Finding true sleepers is a difficult task in fantasy football since owners have more information at their disposal than ever before. With that said, there will always be players who are undervalued for one reason or another entering the regular season.
Timeshares, poor supporting personnel and past failures all play a role in fantasy commodities falling further than they really should. The key to being a successful fantasy owner is identifying those players and scooping them up when the opportunity presents itself.
Here are three players who are coming off the board in the mid-to-late rounds in most drafts but will ultimately prove to be fantasy stalwarts by the time the 2014 season reaches its conclusion.
Shane Vereen of the New England Patriots may be a running back in name, but he is arguably the most consistent and reliable receiver on the entire roster. Although Vereen appeared in only eight games last season due to injury, he still managed to catch 47 passes for 427 yards in the Tom Brady-led offense.
That means Vereen is money in point-per-reception leagues, yet he is being drafted as a low-end No. 2 or flex play at best. Many leagues are making the switch to PPR, or at least some form of it, such as awarding 0.5 or 0.75 points for every catch. Even in leagues that give nothing for receptions, though, he is still valuable.
If Vereen's 2013 production were to be extrapolated over an entire season, he would have racked up over 1,200 total yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers make him a guaranteed fantasy starter, while adding in the catches would make him elite.
Perhaps the biggest check mark against Vereen is the fact that the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick can never seem to settle on one running back. That could be an issue once again this season, with both Stevan Ridley and James White vying for touches as well. With that said, Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com points out that the Pats have effectively employed two-back sets during the preseason:
In New England's most recent preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, Vereen was spectacular, catching a pair of touchdown passes. After that performance, Belichick waxed poetic about his versatile back, according to Michael Vega of The Boston Globe:
Shane's had a good camp. He's been out there every day. He's getting better at all the things that he needs to do at his position; running the ball, pass patterns, catching the ball, blitz pickup, formationing. I think he made a couple of real good plays today. ... I thought that his blitz pickup and his overall running ability throughout the course of camp has shown up repeatedly in a positive way. Shane works hard. He's a very dependable guy and he does a good job for us.
Since Vereen is a metaphorical Swiss army knife due to his ability to do a little bit of everything offensively; he is essentially immune to New England's game of running back musical chairs. Even if he isn't getting the bulk of the carries, Vereen will be involved in the passing game since Brady clearly trusts him.
At the same time, the fact that he averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season suggests that he can thrive in a featured role if needed as well.
The floor is high for Vereen provided he is able to stay healthy, but the notion that his ceiling may be limitless is what makes him such an exciting fantasy prospect.
Perhaps no player in the league is better positioned for a true breakout season than New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram. The former Heisman Trophy winner and Alabama product has been labeled a bust by most after three less-than-stellar NFL campaigns, but the tide may finally be turning.
While Ingram is already entering his fourth NFL season, he is just 24 years old and should be fresh as a daisy. He has only 356 NFL carries to his credit, which means he should be able to handle a big workload if called upon. Like the Patriots, though, the Saints have a history of rotating multiple backs rather than utilizing one go-to guy.
Even so, the Saints offense is so explosive that it has managed to produce multiple fantasy-relevant backs per season. In recent years, those running backs have been Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Thomas is still in the fold, but Sproles is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, so there are touches to be had.
Ingram and Sproles are polar opposites in that Ingram is a between-the-tackles runner, while Sproles is a speed burner who does most of his work in the passing game. Thomas and rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks figure to pick up the slack from a pass-catching perspective with Sproles gone, but someone will have to be the primary runner as well.
Khiry Robinson is in the mix, but all signs point toward Ingram being the Saints' preferred choice as a traditional running back. Ingram has run with a renewed sense of purpose during the preseason, and Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network has been impressed:
Although it is easy to forget, Ingram's resurgence actually began last season, as he averaged just under five yards per carry. He had only 78 carries, but that was an encouraging sign from a guy who had underachieved up to that point.
Including regular season, playoff and preseason games since Week 15 last year, Ingram is averaging an unfathomable amount of yardage per tote, according to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling:
That may not be sustainable, but it proves that Ingram can take advantage of the holes created by New Orleans' excellent passing game. Ingram will be limited a bit due to his absence from the passing game, but it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that he could surpass 10 rushing touchdowns, with opposing defenses focusing largely on quarterback Drew Brees.
After playing little more than a bit part in the Philadelphia Eagles offense over his first three NFL seasons, wide receiver Riley Cooper finally came into his own last year. Cooper blossomed in head coach Chip Kelly's high-octane offense to the tune of 47 receptions for 835 yards and eight touchdowns.
Despite that, Cooper is getting very little respect in fantasy drafts. In fact, he is ranked as the No. 40 receiver by ESPN.com, which wouldn't even make him a WR3 in 12-team leagues. Considering his synergy with quarterback Nick Foles, it is difficult to imagine Cooper not surpassing that ranking in 2014.
Cooper had less than 100 yards total through the first five weeks of the 2013 campaign. Once Foles took over the starting gig, though, he exploded. With 742 yards and seven touchdowns over his final 11 games, Cooper was one of the most productive pass-catchers in the league.
With DeSean Jackson now playing for the Washington Redskins, one can only assume that Cooper will be Foles' preferred target. Jeremy Maclin is back in the fold as well, but it will take time for him and Foles to develop that type of connection.
Cooper missed Philly's first two preseason games due to a foot injury, but he returned to play in the team's most recent contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He showed some rust, but the important thing is that Foles threw it to him early and often, according to Zach Berman of The Philadelphia Inquirer:
A poor preseason game is nothing to worry about since Cooper was so reliable last year. He still has some developing left to do before he becomes a surefire fantasy starter on a weekly basis, but there is no reason why that can't happen in 2014.
Cooper is perhaps the No. 1 receiver in one of the NFL's best offenses, so he could produce a top-20 fantasy season at the price of the No. 40 receiver.
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