Fantasy Football 2014: Ranking the 15 Best Sleepers for PPR Leagues

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterJuly 24, 2014

Fantasy Football 2014: Ranking the 15 Best Sleepers for PPR Leagues

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Finding a sleeper in fantasy football is like finding a needle in a pile of needles. There are a lot of candidates, and everyone will have his opinion of which player is the one you're looking for.

    We have the best points-per-reception (PPR)-league sleepers you should be looking for, relative to their draft position, right here in this slideshow.

    A sleeper in fantasy football is any player who dramatically outperforms his draft position. Sleepers often come in the late rounds, but they can come in the middle or even earlier rounds, too.

    They are third-year receivers. They can be players just getting comfortable in their second year after relocating to a new team. They are rebound candidates coming off a disappointing year. Their fantasy values are possibly dragged down by injury risk. 

    They can be in a contract year, in their prime—especially at age 27—and just might be fantasy gold in PPR formats because of the targets they are projected to receive in deference to the numbers they have yet to produce.

    Our top 15 best sleepers to target in PPR leagues fill those categories and criteria to be ranked here by their potential to outperform their draft position if you were drafting today. Good luck picking through these needles.

15. Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    You love Jamaal Charles? Are you hoping you draw the No. 1 overall pick in your draft? Careful what you wish for.

    Charles has broken down before and will break down again. Every running back does eventually. The question is when.

    If Charles breaks down in 2014 behind a revamped Kansas City Chiefs offensive line that suffered three heavy losses in free agency—Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah—it will be former Arkansas Razorback Knile Davis stepping in as a fantasy PPR gem.

    Andy Reid's West Coast offense features the running back, especially out of the backfield. Davis showed he could produce in his performance in the Wild Card Game against the Indianapolis Colts last January, when Charles went out with a concussion.

    Davis won't be the first running back handcuff on the board, not when you consider he is just No. 68 in the current FantasyPros.com consensus rankings. He will be the most important handcuff picked in the late rounds of all fantasy drafts, though.

14. WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts

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    One year later, Hakeem Nicks is back where he started 2013, as an injury-risk sleeper in a contract year. Nicks left Eli Manning and the New York Giants for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. If Nicks can leave his multiple leg-related injury woes in the past, he can re-emerge as a fantasy star.

    Luck is going to enjoy a banner third season as a passer. Nicks figures to be a large part of that.

    T.Y. Hilton has already arrived as a fantasy star, while there shouldn't be much expected from a 35-yard-old wideout coming off reconstructive knee surgery in Reggie Wayne. Nicks is the one who can surprise us.

    Judging by his No. 45 slotting in the FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings, there are a whole lot of non-believers in Nicks ever being the 1,200-yard, 12-touchdown threat he looked like a few years ago with the Giants.

    That is what you want in a sleeper: a whole lot of fantasy-wide doubt. Nicks has that, along with physical gifts and the potential for a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season out of the latter rounds.

13. RB Shane Vereen, New England Patriots

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    This one is a speculative sleeper selection. A few things have to happen for the New England Patriots' Shane Vereen to fall to the middle-to-late rounds. If he does, look out. He can wind up a draft-day bargain.

    First, Stevan Ridley has to shake out of the shackles placed on him in the Bill Belichick doghouse. In order to do so, Ridley has to stop fumbling. That is no tall order.

    Then, Ridley needs to be handed the feature-back job by the Patriots. That would make Vereen the passing-down back.

    Finally, Vereen has to stay healthy for a 16-game season, which he hasn't done in his three years in the league. Heck, he has played only 26 games, averaging less than nine games per season.

    If all these things happen and Vereen falls this preseason from his lofty No. 23 spot in the FantasyPros.com consensus rankings, he will prove to be a sleeper for us. He can rack up 1,100 combined yards and perhaps as many as eight touchdowns even if he doesn't wind up as the feature back out of training camp.

    In order to score him as a sleeper, you have to hope Vereen isn't starting.

12. RB Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons have tried to develop short, stocky burner Jacquizz Rodgers into a NFL feature back to serve as the next Michael Turner for years. They gave up on Turner a year ago and turned to a 30-year-old back in Steven Jackson. They got disappointing results.

