Secret Sleepers  

 

Steve Johnson, Chargers WRs among Week 9 sleepers

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As the season wears on, the art of identifying sleepers gets evermore tiresome. Few stones have been unturned to this point. The hot upside plays that were under-discussed just a few weeks ago are now every week starters.

With a wave of injuries crushing fantasy rosters in Week 8, and six teams on bye this week, we'll leave no stone unturned to find roster fillers for you in this round. Some of these picks may not offer week-tilting upside, but most are widely available and can plug a hole if the bye-week gauntlet or the injury bug left you with several holes on your roster.

Looking ahead to this weekend's action, there are 10(ish) sleepers I like to outperform what the masses expect from them in Week 9, including several I feel very strongly about, and two quarterbacks with the potential to strike big.

Colonel Sanders' Super Secret Sleeper


San Diego Chargers WRs

Yes, this isn't just one sleeper. But deciphering this situation is of much more importance than arbitrarily naming a player who has an outside shot at helping you this week. The three players outlined here have a chance to add value to your fantasy roster the rest of the season. Even for this week, they play a Bears secondary that hemorrhages touchdowns to wide receivers, allowing a score on a league-leading 10.2 percent of the targets against them. All are bargains on daily fantasy sites, and one could return big value to your Week 9 DFS roster.

In a vicious wave of Week 8 injuries, Keenan Allen was one of the victims claimed. This is a massive loss for the Chargers, as Allen owned a 26 percent share of the team's 306 passing targets this season, and led the NFL in receptions. Fantasy owners now must prepare to weather the storm if they lost him, and pounce on his potential replacements. Fantasy analysts across the industry fielded plenty of questions about all three of these receivers this week, so let's outline them here.

Steve Johnson is the recommended player to chase everywhere you can. When healthy, Johnson was the full-time No. 2 wide receiver to Allen in this offense. He's played 81 percent of the snaps in all six of the games he's started this season, despite leaving two early with injuries. He also trailed only Allen in passing targets in those six games, with Danny Woodhead being the only other player close. Philip Rivers showed great chemistry with Johnson, and the receiver enjoyed catching passes from the best quarterback he's paired with in his career.

I was a big fan of Johnson as a sleeper coming in to this season, and he paid off with 14 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the first three weeks. He's the preferred pickup in the wake of Allen's injury, because as that Reception Perception sample shows in the link above, he plays the receiver position in many ways parallel to Allen. Both make their best plays in the short and underneath game, and have a unique way of running routes while still earning separation. As long as he's healthy, he has the best chance to put up consistent production of these three receivers. His volume is the steadiest, and fits the void left by Allen comfortably.

Coming off a two-touchdown game, Malcom Floyd seems like a natural replacement for fantasy owners. However, remember that Floyd is the same player he's always been: a low catch percentage receiver who lives off the long ball. Floyd is certainly worth an add, but is a matchup-based play only. Dating back to 2012, Floyd scores .27 more touchdowns per game, and 2.96 more fantasy points against pass defenses ranked in the bottom 10. Playing in what he says is his final NFL season, there's little reason to expect him to suddenly become less streaky. Play him in those favorable spots only, but expect variation. This week's tilt with Chicago looks like a good script for Floyd.

Dontrelle Inman is the only other player on the wideout roster that offers intrigue. He's not someone to add right away, but with Floyd nearing the end of his road, the team may consider taking a look at the talented young Inman, especially considering their playoff hopes look bleak. The 6-foot-3, 205 pound UVA product came to San Diego after tearing through the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts (100-1,542-11 in two years). He flashed at the end of his NFL rookie season, posting back-to-back 79-yard outings to close the 2014 season. Again, this isn't a player worth picking up in standard 10 or 12 team leagues right now, but he's someone to monitor going forward. For deep dynasty leaguers, Inman needs to be rostered, and monitored for the rest of the season. He's flashed good speed for his size on film this year, averaging 17.6 yards per reception in the games he played 76 percent of the snaps to replace Steve Johnson.

Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Don't look now, but Jameis Winston is stabilizing his play. Over the last three games, Winston completed 64.9 percent of his passes, and has a five total touchdowns to zero interceptions ratio. During that same span, Winston finished as the QB17, QB9 and QB12 in fantasy leagues. On the back of a strong running game, the No. 1 overall pick is making better decisions, and feeding off the presence of a now healthy Mike Evans.

