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Fantasy Football 2013: Top 15 Fantasy Sleepers You Can Ride to a Title

Bruce ChenAnalyst IAugust 23, 2016

Fantasy Football 2013: Top 15 Fantasy Sleepers You Can Ride to a Title

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    As always, the fantasy football season's top scorers will be a combination of the preseason studs who went in the first round and some players whose positive preseason prognosis was limited to “sleeper” status.

    Put simply, sleepers or dark horses will win you your league. You have a leg up on all your peers if you pick somebody up off of waivers or in the later rounds and he ends up producing like a No. 1 at his position.

    Yeah, if you pick Adrian Peterson, you get a surefire No. 1 running back who may finish the season as the top overall player in fantasy land. But what if I told you a player not being picked among the top 20 for running backs has a solid chance of being in the same conversation as Peterson for the best fantasy runners of 2013?

    According to, David Wilson is going as the 35th overall player.  Maybe that’s too obvious, because everyone feels Wilson could be a breakout guy. Let’s dig deeper.

    Sleepers can come in all shapes and forms. My top sleepers include, but aren’t limited to, bounce-back candidates (Miles Austin) and veterans who are finally going to figure it out (Martellus Bennett).

    The definition for "sleeper" simply means that Player A is being picked in, say, the sixth round, but there is strong evidence he could present you third-round value during the season.

    Rankings via

Honorable Mentions

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    Larry Fitzgerald, WR

    It’s hard to imagine the second-best wideout in the league would ever be considered a “sleeper”. 

    He’s not really a true sleeper considering his stature and his contract, but a healthy Fitz with a half-decent quarterback should command a second-round pick without question.

    According to FantasyPros, he’s going as the seventh wide receiver and the 26th overall pick.

    He’s only a sleeper in the sense that people are a little down on him, but it’s obvious he’ll out-produce his ADP.


    Montee Ball, RB

    Seeing Ball in the fourth round of mock drafts (46th, the No. 22 RB) has shades of Doug Martin last year. So, why isn’t Ball higher up this list? Unlike the situation with Martin, it’s completely unclear if Ball can actually claim the job. The Denver Broncos claim the battle for the backfield remains open.

    On one hand, we know the 217-pound Ball is a good candidate for early-down work. He proved he could handle the load during his standout years at Wisconsin, but to play with Peyton Manning, you need to pass block.

    As proven by this video. Best case, Ball takes the early-down work while Ronnie Hillman does the third-down gig, but Ball gets to cash in on a lot of red-zone touchdowns for the league’s best offense.

    Worst-case scenario is that we get a platoon reminiscent of Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas in New Orleans.


    Dwayne Bowe, WR

    Like Fitz, we all know who Bowe is.  We know he can be a stud. He did produce 1,162 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns in 2010, after all. But those maddeningly fickle TDs dropped to five in 2011, and three in an injury-plagued 2012.

    Now we have a new offensive coordinator and quarterback in Andy Reid and Alex  Smith. It’s always a scary proposition, but the Chiefs can’t be any worse than they were last year.

    Regression towards the mean is possible and, for those doubting Smith, it’s not like Bowe has ever had a superstar quarterback. He produced for two solid seasons with Matt Cassel, and the West Coast offensive brand Reid brings will allow more pass attempts than ever.

    The downside is that Bowe’s best two seasons came with a receiving average of 16.1 and 14.3. He does his best work downfield, and Smith’s arm is average at best.


    Kyle Rudolph, TE

    Rudolph is tough to project. At times in 2013, he resembled Rob Gronkowski in the red zone, finishing with a robust nine touchdowns. In fact, Rotoworld reports that Rudolph has the best red-zone target catch rate, with 87 percent.

    That’s better than Gronk, Tony Gonzalez, and Jimmy Graham.

    On the other hand, there’s no getting around the fact that Rudolph has just 742 receiving yards in two seasons. Last season, he had three games of zero catches, and six games of three catches or less.

    Which is fine for a deep threat, but not a guy who has never had a receiving average in the double digits.

    That said, his touchdown potential is exciting, and he’s just 23 and going into his third year. Christian Ponder will need to find new ways to utilize Rudolph in the middle of the field now that Percy Harvin is gone.

    There is room for improvement.


    Tavon Austin, WR

    Austin could be a lot higher up on this list, but he’s not for one reason. It is incredibly hard to project rookie wideouts, especially one as unique as Austin.

