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Fantasy Football 2014: 5 Early Sleepers at Wide Receiver

Kyle PappasContributor IIApril 28, 2014

Fantasy Football 2014: 5 Early Sleepers at Wide Receiver

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    Bill Kostroun

    Kenny Britt. Lance Moore. Sidney Rice. Dwayne Bowe.

    Yes, these are all receivers who had seriously disappointing seasons in 2013. But more importantly, they're all names that were chosen ahead of Alshon Jeffery and Josh Gordon in most fantasy drafts.

    Gordon and Jeffery were, on average, the 122nd and 123rd players drafted in ESPN leagues last year. That's more than 30 picks behind a Texans D/ST that finished 28th at its position.

    The irony is overwhelming.

    Gordon ended the season first among all wideouts. Jeffery wasn't too far behind at ninth.

    See, this is the type of stuff that winds up turning your 13-year-old brother-in-law into a legitimate playoff contender. The type of stuff that enables Taco to make it to the Shiva Bowl. The type of stuff that strips you of your god-given right to humiliate and degrade those closest to you for an entire offseason. 

    And at its core, that's what fantasy football is really all about, isn't it?

    But with Week 1 a mere four months away, your opportunity to earn back that right is rapidly approaching. The long road to redemption starts here. Now.

    With buy-low wideouts. (Sorry if that was a bit anti-climatic.)

    While mulling over possible strategies, many fantasy owners become preoccupied weighing the pros and cons between potential first-round selections. Alas, they fail to address their late-round needs.

    Boasting a substantially deeper pool of talent than both quarterback and running back, a handful of promising receivers routinely fall into these later rounds. You know, around the time that a couple of your buddies activate the dreaded "auto-pick."

    Don't be fooled—it's where fantasy championships are won and lost. Anybody who ended up with Jeffery or Gordon last year can tell you that.

    That being said, here are five afterthoughts at WR that are capable of helping you catch a fantasy trophy in 2014.

Honorable Mentions

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    Don Wright

    Doug Baldwin

    Baldwin slowly built his fantasy stock throughout 2013—he began the year completely off of the radar and finished it as, at worst, a bye-week fill-in. For the third option in a run-first offense, it was considerably more than was expected from the former Standford Cardinal.

    Now, with Golden Tate out of the equation, Percy Harvin appears to be the sole wideout ahead of Baldwin in the pecking order for targets. The Seahawks did re-sign Sidney Rice—who's set to return from injury by the start of 2014—but he was mostly ineffective last season even when healthy.

    But, will Russell Wilson toss the rock enough to support two receivers fantasy-wise? Meh, it's wishful thinking at best.

     

    Markus Wheaton

    Wheaton, the Steelers' third-round pick last year, didn't see the field much in 2013. Planted behind Emmanuel Sanders and vet Jerricho Cotchery, Pitt offensive coordinator Todd Haley saw no need to rush the rookie's development. But Sanders and Cotchery both found new homes this offseason, which means Wheaton will likely have a significant role in 2014.

    He's capable of lining up outside or in the slot and will likely even see a few carries. He's also beaten De'Anthony Thomas in the 100-meter dash. So there's that. But, buyers beware: He's susceptible to issues with drops and the newly acquired Lance Moore may pilfer some targets. Draft with caution.

     

    Danny Amendola

    Amendola doesn't fit the traditional mold of a sleeper—he's been a productive fantasy asset in the past—but his current status as a projected late-12th-round pick is just plain disrespectful. He'll likely find himself second on New England's depth chart—plopped behind Julian Edelman—and in a position to see enough targets to warrant a late-round selection.

    Though, keep in mind that Amendola is nearly as injury-prone as Mr. Glass from Unbreakable—the chances that he plays in all 16 games are highly unlikely. Moreover, with four capable receivers fighting for playing time—and that's not including the injured Rob Gronkowski—he's liable to get lost in the mix.

5. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Hopkins, a 2013 first-round pick out of Clemson, burst onto the scene early last season, averaging 81 yards on six receptions over his first three games. Owners that rushed to the waiver wire to impulse-add were rewarded with an average of 2.6 receptions for 43 yards for the rest of year.

    Particularly disconcerting was that his role significantly decreased as the season trudged on—he had two catches or fewer in four of Houston's final seven contests.

