We always want to find the players in the middle and late rounds who seem very likely to outplay their current draft positions. We hope these sleepers wake up and help deliver Fantasy Football championships.
With that in mind, here is a look at 12 sleepers I have identified for the upcoming season to really help deliver some good upside for your teams at a very reasonable Draft Day price.
Josh Freeman, QB, Buccaneers: After a disappointing 2011 season things are looking up for Freeman, who has had a great offseason in terms of personal development and personnel acquisitions. The team added a legit No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson, a good pass-catching running back in Doug Martin, a reliable tight end in Dallas Clark and a Pro Bowl guard in Carl Nicks. Yes, Kellen Winslow is gone, but nine of Freeman's 22 interceptions came on passes intended for the tight end, so that could also be addition by subtraction. Having a legit deep threat like Jackson -- who has averaged over 10 yards per target and 17 yards per catch for his career -- will be huge for Freeman, because he has struggled to get the ball down the field. Jackson will also open things up for Mike Williams as the second receiver and increase the efficiency of the short passing game. New offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was the quarterbacks coach for Eli Manning, so he knows how to orchestrate an excellent passing game. Freeman has also lost some weight (at Sullivan's request) and the team wants to utilize his mobility more this season, which could give him a bump to 400 yards rushing (same as 1,000 yards passing) and four touchdowns on the ground. With Jackson and Martin in the mix along with Nicks providing superior protection, I think Freeman will see his yards per attempt climb back over 7.0 and he will improve his TD-INT ratio back into a positive one. Keep in mind that as bad as Freeman was last year, he was still the 16th-ranked quarterback. With new weapons, a better offense, an improved offensive line and enhanced rushing totals, you have to like his chances to sneak back into the top 10 in 2012.
My projection: 3,750 yards, 23 TDs, 15 INTs; 350 rush yards, four TDs
Mid-August ADP: 19th QB
I'd take him: 15th QB
Jake Locker, QB, Titans: Now that Locker is the Week 1 starter, I think he will be a Top 15 Fantasy quarterback when the 2012 season concludes. As a rookie, Locker played only a handful of quarters but threw 66 passes on the year, completing 34 of them for 542 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. He also ran eight times for 56 yards and another score on the ground. Given that the Titans averaged throwing the ball 36.5 times per game last year (eighth most), we can say that Locker's totals represent about two games worth of action. As two-game totals, it would show that Locker averaged 28.6 points per game, which was the third-best mark for any quarterback last year, trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Locker averaged an excellent 8.2 yards per attempt despite completing only half of his passes as a rookie and could be even better with an improved supporting cast. With Kenny Britt (for some games at least), Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Chris Johnson and tight end Jared Cook, Tennessee now has the weapons to be a dynamic offense on a weekly basis, with Locker pulling the trigger. Locker also posted a solid 27.3 percent red zone touchdown rate as a rookie, which is on par with Tom Brady (27.6) and ranked ninth-best among the 45 busiest quarterbacks inside the 20-yard line. His accuracy will improve with a full offseason and I think Locker is an absolute sleeper or breakout candidate this year.
My projection: 3,911 yards, 22 TDs, 15 INTs; 305 rush yards, two TDs
Mid-August ADP: Undrafted
I'd take him: 19th QB
Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots: Ridley led the Patriots with a 5.1 yards-per-carry average in 2011, which is even more impressive when you consider that all other New England rushers averaged a combined 3.9 yards per attempt. In the four games in which he saw at least 10 carries last year, Ridley averaged a solid 9.5 points per game. In those contests he ran the ball 49 times for 307 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and one touchdown. He averaged a very solid 76.75 yards rushing on only 12.25 carries per game in those contests and could have a bright future if he sees 10-15 carries per week. Given that the Patriots lead the NFL with 55 rushing touchdowns over the last three years, Ridley has a great shot to hit double-digit touchdowns as the team's primary runner and goal line back, similar to Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis finished as a Top 24 runner in each of the last two seasons and Ridley is far more explosive than the Law Firm ever was. You have to love the upside with Ridley, provided he does not fumble the ball -- and his season -- away in 2012.
