Fantasy Football 2012: 10 Super-Sleepers to Covet During the August Drafts
The following slideshow touts 10 underrated players in the fantasy realm who could be excellent super-sleepers for the August football drafts.
In this countdown, the term "super-sleeper" only refers to the quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers and tight ends who currently sit 145th or lower (Round 12 or later) in Mock Draft Central's revealing Average Draft Position rankings.
So, before you wonder why certain under-25 assets—like rookie QBs Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III or Bucs RB Doug Martin—weren't discussed here in greater detail, simply refer to the above ADP link to gauge their high pre-draft standing (which is always subject to change).
We'll revisit this list a few more times before the NFL preseason ends.
Enjoy the show!
10: RB Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos
Before Michigan played San Diego State last September, I admittedly had little knowledge of Ronnie Hillman's Aztec legend.
Sure, I knew that SDSU had a stealthy offensive performer to watch, but I figured Hillman was merely a kick returner or slot receiver in a running back's garb.
Instead, I got the first taste of a talent with decent NFL size (listed at 5'10", 190 pounds), superb hands, game-breaking speed and the versatility of Darren Sproles or Ray Rice.
It also doesn't hurt that Hillman (1,981 total yards, 18 TDs last season) got drafted into the perfect situation—competing against an age-30 back (Willis McGahee) and a talented but embattled runner who may be in head coach John Fox's doghouse (Knowshon Moreno).
Oh, and did I mention Hillman doesn't turn 21 until September? Don't let this kid slide past Round 13 in early August drafts.
9: TE Jared Cook, Tennessee Titans
Jared Cook had essentially been a pedestrian fantasy asset in his first two NFL seasons (38 catches, one TD for 2009-10).
Then things started looking up early in 2011, with Cook catching 12 balls for 261 yards and two touchdowns in a five-week period (games 4-8).
And then he wallowed through two straight December games of zero catches/zero yards. It was the nadir of a once-promising career that was seemingly stuck in neutral.
However, Cook's response to that short-term infamy prompted this ranking—21 catches for 335 yards and one touchdown in the final three weeks.
Granted, it was a small sample size; but it was also also enough statistical promise to endorse investing a low-round, high-reward draft pick on Cook this summer, hoping he'll blossom into a poor man's Jermichael Finley.
8: RB Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals
The day will come when Williams is the Cardinals' most bankable rushing option, regardless of down and distance.
And the day will come when Williams is a top-15 consideration among all fantasy tailbacks.
But for this season, fantasy owners should temper their expectations for an explosive asset who's still rehabbing from a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee last August (one report from Craig Morgan of Fox Sports Arizona suggests Williams might miss a game or two in September).
Bottom line: It's rare to find a non-rookie tailback with limitless potential after Round 12. But Williams is that type of back—one who could enjoy a DeMarco Murray-like impact midway through the 2012 season, once fully healthy.
At the very least, he's a must-handcuff for those who select Beanie Wells sometime in Round 5 or 6.
7: TE Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts
I might have been a little slow to fully commit to the Rob Gronkowski bandwagon last season (fellow Patriot Aaron Hernandez played a key role in that underwhelming decision), but I'm not going to make that mistake with Coby Fleener (34 catches, 667 yards, 10 TDs in 2011).
My reasoning has three components:
1. Outside of Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, rookie T.Y. Hilton and maybe Donnie Avery, the Colts aren't blessed with many explosive playmakers at receiver.
2. Not only does Fleener have the size, speed and overall talent to be a top-five tight end within three years, he also has the immediate benefit of catching familiar balls from Stanford teammate Andrew Luck, who has the stuff to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback within three years.
3. Finally, I have a little birdie inside the Stanford football program, and he has stated, without a hint of bias, that Fleener is one of the best athletes (and hardest workers) he's ever competed against on a daily or weekly level.
So, Fleener has that going for him...which is nice.
6: WR Donald Jones, Buffalo Bills
A versatile and cat-quick wideout who can flourish on the outside or when deftly handling the slot-receiver role between the 20s, Donald Jones is a stealth option in standard-scoring and Points Per Reception-league drafts.
Over time, I have come to appreciate Jones' burgeoning relationship with Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (7.1 targets in his last eight healthy games) and the way Jones complements No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson.
