10 Sleeper Picks for Fantasy Football Owners to Consider This Season
As with the actual NFL draft, identifying hidden value when drafting a fantasy football team often constitutes the difference between a dangerous playoff squad and a regular-season also-ran.
These valuable players lying in wait down the draft board fall for a variety of reasons, either due to age, injury, inexperience or even longstanding fantasy prejudice against a certain name, as with the only quarterback named among these 10 sleeper picks.
This list examines individual players, so there is no sleeper for fantasy defense, but the Green Bay Packers, now armed with Julius Peppers, should yield strong value after the top-tier DEFs disappear. Kickers who can offer solid fantasy production are always available on the waiver wire, and their value can vary from week to week depending on the opposing defense, so no PK cracked the list.
These 10 sleeper picks at the so-called skill positions—each with an average draft position (ADP) after the 100th pick in standard Yahoo leagues—will help you identify value later in the draft and make that crucial fantasy playoff push.
Josh McCown, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ADP: 134
2013 stats (w/ Chicago Bears): 5 starts, 66.5 completion percentage, 1,829 yards, 13 TDs, 1 INT
Quarterback remains arguably the deepest position in fantasy football. Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Ryan Tannehill will all be available in later rounds of the draft, but if a very deep sleeper is needed at QB—in, say, a 14-team league as a backup (or even a wacky two-QB league)—look no further than Josh McCown.
Never mind that since the start of the 2006 season, McCown has started a grand total of 16 games at quarterback. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers pounced on him as the starter instead of Mike Glennon, and with good reason, coming on the heels of McCown's impressive stint starting for the Bears.
McCown will have strong passing weapons at his disposal in the form of Vincent Jackson and Texas A&M rookie Mike Evans, and running back Doug Martin showed potential to be one of the best in the league. He will bounce back from the torn labrum that spoiled his season last year, making for three potent playmakers on the offense.
Tampa Bay's offensive line has some question marks heading into the season, but McCown put up pretty numbers last year behind a lackluster O-line in Chicago. McCown will provide tons of value for a deep-sleeper QB.
Andre Williams, RB, New York Giants, ADP: 120
2013 stats (w/ Boston College): 2,177 yards, 6.1 yards per carry, 18 TDs
Andre Williams destroyed opponents during his senior year at Boston College, and the New York Giants were delighted to scoop him up in the fourth round as the 10th running back selected.
Williams' stats at BC last year ranked first in attempts and yards among all running backs, and no one in the conference ran for more scores. His sparkling 2013 campaign earned him the Doak Walker Award for the best running back in the nation and a fourth-place finish for the Heisman.
Williams joins former Oakland Raiders runner Rashad Jennings in Big Blue's backfield. Jennings has more experience and the added versatility of being a competent pass-catcher, while Williams has hands of stone. However, look for Williams to be deployed as a goal-line battering ram, much as he was in the first preseason game when he carried it seven times for 48 yards and a score.
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins, ADP: 101
2013 stats (w/ Miami Dolphins) 709 yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 2 TDs
Lamar Miller disappointed somewhat in his sophomore season, but the same could be said for most of the Miami Dolphins team. However, after an 8-8 finish, the Floridian Fish seem poised to break out, and the same can be said of Miller himself.
The Fins hardly have an intimidating pass attack with Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline on the outside, but it's a competent bunch who can keep some heat off the backfield. After a well-documented soap opera erupted on Miami's offensive line, things will be more stable this year.
Miller should come cheap as a primary back on draft day, and look for him to garner roughly two-thirds of the carries over the course of the season. Moreover, he showed promise as a receiver last season with 26 catches, and his output projects to increase on the ground and through the air.
Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles, ADP: 116
2013 stats (w/ New Orleans Saints): 71 receptions, 604 yards, 2 TDs, 220 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 2 TDs
Across the league, 31 GMs deserve castigation for letting Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly get his hands on Darren Sproles, putting one of the league's most versatile and explosive players in one of the league's most versatile and explosive offenses. Prepare yourself for video game numbers in Philly.
Sproles, a 5'6" ball of fury on the field, may have lost a step at age 31, but he's only two years removed from leading the league with 2,696 all-purpose yards.
He brings multiple threats on offense and special teams, be it returning kicks, catching passes, taking handoffs or running gadget plays. He's hard to find and harder to bring down, and the threat of Sproles scampering through the defense makes him an excellent decoy anywhere on the field.
Sproles will join one of the league's finest running backs, LeSean McCoy, but expect the new Eagle to replicate 2013 by making an impact more as a receiver than a rusher. After the team jettisoned DeSean Jackson, the primary receivers will be Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, so Sproles will hardly be battling All-Pro wideouts for targets in the receiving game.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, Indianapolis Colts, ADP: 121
2013 stats (w/ New York Giants): 56 receptions, 896 yards, 0 TDs
After failing to catch a single touchdown pass for the Giants in his contract year, the oft-injured, appropriately named Hakeem Nicks will seek to bounce back and return to his potent pass catching by hooking up with rising star QB Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
Nicks saw his number of scores steadily decrease over each of the last four seasons (11, 7, 3, 0), and it was not a surprise to see the Giants let him walk after they did not trade him during the year. He has a track record of nagging injuries and never flashed the breadth of his ability in the 2013 season.
