2014 Fantasy Football: Top Sleepers Primed for Breakout Seasons

Nate LoopFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller (26) runs the ball during NFL football training camp in Davie, Fla., Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Fantasy football is about exploring every angle, combing through the numbers, aggregating the rankings and executing the perfect plan on draft day. Actually, it's mostly about bragging rights.

There are few joys greater than making that slick late-round pick that turns the draft-day double takes into triple takes during the regular season when that player is going toe-to-toe for points with some of the biggest names in the game. In 2013, the gold standard for this type of player was Chicago Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery.

The definition of sleeper is a bit muddled, but we're going with players who should provide value beyond what is expected for their draft position. To add to that criterion, these three players are liable to greatly exceed their value and become big names in the world of fantasy football in short order.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of potential sleepers (there's a dozen or so every year), so keep doing your homework in preparation for draft day.


Josh McCown, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Average Draft Position: 140.1

Josh McCown took over for an injured Jay Cutler last year and tossed 13 touchdowns against just one interception. One could argue that this was his breakout year, but he now has the chance to showcase everything he's learned over the course of an entire season. Part of this transition will be adjusting to a new system in Tampa Bay.

Here's what McCown had to say about that system, via CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora:

You've got to keep your mind around it, so I'm constantly either looking over stuff or working through plays in my head. The beauty of it is we really laid a solid foundation in the spring, and now we can kind of play everything out and see what sticks, and we'll learn more through training camp.

The 35-year-old has been in the league long enough to understand how the game ebbs and flows. It also helps that despite his relatively advanced age, being a career backup has kept his body from taking too much of a pounding over the years.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The advanced numbers also back up his progress as a signal-caller. Last year, he averaged 9.1 adjusted yards per passing attempt, by far the highest mark of his career, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. Sports Illustrated's David Gonos didn't predict him to be a breakout player but liked his chances overall:

While McCown actually draws one of the toughest schedules for quarterbacks to start the year, he has the second-best fantasy schedule for QBs from Weeks 7-11. Tampa Bay plays the Vikings (32nd vs. QBs in 2013), Browns (21st), Falcons (29th) and Redskins (23rd) in that order. He’s a very good choice as a backup in larger leagues, or as a starter in 2-QB formats.

McCown will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, from perennial 1,000-yard receiver Vincent Jackson to promising rookie Mike Evans.

He's not going to beat out the likes of Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but McCown could end up being a very smart pick in a 10- or 12-person league who didn't have a chance to snag a premier quarterback.


Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins

Uncredited/Associated Press

Average Draft Position: 128.6

This sleeper pick is contingent upon the health of Knowshon Moreno, but if Lamar Miller is the main man in the Dolphins' backfield for the majority of the season, watch out.

The 23-year-old back racked up 709 yards and two touchdowns in 2013 despite sharing the ball with Daniel Thomas. He should expect to get plenty of work in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's schemes, and head coach Joe Philbin has been impressed with his physicality in training camp.

"He looks good, he looks stronger than he’s ever been,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said, via the Miami Herald's Adam H. Beasley. “I don’t think he’s sacrificed any speed whatsoever.”

The touchdown numbers should improve with increased carries and usage as an every-down back. This could be the biggest boon to Miller's fantasy production.

Beasley detailed the fight that Moreno will have to go through to keep pace with Miller in Miami's backfield:

Even before Moreno’s surgery, Miller was taking most of the snaps with the starters. Moreno’s time away from practice has done nothing to change that pecking order. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin insisted Friday that no final decision will be made on regular-season snap allocations until the Friday before the Sept. 7 opener against New England. But in reality, the depth chart is usually set by the third preseason game. That gives Moreno three weeks to get healthy – and up to speed.

Miller is also a decent receiver who could be utilized as a checkdown option by Ryan Tannehill, who is still developing as a premier NFL passer. The opportunity for plenty of points is there for Miller; he just has to capitalize.


Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Average Draft Position: 131.4

Receivers often struggle during their first year in the league, and Tavon Austin was no exception to that rule. He tallied 40 receptions for 418 yards in 13 games on the year, but a huge chunk of that output came in a 128-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Indianapolis Colts. For the majority of the season, Austin was of no value to fantasy football owners.

It's rare for diminutive wideouts like Austin to put up big numbers and contribute over the course of an entire campaign, but he has the skills and plenty of opportunity to do just that in 2014.

His explosiveness on punt returns bodes well for his ability to make big plays with a better understanding of the offense. Austin admitted that the playbook had him baffled at times in his rookie season.

"I didn't really know what was going on," Austin said, via R.B. Fallstrom of The Associated Press. "Everything looked like Spanish and sounded like Spanish to me."

With breakout running back Zac Stacy bringing eight men into the box, Austin could be liable to make some big plays over the top or take advantage of a misplaced safety and break off huge chunks of yardage at a time.

In fact, Austin might even get some plays in the backfield himself, as Rotoworld's Nick Mensio took note of his work there in training camp:

Austin's work in camp has been strong thus far, and it's warranted him a starting spot alongside Kenny Britt on the team's depth chart, per NBC Sports' Mike Florio. With a tall counterpart in Britt and a (hopefully) healthy Sam Bradford under center, Austin could easily dwarf his production from his rookie season.


Note: ADPs courtesy of ESPN.