    He’s currently going as the 29th receiver. But he’ll immediately take a featured role in the Rams offense. We have no idea if Sam Bradford can take his offense to the next level yet. But one thing is for sure—if they hope to get any return on that onerous, pre-lockout rookie deal that the former No.1 pick signed, they need the ball in Austin’s hands.

    His playmaking skills compare favorably to Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb’s. While neither of them made noise in their first year, they both joined squads that already had juggernaut offenses with proven playmakers at every position and didn’t need them to be rushed in.  On the other hand, Austin will get touches early and often.

    As an analyst, I’m definitely hedging my bets on Austin. I could look smart for including him in this column but could look stupid for not having him much higher.

No. 10: DeSean Jackson

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    I’m going to kick off this list with two guys who I feel the hate has gone too far. A couple of seasons ago, D-Jax was considered a big-play receiver just outside the top tier of wideouts, somewhat like Vincent Jackson.

    Some weeks, he can open your week with a long touchdown reception and make your week in one play. Some weeks, he’ll give you nothing because he can’t reign in those long bombs.

    He’s the 28th receiver going off of the board so far.  I’m not saying he’ll ever be a consistent threat, or your No.1 wideout. But the notion that, with Chip Kelly calling the shots, a WR3 will be the main deep threat in the Philadelphia Eagles offense is beyond ludicrous.

    No, we haven’t seen what Kelly’s up-tempo offense can offer yet. No, we don’t even know who the quarterback will be.  And, no, I can’t tell you how the lack of an opposite threat (Jeremy Maclin’s injury, Riley Cooper being Riley Cooper) will affect how coverages plan for his speed.

    But despite his career averages in catches per game being below average (3.9), home run hitters always have a place in fantasy.

    Whether you believe in Kelly or not, the Philly offense can’t be more inefficient than it was last season (Michael Vick and Nick Foles combined for 23 turnovers last season). Even then, Jackson averaged seven fantasy points per game. For comparisons’ sake, that’s on par with the likes of Jordy Nelson, Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace. Jackson can only go up, and, to find out if he can, you don’t have to pay a huge price.

    Fantasy projections are about playing the stats and trusting that certain variables will play out. With finding undervalued guys, it’s never a bad idea to go after talented guys who are going from a bad situation to a better one.

No. 9: Josh Gordon

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    The easiest way for any player in the NFL to squander talent, opportunity and the faith of his coaches is to be involved in a high-profile murder case. The second easiest is uttering a racial slur. The third is to be Josh Gordon, who battles patellar tendinitis and got suspended two games for codeine.

    Still, if it weren’t for any of those things, Gordon would be going a lot higher than the 92nd overall pick (38th-ranking wideout). Along with his physical tools, he has the aggressive Rob Chudzinski calling plays for him.

    Gripe about Brandon Weeden and the lack of other threats around the Cleveland Browns offense, but the one thing Weeden does have is a big arm, and it translated to a 16.1 yards per catch for Gordon last season.

    And after Gordon started seeing the field (Week 5 and onward), he produced four touchdowns and three double-digit fantasy days in the following three weeks. Yes, as a deep threat, he disappeared some weeks, and he only had four games of more than three catches.

    Still, the concerns you have with Gordon exist to some extent with even the top wideouts. As your WR4, and the fact that you can stash him for two weeks before you do anything with him, he’s worth the risk. You’re not going to find many guys with his upside that late.

No. 8: Danny Woodhead

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    Sure, San Diego’s offense behind a declining Philip Rivers is a huge mess. The backfield is crowded with Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown.

    But I don’t have to tell anyone who’s been playing fantasy over the past couple years that Mathews doesn’t do anything but get injured and lose the trust of his coaches. And Ronnie Brown is 31 years old. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    And here’s the truth about Philip Rivers—the guy is a check-down machine. Of San Diego’s 528 team targets, a ridiculous 158 went to running backs.

    And they were effective, as far as completion percentage goes. Jackie Battle caught all 15 of his targets. Ronnie Brown caught 49 of 61. Le’Ron McClain was eight of 10. Curtis Brinkley was 12 of 15.

    Even the embattled and oft-injured Mathews, whose team we know for a fact no longer trusts him on third down, caught 39 of 57 passes thrown his way.

    Woodhead proved during his time in New England that he's a much better pass-catcher than all of them in the playmaking department.

