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Fantasy Football Sleepers 2014: Breakout Stars Ready to Explode

Russell S. BaxterContributor IAugust 5, 2014

Fantasy Football Sleepers 2014: Breakout Stars Ready to Explode

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    In this day and age of constant communication and debate in the sports world, is there really such a thing as a sleeper?

    That is a discussion for another time. Here the focus is on the NFL and fantasy football. And we will take some time to look at offensive performers on the verge of big things in 2014.

    In this piece, we focus on eight wide receivers, running backs and tight ends who could prove to be real values to fantasy clubs. Be it a second- or third-year pro, a veteran who has been waiting for his big chance or even a rookie who could have an immediate impact in a variety of ways, these players fit the bill when it comes to potentially exploding onto a bigger stage this season.

    There are certainly others who are worth noting, and I'll mention one or two of them along the way. At least for now, we will also stay away from any sleepers in terms of IDPs (individual defensive players).

    But give us a little more time to wake up.

WR John Brown: Arizona Cardinals

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    There is a little excitement in the desert these days.

    Yes, the Arizona Cardinals surprised many by finishing 10-6 this past season, not good enough to reach the playoffs but certainly sufficient to raise expectations.

    A year ago, the team relied on one of the best defenses in the league as well as quarterback Carson Palmer, who played well after struggling the first half of the season.

    There's anticipation that the veteran signal-caller will pick up where he left off down the stretch. Palmer has wideouts such as Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd at his disposal, as well as versatile running back Andre Ellington. Now add veteran targets such as wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and tight end John Carlson, along with intriguing rookie John Brown.

    Andrew Gilstrap of ArizonaSports.com brings us up to date on the third-round pick from Pittsburg State, who recently spoke with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

    Brown will not only be able to stretch the field as a receiver, but along with Ginn, he also figures to be a major factor on special teams. He is an intriguing player who may be worth a late-round selection—and one who pays off later rather than sooner.

WR Terrance Williams: Dallas Cowboys

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    A starting wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys is a sleeper?

    Why not?

    Obviously, we are not talking about star wideout Dez Bryant, who continues to look better each season.

    Instead the focus here is on his teammate Terrance Williams, who could really blossom in his second NFL campaign.

    As a rookie, Williams played in all 16 games and made eight starts. The former Baylor University product finished fourth on the Cowboys with 44 grabs, third on the team with five touchdown receptions and led Dallas in average yards per catch (16.7).

    With Bryant and ageless tight end Jason Witten around, Williams doesn't figure to lead the team in receptions anytime soon. But with quarterback Tony Romo and the Cowboys' explosive attack, as well as the expected struggles of the team's defensive unit, there figure to be plenty of throws to go around this season.

TE Garrett Graham: Houston Texans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    A reliable tight end can be an offense's best friend.

    In the case of the Houston Texans, their quarterbacking corps could use all the friends it can get.

    New head coach Bill O'Brien will have his work cut out for him in his first season at the helm of this club, one that looks to rebound from a 2-14 season a year ago.

    After catching just one pass in his first two NFL seasons, tight end Garrett Graham has been a bigger factor in the team's passing attack the last two years. Injuries to former Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels helped accelerate Graham's playing time, and now Daniels is a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

    This past season, three Texans quarterbacks combined to throw just 19 touchdown passes compared to 22 interceptions. Two of those players, Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates, are no longer with the team. Now the Texans trifecta includes Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and fourth-round pick Tom Savage.

    In 2013, Graham totaled career highs in catches (49) and receiving yards (545). And it may surprise some to know he tied for the team lead with five touchdown receptions as well. He certainly bears a look.

WR Kenny Stills: New Orleans Saints

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    USA TODAY Sports

    One has to work his way down the list a little when looking for where wide receiver Kenny Stills ranks among last season’s New Orleans Saints pass-catching leaders.

    A year ago, the then-rookie wideout finished sixth on the club with 32 grabs. Still, he averaged an impressive 20.0 yards per reception, and his 641 receiving yards were third on the team behind tight end Jimmy Graham (1,215) and Marques Colston (943). While Graham led the entire NFL with 16 touchdown receptions, Stills and Colston were tied for second on the team with five scoring catches.

