2017 Fantasy Football: Biggest Sleepers at Every Position
I'm asked about identifying potential fantasy football sleepers every season around this time, but how you define a sleeper is the key to the answer.
Personally, I consider a sleeper to be a player who has yet to truly break out as a reliable fantasy star. Some sleepers blow up, like David Johnson in 2015 or Michael Thomas in 2016. Others become solid contributors, like Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman did last season.
I try to differentiate between value picks and sleepers since they are not necessarily one in the same. Last week, I wrote an article on value picks, which included players such as Matthew Stafford and Pierre Garcon. To me, value picks are established players with an ADP lower than where I have them ranked. Those are players I fully expect to outperform their draft value in their current situation.
For this look at sleepers, the focus is on players who need the right circumstances to come through for fantasy. A player like Kareem Hunt may initially find himself behind Spencer Ware on the Kansas City Chiefs' running back depth chart to open the season, but he could turn into a fantasy asset if his role increases throughout the year. C.J. Prosise likewise could come through in Seattle if he keeps a clearly defined role in that crowded backfield.
When it comes to the majority of the players on this list, you won't need to use a high pick to get them. Sleepers should fall into the low-risk, high-reward category.
Note: All ADP data from Fantasy Football Calculator. All fantasy stats used to calculate finishes from FantasyPros. All advanced stats calculated using data from Pro Football Reference. All stats are based on points per reception (PPR) format.
Quarterback: Carson Wentz
Looking for a sleeper candidate of the quarterback group isn't easy. Rookies Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky and DeShone Kizer aren't locks to start, and they aren't in great situations to post huge fantasy numbers even if they do get on the field.
While still young, QBs such as Marcus Mariota and Dak Prescott already had breakout fantasy performances last season and are far past the point of the sleeper tag. Jameis Winston looks like the next QB to make the jump into fantasy stardom, yet due to Tampa Bay's offseason additions of DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard, Winston can't be considered a sleeper with an ADP of 93.3/QB9.
If you're sticking to the idea of a sleeper being an untapped fantasy talent who hasn't yet established himself, Carson Wentz is the top name to fall into the sleeper category. While he showed flashes of the talent that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Wentz finished as the QB24 in total fantasy points last season, making him barely a backup in 12-team leagues.
Wentz attempted 607 passes in 2016, the second-most ever by a rookie after Andrew Luck, who threw 627 in 2012. That isn't a good plan of attack for any rookie, much less one with a receiving corps as bad as the one Wentz had last year. Other than Zach Ertz, Wentz didn't have much to rely on in wide receivers Jordan Matthews, Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor. Plus, Philadelphia's rushing attack left something to be desired.
The Eagles had a busy offseason trying to upgrade everything around Wentz. Before they traded Matthews to Buffalo on Friday, they signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to provide significant upgrades in the passing game and added running back LeGarrette Blount to stabilize their backfield. Wentz should also get some help with right tackle Lane Johnson back in the lineup after serving a 10-games suspension in 2016.
Wentz still needs to clean up his mechanics and improve his accuracy despite posting a 62.4 percent completion rate last season, although you'd expect flaws from a rookie with raw, undeveloped talent.
Wentz is coming off the board at 142.3/QB19, but he has enough talent around him to be far better than that, making him a viable sleeper.
Running Back: Kareem Hunt
Depending on who you ask, Kareem Hunt is either being undervalued or overvalued at this early point of the preseason. He's currently going off the board as RB37 with an ADP of 87.8. By comparison, Hunt's competition for the starting job, Spencer Ware, sits at RB21 with an ADP of 48.4, which would put him at the end of the fourth round or start of the fifth round in a 12-team league.
Last season, Ware finished 17th among RBs in total fantasy points per game, so a slight regression is built into his current ADP. The question is whether that regression is based on his talent or the threat of Hunt. It should be both.
In his first full season as the starter (14 games), Ware carried 214 times for 921 yards (4.3 YPC) with three rushing touchdowns. He added 33 receptions for 447 yards and two receiving touchdowns on 42 targets. Those are solid numbers, as evidenced by Ware finishing in the RB2 range.
Look a little deeper, though, and you'll realize Ware had just one 100-yard game on the ground (Week 6 in Oakland) and failed to rush for at least 80 yards in 12 of his other 13 games. After racking up seven receptions for 129 yards in Week 1, Ware never had more than three receptions in any other game and hit that number just three times.
Ware did suffer a concussion in Week 8 of last season, but he missed just one game before returning in Week 10. In the two games after the concussion, Ware carried 30 times for 130 yards (4.3 YPC) and had five receptions for 27 yards, so he was able to perform well immediately upon his return.
