Somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of what exactly constitutes a fantasy football sleeper. In 2013, you’ve heard names such as LaMichael James, Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders thrown around ad nauseam.
If everyone already knows about their potential to break out this season, are these players actually being selected far below their value during league drafts?
Plus, as the preseason progresses, more fantasy owners are going to become wise to your plots to steal a wide receiver like Markus Wheaton in the later rounds.
Luckily for you, you’re reading this and you’ll be ready to snatch these hidden gems before the competition.
WR Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Player Ranking: 87th WR, 280 overall
Drafting a rookie wide receiver who’s buried on a team’s depth chart may not seem like a wise move. The rankings from around the Internet reflect the skepticism surrounding Wheaton, who sits—at best—at third on the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart heading into the season.
However, there’s no denying the talent that the young rookie possesses. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been raving about his young pass-catcher’s ability to adjust to the NFL game, per Sirius XM's Movin' The Chains (via Dave Bryan of SteelersDepot.com):
Markus Wheaton, he’s got very good route savvy. Talk about a guy who has caught over 100 balls last year, worked in the slot, worked outside. He’s showing good route maturity for a young guy. He knows how to create space at break points and work himself open.
Wheaton will continue to battle veteran receiver Jericho Cotchery for time on the field this season, but at his average draft position, he’s definitely worth taking a risk on before some of your competitors decide to roll the dice.
When making your decision, don’t forget to factor in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays, his propensity to spread the ball around to multiple receivers and the big-play gap left by departed wideout Mike Wallace.
TE Zach Sudfeld, New England Patriots
Player Ranking: 23rd TE, 195 overall
Even when Rob Gronkowski gets back onto the field, there’s going to be plenty of fantasy points to go around for New England Patriots tight ends. His status is currently unknown, though. Best-case scenario, Gronk is back in action in Week 1, but the “most likely” result is that he misses the first six weeks, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe.
So who will step up and collect all of the fantasy points in the meantime?
Tom Brady utilized rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld sparingly in the first quarter of the Pats' recent win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, he did find the pass-catcher in the red zone on a two-point conversation attempt during the first quarter of that preseason matchup. It was an encouraging sign for those looking for a late-round tight end to snag after the bigger names have all been taken.
Sudfeld also made a circus catch in the end zone in the second quarter on a pass thrown by backup Ryan Mallett. His performance in the game prompted many to question whether the tight end was a real star for the Pats passing game. Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston answered those questions:
National TV audience gets to see what has been regular theme @ Patriots practices: Throw the ball in Zach Sudfeld's direction, he catches it— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 17, 2013
Other than players like Gronk and Jimmy Graham, tight ends aren’t typically targeted very high. You’ll have that working in your favor when considering Sudfeld on draft day. At best, you’ll snag a potentially high-producing tight end who will secure a prominent role in the Pats offense if Gronkowski doesn’t return quickly or to top form once active.
At worst, you could still be getting a productive player. Despite Gronkowski’s presence, Aaron Hernandez managed to put up good fantasy numbers, scoring 9.8 points per game in 14 games in 2011 and 7.9 per game in 10 appearances last season.
RB Joseph Randle, Dallas Cowboys
Player Ranking: 56th RB, 196 overall
There’s no doubting DeMarco Murray has top-10 running back potential if healthy. That’s a big caveat, though, isn’t it? Murray has missed nine games due to injuries since breaking out onto the NFL scene during his rookie season in 2011. He also struggled staying on the field in college.
Even when in action, he’s been slowed by those injuries. In his 18 NFL game appearances, Murray has complied 1,486 yards and scored six touchdowns. While that isn’t a poor showing overall, it isn’t exactly awe-inspiring from a fantasy football perspective.
Perhaps some changes are in order for Dallas’ running game this season.
After struggling to run the football last year, Dallas has shifted its offensive philosophy this offseason. Not only will the team be running it more this season, it's taking a different approach altogether, according to head coach Jason Garrett. The Cowboys are planning to run the ball out of single-back and spread formations and are not carrying a fullback on their roster this season.
"It's something I'm looking forward to," Murray said, per Clarence Hill of the Star-Telegram. ... "When you get guys spread out, it’s going to be hard for them to have seven or eight guys in the box so it’s going to open a lot of running lanes."
Rookie running back Joseph Randle knows something about running out of spread formations. He ran for 2,633 yards and scored 40 total touchdowns during his final two seasons at Oklahoma State, a school that thrives off of spreading the field and running underneath defense.
Randle isn’t a lock to see the field much with Murray healthy, but the chances of him earning a role are high. The chances of Murray getting injured are high too, making Randle a necessary handcuff and very intriguing late-round sleeper to keep an eye on.
Player rankings provided by FantasyPros.com. Rankings are for standard scoring leagues, not PPR.