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Fantasy Football 2014: Ranking Top Sleepers at Every Skill Position

Miami Dolphins running back Lamar Miller (26) gets away from a tackle by New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (37) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
J Pat Carter/Associated Press
Nate LoopFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2014

In the eternal quest to gain an edge in fantasy football, there may be no more important pursuit than crafting the perfect late-round strategy. Indeed, getting a great sleeper pick is perhaps the sweetest joy this game has to offer.

A late-round pick that ends up with starter-quality stats is a huge benefit to any fantasy football team. It allows for flexibility in roster choices, much-needed injury coverage and, of course, the all-important trade bait.

These sleepers aren't getting taken early on in most drafts as the early data show. For these rankings, the top sleeper might not have the best overall statistics but instead is the one most likely to outperform his average draft position.

 

Quarterbacks

Quarterback Sleeper Rankings
Nate Loop's RankingsPlayerTeamAvg. Pick
1Jay CutlerChicago Bears113.0
3Josh McCownTampa Bay Buccaneers134.0
2Andy DaltonCincinnati Bengals122.8
4Eli ManningNew York Giants124.2
5Johnny ManzielCleveland Browns115.0
ESPN.com

Johnny Manziel

Don't ever count Manziel out. Sure, rookie quarterbacks don't tend to fare well in the NFL, especially in fantasy football leagues, but Manziel is the kind of lightning-rod player who could put up a surprising number of points in his first year in the league.

Manziel continues to trade off first-team reps with Brian Hoyer, but there have been promising signs regarding his development. ESPN's Pat McManamon gave this update from training camp on August 5:

Both quarterbacks had good days, as Manziel continues to take steps that indicate he’s starting to gain a better grasp of the offense and what’s expected. He continues to make mistakes, but he also was a little quicker in his reads and stronger in his throws. At one point he completed four in a row – all over the field. But as much as Manziel made some good throws, Hoyer made more. 

Hoyer could still start the season, plummeting Manziel's draft stock. However, it likely won't be long before Manziel gets his chance at the starting job.

Even if he struggles to master the nuances of an NFL playbook, Manziel should have no problem picking up big yardage on broken plays with his legs. If he can find the end zone as a rusher a few times throughout the season, that's just icing on the cake and definitely makes him worth a late, late draft pick.

 

Running Backs

Running Back Sleeper Rankings
Nate Loop's RankingsPlayerTeamAvg. Pick
1Lamar MillerMiami Dolphins118.6
2Andre WilliamsNew York Giants135.1
3Darren SprolesPhiladelphia Eagles97.6
2Darren McFaddenOakland Raiders121.3
5C.J. AndersonDenver Broncos145.4
ESPN.com

Lamar Miller

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Miller showed flashes of every-down capabilities last season, racking up 709 rushing yards and 4.0 yards per carry and two touchdowns. He could very well get the lion's share of snaps this season.

Knowshon Moreno is indeed on the roster and brings a strong pedigree from his days with the Denver Broncos. However, he's been hampered by injuries, which has allowed Miller to stake his claim as the top back in South Florida.

FantasyGuru.com's Joe Dolan believes Miller will be the starter this season.

And Miller has drawn rave reviews for his ability to pack on the muscle without sacrificing his speed.

"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.”

Miller has a golden opportunity to thrive in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's system, which could make him a very valuable pick in later rounds.

 

Wide Receivers

Wide Receiver Sleeper Rankings
Nate Loop RankingsPlayerTeamAvg. Pick
1Marques ColstonNew Orleans Saints80.9
2Justin HunterTennessee Titans136.0
3Tavon AustinSt. Louis Rams132.0
4Mike EvansTampa Bay Buccaneers126.8
5Steve JohnsonSan Francisco 49ers140.0
ESPN.com

Marques Colston

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Colston may not qualify as a sleeper to some observers, but his low average pick suggests he could be vastly undervalued this season.

He's on the wrong side of 30, but in eight years as a pro, Colston has dipped below 1,000 yards receiving just twice. Not bad for a former seventh-round pick. 2013 was one of those seasons, although 943 yards and five touchdowns is still strong value in some deeper leagues. However, there is plenty of room for optimism regarding Colston, such as his improved health this offseason.

“It’s a totally different experience for me just being able to really rest and come into the season healthy," he said, via ESPN's Mike Triplett.

As always, Colston has the incomparable Drew Brees firing passes his way and the genius offensive mind of head coach Sean Payton. Look for the 31-year-old wideout to have a big bounce-back season in 2014 and have fantasy football owners cursing their oversight by not drafting him when they had a chance.

 

Tight Ends

Tight End Sleeper Rankings
Nate Loop's RankingsPlayerTeamAvg. Pick
1Kyle RudolphMinnesota Vikings113.0
2Martellus BennettChicago Bears123.7
3Delanie WalkerTennessee Titans151.2
4Heath MillerPittsburgh Steelers132.9
5Ladarius GreenSan Diego Chargers142.9
ESPN.com

Delanie Walker

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Delanie Walker has a chance to cement himself as a top-tier tight end in his second year with the Titans.

Walker didn't get the majority of opportunities during his first several years playing alongside tight end Vernon Davis in San Francisco, so it's no surprise that he put up the best numbers of his career last season. Walker reeled in 60 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns, all career highs. 

New head coach Ken Whisenhunt also showed he knows how to spring tight ends for big gains after working as the offensive coordinator for Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green in San Diego last season.

Jake Locker is still developing as a quarterback, and tight ends are often excellent safety valves for younger signal-callers. If Locker finds himself checking down often this season, this could be a boon to Walker's 2014 fantasy football numbers.

 

Average picks and courtesy of ESPN.com.

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