Fantasy Football: 12 Draft-Day Dark Horses/Sleepers to Target After Round 8

Jay Clemons@ATL_JayClemonsFantasy Sports Lead WriterAugust 4, 2012

Fantasy Football: 12 Draft-Day Dark Horses/Sleepers to Target After Round 8

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    The following countdown touts 12 veteran dark horses—or fantasy sleepers—who will likely fall to Round 9 or lower in 12-team, standard-scoring drafts this month.

    Instead of arbitrarily grabbing names from various pre-draft listings, I chose to exclusively work off Mock Draft Central's ongoing Average Draft Position rankings.

    And at the time of this writing, every single player was slotted for an ADP value of 97 (the first pick of Round 9) or lower.

    Even quarterbacks with a history of leading the NFL in passing yards couldn't avoid this form of draft-day apathy. But that just makes them golden backups with savvy GMs.

    Enjoy the show!

12: RB Rashad Jennings, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    2010 Stats: 303 Total Yards (202 Rushing), 1 TD

    Skinny: Let's start with a stealth contingency plan, just in case Maurice Jones-Drew's contract holdout remains an issue through Aug. 24 or so.

    Had Rashad Jennings not suffered a season-ending knee injury last summer (a setback that did not require surgery), he would have commanded a handful of carries every Sunday, and MJD probably wouldn't have had to log a career-high 386 touches last season.

    But that's all in the past, and Jennings' future (assuming full health) looks rosy—as a late-round handcuff or healthy bet for 80 total yards and 0.4 touchdowns, at least in games where Jones-Drew (2011 NFL rushing champion) stays confined to a couch, waiting for new Jags owner Shahid Khan to show him the money.

11: RB Evan Royster, Washington Redskins

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    2011 Stats: 404 Total Yards (328 Rushing), 0 TDs

    Skinny: I love everything about Evan Royster's game heading into his second NFL season.

    I love that his 312-yard output for Weeks 16 and 17 largely flew under the radar with fantasy owners.

    I love that Royster caught 10 of the 14 balls thrown his way last year.

    I love that he averaged 6.12 yards per touch, a full yard more than the production of Roy Helu—who's primed for a 1,300-yard breakout in 2012.

    I love that Mike Shanahan is in charge of handling the pecking order of the Redskins' rushing trio—Helu, Royster and Tim Hightower.

    And I love that Royster will be sitting there for me sometime in Round 13 of a 12-team draft, regardless if I'm chasing the Helu handcuff or not.

10: TE Dustin Keller, New York Jets

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    2011 Stats: 65 Catches, 815 Yards, 5 TDs

    Skinny: Dustin Keller (115 targets last year) is one of the few tight ends to post 10-catch improvements in the last two seasons.

    He's also an annual lock for 100-plus targets and five TDs.

    All this begs the questions: How is a consistently productive, supremely athletic tight end from America's No. 1 media market continually underrated in 12-team drafts? And why is Keller only the No. 15 asset in's Average Draft Position rankings?

    My only responses come in rhetorical-question form: Maybe fantasy fans are worried that backup QB Tim Tebow will vulture many of Keller's red-zone opportunities? Or perhaps they're convinced that Jets tailback Shonn Greene will finally flirt with 10 touchdowns?

9: WR Titus Young, Detroit Lions

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    2011 Stats: 48 Catches, 607 Yards, 6 TDs, 85 Targets

    Skinny: 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 backfield of Jahvid Best/Mikel Leshoure, Young has a golden chance to enjoy a breakthrough season with the Lions.

8: QB Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

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    2011 Stats: 2,319 Yards Passing, 14 TDs (1 Rushing)

    The specter of ex-Broncos Brandon Marshall, Jay Cutler and passing guru Jeremy Bates reuniting in Chicago should please fantasy owners to no end.

    In 2008, Bates' one season of directing Cutler and Marshall in Denver, Marshall tallied 104 catches, 1,265 yards, six touchdowns and an NFL-high 182 targets, while Cutler threw for 4,526 yards and 25 TDs.

    Both Cutler and Marshall enjoyed tangible success away from Bates in Chicago and Miami, respectively, but 2008 remains a defining campaign for a QB-WR combo that can be explosive between the 20s and virtually unstoppable in the red zone.

    Even with Marshall (81 catches, 1,214 yards and 6 TDs in 2011) turning 28 and Cutler enduring season-ending injuries in 2010 and '11, fantasy owners should be very optimistic about the pair's prospects, especially if tailback Matt Forte plays a full season.

    Throw in the upgrades of RB Michael Bush (free agency) and WR Alshon Jeffery (NFL draft), and the Bears might have enough firepower to match the points-happy Packers and Lions.

7: WR Laurent Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    2011 Stats: 54 Catches, 858 Yards, 11 TDs, 80 Targets

    You'd think a 10-game spurt of 625 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns would serve as currency, or at least fantasy street-cred, for a young, fast and talented receiver the following season.

    And yet, Laurent Robinson's name in ADP circles can routinely be found below Austin Collie, Doug Baldwin, Robert Meachem and just above such receiving notables as Brian Hartline, David Nelson and Jordan Shipley.

