Top 25 Fantasy Football Sleepers for the 2011 NFL Season

Steven Gerwel@Steve_GerFeatured Columnist IVMay 18, 2011

Top 25 Fantasy Football Sleepers for the 2011 NFL Season

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    OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Mark Clayton #89 of the St. Louis Rams warms up before their game against the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 19, 2010 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    It happens every single year in the world of fantasy football. 

    Some of the top fantasy draft picks flop face down and disappoint us, while some unexpected players make a winner out of some team in your league.

    Let's try to pinpoint some of those players, as we look at 25 Fantasy Football Sleepers for the 2011 Season. 

C.J. Spiller (Running Back, Buffalo Bills)

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    MIAMI - DECEMBER 19:  Running Back C.J. Spiller #21 of the Buffalo Bills runs against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Miami, Florida.The Bills defeated the Dolphins 17-14.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    C.J. Spiller was drafted by Buffalo with the No. 9 overall pick in 2010 but was a disappointing rookie.

    He managed to run for only 283 yards and no touchdowns, and as a receiver he picked up 157 yards and one touchdown.  

    Not too impressive for a top-10 pick, at least not yet.

    Expect Spiller to assume more responsibilities in 2011 alongside running back Fred Jackson.

    Spiller can get you points on the ground, by catching the ball and even in the return game. If he earns more touches every game, then he’ll be a valuable late-round pick.  

Jordan Shipley (Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals)

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    CINCINNATI - NOVEMBER 21:  Jordan Shipley #11 of the Cincinnati Bengals reaches for a pas while defended by Reggie Corner #27 of the Buffalo Bills during the NFL game  at Paul Brown Stadium on November 21, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Bills won 49-31.
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    We saw Jordan Shipley put together a pretty promising rookie campaign for the Cincinnati Bengals.

    He had 600 receiving yards and three touchdowns as a slot receiver.

    If Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco both leave the Bengals, then expect Shipley to become a key component in their aerial attack.

    Of course, if quarterback Carson Palmer is gone next season, that could hurt Shipley's attempt to improve on his numbers.

Christian Ponder (Quarterback, Minnesota Vikings)

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    MOBILE, AL - JANUARY 29: Quarterback  Christian Ponder #7 of the South Team passes over defensive lineman Pierre Allen #95 North Team during the fourth quarter of the Under Armour Senior Bowl on January 29, 2011 at Ladd-Pebbles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.
    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    All the successful rookie quarterbacks have one thing in common—running backs.

    Sam Bradford had Steven Jackson; Ben Roethlisberger had Jerome Bettis; Matt Ryan had Michael Turner; and Mark Sanchez had a committee of capable runners.

    A solid work horse in the backfield makes life easier for a rookie, and Adrian Peterson is among the best.

    It wouldn’t be wise to start Christian Ponder on your fantasy team immediately, or to use a high pick on him. But he could be a solid backup quarterback that could eventually develop into a starter as the season progresses. 

Michael Crabtree (Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49er's)

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    GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 29:  Wide receiver Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after scoring a 38 yard touchdown reception against the Arizona Cardinals during the first quarter of the NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on No
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    As a rookie in 2009, Michael Crabtree partook in a lengthy contract holdout that lasted until Week 7.

    Missing training camp and practically half of the season certainly hindered his development, so his second season in 2010 was practically a second rookie season for him.

    Now that he has some experience in the offense, look for him to develop into his destined role as a top receiver for the San Francisco 49ers. 

Mark Clayton (Wide Receiver, St. Louis Rams)

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    ST. LOUIS - OCTOBER 03:  Mark Clayton #89 of the St. Louis Rams makes the catch as Kelly Jennings #21 of the Seattle Seahawks defends on October 3, 2010 at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. The Rams defeated the Seahawks 20-3.  (Photo by Elsa/Gett
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Mark Clayton will attempt to return from a devastating knee injury that ended his 2010 season.

    Before the injury, he and St. Louis Rams’ quarterback Sam Bradford had almost instant chemistry, despite Clayton missing the team’s training camp.

    Clayton had 306 yards and two touchdowns in just over four games for St. Louis last season, so look for him to build on that if he comes back healthy. 

