Fantasy Football Sleepers 2014: The Top 25 Names to Know

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterJuly 2, 2014

Fantasy Football Sleepers 2014: The Top 25 Names to Know

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    Sleeper can be one of the trickiest terms in fantasy football. Like the unheard sound of a falling tree in a vacant forest, a sleeper can only exist if others are not keen on him in your league. Such players can be a personal choice and different from draft to draft.

    Finding and projecting sleepers is really about nitpicking faults on players and then forgiving them for them. Not everyone will be in agreement. That is why sleepers exist.

    Here, we take an early look at the top 25 sleepers to know for fantasy football drafts this summer.

    Some of them might be popular—or even obvious—like Jeremy Maclin coming off reconstructive knee surgery and replacing the lost production of DeSean Jackson. Others will be laughed off as a waste of a pick, like Knowshon Moreno of the Miami Dolphins.

    How many people are scoffing at that sleeper selection right now? Likely the same number that laughed at the projection of Moreno as a sleeper a year ago.

    See, sleepers are not common knowledge. If they were, no one would sleep on these guys. Here are my underrated picks in a 25-man slideshow.

25. Quarterback Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears offense boasts a pair of top-10 wide receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, an elite running back in Matt Forte—thanks, in part, to his pass-receiving skills—and a potential fantasy starter at tight end in Martellus Bennett. There has to be a lot of points coming out of the quarterback position, especially in head coach Marc Trestman's West Coast system.

    That's where Jay Cutler comes in. He is the distributor here.

    Cutler will have his name called as a fantasy backup, but if he plays a 16-game season for the first time since 2009, he could emerge as a 30-touchdown, 4,000-yard passer.

24. Tight End Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green is such a popular pick as a fantasy sleeper this summer the odds of him falling to a reasonable level in your draft are fairly low. That won't keep us from jumping on the bandwagon, though.

    There are dozens of tight ends who can perform like fantasy starters, most of them potentially coming out of the woodwork, and Green is the leader of that group. The Chargers have long had a tight end-friendly offense with Philip Rivers, and they don't project to change even if future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates is on his last legs at age 34.

    Kevin Acee of the The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote to "look for this kid to at least double last year's 17 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns." A season of 34 catches and six touchdowns might be the baseline for Green's expectations at this point, especially in that system.

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense/Special Teams

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Most defense/special teams combos don't go off the board until the last few rounds in drafts, so they are all potential sleepers in the entire fantasy scheme of things. The addition of a defensive-minded head coach like Lovie Smith, though, gives the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the chance to be this year's Carolina Panthers.

    Some might see the release of shutdown corner Darrelle Revis as a reason to downgrade the Bucs defense, but Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy are elite defenders at their own positions, and Smith will make them stars in his system.

    The Bucs D/ST is a unit no one will draft near the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers or the Panthers, but it is potentially as good as any.

22. Wide Receiver Danny Amendola, New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Flash back to last July and watch the first open practice for the New England Patriots again, as I did. Danny Amendola was ripping off pass receptions out of the slot like he was the next Wes Welker.

    It was Julian Edelman who finished as the breakthrough wide receiver, though, with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Those are Welker-like numbers. They should have been Amendola's.

    If not for Amendola's Week 1 groin injury—he had 10 catches for 104 yards in that game—they would have been. Amendola will now serve as Edelman's backup, but that doesn't mean he will be a completely forgotten man by the Patriots. Head coach Bill Belichick loves to flip the script. The script could have Amendola becoming the man for quarterback Tom Brady this year.

21. Quarterback Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns

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    Before you go choking on your Cheerios, hear us out: There is room for Johnny Manziel to be an instant success with the Cleveland Browns—especially if star wideout Josh Gordon doesn't serve a full-season suspension, a possibility Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer chronicles here.

    Manziel is likely to be drafted too early in fantasy, sure, but he is equally likely to wind up back on the waiver wire before the start of the season if Brian Hoyer wins the Browns' starting quarterback job. Once Manziel starts, he can score fantasy points with his arm and legs—the same tools that made Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson sleepers as rookie quarterbacks.

    Whether or not Gordon plays a down in 2014, the Browns do have a burgeoning star tight end in Jordan Cameron. They also have the league's 27th-ranked rushing offense to fix. A lot of the offensive load should be on Manziel's shoulders, and legs, once he takes over under center.

