Your 2013 fantasy football season will be won by picking the right sleepers before your competitors grow wise to your plans.
And no, I’m not talking about the obvious names you keep finding mentioned across the Internet. I’m talking about true difference-makers you’ll be able to snag out from under your friends’ noses.
These are the guys who are continually being severely under-drafted as fantasy picks continue to be made around the world.
QB Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
Player Ranking: 27th QB, 231st overall
No one should give quarterback Brandon Weeden a pass for his dismal performance as a rookie last year. But you shouldn’t write him off because of it, either.
Playing in the antiquated West Coast offense, Weeden threw just 43 percent of his passes from the shotgun formation, according to ProFootballFocus.com (via Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer). In the shotgun last season, Weeden’s QBR was 79.1 compared to 67.7 while throwing after taking the snap under center.
To this point in the preseason, Weeden has shined in Norv Turner’s new vertical Cleveland offense. He’s compiled 229 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-25 passing after two brief appearances.
Like he did last season on 77 percent of pass attempts, per PFF, Turner put his quarterback in the cockpit of the shotgun formation tirelessly this preseason. Believe it or not, the sophomore quarterback threw out of that formation on exactly 77 percent of his attempts during the team’s preseason opener.
The NFL average for shotgun passes a season ago was 66 percent, per PFF.
With young and capable targets like Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Jordan Cameron emerging, Turner’s pass-happy offense and Trent Richardson carrying the football, this could be a huge season for the soon-to-be 30-year-old Weeden.
WR Jonathan Baldwin, San Francisco 49ers
Player Ranking: 74th WR, 209th overall
Jonathan Baldwin died and went to fantasy football heaven on August 19.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Kansas City Chiefs traded the 6’4”, 230-pound receiver to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins:
Chiefs announce they've traded WR Jon Baldwin to SF for WR AJ Jenkins. Change of scenery for both.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 19, 2013
Baldwin, also a former first-rounder, has been a massive disappointment on the fantasy football scene to this point. He’s totaled just 579 yards and two touchdowns after two seasons in the NFL. The immense athlete is one of the most physically imposing receivers in the league, but his approach could use some tweaking.
Coming out of college Baldwin was reportedly labeled as a diva and as a player not committed to putting in the work to excel. He hasn’t shed those concerns yet, either. But if there is anyone that can help get the most of the gifted receiver, it’s 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has a proven track record of turning around maligned players’ careers. Rotoworld cited the improved performances of Ahmad Brooks, Michael Crabtree, Alex Smith and Carlos Rogers under the coach as examples of his work in that regard.
With a change of scenery and a new staff committed to returning to the Super Bowl, Baldwin could make the most out of his new opportunity by exploding onto the scene in a big way this season.
RB Stepfan Taylor, Arizona Cardinals
Player Ranking: 82nd RB, 300th overall
Does anyone else think injury-prone backs Ryan Williams and Rashard Mendenhall are reliable options to carry the load offensively for a full 16-game season? Me neither.
Enter rookie running back Stepfan Taylor.
In college, Taylor set school records with 4,300 yards rushing and 45 total touchdowns. The bruising 5’9", 214-pound back has the ideal combination of size and speed it takes to navigate through defenses and move piles for extra yards.
He’s also reliable; something the Cardinals should covet at the position. Taylor never missed a game in college and fumbled just seven times during his time in school.
The former standout Stanford back has also been nothing short of impressive to this point in his young NFL career. He totaled 64 yards in his NFL debut against the Green Bay Packers, including several short-yardage conversions. He’s also getting it done in pass protection, according to Chad Scott of Dynasty League Football:
Stepfan Taylor has pass blocked on 14 plays so far...has given up 0 sacks, pressures, hits, or hurries...that's something to monitor...— Chad Scott (@Chad_Scott13) August 19, 2013
While he currently sits at third on the Cards’ depth chart, Taylor could see himself moving into a more prominent role sooner rather than later even if Williams and Mendenhall stay healthy.
Player rankings provided by FantasyPros.com. Rankings are for standard scoring leagues, not PPR.