Arrelious Benn (Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

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    LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 12:  Arrelious Benn #17 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates a late game touchdown against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on December 12, 2010 in Landover, Maryland. The Buccaneers defeated the Redskins 17-16. (Photo by La
    Larry French/Getty Images

    Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Williams basically stole all of the attention in 2010, but the team is still expecting big things from Arrelious Benn.

    Both were rookies last season, and despite Benn being a second-round pick (while Williams was a fourth-round selection), Williams had the better year as the team’s top receiver.

    Now that opposing teams know to place their focus on Williams and now that Benn has had a year to develop, look for him to make a sizable contribution in 2011. 

Jerricho Cotchery (Wide Receiver, New York Jets)

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    Jerricho Cotchery has been a solid receiver for the New York Jets ever since he was a rookie in 2004, but he lost some of his stats to wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards in 2010.

    Holmes and Edwards will both be free agents this offseason, and it’s expected that at least one of them will be let go.

    If that happens, then expect Cotchery to play a bigger role in their offense as the No. 2 receiver. 

Lance Kendricks (Tight End, St. Louis Rams)

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    MADISON, WI - SEPTEMBER 18: Lance Kendricks #84 of the Wisconsin Badgers catches a pass against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Camp Randall Stadium on September 18, 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. Wisconsin defeated Arizona State 20-19. (Photo by Jonathan Da
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Kendricks was drafted by the Rams with the No. 47 overall pick in 2011 as a tight end.

    But “tight end” only describes his spot on the roster, as he’ll be much more to the team than a simple tight end.

    You’ll see Kendricks split out wide as a receiver, catching balls out of the backfield and of course as a traditional tight end as well.  

    Think of what tight end Aaron Hernandez is to the New England Patriots, and then you’ll get the idea and understand why Kendricks is a valuable fantasy asset.

Mikel LeShoure (Running Back, Detroit Lions)

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    CHICAGO - NOVEMBER 20: Mikel Leshoure #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini runs on his way to a 339 yard rushing performance against the Northwestern Wildcats during a game played at Wrigley Field on November 20, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. Illinois defeated
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Mikel LeShoure should be productive immediately in Detroit.

    He is coming to a capable offense, and it’s very possible that the Lions drafted him as their primary back.

    They’re thrilled with Jahvid Best—there’s no doubt about that—but they’re just not sure if he’s fit to carry the full load, which is why they used their second-round pick last April to draft the bigger and more durable LeShoure.

    LeShoure might have a learning curve, and it might take him some time to find some consistency, but he will get carries immediately.  

Brian Robiskie (Wide Receiver, Cleveland Browns)

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    GREEN BAY - AUGUST 14: Brian Robiskie #80 of the Cleveland Browns makes a touchdown catch during the NFL preseason game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field August 14, 2010 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
    Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

    Brian Robiskie was a second-round pick by Cleveland in 2009, and he’s given fans little to be excited about.

    But people constantly forget that it takes time for some players to develop.

    Robiskie had 152 yards and three touchdowns in the final three games of last season. That's about half of his yards (310) and all of his touchdowns (three) for the 2010 season in the final three games.

    Now that the Browns actually have solid answer at quarterback in Colt McCoy, we can expect the learning and production to begin.

Toby Gerhart (Running Back, Minnesota Vikings)

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    MINNEAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 21: Toby Gerhart #32 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball against the Green Bay Packers at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on November 21, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Toby Gerhart had very little production behind the Vikings’ starting running back Adrian Peterson.

    He only had 81 carries on the entire year, which resulted in 322 rushing yards and only one touchdown.

    However, now that the Vikings have a rookie quarterback under center (2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder), expect their offensive philosophy to shift a bit and become a more run-friendly offense.

    Gerhart will certainly get more carries in 2011. 

Leon Washington (Running Back, Seattle Seahawks)

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    SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 08:  Leon Washington #33 of the Seattle Seahawks runs down field against the New Orleans Saints during the 2011 NFC wild-card playoff game at Qwest Field on January 8, 2011 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Ima
    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Leon Washington turned out to be a good acquisition by the Seattle Seahawks, who gained Washington by sending a fifth-round pick to the New York Jets.