20. Running Back Chris Johnson, New York Jets

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It is hard to believe the New York hype hasn't hit Chris Johnson yet. The former 2,000-yard rusher is ready to get started for one of the most run-heavy teams in football, and he is motivated to prove he still has something left in the tank.

    At 28, Johnson still isn't old even by running back standards.

    CJ2K might not be the inside runner head coach Rex Ryan loves, but he is a game-breaker who can quickly change the pace on defenders gearing to stop plodding runners Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. Throw in the fact Ivory has never stayed healthy for a 16-game season, and Johnson is going to do a lot more damage in New York than almost anyone expects.

    If Johnson truly is 26th running back taken, like FantasyPros.com's current consensus rankings suggest he will be, he will not only be a sleeper in drafts but a steal.

19. Wide Receiver Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Jordan Matthews is a physical presence at 6'3" and 212 pounds with a 4.46-second 40-yard dash. But toss in the rave reviews from OTAs and the explosive nature of the Chip Kelly offense with the Philadelphia Eagles and you have a legit impact rookie wide receiver.

    Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com tweeted he was the best of the Eagles wide receivers during the open media sessions at OTAs.

    With Maclin coming off reconstructive knee surgery and Riley Cooper a career backup, there is a clear path for the second-round pick Matthews to be a starter and contributor right away. Matthews is a late-round fantasy pick right now, according to FantasyPros.com, but he can emerge as a regular fantasy starter by midseason.

18. Running Back Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans

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    The first running back picked in the NFL draft rarely comes through, much less winds up as a fantasy football sleeper. But, Sankey is a Tennessee Titan. He has the potential to be overlooked there.

    The reason we like Sankey is the Titans offensive line has been built to run the ball. They drafted run-mauler Chance Warmack in the first round last year and picked Michigan's Taylor Lewan in the first round this year. That is a good, young right side of the offensive line to run behind.

    Sankey shouldn't have any problem beating out Shonn Greene to be the feature back in camp, and he could surprise in the receptions category for points-per-reception formats. This is a future fantasy first-rounder who won't go off the board early enough.

17. Running Back Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    You can say a late offseason knee surgery for a veteran running back is bad news. You would be right. It is the kind of bad news that trickles down in fantasy and keeps a Knowshon Moreno on the board very late.

    Sure, Lamar Miller has had a solid offseason for the Miami Dolphins, but they have had two seasons of him. The signing of Moreno this winter suggested they have had enough.

    Moreno is out four to five weeks, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, but the Dolphins don't play a game that counts for another nine. Moreno has time to get healthy and surprise in fantasy like he did a year ago.

16. Running Back David Wilson, New York Giants

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    There is a lot to despise about David Wilson in fantasy football. That is the biggest reason we include him as a sleeper here.

    Wilson still might not play football again. He is waiting to be cleared for contact before training camp, according to ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. He also won't be a feature back after the Giants added big back Rashad Jennings via free agency and Andre Williams in the draft. 

    Oh, Wilson has issues with fumbling, too.

    All the negatives don't mean Wilson cannot surprise everyone. He is still a gifted, back-flipping sprinter. He just needs health and another chance to show it all.

    Wilson is a late-round fantasy pick who could emerge as a game-changer for the Giants and fantasy owners.

15. Wide Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers

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    You don't need to look at the Carolina Panthers' awful set of receivers to see the potential of wideout Kelvin Benjamin as a rookie this season. You don't even have to look at Benjamin's 6'5", 240-pound size, or the fact that quarterback Cam Newton is going to make someone very productive in the Panthers' passing game.

    It is a combination of all those things that make Benjamin arguably the most intriguing rookie wide receiver in fantasy.

    Buffalo's Sammy Watkins has the talent and the hype. The Giants' Odell Beckham and the Saints' Brandin Cooks have their own juice, too. Benjamin is the one in the right situation to be his team's most productive fantasy wideout immediately.

14. Running Back Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The 27-year-old Jamaal Charles enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2014, thanks to a full year of health and the inclusion in the passing game by head coach Andy Reid. You have to insure one of the most explosive players in NFL history—especially in a Reid offense, which is famously running back-friendly.

    You do that by picking Knile Davis late.

