Fantasy football seems easy. Buy a book, look at some cheat sheets, and draft according to the lists. Simple, right?
Following the cheat sheets like that forgets one key about fantasy football: upside rules all in the late rounds. When the choice is between a run-of-the-mill veteran receiver and a young receiver getting good reviews in training camp, always go for the upside.
After all, Fred Taylor isn’t winning your fantasy football league. Chris Perry might.
But once those first few rounds are over, whom should you target? Who are the high-upside sleeper picks that will make your team able to withstand your early-round busts? Who can help you withstand injuries or provide trade bait to get the player to put your team over the top?
Here are 14 players with the potential to provide huge returns on when they are chosen.
Mid-late round sleepers (picks 75-125)
WR Nate Burleson - Seattle Seahawks
Burleson put up almost 700 yards and nine touchdowns last year. With Bobby Engram and Deion Branch both probably out for at least the first two weeks of the season, Burleson is Matt Hasselbeck's No. 1 receiver, and he will have the first chance to take the role that Darrell Jackson had for so many years and that Engram had last year.
He's clearly the No. 1, and in an offense that is sure to pass the ball a lot, he could put up big numbers early against Buffalo, San Francisco, and St. Louis.
RB Chester Taylor - Minnesota Vikings
Taylor is a great player to have and not just if you're an Adrian Peterson owner. Even with "AD" in town, Taylor put up 844 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. If Peterson gets hurt again, Taylor is immediately a top 10-15 running back behind that offensive line. Plus, he's great trade bait.
One last fact about Peterson: He wasn't much of a goal-line back last season. Taylor could potentially siphon goal-line carries from him. But let's get one thing straight; if you're drafting Taylor, you're drafting him hoping that Peterson misses some games.
RB Ricky Williams - Miami Dolphins
I know No. 34 is considered a joke by many football fans, but he very well might be the starting running back for the Fish. He's healthier than Ronnie Brown, and he's in much better football shape than he was last season.
Prepare to hear some snickers when you draft him, but getting a possible starting running back who has had 1,300 and 1,800-yard seasons in his career is a steal at around the 100th pick in the draft.
Don't expect the world, but he has more upside and a clearer path to start than other backs you can take at this point in the draft.
QB Jay Cutler - Denver Broncos
Cutler enters his third year as Denver's starter. Along with David Garrard, Matt Hasselbeck, Derek Anderson, and a few others, he's in the next tier of quarterbacks that you wait until the middle of the draft to grab.
He was a high first-round pick for a reason: He has all the talent of the elite quarterbacks. Throw in Brandon Marshall, Darrell Jackson, Brandon Stokley, and Tony Scheffler, and you have a decent situation here.
Cutler may go a few rounds behind guys like Ben Roethlisberger, but at the end of the season, Cutler should be the smarter pick. He threw for 3,497 yards and 20 touchdowns last year in just his second season.
RB Maurice Morris - Seattle Seahawks
Julius Jones may be a bigger name on draft night, but Morris may have the inside track to replace Shaun Alexander in Seattle. He ran for 628 yards and caught another 213 en route to scoring five touchdowns in 2008.
Jones lost his job in Dallas, and he never lived up to the hype after his electric first few games in 2004. People forget Morris was once a second-round draft pick, too. He has just as good a chance to claim the Seahawks' starting job, and he's likely available a little later because he isn't from Notre Dame.
WR Anthony Gonzalez - Indianapolis Colts
Gonzalez may not fit the third-year breakout rule for receivers, but he inhabits the coveted third-receiver role in the Colts' offense, and as their first round pick last year, the Colts clearly have faith in him. Third receivers have had value in fantasy football in recent years (see Brandon Stokley and Shaun McDonald) and with Marvin Harrison's questionable status, the Ohio State product could be a pleasant surprise.
Harrison seems healthy now, but you never know. Gonzalez had 576 yards and three touchdowns last season, including two 100-yard games late in the season.
WR Vincent Jackson - San Diego Chargers
Jackson was a disappointment last season. He failed to take the next step in becoming an impact receiver last season, but sometimes it takes a receiver even more time.
