Fantasy Football 2014: Breaking Down Sleeper Rankings and 1st-Round Mock Draft

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Fantasy Football 2014: Breaking Down Sleeper Rankings and 1st-Round Mock Draft
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White noise peppers the fantasy football landscape, often obscuring an owner's view of what really matters in drafts: the first round and the ability to unearth sleepers.

Owners are often unable to recover from missteps in the first round, and an inability to properly nail down sleepers late will force owners in survival mode on the waiver wire or via trade, two good ways to lose a league quickly.

Even though the landscape of fantasy football—much like the game itself—is always changing, there are tried-and-true formulas to excel in both areas. Below, let's mock a standard 12-team first round and then identify some sleepers to target in such a format.

 

Fantasy Football 1st-Round Mock

Pick Player Team Position
1 LeSean McCoy Philadelphia Eagles RB
2 Jamaal Charles Kansas City Chiefs RB
3 Adrian Peterson Minnesota Vikings RB
4 Matt Forte Chicago Bears RB
5 Eddie Lacy Green Bay Packers RB
6 Calvin Johnson Detroit Lions WR
7 Jimmy Graham New Orleans Saints TE
8 Montee Ball Denver Broncos RB
9 Dez Bryant Dallas Cowboys WR
10 Demaryius Thomas Denver Broncos WR
11 Peyton Manning Denver Broncos QB
12 Marshawn Lynch Seattle Seahawks RB

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Conventional wisdom says to always go RB-RB in the first two rounds of mock drafts, and it is hard to argue with the logic. This is especially true for those owners in the top five picks—the top five running backs scored better than 200 points last season.

Even better, that top five is rather predictable. Now that Knowshon Moreno is out of Denver, he will be swapped out with a name such as Eddie Lacy, who posted these ridiculous numbers as a rookie while elite quarterback Aaron Rodgers was out with an injury for seven games last season:

G Rush YDS Avg TD Rec YDS TD
15 284 1178 4.1 11 35 257 0

ESPN

So it makes sense that Lacy moves up into the fifth slot behind heavy-usage backs and versatile weapons who are sure things until they prove otherwise. His ascension will only be helped by the fact that Green Bay did nothing to reinforce the position this year and the fact that Rodgers is fully healthy.

Then again, the RB-RB format can be done away with in exchange for a WR-RB approach. If owners are not comfortable nabbing a Montee Ball or a Marshawn Lynch—the former is unproven, and the latter has a lot of usage the past three years and talented names behind him pushing for time—then a top-tier wideout is a good idea.

Last year, Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green all broke the 200-point barrier, and, really, they are all locks to do so againsans Gordon, whom owners can comfortably swap out with Dez Bryant.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Owners will notice tight end up there, too. Jimmy Graham outscored all but three receivers last year. He's also a sure thing, although the peace of mind that comes with his production better lead to some savvy maneuvers later in the draft when it comes time to make up lost contributions at the two key slots.

For those who want to take a quarterback, the position is truly a tossup. Peyton Manning gets the nod, although there is little chance he repeats his outlier performance from a season ago. Rotoworld's Evan Silva explains it best:

38 1/2 years old now, Manning preyed on a bottom-six schedule last year, facing the AFC South and NFC East. In their division, each of the Broncos' two games against the Chiefs came late in the season, when Kansas City was hemorrhaging points due to defensive injuries. The Raiders and Chargers didn't play good defense. The Broncos now face the NFL's second hardest schedule (NFC West, AFC East), while the Chiefs' defense is healthy and both the Chargers and Raiders' defenses have improved on paper. Whether or not you believe Eric Decker is a 'No. 1'-caliber receiver, his loss hurts. He has 32 touchdowns over the past three seasons. 'Replacement' Emmanuel Sanders has nine.

Manning is a major risk, but so is Rodgers coming off an injury. Drew Brees is not exactly a spring chicken at 35 years old, either.

It is difficult to mess up the first round, but owners have a habit of doing so. The key is to not overthink the process and to understand that actions have serious ripple effects in later rounds.

 

Top Sleeper Rankings

Rank Player Position Team ADP*
1 Kenny Stills WR Saints 11.03
2 Andre Williams RB Giants 9.08
3 Markus Wheaton WR Steelers 12.09
4 DeAndre Hopkins WR Texans 10.03
5 Cecil Shorts WR Jaguars 11.10
6 Greg Jennings WR Vikings 13.07
7 Jordan Matthews WR Eagles 12.02
8 Ahmad Bradshaw RB Colts 12.01
9 Steve Smith WR Ravens 12.02
10 Khiry Robinson RB Saints 10.06
11 Odell Beckham Jr. WR Giants 14.06
12 Ladarius Green TE Chargers 11.02
13 Charles Clay TE Dolphins 13.03
14 Justin Hunter WR Titans 12.05
15 Miles Austin WR Browns 13.09

.

Speaking of later rounds, sleepers are a critical portion of any winning formula, as the right later-round guys can give owners a variety of flex options and beyond each week.

Take Andre Williams in New York, for example. The bruising rookie back now has only Rashad Jennings to compete with for time. Given the fact that the Giants coaching staff will want to run the ball at a consistent clip to take pressure off Eli Manning, the Boston College product is going to get his.

NFL Media's Chris Wesseling provides a note that should cause Williams' ADP to grow sooner rather than later:

Sleeper wideouts are just as important. Pittsburgh's Markus Wheaton is horribly underrated, which makes sense, as he saw just 13 targets as a rookie.

But here is where the best owners make their money. Wheaton gets a bump up the depth chart this year with Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery gone—or, in fantasy terms, 113 receptions and 188 targets gone.

Expectations have come down from the most important man of all, Ben Roethlisberger, per Dan Scifo of The Associated Press, via Yahoo Sports.

"I've put a lot on him," Roethlisberger said. "The expectation level is high. He was doing some really good things last year until he got hurt and kind of lost some confidence I think in himself, but he's got it back."

Don Wright/Associated Press

The ability to find stories such as Williams and Wheaton minimizes the guesswork and risk associated with flex players off the bench.

A conservative approach to the first few rounds of a draft, supplemented with research to make low-risk, high-upside moves in the later goings to round out a roster, just about assures playoff contention each year.

Sleeper information continues to become more widely available, so those who dig deepest, trust their guts and don't overthink stand the best chance of hoisting the league's trophy at season's end.

 

All average draft positions courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator. All scoring info courtesy of ESPN standard leagues. Statistics courtesy of ESPN. 

 

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