    Though, despite his limited opportunities, he still managed to finish second among all rookies in receiving (802 yards), behind only the upstart Keenan Allen. Inconsistency plagued Hopkins' every-week value, but he also suffered through the Texans' well-documented debacle at quarterback.

    So what can one expect in 2014?

    With a presumably (more) stable quarterback situation, and the offensive-minded Bill O' Brien now at the helm, bank on Hopkins building on last season's numbers.

    A quick glance at his 2013 highlights shows talent bursting at the seams; he finds space quickly off the line, picks up quality yards following the catch and quietly showcased a prowess to come down with highly contested catches

    Hopkins does a little bit of everything; O' Brien will surely find a way to increase his role within Houston's offense.

    While Andre Johnson remains the Texans' undisputed No. 1 option, the soon-to-be 33-year-old began to show his first signs of wear last season. Though he didn't miss a game, he was nicked up in one way or another for the majority of the season. Additionally, his 12.9 YPC was his lowest average since his 2006 campaign. Another 100-catch year for the veteran is highly unlikely.

    Hopkins will benefit from a year of NFL offseason conditioning and a higher volume of looks in 2014. He's currently slotted as Matthew Berry's 38th-ranked wideout.

    If he gets involved on a weekly basis, he's a middle-of-the-pack WR2. At worst.

4. Rueben Randle, New York Giants

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    If Randle's inclusion on this list seems oddly familiar, that's because it is. He was a popular sleeper pick last year. He looked promising prior to 2012 as well. 

    He wasn't ever quite able to validate pundits' predictions.

    But now, entering that magical third season for receivers, he finally seems primed to fulfill his long-standing prophecy. With Hakeem Nicks gone—and barring a high draft pick coming into the picture—Randle likely finds himself the second option in the Giants' pass attack.

    Though, following a disastrous 2013 showing, it's fair to question how much that label is really worth in 2014. The short answer: significantly more than last year.

    New York alternated between the likes of Peyton Hillis, David Wilson and Brandon "I can't feel my knees" Jacobs at running back this past season. Arguably the most unremarkable backfield in the NFL, secondaries were routinely stacked against the Giants.

    But with the addition of Rashad Jennings via free agency—admittedly not a huge upgrade, but an upgrade nonetheless—defenses will be forced to show New York's ground game at least a sliver of respect. It should be enough to open things up downfield for Randle and Co.

    Though the acquisition of Jennings will help alleviate some pressure, it's the departure of Nicks that serves as the biggest boost to Randle's value.

    His fantasy lifeblood was slowly sucked dry by Nicks throughout 2013. Randle was generally used in three-receiver sets, while Nicks stayed penciled in at WR2, despite his struggles.

    Still, Randle was clearly the more trusted target in the red zone—he had six touchdowns to Nicks' zero. He'll remain a danger near the goal line, and an additional 30-40 targets should cement his status as a weekly starter.

    Though he may have the lowest ceiling of this bunch, he's also the closest to a sure thing.

3. Marvin Jones, Cincinnati Bengals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    See Marvin Jones late, pick Marvin Jones late. It's really that simple.

    Berry's 200 has him locked in at 121st overall—a 13th-round pick. That means there's a good chance he's still on the board when that one guy reaches for Stephen Gostkowski in the 12th. It's a curious projection for a player that ended his second NFL season with 700-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns.

    Sure, his totals were boosted by a Week 8 outlier, but he sneakily produced on a fairly regular basis throughout the year. In the 10 games in which he grabbed three or more receptions, he logged fewer than eight fantasy points only twice.

    He finished the season 22nd among all wideouts in ESPN standard leagues, while seeing his role increase over the final few weeks.

    Clearly surpassing Mohamed Sanu on the depth chart, Jones will enter 2014 as the first legitimate complement that A.J. Green has had in his professional career.

    Lined up opposite Green, it's easy to overlook that Jones was one of the NFL's top deep threats last season. Not only did his reported 4.36 speed burn several hapless cornerbacks, but his physicality and leverage downfield provided him a palpable advantage when coverage did manage to keep up.

    Consistently finding good position, he earned a spot among Andy Dalton's favorite red-zone targets as well. Watching game film, one can routinely see the Cincy QB looking Jones' way first—even before Green.

