In fantasy football, most of the pre-draft talk centers around the first couple of rounds but league's are often won or lost based on one's ability to find the next Ray Rice, Cedric Benson, Miles Austin or Sidney Rice. While there is no exact science for finding these players, keeping an eye out for these speculative finds leading up to your draft is key.
Sleepers fall into two categories: breakout candidates and deep sleepers. Breakout players are guys who are not considered a fantasy starter except in deep leagues but have the potential to grow into fantasy starters or more. A deep sleeper is a guy who is likely going undrafted in shallow leagues and late in deeper leagues who possess high upside but also the risk of being useless. When faced with the choice between a so-so veteran like Jabar Gaffney, Nate Burleson or Mike Jenkins or a wide receiver with upside late in a draft, I recommend taking a flyer on the upside guy. The veteran may get you points each week but if you can hit on a sleeper late in the draft (like Miles Austin or Sidney Rice last year) it can be the difference between being a contender or pretender late in the season.
Lastly, to qualify as a breakout/comeback player he has to rank outside of the top 12 quarterbacks and tight ends, top 24 running backs, top 36 wide receivers in the NFLDraft101.com rankings. To qualify as a deep sleeper, they have to rank outside the top 20 quarterbacks or tight ends, top 40 running backs and top 60 wide receivers in the NFLDraft101.com rankings.
Note:Wes Welker and Terrell Owens were not considered as their stock has changed since the rankings were created making them both top 36 considerations.
Breakout: High upside quarterbacks litter the second 10 this year.
Jay Cutler, Chicago (Draft101 rank: 13) - More of a comeback option than a breakout, Cutler will look to bounce back in the Mike Martz passing attack. The receivers are unproven and the offensive line remains weak but under Martz the Bears will pass early and often with a return to 4,500 yards possible. This is not a recommendation to bank on Cutler as your starting quarterback but rather a comment that Cutler has the highest ceiling of any quarterback outside of the top 12 this season.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit (NFLDraft101 rank: 16) - The Lions will be a better football team this season and could find themselves in shootouts with the prolific offenses division rivals Minnesota, Green Bay and Chicago. A healthy Calvin Johnson and the addition of RB Jahvid Best, WR Nate Burleson and G Rob Sims positions Stafford to take a major step forward in his second season.
Deep Sleepers: 2010 is not a great year for the quarterbacks outside the top 20
Matt Cassell, Kansas City (NFLDraft101 rank: 21) - Cassell struggled in his first season in Kansas City but the addition of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis provides him with his best chance at success.
Buffalo Quarterback (NFLDraft101 rank: Trent Edwards 31) - Chan Gailey could be bringing the spread to Buffalo making whomever wins the quarterback job valuable in a Tyler Thigpen circa 2008 sort of way. Of course, they have to determine who the quarterback is first.
Breakout: I love the depth at running back this season and sleeper options are plentiful.
CJ Spiller (NFLDraft101 rank: 25) - Despite being the best playmaker in the 2010 NFL Draft, Spiller has failed to generate much fantasy momentum due to playing on a bad offense with a crowded backfield. A dual purpose back, the Bills did not use the 9th pick to have him sit on the sidelines. The type of guy you want as a backup running back in the hopes the Bills find the game changer they desperately need.
Donald Brown (NFLDraft101 rank: 28) - Joseph Addai is coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons and after being the team's first round pick a year ago, Brown is poised to challenge him for the starting job this season. Brown's all-around game is an ideal scheme fit and look for him an Addai to split carries early with the bulk of the carries shifting to Brown as the season progresses.
Ahmad Bradshaw (NFLDraft101 rank: 32) - Bradshaw is a playmaker whose role has increased each season. With Brandon Jacobs coming off a poor season, Bradshaw is poised to steal even more carries in 2010.
Ben Tate - (NFLDraft101 rank: 38) - The least heralded of the rookie running backs because of the Texans three headed monster entering camp but Tate is a good all-around back and ideal fit for the team's zone blocking scheme. The Texans did not draft him in round two to have him sit the bench.
Deep Sleepers: (2 barely deep sleepers and 2 for extremely deep leagues)
Justin Forsett (NFLDraft101 rank: 41) - The Seahawks drew raves for the draft day acquisitions of Leon Washington and LenDale White (already cut), yet the resilient Forsett enters camp as the Seahawks running back to watch this season. Forsett lacks ideal measureables but has done well whenever given the opportunity.
