I've wrote it before, and I'll write it again—I don't believe in "sleepers" when it comes to fantasy football. I believe in value.
In fantasy's other big game, baseball, you're dealing with a much larger player pool, which is constantly changing and expanding due to the minor leagues. Fantasy baseball breeds sleepers on a weekly basis. Yes, football does have its occasional practice squad call-up that hits it big (in Arian Foster's case, REALLY big), but for the most part, the guys who are going to be on the field are established (or close to it) when fantasy drafts are taking place.
You want a true fantasy football sleeper? WR Damian Williams of the Tennessee Titans. He's a second year receiver (taken in the third round of the 2010 draft), in line for an increased role this season, and maybe even a spot in the Week 1 starting lineup if WR Kenny Britt gets suspended. There's a good chance no one in your league has heard of him, and he can easily be had as an end-game pick in the final round of your draft. Damian Williams. Go nuts.
The players that make up this list should be known by all, and depending on the size of your league, should all get drafted. According to Yahoo's average draft position (ADP) chart, and ESPN's Top 300 list (which several drafters use as their go-to cheat sheet), these players are all being undervalued, in my humble opinion. Take them at their ADP, and you're golden. Jump on them a round or two early and you're making the savvy moves that disrupt draft rooms, and may help win you a championship.
As a rule for this list, I exclude quarterbacks. I feel with QBs, you're either taking one of the elite early, or waiting for a pair of solid/upside guys later in the draft. Sure, Josh Freeman can be a great value in Round 10, but there's a reason he's there, and Aaron Rodgers is gone by the end of Round 1. Running backs and wide receivers are the positions that fill up your team, and usually make the difference, week-to-week. I also have my one Tight End value pick, a guy you can get way late, with the upside of a Top 5 player at the position.
The readers who've made it this far shall be rewarded handsomely. May I present to you, my "Top Ten Value Picks" of the 2011 Fantasy Football season.
ESPN Top 300 - 89
Yahoo ADP - 122
Targets. In fantasy football - and especially in PPR leagues—they are your best friend. And who gets the most targets, you may ask? Why that would be a team's top receiver, of course. Like it or not, third-year WR Mike Thomas is now the number one option in Jacksonville's passing game. Marcedes Lewis fans be damned.
Thomas actually led the Jaguars in targets last season with 102 (tied for 32nd in the league) and that was with Mike Sims-Walker playing 14 games. Also, like it or not, the Jaguars clearly liked Thomas enough to pass on finding a replacement for the departed (and malcontent) MSW during the rush of free agency. WR Jason Hill, entering his fifth year in the league, will slide into the starting lineup and poses no threat. It's going to be the MJD-Thomas-Lewis show in Jacksonville for the near future.
So yeah, Thomas will have his opportunity this season. The question now is—what is he going to do with it. Thomas isn't a burner, and there is only so much physically his 5-8 frame will allow. Nonetheless, there have been countless undersized receivers who have used their quickness and route running ability to rack up catches and yards. Thomas is also no Davone Bess—he is a physical receiver who can and will challenge defenders in the open field. One scout at ESPN compared parts of the his game to the likes of Steve Smith and Wes Welker, two of this era's greatest undersized pass catchers.
Following a year in which he notched 66 receptions and 820 yards, Thomas has a strong chance to better those numbers to 80 and 1,000 in what will be his mythical "third-year wide receiver" season. ESPN analysts are fairly high on him, but his ADP in Yahoo leagues is great value for a WR3.
ESPN Top 300 - 135
Yahoo ADP - 123.5
Few players looked as good (on a per play basis) last season as rookie WR Jacoby Ford of the Raiders. Though he only totaled 25 catches and 470 receiving yards, Ford managed seven all-purpose TDs last year—grabbing two via the air, two on swing/reverse plays, while taking another three to the house. He instantly became the most explosive player on a team that also boasts RB Darren McFadden, and the perfect compliment to Oakland's "speed kills" mentality.
Entering his second year, Ford has locked down a starting gig opposite third-year WR (and colossal bust) Darrius Heyward-Bey. While DHB may turn out to be a track star posing as an NFL receiver, Ford has shown all types of moves with ball in hand, doing his best DeSean Jackson impersonation last season. In fact, Jackson is the exact fantasy prototype Ford can emulate, needing simply one or two big plays a game to bring home the bacon. Despite being named a starter, Ford will still return kick-offs (and maybe punts) this season, meaning another 7 TD season (or more) is in the cards.
