Fantasy Football 2017: Predicting the Top NFL Sleeper at Each Position
Among the definitions for "sleeper" at Merriam-Webster is this: "Someone or something unpromising or unnoticed that suddenly attains prominence or value."
That's the type of sleeper fantasy football owners fervently search for every summer. The players available later in drafts who go on to have huge statistical seasons.
Everyone talks up early-round picks like Arizona Cardinals tailback David Johnson and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, but those players are expected to excel. It's the surprise stars that win leagues.
Draft a backup who goes on to become an every-week fantasy starter, and you're cruising toward the playoffs. Grab a low-end starter who goes on to become an elite fantasy option, and you'll have a leg up on your competition.
It's those players we're going to try to pinpoint here, with a look at the top fantasy sleeper at each position in 2017.
Quarterback: Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (ADP: QB13)
Per the early ADP info at FantasyPros, which aggregates a number of providers, fantasy owners are drafting Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota as a backup in 12-team leagues.
Assuming Mariota is fully recovered from his broken leg by Week 1—and at the moment, there's no reason to think he won't be—the third-year quarterback isn't going to be a backup for long.
For a significant portion of the 2016 season, Mariota wasn't just a viable weekly starter; he was an elite one. From Weeks 5 through 12, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers was the only quarterback who had more fantasy points than Mariota—barely.
Mariota has everything a young quarterback needs to succeed. A stout offensive line. A potent ground game. And now a deep receiving corps, with newcomers Corey Davis, Eric Decker, Jonnu Smith and Taywan Taylor joining holdovers like Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker.
Mariota is a prime example of why it's wise for fantasy owners to wait before drafting a starter at quarterback. He has legitimate top-five upside if things break the right way—he already demonstrated it last year!—and he can be had for the cost of a low-end QB1 or high-end QB2.
In fantasy football, value is the name of the game. As of now, Mariota is shaping up as the best value of 2017 under center.
Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: QB15): Rivers finished as the QB8 in 2016, and the 35-year-old has an improved offensive line and receiving corps at his disposal this season.
Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: QB22): Bortles regressed badly a year ago, but he was second in the NFL in touchdown passes and a top-five fantasy option in 2015.
Running Back: Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts (ADP: RB35)
Last year, Frank Gore became the first running back since 2007 to gain 1,000 yards on the ground for the Colts. It was the best season by a tailback over 31 years old since Thomas Jones piled up over 1,400 rushing yards for the New York Jets in 2009.
That's part of the problem—running backs on the wrong side of 30 don't often have big years. In 2016, Gore failed to average four yards a carry for the second consecutive season.
Fantasy owners seem to have those concerns about Gore in 2017, as they're barely drafting the 34-year-old inside fantasy RB3 territory in 12-team leagues. At that price, savvy fantasy owners should be all over him this year.
For starters, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more consistently productive fantasy option in the backfield over the past decade. Since 2006, Gore has piled up 1,200-plus yards from scrimmage every season. His lowest fantasy finish in PPR scoring systems over that span is RB21—14 slots higher than where he's coming off draft boards in 2017.
He's also been remarkably durable, having played in at least 14 games every year during that stretch except 2010.
The end of the line could come at any moment for Gore. But at this reduced price, fantasy owners should be more than willing to wager it won't be until after the 2017 season.
Danny Woodhead, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: RB30): In Woodhead's last full season (2015), he caught 80 passes and ranked third among running backs in PPR fantasy points.
Paul Perkins, New York Giants (ADP: RB33): Perkins wasn't a world-beater as a rookie, having averaged 4.1 yards per carry, but a young lead tailback isn't often available in the seventh round of fantasy drafts.
Robert Kelley, Washington Redskins (ADP: RB43): Kelley will have to hold off rookie bruiser Samaje Perine, but "Fat Rob" showed up at OTAs in phenomenal shape.
Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns (ADP: RB44): Johnson was a fantasy disappointment in 2016, but that may be a blessing in disguise given the 23-year-old's now-depressed asking price on draft day.
Joe Williams, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: RB52): The 49ers moved up to draft Williams in 2017, largely at the behest of new head coach Kyle Shanahan, according to Peter King of The MMQB. In theory, he's a better fit in the offense than Carlos Hyde.
Wide Receiver: Quincy Enunwa, New York Jets (ADP: WR49)
The New York Jets appear destined for a miserable 2017 campaign. After purging a plethora of veterans, the Jets might be the NFL's most talent-deficient team.
Among those purged were wide receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, leaving fourth-year pro Quincy Enunwa as the de facto No. 1 wideout for Gang Green in 2017. That development didn't give NFL.com fantasy expert Marcas Grant warm, fuzzy feelings.
"As the Jets No. 1 receiver," Grant said, "approaching 120 targets seems very likely. But an aerial attack lacking any proven outside weapons with a potential focus on short throws doesn't inspire confidence in big yardage and touchdown totals for Enunwa. ... If finding the top receiver in the offense could end up being a dart throw for Jets quarterbacks, it should be a dart throw for you, too."
The thing is, that's exactly what Enunwa has been in early fantasy drafts—a dart throw. And he has an excellent chance of significantly outperforming his WR5 asking price.
While it's difficult to get excited about the Jets passing game in 2017, someone has to catch passes for them. Since they'll be trailing approximately all of every game, garbage-time scoring could be plentiful.
Even if Enunwa only repeats his 2016 numbers, he'd be a decent value as a fourth receiver and depth at the position. And it won't take a huge spike in production for him to become a third weekly starter.
Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: WR36): Garcon's ADP has been on the rise, but he's still a value as the No. 1 pass-catcher for Kyle Shanahan's San Francisco offense.
Eric Decker, Tennessee Titans (ADP: WR43): Over Decker's last three healthy seasons, he averaged over 80 catches, 1,000-plus yards and nine touchdowns.
Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: WR47): While Alshon Jeffery's arrival in Philly will cost Matthews targets, it will also draw away coverage.
Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions (ADP: WR48): Over the first half of last season, Jones was a top-10 fantasy receiver. He's one of the position's biggest late-round value picks in 2017.
Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: WR51): Williams was a 1,000-yard receiver last year, and there are injury questions galore with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams in L.A.
Tight End: Julius Thomas, Miami Dolphins (ADP: TE15)
Jack Doyle of the Indianapolis Colts has all of the makings of a fantasy sleeper at tight end, but his ADP has crept into low-end starter territory in 12-team PPR leagues. So back to the drawing board it is.
Back to the drawing board has been the theme of Julius Thomas' career over the past few seasons. After reeling in 12 touchdown passes in both 2013 and 2014 with the Denver Broncos, Thomas signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He then suffered through a miserable two-year span with Jacksonville before the Jags dealt him across the Sunshine State to the Dolphins in March.
Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen told ESPN's James Walker that he thinks Thomas is capable of recapturing his past glory.
"If Julius Thomas is healthy and we catch some breaks, he can be and has been a 10-touchdown guy," Christensen said. "That's a big number. He can be that."
Factoring in his disappointing last two years and a crowded receiving corps in Miami, a repeat of his 2014 (TE7) or 2013 (TE3) finishes might be asking too much. But if Thomas is healthy and can serve as a reliable red-zone target for Ryan Tannehill, a finish at the back end of the top 10 is within reach.
Given Thomas' modest asking price, that would make him a great value in 2017.
Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: TE18): Atlanta tight ends accounted for 83 targets and 10 scores in 2016, according to CBS Sports. With Jacob Tamme no longer in the fold, Hooper's share of that workload should increase in 2017.
Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: TE19): This pick could have an expiration date, but Brate isn't going to hand Tampa Bay's lead tight end role to rookie OJ Howard after his solid 2016 campaign.
David Njoku, Cleveland Browns (ADP: TE20): It's rare for a rookie tight end to make a fantasy dent, but the Browns thought enough of Njoku to show veteran Gary Barnidge the door.
Kicker: Dustin Hopkins, Washington Redskins (ADP: K17)
The No. 1 rule for drafting a fantasy kicker is simple: Do not, under any circumstances, draft a kicker before the final round. The top 10 kickers experience a great deal of turnover from year to year. Even if you manage to select the top kicker in a given season, the edge you're getting for that pick is negligible.
In 2016, the best kicker (Matt Bryant of the Atlanta Falcons) outscored the No. 12 kicker (Nick Novak of the Houston Texans) by two fantasy points per game.
It's especially wise to wait on a kicker until the final round because outside of the top few guys, fantasy drafters largely throw darts where kickers are concerned. That's the only explanation for why Dustin Hopkins of the Washington Redskins is being taken outside of the top 15.
Last year, Hopkins attempted an NFL-high 42 field goals. He was tied for fourth at the position in field goals made (34) and ranked third in fantasy points.
Is there any guarantee he'll repeat that performance in 2017? No. But since you can take Hopkins with the last pick in your draft, it doesn't matter. If he starts slow, cut him loose and grab someone else.
Caleb Sturgis, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: 14): Another top-five fantasy kicker last year being largely ignored in drafts, Sturgis was second to Hopkins with 41 field goal attempts in 2016.
Wil Lutz, New Orleans Saints (ADP: K18): Lutz came on strong down the stretch for fantasy owners in 2016, raking third among kickers from Week 8 onward.
Defense/Special Teams: Carolina Panthers (ADP: DST12)
Like with kickers, fantasy owners should avoid spending major draft capital on a high-end team defense, as there's too much variance from season to season. Last year's treasure could be this year's trash.
Instead, the concept of "streaming" team defenses—finding one with favorable matchups to start the season and then potentially looking to the waiver wire after those matchups dry up—has grown in popularity.
This year, the Carolina Panthers' D/ST may be the apple of streamers' eye.
In Week 1 of the 2017 season, the Panthers travel west to face a San Francisco 49ers team that ranked sixth in fantasy points allowed to defenses in 2016. The following week, they host a Buffalo Bills team that is hardly an offensive powerhouse.
The Carolina defense backslid in 2016 after ranking among the NFL's best the year before, but safety Kurt Coleman told Max Henson of the team's website the unit should be vastly improved this season.
"We want to be the number one defense," Coleman said.
The Panthers were tied for first in fantasy points in their Super Bowl run two years ago, but from a fantasy perspective, last year's slide wasn't all that bad. Carolina's D/ST still slotted inside the top five.
A top-five defense with plum matchups to start the year available on the cheap? What's not to like?
Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: DST13): Only two teams allowed more fantasy points to team defenses in 2016 than the Cleveland Browns, according to NFL.com. Guess who the Steelers travel to play in Week 1?
Buffalo Bills (ADP: DST18): The New York Jets (Buffalo's Week 1 opponent) were second in fantasy points allowed to defenses in 2016 and somehow managed to get worse in the offseason.
Indianapolis Colts (ADP: NR): The Colts took a buzzsaw to their defense in the offseason and open 2017 against a Los Angeles Rams team that allowed the most fantasy points to defenses last year.