Each year, there are a number of players who consistently contribute solid statistics. You can insert them into almost any game situation and they will succeed. Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham, Drew Brees. These players are fantasy gems. They are sure-fire first-round picks. But then there are players who make you hold your breath before you draft them. These are fantasy sleepers and the topic of our conversation.
Let’s just say the players on this list have some issues. Some are unproven rookies, while others are coming off major injuries. Others are in a prove-it year for both their team and fantasy owners. They need to restore faith in their former supporters. However, despite their differences, these sleeper picks have one thing in common: They have upside. You won’t draft these guys high, but they could be steals if you can snag them late.
We’ll break down the reasons these players have the potential to put up some gaudy statistics, as well as the reasons they might completely fail. When analyzing these players it’s best to look at the big picture. Sure, some players might have been a bust last year, but did they put up consistent statistics in the years prior? Are these players young enough to rebound? Do they have a history of injuries or was that injury-ravished season a fluke?
This list was ordered from least to most valuable sleeper pick relative to where they will likely be drafted. In other words, these players are most likely to give you the most bang-for-your-buck and will be looked over by other players when the times comes to draft them. Not every player here is a late round pick. Some will go earlier than others. The most important thing to note is this: These players will likely drop and when they do, you should consider drafting them.
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20 Jace Amaro, TE, New York Jets
Drafting Amaro too high is a stretch, but he’s worth a look late. NFL experts highly praised him when he came out of college, and the Jets jumped at the opportunity to draft him as they needed to upgrade their weak receiving core. Usually, rookie tight ends don’t make a big impact, but Amaro has a chance to put up some decent numbers. Second-year quarterback Geno Smith may look to big-bodied Amaro to help him become that “top-5 quarterback” he basically guaranteed he’d become this season.
On the negative, recent reports indicate Amaro “looked lost” in spring minicamps, but what rookie isn’t initially lost? The Jets should ease Amaro into his role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to hurry him along, which may be a good or bad thing for fantasy owners
19 E.J. Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
Three obstacles may prevent Manuel from flourishing this season. First, he may simply be an average quarterback cloaked by his first-round status. Second, he faces Bill Belichick’s revamped defense twice a year. And third, the Bills will face opponents with a winning percentage of .500.
However, one player may negate those three negatives: Sammy Watkins. If Manuel proves he is actually capable of leading an offense, he’ll have rookie receiver Sammy Watkins to throw too. Bills’ running back C.J. Spiller is a candidate to have a breakout season and veteran Fred Jackson is a stable presence in the backfield. Obviously don’t draft Manuel high, but he could be a good option later as backup or QB 2.
18 Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers
With the loss of James Jones to free agency, the Packers have been retooling to ensure Aaron Rodgers has the plethora of weapons that have made him a top-tier quarterback. Add Davante Adams to that list. Reports indicate the second-round pick has had a strong camp and is pushing Jarrett Boykin for the number two spot. Other reports have Adams challenging for the slot receiver position. In any case, he is someone to look out for.
17 C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
Spiller is a sleeper pick for a couple of reasons. First, sources speculate the Bills may try to trade Spiller because he is in the final year of his contract; and thus, they will have a hard time resigning him. Second, the Bills own a crowded backfield. Last year old warrior Fred Jackson picked up the slack when Spiller became hindered with injuries. However, Spiller is their more explosive back and is only a year removed from a 1,244 yard, five touchdown season. In 2012, he also recorded 43 receptions for 459 yards.
16 Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
It is best to judge an NFL player after their third year in the league. This will be Tannehill’s third year, so he has no excuses not to meet former expectations and put up big numbers. He disappointed last season, but it didn’t help that he was sacked a league worst 58 times. It’s tough to throw the ball deep to speedy receiver Mike Wallace under those horrid conditions. This year, the Dolphins rebuilt their offensive line, drafted LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry and added former Broncos’ running back Knowshon Moreno. Also, new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is a “major improvement” over former coordinator Mike Sherman.
