Predicting 2017's Dark-Horse Fantasy Football Sleepers

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 31, 2017

Predicting 2017's Dark-Horse Fantasy Football Sleepers

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    Every fantasy football participant believes he or she has the perfect play that will bring regular-season success and a championship to lord over their frenemies.  

    Everyone believes such a brilliant play of a deep sleeper exists that everyone else will surely overlook and will be available later just for their purposes. 

    Oftentimes, we overthink the process. 

    Surprise players do emerge. Last season, for example, those who invested a mid- or late-round draft pick in the Dallas Cowboys' Dak Prescott now have their QB1 in franchise leagues. 

    What every fantasy participant should be looking for are players in the right situations with an opportunity to produce at a higher-than-expected level. 

    Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport provided initial fantasy football rankings once the NFL draft concluded and May began. None of these players were included among this year's potential gems. Instead, a fantasy fanatic needs to go a little deeper to find the player who will become the fulcrum to a successful 2017 campaign. 

    The following eight players are guaranteed (maybe) to emerge as dark horses and help you win your league. 

QB Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

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    Sleepers among the quarterback position are an oxymoron. The position is the most scrutinized in any sport. But only so many men on the planet can actually play the position like it should be played at the NFL level. 

    Thus, the search for those who can be franchise-changers never ceases. 

    Of this year's incoming quarterback class, the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson found himself in the best possible situation to realize his full potential and lead his team into the playoffs and potential Super Bowl contention. The reason is twofold. Not only is Watson a talented young prospect, but a strong cockpit has already been built to allow his teammates to take the pressure off the rookie signal-caller. 

    Houston already features one of the game's best wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, a 1,000-yard rusher in Lamar Miller, an adequate offensive line and the league's No. 1 defense. 

    Watson won't need to place the team on his shoulders and carry it. Instead, he can thrive once Texans brass understands Tom Savage isn't the answer under center. Either Savage loses the job to Watson in training camp or early in the regular season. 

    Every young quarterback has limitations and needs time to grow. However, Texas head coach Bill O'Brien can cater the offense to Watson's natural abilities. The passing game could feature more half-field reads or run-pass options while also factoring in Watson's athleticism. This year's national-championship-winning quarterback finished his Clemson career with 10,163 passing yards, 1,934 rushing yards and 116 total touchdowns in three seasons. 

    Watson's natural ability, coupled with his surrounding cast, makes him an early favorite to be named NFL Rookie of the Year.

RB Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots backfield is loaded, and many fantasy owners will shy away from the team's running-back-by-committee approach. 

    The key is deciphering which back can do the most and separate himself from the pack. Rex Burkhead has a legitimate chance to earn that distinction, because he's the most well-rounded of the bunch. 

    Mike Gillislee is the biggest and most physical at 219 pounds, which should earmark him as LeGarrette Blount's replacement. Meanwhile, James White and Dion Lewis are smaller backs best used as weapons out of the backfield. 

    Burkhead can run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. Plus, he's a better blocker than any back on the roster. 

    Clearly, the Patriots had interest in adding the former Bengals back long before he hit the open market.  

    "We were asking if [former Bengals and Patriots tight end Matt Lengel] had—a couple conversations he had with Bill Belichick, and he said one of the conversations was actually about Rex," Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said during an interview with Barstool Sports' Pardon My Take. "So, I kind of felt like—and this was in the middle of the year—so, once he got to free agency—I think Rex fits perfectly for what they do."

    In his final game as a member of the Bengals, Burkhead ran for 119 yards. His 4.6 yards per carry last season led the team, even in limited opportunities. 

    All of these backs will receive chances to play. If Gillislee falters, Lewis suffers another injury or White fails to pick a blitz, Burkhead is waiting in the wings to excel in whatever role head coach Bill Belichick asks of him.

RB Samaje Perine, Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins' Samaje Perine will be a valuable addition to any fantasy football team. Either he'll develop into the offense's starting running back, or he'll assume the role of a touchdown vulture. 

    Even with the team's leading rusher, Robert Kelley, and third-down back Chris Thompson still on the roster, Washington used the 114th overall pick in the NFL draft to select Perine. The 235-pound back has the size and athleticism to develop into a feature back. 