It's hard to be too excited about Ware since he was far from dominant and didn't have any real competition last season with Jamaal Charles unable to make a successful comeback from his knee injury. The Chiefs invested a third-round pick in Hunt, meaning they were willing to use a fairly high selection to find competition for Ware.
When asked about Hunt, head coach Andy Reid said, "I've been around a lot of good backs and smart backs and he's right in there," according to Josh Tolentino of the Kansas City Star. "He picks it up quick."
The Chiefs could stick with what's working and go into the season with Ware as their lead back once again. But unlike last season, the team now has a legitimate option to turn to if it wants to get a little more out of its backfield with Hunt in the mix.
As things currently stand, Hunt is slightly undervalued, but Ware is clearly overvalued since he doesn't have the same firm grasp on the starting job as he did last year. Nor should he with a talent like Hunt adding some pressure.
Running Back: Jamaal Williams
Familiarizing yourself with every team's running back depth chart is a big advantage in fantasy football going into the season. Since so many teams use numerous backs at various points in the season due to injury and/or performance, having a leg up on your competition can help you make the correct waiver-wire pickup if a starter goes down. That's why you need to know about Jamaal Williams.
Instead of thinking too far down the road, let's focus on what the Green Bay Packers currently have as potential contributors in the backfield. At this point last season, Ty Montgomery wasn't playing the running back position. A year later, he's in line to start the season as the team's lead back. However, he had just 77 carries for 457 yards in 15 games in 2016. That isn't a strong test of Montgomery's ability to carry the load for a full season.
Montgomery's true value came in the passing game with 44 receptions for 348 yards on 56 targets. While he shouldn't lose those duties, it's fair to question whether he'll be able to shoulder a heavier role on the ground. That's where Williams could step in as a rookie.
According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, Williams "appears to be pushing" Montgomery, with the coaches having praised "his pass-protection ability, which Montgomery is still learning." I've often said pass protection is an important trait to watch for in young running backs because it can cost them playing time if they can't protect the quarterback, especially a superstar like Aaron Rodgers.
Montgomery lost playing time last year because of his poor blocking, as the Packers wound up turning to fullback Aaron Ripkowski due to his superior pass protection. If those issues continue for Montgomery, immediate playing time for Williams could be available.
Even if Williams finds himself in a two-headed backfield with Montgomery, it's never a bad idea to invest in a potent offense led by Rodgers. Williams is worth the gamble with an ADP of 119.6/RB48.
Running Back: C.J. Prosise
If you're looking for the best fantasy option in the Seattle Seahawks backfield, just trust the Prosise.
Bad jokes aside, C.J. Prosise has the clearest role as part of a group that also includes Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, Chris Carson and Alex Collins. That's because Prosise is easily the team's best pass-catcher at the position.
Unfortunately, we didn't see much of Prosise as a rookie. He was limited to six games with 30 carries for 172 yards and a touchdown in addition to 17 receptions for 208 yards. He broke his hand in Week 1 and didn't return until Week 7, but that was short-lived, as a broken scapula ended his season after Week 11.
Now that he's healthy, the excitement around Prosise has returned. During the offseason, Sheil Kapadia of ESPN.com said if he stayed healthy all season, "it's not a stretch to suggest Prosise could catch 60 passes." He also added the "coaches love Prosise but have questioned his durability."
The battle for the most carries should come down to Lacy and Rawls, with a potential split happening for the majority of the season. While I expect Prosise to have a minor role in the ground game, he can find consistency as a fantasy producer with his presence in the passing attack.
As of now, you can get Prosise around RB42 with an ADP of 103.8, which makes him a flex option in your starting lineup. At minimum, he should fill that role in your lineup with regularity, but if he can work his way into more carries, the potential is enticing.
Lacy has an ADP of 78.8/RB33 even though he's far from a lock to be the starter in his battle with Rawls (ADP 108.1/RB43). Prosise is the best value with the most upside of the group.
Wide Receiver: Corey Coleman
Expectations were never high for Corey Coleman or the Cleveland Browns passing attack last season. However, the rookie wideout made his presence known early when he posted five receptions for 104 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 2 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens.
Unfortunately, Coleman suffered a broken hand just days after that game and wasn't able to return until Week 9. He never had more than 41 yards in any game after that and failed to record five receptions in all but one game in his comeback from the injury. The Browns ended up featuring Terrelle Pryor (25.1 percent target share) and Gary Barnidge (14.5 percent target share) in the passing game.
Now that Pryor and Barnidge are gone, Coleman should have a chance to make a bigger impact, even with the additions of veteran Kenny Britt and rookie David Njoku. Duke Johnson's 13.1 percent target share is the highest of any player left on the team from last season, which means opportunities are up for grabs.
