The All-NFL Fantasy Football Sleeper Team Heading into 2014
In fantasy football, the name of the game is value.
OK, the name of the game is winning, but in order to do that it's essential that fantasy owners get value with their draft picks.
It's why everyone is always touting the latest "sleeper," which is just a two-dollar way of saying that a player is undervalued in fantasy drafts.
Well, in that regard, we've got you covered in advance of the busiest fantasy draft weekend of the year.
Here's an entire starting fantasy lineup (1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 K, 1 D/ST and a "Flex" player) who all have one thing in common: They're going later in drafts than they should.
For the purpose of this exercise, we'll be using the average draft position data at My Fantasy League for drafts since Aug. 1.
In order to qualify for our "All Sleeper Team," a player has to have an ADP one slot lower than where he'll start for this squad.
In other words, the WR1 has to have an average draft position that places him in WR2 territory, and so on.
Now that the rules are out of the way, let's begin the introductions.
QB: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
Average Draft Position: QB15 (Round 9, Pick 104)
Heading into the 2013 season, the same things were being said about San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers that are now being said about Eli Manning of the New York Giants.
His best football is long behind him. He turns the football over far too much. Playing behind a leaky offensive line has gotten in his head.
Fans of the Giants would do cartwheels if Manning responds to those criticisms this year the way Rivers did last year.
Rivers had one of the best seasons of his 10-year NFL career in leading the Chargers to the playoffs a year ago, passing for nearly 4,500 yards and 32 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions. His 105.5 passer rating was his best since 2008.
Rivers also finished among the top five fantasy quarterbacks last year in NFL.com default fantasy scoring, his best mark in that regard since (once again) 2008.
Despite that success, Rivers is being drafted as a fantasy backup in 2014.
Simply put, Rivers is the poster child for why it's insane to spend an early pick on the quarterback position in fantasy drafts this year.
You could literally wait until every other team in your league has a quarterback (loading up on running backs and receivers all the while) and still end up with a player who has legitimate top-five fantasy upside as your No. 1 under center.
If that sounds appealing, that's because it should. Because it is.
RB1: Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
Average Draft Position: RB14 (Round 3, Pick 34)
Granted, it's kind of hard to call Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington a "sleeper." After all, he's being picked in the third round of fantasy drafts on average.
With that said, given the ever-diminishing fantasy depth at running back, it's hard to call any player a "sleeper." If a running back has a pulse, people know about him.
Still, if you're looking for a running back with top-10 upside who's being selected as a fantasy RB2, then the second-year pro from Clemson is your guy.
Ellington gave fantasy owners a taste of what he's capable of in 2013, leading all NFL running backs with a 5.5 yards-per-carry average. It was the first time in 25 years that a first-year running back led the league in that category.
Not bad for a sixth-round pick.
However, last year Ellington functioned in a complementary role for the Redbirds. This year, thanks to the retirement of Rashard Mendenhall, Ellington is the lead back in the desert.
Ellington told The Bickley and Marotta Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (via Shane Dale of Arizona Sports) that he's eager to show last year was no fluke:
Coming into the year, a lot of people didn't expect me to do what I did. Only me. I believed that I could have the success I had. But it was a long work in process, and I took it day by day and I learned as much as I can from the coaches and from former players and older players on the team, and just kind of took it and ran with it.
Ellington's going to have many more chances to run with it in 2014. And for those who wonder how the 5'9", 199-pounder will hold up between the tackles this year?
Among qualifying running backs, only Donald Brown gained more yards per attempt after contact in 2013 than Ellington, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
RB2: Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
Average Draft Position: RB37 (Round 10, Pick 110)
Last year, Knowshon Moreno finally realized the potential that the Denver Broncos saw when they drafted him in the first round in 2009. The 27-year-old topped 1,000 yards on the ground for the first time in his career, added 60 catches and scored 13 total touchdowns.
It was a performance so dominant that Denver made very little effort to re-sign Moreno in the offseason.
No, really. I think they helped him pack.
Moreno ended up signing a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins, where things have gone about as badly as they can. Until last weekend, anyway.
After showing up for camp out of shape and undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, Moreno finally made his Dolphins debut last week against the Dallas Cowboys.
All Moreno did in the game was pick up 64 yards on 10 carries, igniting a Dolphins ground game that had been hibernating to this point in the preseason.
As Greg Cote of The Miami Herald reported after the game, it was a showing that caught the attention of head coach Joe Philbin.
“Yeah he ran the ball well,” Philbin said. “We had really good production, good balance.”
Yes, Lamar Miller remains the nominal starter for now. However, the fact is, Moreno—when healthy—is a superior talent to Miller in just about every facet of the game.