    Toss in his proficiency in the screen game, and there's little not to like about his outlook for 2014.

    As the now-distinct second option in a Bengals' pass attack that should again finish among the league's top 10, Jones' prospects for his first 1,000-yard season appear promising.

    Buy low on Jones in August, before his value skyrockets by the end of September.

2. Kenny Stills, New Orleans Saints

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Kenny Stills has two things working in his favor for 2014: He's all but certain to begin the year as New Orleans' second wideout, and he'll be catching passes from Drew Brees.

    Sure, he appears poised to eventually become one of the NFL's best deep threats. But his status as a sleeper for 2014 is strictly from the anybody-that-gets-a-substantial-amount-of-looks-from-Brees-will-be-useful-in-fantasy school of thought.

    Stills was a bit of a tease in 2013—he was always a threat for a 50-plus yard TD but simply didn't get enough looks to start him confidently. At season's end, his 20 yards per reception were the most of any receiver with more than 30 grabs. 

    He finished his rookie year with 641 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He also finished with only 51 targets—fewer than Cole Beasley, T.J. Graham and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

    If he's able to garner somewhere in the realm of 100 targets in 2014, expect him to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau with relative ease. And 100 targets aren't too far-fetched.

    Two of Brees' most reliable targets—Darren Sproles and Lance Moore—are now gone, meaning an ample amount of grabs are up for the taking.

    Look for Stills to pick those up.

    Moreover, NFC defensive coordinators will be meticulously analyzing the New England Patriots' bracket coverage employed in Week 6 to render Jimmy Graham catch-less. Granted, not every franchise owns a lockdown corner like Aqib Talib to execute it properly, but extra coverage on Graham should be a recurring theme in 2014.

    Stills had 64 yards and and a score in that Week 6 matchup against the Pats. If defenses do construct a game plan focused on limiting Graham, the second-year wideout will likely become Brees' go-to man.

    Though, regardless, he's clearly in a position conducive for him to seriously outplay his 12th-round projection. Brees regularly throws the ball 40 times per game; rest assured, Stills will get his.

1. Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams

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    USA TODAY Sports

    St. Louis offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer knows his football. He's experienced sustained success as an NFL offensive coordinator and is routinely a candidate for head coaching vacancies around the league. 

    So, that makes it all the more perplexing as to why he seemingly refused to get the much-hyped Tavon Austin involved in the Rams' stagnant offense in 2013.

    Arguably the most electrifying athlete out of the 2013 NFL draft, Austin snagged 18 receptions and two touchdowns in St. Louis' first three games. Fantasy owners who scooped him in the eighth or ninth round rejoiced, figuring that they nabbed one of the draft's biggest steals.

    Sike! He logged only 22 catches over the final 13 weeks of the season.

    But his free-fall into fantasy irrelevance also coincided with Sam Bradford's season-ending ACL injury.

    In the seven weeks that he was under center, Austin recorded five or more receptions on four separate occasions. The nine weeks that Bradford wasn't on the field? Zero games with five or more receptions.

    It's either a startling coincidence or Bradford had a huge effect on Austin's fantasy value. It's likely the latter.

    You may recall what Bradford did for Danny Amendola's stock back in 2012.

    Of the nine full games that Amendola participated in that season, he finished with five or more receptions in seven of those. Bradford has shown a propensity to build chemistry with a specific wideout, targeting said wideout eight to 10 times per game.

    Austin could be the beneficiary of a similar relationship with the Rams QB in 2014.

    He was on the field for only 50.5 percent of St. Louis' offensive snaps last season—look for that number to rise significantly next year. And despite limited touches, Austin went stupid in Week 10 against the Colts, proving he can be the all-purpose threat that the Rams drafted him to be.

    The former eighth-overall pick should be a big part of St. Louis' plans moving forward. As little as he was utilized last season, his 40 grabs were actually the most for any Rams' receiver. That's a testament to how much of a plague fill-in quarterback Kellen Clemens was to his receiving corps' fantasy value.

    With an entire offseason to devise additional schemes that'll create more space for the speedster, anticipate for Schottenheimer to look his way much more frequently next year. His job likely relies on it.

    A healthy Bradford will be returning as well, making Austin's projection as a 15th-round pick as good as you'll get for a WR sleeper in 2014.

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