15 Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Some fantasy owners are shying away from drafting running back Marshawn Lynch too early for one simple reason. First, he is on the wrong side of 28 years old. During his first three full years with the Seahawks, Lynch carried the ball a whopping 901 times. That ranks first in the NFL and screams wear-and-tear. That is great news for Christine Michael who has the body frame and game-breaking ability to replace “Beast Mode.” When the Seahawks drafted Michael in the second round last year, they planned to ease him into the offense. He may have his opportunity this year to make fantasy owners very happy.
14 Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders’ running back position is in a precarious situation, which leaves the door wide open for Murray to flourish. The Raiders signed Maurice Jones-Drew to a three-year, $7.5 million deal and resigned Darren McFadden to a one-year deal. However, both players come with doubt. How much does Jones-Drew have left in his tired legs, and when will McFadden get hurt? Both questions increase Murray’s chances of playing a significant amount of snaps. Recently, coach Dennis Allen also raved about Murray.
13 Shane Vereen, RB, New England Patriots
If Vereen can stay healthy, he is a break out candidate and a fantasy football dream player. Last year Vereen played in only eight games, but in those games he amassed 47 receptions for 427 yards and averaged almost 10 yards per reception. If he had played a full season, he would have averaged 94 catches for 854 yards and six touchdowns and would have been the Patriots’ leading running back in snaps.
The knock on Vereen is that the Patriots use a running back by committee approach, which could limit his snaps. However, don’t let that scare you away from drafting Vereen higher than you normally would have if they didn’t have that committee. The Patriots want Vereen to be the next Kevin Faulk, a former Patriot running back who excelled in the passing game.
12 Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins
Griffin III is a household name, but he should be a sleeper pick. After hitting the proverbial sophomore slump, he will bounce back due to a revamped receiving core and a familiar system under new coach Jay Gruden. The Washington Post reports the Redskins’ offense will be more pass-oriented, which may scare some fantasy owners who like to see Griffin III run. However, let’s look at the big picture: Griffin is a good passer and he can be great if he uses his legs to buy more time in the pocket. This tactic may also keep him on the field, which is the only way he’ll gain points obviously. On top of that, they added DeSean Jackson to make his weapons even more potent.
11 Brandon LaFell, WR, New England Patriots
Lafell will have to overcome two obstacles for him to succeed in the Patriots' offense. One, he has to hold onto the ball more. His "inconsistent" hands early in camp are sure to irk Tom Brady. And that leads us to number two. He must gain Brady's trust by both catching the football consistently and understanding the Patriots' complicated offense. However, his big body--something the Patriots' haven't had in a receiver since Randy Moss, could ensure he gets a look in the redzone, especially if Rob Gronkowski is still getting up to game speed.
10 Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
Knowshon Moreno stole Ball’s thunder last year after the latter struggled in pass protection. This year is different and fantasy owners should take notice. Reports indicate Ball has improved his pass-catching and blocking skills and some believe he is capable of hauling in at least 50 balls. With Moreno now with the Dolphins, Ball has the chance to become the Broncos’ lead back.
9 Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
With significant injuries recently to running backs LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter, the path is clear for Hyde to become the 49ers’ lead running back. Gore still has a couple of years left, but it’s possible that coach Jim Harbaugh is making the transition to the younger Hyde. The 49ers selected Hyde in the second round last season after he posted 35 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Ohio State. Last year for his alma mater, he gained 1,521 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
8 Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Unlike other years, White is a sleeper pick in 2014. Because of injuries last season, the 32-year old recorded his lowest reception, yardage and touchdown totals since 2006. His injuries and age will likely scare fantasy owners. Between weeks 1-12, White posted only 2.62 fantasy PPG, but between weeks 13-17 his stats increased dramatically. Over the final four games last season, he caught 38 passes for 449 yards. White just signed a four-year deal with the team.