But let's be clear here: Heading into Year 3, Jones won't be a reliable source of fantasy goodness until he can consistently stay on the field. It's part of the job that comes with being a No. 2 asset.
Regarding the August drafts, Jones will likely be a last-round pick in 12-team leagues, a below-average value for the No. 2 receiver on a club that threw 569 times last season and only rushed Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller 277 times.
But it all comes back to injuries. If Jones can stay healthy and take more significant steps on the field, he'll be a steal for the intrepid GM in search of low risk and big upside.
5: WR Austin Collie, Indianapolis Colts
Frankly, I'm surprised that Collie even qualifies for this countdown.
Yes, he failed to register 7.5 touchdowns in 2011—his seasonal average for 2009-10—but he didn't fall too far off the radar in catches (54) and receiving yards (514—in a year when every Colts playmaker encountered a noticeable dip in production.
And yet, Collie appears to be the poster-boy of embattled Indy assets whose fantasy value takes a substantial hit when Peyton Manning is wearing a different NFL uniform.
I still have great confidence in Collie's fantasy prowess at age 27, especially with Andrew Luck as the Colts' undisputed quarterback.
But it's hard to define him as a classic "upside" pick for the latter rounds. After Round 12, fantasy owners tend to go with untested receivers with higher ceilings.
4: TE Dustin Keller, New York Jets
I will prioritize the drafting of only two Jets in standard-scoring leagues this summer: Running back Shonn Greene and Dustin Keller.
In turn, I will keep my fingers crossed that newly acquired backup quarterback Tim Tebow doesn't take a sizable chunk of Greene and Keller's red-zone and short-yardage opportunities, via the Wildcat formation.
It's an interesting tightrope to walk for the season, since Keller (120 catches, 10 TDs from 2010-11) and Greene (1,265 total yards, six TDs last year) have the talent to post career highs in multiple categories.
On the Keller front, he's tallied 10-catch improvements in the last two years. He's also an annual lock for 100-plus targets and five touchdowns.
Put it all together, and Keller might be the most attractive Round 13 pick who ends up starting 16 games.
3: WR Titus Young, Detroit Lions
Like most rookie receivers, the first half of Titus Young's inaugural NFL season with Detroit was awash in inconsistent targets and minimal catches.
But things took shape in the latter half, with Young drawing 57 targets and catching 33 balls for 365 yards and five touchdowns.
Of equal importance, four of Young's six seasonal touchdowns were within 10 yards, demonstrating his effectiveness in the red zone.
And yet, Young still has the breakaway speed and athleticism to score at least three times from beyond 40 yards.
Bottom line: With opposing defenses forced to worry about all-world receiver Calvin Johnson and the improved backfield of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, Young has a golden chance to enjoy a breakthrough season with the Lions.
At the very least, he likely won't encounter one form of double coverage for the entire season.
2: QB Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
It'll be interesting to see if 12- and 14-team league owners draft Andy Dalton (3,398 yards passing, 20 TDs last year) as a QB1 or QB2.
As a fantasy backup, most GMs would be thrilled with modest gains from 2011, but as a fantasy starter, there may be unrealistic projections of 3,900 yards/25 TDs.
It's too bad Bengals owner Mike Brown didn't covet Steelers wideout and restricted free agent Mike Wallace (2,450 receiving yards, 18 TDs in 2010-11) in the offseason—instead of banking on Armon Binns and rookie Mohamed Sanu at the WR2 and WR3 slots.
Bottom line: Even with the expected greatness of A.J. Green heading into Year 2, the Bengals may still be one more gifted playmaker away from helping Dalton become an elite fantasy passer.
1: QB Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No fringe quarterback has benefited more from this lockout-free offseason than Freeman, who commendably racked up 3,592 yards passing and 20 total TDs in a fruitless 2011 campaign for the Bucs.
Freeman now has Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn at receiver, tight end Dallas Clark and complementary rushers Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount anchoring the rushing attack.
It also doesn't hurt that Freeman has reportedly lost 20 pounds in recent months.
Put it all together, and that's a nice upgrade for a young team that needed a change in culture more than a serious infusion of talent.
But as the Greg Schiano era begins, it's great to have both.