Fantasy Football Week 1: Top Sleeper Candidates at Each Offensive Position

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIISeptember 4, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 29: Matt Cassel #16 of the Minnesota Vikings warms up before the game against the Detroit Lions on December 29, 2013 at Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Week 1 is often full of surprises given the tightly competitive nature of the NFL, so getting an idea of some fantasy sleepers to count on is invaluable for owners to start their seasons off right.

With regard to offensive playmakers, a lot of attention is paid to them in the opponents' game plans. Sometimes they succeed in spite of that, but the regular-season opener has so many unknown variables. A number of stars will likely be shut down, requiring others to step up in their stead.

Favorable matchups, explosive potential and lowered profiles all contribute to making a strong fantasy sleeper candidate. Some may not even warrant heavy consideration in Week 1 starting lineups for most owners.

Here is a look at some of the best sleeper candidates at each offensive position, along with projections for those top performers.

Top Week 1 NFL Fantasy Sleepers
RankQuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight End
1Matt Cassel, Minnesota VikingsBen Tate, Cleveland BrownsGolden Tate, Detroit LionsZach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
2Derek Carr, Oakland RaidersCarlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ersKendall Wright, Tennessee TitansJordan Reed, Washington
3Carson Palmer, Arizona CardinalsLeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh SteelersRueben Randle, New York GiantsLadarius Green, San Diego Chargers
4Ryan Fitzpatrick, Houston TexansAhmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis ColtsJames Jones, Oakland RaidersDwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
5EJ Manuel, Buffalo BillsToby Gerhart, Jacksonville JaguarsCody Latimer, Denver BroncosBrandon Myers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rankings are opinion

Quarterback: Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 23: Matt Cassel #16 of the Minnesota Vikings looks to pass agianst the Kansas City Chiefs defense at Arrowhead Stadium on August 23, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

There's no doubt the Rams have a formidable defensive front featuring the likes of Chris Long and Robert Quinn on the ends. However, much of St. Louis' focus will be on stuffing the Vikings' rushing attack led by superstar Adrian Peterson.

That opens up chances for Cassel to hit hot reads and capitalize on the matchups he'll have when the Rams bring pressure. Having the endorsement of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has to help Cassel in his effort to lead.

"He’s gone to two playoffs with two different teams, been to the Pro Bowl," Zimmer said, per CBS Minnesota's Mike Max. "I don’t know if he’s more ready to be a starter now. I just know he’s had some great years. Matt is pretty outgoing and pretty talkative anyway. He’s usually the one that kind of takes charge in there."

Playmakers such as Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph, veteran No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings and breakout candidate Cordarrelle Patterson make Minnesota more dangerous than many would be led to believe.

The Rams secondary is thin. Cortland Finnegan is no longer on the team, and Trumaine Johnson suffered a sprained MCL in the preseason. The Rams don't match up well on the back end, and Cassel has enough knowledge to take advantage of the situation at hand.

After failing to be the long-term answer under center in Kansas City and with first-round rookie Teddy Bridgewater waiting in the wings, it's important for Cassel to play well. He ought to have a chip on his shoulder and help lead a surprising Vikings team to a rather convincing Week 1 win on the road.

Projected Week 1 stats: 22-of-33 passing, 275 yards, 2 TDs; 30 rushing yards

Running Back: Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 18: Running back Ben Tate #44 of the Cleveland Browns warms up before a preseason game at FedExField on August 18, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

If the Browns are meant to have any chance to win in Pittsburgh in Week 1, it won't be because of Brian Hoyer or the misfit gaggle of receivers at his disposal. 

Rather, it will be due to Cleveland's success to get the zone-blocking running scheme deployed by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan going. Tate figures to be the workhorse. Rookie third-round pick Terrance West disappointed in the preseason, and the only other viable Browns ball-carrier is undrafted free agent Isaiah Crowell.

All-Pro Browns left tackle Joe Thomas has been a rare consistent cornerstone amid a turbulent time in Cleveland. Thomas feels strongly about Tate's abilities, via The Chronicle-Telegram's Scott Petrak:

I know Ben has taken on the role of being the starting running back and run with it. From Day 1, he was clearly the guy that understood the offense the most, that was expecting the ball, was making the least amount of mistakes, the most amount of nice runs. I can tell he’s going to do a great job being the No. 1 guy even though he hadn’t been in the past.

Indeed, this is the first time Tate has had a shot at being the feature back, standing in Arian Foster's shadow with the Houston Texans before this opportunity.

Coach Mike Pettine has conveyed his belief in Tate to be on the field for most snaps, via the Akron Beacon Journal's Nate Ulrich:

Nate Ulrich @NateUlrichABJ

#Browns HC Mike Pettine said he's comfortable with RB Ben Tate playing on third down.

