Fantasy Football Week 18: Biggest Sleepers at Every Position

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 7, 2022

Fantasy Football Week 18: Biggest Sleepers at Every Position

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    For most fantasy managers, the season is over. A champion has been crowned. Some have celebrated. Others have mourned. The long, dark offseason has begun.

    However, others play on. Perhaps your league holds its championship game in Week 18. It's an idea I find ill-advised but understandable—anything to stave off the offseason blues.

    There's also DFS, of course, as folks try to double their money in head-to-head games or win a million bucks in the DraftKings Week 18 Fantasy Football Millionaire contest.

    Week 18 also presents unique challenges. In season-long leagues, managers have to cope with the possibility that star players will take the week off ahead of the playoffs. In DFS, winning a big tournament requires thinking outside the box and finding players with low salaries and rostered percentages.

    Gotta be contrarian to win the big bucks.

    Whatever the challenge, this final fantasy football column of mine for 2021 aims to help you end the regular season on a high note by providing "sleeper" plays at each position.


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    Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts (at JAX) [47 Percent Rostered]

    This was originally going to be Justin Fields, who had serious upside at a discount price against a struggling Minnesota Vikings defense. But COVID-19 wasn't about to squander an opportunity to ruin another week of fantasy football, and now it appears Fields' rookie season is over.

    Calling Wentz a "sleeper" is stretching the definition of the term—he's rostered in almost half the fantasy leagues at Yahoo. But I decided the cutoffs for sleeper status are a rostered percentage of 50 percent and a DK salary of $6,000. Wentz fits both criteria, and of all the quarterbacks who do, he has the best chances of a top-10 fantasy finish.

    You can all but throw out last week's performance against the Raiders—Wentz spent most of the week on the reserve/COVID-19 list and played after what amounted to zero practice. But Wentz has shown he can be a fantasy QB1 in his new home. As a matter of fact, over a five-week span from Week 5 to Week 9, Wentz was a top-five fantasy option at his position.

    The Colts are playing for their postseason and trying to halt a six-year losing streak in Jacksonville against a Jaguars defense allowing the ninth-most DK fantasy points to quarterbacks this season. Jonathan Taylor may well run wild against the Jags, but 250-plus passing yards and two scores for Wentz isn't an unreasonable projection.


    Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (at BAL) [27 Percent Rostered]

    Fantasy managers of quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals are finding out firsthand why having a championship game in Week 18 isn't ideal. Both will either be taking the week off altogether (Burrow) or likely playing just part of the game (Rodgers).

    That leaves fantasy managers scrambling to find a replacement starter at quarterback—and the first place they should look is an old warhorse getting ready for what may be his final ride.

    This week in Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers will play what is likely the final game of his career in the same place where he first saw game action—in Baltimore against the Ravens. Roethlisberger's production this season has been pedestrian at best—he's 20th among quarterbacks in fantasy points for the season and hasn't cracked 160 passing yards or thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game since Week 14.

    But while the Ravens are stout against the run (first in the league at 84.8 yards allowed per game), Baltimore's injury-ravaged secondary ranks dead last in passing yards allowed. Baltimore has also surrendered the second-most DK fantasy points to quarterbacks this season.

    In Week 13, Roethlisberger threw for 236 yards and two scores against the Ravens. Those aren't great numbers, but for fantasy managers in a bind, they certainly beat a blank.


    Taylor Heinicke, Washington Football Team (at NYG) [23 Percent Rostered]

    Apparently, $5,400 is the going rate for a "sleeper" quarterback in Week 18.

    As Ethan Cadeaux reported for NBC Sports Washington, Taylor Heinicke is the first to admit his 2021 season has been an uneven one.

    "I've wanted to start in this league since I was born," Heinicke said. "This season's been a dream come true. I wish it kind of went a little bit differently, but there's a lot to learn from. Hopefully, I'm here in the coming years."

    Heinicke's last three games have admittedly been a mess: In two of the three, he failed to hit even 125 passing yards, and the 28-year-old has just two touchdown passes and four interceptions over that span.

    That's um, not good.

    But Heinicke has all the motivation in the world to come out firing this week in what's essentially an audition for his future. And the last time he took the field against the New York Giants, Heinicke had his best game of the season—34 completions in 46 attempts for 336 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Running Backs

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    Rex Burkhead, Houston Texans (vs. TEN) [30 Percent Rostered]

    NFL" target="_blank">DraftKings DFS Value: $5,200

    OK, we might as well get this out of the way. From a matchup perspective, Rex Burkhead of the Houston Texans is not an attractive option. The Tennessee Titans are the best in the league in PPR points allowed to running backs this season.