My projection: 190 carries, 825 yards, eight TDs; 22 catches, 144 yards, one TD
Mid-August ADP: 30th RB
I'd take him: 25th RB
Donald Brown, RB, Colts: There is nothing exciting about drafting Donald Brown this year, but he offers a quality prospective return on your investment as a third runner on Draft Day. Brown is the favorite to be the team's starting runner after rushing for career and team highs of 645 yards and five touchdowns on 4.8 yards per carry in 2011. His 4.8 yards-per-carry figure was more than a yard better than fellow backfield mates Joseph Addai and Delone Carter last year, which is pretty telling. Brown ran for 492 yards in the second half of the 2011 season and was a solid pickup and play towards the end of the season. In his final six games (Week 12 through Week 17), Brown was actually the 23rd-ranked Fantasy back, averaging just over 10 points per game and posting a 50 percent consistency rate. The Colts have not ranked in the Top 25 in rushing for four straight seasons, but this is a new era under Bruce Arians and Brown will have the chance to rush for 1,000 yards if he can stay healthy. After all, Brown has never totaled fewer than seven Fantasy points in a game where he has received at least 16 carries and he averages nearly 15 points per game in those contests. He also averaged 8.9 yards per target out of the backfield back in the Peyton Manning days, so he is a viable dual threat. He will have every opportunity to be the man for the Colts and if he can stay healthy, he will finish in the Top 24.
My projection: 200 carries, 870 yards, five TDs; 34 catches, 233 yards, one TD
Mid-August ADP: 26th RB
I'd take him: 26th RB
Rashad Jennings, RB, Jaguars: Jennings missed the entire 2011 season with a knee injury, but the injury did not require surgery and he's good to go for 2012. Don't forget that back in 2010, Jennings set career highs in carries (84), rush yards (459), yards per carry (5.5), rushing TDs (4), receptions (26), receiving yards (226) and obviously, total yards (685). In his lone start that year -- in Week 17 against the Texans -- Jennings racked up 142 total yards (108 rush) and a score. In the last three weeks of 2010, Jennings caught 15 passes for 132 yards, so you know he has good hands as well. If Maurice Jones-Drew goes down or this holdout lingers into the regular season, I think Jennings has Top 12 potential as the only show in town for the Jags. He is a must grab if you draft Jones-Drew early and even if MJD is not on your roster, I think Jennings is one of the great late-round picks this year. This holdout is getting ugly and snagging Jennings can turn that negative into a positive for your teams.
My projection: 155 carries, 750 yards, five TDs; 30 catches, 201 yards, one TD
Mid-August ADP: 45th RB
I'd take him: 36th RB and rising as this holdout continues
Evan Royster, RB, Redskins: Yes, I hate Mike Shanahan running backs and the nonsense that comes with them. That being said, Royster is my pick to be the best Fantasy back in Washington after showing excellent running skills in his only two starts a year ago. In those two games, Royster went over 100 yards both times and averaged a ridiculous 6.3 yards per carry. He ran 19 times for 132 yards and caught two passes for 15 yards against the Vikings in Week 16. Then he finished out the year with 20 carries for 113 yards and five catches for 52 yards against the Eagles in Week 17. So in two starts Royster picked up 156 total yards per game, which is pretty remarkable. But, he did fail to score on his eight red zone opportunities. Still, for the year, Royster's 5.9 yards per carry average was second best in the league among the backs that had at least 50 carries, trailing only Darren Sproles. There is no other potential fifth running back on your teams with as much non-injury dependent upside as Royster on Draft Day.
My projection: 180 carries, 843 yards, six TDs; 20 catches, 140 yards
Mid-August ADP: 44th RB
I'd take him: 35th RB
Nate Washington, WR, Titans: Jake Locker has been named the starting quarterback for the Titans and no one outside of Locker himself is as happy as Nate Washington. In basically five quarters with Locker under center in 2011, Washington saw 17 targets and caught 12 of them for 212 yards and all four of Locker's passing scores. Washington caught 70.6 percent of his targets from Locker, averaged 12.5 yards per target and had an absurd 24 percent touchdown rate. No way is that sustainable over a full year, but clearly Washington and Locker have a certain chemistry that will benefit Nate again this season. Last season was a career year for Washington with 74 catches for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns (again, four of those came from Locker in basically five quarters) receiving as he posted a career-best 16th place finish at receiver. It was Washington's first finish in the Top 36 at receiver in standard leagues and he will make it two in a row this year. It should also be noted that Washington has at least six receiving scores in each of the last three seasons and his 19 scores during that span ranks 14th among all receivers. With Locker under center, I expect Washington to out-produce his Draft Day spot in 2012 and is a steal as your fourth receiver.