Tampa Bay welcomes the Giants this weekend, a team who just allowed seven passing touchdowns to the Saints. Now, New York won't bleed that much to Winston and his Bucs, but there is every reason to think he can have a viable streaming game. The Giants field the worst pass rush in the NFL, ranking 32nd in sack percentage. They bring down quarterbacks on 2.6 percent of the pass plays against them. Winton's biggest kryptonite this year was the pressure allowed by his offensive line. That shouldn't be much of an issue in this contest, whether Jason Pierre-Paul makes a go at his first NFL action after his fireworks accident or not.

The Buccaneers have the horses to exploit the Giants defense through the air. New York lets up 82.7 yards per game to the opponent's No. 1 wide receiver, and that is clearly Mike Evans for Tampa Bay. The return of Austin Seferian-Jenkins (more on him later) could bring a big boost to the passing output. With six teams on bye this week, Winston can help get your through as a spot start at quarterback.

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears

Just a few weeks ago we thought of the San Diego secondary as a matchup to avoid, and yet, we just watched Joe Flacco go for 300 yards on them. Jason Verrett is an emerging star-caliber cornerback, but the rest of the personnel leaves a bit to be desired. Eric Weddle is banged up, and Brandon Flowers just isn't playing well.

Much like the meeting with Baltimore, this matchup with the Bears could easily turn into a shootout. Especially with Matt Forte out of the game, the scoring burden will lay at Jay Cutler's feet. While that normally isn't a comfortable proposition, Cutler is playing some of the best football of his career. Since returning from injury in Week 4, he's averaged 18.4 fantasy points per game, and his interception percentage is down from his 3.3 career average to just 1.9. While Verrett could be a slight thorn in Alshon Jeffery's side, the Bears receiver owns a distinct advantage over the Chargers cornerback, as Nick Mensio of Rotoworld observed:

Jeffery also holds a 35 percent share of Cutler's passing targets since the receiver's return to the lineup. Cutler can still feed his best weapon regardless of coverage. While Winston is the preferred streamer, and more widely available, Cutler is on 37 percent of NFL.com waivers.

C.J. Spiller, RB, New Orleans Saints

With the unfortunate season-ending injury to Khiry Robinson, there is opportunity open in the Saints backfield. While Mark Ingram will still own the vast majority of the rushing work in this offense, this will make a bit more room for C.J. Spiller. Since Spiller's return in Week 3, he played 24 percent of the team's snaps, while Robinson was in for 20 percent. While assuming Spiller absorbs all of those reps (and becomes a 40 percent snap or more player) is quite the leap, we can project a decent bump into the 30 percent range.

The Saints offense seems back to firing on close to all cylinders, at least. That is a necessary step in Spiller meeting some of the lofty predraft expectations some held for him this year. With an increase in opportunity, Spiller could make some noise against a Titans team visiting the Superdome. Again, with six teams on bye, Spiller can be a nice upside flex flier.

Rashad Jennings, RB, New York Giants

The Giants split their running back snaps and touches four ways, or at least they have the last two weeks. It's been mostly an impossible situation to predict. However, we can't afford to be too picky here in Week 9. There may be more opportunity for Rashad Jennings in this game than the other options. Intriguing youngster, Orleans Darkwa, missed most of the Saints game with an injury, and was limited in Wednesday's practice. Andre Williams is averaging 2.7 yards per carry, and offers next to nothing to his team. Rational coaching would assume his touches need reducing.

Pro Bowl ballot

The two most effective backs for this team have been Shane Vereen and Rashad Jennings. Vereen is a pass-catching asset only for the most part, and his production is anything but predictable with this three way split. He followed up his big Weeks 2 and 5 with 2.3 and 0.6 points, respectively. Jennings hasn't been an all-star, but is the only back who contributes in both phases of the game, and is Football Outsider's DVOA 13th ranked running back.

The Giants matchup with Tampa Bay should create some opportunities for offensive players from both sides. Neither defense offers much resistance, both offenses are improving, and there could be plenty of points scored. If you're plucking a running back from this group to take advantage of the scoring opportunities, it should be Jennings.

Brandon LaFell, WR, New England Patriots

It's been a rough late start to the 2015 season for Brandon LaFell. After a debut with multiple drops, LaFell managed just four catches for 47 yards in the Patriots blowout of Miami last Thursday. Nevertheless, he's a 77 percent snap player in the NFL's best offense, and getting 7.5 targets per game from the best quarterback in football. Remember too that last year the Patriots stuck through it with LaFell while he struggled to pick the offense up. He didn't make an impact until Week 4, and was the WR15 from that game onward.