    "I don't think he gets enough credit for once he gets outside that ability to run over people, stiff-arm people [and] still make people miss," head coach Jay Gruden said, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "We know how strong he is. Just a total package is really what we liked."

    The Oklahoma product is expected to push Kelley as the team's starting running back during training camp. Perine already impressed during his initial practices with the squad. 

    "You see him out there running aroundwere you impressed?" Gruden asked after an OTA, per the Washington Times' Nora Princiotti. "Yeah, so was I. I like guys who come in here and love football and he does. He's a very smart guy. You can tell that he’s going to be a very hard worker and, of course, he runs hard."

    Kelley isn't a pushover by any means. As a rookie, he ran for 704 yards and six touchdowns. However, the man known as "Fat Rob" lacks explosive qualities as a runner. He averaged 2.41 yards per carry in the red zone and only 1.16 yards after first contact, per Keim

    Even if Kelley holds Perine out of the starting lineup, everyone should expect the rookie to be on the field once Washington makes its way to the red zone and needs a more powerful and dynamic runner in the backfield.

WR Michael Floyd, Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings finished 23rd last season by averaging 20.4 points per game. The organization explored every avenue to improve the offense this offseason. 

    The team proved to be aggressive in free agency with the additions of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers along the offensive line. Minnesota then added one of the draft's top running back prospects in Dalvin Cook. The final piece may have come in wide receiver Michael Floyd. 

    "We put a special emphasis in trying to get the offense better," head coach Mike Zimmer said, per ESPN.com's Ben Goessling. "We're looking for players that can flip the field. We're looking for players that can score touchdowns."

    Floyd, a first-round pick in 2012, fell from grace during the 2016 campaign when he was arrested on Dec. 12 for DUI. The Arizona Cardinals released the wide receiver two days later. The New England Patriots took a flier on the talented target, and he flashed during his time with the organization. But it wasn't enough for New England to retain his services. 

    The 27-year old's ability is still apparent, but his usage decreased since posting a 1,000-yard campaign in 2013. However, his return home to Minnesota places him in a position where the proper support system can help maximize his skill set. 

    "We understand [his legal history]. We always try to weigh every situation," Zimmer said. "But you know, he's from here. I think he has a good support system with [former Notre Dame teammates] Harrison Smith and Kyle Rudolph, partly. A lot of those things were factored into it."

    Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen played well last season, but Floyd can add a big body and another vertical presence if he's fully committed. Minnesota might try to force fellow first-round pick Laquon Treadwell into the lineup. If Treadwell doesn't show much improvement, Floyd can develop into a much-needed presence outside the numbers in the Vikings offense.

WR Tavon Austin, Los Angeles Rams

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    Someone has to develop into Jared Goff's top target, right? 

    The Los Angeles Rams coaching staff has big plans for Tavon Austin once he's healthy. The versatile playmaker required surgery for a wrist injury and will miss all of the team's workouts prior to training camp, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez

    Once he's back on the field, his speed and explosiveness will be utilized far differently under Sean McVay and Co. than the previous staff. 

    McVay plans to implement a similar gameplan for Austin as he did with DeSean Jackson as offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins. Obviously, Austin has the speed to be a vertical threat, yet the previous staff never maximized his ability to do so. In fact, Austin averaged fewer than 10 yards per catch in each of the last three seasons. 

    New Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur used a different example. 

    "I know last year in Atlanta, they used Taylor Gabriel and he's not the tallest guy, but he could get open and he was electric with the ball in his hands," LaFleur said, per Myles Simmons of the team's official site. "So hopefully we can get Tavon going the same way."

    This should be welcome news since Austin never lived up to expectations as the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. He subsequently signed a four-year, $42 million contract extension in August. 

    Austin's ability to stretch the field will open up multiple options, particularly the middle of the field for Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp to exploit. As long as Austin posts a similar number to Gabriel and Jackson last yearbetween 16.5 and 17.9 yards per catchthe Rams offense will have a completely new look in 2017.