    This is where Devonta Freeman, 5'8" and 206 pounds, can set the fantasy world ablaze.

    The Atlanta Falcons drafted Jake Matthews, widely considered the most polished pass-blocking tackle in this year's class, and already have stars in quarterback Matt Ryan and his dynamic receiving duo Julio Jones and Roddy White. This is going to be a productive, pass-happy team.

    Freeman can steal the show for the Falcons and us in fantasy if he can prove to be a feature back over the aged and injury-riddled Jackson and the annually disappointing Rodgers. First, Freeman might be given a chance to be the third-down back. He can be a PPR gem in that event.

    Fantasy owners are going to luck out with Freeman in the middle-to-late rounds, drafting him merely as a Jackson handcuff. They are going to get a lot more.

11. WR Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Eagles didn't let DeSean Jackson's production go to a rival team with rookie Jordan Matthews in mind. He wasn't drafted yet at that point.

    It didn't matter who the Eagles were going to pick to be their young wide receiver project, but Matthews winds up being the beneficiary.

    He is drawing Terrell Owens comparisons, according to ESPN.com's Phil Sheridan. Being 6'3" with 4.46 speed in the 40-yard dash will do that. Matthews might also draw a starting assignment in three-receiver sets with Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper.

    In that uptempo Chip Kelly system, Matthews should get a lot of chances. If he is good enough to start and play full time with that group, he is going to see a lot of single coverage against the opposing team's fourth- or fifth-best defender, too. Someone of Matthews' size and speed would be a mismatch in that event.

    We rarely tout rookie fantasy receivers here, but Matthews is just too potentially awesome if he truly falls to the 60th receiver as he currently sits in the FantasyPros.com consensus rankings.

10. RB C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Before you laugh at us under the guise that C.J. Spiller hype was so last year, remember this: I hated Spiller as a first-round pick a year ago. We all should love him if he falls to us in the third round of PPR leagues this year.

    Spiller has been branded injury-prone and incapable of being a feature back. That's fair and fine. He doesn't have to be a feature guy to star for us in PPR formats.

    He can be this year's Reggie Bush, a part-time rusher and full-time pass-receiving back. EJ Manuel has a great, young set of wide receivers, but his inexperience suggests he will be doing a lot of checking down to the back out of the backfield. That is not a bad set of circumstances when the checkdown back is a game-breaker like Spiller.

    He won't have to rush for 1,200-plus yards like he did in 2012 to be a nice value pick in fantasy. He is going to be worth his weight in gold with 60-plus receptions in PPR formats. Using an undersized back like Spiller in space as a receiving back is a way to keep a home run threat on the field and healthy over the long haul. The Bills had to have learned that a year ago.

9. WR Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers

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    Kelvin Benjamin, 6'5" and 240 pounds, will be tough to hide. His a big sleeper, especially when you consider the little wide receiver competition he faces to start and star for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.

    Someone is going to be a productive wideout for Newton, one of the few quarterbacks in the NFL who is a good bet to make anyone around him better. We have no faith in any of the journeymen the first-round pick Benjamin is competing against this preseason:

    • Jerricho Cotchery
    • Tiquan Underwood
    • Jason Avant
    • Kealoha Pilares
    • Tavarres King
    • Marvin McNutt

    Benjamin better be good. Heck, he won't even have to be with that group of has-beens and never-will-bes.

    Even a mediocre Benjamin is going to get a lot of targets from Newton. The current No. 53 consensus ranking among wide receivers at FantasyPros.com makes Benjamin a late-round steal for target-hungry PPR drafters.

8. RB David Wilson, New York Giants

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    This one is going to draw some boos. After all, David Wilson is just a few months from having a career-threatening neck injury and subsequent surgery.

    Injury risk can still be the best way to hide talent and fantasy value. Wilson might be the biggest injury-risk sleeper in football if he stays as healthy as he looks in the early days of Giants training camp, as Dan Salomone chronicled for the Giants' official website this week.