It isn't going to be long until a player who was a top-five fantasy back last year in PPR formats is the lead back for the Dolphins, and even fantasy RB2 numbers from Moreno would be a steal at his currently modest asking price.
WR1: Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons
Average Draft Position: WR18 (Round 5, Pick 49)
You're going to notice a prevailing theme among the wide receivers listed in this article.
Spring chickens, they aren't.
It's an annual rite of passage in fantasy football. As we welcome in a new class of rookies, many fantasy owners immediately shuffle older players off to the fantasy retirement home whether they're ready to go or not.
It's especially true for players returning from injury, like Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons.
Last year, an ankle injury cost the 32-year-old three games and hampered him in numerous others. The result was only 63 catches and 711 yards, White's lowest output in both categories since 2006.
However, White's healthy now, and Dave Richard of CBS Sports recently told 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich in Boston that means big things in 2014:
I think Roddy White bounces back. A lot of people are going to overlook him because of the ankle sprain and he didn’t play like himself, but towards the end of the year he started to. Now that Tony Gonzalez is gone, when Matt Ryan throws the football it will go to Roddy White in the slot more often than not. White is going to have a fantastic year.
It's hard to disagree, especially considering that prior to last year's swoon, White had posted top-10 fantasy numbers in leagues that award a point for catches five years in a row.
On an Atlanta team that's going to be throwing the ball a ton this year, there's little reason to think that White can't make it six years out of seven in 2014.
WR2: Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts
Average Draft Position: WR35 (Round 8, Pick 91)
Told you these wide receivers aren't getting any younger.
After having his 2013 season cut in half by an ACL tear, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne made his preseason debut last week against the New Orleans Saints.
Wayne's two catches for 11 yards certainly weren't eye-popping, but as the 35-year-old told The Times-Picayune, you can't overstate the importance of just getting back on the field for some live action:
This is what all the rehab is about, to get back out there with my teammates. I appreciated all the cheers. They can always remind you of where you stand in their hearts. I have always loved Indy, they have always shown me nothing but respect and have always treated me like this was home.
More importantly for fantasy owners, Wayne didn't appear hampered at all by his knee when making cuts or coming out of his breaks.
Yes, Wayne is coming back from a serious injury. Yes, he turns 36 in November.
However, in Wayne's last full season (2012), the veteran topped 100 grabs and 1,300 yards while finishing as a top-10 fantasy option. Even last year Wayne was on a top-15 pace before getting hurt.
Oh, and with running back Trent Richardson continuing to run more like Murphy Brown than Jim Brown, it's a pretty good bet that the Colts are going to be taking to the air quite a bit in 2014.
It's also a pretty good bet that so long as Wayne stays on the field, he'll significantly outperform his ADP this year.
Plus, your receivers will get 10 percent off all entrees at Denny's. So there's that.
WR3: Justin Hunter, Tennessee Titans
Average Draft Position: WR45 (Round 10, Pick 120)
OK, let's inject a little youth into the receiver corps.
Fantasy owners interested in Justin Hunter of the Tennessee Titans may have to pony up more than a late 10th-rounder, though, as the second-year pro is one of the fastest-rising players at his position in late drafts.
As Brad Evans of Yahoo wrote, that's what happens when a player reels in four catches for 111 yards and two scores in the second preseason game of the year:
Talked up incessantly by several fanalysts over the past few weeks, the sophomore receiver showcased why so many are excited when in his virtual presence. On a finely placed jump ball from Jake Locker, the 6-foot-4 target climbed the ladder, plucked the ball out of the sky and kept his feet in bounds for what looked like an easy touchdown. Later on with the second team, he caught a deep-crossing strike from backup Zach Mettenberger then sprinted to the end zone untouched for a 64-yard score. Overall, he was effective everywhere – on the sidelines, between the hashmarks, at the goal-line. There’s no doubting his attractive measurables and baseline talents.
Hunter cooled off a bit in the third preseason game, but his three catches for 48 yards was still a better stat line than batterymate Kendall Wright.
That's been a theme throughout the preseason, and in the early going at least, it appears it's Hunter (and not Wright) who is acclimating better to Ken Whisenhunt's new offense in Nashville.
If that continues into the regular season, Hunter may wind up one of the bigger steals of the year at the wide receiver spot.
TE: Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers
Average Draft Position: TE17 (Round 13, Pick 149)
Generally speaking, if you told fantasy owners there was top-five fantasy upside available with a player who could be drafted outside the top 10 at his position, said fantasy owners would usually flock to that player like Black Friday shoppers to half-priced video games.
And yet, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller's ADP has barely budged this summer. The 10th-year veteran is being drafted as a middling fantasy backup in 12-team leagues—nothing more.
This, despite the fact that in 2012, Miller topped 70 catches and 800 yards, reeled in eight touchdown grabs and finished the year as a top-five fantasy tight end in many scoring systems.
