Secret Sleepers  

 

Ryan Mathews leads list of Week 14 fantasy 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. However, sadly injuries and late-season collapses create opporuntity, and Mark Ingram's tript to injured reserves and DeMarco Murray's vacation to the doghouse are examples this week.

Looking ahead to this weekend's action, there are 10 sleepers I like to outperform what the masses expect from them in Week 14, including yet another rookie quarterback, a running back off everyone's radar, and of course, more than a few injury fill-ins.

Colonel Sanders' Super Secret Sleeper


Ryan Mathews, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

Sadly, we are at a point where every Eagles running back on the roster looks superior to DeMarco Murray in this offense. The free agent bust played just 14 snaps in the team's upset of the year over New England, while Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner split reps and combined for 146 total yards on 30 touches. Reports surfaced that Murray went straight to the top, Eagles' owner Jeffery Lurie, to voice his displeasure over a diminished workload. Call it a hunch, but Chip Kelly doesn't strike me as the type of overseer who takes kindly to such an act.

If the Eagles continue to minimalize Murray in the offense, Ryan Mathews comes back into focus just in time for his return from a concussion-driven absence. When both played at the same time earlier in the season, Mathews was the more effective back. He fits the outside zone stretch runs better, and his 5.7 yards per carry average still leads the NFL. You can argue that the efficient production was a product of limited touches, but in a game against the Jets in Week 3, Mathews handled 26 touches and went for 128 total yards and scored a touchdown. The concern with Mathews was always injuries, which are still real, never his talent or ability.

The Eagles backfield sits in a tenuous, unpredictable state as we head into Week 14. However, a game where Ryan Mathews returns to the backfield and handles 15 to 20 touches right out of the gate is well within the range of outcomes. The Bills run defense has not been what many expected this season, and allowed 5.17 yards per touch and four total touchdowns to running backs in the past four weeks. Ryan Mathews may well be on your waiver wire if his owner gave up on him during the three games missed. If you were counting on Mark Ingram, or your running back group was decimated otherwise, you likely need to roll the dice on someone risky. If so, consider Mathews as a high-upside "what the heck" flex with a tangible high ceiling but realistic floor, and certainly don't be surprised if he wins someone a daily fantasy tournament.

Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Castrol EDGE Clutch Performers:

The Saints defense is not good, in case you were not aware. The unit allowed 299.28 fantasy points to quarterbacks through the first 12 weeks, which is 8.68 more than Tom Brady's, the top-scoring fantasy quarterback, point total. Crazy as it is, they're getting worse. From Weeks 8 to 13, the quarterbacks facing them finished as the QB2, QB2, QB1, BYE, QB24 and QB1. The only outlier performance was the QB24 mark by Brian Hoyer, where the Texans won the game handily. He only threw 27 passes, but completed 77.78 percent of his passes for a 107.6 passer rating.

Jameis Winston, on the other hand, is trending up. His command of the team, leadership and mental acumen have the Buccaneers firmly in the playoff race. We also know that in good matchups, he has a tangible ceiling for fantasy. In two road games against Washington and Philadelphia, Winston threw for 542 yards and seven touchdowns combined. He also ranks second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with five, trailing only Cam Newton's seven, adding to his floor.

With New Orleans traveling to face Tampa Bay, and Winston heating up with a fully healthy supporting cast, all the signs point to Winston finishing as a top-10 Week 14 quarterback. The only occurrence that could spoil this part is if the Bucs put the game away quickly with Doug Martin. Winston only threw more than 30 passes in one of the team's five wins, and averages only 31 pass attempts per game for the season. That sort of low volume could dampen his ceiling, but the rookie should be efficient enough to present a safe floor.

Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos

The Broncos have no incentive to open up their offense, and as such, Brock Osweiler has a capped ceiling unless Denver plays a New England-level team. However, the Raiders only allowed fewer than 17 fantasy points just twice this season, the culprits being the low-volume Teddy Bridgewater and the decrepit Peyton Manning. If you need a safe floor streamer at quarterback, especially in 2QB leagues, Osweiler should hit two touchdowns with Oakland traveling to Denver.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions

The once-proud Rams defense, rather quietly, slipped right off the cliff along with their offense. Over the last four games, St. Louis allowed an average of 24.65 fantasy points per game to running backs, the fifth most in the NFL. Their lack of discipline, injuries and being put in poor positions by their offense combines to consistently allow them to be exposed by athletic running backs. Ameer Abdullah certainly fits that bill, and his confidence is growing right along with his playing time. Abdullah led the Lions in touches in each of the last three weeks, and is second behind running back/receiver hybrid Theo Riddick in snaps.

