NFL training camps are opening, so there is sure to be buzz about prospective playmakers as the 2014 season approaches.
Whether it be rookies seeking to make an immediate impact or more experienced players on the precipice of a breakout year, it always helps fantasy football owners to have some sleeper options before drafts begin. There are a number of candidates—mostly relative novices—who stand out among this year's bunch.
Skill players with fresh legs are bound to fare well as long as they can get through the gauntlet of camp practices and prove themselves enough to see the field early and often. Having an established quarterback to distribute the ball helps, which is why one veteran gunslinger ought to have a monster campaign.
Let's take a look at the top prospective sleepers at every offensive position, along with statistical projections for each of them.
Quarterback: Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
This is the first time since Cutler arrived in the Windy City that he has had stability not only on the offensive line, but also in terms of play-calling. The circumstances are also in his favor to have a career year.
Instead of waffling on him due to his maddening, inconsistent results over the years, the Bears rewarded Cutler with a monster contract extension. They stuck by him and counted on Cutler's arm talent, yet-to-be-reached ceiling and offensive continuity to solve their perpetual problem under center.
That Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice were all unable to ultimately get the best out of the talented signal-caller had to play into the decision, too.
Now in an offense he's comfortable with, the cannon-armed Cutler is set to deliver. ESPN personality Skip Bayless believes Cutler is bound for his best year yet—something yours truly agrees with:
With two massive targets in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the outside, Cutler has arguably the best receiver duo in the league at his disposal.
Martellus Bennett is also a friendly red-zone target at tight end. All-purpose Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte has never been a bruiser who plunges into the end zone, and he's also an excellent pass-catcher, adding to Chicago's incentive to trust in Cutler and air it out.
Despite the promise, Cutler has the proper perspective at the beginning of training camp and ahead of what's a big year for the Bears, per ChicagoBears.com's Larry Mayer:
I think everyone in the NFL is confident right now. Everyone likes what they have on paper. Everyone likes their roster. That includes us. But that doesn't guarantee us anything. We've still got to go out there and perform. We've got to get better each day.
[...] We haven't had a lot of success, so I don't think it's that hard. It's not like we're coming off a monster season after monster season. I still think this is still a hungry group. There's a lot left that we want to prove.
As long as Cutler can stay healthy, he should explode in his best season yet and his second year under head coach and play-caller Marc Trestman. Back-shoulder throws to Jeffery and Bennett are almost unstoppable, and Cutler can get the ball to them in a blink.
Marshall has been Cutler's favorite receiver even in their days with the Denver Broncos. Their chemistry should only blossom as they both develop a fuller understanding of Trestman's system.
Projected Stats: 4,300 yards passing (7.8 yards per attempt), 30 TDs, 13 INTs; 150 yards rushing, TD
Running Back: Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
Shonn Greene has had his shot to be a workhorse back in the pros with the New York Jets. Even as a younger player with less wear and tear in those days, Greene didn't get it done.
The Tennesseean's Jim Wyatt points out how Greene is coming off a second knee surgery and suggests he may not even make the final roster.
With Chris Johnson ironically joining Gang Green in the offseason, the backfield is wide open for the first-year Sankey to make an impact. The second-round pick out of Washington was the first ball-carrier off the board—and for good reason.
Sankey ran for 1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns while also nabbing 28 receptions for 304 yards. That shows he has the versatility to be a three-down back. Although he got a lot of touches in college, both Bleacher Report draft experts Matt Miller and Chris Simms imply that Sankey is still primed for a big rookie campaign:
Jeff Haseley of Footballguys.com offers some idea of how much Sankey could produce:
Bishop Sankey should easily get 200+ carries and usually that means Top 20 ranking. If you go WR/TE in one of 1st two picks, he's a good RB2— Jeff Haseley (@JeffHaseley) July 25, 2014
There is room for creativity with such an athletic QB in Jake Locker, who must prove he can be the long-term answer in what may be his final year in Tennessee. The Titans have loaded up on receivers to help Locker, but they've also stocked up on the offensive line.
Tennessee's recent additions include first-round picks in guard Chance Warmack and tackle Taylor Lewan, along with free-agent guard Andy Levitre from last year. Another tackle in Michael Oher was acquired this offseason on the open market, giving Lewan some competition.