Unfortunately, that 2012 campaign ended with a torn ACL, an injury that dogged Miller throughout last year.
However, this year Miller is healthy once again, and ESPN's Jim McCormick sees a big rebound in the offing:
Roethlisberger's red zone chemistry with Miller is worthy of mention, as 19 of the quarterback's 40 passing attempts inside the 10 last season -- including 11 of his 14 touchdowns from that distance -- went to departed targets Emmanuel Sanders (10 targets, 5 TDs) and Jerricho Cotchery (9 targets, six TDs). Sanders and Cotchery take with them 113 receptions, 188 targets and 1,342 yards from last year's passing game.
If Miller's five catches for 53 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers' "dress rehearsal" preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles were any indication, McCormick is on to something.
K: Nate Freese, Detroit Lions
Average Draft Position: K21 (Round 18, Pick 209)
For starters, there is no such thing as a "sleeper" kicker. Given that you should never, ever take one until the last round, all kickers are asleep.
Ask the fantasy owners of Denver kicker Matt Prater how spending an early pick on the position is working out so far. As Jeff Legwold of ESPN reports, Prater has been suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
You could be the last owner in a 16-team fantasy football league to draft a kicker and still have options with substantial upside at their disposal.
Options such as Nate Freese of the Detroit Lions.
As Michael Rothstein of ESPN reports, the Lions released kicker Giorgio Tavecchio on Monday, making Freese the winner of the competition to kick for the Lions in 2014.
The seventh-round rookie has a big leg (he hit from 55 in the preseason), and although he had some struggles in camp, Freese was perfect at Boston College last year.
Throw in a prolific Detroit offense, and fantasy owners could do a lot worse.
Or you could just wait, see who the Broncos sign to replace Prater and grab them off the waiver wire for the season's first month.
That works too.
DEF/ST: Detroit Lions
Average Draft Position: D/ST22 (Round 17, Pick 194)
With team defenses, the value lies with matchups.
Rather than investing an early pick on a so-called "elite" defense, only to see that defense fail to meet expectations (which happens every year), the smart play is to "stream" defenses by plucking teams with favorable matchups off the waiver wire.
In order to implement that strategy, however, you have to start somewhere, and in 2014, Motown is as good a place as any.
Yes, at first glance the Detroit Lions don't seem an overly favorable fantasy defense. The Lions ranked a so-so 16th in the NFL last year in total defense. The team was a dismal 25th in NFL.com default fantasy scoring in 2013.
With that said, when streaming defenses, it's as much about the opponent as the defense itself, and the Lions open the season with a juicy one.
In Week 1 the Lions play host to a New York Giants team that ranked 28th in total offense in 2013. The Giants were 29th in points scored. Quarterback Eli Manning led the league with 27 interceptions. Manning was sacked 40 times.
Oh, and if the preseason has been any indication, the Giants offense may actually be more offensive this year.
Shall I go on?
FLEX: Cody Latimer, WR, Denver Broncos
Average Draft Position: WR66 (Round 15, Pick 178)
For our "Flex" option, we'll dig deep—as in, outside the top 50 players being drafted at the position.
Of course, in light of recent events, rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer of the Denver Broncos probably isn't going to be available this late much longer.
As things stand now, speculation regarding Welker's short-term future runs the gamut from out for the year to ready by Week 1. Welker will be put through the league's concussion protocol, but while his return date isn't known, one thing is.
Welker's durability is now a huge question mark.
If Welker misses regular-season time, Emmanuel Sanders will likely kick inside to the slot, while Andre Caldwell moves into the starting lineup outside.
However, it's Latimer who caught the eye of Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway:
Latimer is the much more intriguing option. Taken No. 56 overall in May, the former Indiana star has been slowly gaining trust in the Denver locker room. He's worked hard to learn the playbook and establish a rapport with Manning, often working out after practice to absorb everything he can from the five-time MVP.
With that said, Conway concedes that Latimer may be hard-pressed to see enough targets to have fantasy value this year, even if Welker misses time.
It's true, there's a real chance that Latimer's redraft fantasy value will be spotty at best in 2014.
Still, we're talking about a very talented receiver with a skill set similar to the departed Eric Decker. If Latimer gets into the starting lineup, there's a very real chance he never leaves it again.
In Denver's offense, just that glimmer of hope was enough to target Latimer late in drafts as a fantasy "lottery ticket."
Now, with Welker sidelined indefinitely, that glimmer is brighter than ever.
Gary Davenport is a Fantasy Football and NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. Gary’s fantasy football work has been featured in a number of national print publications and on both satellite and terrestrial radio, and he was a finalist for the FSWA Web Article of the Year in 2013. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.