Juwan Thompson, RB, Denver Broncos

Neither Ronnie Hillman nor C.J. Anderson practiced on Thursday. Both remain confident in their chances to play Sunday, but their optimism does not offer any guarantees. If Anderson sits, and Hillman goes at less than 100 percent -- which sounds like the most optimistic outcome -- Juwan Thompson can at least offer "what the heck" flex appeal. Thompson is a downhill, bruising running back, and we've seen throughout the years that is enough to fill in adequately in a Gary Kubiak offense. If he gets the start against the Raiders, he vaults to immediate low-end RB2 status. This is a run-heavy offense, that wants to hand off to the running back at least 25 times per game. That sort of opportunity in a historically productive system cannot be ignored.

Tim Hightower, RB, New Orleans Saints

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With news coming down Wednesday afternoon that a shoulder injury sent Mark Ingram to IR, the casual observer flocked to big-name Saints depth back C.J. Spiller. That's fine, but the Saints have shown little interest in using Spiller to any meaningful degree at any point this season, a reality even more pronounced of late. The former top-10 draft pick has three or fewer touches in three of the last four games. To make matters worse, we aren't seeing the same rare explosion from Spiller after a preseason injury may have been the straw that broke the camel's back after a litany of career-long maladies.

While Spiller is worth an add, the sharp move is to snag Tim Hightower off waivers. Indeed, Hightower didn't take an NFL snap for three seasons as he rehabbed an ACL tear that cost him a roster spot to Alfred Morris in Washington. However, he worked hard to get back and earned a roster spot with the Saints. When Mark Ingram went down with an injury against Washington, it was Hightower who handled the between the tackles runs with 11 carries on 16 snaps. The veteran back can also capably fill in for Ingram as a receiver. He caught 84 passes in his two best seasons with the Cardinals. Make sure Hightower is on your roster, but he is just a deep flex play against a tough Bucs run defense in Week 14.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks

Doug Baldwin's emergence is rightfully earning plenty of attention, but Tyler Lockett's progress played a big part in the hot streak Russell Wilson finds himself in. Over the last three games the rookie receiver played 68 percent of the snaps, and garnered 15 targets. He was productive on those chances, hauling in 176 yards and two touchdowns with a sterling catch rate of 93.3 percent. Lockett is an explosive player, who is already a nuanced route runner. With the Seahawks passing offense in full bloom, the talent and opportunity is bound to mold together for a blowup game for Lockett at some point soon. Facing a Baltimore secondary in Week 14 that is improving, but still suffers lapses of poor play, is as good a time as any.

Brian Hartline, WR, Cleveland Browns

The opposite of sexy, but if you need a fill-in in a PPR league, Brian Hartline can get you through a week. The veteran receiver has 23 targets over the last two games, and looks as if he secured a role as the team's clear-cut slot receiver. Of course, the Johnny Manziel factor throws a wrench into the equation, as he may not be the type to check it down to a tertiary threat like Hartline. However, with Travis Benjamin dinged up, Hartline likely has a five-reception floor against a poor 49ers pass defense.

Zach Miller, TE, Chicago Bears

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Martellus Bennett went on IR this week, which makes Zach Miller the unquestioned starter at tight end. In the Bears' offense, where Alshon Jeffery is the only wideout to get looks, the opportunity is tremendous. Over the last four weeks, Miller ranks third on the Bears in targets with 19, and had seven in the game Bennett missed in that stretch. He's one of Jay Cutler's top red zone options, converting two of his three targets inside the 20's into touchdowns. The Bears offense suffered through an ugly Jay Cutler game last week, but are in a good spot to rebound against Washington.

Will Tye, TE, New York Giants

Rather quietly, undrafted rookie tight end, Will Tye, is emerging in New York. The host of secondary receivers the Giants boast are uninspiring, especially Reuben Randle who drew the public ire of Tom Coughlin after complaining about his target load. Over their last three games, Tye comes in (a distant) second to Odell Beckham in percentage of the team's targets. With Rob Gronkowski on the shelf, and questions abounding through the tight end landscape, you can do a lot worse than the reliable Tye as a tight end streamer.


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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