You may have killed off some brain cells during the summer between thinking too much about your fantasy baseball team and partying too much on the beach, but you better have a clear head and a good memory on the night of your fantasy football draft.
Fantasy football leagues are not won because of the superstars and fantasy gods like Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and Jimmy Graham. They are won by those sleepers you draft in the later rounds, and some of those sleepers are guys that fantasy owners may have forgotten about after what happened to them in 2013.
So here are four fantasy sleepers you should not forget about heading into drafts:
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles (WR)
Maclin could not have been quieter last season as he suffered a season-ending injury during training camp and was as much help to fantasy owners as cheerleaders and waterboys. At least he was kind enough to get hurt before most fantasy drafts took place so fantasy people did not waste picks on him.
Now Maclin has returned and is ready to rebound, and luckily for him he does not have DeSean Jackson around to hog all of Nick Foles’ pinpoint downfield passes. Maclin and Riley Cooper should be Foles’ top two targets this season, with Maclin being aimed at more than ever before.
Chip Kelly’s we-need-to-run-400-plays-per-game offense will offer Maclin plenty of scoring chances, provided he stays healthy. Maclin has been nicked countless times during his career, but last season’s preseason torn ACL was his first injury that cost him major time, so hopefully he keeps himself on the field this year.
Many fantasy owners may forget that Maclin had three consecutive seasons with over 850 yards and that he scored 10 touchdowns in 2010. Do not be one of them. Draft Maclin in the later rounds and you could get 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns from him.
James Starks, Green Bay Packers (RB)
Lost in all of the excitement of Eddie Lacy’s rambling rookie campaign was how well Starks ran when Lacy was injured or taking breathers during games.
Starks averaged a whopping 5.5 yards per carry last season when filling in for Lacy. It was the best the oft-injured, oft-mediocre tailback had run since he was a Super Bowl hero during the 2010 postseason, but it was ignored because Starks was a part-time player and because Lacy looked so awesome.
Lacy runs in an ultra-aggressive way. He looks to initiate contact almost as much as UFC light-heavyweight champ Jon Jones. Lacy missed a game-plus with a concussion last season and is an injury risk. That means Starks is in line for more work than are many other reserve running backs.
Starks will be one of the best handcuff running backs to own in 2014. Starks could be a starter or co-starter on some NFL squads, Green Bay’s offensive line has improved over the years, and Lacy’s violent running style makes him a candidate for the injury report every week.
You have to draft Starks if you take Lacy in the early rounds as insurance, and even if you do not get Lacy and want to pick a back with a decent chance of starting at some point, Starks fits the bill.
Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville Jaguars (WR)
Shorts was a long-range touchdown burner in 2012 when he racked up 979 receiving yards and seven scores in just 14 contests and headed into 2013 as a lock for 1,000 yards. But a nagging groin injury and inconsistent, inaccurate quarterbacks turned him into a mediocre possession receiver and limited him to 777 yards and three touchdowns last year.
Jacksonville bolstered its underwhelming and undertalented receiver corps during the draft by selecting USC’s Marqise Lee and Penn State’s Allen Robinson in the second round. That and having rookie Blake Bortles and the uninspiring Chad Henne as the quarterbacks might scare fantasy owners away from taking Shorts.
Shorts is already banged up with a hamstring strain suffered during camp. While that does not bode well less than a month before the regular season starts, this will allow Shorts to fall further on cheat sheets, making him a prime sleeper pick.
Do not be like many fantasy owners in your league and focus on what Shorts did in 2013. Be more attune to what he did in 2012 and use a middle-to-late round draft choice on him. The fantasy football gods may have delayed the inevitable and decided to postpone Shorts’ 1,000-yard year until 2014.
Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons (K)
Bryant has been one of the steadier and more underrated kickers in fantasy football for several seasons. He has always been known for his accuracy, his penchant for connecting on 40-plus-yard field goals and for having the luxury of kicking half the time indoors while one of the more potent offenses in the NFL sets him up with ample scoring opportunities.
Atlanta’s offense was not as potent as it was in past years in 2013, though, thanks to receiver Julio Jones missing most of the season due to injury and with receiver Roddy White and tailback Steven Jackson hobbled by nagging leg problems throughout the campaign. This caused Bryant to have only 24 field goals and 39 extra points for 111 total points when in the three prior seasons he posted 128, 126 and 143 points, respectively.
Jones and White are back and healthier than a couple Cal Ripken Jrs., so quarterback Matt Ryan again has arguably the best wide receiver duo in football. And even though Jackson is dealing with a preseason hamstring injury he should hopefully be back in time for the opening game of the season.
So unless Bryant suddenly becomes as scattershot on his field goal attempts as Garrett Hartley, he should be among the top 10 fantasy kickers again, if not in the top five.