The term "sleeper" has several definitions in the English language. But in the world of fantasy football, it refers to a player who had never previously found immense statistical success but suddenly becomes a legitimate fantasy option. The 2010 NFL season was loaded with such performers. Josh Freeman, Peyton Hillis and Brandon Lloyd were just a few of the players who made significant contributions despite modest preseason expectations. In our never-ending quest to help fantasy leaguers in their quest for a title, here are 10 sleepers to target in drafts.
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams: Bradford showed flashes of brilliance last season and is set up for even greater statistical success in 2011. He'll no doubt throw the football a ton in the offense of new coordinator Josh McDaniels, and the addition of several new weapons will allow Bradford even more options in the pass attack. While he won't join the elite players at his position (at least not yet), Bradford could develop into a low-end No. 1 fantasy quarterback.
Kevin Kolb, QB, Cardinals: Kolb entered last season as a fantasy sleeper, only to see his starting role taken by Michael Vick. Now in the desert, he's the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback with no competition in sight. While he isn't going to put up Kurt Warner numbers, Kolb does have an elite wideout in Larry Fitzgerald and a reliable, pass-catching tight end in Todd Heap at his disposal. He also plays in a relatively weak division for defenses -- the NFC West.
Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys: Jones hasn't been the most durable back in the world, but he appears to be the clear-cut favorite to start for the 'Boys after the release of Marion Barber. He finished 25th in fantasy points at his position in 2010, and that was with just two touchdowns. Chances are, he'll increase that total of end-zone visits while also putting up nice yardage numbers in what will be an explosive offensive attack. Consider Jones in the middle rounds.
Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins: Most fantasy owners never even heard of Thomas before the Dolphins selected him in the NFL draft, but now he has a chance to be the top-scoring rookie in 2011. He has the tools to be a three-down runner under coach Tony Sparano, and the team's run-based offense should allow the Kansas State product more than his share of opportunities to produce. Thomas is clearly a player to watch during training camp and the preseason.
Beanie Wells, RB, Cardinals: To call Wells a disappointment in his first two NFL seasons would be an understatement. But with the trade that sent Tim Hightower to Washington, he's now in a position to finally reach his statistical expectations. While he does have a tough schedule and must compete with Ryan Williams, Wells is still an attractive sleeper in fantasy leagues. Draft him somewhere in the middle rounds as a potential flex starter with strong upside.
Austin Collie, WR, Colts: When fantasy owners think of Collie, the word "concussion" immediately comes to mind. He suffered multiple such ailments last season, which will make him a risk-reward pick in 2011 drafts. But keep in mind that when Collie was on the field, he put up huge fantasy numbers. In fact, he was among the leading point scorers among wide receivers during the first few weeks of the season. With Peyton Manning throwing him the football, Collie could be a major sleeper in the middle to late rounds. There is some risk, again, but this third-year wideout is worth it.
Mario Manningham, WR, Giants: Quietly, Manningham posted some solid numbers for the Giants and fantasy owners last season. In fact, the Michigan product finished with just five fewer fantasy points than Larry Fitzgerald. With the status of Steve Smith unknown coming off microfracture knee surgery, Manningham should continue to see a prominent role in the pass attack and could become a great fantasy draft bargain. Take a chance on him in the middle to late rounds.
Mike Sims-Walker, WR, Rams: Sims-Walker was a disappointment last season, but he's now in a great position to succeed. The likely No. 1 wideout in an offense that will throw the ball a ton under the guidance of McDaniels, Sims-Walker goes from a late-round flier to having middle-round appeal as a potential No. 3 wideout with upside. While he has had some injury problems, which remains a cause for concern, Sims-Walker is clearly back on the radar.
Mike Thomas, WR, Jaguars: Thomas quietly posted personal bests last season, and his role in the Jaguars offense should increase by leaps and bounds in 2011. With Mike Sims-Walker out of the mix, Thomas will be one of the first options (if not the first option) in the pass attack for David Garrard. While he won't post enormous numbers in an offense that's based on the run, Thomas still has the potential to post around 1,000 yards and six to eight touchdowns.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints: Destined to be one of the most popular sleepers this season, Graham recorded 11 catches and four touchdowns in his final three games of 2010. With the offseason release of Jeremy Shockey, Graham is now in a position to see a more prominent role in the Saints offense. With a quarterback like Drew Brees at the helm, he should be seen as a low-end No. 1 fantasy tight end with nice upside.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com or tweet it at Michael_Fabiano!