However, Nicks played like a potent force in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, averaging over 75 catches and 1,000 yards each season while finding the end zone a combined 18 times. The Giants would not have won (or even played in) Super Bowl XLVI without him.
At just 26 years old, his overall health has held him back recently more than his age, and the change of scenery could be just what the doctor ordered. He'll be competing with Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton for targets, giving him solid opportunity to make his mark.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills, ADP: 107
2013 stats (w/ Clemson): 101 receptions, 1,464 yards, 12 TDs
Sammy Watkins is getting drafted crazily low on the board by fantasy football GMs, a stark contrast to the Buffalo Bills who traded up to snag the best wideout in the draft with the No. 4 pick. He's already delighted attendees at practice with sparkling feats like this one-handed catch, which has become something of a regular occurrence for Watkins.
Concerns about his adjustment to the pros and his shaky quarterback have some grounding, but Robert Woods probably represents his primary competition as the team's top receiver, so targets will not be a problem for Watkins. QB EJ Manuel will seek to improve on his rookie season that saw 11 TDs, nine INTs and just shy of 59 percent of passes completed.
While Manuel's ambiguous abilities will keep some drafters away from Watkins, he can be a sleeper with sky-high upside in later rounds. In a similar vein to Julio Jones or A.J. Green, Watkins can put up something along the lines of 60 catches, 1,000 yards and a half-dozen touchdowns as a rookie thanks to his excellent hands and downfield ability.
Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants, ADP: 117
2013 stats (w/ New York Giants): 41 receptions, 611 yards, 6 TDs
According to The Star-Ledger's Conor Orr, new Giants quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf has set a lofty goal for veteran QB Eli Manning: "We'd love to be up there at 70 percent. It hasn't been done very often. So that is the ultimate goal. We'd like to raise his completion percentage for sure."
With a career completion percentage of 58.5, Manning will have a significant improvement to shoot for, but he will also be working under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. As the team works out the kinks, one thing looks certain for the new offense: There will be copious short routes and underneath passes, helping to create a possession receiving game that can aid Manning to complete 70 percent of his passes.
For that reason, Rueben Randle will be the Giants receiver to benefit the most from the new West Coast-style system. With Victor Cruz as the No. 1 receiver, he will play more on the outside and act as the downfield threat. The team is hopeful that rookie Odell Beckham Jr. can hold his own on the opposite side of the field. Randle projects as the team's No. 2 receiver, but he could see time in the slot.
According to the New York Daily News' Ebenezer Samuel, Giants coaches discussed a slot-receiver role with Randle as early as June. As Samuel observed: "Randle would give the Giants a different look as a big-bodied receiver who would have a physical advantage over many of today’s slot corners. He added that he has 'a little familiarity' with the slot role. As a sophomore at LSU, he said, he played that role heavily."
Whether or not the 6'4" Randle carves out a role in the slot, he stands to see plenty of targets in a pass-first offense that will have Cruz facing copious double coverage.
Steve Smith Sr., WR, Baltimore Ravens, ADP: 126
2013 stats (w/ Carolina Panthers): 64 receptions, 745 yards, 4 TDs
Steve Smith has a new uniform after playing his entire career in Carolina, and he's even added a "Sr." to his name in case you forgot about his status as a savvy veteran.
On paper, Smith does not offer much to inspire fantasy confidence: He's 35 years old and stands at 5'9". However, Smith's tenacity and passion for the game cannot be quantified, and he's motivated to prove that the Panthers gave up on him far too soon.
Steve Smith will line up opposite Torrey Smith in the Baltimore Ravens' passing attack, and they should provide an ideal blend of youth and experience. That tandem could very well flourish under quarterback Joe Flacco.
The veteran hauled in an average of 72 catches over the last three seasons with the Panthers, and he's nowhere near being washed up just yet. Just don't tell that to your fellow fantasy drafters until after you snag him in the late rounds.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles, ADP: 112
2013 stats (w/ Philadelphia Eagles): 36 receptions, 469 yards, 4 TDs
The Eagles spent the 35th overall pick in the 2013 draft on tight end Zach Ertz, and he started to pay serious dividends later in the year. Three of his four touchdowns during the regular season came in December, and he also found the end zone in Philly's postseason loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Standing 6'5", Ertz could blossom into a regular receiving target in the relentless Eagles offense. DeSean Jackson will no longer cause headaches and make waves in the receiving game, and Ertz could become a darling red-zone target for Nick Foles, especially with defenses worrying about the new backfield partnership of LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles.
Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers, ADP: 130
2013 stats (w/ San Diego Chargers): 17 receptions, 376 yards, 3 TDs
Bolts QB Philip Rivers enjoyed quite a renaissance last season, and tight end Ladarius Green slowly but surely benefited from the Chargers' improved passing game. Green's best games came from mid-November onward, including all four of his touchdowns (one in the playoffs) and back-to-back 80-yard performances.
After Green spent 2013 battling the until-now ageless Antonio Gates, he appears to be in line for the role of starter. Entering his third season, the 24-year-old from Berlin will have a chance to develop even greater chemistry with Rivers, and the 6'6" tight end will form a tall target in the red zone.
Defenses will have enough to worry about with the 6'2" Keenan Allen and 5'11" Vincent Brown on the outside, helping open up scoring opportunities and more targets for Green over the middle.