My projection: 66 catches, 950 yards, six TDs
Mid-August ADP: 44th WR
I'd take him: 35st WR
Greg Little, WR, Browns: Little showed promise as a rookie, leading the Browns with 61 catches and 709 yards, but he has to do a better job catching the ball. Little dropped a league-high 14 passes last year and his target conversion rate of 50.8 percent ranked 30th out of the 31 receivers who saw 100 targets in 2011. Little was a Top 36 receiver (35th) from Week 10 on in 2011 and totaled an impressive seven games with five or more receptions, so the potential for good production clearly exists. With improved quarterback play in the form of rookie Brandon Weeden, the addition of Josh Gordon to open the field and a full offseason; look for Little to improve his efficiency in 2012. Given that he will easily see 100 or more targets again this season, Little is a solid upside late third receiver (especially in PPR leagues) or an ideal fourth receiver on Draft Day.
My projection: 70 catches, 899 yards, six TDs
Mid-August ADP: 43rd WR
I'd take him: 36th WR
Randall Cobb, WR, Packers: Cobb is my favorite deep sleeper of the year and I think he has a great chance to bust out for the Packers this season. Cobb was the team's second round pick in 2011 and showed flashes of brilliance in limited action as a rookie. Cobb saw only 31 passes, but he caught 24 of them for 369 yards and one score. He caught 77.4 percent of his targets and averaged 11.9 yards per target, both of which are off the charts for a rookie receiver. In fact, he led all receivers in target conversion rate and his 11.9 yards per target ranked third among the 119 receivers who saw at least 30 targets. In other words, this kid looks like all he needs is the chance to become an absolute superstar. The Packers do not hold down their young talent and I think Cobb will see a dramatic increase in his playing time. There is no better late-round player to target than Cobb and I think he is a virtual lottery ticket as your fifth receiver late in your drafts this year. Even if the hype grows, I'd take him as my fourth receiver, because it's only a matter of time before he is a household name.
My projection: 47 catches, 760 yards, six TDs
Mid-August ADP: 55th WR
I'd take him: 47th WR
Brandon Lafell, WR, Panthers: Lafell posted career highs with 613 yards and three touchdowns in 2011, but the exciting part to me is that he improved his efficiency across the board and showed signs of a player who could really explode with more chances. As a rookie in 2010, Lafell was bad in every efficiency category including target conversion rate (50 percent), yards per target (6.2), yards per catch (12.3) and touchdown rate (1.3 percent). In his second year, Lafell made huge leaps in every category with a 64.3 percent catch rate, a 10.9 yards-per-target average (fourth best among the 80 most targeted recievers), 17.0 yards per catch and a 5.4 percent touchdown rate. In fact, Lafell's 1.42 points per target ranked 13th among the 80 most targeted receivers, so with more chances I am expecting more production. Lafell has the size to be the team's go-to guy in the red zone and his 28.6 percent red zone scoring rate (two scores on seven targets) last year was tied for 20th among the 79 receivers who saw at least seven targets. In other words, Lafell produced like a Top 15 receiver last year, but his targets were too limited for most to notice. With a full offseason to work as the starter with Cam Newton, I am expecting Lafell to be more involved and more productive in 2012. I would not at all be surprised if he reaches 800 yards and six touchdowns.
