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 the last two weeks, and a few 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. Even more crucial, some players are the type of high-upside stashes you ought to think about carrying into the run towards the fantasy playoffs.
Looking ahead to this weekend's action, there are 10 sleepers I like to outperform what the masses expect from them in Week 10, including several I feel very strongly about, and three steaming quarterbacks with the potential to strike big for owners who need to fill in for the loss of Andrew Luck.
Colonel Sanders' Super Secret Sleeper
In one of the bigger surprises of the week, the Dolphins essentially made rookie Jay Ajayi their primary change of pace back to Lamar Miller. The latter did dominate the snap count with an 81 percent share, but Ajayi was next in line with 10 percent. More importantly, the team called five runs for Ajayi on the seven snaps he played, which he took for 41 yards. This was hardly expected, as Ajayi landed on IR Boomerang after a reportedly rough training camp with the Dolphins. This all came after a precipitous fall to the fifth-round of the draft due to long-term medical concerns about his knee.
Oftentimes mid-round picks don't get the benefit of the doubt if they don't catch on right away. Despite reports that hinted at the contrary, Ajayi looks like he earned enough favor from the staff to get that chance. I certainly didn't expect that, considering all the factors that stacked against him, but as an unabashed fan of his game, I was quite pleased.
I spent some time with a prospect evaluation company called Optimum Scouting prior to my days at NFL.com, and Ajayi was one of the players I was assigned to cover for our draft guide. Going back to his college evaluation, I viewed Ajayi as a complete back with a multi-faceted skill set and viewed him as my second favorite back in the class, behind Todd Gurley.
Go back and watch some of his games at Boise State and you'll see a big back who operates with nimble agility, and improved every season at school. He had some ball security and pass protection issues, and did tend to run out of control at times, but at his best, there was nothing he couldn't do. The best running backs leave you on the edge of your seat wondering what they might do next. Ajayi did that consistently in college, with the ability to subtly integrate multiple moves into his runs. The concerns over his long term availability cast a shadow of doubt over his draft stock, but as long as he stays on a track of development, there's not much to hold him back as a talent.
Projecting Jay Ajayi for a big workload this week, or at any point this season with the cards stacked as they are currently, would be disingenuous. Yet, this is the time of year where you need to drop bench fillers from your roster in favor of high-value upside handcuffs. It's often those fresh legged runners who change the tide of fantasy seasons as we near the playoffs. Ajayi just saw his first NFL action, and was immediately part of the game plan. If something happens to Lamar Miller, the rookie could be next in line to replace his reps, especially those in the passing game. You'll want him on your bench if that happens, especially if you own the Dolphins' starter. At worst, he's someone that needs to be on your radar for future seasons, especially with Miller currently in the last year of his contract.
Again, Ajayi is not a recommended play for this week, but he needs to be on your radar. If you feel the need to correct for my potentially over-optimistic view of this player, I understand. But for me, football is more fun when I feel invested in rooting for a player I want to see succeed. And Ajayi is right there at the top of the list.
*Note: I'll try to be a little more quarterback-heavy with sleepers going forward. With the injury to Andrew Luck, and this being the perfect time to sell off your big-name quarterbacks for other usable positons, we'll examine at least three potential passing sleepers every week. If you're in trouble with a Luck injury or you want to cash out on Tom Brady's immense value right now, the best approach is to stream and get through. You can win your championship with this strategy, if you pick the right players. *
Rather quietly, Joe Flacco has been an effective fantasy quarterback following two single digit outings in the first quarter of the season. From Week 5 on he's averaged 19.8 points per game, good for the 11th most in that span. He lost Steve Smith for the season, which is no doubt a net negative for this passing game, but Flacco carries the passing volume to put up fantasy numbers regardless. He ranks sixth in the NFL this season with 40.5 pass attempts per game. Their floundering defense forces them into pass-heavy game scripts more often this year than ever before.
The Ravens Week 10 opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have long been a defense to target for bankable offensive production against. This season, they rank 21st in allowing fantasy points per quarterback pass attempt, and have the worst interception rate in the NFL. Turnovers are often the only gaffe that kills Flacco's relatively safe fantasy floor, but that shouldn't be an issue against a Jacksonville secondary short on playmakers. He's still widely available on waivers, and makes sense as a safe spot start at home against the Jaguars in a game that could turn into a shootout.
This one is pretty easy; have you seen the Saints defense play lately? New Orleans has sniffed the bottom of nearly every tangible defensive stat ranking this season, and they're getting worse as time goes on. They rank 31st in yards allowed per completion, 32nd in touchdown rate allowed and fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks per pass attempt. By every imaginable metric, and the obvious reveal of the eye test, the Saints have the worst pass defense in the NFL.
We know Kirk Cousins has a tangible ghastly floor, but he also does possesses a high ceiling. We just saw that back in Week 7, when he went off for over 300 yards and four total touchdowns. You can debate whether Cousins is a worthy starting level quarterback all day long, but you can't debate his ability to take advantage of a good matchup; that exists. Additionally, Washington welcomes the Saints into their building this week. This season, Cousins is a far superior quarterback in the friendly confines of FedExField, scoring 9.05 more fantasy points at home than on the road. Still owned in just 3.6 percent of NFL.com leagues, he's a safe streamer this week.
Quietly the best streaming quarterback next to no one is talking about, Brian Hoyer averaged 20.6 fantasy points over his last four games played. The low mark in that stretch was a 17.3 score in Week 8 before the Texans went into their bye week. If you're looking for a floor at quarterback, that's hardly something to turn your nose at. But therein lies the best part about Brian Hoyer. If Houston is going to win a game, it must come off the efforts of his right arm because they cannot consistently run the ball without Arian Foster in the fold. Those sort of game scripts allow for him to stay efficient offering that sort of floor. However, he's still capable of throwing the game away early, which creates a scenario where his volume goes through the roof. In those scripts, his attachment to DeAndre Hopkins allows Hoyer to claw his way to over 20 fantasy points (see Weeks 6 and 7) on the back of his high pass attempts.
