Deep dive: 2016's best late-round fantasy sleepers

Normally in this space, I highlight some deep waiver-wire targets for the upcoming week. But here's the honest truth -- I'm fresh out of waiver-wire pickups. I wrote up some guys for my main waiver-wire column, but at this point in the season the waiver wire has been pretty much picked barren. So, rather than waste my time and yours by writing about players who will never be picked up, I thought I'd do something a little different in Week 17. I'm going to look at seven deep sleepers from the offseason who paid off in one way or another once the games actually mattered. I'll both recap their path to success in 2016, and spin this a little forward into what could be in store for them in 2017. For players to be considered in this admittedly short list, there had to be a reasonable amount of offseason/preseason hype or discussion around their fantasy value/outlook. That's why players like Tyreek Hill or Adam Thielen, who came out of nowhere to have strong season-long finishes, aren't on the list.

Deep sleepers who paid off in 2016:

Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears: Round 15, RB9
Spencer Ware, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: Round 15, RB15
Terrance West, RB, Baltimore Ravens: Round 15, RB22
Christine Michael, RB, Green Bay Packers: Round 14, RB27
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints: undrafted, WR11
Rishard Matthews, WR, Tennessee Titans: undrafted, WR17
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay packers: undrafted, WR9

Running backs

Jordan Howard, Bears: Once Matt Forte left Chicago during the offseason, the hype started building around Jeremy Langford, with early mock drafts having him selected in the third or even second round. Expectations were justifiably tempered a bit once people remembered John Fox was still the head coach and the team drafted Jordan Howard (Mike Clay might have had something to do with that, too). Howard was taken late in drafts with a hope and a prayer, but once Langford went down with an injury in Week 3, Howard became the lead back for the Bears and never looked back. Aside from a few minor hiccups (22 yards against Green Bay in Week 7, etc.), Howard was an absolute stud. He ended the fantasy season on a run of eight games with 99-plus total yards, offering one of the safest weekly floors in fantasy. Had a few more touchdowns gone his way instead of being fed to the vulture (read: Langford), Howard could have pushed for a top-five finish. As it stands, though, no one who owned him in fantasy is complaining. 2017 outlook: At this point, it would look entirely foolish for the Bears to do anything in 2017 aside from treating Howard like a featured back, but Fox remains at the helm so nothing would surprise us. Howard has the look of a strong pick in rounds two to four to anchor rosters next fall.

Spencer Ware, Chiefs: Ware's name was trotted out as a handcuff to Jamaal Charles (who was recovering from a torn ACL) during the summer, but once reports surfaced that Charles would miss early parts of the season, Ware became a trendy deep sleeper. Charles missed the first three games and was limited in others, helping Ware become the RB8 after seven weeks (which included his bye), thanks in part to three 19-plus point outings in that span. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion in Week 8, missed Week 9, and was never quite the same after. The Chiefs offense also shifted to feature players like Tyreek Hill more down the stretch, but Ware at least offered a reliable floor (6.3 was his lowest output from Week 10 to 16). 2017 outlook: Charles is entering the final year of his contract and will carry a sizeable cap hit ($7 million), so it's fair to wonder if he's still with the team. Ware proved himself capable of being a featured back, but injuries wore him down late in the season. He'd make sense as a pick in rounds four to seven, much like where we saw Melvin Gordon, Jeremy Hill and Frank Gore get drafted this year.

Terrance West, Ravens: West built momentum during the preseason, with plenty of analysts (including our own Matt Harmon) pounding the table for West as a late-round steal. There was a good chance he could take over the Ravens backfield, and he did (for awhile). West notched five double-digit outings from Week 4 (when he, in essence, took over) and Week 15, though he also endured three weeks with three or fewer points in that span. The Ravens simply refused to run the ball at times, and began working in rookie Kenneth Dixon more once he returned to health. Nevertheless, for a 15th-round (or later) pick, West's fantasy returns were pretty great. 2017 outlook: West is a free agent next year, and having been a journeyman to this point in his career there's no telling where he lands next. If the Ravens don't re-sign West, Dixon will start skyrocketing up draft boards.

Christine Michael, Seahawks/Packers: No one threw more coal into the CMike hype train than our own Franchise (aka Matt Franciscovich). In fact, if you never read his preseason CMike article, take a break and go read it here. And while it might seem weird putting Michael on this list now, seeing as the Seahawks cut him and he's now backing up a converted wide receiver in Green Bay, let's not forget how useful his Wokeness was early in the season. Starting in Week 3 (when Thomas Rawls was back on IR), Michael went from a late-round bench stash to every-week RB1. He had four double-digit performances (and two 20-plus point outings) in a five-week span. He was the RB11 from Week 3 to Week 8, which included his bye. After that, Seattle turned things over to C.J. Prosise, Rawls again, and cut CMike. However, for that month plus he was an absolute fantasy stud. 2017 outlook: Michael has the cloudiest future of these backs, as he'll remain a backup if he stays in Green Bay and will be off the fantasy radar. If he gets a fresh start elsewhere, he could be a sleeper once again.

Wide receivers

Michael Thomas, Saints: Thomas' size and ability seemed to create a perfect mesh with what Drew Brees needed in the Saints offense. The only problem was projecting him in fantasy, as the team already had Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Coby Fleener on the roster. Plus, in 10 years Brees had only fed a wide receiver 120-plus targets five times (that target minimum is a pretty good indicator of fantasy production). While Thomas will likely fall short of 120 targets (107 through 15 games), his dominance in the red zone (team-high 14 targets, six touchdowns) is what helped boost his fantasy output. Those who took a late-round flier on Thomas or scooped him up early off of waivers have been richly rewarded. 2017 outlook: While the Saints offense is crowded and Brees is aging, Thomas should be able to build on his rookie campaign in Year 2, assuming he sees a steadier share of weekly targets (seven games with six or fewer looks in 2016).

Rishard Matthews, Titans: The Titans wide receivers were a mess in real life and fantasy for the early portions of the season, largely because Matthews was strangely buried on the depth chart. Matthews finally became the team's No. 1 wide receiver in terms of playing time in Week 8, but if you look at his production from Week 5 (coinciding with Marcus Mariota's breakout), Matthews sits as the WR10 on the year (and from Week 8 on he's the WR12). Matthews had 82-plus yards or a touchdown in 11 of 15 games this year, and his arrow appears to be pointing firmly upward. 2017 outlook: Matthews should start next year as Mariota's top target once again, though we'll need to monitor the quarterback's recovery from a broken fibula. Matthews could be due for some touchdown regression, but looks like a nice mid-to-late-round WR3.

Davante Adams, Packers: Last year, Adams' ADP rose up to the fourth round following Jordy Nelson's season-ending ACL tear. Adams himself suffered an ankle injury in Week 1, which he battled the rest of the year (along with awful mental miscues and drops). The result was a complete and utter fantasy disaster. This led to Adams going largely undrafted in standard fantasy leagues in 2016, as many figured Nelson and Randall Cobb would once again be top-10 fantasy wideouts. We were all wrong. This time around, Cobb was banged up and Adams took the next step as an outside receiver. He's been a game-changer for the Packers offense with just shy of 1,000 yards on the season to go along with 10 touchdowns. 2017 outlook: Adams will be entering the final year of his rookie contract and looking for a big payday. Cobb returning to full health next year could eat into Adams' workload, but the former "bust" is looking like a solid WR2-3 for 2017.

-- Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar

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