    His average yards at the catch with the Pats was 10.3. None of San Diego’s backs eclipsed 7.6.

    Woodhead had 40 catches last year, and it’s really not that hard to see him going up to 50 or 60 with the Chargers’ propensity to throw to the running back.

    When Mathews gets hurt (seriously, I’m not even going to use the word “if”), it really won’t be hard to envision Woodhead handling a modest chunk of the early-down work, too.

    Mathews’ replacement when he went down (the immortal Jackie “Mr. 3.3 Yards Per Carry” Battle) got 95 carries. If we give those to Woodhead (a modest projection considering a bunch more carries went to other putrid backs I don’t even have to mention), he can do something with them (his one season with 97 carries in New England yielded 547 yards, or 5.6 yards per carry).

    Add that to the inevitable catches, and Danny Woodhead has a pretty good shot at potentially pushing 1,000 scrimmage yards. That’s good enough to be your flex guy if he can sprinkle in a few touchdowns here and there.

    Again, he’s going later than some kickers and defenses.

No. 7: Ahmad Bradshaw

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    “It might be a platoon with Vick Ballard.”

    Whoever just uttered that sentence should probably tweet at me right away telling me they want to join my fantasy league. I don’t need stats to prove that Ahmad Bradshaw is 10 times the football player Ballard is—the tape does that plenty.

    “Bradshaw’s feet are completely shot from the 25 foot surgeries he’s had.” Okay, you got me there.

    So that’s one valid reason he’s going as the 28th overall runner. But Bradshaw produces when healthy—like a high-end No. 2 back, in fact.

    Tom Coughlin realized that even though Bradshaw was six inches and 50 pounds less of a man than Brandon Jacobs, he ran like he was twice as big as Jacobs. Since then, he’s produced 2,909 rush yards on 668 carries (4.4 yards a carry) while adding 826 more out of the backfield on catches.

    He did this all on a pass-first offense with the New York Giants led by Eli Manning and Victor Cruz. Despite Jacobs stealing short touchdowns, he still produced 25 total touchdowns in that time frame.

    In 2010, he stayed healthy and was a top-10 back for the sixth-ranked rushing attack in the league. In 2011, he missed four games yet still averaged 13.2 fantasy points per game while the Giants ranked at the bottom of the league in rushing. In 2012, he missed two games and still finished in the top 20 for backs.

    The takeaways from these three seasons tell me the entire story about Bradshaw. First, if he stays healthy for 16 games, you get a second-round value for him. Second, even if he misses a few games, you can live with it because you didn’t draft him to be your No. 1. Third, his playmaking skill allows him to transcend a terrible rushing offense.

    Now he inherits a job with the Indianapolis Colts (it is his job, if healthy), who are a growing offense with Andrew Luck and ranked No. 14 in rush attempts despite an offensive coordinator who had a reputation for going downfield. Not to mention the fact that Ballard got 221 carries despite failing to average four yards a carry.

    Right now, you can get Bradshaw as a flex. If he plays even 12 or 13 games, you are going to be tremendously happy with the return on investment.


No. 6: Antonio Brown

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    “Smart” fantasy analysts have always loved Antonio Brown and his perennial predraft sixth-round valuation. They maintained that the old production you used to get out of a healthy Mike Wallace (2,450 yards and 18 touchdowns in two full seasons) would inevitably be taken over by the equally talented Brown.

    Now Wallace took his talents to the South Beach with the Miami Dolphins, and Brown is firmly in line for the No. 1 job with the Steelers. 

    We were all disappointed when Brown produced just 787 yards on 66 catches last season, but he was dealing with a high-ankle sprain (one of the hardest injuries for anyone who relies on speed).

    Todd Haley favors passing the ball, but more importantly, the intermediate passing game (the Steelers were dead in the middle of the pack in yards per pass attempt in 2012), and that plays to Brown’s skill set well. He runs great routes, has good hands and is ridiculously quick with the ball in his hands.

    No, he’s not Wallace—you won’t see him sprinting down the field to catch long touchdowns. But you probably will see him catching intermediate throws and making shifty plays to gain a few extra yards, or maybe much more. This might finally be the year for us “smart” analysts to look good with Brown.


No. 5: Martellus Bennett

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    In 2013, tight end will be by far the hardest position to project. Because of Rob Gronkowski’s injury, Jimmy Graham is the only “sure thing”. Beyond the top five of these blocker-receiver hybrids, it’s a complete crapshoot.