Long story short: Locker needs serious support from the ground game—something he can also contribute to with his speed. But Sankey's grit between the tackles and ability to get to the edge will translate to massive numbers in the workhorse role.
Projected stats: 260 carries, 1,350 yards, 12 TDs; 25 receptions, 290 yards, 2 TDs
Wide Receiver: Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
It isn't by accident that Cooks was the Biletnikoff Award winner as college football's top receiver last year, catching a ridiculous 128 passes. The Saints were smart to trade up in the draft to land him, supplying Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees with yet another weapon to throw to.
Head coach Sean Payton is an offensive mastermind who had significant input, or at least an ecstatic reaction, when the decision was made to bring Cooks aboard.
Even with perhaps the game's best receiving tight end in Jimmy Graham and promising second-year stud Kenny Stills at receiver, Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports expects big things from Cooks:
Mike Triplett the latest to sing the praises of Brandin Cooks. Speed kills. Says "Lightning" a candidate for 70 rec, 800 yds. Concur.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) July 18, 2014
Defenses will be flocking to cover Graham any way they can, while veteran wideout Marques Colston is coming off just the second season in which he failed to eclipse 1,000 yards. Colston is now 31, and with such a dynamic, speedy player in Cooks in the fold, he seems bound to see a slight dip in production.
With how often the Saints throw it, though, Colston won't have a bad year. Instead, the numbers for all of New Orleans' best pass-catchers should be more even. The departure of electric RB Darren Sproles also changes the way the Saints will operate, because Sproles averaged approximately 77 receptions over the past three seasons.
That change will come in the form of Cooks. He can line up outside or inside and even be a threat to take reverses to the house. Let's avoid speculating on carries, but Cooks seems as destined for immediate greatness as any rookie receiver based on his ideal fit with Brees and Payton in New Orleans.
Projected stats: 65 receptions, 900 yards, 10 TDs
Tight End: Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
Expect a big jump for Eifert in Year 2. Despite the fact that he has to pick up a new system, he had to do that as a rookie anyway.
New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson likes to stretch the field more than his predecessor Jay Gruden, thanks to a greater reliance on the rushing attack. That is great news for Eifert, who has the speed to run away from linebackers up the seam and the size (6'6", 250 pounds) to be a red-zone dynamo.
Jermaine Gresham has never developed into a true monster as a receiving threat, and Eifert certainly has that sort of potential. Those two may still nevertheless form the best—or at least most talented—tight end duo in the game, even with their potential still not maxed out.
Eifert nearly matched Gresham in receptions in his maiden season (46 to 39), suggesting he has room to grow his role in the offense. Since he is still bound to be behind Gresham on the depth chart, that cements Eifert's status as a sleeper.
Who will produce the best overall fantasy season?
All of these analyzed fantasy sleepers should have chips on their shoulders and thus thrive in 2014. Cutler will have to justify his lucrative new contract by proving he can in fact be among the game's best QBs when the proper pieces are in place. He may be the most important player to monitor above all the others.
However, Sankey will be out to solidify his stop atop the depth chart, fighting with the diminutive but dynamic Dexter McCluster for touches. Sankey also needs to shatter the mold by proving he can sustain production over the course of years, something many premier backs struggle to do. That's contingent upon a strong start, of course.
There wouldn't have been as much pressure on Cooks to thrive, yet he is with an elite QB in Brees, a matchup wizard in Payton and was a first-rounder. Living up to that draft billing—along with the incentive to be the go-to option at his position—should provide Eifert with similar fuel to break out.
Projected stats: 55 receptions, 750 yards, 6 TDs
|Rank||Quarterback||Running Back||Wide Receiver||Tight End|
|1||Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears||Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans||Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints||Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals|
|2||Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals||Rashad Jennings, New York Giants||Eric Decker, New York Jets||Lardarius Green, San Diego Chargers|
|3||Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns||Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts||Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys||Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears|
|4||Eli Manning, New York Giants||Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers||Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers||Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions|
|5||EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills||Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins||Robert Woods, Buffalo Bills||Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles|
Sleepers are personal opinion.