    Washington was a valuable and versatile part of the Jets, who were likely only willing to trade him because of a leg injury that he had in 2009.

    Despite the injury, Washington was able to remain productive for Seattle.

    Now that he’s had time to heal the injury even further, he should return to the Seahawks in 2011 completely rejuvenated, which means he will see a peak in his stats. 

Ryan Mathew (Running Back, San Diego Chargers)

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    DENVER - JANUARY 02:  Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers eludes linebacker Robert Ayers #56 of the Denver Broncos as he rushes for a 31 yard touchdown on fourth down and one yard to go in the fourth quarter at INVESCO Field at Mile Hi
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Fantasy Football team managers were inexplicably using high picks on the rookie running back Ryan Mathews in 2010.

    Due to injury, Mathews was a disappointment to those people.

    But let’s not give up on the hype too soon. He now knows the ropes of the NFL, and he’ll hopefully stay healthy in 2011.

    The Chargers had the No. 1 ranked offense in the NFL in 2010 (average yards per game), so Mathews is in an environment that will help him produce big numbers.

Mark Ingram (Running Back, New Orleans Saints)

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (L) poses for a photo with Mark Ingram, #28 overall pick by the New Orleans Saints, holds up a jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Reggie Bush is likely out and newly acquired running back Mark Ingram is in (No. 28 overall pick, 2011).

    The Saints will probably rely primarily on running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas in the beginning, but Ingram will become more involved as the season progresses.

    Ingram is a workhorse that is coming to an elite offense, so expect solid production out of the former Heisman Trophy winner, even if he is a rookie.

Jerrel Jernigan (Wide Receiver, New York Giants)

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    NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 18:  Jerrel Jernigan #3 of the Troy University Trojans scores a touchdown over Donovan Fletcher #29 of the Ohio University Bobcats during the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome on December 18, 2010 in New O
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    If the New York Giants lose wide receiver Steve Smith to free agency, then expect rookie receiver Jerrel Jernigan to contribute immediately.

    There’s a good chance that the Giants used a third-round pick on Jernigan last April as a fallback plan in case Smith leaves.

    If Smith does sign with another team, then Jernigan’s fantasy value will increase enormously. But even if Smith doesn't leave, expect Jernigan to get involved in the Giants’ offense more and more as the season progresses. 

Daniel Thomas (Running Back, Miami Dolphins)

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    LAWRENCE, KS - OCTOBER 14:  Daniel Thomas #8 of the Kansas State Wildcats carries the ball as Olaitan Oguntodu #44 of the Kansas Jayhawks defends during the game on October 14, 2010 at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Im
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Either running back Ronnie Brown or running back Ricky Williams will be gone in 2011.

    Maybe even both of them.

    If that happens, then the spotlight will shine directly on rookie running back Daniel Thomas, who the Dolphins just drafted in the second round last April.

    Miami has been relying on their run game for a long time now, and Thomas will make a great addition.

Beanie Wells (Running Back, Arizona Cardinals)

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 19:  Beanie Wells #26 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with the ball against the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Beanie Wells showed promise as a rookie in 2009, but his stats in 2010 were a significant drop off.

    Wells had 793 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, but he had only 397 yards and two touchdowns last season, as well as a dismal 3.4 yards per carry average.

    He also missed three games in 2010 due to injury.

    Don’t let his drop off in 2010 fool you, as he’s still a very capable back. Last year, the entire Arizona offense was trying to adapt to life without quarterback Kurt Warner, who left the team for retirement.

    The Cardinals have not solved their quarterback issue yet, but the initial shock of losing Warner is gone, and Wells will likely get back on track at some point.  

Tony Scheffler (Tight End, Detroit Lions)

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    MINNEAPOLIS - SEPTEMBER 26:  Tight end Tony Scheffler #85 of the Detroit Lions breaks a tackle from Chad Greenway #52 of the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on September 26, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Lions 24-10.
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Tony Scheffler was acquired by the Detroit Lions through free agency prior to the 2010 season.