    Yes, I understand that Robinson's stellar production as the Cowboys' No. 3 receiver last season was a career-best campaign (by a long shot), and I also realize that Robinson signed with the offensively stagnant Jaguars in the offseason.

    But I also believe in the power of landing proper value with every single draft pick. Hence, I will happily welcome Robinson as a WR4 sometime in Round 9 or 10.

6: TE Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions

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    2011 Stats: 83 Catches, 777 Yards, 5 TDs

    There's really no secret to what makes Brandon Pettigrew tick—he loves getting red-zone touches and keeping NFL officials at arm's length.

    Humor aside, Pettigrew's top-five production in targets (126) and receptions last year was quite commendable, especially when factoring in Calvin Johnson's All-Pro magic with the Lions (96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 TDs).

    Pettigrew collected seven-plus targets nine times last season, including five double-digit efforts, three of which came during Weeks 15 through 17. For the year, he also reached the PPR-elite threshold of six catches, 75 yards and/or one touchdown eight times.

    One more thing: Pettigrew is also Matthew Stafford's second favorite target.

    Bottom line: This kid may have been genetically engineered for PPR drafts, but that doesn't make him a fantasy afterthought in standard-scoring leagues either.

5: RB Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals

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    The day will come when Ryan 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 with an explosive asset who must bounce back from a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee last August.

    Bottom line: It's rare to find a non-rookie tailback with limitless potential after Round 10. But Williams is that type of back—one who could enjoy a DeMarco Murray-like impact midway through the 2012 season if fully healthy.

    At the very least, he's a must-handcuff for those who select Beanie Wells sometime in Round 6 or 7.

4: WR Nate Washington, Tennessee Titans

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    2011 Stats: 74 Catches, 1,023 Yards, 7 TDs, 121 Targets

    I'm baffled by the lack of respect Nate Washington has gotten this offseason.

    What's not to love about a wideout who drew 121 targets, caught 74 balls and rolled for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns last year?

    Even if embattled teammate Kenny Britt is good to go all season (that's anyone's guess right now), Washington is still a strong No. 3 receiving asset in all scoring formats.

    For those with short memories, Washington had nine games of eight or more targets last year—not to mention his bold finishing kick in the final seven games (35 catches, 522 yards, six TDs).

3: QB Carson Palmer, Oakland Raiders

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    2011 Stats: 2,753 Yards Passing, 14 TDs (1 Rushing)

    Skinny: Fantasy owners, please don't fall asleep on Carson Palmer in the coming weeks.

    In just nine starts last year with the Raiders, while playing with virtual strangers after a midseason trade, he still racked up nearly 2,800 yards passing and 14 total touchdowns.

    The weekly breakdown looks even better: Of the nine games, Palmer crossed the elite-QB threshold of 275 total yards and/or three touchdowns six times, including a 417-yard, two-TD demolition of the Chargers defense in the season finale.

    Another source of 2012 optimism lies with burgeoning talents like Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Mike Goodson, Jacoby Ford and Palmer's annual knack for eclipsing the 60-percent passing mark.

    Looking for the most stable QB in platoon situations? Palmer might be the best asset in that realm.

    Targets: 4,368 yards passing, 24 TDs

2: RB Peyton Hillis, Kansas City Chiefs

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    2011 Stats: 717 Total Yards (587 Rushing), 3 TDs

    Peyton Hillis's 2011 campaign with the Browns was a textbook example of how not to let one season of success (1,654 total yards, 13 TDs in 2010) go to your head: contract brooding, inconsistent play, alienating teammates (allegedly attempting field goals during practice) and falling prey to the doom-filled legend of the "Madden Curse."

    But from a fantasy perspective, his final year in Cleveland wasn't a complete waste of time. In five of his 10 games, Hillis racked up at least 87 total yards, and in the first three outings, the Arkansas product was targeted 18 times (with 15 receptions).

    Fast forward to the present, where Hillis stands as a must-handcuff to Jamaal Charles with the Chiefs.

    In fact, I am confident that Charles (torn ACL last September) and Hillis will be one of the NFL's five best rushing combos by season's end.

1: QB Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

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    2011 Stats: 2,479 Yards Passing, 17 TDs (2 Rushing)

    Skinny: Outside of pretending that Matt Schaub's season-ending foot injury adversely affected his preparation for 2012, there's really no excuse for him garnering a Round 9 grade in ADP rankings.

    And yet, here we are.

    Not only do I have Schaub ranked one spot ahead of Peyton Manning before the preseason launches, I also have warm, vivid memories of the 2009 and '10 campaigns when Schaub tallied 9,140 yards passing, 53 touchdowns and enjoyed a 66-percent passing mark—with essentially the same cast of all-star playmakers at his disposal in 2012.

    But to each his/her own, as I will happily embrace the notion of selecting Schaub (the NFL passing leader in 2009) as a Round 9 backup with the full intent of starting him against the Colts and Vikings at home for Weeks 15 and 16.