are not going to give Rivers enough weapons. Keep an eye on Brown in camp and see how he's progressing.

    Laurent Robinson is so far under the radar, he's practically a groundhog. But he's talented enough to be a tremendous sleeper late in the draft, so you need answers to some questions. Will quarterback Blaine Gabbert—a former first-round pick—be resurrected from the fantasy grave now that he has some passing weapons? What will Gabbert and Robinson's chemistry be like? Will new coordinator Bob Bratkowski's new system take advantage of Robinson's playmaking ability?

    Dez Bryant is an enigma. Blessed with elite talent but never being consistent, he can be infuriating to fantasy owners—even when he manages to stay healthy. Now in his third season, will this be the year Bryant "gets it" and fulfills his enormous potential? Will Miles Austin still be the one commanding the ball in passing situations? Will the lack of a third viable receiver help or hurt Bryant's production? It will be important to check Cowboys camp and find out before you head into your fantasy draft.

    Demaryius Thomas came on strong down the stretch of last season. He averaged 15.0 FPPG in his last four games (not including Week 17) before blowing up in the playoffs with his 204-yard performance against the Steelers in the playoffs. But will Peyton Manning prefer the more polished route-runner in Eric Decker? Sometimes things don't work out as logically as you'd expect, so it would be wise to see how this plays out in Broncos camp.

Tight Ends to Watch in Camp

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    Jermaine Gresham is a former first-round pick who has yet to play up to his potential, partially due to some injuries and also in part to his inability to "read coverages on the move." Now in his second year in Jay Gruden's offense, he could be ready to break out. Gresham has said he's studied every catch in Rob Gronkowski's 2011 season to see "how they're getting open, how they're getting so many balls." But can Gresham actually step up? Camp and preseason will give us some indicators. (Quotes from Bengals.com.)

    Vernon Davis made himself a household name in the playoffs, but people forget that during the season he only averaged 6.7 FPPG, and only 6.3 FPPG in the fantasy stretch run (Weeks 13-16). Which Vernon Davis will show up this season? With Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree also wanting the ball, how many targets will Vernon Davis command? We'll have to see how it shakes out in camp.

    Brent Celek came up big in Weeks 15 and 16 last year (16.4 FPPG) and averaged a very healthy 8.9 FPPG from Week 6 forward. Will Michael Vick use Celek as much this year? What will Celek's role be in the red zone this year? A peek into Eagles camp may provide some clues.

    Jermichael Finley finished with 7.5 FPPG, which is acceptable but not great. But what's worse is that Finley had nine games—more than half the fantasy season—where he had fewer than seven fantasy points. Will Finley get more love in the passing game this year? Or is it more of the same from last year? Will sophomore receiver Randall Cobb or James Jones take up some of Finley's targets? Or is this the year Finley finally becomes the All-Pro that many envisioned?