WR Zay Jones, Buffalo Bills

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    Three wide receivers were selected before Zay Jones in April's draft. All three of those prospects heard their names called within the first nine picks. Jones had to wait a little longer. The Buffalo Bills selected the East Carolina product with the 37th overall pick. 

    Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross might be bigger names, but Jones landed in an ideal situationeven as a second-round pickto develop into a top target. 

    There's very little competition for Jones to overcome in Buffalo. Outside of 2014 fourth overall pick Sammy Watkins, the rookie appears to be a shoo-in as the team's second starting receiver after Buffalo lost last year's top two options, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, in free agency.  

    Philly Brown, Andre Holmes, Rod Streater, Brandon Tate and Jeremy Butler are the veterans expected to compete for a roster spot within the Bills receiver corps. It's not an inspiring group. 

    Jones is currently dealing with a sprained knee, per the Associated Press, but it shouldn't affect the team's regular-season plans. The second-round pick is a natural receiver who can excel from the slot or working outside the numbers. He left East Carolina as the FBS all-time leader with 399 receptions. 

    Even with Watkins on the roster, the rookie still has a chance to develop into Tyrod Taylor's favorite option.

    The Clemson standout can be dynamic. He torched defenses for 150 or more yards in four different games during his three-year career, but his availability is always in question. As a result, the organization decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

    The Bills need a reliable receiver, and Jones is the most likely to emerge.

TE Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Two players led all tight ends with eight touchdown receptions in 2016. Who were they? Neither is obvious, and both are solid plays going into the 2017 campaign. 

    The first is the Los Angeles Chargers' Hunter Henry, who will continue to progress as Antonio Gates' replacement. 

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Cameron Brate is the other. His inclusion on this list may come as a surprise since the organization invested the 19th overall pick in this year's draft to select top-rated tight end prospect O.J. Howard. 

    A couple of factors still fall in Brate's favor. 

    First, the Buccaneers staff is excited about the possibility of using 12 personnel with Brate and Howard on the field. 

    "We love Cameron," general manager Jason Licht said, per Pewter Report's Eric Horchy. "Cameron is a heck of a player. In our offense and a lot of offenses in today's day and age, you have two tight ends: one 'Y,' one 'F.' If you can establish that, then it reallyyou can dictate what you're doing with the run and passing game."

    Licht's final point is important, too. Howard enters the league as a better blocker than Brate. He'll most often serve as the in-line option, while Brate can still be a big part of the passing game, particularly in the red zone. 

    Howard's also a rookie, and first-year tight ends don't produce at a high level, historically speaking. Tim Wright was the last rookie tight end four years ago to even surpass 500 receiving yards. And ironically, he did it as a Buccaneer.

TE Seth DeValve, Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns traded up in the first round to acquire tight end David Njoku. Njoku is an exceptional athlete with the skill set to develop into a future star. 

    Right now, he's a 20-year-old raw talent whom the Browns should ease into the lineup. 

    Since the organization decided to release veteran Gary Barnidge during the draft, Seth DeValve will assume a much bigger role within the offense. 

    Cleveland surprised many when it selected DeValve in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft. The Princeton product wasn't considered a draftable prospect mainly due to multiple foot injuries during his collegiate career. However, the Browns saw the potential in an athlete that ranked first in SPARQ among tight ends in his class, per Three Sigma Athlete's Zach Whitman

    As a rookie, DeValve displayed the speed and athleticism to be a vertical option down the seam and a red-zone threat. In limited opportunities, the Ivy League product caught 10 passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns. 

    DeValve, a collegiate wide receiver, is also preparing for a new role under a head coach and play-caller in Hue Jackson who likes to use 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends). After weighing 244 pounds at Princeton's pro day, DeValve is almost 20 pounds heavier today. 

    "Here's a young player who's heading into his second year, who's 260-plus pounds who can run and catch,” Jackson said at rookie minicamp, per Patrick Maks of the Browns' official site, "and you combine him with another young player who we're putting on our football team who can run and catch."

    DeValve and Njoku have the potential to develop into a dynamic duo, whether they're working in-line, off the ball or out wide.