7 Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
The one person who will scare fantasy owners away from drafting Luck high is Colts’ stubborn offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Determined to run the ball, Hamilton’s offense ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing attempts and 25th in passing attempts last season. Still, however, Luck finished with 23 touchdowns and 3,822 yards on 570 attempts. With a revamped receiving core, Luck’s numbers will inevitably increase. Over the team’s final six games, including the playoffs, Luck’s fantasy numbers increased from 34.8 passes to 39.7 passes and 20.3 fantasy points to 24.5 fantasy points.
6 Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
After posting solid seasons in his first four years, Maclin missed 2013 with a torn right ACL. The year prior, he caught 69 balls for 857 yards and 7 touchdowns. Under head coach Chip Kelly and third-year quarterback Nick Foles, Maclin has the chance to take over where former Eagles’ receivers DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant left off. Both signed with other teams this offseason. Actually, since joining the Eagles in 2009, Maclin has tallied more receptions than both Jackson and Avant. While fragile, Maclin will be a focal point of the high-octane Eagles’ offense if he can stay healthy.
5 Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
Could Lacy’s stats be hurt by Aaron Rodgers once injured shoulder? Likely not. During his rookie campaign, Lacy ran for 1,178 yards on 284 carries and 11 touchdowns. He also followed that up with 35 catches, which indicates he can become a threat in the passing game. According to the Green Bay Post-Gazette, the Packers want to take some pressure off Lacy by also using running backs James Starks and DuJuan Harris. While this running back by committee approach may frighten some fantasy owners, don’t be surprised if Lacy still becomes the team’s featured back who scores double digit touchdowns due to an increased presence in the passing game.
4 Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Fantasy owners will obviously draft receiver Larry Fitzgerald first, but they shouldn’t forget about Michael Floyd. Fitzgerald is aging and Floyd is coming off a 1,041 yard, five touchdown season. Luckily, he missed the notorious sophomore slump, which is great news for fantasy owners. The 24-year old is ready to take it up a notch, and he should be aided by newly signed receiver Ted Ginn Jr. who can take some pressure of Floyd as he creases across the field.
3 Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Last year, Foles indicated he could handle Chip Kelly’s fast offense, and this year will be his true coming out party. While he didn’t put up the passing yards last season, he did throw 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions. That’s insane talk right there. From weeks nine to seventeen, he led the NFL in fantasy points, and his 24.6 PPG were more than both Jamaal Charles and Peyton Manning. Due to the departure of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who signed with the Redskins this offseason, some fantasy owners may doubt Foles’ ability to put up similar fantasy points. True, he’ll be hard pressed to put up those outrageous stats, but he’ll come close.
2 2 Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
One of the most underrated wide receivers in the NFL, Nelson has quietly built up an impressive resume, which includes 30 touchdowns in the past three seasons. His best season came in 2013 when he set career bests with 85 catches, 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns. While Aaron Rodgers’ injury late last season significantly hurt Nelson's production, most receivers would struggle without a solid quarterback behind center. Rodgers is healthy and Nelson’s quiet consistency will make fantasy owners happy. Due to his under-the-radar status, he could drop and if he does, don’t pass him up.
1 Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Gronk as a sleeper pick? Believe it. Fantasy owners are scared to draft the injury prone tight end too high and may not expect much from him, at least to start the season. Reports have the Patriots limiting Gronkowski’s snaps like they did last year when he returned from his broken arm.
However, for those worried about his ACL injury, just look at how players like Adrian Peterson or Tom Brady responded the year after they recovered from similar injuries. They dominated. In only seven games last year, Gronkowski hauled in 39 receptions for 592 yards and four touchdowns. He transformed the Patriots’ offense from a sub-par unit into one of the NFL’s best. Without him, New England scored only 21 points per game. When he played, they scored 33 points per game. The point is this: He is an impact player who could drop in the draft.
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