    That's admittedly not ideal.

    But Burkhead isn't listed here because of a favorable matchup. He's listed here because of the opportunities he has been receiving in recent games. Burkhead has at least 17 touches in three straight games and over 20 in the past two. Two weeks ago against the Los Angeles Chargers, Burkhead carried the ball 22 times for 149 yards and two scores.

    Rex freaking Burkhead did that!

    There's one more thing to consider here: garbage time.

    Let's say the Titans stifle the run. Avenge their Week 11 loss to the Texans. And drop the proverbial piano on Houston.

    If the Texans are down big in the fourth quarter and Davis Mills is dropping back on every play with the Titans pass rush bearing down on him, there will be a ton of short dump-offs to the running backs.

    Not only can Burkhead post RB2 numbers this week, but his fantasy floor is higher than many realize.


    Samaje Perine, Cincinnati Bengals (at CLE) [12 Percent Rostered]

    We have already seen the damage a reserve running back can do in the fantasy playoffs when afforded the opportunity, whether it was Justin Jackson of the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16 or Boston Scott of the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17.

    Both helped quite a few fantasy managers win championships—now, it's Samaje Perine's turn.

    As Chase Goodbread of reported, Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon has already been ruled out for the team's Week 18 tilt with the Cleveland Browns after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list. That sets up Perine as Cincinnati's lead running back in Week 18 and opens the door for a substantial workload.

    Perine has flashed potential when afforded the opportunity in the past. The fifth-year veteran has quietly averaged more yards per carry (4.5) than Mixon this season, and in each of the two games in which he received double-digit carries, Perine eclipsed 50 rushing yards and averaged over 4.7 yards per carry.

    While functioning as Cincinnati's lead back in a December 2020 game with the Houston Texans, Perine showed he can be a playoff waiver darling—the 26-year-old piled up 136 total yards and two scores on 17 touches. He also rushed for a ridiculous 427 yards in a game while a freshman at the University of Oklahoma in 2014.

    Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot.


    Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (vs. CAR) [4 Percent Rostered]

    This one comes with a sizable caveat: If Ronald Jones II is able to ditch his walking boot and return for the Buccaneers against the Panthers this week, then Ke'Shawn Vaughn turns from a Cinderella sleeper back into a pumpkin.

    Yes, I know that's not how the story goes. It's called creative license. Don't judge me.

    But if Jones is out in Week 18, Vaughn has some real appeal. Some fantasy managers might look to veteran Le'Veon Bell as the preferable add. But as Brandon Gdula pointed out at numberFire, after Jones left last week, "Vaughn handled eight carries and three targets on 24 snaps while Bell saw just three carries and three targets on his 25 snaps."

    Not only did Vaughn see more touches on a similar snap count than Bell, but as his 55-yard scamper against the Panthers in the first meeting between these teams this season demonstrated, Vaughn possesses something that Bell hasn't had in years: breakaway speed.

Wide Receivers

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    Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills (vs. NYJ) [25 Percent Rostered]

    Sometimes, you come across a player, look at the percent of leagues he's rostered in and then reach for the Advil.

    That's the case with Gabriel Davis of the Buffalo Bills.

    Yes, Davis didn't exactly light it up last week against the Atlanta Falcons—three catches on as many targets for 40 yards. But in the three games preceding that relative clunker (which was impacted by weather), Davis posted lines of 2/30/1, 5/43/1 and 5/85/2 on 19 total targets.

    The second-year pro has also shown that he can have success against the New York Jets. Davis only had three targets in Buffalo's 45-17 shellacking of the Jets in Week 10, but he reeled in all three of those targets—and averaged 35 yards a catch.

    Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot.

    With the AFC East title on the line, the Bills have all the motivation in the world to come out and destroy a bad Jets team. And with Stefon Diggs drawing the lion's share of defensive attention, Davis will see one-on-one coverage most of the game. The return of Emmanuel Sanders could steal snaps from Davis, but he didn't practice again Thursday.

    Davis catches a long touchdown in this game. In the first half.

    Book it.


    Cyril Grayson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (vs. CAR) [0 Percent Rostered]

    Just a couple of weeks ago, Cyril Grayson was a 28-year-old practice-squad receiver who had caught all of two passes in his NFL career.