Ford did break his left hand shortly after training camp started, but the injury is expected to heal by Week 1. If anything, his absence from preseason play will keep the dynamic WR below the fantasy radar. If the cast is off before the regular season kicks off, Ford should be a safe investment for those intrigued by his immense playmaking ability. While QB Jason Campbell may not inspire a lot of confidence around the league, his underlying stats have been solid (84.5 QB rating last season), and he possesses one of the strongest arms in the league, a perfect match for Ford's downfield game.
While he's the exact opposite of Mike Thomas from a skills standpoint, Ford is another great value at WR3 that can be available even later in drafts.
ESPN Top 300 - 88
Yahoo ADP - 109
The accompanying photo was a common occurrence last season for FB turned HB Mike Tolbert, who splashed pay dirt 11 times for San Diego. He was one of fantasy football's hottest waiver pickups, as a replacement for one of fantasy football's biggest busts, rookie RB Ryan Mathews. Granted, Mathews did finish the year with 7 TD, but three of those came in the Chargers' meaningless regular season finale vs. the dreadful Broncos.
Entering the 2011 season, the breakdown of carries in San Diego doesn't seem to favor either player. Tolbert showed a lot last year to prove he's more than just a great FB (in a pass-happy offense), but the Chargers still have faith in Mathews, who they took 12th overall in the 2010 draft. Nonetheless, Mathews struggled mightily with injuries last season, is dealing with a few more at training camp, and to top if off, he failed his conditioning test. Mathews will get his chances early on this season, but there is the possibility that the Fresno State product is not cut out for the physicality of the pro game.
Meanwhile, "Mike Tolbert" and "physicality" are practically synonymous. He was one of the league's most efficient RBs in short yardage last year, and served as the perfect closer in games where San Diego was protecting a lead. In that regard, he was very similar to Patriots RB Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis, who made a living last year off of mop-up duty in blowouts, as well as plenty of goal-line work.
Tolbert should continue to be "the guy" for San Diego inside the five this season, and is actually the favorite for third-down work, due to his superior blocking and surprisingly good hands (25 catches last season). When you consider Mathews' ADP is 64.1, Tolbert is a way better value almost 50 picks later.
ESPN Top 300 - 187
Yahoo ADP - 137.2
When you consider the injury risks among the elite (i.e. Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley), coupled with the overall low ceiling of the position (no one is catching 15 TD or reaching 1,500 yards), it makes sense to wait on TE in drafts this year. And yes, there's plenty of options in the mid to late rounds this season, from Jimmy Graham to Marcedes Lewis to Brandon Pettigrew. Still, I hesitate to call these guys good value picks.
If you want real "value" at TE, you have to dig deep...very deep. Nestled all the way down with a Yahoo ADP of 137.2 (the absolute bottom of the TE barrel) is the guy I happen to like the most, not just for his absurd value, but for his overall potential this season. If you're mining for fantasy gold in 2011, look no further than Jared Cook of the Tennessee Titans. Entering his third season (and first as a starter), the 6'5, 248 lb. beast possesses the same size and skill combo of the much heralded Finley in Green Bay, who despite a history of injuries, is still the second TE going off the board in drafts.
Cook played sparsely during his first two seasons in Tennessee, but with former starting TE Bo Scaife gone to Cincinnati, now is the time for the physical freak to get seriously involved in the Titans' passing game. New QB Matt Hasselbeck was brought in to revitalize the team's aerial attack, and along with new Offensive Coordinator Chris Palmer, has praised Cook's athleticism and other attributes. Like Finley, Cook is viewed as a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses, with great hands, speed and play-making ability, to go along with his monstrous frame.
Rams rookie TE Lance Kendricks is also creating a buzz with a strong training camp (and performance in his first preseason game), but I'm sticking with Cook. For unabashed Finley lovers that got burned by Jermichael last year; Cook's the perfect mulligan, and at a way cheaper price.
ESPN Top 300 - 100
Yahoo ADP - 119.4
In some cases, draft value is almost entirely dependent on opportunity, as is the case with new Redskins RB Tim Hightower. For a guy with a strong chance at an every-down gig, he is going extremely late in drafts, around the same time as backups like Marion Barber and Michael Bush. While it's hard to guarantee where Hightower will wind up on Washington's RB depth chart, it's important to think "in the now" during the later rounds of your draft, and right now Hightower is the projected starter for Week 1.
After being traded to Washington six days into the free agency rush, it was uncertain whether Hightower would assume the third-down/change-of-pace role he held in Arizona, or be in the mix for early down work. His biggest competition for the starting job, Ryan Torain, made the decision easier for Team Shanahan when the oft-injured RB broke his left hand in practice. Torain is expected to be healed close to the start of the regular season, but right now Hightower is getting starter's reps, ahead of rookie RB Roy Helu as well.