    Scheffler was a solid tight end for the Denver Broncos but experienced a slight drop off in numbers after his first season with the Lions.

    The Lions have a solid offense that’s capable of getting Scheffler more involved, so expect more production out of him now that it’s his second year in the offense.

Brandon LaFell (Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers)

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    SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 05:  Wide receiver Brandon LaFell #11 of the Carolina Panthers just misses this pass against Marcus Trufant #23 of the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field on December 5, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Carolina wide receiver has asked to be placed in a competitive situation, which is clearly not Carolina.

    Expect Smith to be traded prior to the 2011 season.

    This would leave second-year receiver Brandon LaFell as the new primary receiver.

    LaFell was one of the bright spots on the Panther’s team last season, as he had 468 receiving yards in a secondary role behind Smith. It wasn’t a bad rookie season for LaFell, especially when you consider he was on the worst team in the NFL.

    Expect him and newly acquired quarterback Cam Newton to form a chemistry with one another.

Legedu Naanee (Wide Receiver, San Diego Chargers)

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    OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Legedu Naanee #11 of the San Diego Chargers warms up before their game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 10, 2010 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd are set to become free agents, and one of them will leave.

    This means the Legedu Naanee will have a chance to become for involved.

    The Chargers have a top notch offense and an elite quarterback (Philip River), so they are capable of inflating Naanee’s numbers.

    Expect him to do more in 2011, as he’ll be trusted with more responsibilities. 

Randall Cobb (Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers)

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    Randall Cobb was just put into a very ideal situation.

    The Green Bay Packers used their 2011 second-round pick on Cobb, which puts him into one of the best offenses in the NFL.

    Not only that, but Cobb will also get fantasy owners points in the return game, on top his receiving stats.

    Look for Cobb to make some owner who spent a late-round gamble pick on him very happy.

Joel Dreessen (Tight End, Houston Texans)

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    JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 14:  Joel Dreessen  #85 of the Houston Texans runs the ball before being tackled by Austen Lane #92 during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on November 14, 2010 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Tight end Owen Daniels is the undisputed starter at tight end for the Houston Texans, and no one is really expecting tight end Joel Dreessen to relinquish him of that role.

    Dreessen had a career year in 2010, acquiring 518 yards and four touchdowns in 10 starts.

    Though the Texans still like Daniels, they learned something in 2010—Dreessen is a weapon, and he needs to be properly utilized in 2011.

Mike Thomas (Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars)

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    HOUSTON - JANUARY 02:  Wide receiver Mike Thomas #80 of the Jacksonville Jaguars scores in the second quarter against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on January 2, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Mike Sim-Walker is generally who people would think of if asked who the Jacksonville Jaguars top wide receiver is.

    But receiver Mike Thomas beat Sims-Walker in 2010 by nearly 300 yards.

    Mike Thomas became quarterback David Garrard’s favorite receiver, as he accumulated 820 yards, while Sims-Walker ended his season with only 562 yards.

    Sims-Walker did have seven touchdowns compared to Thomas’ four, but regardless, Thomas will continue to be Garrard’s preference, especially since Sims-Walker might not return in 2011. 

Jonathan Stewart (Running Back, Carolina Panthers)

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    Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams will likely sign with a more competitive team, as he’s set to become a free agent this offseason.

    Jonathan Stewart will take over as the Panther’s feature back.

    Stewart was a disappointment in 2010 with only 770 yards and two touchdowns (compared to 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009).

    His shortcomings last season should not be taken to heart, as the entire team around him played pretty poorly as well.

    He’s a talented back, and he’s bound to continue his success at some point. 

Tim Tebow (Quarterback, Denver Broncos)

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    DENVER - JANUARY 02:  Quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos looks to deliver a pass against the San Diego Chargers at INVESCO Field at Mile High on January 2, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Starting quarterback Kyle Orton was benched for the final three games of the season for Tim Tebow, who was a rookie at the time.

    It’s not certain and maybe even doubtful that the Broncos’ new front office agrees with that move.

    If they do, however, expect Tebow to become a solid fantasy asset, as his ability to run gives him extra value.