If there was a week to get LaFell rolling, this might be the one to do it. New England welcomes Washington to Gillette Stadium this week, and they rank 26th in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers per target. Injuries continue to hamper the secondary, and their front seven came back to earth in the last few weeks. LaFell is unlikely to have the same role and impact he enjoyed last year. However, as a bye week filler, you could do a lot worse than a player in one of the league's best offenses in a good weekly spot. He's a solid roster filler for DFS tournaments, as well, with what is sure to be low ownership percentage coming off two bad public weeks.

Justin Hardy, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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This is less about a play for this week, outside of deeper leagues, and more about someone to keep on your radar. After "losing" Harry Douglas to free agency this offseason, the Falcons nabbed a perfect long-term replacement and potential upgrade when they took Justin Hardy in the fifth round of the draft. Hardy is a quick-twitch short-area receiver, who plays bigger than his frame in traffic. He's a tough player who plays with aggression, and showed a solid understanding of route concepts at East Carolina.

Seeing the first game action of his rookie season, Hardy played on 66 percent of the team's snaps in Week 8. While he was third behind Julio Jones and Roddy White, we know the latter is no longer a threat with his average of 3.5 targets per game. San Francisco has a poor secondary, and perhaps Hardy can give you usable fantasy numbers for this week. However, again, this is more pointing him out for investigative purposes to see if he can make a run at a long-term role in this offense with Leonard Hankerson (hamstring) not sustaining his early season momentum.

Heath Miller, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers

Fantasy Perfect Challenge

The Steelers play the Raiders this week, who in case you didn't know, struggle to defend tight ends. Outside of the broken down Owen Daniels' zero in Week 5, the lowest weekly score the Raiders allowed to a tight ends was TE13 to Kellen Davis on one catch last week. Some trends aren't worth following, but this matches up with what we see on the field. The Raiders linebackers aren't stellar coverage players, and they don't have the speed at safety at this point to stick with athletic tight ends.

The matchup is just another reason to play Heath Miller, but really this comes back to the fancy he earns from Ben Roethlisberger. Throughout their careers together, there has long been a bond between the two, with Miller serving as his quarterback's safety blanket. He opened the season with 11 targets from Ben, and saw 13 in his return from injury last week. With the volatility at tight end, you're mostly banking on a touchdown from your waiver-wire streamer to get you through. Miller is a safe proposition to get a chance at one, as he leads the Steelers with nine red zone targets this season.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If there's a team that is worse at defending the tight end position than the Raiders, it's the New York Giants. They allow the second-highest receptions per game figure and the most yards per game to the position. This indicates that tight ends have a chance to steadily gain yards, and are not dependent on touchdowns to put up fantasy points on the Giants. Just like we observed with the Raiders, this can be traced to personnel deficiencies. The Giants long hold a preference for heavy-footed linebackers, and injuries wiped out their safety positon to the point where Landon Collins, a rookie from Alabama, is their only regular.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins started the year on a tear, catching two touchdowns in the opener, but hasn't played since Week 2. Understandably, most owners couldn't find a way to carry the talented tight end during that stretch, and he's currently available on 92.6 percent of NFL.com leagues' waivers. Seferian-Jenkins isn't a lock to play this week, but if he does, he can go right from the waiver wire into your lineup. There's a dearth of passing targets in Tampa Bay right now, and Jameis Winston historically favors this positon.

Jacob Tamme, TE, Atlanta Falcons

Every game, all season

With Leonard Hankerson banged up, Roddy White looking all but finished, and Hardy leading a cast of young players fighting for scraps, Jacob Tamme is emerging as the complement to Julio Jones. Tamme's snap percentage for the season sits at 60 percent, but it went up to 81 percent the last two games. During that same stretch, he's the second-most targeted player on the team with a 21 percent share. With his usage going up, Tamme was the third highest scoring tight end in Week 8.

The Falcons travel to San Francisco to take on a 49ers team that just benched their starting quarterback for Baline Gabbert. With the Falcons looking to get back on track after a bitter home loss to the rival Bucs, they will be looking to put up some points on the sinking Niners. The secondary receiver should be a big part of those efforts, and right now, that player is Tamme.


Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.

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