Fantasy Football 2014: Late-Round Sleepers Worth Drafting at Each Skill Position

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Fantasy Football 2014: Late-Round Sleepers Worth Drafting at Each Skill Position
Bill Haber/Associated Press

As fantasy football culture becomes more pervasive, we're needing a new word for "sleeper" more by the year. There is so much #content available on the World Wide Web that nearly every human with a remote chance of touching an NFL football has been mentioned at this point.

If you don't know the name Bishop Sankey by now, well, you just don't care. Which is totally fine, by the way. People who don't care about the minutiae lead much fuller lives, ones with happy spouses, well-kept children and well-paying jobs. 

Us degenerates? Well, we'll eventually get to all that stuff once our name is etched in the league trophy. Fantasy football comes down to one part luck, one part skill and, well, it's mostly just a lot of luck. No other sport is as injury-prone as the NFL, which makes every Sunday feel more like navigating a fantasy minefield than anything.

It also makes roster depth nearly as important as star power. Which in turn creates the sleeper market. Which in turn creates the sleeper #content wheel. Which in turn creates a system in which everyone knows everyone by draft night and is overrating "sleepers" to the point they're being overdrafted.

Isn't inanity fun?

Anywho, I figure it might be amusing to dig deep into the recesses of our knowledge and add to the conversation. Only, instead of telling you about the dudes you already know, I'll be telling you about the dudes you already know—only slightly less. You're welcome. I'm glad I'm here too.

 

Quarterback: Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals)

Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

It's obviously impossible to find any quarterback worth drafting about whom you've not heard. There are only 32 starting spots. Nearly all of them are very publicly decided. Even the guy in your league who still thinks Willie Parker is the Pittsburgh Steelers' running back could reel off 28 of the 32 starters without issue.

So instead, let's use this space to praise one of the NFL's most derided signal-callers. The Twittersphere blew up this summer when Dalton signed his six-year, $96 million extension. Now, any intelligent football fan knows that number is completely made up out of thin air. Yet reaction was still fervent in criticizing the Bengals, who seemingly consigned themselves to a future of first-round exits.

Drafting Dalton in your league will come with similar snickers. Folks in your league will point out Dalton's playoff failings, his propensity for the types of interceptions that make one long for Akili Smith and his general red-headedness. Dalton hate has gotten to the point where ESPN.com's experts rank him the No. 17 fantasy quarterback.

That seems strange given he was the fifth-highest scoring fantasy quarterback in 2013.

Tony Tribble/Associated Press

Dalton threw for 4,292 yards and 33 touchdowns against 20 interceptions last season, and there is little reason to think he'll head much in the opposite direction. His yards, yards per attempt and touchdowns have increased in each of his three NFL seasons. He's even a half-decent athlete, accounting for 183 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

Dalton averaged more than three fantasy points per game more than Tom Brady. And the last I checked only one of those dudes has A.J. Green back, Giovani Bernard heading into his second season and the promising Marvin Jones due for a possible breakout.

There are six quarterbacks in fantasy who exist on a higher plane: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck.

After that, everyone else is basically the same. Should you miss out on any of the top six for strategical purposes—or simply due to bad luck—waiting on Dalton is the prudent move. He's being taken in the 13th round of 10-team leagues and is not even owned in 100 percent of leagues.

I don't want Dalton leading my NFL playoff team. But he's being vastly underrated as a fantasy option.

 

Running Back: Bernard Pierce (Baltimore Ravens)

USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks of a starter's workload right off the bat. Ray Rice's two-week suspension for his arrest leaves Pierce relatively unimpeded for games against the Bengals and Steelers. Those are admittedly non-ideal opponents in this scenario, but workhorses are so rare in today's NFL that Pierce will have value by the sheer volume of his workload.

The former Temple standout is, like Rice, coming off a terrible 2013 campaign. He rushed for only 436 yards on 152 carries, an average of 2.9 yards per pop. He shaved two yards off his per-carry average from his rookie season and was considered the NFL's worst running back with over 100 carries, per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.

Pierce and Rice being terrible last season, however, gives credence to the theory that it was an offensive line and schematic issue more than skill. Jim Caldwell's blocking schemes, which helped ignite a Super Bowl run a year prior, proved a poor fit for the talent. The Ravens were the NFL's worst offensive line by a pretty solid margin.