    With the addition of first-round wideout Brandin Cooks in May, there figures to be a different onus on the passing game this season in some ways. Led by Graham, tight ends and running backs combined for 25 of quarterback Drew Brees' 39 touchdown tosses in 2013.

    Don't be shocked if the veteran signal-caller turns to his wideouts more in 2014. And don't be surprised if Stills is a big-time beneficiary.

RB Andre Williams: New York Giants

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Cue the rookie running back.

    The New York Giants made Boston College's Andre Williams a fourth-round pick in the NFL draft three months ago.

    To date his biggest role this offseason has been focusing on being the team's option deep in the red zone, as mentioned just over a week ago by Jordan Raanan and Conor Orr of NJ.com.

    Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, Williams did what he was primed to do. The rookie running back capped off a 12-play, 80-yard drive in the first quarter with a three-yard touchdown run during the team's 17-13 win over the Buffalo Bills.

    Williams finished the night with a game-high 48 yards on the ground. He, Peyton Hillis and Rashad Jennings each totaled seven carries in the game.

    Make no mistake: Jennings is expected to be the starter for Tom Coughlin's squad. But Williams could be the guy who leads the team in touchdown runs. And his playing time could increase as the season wears on, especially now given that David Wilson, whose football future is highly in doubt, has already been placed on injured reserve this season, according to Zach Schonbrun of The New York Times.

QB Geno Smith: New York Jets

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Quarterback play for the New York Jets in recent seasons has not been a highlight during the Rex Ryan era.

    We feel that is about to change.

    This past season, Geno Smith had his expected ups and downs as a rookie signal-caller. The team committed 29 turnovers, and the 2013 second-round pick had 25 of them, losing four fumbles while serving up 21 interceptions. It marked the fourth time in five years under Ryan that his primary quarterback committed at least 23 turnovers during a season.

    We are reminded by Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger that the anticipated quarterback duel between Smith and free-agent pickup Michael Vick has yet to materialize. Instead, the young pro has been getting acclimated with new weapons such as wide receiver Eric Decker, running back Chris Johnson and rookies like wideouts Jalen Saunders and Shaquelle Evans as well as tight end Jace Amaro.

    For all of his struggles this past season, Smith did throw for 3,046 yards and 12 touchdowns, plus he ran for 366 yards and six scores. It's doubtful he'll attract a lot of attention in many drafts, but he could wind up being a very nice insurance policy (or more) in 2014.

TE Ladarius Green: San Diego Chargers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    How do you speak of tight end and the San Diego Chargers and not have the conversation begin and end with Antonio Gates?

    It may be time to rethink that stance.

    It's not like the former undrafted free agent Gates is getting ready to disappear. In 11 seasons, he has rolled up 719 receptions for 9,193 yards and 87 touchdowns, the latter figure tied for 12th in NFL history.

    But keep an eye on two-year pro Ladarius Green. This past season, he averaged 22.1 yards per grab on 17 catches and scored three times. He added five receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown in the Bolts' two-game postseason run.

    The feeling here is that Gates will continue to be one of quarterback Philip Rivers' favorite targets. But don't be surprised if Green becomes a more attractive option both in and out of the red zone.

RB Dexter McCluster: Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The numbers are nice but certainly not awe-inspiring.

    This offseason, the Tennessee Titans added Dexter McCluster via free agency. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted him as a wide receiver in 2010, and that proved to be his primary role in four years with the team. McCluster totaled 172 catches for 1,500 yards and five touchdowns in Kansas City.

    The versatile performer has amassed 4,208 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in his brief NFL career. The fewest of those yards (662) have come via the ground game, with 516 of those yards coming in 2011.

    That looks like it's about to change in a big way. With new head coach Ken Whisenhunt in town, the Titans look to get back to being one of the league's top running teams. It figures to be backfield by committee with rookie Bishop Sankey and veterans Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle, to mention a few.

    Add in his pass-catching ability as well as his standout punt return skills, and McCluster may not be the first person you think of if you're looking at Titans running backs. But he may wind up being the best.

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