While he failed to establish himself on the Cardinals, Hightower did average a career-high 4.8 YPC on 153 rushes last season. Redskins' Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan referred to his new acquisition as an "every-down back" and lauded Hightower's aptitude in the one-cut scheme, as well as his pass catching ability, goal line chops, and fearless pass protection. Arizona never really gave Hightower a chance after drafting Beanie Wells in 2009, but with a better offensive line, catered to his running style, Washington is a better place than many for a career rebirth.
Hightower must improve on the 10 fumbles he coughed up in the past two seasons, but if he can tighten his grip on the ball, he can tighten his grip on the starting RB job, and provide great value to those who draft him.
ESPN Top 300 - 60
Yahoo ADP - 83.4
Sometimes season totals can be deceiving, when they fall just short of popular statistical benchmarks. WR Mario Manningham didn't have a 1,000 yard season last year (he finished with 944), and he didn't score 10 TD (he finished with nine). It didn't help that he was the starter in only eight games last year, or that he put up goose eggs in Weeks 4 and 5. Anyone who watched the explosive receiver down the stretch, however, realized how good Manningham can be with a secure spot in the lineup.
Now that WR Steve Smith has moved on to Philadelphia, Manningham is poised to have an even better season than last, lining up across from WR Hakeem Nicks, a player that demands double teams on a constant basis. The duo is rivaled by Miles Austin and Dez Bryant as the premier young WR tandem in the league (all of whom call the NFC East home), and should provide plenty of challenges for Philadelphia's new and improved secondary.
While both receivers are highly gifted, Manningham should assume the role of deep threat to compliment Nicks' possession/red zone game. The fact is both receivers are capable of making big plays and stretching the field. The Giants like to establish the run early, setting up big play-action passes, for which Manningham should be the main beneficiary of (he capped off his breakout 2010 campaign with an 85-yard TD in Week 16, and a 92-yard TD in Week 17).
The sky is the limit for Super Mario in 2011, as Eli Manning will throw plenty to keep both his star WRs happy, behind one of the best pass blocking lines in the league. Getting drafted after risky propositions like Austin Collie and boring propositions like Anquan Boldin, Manningham is a great value as a WR2 this season.
ESPN Top 300 - 67
Yahoo ADP - 77.5
After a down year for fantasy rookie RBs in 2010, in which Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best failed to meet their lofty draft expectations, ADPs have been tempered for this year's two premier rookie backs, Miami's Daniel Thomas (ADP 85.4) and New Orleans' Mark Ingram. In the case of Thomas, his role as the featured back is up in the air, as long as Reggie Bush is listed first on the depth chart and getting first team reps. In addition to that, the Dolphins did not improve their dreadful QB situation, and as such, Miami is not an ideal landing spot for a rookie RB to produce.
Ingram, on the other hand, is joining an annual offensive powerhouse in New Orleans, with one of the best offensive lines in the league. His position on the RB depth chart has not been cemented, but with Darren Sproles locked into a third-down role and Chris Ivory out indefinitely, only Pierre Thomas stands in the way of Ingram and fantasy greatness. If training camp has been any indication, Ingram is the favorite for early-down and goal-line work in the Saints offense, one of the most ideal fantasy situations an Ingram owner can wish for.
There are skeptics out there who feel New Orleans' spread offense is too unpredictable and pass-dependent to yield a top fantasy back, but like I noted in my "Top 10 Most Intriguing Players" list, Thomas was given the chance to be a feature back early last season (and failed), and Ivory had double digit carries in seven games before ultimately getting hurt. The opportunity is there to become a star RB in New Orleans, and Ingram, a Heisman winner drafted in the first round, is poised to grab that opportunity and run with it (literally).
A year after Mathews and Best went as high as the second and third round, respectively, Ingram is an absolute steal at his current ADP of 77.5. He has the potential to produce a rookie season similar to Adrian Peterson, and became a Top 10 option at fantasy's top position for years to come.
ESPN Top 300 - 57
Yahoo ADP - 66.1
Vikings WR Percy Harvin has been a "headache" to own in fantasy over his first two pro seasons, and yes, the pun is very much intended. His struggle with migraines has been well documented since he entered the league, and while he's only missed a total of three games, Harvin's health has led to several game-time decisions, and has clearly hindered his true potential. So instead of being a great receiver over his first two seasons, he has simply been very good.
Going into the 2011, two huge factors can transform Harvin from "very good" to "great," and in fantasy terms, from a WR2 to a WR1. First off, his plaguing migraines may finally be a thing of the past. I cautiously used the word "may" because he has yet to have his bell rung (i.e., take a real hit on the playing field), but all indications are that Harvin has found the cure for what ails him. The dynamic WR claims he's been migraine-free for seven months now, and that the condition will no longer hinder him during practice and on game day.