    Well, before you say that was the percentage of balls thrown Brandon Marshall’s way, let’s take a close look. Of Jay Cutler’s red-zone targets, 61.5 percent went to players who were 6’4’’ or above. Now, this seems like a silly stat, but hear me out.

    Those targets were split between Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis.  Digging deeper, I can totally affirm your Marshall joke and admit that 44.2 percent of the red-zone targets went to No. 15.

    Now, Spaeth and Davis (both 6’7’’, but both with ridiculously inept hands) are gone from Chicago. Taking their place is the 6’6’’, 270-pound Bennett, who sports ridiculous athleticism and speed for his size.

    No, I’m not saying Bennett is as good as Marshall, but my point is, when Cutler’s looking to put points on the board, he targets his big boys. He had to target Marshall such a ridiculous amount of times solely based on the fact that his other big guys were terrible.

    With a more balanced offense under Marc Trestman, it’s expected that Marshall’s targets in the red zone, and in general, should go down. 

    The Bears are excited about Bennett’s potential as a playmaker in the red zone and all over the field. And it’s worth mentioning Bennett was fairly productive with the Giants despite a hyperextended knee in Week 5. Before that, he produced three touchdowns in five games and 19 catches.

    Extrapolate “Healthy Martellus” numbers into 16 games and you have over 60 catches, just under 700 yards and nine touchdowns.

    He has great potential in what will be a good offense in the Windy City, and he should be able to far exceed his current ADP as the 13th tight end.


No. 4: Miles Austin

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    Like Bradshaw, Austin is a case of reoccurring health problems with one body part—his hamstrings. They cost him six games in 2011 and, although he gutted out 16 starts last year, there were a lot of “questionable” tags.

    When he was on the field, he didn’t look like the same guy we grew to love in 2009 when he produced 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns on basically 13 games of starting.

    Even if you believe Austin is healthy, times are changing in Dallas. There is no question Dez Bryant is the main option in the passing attack. Then you have Jason Witten, who has caught 94 or more passes in three of the past four seasons. 

    Finally, if DeMarco Murray stays healthy, there’s no way the Cowboys don’t significantly increase their rush attempts from 441 last season (19th in the NFL).

    That leaves Austin as the fourth option on offense. So, why does Austin outperform his current draft stock as the 36th ranked wideout?

    Well, we’re not talking about the Bears or the Cardinals. But for fantasy purposes, the Cowboys are who we thought they were.

    Last season, the Cowboys attempted the third-most passes in the NFL. In 2011, they were seventh, and in 2010, they were sixth. Dallas has a real-life reputation of choking in the playoffs or trotting out mediocre 8-8 records; they have fantasy reputation of passing the ball a lot.

    Maybe some day the Cowboys won’t be the joke for all sports pundits everywhere and make the Super Bowl, or actually start running the ball. I’ll believe it when I see it.

    The reality is that Tony Romo nearly passed for 5,000 yards last year. Even if Bryant had a 2,000 yard season, that’s still 3,000 to split among Witten, Austin and a bunch of practice squad guys. So relax on the whole “he’s the third option” thing.

    Towards the end of last season, Bryant was such a threat that the sole focus of defenses tended to be stopping him and giving Austin and Witten the intermediate targets. From an X’s and O’s perspective, this has to create bunches of mismatches for Austin.

    Why? According to ESPN Dallas, Austin ran 395 routes out of the slot last year, third in the league. This means the Cowboys are going three wide, which means any reasonably competent defense will use a nickelback, or their third-best cornerback on Austin.

    And you aren’t convincing me there are many third-string corners in the league who can stop a 6’3’’, 220-pounder in the open field like Austin.

    Austin nearly got 1,000 yards last season and scored six TDs despite his constant nagging injuries. Should he stay healthy, this is his absolute floor. Witten has never been a touchdown machine, so the red-zone opportunities are there for Austin.

    And if I had a nickel for every dynamic one-two punch wideout duo that included an elite outside threat (Bryant) and a dynamic slot man (Austin), I’d be rich. Austin is a flex guy on draft day but could be a mid-level WR2.


No. 3: Matthew Stafford

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    Dallas ranked No. 3 in pass attempts in 2012. Drew Brees and the New Orleans pass attack ranked second. And No. 1 was Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions.