Tate runs with power and has deceptive agility, which should make him a success in Shanahan's scheme that has worked in Houston and especially Washington, with low draft pick Alfred Morris.

Many top-tier fantasy backs are in timeshare situations in one way or another. That won't be the case as often with Tate due to the inexperience behind him. The whole team is adjusting to a complex, new Shanahan system, and Tate has been able to grasp it best, according to Thomas.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Almost by default, Tate will be on the field for all three downs much of the time, which bolsters his already rather strong fantasy value.

A strong offensive line featuring Thomas, rookie left guard Joel Bitonio and center Alex Mack, should allow Cleveland to crack enough big runs to the left against Pittsburgh. That makes Tate a viable No. 2 running back or flex option for Week 1.

Projected Week 1 stats: 26 carries, 98 yards, TD; 4 receptions, 25 yards

Wide Receiver: Golden Tate, Detroit Lions

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 22:  Golden Tate #15 of the Detroit Lions runs for a short gain during the first half of the preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Ford Field on August 22, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Lions defeated the Jaguars 13-12.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

If he was playing with a chip on his shoulder before, Golden Tate may be out with more to prove than ever in his maiden season in Detroit.

Despite being the leading receiver for the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last year, the team decided not to retain Tate this offseason. That led to him landing in Motown, stepping in to start opposite Calvin Johnson.

Talented passer Matthew Stafford will welcome the addition of a No. 2 option, which he hasn't had in his entire career. Plus, as explosive as Stafford and Johnson are, there's another element Tate brings to the fold, per ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Golden Tate should help Calvin Johnson a lot... Tate averaged 7.8 yards after catch last season, best of any WR with 50 receptions

Johnson is going to draw double coverage, and Tate is better than advertised as both a route-runner and in getting 50-50 balls. Stafford will be thrilled and attempt to get on the same page with Tate as soon as possible in a real, significant game situation.

NFL Network's Ian Rapoport feels Tate is destined for big things:

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

@DatWhiteB0Y Golden Tate getting ready to have a monster year. Good.

Although he may not be as highly regarded as the likes of Stafford or Johnson, Tate does bring championship-winning experience to what's been a dysfunctional Lions team. They are battling the New York Giants on Monday Night Football—a high-profile game Detroit must perform well in.

It helps that the Lions are at home, and Tate has proved capable of stepping up on the biggest stages, unlike this group of Detroit players.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara form a decent cornerback tandem for New York, yet Tate ought to be able to find a way to get open with one-on-one matchups most of the night. Therefore, expect double-digit targets and for Tate to make the most of many of them.

Projected Week 1 stats: 7 receptions, 100 yards, TD

Tight End: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 04:  Zach Ertz #86 of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates after scoring a 3 yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles #9 in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints to take the lead 24-23 during their NFC Wild Card Playoff gam
Elsa/Getty Images

Coach Chip Kelly's offense is uptempo and will prove hard for the Jacksonville Jaguars to control. Shortening the game is the Jags' best chance to keep this close in Philly, so an emphasis on stopping LeSean McCoy is the best way to that end.

With Jeremy Maclin coming off a torn ACL and DeSean Jackson's departure to Washington, there aren't a lot of proven commodities in the Eagles receiving corps. That ought to give Ertz plenty of opportunities to prove himself.

Jeff McLane of Philly.com likes Ertz's chances to be an option in the scoring zone:

Jeff McLane @Jeff_McLane

Zach Ertz for the TD. Could be the #Eagles' most targeted red zone threat in coming season.

PhillyMag.com's Sheil Kapadia has expressed similar sentiment:

Sheil Kapadia @SheilKapadia

Saw Ertz do that all week: Makes himself big, boxes out defenders, makes contested catches. I think he leads Eagles in rec. TDs this year.

Ertz also doesn't lack any confidence, per CSNPhilly.com's Geoff Mosher:

I pride myself on being able to create mismatches. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. My opinion is I can get open against anybody. I think to be successful in this league you have to have that confidence … I have to have that mentality that I can get open. At the end of last year I started to build my confidence back in myself, where like it was in college that I can beat anybody.

Jacksonville upgraded its defensive line with former Seattle Seahawks Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, yet it is still rather slow and unable to play great coverage in the linebacker corps. That's something Kelly and Co. figure to exploit if the rushing attack is the Jags' primary focus.

The circumstances and offensive system the Eagles run suggest Ertz will be the big pass-catching tight end star of Week 1. Players in Ertz's mold are becoming increasingly sought-after commodities in the modern NFL, and he is bound to be targeted a lot thanks to his big frame and athleticism after the catch.

Kelly knows he has an excellent weapon in his possession, and he'll do all he can to maximize it. Although the Eagles will ultimately be built around McCoy and the run, Ertz should shine bright in Week 1 with a coming-out party at home.

Projected Week 1 stats: 8 receptions, 85 yards, TD