The other huge factor is the departure of former number one WR Sidney Rice to Seattle, opening the door for Harvin to become the face of Minnesota's passing game (which he basically was for the first 10 weeks of last season, while Rice recovered from hip surgery). Harvin will enter his mythical "third-year wide receiver" season with a new QB in Donovan McNabb, who's done a great job of utilizing undersized WRs (DeSean Jackson and Santana Moss) in recent years. Harvin will be all over the field, creating all types of havoc, supplying all types of fantasy production. (Like DeSean and fellow list-mate Jacoby Ford, Harvin is good for a couple of scores on swing plays and kick returns.)
With an ADP of 66.1, Harvin isn't exactly being slept on in drafts, but is being drafted amongst the top WR2s. Of all of them, he has the most potential to storm the Top 10 of the position, and be a fantasy headache, no more.
ESPN Top 300 - 48
Yahoo ADP - 97.1
I feel like I've been here before...
Oh that's right, I had Felix Jones on my 2009 list. At that point, he was still a backup to Marion Barber, coming off a promising rookie year shortened by injury in Week 6. Jones continued to be a quality over quantity back in 2009, averaging 5.9 YPC on 116 rushes. Entering last season, with Marion the "former" Barbarian on a decline, Jones was expected to continue his emergence in the running game, but instead regressed to 4.3 YPC on 185 attempts. He also scored a measly two TDs, giving him eight total over his first three seasons.
So why the love, and number two spot on this list? Like I stated previously, opportunity is a huge, and often overlooked, factor in determining value. Now that Barber is finally gone (to Chicago), not to mention the injured calf of perennial third-string RB Tashard Choice, Jones has the first real opportunity to become a feature back in his young career. Granted, the Cowboys drafted RB DeMarco Murray this past April, but all indications from camp suggest that the rook is no threat to Jones' starting gig. No, the only threat this time around will be Jones himself.
As far as opportunity goes, when healthy, the Cowboys are arguably the most skilled offense in the league with QB Tony Romo, WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and TE Jason Witten. A team with that much talent will stretch the defense on almost every down, and despite the reputation of Dallas' O-line, Jones should have plenty of room to operate. He will likely get a crack at goal-line carries, and along with his vast improvement in the passing game last season (48 catches, 450 yards), Jones has the makings of an all-around back, while also possessing game-breaking speed.
It could be a last name thing, but Jones' biggest fan is arguably Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who's been preaching for the back to get more work during training camp, and in years past. J.J. may finally get his wish this year, and Jones, currently going close to pick 100, could be the biggest value at RB in fantasy this seaaon.
ESPN Top 300 - 46
Yahoo ADP - 43.9
Go ahead. Listen to the fantasy "analysts" who say last year was a fluke. That he won't come anywhere close to his league-high 1,448 receiving yards from 2010. That John Fox will install an offensive system where the Broncos run the ball on first, second, third, heck, fourth down, and never dare take a shot down-field. Listen to them, and pass on Broncos WR Brandon Lloyd, who depending on the scoring system, was the top WR in fantasy last year.
I for one, won't "listen." Because last season, all I had to do was "watch" Lloyd make a Jose Bautista-like leap from middling veteran to career revelation, and as it applies here, fantasy stud. I watched Lloyd make countless gravity defying grabs by the sidelines, across the open field, in the end zone, you name it. Lloyd did it all last year, and constantly made the impossible look easy. He didn't merely rack up mundane catches, on his way to a year where sheer volume (and some lucky TDs) would mask true ability.
Lloyd's underlying numbers were those of a true elite WR last season, as he average 18.8 yards per catch, sixth in the league, but first for players who caught at least 61 balls (Lloyd caught 79). He was also second to Mike Wallace in catches of 20-plus yards with 23. Still, some people want to peg Lloyd as someone who just got lucky. And no matter what you think of the team's new head coach, the Broncos are going to be passing plenty. Even if the mentality at the start of the game is to run, we must not forget that the Broncos defense is still terrible, and that Denver will constantly be playing from behind. Two of the greatest words in fantasy are "garbage stats," which Lloyd racked up last year, and will continue to rack up in 2011.
With an ADP of 43.9, it's not like Lloyd isn't going early in drafts, but never in fantasy has a guy who paced his position the season before, dropped out of the Top 15 the following year. Lloyd's placement on this list is more of a statement than it is an indication of where you should draft him. Plain and simple, I believe in Brandon Lloyd. And so should you.