    When your secondary and running game are that bad and you have Calvin Johnson, somehow 740 passes become a good idea. This resulted in Stafford almost passing for another 5,000 yards, just like 2011 when he catapulted himself into the first rounds of fantasy drafts.

    Unfortunately, the sheer volume and predictability led to Stafford producing 21 less touchdowns than he did the year before.

    From 41 touchdowns to 20—what the heck happened? It doesn’t stop getting worse—Stafford’s passer rating dropped from 97.2 to 79.8, with a 3.7 percent drop in completion percentage.

    A startlingly telling point made by ESPN’s immortal Matthew Berry points out in his “100 facts”, that Lions wideouts were tackled a league-leading 23 times inside the 5-yard line.

    This is also an explanation for why Calvin Johnson had just five touchdowns last season after 16 the season before; of those 23, he was tackled eight times.

    So this seems like bad luck, and the almighty regression towards the mean tells me Stafford should get around 30 passing touchdowns in 2013. Plus, Stafford’s draft price resembles that of stolen iPhone on Craiglist (61st overall).

No. 2: Eric Decker

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    If you can’t tell, I like red-zone stats. Well, of all eligible NFL wideouts, Eric Decker was the most efficient in this magical area, sporting a catch rate of almost 70 percent

    That explains his 11 red-zone scores and his 13 overall. Only James Jones had more, totaling 14 scores.

    The glaringly obvious downside with Decker is that, with Wes Welker’s arrival, Decker’s usage rate goes down. And I can’t make the same argument for Decker as I did with Austin—Welker will undoubtedly be the slot guy, and Thomas is the premier outside threat.

    Rotoviz does a pretty in-depth analysis on Decker’s red-zone chops, and it’s a lot to take in.

    But the takeaway point is that Decker has always been good in the red zone. Whether he was playing in college, catching passes from Peyton Manning or Tim Tebow, Eric Decker gets looks and converts them when it’s time to put up six points.

    Among so many wideouts, touchdowns are extremely difficult to replicate. This is why the aforementioned Jones isn’t going very high in drafts—we’ve come to expect a regression towards the mean with his scores.

    But given Decker’s red-zone chops and how incredibly potent this offense is, I find it impossible Decker won’t get double-digit touchdowns. And before you say the yardage won’t be there, the dude is 6’3’’ and 217 pounds and runs a 4.54.

    So for those of you who won’t bother looking up draft combine stats, this means that Thomas and Decker have literally the same physical stats size and speed-wise. The notion that Thomas is the “big, physical freak” and there’s a big gap in their athleticism is a farce.

    All three Broncos wideouts have the potential to finish in the top 15, but one of them can be had as the 20th receiver drafted.

No. 1: David Wilson

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    Wilson was a talented rookie coming out of college as a first-round pick for the New York Giants. He fumbled once in Week 1 and promptly got a one-way ticket to the bench.

    He has the skill set of a C.J. Spiller, maybe kind of like his predecessor in Bradshaw, but with more explosiveness. There's no question Wilson can run the ball and put up big chunks of yards when he gets it—he averaged 5.0 yards per carry and threw up a franchise-record 327 all-purpose yards (227 on returns) with three touchdowns against the Saints in Week 13.

    Only Andre Brown is competition for carries in New York. He's nowhere near as talented as Wilson but did play effectively when Bradshaw was hurt and scored eight touchdowns in just 10 games, proving his short-yardage worth.

    On the surface, it looks like a pretty simple platoon where Wilson makes all the spectacular plays and Brown frustrates Wilson owners by vulturing touchdowns. It's happened with the likes of Ray Rice in 2009 with Willis McGahee, Jamaal Charles in 2010 with Thomas Jones and so on and so forth.

    But we also knew that those guys were productive nonetheless, and often times, it's beneficial for a guy like Wilson or Spiller to have another back in the fold. First, it limits their carries but keeps them healthy, and they're such explosive playmakers that they don't need 300 carries to produce. Second, it depresses their draft value so you can get them at a discount. Third, they're all pass-catching backs.

    To believe in Wilson, you only need to watch highlights of his rookie season and realize that once upon a time, the stubborn Coughlin had a choice between a talented playmaker (Bradshaw) and an ordinary bruiser (Brandon Jacobs) and gave most of the carries to the playmaker.

    Provided Wilson hangs onto the ball and learns to pass-protect reasonably well, he will end up in the top five of fantasy football running backs. Book it. He's going in the fourth round so far.

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