    One can argue that Wilson should in no way be considered a feature back or a PPR sleeper as a receiving back, because he has just six receptions in two years.

    But new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is bringing the West Coast offense to New Jersey. Workhorse Rashad Jennings and draftee Andre Williams are not accomplished pass-catchers either. Someone is going to get a great deal of targets out of the backfield.

    Wilson's scatback size and running style make him the leading candidate. Heck, he might be the next Jamaal Charles in that event. The track star Wilson is a handoff turned 80-yard touchdown waiting to happen.

    Charles had some first year in Andy Reid's West Coast system, right?

    At No. 53 in FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings, no one sees Wilson coming right now. Here's to hoping it stays that way through the preseason.

7. WR Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a talent that doesn't belong anywhere near a fantasy football sleeper's list. This is a potential 100-catch, 1,400-yard, 12-touchdown monster in one of the most productive offenses in football.

    As much as we could see those numbers out of the 26-year-old who is coming off reconstructive knee surgery, Maclin sitting No. 30 in FantasyPros.com's consensus ranking suggests we might be alone in these high expectations. We figure more and more will be on board once Maclin makes it through the preseason with 100 percent bill of health.

    Everyone in fantasy is going to be jumping on Rob Gronkowski within the first five rounds of fantasy drafts. He is an injury-prone tight end who had reconstructive knee surgery in December. Maclin had his knee surgery last July 30. 

    The risk should be far greater with Gronk. Instead, the expectation of health and big numbers is what is greater with Gronk versus Maclin.

    Maclin is going to take over for DeSean Jackson as the Eagles' go-to man. Jackson broke through for 82-1,332-9 in Chip Kelly's system, despite working through two quarterbacks. A full season of Nick Foles can make Maclin greater than Jackson circa 2013 and Gronk.

    We would rarely suggest you reach for a potential sleeper, but you might consider the calling of Gronk's name on draft day a signal that your next pick should be Maclin.

6. RB Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    No one likes Knowshon Moreno with the Miami Dolphins right now. Heck, the Miami Dolphins don't even like the injured Knowshon Moreno with the Miami Dolphins right now.

    No one liked Moreno with the Broncos last year either. Well, 1,586 combined yards and 13 touchdowns later, he was a fantasy monster.

    No, this Dolphins offense isn't like that Peyton Manning one in Denver, but it is far needier for production out of the running back position. The Dolphins have yards, receptions and touchdowns for someone.

    Why not Moreno?

    Sure, go ahead and buy into the OTA hype of Lamar Miller having a third-year breakthrough at age 23. That is entirely fathomable. The same thinking occurred with Montee Ball as a rookie a year ago. It was still Moreno who provided Round 1-caliber fantasy numbers, though.

    Moreno's fantasy value is dragged down even further by his current rehabilitating from June knee surgery. He should be healthy by the end of training camp, which can still make him a starter. Even if he is a mere third-down receiving back, he can prove to be a sleeper in PPR formats.

    Moreno's No. 41 ranking in FantasyPros.com's consensus ranking is woefully low. A potential monster feature back coming off a career year at age 27 should not be on the board that late.

5. TE Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers' Greg Olsen is coming off a career-high 73 receptions a year ago. Those came when Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon were still on the roster.

    Clearly, Olsen is the top returning receiver in Cam Newton's arsenal. It should make him one of the most targeted tight ends in the business.

    When you are playing in a PPR league, that most-targeted player business is a huge deal. It won't keep a middling veteran like Olsen from rising out of being picked in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts, though.

    Olsen is No. 7 in the consensus rankings at FantasyPros.com. He belongs there, but the bet here is he falls even below that when you consider the following tight ends are more popular to the fantasy masses:

    1. Jimmy Graham
    2. Julius Thomas
    3. Rob Gronkowski
    4. Jordan Cameron
    5. Vernon Davis
    6. Jason Witten
    7. Dennis Pitta
    8. Zach Ertz
    9. And perhaps even Jordan Reed

    Olsen could be headed for a monster year as the leading target in an offense that Newton's incredible talent will make productive even with a short-handed supporting cast. We could be looking at 85 receptions for 900 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers would make Olsen a sleeper even if he was the sixth tight end off the board.

