Fantasy Football 2018: Predicting the Top NFL Sleeper at Each Position
No term in fantasy football is more popular than "sleeper," as success is predicated on drafting players whose production far exceeds their asking price.
To be in consideration here, a player's average draft position at My Fantasy League must fall outside of weekly starter territory in 12-team leagues. The farther outside that top 12 (or top 24 at running back, or top 36 at wide receiver) the player falls, the bigger the sleeper potential.
If you can snag a player that late who goes on to have a big year, well...that's how you win fantasy leagues.
Quarterback: Eli Manning, New York Giants
Many fantasy football experts advocate waiting to draft a quarterback because there's value to be had late.
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford currently has an ADP of QB13. Over the past seven years, Stafford has posted over 4,000-plus passing yards in every season and finished as a top-eight fantasy option in NFL.com default fantasy scoring five times.
Go deeper, and you'll see that Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers is barely being drafted inside the top 20 at his position. Rivers has nine 4,000-yard seasons over the past decade and three top-five fantasy campaigns. He also hasn't missed a game over that span.
Stafford and Rivers each play for teams with no shortage of skill-position weaponry, which means both have a realistic chance of cracking the top 10 in fantasy points at the position in 2018. But for the biggest quarterback sleeper, we're going even deeper.
After finishing a disastrous 2017 season ranked 23rd in fantasy points among quarterbacks, Eli Manning of the New York Giants is a fantasy afterthought in 2018. The 37-year-old has only two top-20 finishes over the last five years and hasn't finished higher than 10th over that stretch.
However, reasons for optimism abound in 2018.
For starters, there's the arrival of new head coach Pat Shurmur, whose offense in Minnesota ranked 11th in the NFL last year without its top tailback and with Case Keenum calling the shots under center. Keenum had by far the best season of his career.
A litany of injuries ravaged the receiving corps in New York last season. The Giants will have Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard back healthy this year. They will join promising second-year tight end Evan Engram and No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley—arguably the most talented running back Manning has ever had behind him.
The Giants also bolstered their offensive line with the addition of tackle Nate Solder and rookie guard Will Hernandez. Those additions should afford Manning increased protection and more time to unload the ball.
Manning won't single-handedly win fantasy leagues, but he's a dirt-cheap source of quality depth or a platoon option in favorable matchups. In two-quarterback and superflex leagues, he could be even more.
Top-12 production available outside of the top 25 can be a game-changer in those scoring systems.
Running Back: Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers
Running back is the hardest-hit position in fantasy drafts relative to the number of even semi-viable options. If an NFL tailback has two shoes and a pulse, he's going to be drafted.
This isn't to say there aren't some value plays.
Lamar Miller of the Houston Texans is the fantasy back everyone loves to hate. He's averaged just 3.9 yards per carry since joining the team in 2016. But Miller has also caught 67 passes in two years in Houston and finished both years as a top-20 fantasy option—several slots higher than his ADP of RB27.
Duke Johnson of the Cleveland Browns was a top-12 running back in point-per-reception fantasy leagues last year thanks to 74 catches. He's barely being selected among the top-40 fantasy backs in 2018. Yes, Nick Chubb and Carlos Hyde are in C-Town now, but the Browns didn't just give Johnson a $15.6 million extension for no reason.
Green Bay's Ty Montgomery is a whole other level of comatose, with an ADP of RB42—just a tick ahead of batterymate Jamaal Williams.
Montgomery stumbled through a disappointing 2017 season, missing half the year and seeing his yards per carry plummet from 5.9 to 3.8. Despite that, head coach Mike McCarthy insisted to ESPN's Rob Demovsky that Montgomery remains a big part of the team's offensive plans in 2018.
"We have to take advantage of Ty's skills, and there's no question about that," McCarthy said. "The offense is suited for that."
Those skills McCarthy mentioned were Montgomery's pass-catching chops—skills he told Mike Spofford of the team's website he wants to turn into "chunk" plays this year.
"Mismatches and big plays, that's what I want to bring to this offense," Montgomery said. "When I'm in the game, I want to affect the game. I want to affect the personnel that's out there. I want to affect the defense."
Youngster Aaron Jones is suspended two games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. And Williams was even worse on the ground last year than Montgomery, averaging just 3.6 yards a pop.
There's an excellent chance Montgomery will start the 2018 season the same way he did 2017—as the lead back for a potent Packers offense. If he can stay healthy this time, getting even a "flex" starter in middling RB4 territory is hitting the jackpot.
Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
The wide receiver position can be a bonanza of late values. That's the reason so many fantasy drafters hit the running back position hard early—it's much easier to find startable receivers later in drafts than their backfield counterparts.
The 2018 campaign is no different. Jamison Crowder has quietly turned into a sneaky-good third fantasy starter over the last couple of seasons. He has also already made a good first impression on new Redskins quarterback Alex Smith. And yet despite status as (arguably) Washington's top receiver and that rapport with Smith, Crowder is coming off draft boards as a low-end WR3.
Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers should see a sizable uptick in targets this year with Jordy Nelson gone, and Cobb has shown in the past he has the potential to produce for fantasy owners at an elite level. Cobb's ADP doesn't reflect that—he's 33rd at his position in early drafts this year.
However, the biggest sleeper at wide receiver is being taken much later—outside the top 50.
Mike Williams' rookie season was a mess. Hampered by a back injury that cost him most of his first offseason and six games, the No. 7 overall pick caught all of 11 passes for 95 yards. Per Lindsay Jones of USA Today, Williams will be the first to admit his first season was a dud.
"It was a bad year. I'll be the first one to tell you it was not what I expected," Williams said. "I tried to come out here and play, tried to make some plays. But I couldn't do what Mike Williams is known for. I wasn't able to move my body how I wanted to move it."
However, Williams is healthy now, and fellow Chargers wideout Keenan Allen said the youngster looks like a man on a mission this summer.
"I think it humbled him. He came back hungrier," Allen said. "I think he wants to make plays now, and he's planning to make plays. He's moving faster."
Williams has all the physical gifts NFL teams covet in receivers, whether it's size (6'4"), speed (4.53 40-yard dash) or soft hands. He was wildly productive at Clemson. And the presence of Allen opposite him should mean a whole lot of single coverage this year.
Expect Williams to make a push for a top-25 fantasy season. If he comes close, he will be one of the biggest steals of 2018 at any position.
Tight End: Ricky Seals-Jones, Arizona Cardinals
The tight end spot is also known as the position most likely to cause fantasy drafters to rip their hair out.
This year's tight end crop falls into two camps. There's a handful of trustworthy weekly starters, headlined by the likes of Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots.
Then there's a deep pile of "maybe."
Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ADP: TE15) was quietly seventh in fantasy points at his position over an eight-week span last year. Now in Jacksonville, Seferian-Jenkins offers top-10 upside at a discount.
The same can be said of the tight end being taken just after ASJ. The continued presence of veteran Cameron Brate in Tampa has scared many fantasy drafters off second-year pro O.J. Howard. But Howard showed off his Round 1 skill set in flashes as a rookie. With another year in the system, he could be set for a breakout.
But for the biggest tight end sleeper of 2018, we're going much deeper.
Ricky Seals-Jones of the Arizona Cardinals isn't even listed on the ADP data at Fantasy Football Calculator. At My Fantasy League, he has been the 26th tight end drafted on average.
In more leagues than not, he isn't being drafted at all.
On some level, that's understandable. Seals-Jones caught all of 12 passes as a rookie.
However, peel back a layer or three, and there's more to like about the youngster. Seals-Jones spent his rookie year trying to make the jump from receiver in college to tight end in the pros.
There was one white-hot flash, however. In Weeks 11 and 12, Seals-Jones hauled in seven passes for 126 yards and three scores. Over that two-week span, he was the highest-scoring tight end in fantasy football.
Veteran Jermaine Gresham may be Arizona's nominal starter, but Gresham is also a 30-year-old plodder coming off an Achilles tear. If Seals-Jones makes a year-two jump and wins the starting job for a Cardinals team in need of a secondary target, this deep sleeper my end the 2018 season wide-awake.
Defense/Special Teams: Tennessee Titans
Selecting a sleeper defense is tricky. Most defenses outside of the elite units like the Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams carry major question marks.
Streaming fantasy defenses is one popular option. The concept is simple: spend a late-round pick on a defense that opens the season with a favorable matchup or two. When those matchups dry up, cut that defense loose and grab another one off the waiver wire.
It's a cheap way to cobble together a top-10 defense without paying a draft-day premium.
A handful of squads fit the bill in 2018, but two potential sleepers stand above the others, largely because they aren't among the top 22 fantasy defenses being selected this year.
The Washington Redskins weren't a terrible fantasy defense in 2017, finishing 13th in NFL.com's default fantasy scoring. Washington finished the season tied for seventh in the NFL with 42 sacks and tied for ninth with 16 interceptions.
Washington will get a healthy Jonathan Allen back this year and added another Crimson Tide standout in Da'Ron Payne to bolster one of the NFL's worst run defenses. If that front seven plays better, the Redskins will have a puncher's chance at a top-10 fantasy finish.
The Redskins open the season in Arizona before coming home to face the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2. Neither team is an offensive powerhouse, and both ranked inside the top five in fantasy points allowed to defenses last year.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Titans defense finished the 2017 campaign ranked 20th in fantasy points. Like the Redskins, the Titans were quietly good at getting after the quarterback, logging 42 sacks.
And like Washington, the Titans made moves to shore up their defense for new head coach Mike Vrabel. The team gave cornerback Malcolm Butler a big contract in free agency and used its first two draft picks on linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry.
Also like Washington, the Titans draw a pair of favorable matchups to start the year, beginning with a road game against the Miami Dolphins before a home tilt against the Houston Texans.
The Titans, however, also have a talented young kick returner in Adoree' Jackson. The possibility for a special teams score puts them over the top as the best sleeper defense.
Gary Davenport is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the 2017 FSWA Fantasy Football Writer of the Year.