My projection: 48 catches, 770 yards, six TDs
Mid-August ADP: 49th WR
I'd take him: 45th WR
Jacob Tamme, TE, Broncos: All you need to know about Tamme is what he did as the starter in place of the injured Dallas Clark for the last 10 games of 2010. Tamme was a stud in those games, finishing the year with 67 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns. He was on pace for over 100 catches and a 1,000-yard season if he had been a 16-game starter and was the third-ranked tight end once he took over the job. Despite being non-existent before Clark went down, Tamme still finished 2010 tied for eighth among tight ends with a 44 percent consistency rate (70 percent in games started) and was tied for fifth with a 25 percent big game rate (40 percent in games started). Tamme has shown that he can play at a very high level with Manning at quarterback and that's exactly the situation he finds himself in for the 2012 season after following his quarterback to Denver. He is a great sleeper this year with Top-10 potential and is an ideal piece of a tight end tandem should you miss out on the elite tight ends earlier in your drafts.
My projection: 55 catches, 644 yards, seven TDs
Early-August ADP: 11th TE
I'd take him: 11th TE
Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers: Olsen was a popular sleeper in 2011, but failed to wake up, finishing with 45 catches for 540 yards, five touchdowns and the 17th-ranked Fantasy tight end. He caught just 50 percent of his targets, third worst among the 30 most targeted tight ends and averaged just 6.0 yards per target, sixth worst. The good news for Olsen is that Jeremy Shockey is gone and the Panthers are talking about using more one tight end sets. Considering that Shockey caught 37 passes for 455 yards and four touchdowns last year, you have to think Olsen will get a bump from his departure. Don't forget that Olsen was on a new team, in a new offense and had a new quarterback with no real offseason to get acclimated. This year he will have more familiarity and I expect his production to see a boost as a result. Prior to 2011, Olsen had caught 60.4 percent of his targets and averaged 6.2 yards per target in Chicago, despite never topping 10.5 yards per catch in a season. If he maintains his career high 12.0 yards per catch this year and catches 60.4 percent of his targets, Olsen will bump up to 7.25 yards per target, which is a vast improvement. If Olsen picks up half of Shockey's 62 targets, he could set career highs in both catches and yards, easily topping 60 catches and 700 yards with six touchdowns for 2012 in a best case scenario. To put that in perspective, 700 yards and six scores would have placed ninth at the tight end position in 2011. Olsen was a Top 10 tight end twice in Chicago and has that kind of potential again in 2012, but you can easily snag him as a backup tight end, which means he has little or no risk.
My projection: 55 catches, 700 yards, six TDs
Early-August ADP: 17th TE (or undrafted)
I'd take him: 14th TE
|Alex Smith, QB, SF||The additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins fixes the 49ers' receiver woes, which will enable Smith to post much bigger Fantasy totals.|
|Mike Goodson, RB, OAK||Darren McFadden has missed games over the last three seasons and Goodson is his main backup. Goodson averaged 132 total yards per game as a starter in Carolina in 2010.|
|Kevin Smith, RB, DET||Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure both have trouble staying healthy, so Smith could make a lot of starts this year and produce like he did in late 2011.|
|Ryan Williams, RB, ARI||Williams is the most explosive back in Arizona and should get the chance to shine alongside the injury prone Beanie Wells.|
|David Wilson, RB, NYG||Wilson is the most explosive back the Giants have ever had and given starter Ahmad Bradshaw's feet problems, he could play a big role as a rookie.|
|Shane Vereen, RB, NE||In PPR leagues, Vereen will be a great late-round grab and if Ridley fumbles or falters, he has Top 24 potential in every format.|
|Jonathan Dwyer, RB, PIT||Dwyer would be the favorite to carry the load in Pittsburgh if Isaac Redman either gets injured or struggles.|
|Malcom Floyd, WR, SD||Over the last three years, Floyd ranks fifth at 10.5 yards per target and is 12th at 1.38 Fantasy points per target. If he stays healthy, he is just as likely to breakout as Robert Meachem.|
|Danny Amendola, WR, STL||Amendola caught 85 passes and had a 69.1 percent catch rate back in 2010. He has been the top target for Sam Bradford in camp and is a good PPR sleeper.|
|Kyle Rudolph, TE, MIN||He will be one of the top targets for Christian Ponder and has been the star of Vikings' camp. Rudolph has a 50 percent red zone scoring rate and will emerge in his second season.|