4. RB Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    We would have made Andre Ellington the No. 1 PPR sleeper on this list, if he wasn't worth drafting in the early rounds. As it is, we still believe he can outperform his draft position.

    If you asked us in early June, when it came out (ridiculously) that Ellington is projected to get 25-30 touches per game, as I chronicled here at Bleacher Report, we all would have laughed at the prospect of Ellington being slept on in drafts.

    But the hype just isn't coming as fast as we anticipated. Too many people are skeptical of Ellington's stature and ability to handle a feature back's workload and punishment. It is keeping his value at a reasonable level (15th running back, according to FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings).

    Ellington might not be drafted as a second-rounder, after all. If he isn't, he can prove to be a steal because of his involvement in the passing game.

    Assuming added off-tackle work doesn't run him into injury like it did undersized backs C.J. Spiller and David Wilson a year ago, Ellington can lead the NFL in receptions among running backs and provide virtual first-round value a few rounds later.

    Fantasy, apparently, is getting wiser to the dangers of overhyping the smaller backs like Spiller, Wilson and Ellington. That is why we go so far to put those red-flagged backs on our list of top 15 sleepers...for now.

3. TE Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers

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    Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

    Not only does the San Diego Chargers' Ladarius Green have Antonio Gates' experience to draw from, he has the future Hall of Famer dragging his value down. We will see how long that lasts. It might only last as long as Gates stays healthy.

    If you are looking for a potential Julius Thomas or Jordan Cameron smash breakthrough at the tight end position, Green is it. He might only be that good if Gates stays ahead of him in the minds of fantasy owners.

    Green, the 2012 fourth-round pick, has just 21 receptions for 432 yards and three touchdowns in his career. He might be capable of tripling those across the board, if given enough targets.

    He is a quintessential third-year receiver breakout candidate. Fantasy football history has tended to turn receivers in their third year into stars. Green is currently ranked ahead (14th) of Gates (17th) in FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings. We figure that is a function of analysts wanting the masses to know they are on board with a Green breakthrough.

    We should expect the normal fantasy Joes to slot Gates as a starter for them out of the late rounds. Green should still be there even later for most of you.

2. WR Danny Amendola, New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    This will be a tough sell to some. They got burned by Danny Amendola a year ago and wound up with a bust of a top-25 fantasy wideout. They might even had to suffer the indignity of watching some other Johnny Come Lately fantasy owner pick up Julian Edelman and laugh his way to 105 receptions for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.

    But Amendola can be this year's Edelman. He can "Edelman"—yes, we made that name a verb here—his teammate.

    Amendola needs a full year of health and Tom Brady's trust. Edelman had both last year, while Amendola did not. That doesn't mean the well-paid Amendola will not be better in his second year in his new home. We tend to believe that the second year is when the fantasy value comes back to us after the first-year disappointment.

    Amendola is currently No. 54 among wide receivers in FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings. He was likely 54th overall last year, so he is a real late-round steal in our book.

1. RB Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles

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    We risk ridicule and scorn here. Our No. 1 sleeper for PPR leagues might not prove to be a sleeper at all. Darren Sproles is a premium sleeper...unless he's so premium he gets drafted four rounds before he is projected to be.

    Sproles is now with the frenetic Philadelphia Eagles and their play-generating machine. There should be a lot of plays for him on passing downs, like there was with the New Orleans Saints. He is a candidate for 75 receptions, 650 yards and perhaps eight combined touchdowns. Those are the obvious reasons why we should like him.

    We believe he might be slept on because Sproles was a bust last year as a 30-year-old running back. There are fantasy players scorned. It shows in the preseason rankings, as Sproles is just 40th among running backs in FantasyPros.com's consensus rankings.

    At that rate, Sproles is a sleeper. He would be drafted around a lot of what-if backs and be generating consistent production for PPR leagues. We probably should figure the fantasy public will make a mess of this, though, and draft him among the 25 running backs.

    It is the dangerous world of sleepers. Good luck weighing the risks and rewards of these guys come the end of the preseason.

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