Fantasy Football Week 1 Sleepers at Every Position
The NFL offseason is finally, mercifully over. On Thursday night, the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots duked it out in the first regular-season game of 2017.
The Patriots got smoked at home, which we all saw coming. (Right?)
It's great to have football back, but some fantasy owners may already be feeling a little wobbly.
Maybe you drafted early and selected Patriots wideout Julian Edelman, who tore his ACL during the preseason. Perhaps you hoped that despite all evidence to the contrary, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck would be ready for Week 1. After the NFL postponed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' game against the Miami Dolphins due to Hurricane Irma, you may just be scrambling for replacement options.
Or maybe your fantasy draft just didn't go as planned and you have a hole or two to fill for Week 1.
Even in the first NFL weekend of the year, certain players are shaping up to be sneaky-good plays. Let's get that Week 1 win with a look at the top fantasy sleepers at each position.
Sleeper of the Week: Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals (at DET)
Carson Palmer being listed on a sleepers list demonstrates just how far the 37-year-old fell after a miserable 2016 season.
Two years ago, the Arizona Cardinals made the NFC Championship Game and Palmer was a top-five fantasy quarterback while throwing for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns. Last year, Palmer's numbers were down across the board, causing him to finish as the 18th-ranked player at his position.
This offseason, Palmer took it easier on his right arm than he did in summers past. As a result, he told ESPN's Josh Weinfuss he feels better than he has in years.
"I'm right where I need to be condition-wise, strength-wise, arm-strength-wise, endurance-wise, with my shoulder and my elbow," Palmer said. "I'm good. I haven't felt this fresh so I don't know if I get to November, [I'll be like] all of a sudden, 'Oh man, I feel so much better than I have in years past. I hope to."
On Sunday, the Cardinals travel east to face a Detroit Lions team that hemorrhaged fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks last year. The Lions' best pass-rusher, Ezekiel Ansah, missed the entire preseason with a high ankle sprain, and their second-best pass-rusher, Kerry Hyder, is out for the season.
The scene is set for Palmer to shine in Motown.
Sam Bradford, QB, Minnesota Vikings (vs. NO)
With Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck still on the shelf, many fantasy owners enter the 2017 season scrambling to find a Week 1 starter.
Palmer is the ideal replacement. But if he isn't available, Sam Bradford of the Minnesota Vikings is a viable alternative.
Though Bradford set an NFL record for completion percentage last year, his role as the king of dink and dunk left him a moribund 22nd in fantasy points among quarterbacks. However, a deeper look reveals more promise.
Per Matt Harmon of NFL.com, Bradford was a top-six fantasy quarterback in three of the final four weeks of the 2016 campaign. And while he didn't often go deep, he ranked inside the top 10 for passer rating on throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air (105.4).
Monday night's matchup against the New Orleans Saints is what sets Bradford up for a big first week. The Saints took steps to upgrade their defense this offseason, but until we see that improvement, they remain the same team that surrendered the sixth-most fantasy points to quarterbacks a year ago.
The Saints should get theirs on offense, even against a stout Vikings defense. That could force Bradford to the air against a porous New Orleans defense missing its top cover corner, Delvin Breaux.
The stars are aligning for some Monday night mayhem from Bradford.
Brian Hoyer, QB, San Francisco 49ers (vs. CAR)
If you're digging through the quarterback scrap heap in Week 1 and neither Carson Palmer nor Sam Bradford are available, your 2017 season hasn't started out according to plan. However, hope is not lost.
Unless you're playing in a fantasy league that starts two quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer of the San Francisco 49ers should still be available. As Daniel Mano of the San Jose Mercury-News relayed, former Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia believes Hoyer can surprise in 2017.
"When he stepped on the field in Cleveland under [Kyle] Shanahan's system, I did like what I saw and how he operated the system," Garcia said in August during a radio interview on 95.7 The Game, per Mano. "Now getting a full offseason, a full training camp to be that guy—a guy who was able to study under Tom Brady in New England—and take that Shanahan system...now it's a matter of him staying healthy and executing the system. I think he's very capable of doing it and taking advantage of this opportunity."
If San Francisco's dress rehearsal was any indication, Garcia might be on to something. Hoyer was surprisingly sharp against the Vikings, completing 12 of 17 passes for 176 yards and two scores.
While the 31-year-old has struggled to stay healthy during the past two years in Houston and Chicago, his numbers over his past 16 regular-season games aren't half bad. His playoff start for the Texans was horrendous, but with Hoyer and the Niners likely to be playing catch-up against the Carolina Panthers for much of Sunday, he's a decent emergency option in Week 1.
Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets (at BUF)
In the recent B/R consensus regular-season predictions, the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills swept the voting for which club will have the NFL's worst record in 2017. Given how bad these teams are, it's also difficult for fantasy owners to get excited about any player not named LeSean McCoy.
However, McCoy isn't the only running back involved in this dumpster fire of a football game who could be poised for a big role.
Bilal Powell might not be the Jets' lead back, but he's both the team's most effective runner—he averaged 5.5 yards a pop on 131 carries last year—and perhaps its best pass-catcher.
For the Jets to have any chance against Buffalo, they'll need to control the tempo and play ball control. That should mean plenty of touches for both Powell and Matt Forte against a Bills defense that was 29th against the run last year and gave up the eighth-most fantasy points to running backs.
If (err, when) the Jets fall behind, those touches should slant more heavily in the direction of Powell. That should afford the 28-year-old at least flex value, especially in formats that award a point for receptions (or in this case, dump-offs).
Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles (at WAS)
If you're scrambling to fill a hole in your lineup due to the postponed Buccaneers-Dolphins game, here's hoping you have Philadelphia Eagles tailback Darren Sproles stashed on your bench.
While LeGarrette Blount looked like a fish out of water in the Eagles' offense throughout the preseason, Sproles' role as a do-it-all weapon is secure. As Jeff Kerr of 247 Sports reported, offensive coordinator Frank Reich said the 34-year-old scatback remains a big part of the Eagles offense.
"[Just] get him out in space, great route-runner, great hands," Reich said. "Do that as much as we can. He's another one of our primary playmakers and we've got to get him the ball in the run game and the pass game."
In Week 1, the Eagles travel to the nation's capital to take on their division rivals, the Washington Redskins. Last year, Washington allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to running backs.
Sproles should lead the Eagles backfield in touches this week. While he's far from a sure thing, desperate fantasy owners in PPR formats could do worse.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers (at SFO)
In 2016, the San Francisco 49ers were historically bad at stopping teams on the ground. The Niners allowed a staggering 165.9 rushing yards per game, far more than the 31st-ranked Cleveland Browns (142.7). San Francisco was also the league's most generous team to running backs from a fantasy perspective.
They Niners almost have to be better in 2017. But that doesn't mean they won't still be bad.
That's where Carolina Panthers tailback Jonathan Stewart comes in.
Rookie tailback Christian McCaffrey has received most of the preseason hype in Carolina, much of which is deserved. The former Stanford standout is as versatile as he is dangerous in space.
However, Stewart—who rushed for 824 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games a year ago—remains listed atop the depth chart for the Panthers. In early August, head coach Ron Rivera insisted the 30-year-old remains a big part of Carolina's offense.
"He's a big part of what we want to do, and he's going to be a really big part of the tandem we want to have with those backs," Rivera said, per ESPN.com's David Newton.
Stewart is also the more likely of the two to grind out the clock if the Panthers get a lead. Against the moribund 49ers, that should make him a big part of Carolina's game plan in Week 1.
John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals (at DET)
It's been a rough year-plus for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown. After gaining over 1,000 receiving yards in 2015, he suffered through a miserable 2016 campaign as he battled complications from his sickle cell trait.
Entering training camp this year, Brown appeared to be past all of that and ready for a rebound. Instead, he lost most of camp and the preseason to a quad injury and lost his spot as the No. 2 receiver to Jaron Brown.
In the preseason dress rehearsal against the Atlanta Falcons, however, John Brown once again offered a glimpse as to what he's capable of. Playing early in the game against Atlanta's starters, he got open at will, hauling in a pair of touchdowns from over 20 yards out.
Brown told Darren Urban of the team's website that those grabs were only the beginning of his comeback.
"I have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm staying calm about it. I haven't been talking about it much. My people call me, ask me how I feel, I'm like, 'I'm good.' It'll hit me sooner or later, but I do have a point to prove."
Jaron Brown may be the nominal starter and may even play more snaps against the Lions than "Smoke." But John Brown is not only a better receiver, but he's also the best vertical threat on the team.
He's the kind of vertical threat that a Lions team which allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to wide receivers and 50 pass plays of 20 or more yards last year could struggle against, especially with so much defensive attention dedicated to slowing down Larry Fitzgerald.
Ted Ginn, WR, New Orleans Saints (at MIN)
When the NFL handed Saints wide receiver Willie Snead a three-game suspension for violating its policy on substances of abuse, it opened a window of opportunity for his new teammate, Ted Ginn Jr..