Montario Hardesty (NFLDraft101 rank: 46) - Hardesty was drafted in the second round to be a power complement to speedy Jerome Harrison and has generated considerable fantasy buzz in the process. His knees are an injury concern but he is a strong runner who should get a reasonable amount of the workload including the goal line touches.
Bernard Scott (NFLDraft101 rank: 59) - Scott is a dynamic running back who makes things happen when he gets his hands on the football. While primarily a Cedric Benson handcuff, look for his role in the offense to increase this season as the team looks to keep Benson fresh.
James Starks (NFLDraft101 rank: unranked) - Starks is a relative unknown sixth round pick but he is the dual threat back the Packers need and could provide a better than expected complement to Ryan Grant.
Breakout: The crop of breakout receivers is not as strong as recent seasons but opportunity may be knocking for these four.
Johnny Knox (NFLDraft101 rank: 40) - Devin Aromashodu is getting the pre-season buzz but early word is Knox is the receiver who has developed the strongest rapport with Jay Cutler this off-season. Knox is blazing fast and if he has improved his route running he could be the playmaking receiver Mike Martz' offense needs.
Eddie Royal, Denver (NFLDraft101 rank: 47) - Royal was a major disappointment last season as he was more decoy than Wes Welker last season. After the loss of Brandon Marshall a receiver needs to step up his game and Demaryius Thomas is at least a year away providing Royal an excellent bounce back opportunity.
Devin Thomas, Washington (NFLDraft101 rank: 48) - Thomas was a raw talent entering the league but entering his third season he is poised to earn a starting job. He flashed his talent with a 7 catch 100 yard performance vs. New Orleans late last season but needs consistency. For Donovan McNabb to pay dividends he will need one of the 'Skins young receivers to emerge.
Chaz Schilens, Oakland (NFLDraft101 rank: 55) - Schilens is the best all-around receiver on the Raiders roster and with the addition of a capable quarterback in Jason Campbell he has a chance to blossom in his third season. After missing most of last season with a foot injury he finished the season with 17 catches for 200 yards in the season's last three games.
Deep Sleepers: Taking flyers on first thru third year receivers with an opportunity late in your drafts is never a bad idea. Just ask the team's that were fortunate enough to draft Sidney Rice and Miles Austin last season.
James Hardy, Buffalo (NFLDraft101 rank: 80) - Hardy has done very little in two years to merit much fantasy attention but he enters this season healthy and has the size/speed combination that served Miles Austin and Sidney Rice well in their breakout seasons a year ago and a starting job there for the taking.
James Jones, Green Bay (NFLDraft101 rank: 82)- Ageless wonder Donald Driver is coming off knee surgery to both knees and Jones has performed well when given a chance.
Harry Douglas, Atlanta (NFLDraft101 rank: 86) - Douglas is healthy and has not lost a step and his playmaking ability makes him a dangerous slot receiver who could push Mike Jenkins for additional playing time.
Mike Williams, Tampa Bay (NFLDraft101 rank: 88) - The Buccaneers number one receiver is up for grabs and Williams was a first round talent who slid to the fourth round due to character concerns. He is a big strong receiver who can stretch the defense or make the tough catch in traffic.
Breakout: It is a deep tight end class but thin on true breakout candidates after the emergence of Jermichael Finley, Brent Celek and more last season.
John Carlson, Seattle (NFLDraft101 rank: 14)- No player was happier with the selection of OT Russell Okung than Carlson whose numbers dropped last season as he needed to supplement the porous line. With improved line play Carlson is poised take a step forward this season.
Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati (NFLDraft101 rank: 19) - One of the biggest keys to a rookie's success is playing time and the Bengals have handed Gresham a starting job from day one. With Ocho Cinco and TO on the outside, the Bengals will need Gresham to make tough catches over the middle and take advantage of single coverage.
Deep Sleeper: Jermichael Finley set a high standard for this group last season, so here is a post-hype sleeper and a darkhorse to watch.
Jared Cook, Tennessee (NFLDraft101 rank: 29) - A freak-ish athlete with all the tools whom Jeff Fisher is making sure earns his opportunities. If Cook overcomes his work ethic concerns and finds his way on the field watch out.
Zach Miller, Jacksonville Jaguars (NFLDraft101 rank: 40)- Converted quarterback with the athleticism you look for in a sleeper tight end. Raw but showed flashes in limited action as a rookie including an 8 catch 69 yard 2 TD performance in week 17 last year.