    Now, Grayson is suddenly playing a prominent role for the defending Super Bowl champions.

    With Chris Godwin out for the season, Mike Evans banged up and Antonio Brown no longer with the team, the Buccaneers are suddenly very thin at wide receiver. And over the past two weeks, it's Grayson who has stepped into the void. Two weeks ago against the Panthers, Grayson caught all three of his targets for 81 yards, including a 62-yarder. Last week against the Jets, that target share more than doubled, and Grayson again hit the 81-yard mark—including the game-winning touchdown grab.

    Grayson has shown that he has earned the confidence of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. If a receiver doesn't have that, he isn't getting looks in the passing game.

    Grayson does—and 11 targets over the last two weeks most assuredly lands him on the sleeper radar.


    Zay Jones, Las Vegas Raiders (vs. LAC) [2 Percent Rostered]

    Yep. That's where we're at 18 weeks into the 2021 NFL season. Starting Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Zay Jones.

    The thing is, it's really not such a bad idea.

    After spending much of the season as an afterthought, Jones has been leaned on a lot more heavily by quarterback Derek Carr over the past month or so. Over the past four games, Jones hasn't been targeted fewer than seven times in a contest. He's averaging 8.5 targets per game over that span, has six or more catches in three of four games, at least 50 receiving yards in three of those contests and 12 or more PPR fantasy points twice. He's also coming off his best game of the season—an 8/120/0 line in last week's win over the Indianapolis Colts.

    The potential return of tight end Darren Waller muddies the waters a bit here, and the Chargers have been a rough fantasy matchup for opposing wideouts this season. But we know that Waller and Hunter Renfrow are going to be points of emphasis for the Chargers defensively.

    And that Jones has the wheels to get behind single coverage for a long score in the biggest game of Week 18.

Tight Ends

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    Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears (at MIN) [31 Percent Rostered]

    Honestly, "sleeper" is a relative term with tight ends. With a shallower pool of talent at the position, it's almost impossible to find a player who is available in, say, three of four leagues who is more than a blindfolded dart throw.

    However, Cole Kmet of the Chicago Bears is available in almost seven of 10 fantasy leagues at Yahoo, and you aren't going to do any better grabbing a guy off the wire.

    Kmet's numbers of late haven't been especially impressive—the second-year pro has just 10 targets over the past two games combined, hauling in seven of those for 74 yards. He also hasn't caught a single touchdown pass this season.

    But the youngster provides reasons for optimism. There have been five games this season in which Kmet has received at least seven targets. He's actually a respectable seventh in targets among tight ends with 88. And he faces a Minnesota pass defense that ranks 26th in the NFL.

    Kmet finally gets that touchdown in the finale. Book that too!


    Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns (vs. CIN) [30 Percent Rostered)

    Mention Austin Hooper to a fan of the Cleveland Browns, and you'll get the same facial expression as when you open a Tupperware container in the fridge and realize it's leftover stuffing from Thanksgiving—2020.

    But while Hooper hasn't lived up to his salary in Cleveland, he can still bail out fantasy managers in the season finale—for a couple of reasons.

    The first is his matchup. This week, the Browns close the season with a game against a Cincinnati Bengals team surrendering the fourth-most PPR points to tight ends—and that's with Cincinnati's starters on the field. It's possible many will be taking this relatively meaningless game off.

    The second reason is Cleveland's quarterback situation. Baker Mayfield's miserable 2021 season is mercifully over, and Case Keenum will start against the Bengals. Backup quarterbacks usually mean shorter passes, and shorter passes tend to favor tight ends.


    Evan Engram, New York Giants (vs. WAS) [30 Percent Rostered]

    It's confession time. The notion of starting Evan Engram in Week 18 (or any Giants pass-catcher, for that matter) does not inspire much in the way of confidence. The Giants have failed to generate even 200 yards of offense in either of their past two games, and Jake Fromm's last start was a—what comes after catastrophe?

    But while Engram has just nine catches for 62 yards over the last three games combined, at least one of those grabs was a score. And it's on that touchdown that we're hanging the tattered shreds of hope that Engram will have a good game.

    Washington has one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL—only the Seahawks and Ravens have allowed more passing yards per game. The Giants wide receivers have shown zero ability to get open with any consistency of late. And the last time Engram faced Washington, he caught five passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.

    Granted, that was in 2020. But we're being hopeful here!


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    Fantasy points allowed and scoring data courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

    Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @IDPSharks.