Even though Coleman is just one year removed from being a top-15 pick in the NFL draft, his fantasy value is quite low at WR48/ADP 117.2. By comparison, rookie Corey Davis is at WR45/110.1 in a much more crowded Tennessee Titans receiving corps.
If you believe in avoiding bad teams in fantasy football, staying away from the Browns is usually a good idea. If you want to take a chance on talent and opportunity, however, Coleman has plenty of both and won't cost you much. If he doesn't work out and you need the roster spot, it shouldn't hurt you to cut him.
Wide Receiver: Josh Doctson
The Washington Redskins selected Josh Doctson 22nd overall in the 2016 NFL draft, but he failed to make any kind of impact due to an Achilles issue that kept him off the field for all but the first two games of the season. Luckily, Washington had more than enough depth at wide receiver with Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder, so Doctson's absence wasn't a season-crusher.
Now that Garcon is a member of the San Francisco 49ers and Jackson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason, however, the Redskins can no longer afford to play without Doctson. Between Garcon (18.8 percent) and Jackson (16.5 percent), that duo made up 35.1 percent of the team's target share in 2016.
While the Redskins did sign Terrelle Pryor this offseason to be their top wideout and Jamison Crowder remains on the roster, Doctson must chip in more with the team's 2016 target leaders now out of the picture. That isn't asking a lot, yet Doctson's ADP of 138.0/WR54 shows little faith in his chances of contributing in a significant way.
The lack of faith in Doctson's fantasy value could be tied to last season's injury or how he remains out of action at training camp due to a hamstring injury. According to Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post, on August 13, head coach Jay Gruden thinks Doctson "will be held out another 4-5 days."
That isn't ideal with Doctson trying to prove he can come back from a lost rookie season, but it also means he'll remain a dirt-cheap pick, which takes away most of the risk of drafting him. Considering he should be in line for a sizable role when healthy, you shouldn't sleep on him.
Tight End: Jack Doyle
Among all sleepers featured here, Jack Doyle is the most established with four NFL seasons under his belt, although he barely made a blip on the fantasy radar until last season. With Coby Fleener gone, Doyle's role increased, and he wound up posting career-best numbers. He totaled 59 receptions for 584 yards and five touchdowns on 75 targets (78.7 percent catch rate) to finish 13th in total fantasy points among tight ends.
Even though he's being drafted as the TE13, his ADP is way down at 133.6, which makes him a cheap pick and closer to a top backup than a regular fantasy starter. However, Doyle's stock could drop the longer Andrew Luck remains sidelined by his shoulder issue.
According to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star, Colts owner Jim Irsay wouldn't say "unequivocally that Luck will play" in the Week 1 opener, but he did say "he'll be ready around the start of the season." Gregg Doyel of the Star suggested Luck may miss a game or two, so Irsay's comments aren't surprising, although it may scare some away from investing too much in the Colts for fantasy.
Last season, Doyle was second on the team with a 12.8 percent target share. It's fair to project a rise in targets now that Dwayne Allen is in New England. In the last two offseasons, the Colts let Fleener and Allen move on and signed Doyle to a three-year deal back in March. His stock is on the rise within the organization, as he enters this season comfortably on top of the depth chart.
Doyle had the trust of Luck last season, so expecting an improvement in fantasy production is justified. Just be sure to keep an eye on Luck's situation, as Doyle would be affected if the signal-caller is forced to miss extended time.
TE/FB: Kyle Juszczyk
Kyle Juszczyk isn't a well-known name in the world of fantasy football, which is typical of fullbacks with all of seven carries in four seasons. However, Juszczyk does have 78 receptions for 587 yards and four touchdowns on 105 targets in the last two seasons.
His accomplishments as a receiver are what made him so attractive to the San Francisco 49ers, which is why they signed him this offseason after he spent his first four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
Those receiving skills are already being put to good and new uses in training camp. Juszczyk told Mindi Bach of NBCSportsBayArea.com, "I'm getting a little more work with the tight ends than I had previously. I had taken some snaps in Baltimore in that sort of tight end position, but I think just a little more so here."
The 49ers don't have a standout player at tight end, so it's not surprising to see Juszczyk get time at that spot. The team clearly wants to get the most it can out of him as a weapon in the offense.
Before joining San Francisco as the head coach, Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons offense that produced 85 receptions for 883 yards and five touchdowns on 105 targets from running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in 2016.
Even though the 49ers have capable pass-catchers in their backfield like Carlos Hyde, Tim Hightower and Matt Breida, none of them are at Juszczyk's level in the passing game.
Other than Pierre Garcon and Jeremy Kerley (to a lesser extent), the team doesn't have much to rely on in its passing game. Projecting Juszczyk to have his best fantasy season isn't farfetched. He's not being drafted enough to even register with an ADP, so you can wait as long as you want to grab him in your draft.