Gail Burton/Associated Press

With Caldwell taking off for Detroit this offseason, Baltimore tabbed former Texans coach Gary Kubiak to run the offense. Kubiak has implemented his zone-blocking schemes throughout the summer, which feature stretch plays first made famous by Mike Shanahan in Denver.

The Ravens have acquitted themselves well on the ground during the preseason, averaging 4.9 yards per carry in wins over San Francisco and Dallas.

Pierce has run the ball 17 times for 92 yards and a touchdown. More encouragingly, he even got the start over Ray Rice in Saturday night's game against the Cowboys. It's possible that Pierce emerges as the alpha dog in the first two weeks and relegates Rice to his former role.

The Ravens are going to have something of a timeshare regardless. That said, the running back coming off the board 41st in drafts might be a weekly flex starter by the end of the season.

 

Wide Receiver: Justin Hunter (WR, Tennessee Titans)

Bill Haber/Associated Press

Hunter has the physical tools to be a superstar. Listed at 6'4" and 203 pounds, he ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and posted a 39.5-inch vertical leap at the 2013 NFL combine. He is a prototype from the Randy Moss era of receivers, where you look for a guy who can simply run faster and jump higher than anyone else on the field.

In Friday's preseason loss to the New Orleans Saints, he did both.

The former Tennessee star made four receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by a beautiful 64-yard connection with Zach Mettenberger. He and Jake Locker also connected for a four-yard touchdown with the first-team offense.

In his second pro season, Hunter is trying to elbow his way in and Nate Washington's way out of the starting lineup. The Titans' current depth chart gives the veteran the edge, and I suspect it'll remain that way at least early on in the season.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

But Washington is headed into the final season of his contract, and Tennessee is going to be terrible. Eventually, Ken Whisenhunt is going to have to see what he has in the Hunter-Kendall Wright duo. The pair, on paper, looks like one of the more promising wide receiver pairs in the league.

They also have Jake Locker throwing them the football, which is, well, it's not ideal folks. Behind the regularly injured locker is Charlie Whitehurst—also not good at being an NFL quarterback.

Washington's presence and the Titans quarterback situation might be enough to scare risk-averse owners off. In a deep league or one with a ton of bench spots, though, Hunter might be worth rostering. His talent is going to win out eventually.

 

Tight End: Jared Cook (TE, St. Louis Rams)

Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Like quarterback, tight end is a difficult-to-diagnose sleeper position. Smart owners only carry one tight end before cutting a fungible bench piece during their starter's bye week. If half the league's tight ends are owned in your league, I would suggest disowning your friends and starting life anew.

Hence we get the annual discussion declaring Jared Cook a sleeper. The Rams tight end has spent his entire career on the brink of...something. I don't know what. But every pundit has told me he's been on the brink for the last four years, so I've become conditioned to believe it.

Cook, who signed a fat contract to be Sam Bradford's safety valve before last season, turned in a totally replacement-level campaign. He made 51 receptions for 671 yards and five touchdowns. He could not have been more average if he tried. He was the ham-and-cheese sandwich on white bread of tight ends.

So what makes Cook worth a long look in 2014? The return of Bradford. The 2010 top overall pick played in only seven games last season due to a torn ACL. In Bradford's seven appearances, Cook had 26 receptions for 344 yards. Prorated over an entire season, that would give Cook 59 receptions for 786 yards, vaulting him into the top 50 in receiving yards.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Even if we write off his excellent Week 1 performance as a fluke, four of his five most-targeted games came with Bradford under center.

The reason? No one loves a good checkdown more than Samuel Jacob Bradford. He loves checkdowns more than a fat kid loves cake. You know his style; he'll do anything for a three-and-out. (Sorry. Feel free to close the tab for that. That was horrible.)

But for real. Check out Bill Barnwell's feature on Bradford for Grantland. Bradford is the dinkiest of the dink-and-dunkers. Tight ends and slot receivers typically run the routes Bradford likes to throw. For Cook to be owned in less than 5 percent of fantasy leagues just seems weird.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

All fantasy info, including ownership percentages and draft position, is via ESPN.

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