One thing most championship teams in fantasy football usually have in common is connecting on at least a couple sleepers in the middle rounds. Finding great value in that portion of the draft is often the difference over the course of 16 weeks.
Most owners emerge from the first handful of rounds with a strong foundation, and the late rounds, highlighted by defenses and kickers, are usually a wash. In between is where there's a real chance to separate your team from the pack.
Though not every sleeper is going to turn into a major asset, hitting on at least a couple has become essential to success. Let's check out a trio of players who currently provide good value but could rise up the rankings before the late drafts.
Darren Sproles (Philadelphia Eagles)
It's not much of a surprise to see Sproles' stock down heading into the year. He's coming off a season with just over 800 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. He also moves into an offense that's going to heavily feature LeSean McCoy.
When you combine his versatile skill set with the offensive minds of Chip Kelly and Pat Shurmur, though, it's hard not to like his chances of making a sizable impact. The Eagles passed along comments from the offensive coordinator about the running back's role:
In other words, he's likely to get some carries in relief of McCoy, should feature prominently in the passing game and will probably be involved in some gadget plays. All of those different roles equal more touches, and that's good news for his fantasy value.
So while he's mostly being viewed as a reserve No. 3 or 4 back in fantasy circles, that's going to change once people see how much the Eagles get him involved. He could end up producing borderline No. 1 running back numbers for 12-team leagues, especially those with PPR formats.
Stevie Johnson (San Francisco 49ers)
Even though Johnson's numbers were down significantly last season, it's important to remember two things. First, he missed four games due to injury. Second, he was playing with a Buffalo Bills quarterback group that played very poorly.
Moving to San Francisco and getting to play with Colin Kaepernick is a major step in the right direction. He's also motivated to showcase that he can still be a go-to receiver in the NFL, which is something he talked about with Janie McCauley of the Associated Press (via USA Today).
"Yeah, for sure. When you come off three straight 1,000 (yard seasons) and you don't get it the year after that, it's always, 'You've got to get better.' You feel like you've got to be better than last year," he said. "That's the goal collectively as a team. The Niners, they didn't win a Super Bowl, and we feel we have to get there and win."
Playing in the slot with Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin on the outside should also benefit Johnson. He's one of the the league's most precise route-runners. Working over the middle will give him more possibilities to use that underrated trait.
So while there are plenty of weapons at Kaepernick's disposal, Johnson should be able to carve out a niche for himself in the offense. He should easily outplay his current average draft position of 140 (via ESPN), which makes him a No. 5 wideout on most rosters.
Ladarius Green (San Diego Chargers)
Antonio Gates obviously has the name recognition among San Diego tight ends, but don't be shocked if Green ends up with more fantasy points this season. He flashed game-breaking ability last year and should be ready to take on a bigger role in the offense.
The Chargers knew the Louisiana-Lafayette product was a work in progress when they drafted him in the fourth round a couple years ago. He's made notable progress since that point, and Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports is among those bullish about his outlook:
The presence of Gates limits his upside, so don't expect top-five stats. That said, at a position with so few sure things, taking Green as a backup is an intriguing option. If his veteran teammate were to get injured, he instantly becomes a must-start player.
As it stands, expect him to finish somewhere in the 10-12 range at the position, which represents good value as Evans stated. Should he end up getting more snaps through injury or impressive play, he'll become a major steal.