Fantasy Football Rankings 2014: Sleepers with Top Week 1 Matchups

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2014

San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) runs from San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Tourek Williams (58) during the second quarter of an NFL preseason football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Now that you've drafted your fantasy football team—the NFL season starts tonight, so I'm hoping you drafted your team by now—our fun with exploring the cesspool of weekly matchups begins.

Fantasy football is unique from the other sports in that it operates under one game per week. Rather than filling out a lineup every day for a 162-game MLB season or 82-game NBA slate, owners can hone in on a specific weekend containing a concise schedule.

That makes this game dependent on the matchups. You've done diligent research to identify your favorite late-round targets, but what good will that sleeper running back do this week if he kicks the season off against a top-five rushing defense?

These preseason sleeper candidates are all properly positioned to begin the season with a bang. None of them are must-starts, but they're intriguing options if a starter higher up on your pecking order has a brutal opponent on hand.


Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals (vs. San Diego Chargers, Monday night)

Week 1 QB Rank: No. 14

Start Instead of: Robert Griffin III (at Houston); Cam Newton (at Tampa Bay); Ben Roethlisberger (at Cleveland)

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 29:  Quarterback Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals drops back to pass during the NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 29, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona. The 49ers defeated th
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I'm probably a year too late on using "Carson Palmer" and "sleeper" in the same sentence, or stratosphere for that matter. Entering last season as a top breakout choice—think what Jay Cutler is this year—he instead surrendered 28 turnovers in his first season with the Arizona Cardinals.

Palmer is turnover-prone, so plan accordingly in leagues that punish more for interceptions and fumbles. Against the San Diego Chargers, however, the upside for huge yardage and touchdown outputs makes him an intriguing risk.

San Diego ranked 29th against the pass last season, allowing 258.7 yards per game through the air. While the secondary should improve with cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and rookie Jason Verrett, it won't convert from bottom of the barrel to elite in an instant.

Through the final seven games of 2013, Palmer exceeded 300 passing yards four times. Part of that stems from exploiting an arbitrary endpoint, but wideout Malcolm Floyd's emergence also deserves some of the credit. He tallied 577 receiving yards and three touchdowns over that same stretch.

At his worst, however, Palmer once again proved unstable. Then again, why would anyone have played him against the Carolina Panthers, against whom he tossed three picks, or the Seattle Seahawks, who recorded four interceptions during most owners' championship weeks? He's a pure matchup play, and this Monday night is a matchup to play.


Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers (at Dallas Cowboys)

Week 1 RB Rank: No. 35

Start Instead of: Trent Richardson (at Denver); Shonn Green (at Kansas City); DeAngelo Williams (at Tampa Bay)

The Dallas Cowboys' defense is so bad that I'm looking at second-string running back Carlos Hyde as a possible flex play.

Last season, the Cowboys allowed a league-worst 415.3 total yards per game. While they were especially lackluster against the pass, opposing rushers gained 4.7 yards per carry against them, the third-worst average in the league. 

Without the departed DeMarcus Ware and injured Sean Lee, Grantland's Bill Barnwell expects them to get even worse.

Dallas almost definitely has the worst set of defensive linemen and the worst linebackers, along with one of the five worst secondaries. In an attempt to emulate the wild success enjoyed by the Cowboys offense, Dallas has created a leadership mire by demoting former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, replacing him with former defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. As a CFL player from the late '60s, Kiffin might actually be better served starting on Dallas's defensive line.

This gives hyped rookie Carlos Hyde a chance to enjoy a stellar NFL debut. Although he'll play second fiddle to Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers running back coach Tom Rathman told the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch that the team knows it must limit the 31-year-old's usage.

"We need to manage him," Rathman said. "We need to keep him (fresh) from Week 1 to the Super Bowl. So that's going to be the biggest challenge. He's ready to go and he's right where he needs to be."

Hyde is a swing-for-the-fences gambit best saved for managers in deeper formats. If you can risk him only getting 30 yards and six carries, take the chance on him receiving a more fruitful workload against a defense owners should get accustomed to exploiting this season.


Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants (at Detroit Lions, Monday night)

Week 1 WR Rank: No. 40

Start instead of: Riley Cooper (vs. Jacksonville); Sammy Watkins (at Chicago); Mike Evans (vs. Carolina)

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 17:  Rueben Randle #82 of the New York Giants is congratulated by fans after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at MetLife Stadium on November 17, 2013 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Ph
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The case for Rueben Randle is simple: Who else is going to catch touchdowns for the New York Giants? You may be thinking, "Nobody is going to catch any touchdowns for the Giants," and yeah, that may be the case.

But the 6'2" wideout scored six times last year while blocked by Hakeem Nicks. He's bound for some more goal-line looks this season with Nicks exported to the Indianapolis Colts.'s Christopher Harris made the case for Randle in his annual column highlighting "flag-planted" players he's aggressively targeting.

Eli Manning won't be asked to stand in overlong and get pummeled in exchange for deep shots; rather, we're going to see more quick hitters and timing plays that emphasize chemistry. To be honest, it's possible that that bodes poorly for Randle, who made many mental mistakes in '13. But what excites me here is that Randle possesses something the Giants' other WRs don't: size. And there's also no reliable TE on this roster. That should lead to red zone work. Randle may not eclipse 1,000 yards, but it would be no shock to see him threaten double-digit TDs.

As a result, Randle loses some of his luster in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues, but he's particularly worth a look in standard, non-PPR formats. This week, he's appealing across the board against the Detroit Lions' No. 23 passing defense.

Yet playing for a touchdown is risky, which is why Randle enters Week 1 as a bottom-end No. 3 wideout or flex choice at best in standard, 10- or 12-team leagues. If New York's leaky offensive line holds up, he and Victor Cruz are in for big years.