    Davis was no slouch of a prospect at Arkansas, even if injury questions allowed him to fall into the third round of the 2013 draft. He showed flashes as a rookie and would become one of the most important players in fantasy football if anything happened to Charles, an oft-injured back because of his slight stature (5'11", 199 lbs).

13. Wide Receiver Kenny Stills, New Orleans Saints

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Kenny Stills showed so many flashes as a rookie last season, we didn't imagine anyone would sleep on him this summer. The selection of Cooks in Round 1 by the New Orleans Saints this May has changed that, however.

    Cooks is a burner with potential, sure, but if Stills is the third wide receiver picked from a passing offense that figures to be one of the NFL's most productive, you have a huge steal on your hands in the middle-to-late rounds.

    No. 1 receiver Marques Colston is now 31 and has battled a chronic foot issue for years, so we might even see Stills become Drew Brees' leading non-Jimmy Graham target. You have to love Stills' fantasy potential relative to his prospective late-round draft position.

12. Running Back Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    This is one that is going to draw the ire of fantasy football know-it-alls. This should be the spot for Khiry Robinson, right?

    But, other than the fact Robinson was never a busted first-round pick, what does he have on Ingram?

    Fantasy drafters are going to pick Pierre Thomas because he is the likely starter and Robinson because he is the hyped backup. We are going to tell you to score on Ingram later.

    Ingram rushed for 4.9 yards per carry last season and is heading into a contract year. It is a make-or-break time for the 24-year-old who once relegated fantasy first-rounder Eddie Lacy to a reserve role at Alabama.

11. Quarterback Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Andy Dalton won't be anyone's first choice at quarterback. He might not even be anyone's second or third. The Cincinnati Bengals might not even want him around after this year.

    But, Dalton is coming off a 33-touchdown, 4,293-yard season—numbers that made him the third-highest scorer among all quarterbacks a year ago, per FFToday.com.

    A.J. Green is a star, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are improving, while tight end Tyler Eifert is just getting started. There are receiving weapons in this offense, and the running game behind Giovani Bernard and rookie pounder Jeremy Hill figures to keep defenses honest.

    Oh, and Dalton just happens to be playing in a contract year.

10. Running Back Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks

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    Christine Michael is getting a lot of hype right now for his potential inclusion in a running back committee with the Seattle Seahawks, but we have a hunch that that talk is going to die down closer to the season. Michael is physically gifted, but Lynch is still the lead dog and Robert Turbin can still have a say in how the depth chart is organized.

    But where there is smoke, there is fire.

    Michael has the potential to be a fantasy monster if anything significant happens to Lynch. When you have over 900 carries over the course of the past three seasons like Lynch has, you have to expect the worst...or at least prepare for it.

    Michael is one of the most important handcuffs in fantasy football this summer.

9. Running Back Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers

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    Carlos Hyde, the No. 1 back on many analysts' NFL draft boards this May, wound up on a team seemingly deep at running back. Frank Gore is still the feature guy, while Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James return as his backups. Also, Marcus Lattimore (knee) is expected to be healthy enough to compete for time this season.

    But, we shouldn't let those things cloud Hyde's potential value as a rookie. Gore is 31 years old, Hunter (5'7", 199 lbs) and James (5'9", 195 lbs) are on the small side, and Lattimore might never prove to be healthy enough to be the prospect he was supposed to be.

    Hyde is 22 and the prototypical big back (6'0", 230 lbs) who fits the 49ers' power-running scheme perfectly. To hit you with a pun: Hyde will be tough to hide—even if he opens the season buried on this depth chart. If Gore succumbs to injury and Hyde winds up getting the starts, look out for a Lacy-like impact.

8. Wide Receiver Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts

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    Hakeem Nicks has a number of popular categories of sleeper to fit into: 1. Injury risk; 2. Contract year; 3. Entering his prime at age 26; 4. Joining a new, explosive offense.

    It has been years since Nicks was a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown receiver (2010), but he is still just 26 years old and motivated to earn the big free-agent contract that eluded him this winter. Now, he just has to prove healthy to be a statistical monster in Andrew Luck's potential breakthrough third season as the Indianapolis Colts quarterback.

    His lack of consistent health is the primary reason Nicks is going to fall in fantasy this summer. You might be thanking the injury-prone label for scoring a huge bargain in drafts.