Jackson was a bit of a project coming out of Northern Colorado and he played a lot better in the playoffs, with 300 yards and two touchdowns in three games. He and fellow receiver Chris Chambers are both options to have breakout years. Jackson is younger, and his postseason performance bodes well for having an improved season.
Antonio Gates might still be banged up early into the season, leaving the 6'5" Jackson as a primary red-zone target.
Late round to undrafted sleepers
RB Chris Perry - Cincinnati Bengals
Perry is gaining steam as a late sleeper. He was a first-round pick in 2004, but injuries have largely ruined his career so far.
Perry had 51 receptions in 2005 and was poised to challenge Rudi Johnson for the starting job. Since then, he's carried the ball just 10 times in two years, but he's finally healthy again.
Johnson, Kenny Watson, and Perry are supposedly going to be in a timeshare, but Perry has the most talent of the three. He's at worst a third-down back and at best a starting running back in a good offense. In PPR leagues especially, he should be drafted.
RB Pierre Thomas - New Orleans Saints
Thomas is in a difficult situation in New Orleans, with Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister, and Aaron Stecker already in town, but Bush has done little, McAllister is a wild card after another major injury, and Stecker is 32-years old and not very exciting.
Thomas has an outside chance at claiming this job, and a 226 total-yard performance in Week 17 with a receiving touchdown is a good impression to make. Late in the season, he could be a coveted commodity.
QB Matt Schaub - Houston Texans
He might not last this long, but if Andre Johnson stays healthy all season, his quarterback will reap the benefits. Johnson had 851 yards and eight touchdowns in just nine games. Schaub only threw for nine touchdowns last season, and backup Sage Rosenfels threw for 15.
With Owen Daniels, Kevin Walter, Steve Slaton, and Johnson, there are weapons to throw to, and with a nondescript running game, Schaub will be throwing the ball, and he should be able to reach 20-plus touchdowns. If he does that, he should be well worth a late-round pick.
QB Aaron Rodgers - Green Bay Packers
Rodgers has been largely forgotten at quarterback, but Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and James Jones are still in Green Bay. He was a former first-round pick, and the Packers obviously have enough faith in him to risk their careers for him.
There's no NFL track record to speak of, except for a 201-yard performance with one touchdown against Dallas after Brett Favre left with an injury, but he's far from a rookie. He's ready for his opportunity, and there's no reason he can't put up good numbers in the Packers' offense, especially for your backup quarterback.
TE Zach Miller - Oakland Raiders
Miller was the No. 1 rookie tight end last season. Dustin Keller could be a sleeper this season, but Miller has the clearer path to the starting job. He caught 44 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns last season, including an 84-yard game in Week 17 with JaMarcus Russell at quarterback.
As far as tight ends go, he is a guy that will probably be available in a late round that could be a surprise. After all, Oakland doesn't have a whole lot else in their passing game. Miller is just as likely to have a big game as Ronald Curry.
WR Justin Gage - Tennessee Titans
The Titans' passing game is ignored for the most part. While there are a lot of good reasons for this, as they are still a run-heavy offense, Vince Young needs to throw to someone. Justin McCareins struggled when given a chance for the Jets, so Gage is probably the best option there.
Young is still growing as a passer, and Gage had a few nice games down the stretch. He's draftable as a late sleeper, but in many leagues, he's a guy to pay attention to and grab if a roster spot becomes available.
He had 750 yards and two touchdowns last year, and he's still only 27-years old, so he's got the potential and the size (6'4", 212) to be a nice sleeper.
WR Derek Hagan - Miami Dolphins
Hagan won't be drafted except in deep leagues, but he's the starter opposite Ted Ginn Jr. right now in Miami. He was a monster in college, as a possession receiver with the speed to go deep. His hands failed him at the combine, causing him to fall to round two in 2006, but in his third year, he could blossom opposite Ginn.
Hagan has gone largely unnoticed, but he's 6'2", and if he keeps holding off Ernest Wilford, he could be a red-zone target. 29 catches for 372 yards and two touchdowns isn't particularly impressive, but he's another guy who improved as the season went on and could be a good player in PPR formats.
Mackenzie Kraemer can be reached at his blog, JetsDaily.com.
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