There are certain fantasy breakouts people clamor to claim off waivers midseason—think Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas and New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman in 2013—but that often means releasing a valuable depth player or, even worse, an injured high draft pick.
What if you could start the season with that breakout fantasy sleeper already safely stashed on your bench? The following sleepers at every skill position are good depth options in any situation, but there's also a strong chance you'll be starting them on multiple weeks by midseason.
All average draft positions are based on standard 12-team leagues, and for a player to be considered a sleeper, he can't be projected to be drafted in the top 24 among receivers and running backs and top 12 among quarterbacks and tight ends.
Quarterback: Jay Cutler
|Jay Cutler: Fantasy at a Glance|
|Avg. Draft Position in 2014||13th|
|Fantasy Points Scored in 2013||160|
|2014 Bye Week||Week 9|
|Games Played in 2013||11|
Fantasy owners have grown skeptical of Jay Cutler as he hasn't played a full 16 games for the Bears since his first season in Chicago in 2009. And though he posted Bears career highs in completion percentage (63.1 percent) and yards per game (238.3), those numbers came on just 355 attempts, his second-lowest since 2009.
After having a season to complete the transition to coach Marc Trestman's system and heading into the season healthy, however, there's no reason not to expect Cutler to match or exceed career highs in yards and scores in 2014, barring injury. He was on track to have his most yards since becoming the starter in Chicago before he got injured last season.
The Bears were the only team in 2013 to have two receivers grade out in the top 10 at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and the offensive line looks strong.
What Cutler has shown in camp so far has been promising. The average draft position shows Cutler is being drafted just outside 12-team leagues' averages for starting quarterbacks, but those who take him as their No. 2 could find themselves starting him by midseason if he stays healthy.
Running Back: Stevan Ridley
|Stevan Ridley: Fantasy at a Glance|
|Avg. Draft Position in 2014||29th|
|Fantasy Points Scored in 2013||108|
|2014 Bye Week||Week 10|
|Games Played in 2013||14|
New England Patriots' Stevan Ridley was selected No. 17 among running backs on average in fantasy leagues last year, suggesting he was the No. 2 running back in 12-team leagues.
Ridley followed his breakout 2012 season in which he scored 12 touchdowns and 1,264 yards with a disappointing 2013 campaign in which he ranked 29th in scoring. Subsequently, fantasy owners are moving him down their draft boards. But he has sleeper potential to remain a No. 2 back in 2014.
After three consecutive games with a fumble last season, coach Bill Belichick benched Ridley, who saw his snaps decrease from 52 in Week 9 to 19 in Week 11 and just five in Week 12, by Pro Football Focus' count.
LeGarrette Blount was the next man up in New England's backfield and finished the season strong, frustrating Ridley owners. But he signed with the Steelers in free agency, and though the Patriots added promising prospect James White in the 2014 draft, Ridley is once again projected to be the No. 1 back.
Moreover, Ridley is entering a contract year, which will motivate him to hold on to the ball and post numbers closer to his 2012 season than last year's.
Wide Receiver: Brandin Cooks
|Brandin Cooks: Fantasy at a Glance|
|Avg. Draft Position in 2014||38th|
|Fantasy Points Scored in 2013||Rookie|
|2014 Bye Week||Week 6|
|[College] Games Played in 2013||13|
|[College] 2013 Yards||1,730|
|[College] 2013 TDs||16|
As a rookie, Oregon State star receiver Brandin Cooks has major boom-or-bust status in 2014. Just because he thrived in Oregon State's system doesn't mean he'll succeed in the NFL.
Nonetheless, this fantasy sleeper could be one of your best additions at the receiver position. The 5'10", 186-pound receiver ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL combine after Dri Archer. And by what he's demonstrated in training camp, that speed could earn him the slot receiver job to replace the departed Darren Sproles.
The Saints shared this video of a quick screen from Drew Brees which Cooks took to the house from the slot.
Forty-four percent of Sproles' receiving yards last season came out of the slot, so whomever replaces that production is going to have a big role in the Saints' offense. With Cooks' speed and sure hands, he has a good shot at being that player—and of making fantasy owners very happy they picked him up in this year's draft.
Tight End: Ladarius Green
|Ladarius Green: Fantasy at a Glance|
|Avg. Draft Position in 2014||13|
|Fantasy Points Scored in 2013||53|
|2014 Bye Week||Week 10|
|Games Played in 2013||16|
Thirty-four-year-old Antonio Gates has been the San Diego Chargers' starting tight end for 11 seasons, but there's been a clear downswing in his production over the last few seasons. Fourth-round 2012 draft selection Ladarius Green, who played in just four games his rookie season but saw time in 16 games in 2013 is the tight end of the future for the Chargers.
That future could be soon. While Gates will be the Chargers' TE1 so long as he's playing there, opportunities should continue to grow for Green in this offense. He has the benefit of catching passes from Philip Rivers, who, though he frustrates Chargers fans, is always quietly finishing atop quarterback rankings.
In 2013, Rivers was No. 1 in the league in completion percentage (69.5 percent), No. 5 in passing yards and No. 4 in touchdowns. And because Gates and thereby the tight end position has been such a staple in the Chargers offense for 11 seasons, there's no reason to assume Green won't get the chance to become a top target for Rivers.
The 6'6", 238-pound Green has great size and was a top performer in the 2012 NFL combine with his 40-speed of 4.53 seconds. His knowledge of the system and chemistry with Rivers will help him take on a larger role in the Chargers offense. If Gates misses time due to injury or if the Chargers decide to give Green more game experience, you'll want him stashed on your bench to rotate into your active roster.