7. Tight End Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener has been mostly underwhelming in his two seasons in the NFL. That is precisely why we like him to outperform his modest draft position.

    Fleener isn't a starter if Dwayne Allen (hip) is healthy this season, but the 6'6" target can be a monster in the red zone for Luck, who is ready for a breakthrough of his own this season. We love third-year receivers in fantasy, and Fleener is that...albeit as a tight end.

    We are looking at a potential 70-catch, 850-yard, 10-touchdown tight end who will potentially be drafted after everyone already has their starters at the position.

6. Wide Receiver Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    If you are looking for a Jeffery-like breakthrough among second-year wide receivers, look no further than the Dallas Cowboys' Terrance Williams. His 736 yards and five touchdowns last season show he has plenty of juice opposite attention-hog Dez Bryant for quarterback Tony Romo.

    Jeffery outperformed Marshall at times last year because of all the coverage rolled over to the go-to man's side. Bryant just might be the most frequently targeted receiver in football. That is why we all should love Williams this go around.

    Like Gordon a year before him, Williams is another former Baylor receiver with huge upside in his second season.

5. Quarterback Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

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    Romo might be the most hated quarterback in the NFL. Heck, even his own Dallas Cowboys fans hate him for his miscues.

    But, every season, Romo is among the last fantasy starting quarterbacks picked, and he winds up with around 30 passing touchdowns and 4,000-plus yards. Toss in his coming off back surgery and Romo is once again this year's reason you should wait on selecting your starting quarterback in fantasy drafts.

    With Bryant, an emerging Williams and a pitiful defense that will necessitate a lot of shootouts, Romo is well positioned to score on the level of anyone in fantasy...all for the price of a pick after Round 8 in drafts.

4. Running Back Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    We are going to find out if the Belichick doghouse extends from one year to the next. Stevan Ridley lost his starting job a year ago due to ball-security issues, so he is going to head into training camp as Shane Vereen's short-yardage back.

    There is nothing to guarantee that is where Ridley winds up, though. This is a potential 1,200-yard, 12-touchdown back who would be playing for a run-heavy New England Patriots offense.

    While everyone will allow Ridley to fall into the middle rounds, someone is going to wind up with a big-time fantasy starter at the pivotal running back position.

3. Running Back Terrance West, Cleveland Browns

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    Terrance West has all the makings of a superb fantasy football sleeper. He comes from a small school (Towson). He plays for a seemingly bad Cleveland Browns team. And he is solidly behind free-agent signing Ben Tate on the depth chart.

    That is what you think of West now. He is the type of mid-round fantasy pick you are going to be left wondering why so many missed on him...like, say, an Alfred Morris perhaps?

    Morris came out of the woodwork to be a fantasy star in 2012 as the feature back for Kyle Shanahan's offense with the Washington Redskins. He is decidedly a run-heavy coordinator. Also, Tate hasn't been able to stay healthy in his career, so it won't take much for West to become a heavy part of the Browns offense as a rookie.

2. Running Back Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

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    You might have heard this by now: 30-year-old running backs are fantasy busts. Steven Jackson is the latest proof. Now, he's going to be a 31-year-old back potentially relegated to a backup role behind fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman.

    The Atlanta Falcons need to rebuild a running game that was dead last in the NFL a year ago. Doing it with Jackson at this stage is not going to work. That is where Freeman comes in.

    ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure goes so far as to suggest Freeman can battle Jackson for the starting job in training camp. If you are looking for a sleeper in drafts, you should hope Jackson looks great in training camp and has the starting job. Jackson's advanced age suggests Freeman will wind up with it before season's end.

1. Wide Receiver Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles

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    The release of DeSean Jackson that allowed him to sign with the Washington Redskins was a bold and potentially dangerous move. No one is going to miss Jackson in Philadelphia if Jeremy Maclin is healthy and performs up to his once limitless potential, though.

    There are 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns' worth of production to replace in the Philadelphia Eagles offense. Most of that will fall into the capable, sure hands of Maclin.

    Unlike most returnees from reconstructive knee surgery, Maclin has had a full season and offseason to recover, and he has participated fully in OTAs, according to Zach Berman of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Eagles are going to be explosive on tempo and scheme alone. Maclin is going to crush his current No. 30 spot among wide receivers in FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings.

     

    Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.