Ginn is known mostly as a 32-year-old deep threat who never lived up to his status as a top-10 draft pick. But the veteran did amass the second-most receiving yards (752) of his career last year in Carolina and is just two years removed from a 10-touchdown season with the Panthers.
In mid-August, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton expressed his admiration for Ginn, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett.
"Listen, I'm comfortable with the player. And he's gonna make more big plays than not," Payton said. "[His performance] has been solid. It's been good. Here's the thing, you're always wantin' to see the player still run, and I've seen that. So I think he's doin' well."
With Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes likely to shadow Michael Thomas, Ginn could easily lead the Saints in receiving in Week 1.
Marvin Jones, WR, Detroit Lions (vs. AZ)
Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones knows all about hot starts.
Over the first three games of his Lions tenure last year, Jones piled up 18 catches for a staggering 408 yards and two scores. He was the highest-scoring wide receiver in fantasy football by a sizable margin.
Things spiraled from there, though.
Over those first three games, Jones topped 100 receiving yards twice—two more times than he did over his final 12 outings. The 27-year-old found the end zone only two more times the rest of the year.
"I think he does a really nice job of talking to the quarterback with (his) body language," Stafford said. "Putting your foot in the ground the correct distance, the correct depth of the route, whatever it is. Putting that foot in the ground and getting it right, that's when I can cut the ball loose."
In Week 1, Jones faces a Cardinals team that gave up the fourth-most fantasy points to receivers last year. His teammate, Golden Tate, is the most likely candidate to be shadowed by six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson.
That leaves Justin Bethel on Jones—and sets the table for a big afternoon.
Charles Clay, TE, Buffalo Bills (vs. NYJ)
Sunday's battle between the Jets and Bills is hardly a fantasy gold mine. Outside of McCoy and Powell, no player in that game should be starting in the majority of fantasy leagues.
But if you're the type of fantasy owner who eschewed paying retail at tight end and decided to stream the position, Charles Clay could provide dividends.
Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is out of the NFL's concussion protocol and will start against the Jets, per ESPN. Buffalo should also have new wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who is back on the practice field after missing most of the preseason with a chest injury.
But both Matthews and rookie Zay Jones have never played with Taylor in a game that counted. Matthews has barely even practiced with him. That leaves all of one pass-catcher in the Bills offense who Taylor has some measure of comfort with and confidence in—Clay.
The 28-year-old didn't put up big numbers in 2016, but he heated up down the stretch. All four of his scoring grabs came over the last month of the season. He reeled in 21 catches for 229 yards during that span.
When the dust settles on this game, fantasy owners who rolled the dice on Clay will be pleased with the statistical performance of Taylor's safety valve.
Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants (at DAL)
Relying on a rookie tight end in his first NFL game is often an unwise proposition for fantasy owners. But for every rule, there is an exception.
In Week 1, the name of that exception is New York Giants rookie Evan Engram.
As with most rookies at the position, Engram has facets of his game that needed cleaning up, especially where his blocking was concerned.
"There has been good film and there has been corrected film. So they are pleased with my drive to get in there and block," Engram said this week, per ESPN.com's Jordan Ranaan. "They love how I'm not afraid to get in there and not going to shy away from it, but there has been some stuff that had to be corrected. That is inevitable. So I think they've been really pleased and excited [by] what I bring to the table with my vertical threat skills, I guess."
The Giants won't need Engram's blocking ability against the Cowboys. They aren't going to win the first Sunday night game of the season by running the ball.
Instead, they'll need Engram's ability to stretch the field over the middle, especially with star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. looking less and less likely to play.
The Cowboys were also completely unable to cover tight ends last season. They surrendered 120 receptions for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns to the position, coughing up the most fantasy points of any NFL team.
If Beckham can't go Sunday or is limited, don't be surprised if Engram goes off in his professional debut.
Los Angeles Rams Defense/Special Teams (vs. IND)
The narrative surrounding the Los Angeles Rams defense has changed in recent weeks. Earlier in the summer, the talk was about the switch to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips—one of the NFL's best at what he does.
Of late, though, the talk has all been about defensive lineman Aaron Donald's holdout. The Rams continue to hope the All-Pro will return any day now, but no one knows if/when he will report.
Here's a tip: Pay the man.
The Rams don't need Donald to have a big game defensively in Week 1, because they won't be the only team missing a star.
If the preseason was any indication, the Colts will be hard-pressed to score 13 points with Scott Tolzien at quarterback in place of Andrew Luck. Phillips will load the box, stuff the run and dare Tolzien to beat the Rams with his arm.
That's when the turnovers will come.