Cincinnati doesn't present the friendliest of matchups, as they rank inside the top five of points allowed per pass attempts. Yet, much of that comes on the back of a 2.6 percent interception rate that ranks in the top half of the league. Hoyer is proven to put up fantasy numbers even if he chucks the ball into the hands of the opposing defenders. If you're an Andrew Luck owner, or you've been piddling around with Ryan Tannehill or streaming Jay Cutler the last few weeks, consider rolling with Hoyer for a week or two. At the worst, it's unlikely you end up with a single digit outing.
Puzzlingly still owned in just 2.7 percent of NFL.com leagues, Theo Riddick is a 44 percent snap player on one of the league's rockiest offenses. That last caveat is important, as it's the losing game script that the Lions so often find themselves in that keeps Riddick hovering around a safe 7.6 point floor in PPR. Riddick is the passing down specialist, and owns the running back snaps when Detroit falls behind, as they so often do.
This week, the Lions welcome a Packers team looking to get off the schneid after dropping two games in row against the NFL's two best defensive units. With the Lions firing coaches and executives the last three weeks, we know their season is heading down the drain. They should get absolutely boat raced by the Packers in Lambeau Field. In these games, we target Riddick picking up plenty of reps in garbage time for a solid 10-point PPR outing, with the hope he finds the end zone as the game expires for a little icing on the cake.
Playing through a toe injury is a real drag for running backs, and Isaiah Crowell looked as good as he has all season last week coming off his own. The Browns should also be in better game script to permit Crowell to sustain that success in Week 10, with Josh McCown (hopefully) back behind center and squaring off with a Landry Jones-led Steelers team. Pittsburgh's run defense ranks inside the top-seven in terms of running back points allowed per touch, but much of that is due to the lack of touchdowns (two total) allowed by the unit. They still give up just over four yards per carry and rank 13th in running back receptions against.
While some of the aspects of this game might lead us to Duke Johnson, Cleveland continues to show no real inclination to give him a healthy amount of touches per game. By contrast, Crowell dipped under 10 touches just once this season. With the running back landscape in complete disarray, any player locked in for 10 touches a game with some semblance of talent can't be ignored. Despite being a highly drafted player, Crowell is on 24.6 percent of NFL.com waivers, and was dropped in 4,021 leagues this week. If your running back group resembles a wiped out medieval village after the plague knocked out Bell, Foster and/or Lewis, consider Crowell as an intriguing Week 10 filler.
Everyone and their neighbor wants to know which Patriots running back, James White or Brandon Bolden, will replace Dion Lewis as the Patriots' passing-down back. The truth is, we saw something special with Lewis this season, and "next man up" Patriot narratives aside, neither of these players will truly replicate what Lewis did. There's a reason they signed him to that contract extension after just a few games; they knew his true value. That role in the offense won't be filled by either one of these backs, but they'll play their part. Lewis broke the mold, but now we're back to playing guessing games with the New England backfield, and good luck to those who think they have the answer here. White replaced Lewis' reps in the Colts game, and he could see a healthy four or so targets a game. Bolden is a solid do-it all back who can pass protect and play on special teams, meaning he will always find his way on the active roster.
With all that being said, Lewis' vacated targets will likely just get dispersed to other passing game assets like Brandon LaFell, in particular. Nevertheless, don't forget about Danny Amendola. In the two games where Lewis was limited (Colts) or sat out (Jets), Amendola posted 15 receptions for 191 yards and one score -- by far his best stretch of the season. It's a natural replacement. He runs the short area routes that Tom Brady loves to work, and Lewis' absence vacates some of those. Additionally, the Patriots and Giants game this week projects to feature a ton of points between the two offenses. Amendola could quite easily sneak in for a score, or post six-plus receptions.
Even if you have no intention of using Amendola this week, consider grabbing him off waivers anyway, particularly if you own Julian Edelman. We don't normally think of wide receivers as potential handcuffs, but in this situation, it fits. If Edelman ever goes down with an injury, Amendola should slide right into that slot receiver role. While he doesn't share the same mind meld with Brady that Edelman grew into, he would likely get a good chunk of that production. Owning a piece of this offense for the fantasy playoffs is far from a bad idea.
While all eyes are turning to big rookie Devin Funchess after a three-catch, 71-yard, one-touchdown game, let's wait to see it two weeks in a row before rushing to say he's arrived in this offense. Surely the team wants him to be a bigger factor down the stretch, but he still played on just 27 percent of the snaps in Week 9.
With little to no recognition, Corey Brown racked up 21.6 standard fantasy points the last two weeks. Brown is another talented young player the team wants to see succeed and earn a long-term role. They stuck with him after a disastrous, drop-filled preseason. With Ted Ginn leaving a ton of yards on the field the last few weeks, he's lost snaps to Jerricho Cotchery, while Brown led the team with an 89 percent snap share the last two games.
Brown will never be the picture of reliability -- no Carolina wide receiver will this season. However, he's a solid route runner who can get deep. Two of his three touchdowns this season came from 36 yards or more away from the end zone. If you play in an exceptionally deep league, or need to start three-plus wide receivers, Brown is working more into the Panthers offense and could lend a hand. Carolina gets Tennessee this week, who rank 28th in wide receiver points allowed per target, and have three defensive backs dealing with injuries.
Much in the same vein that Kirk Cousins is a solid play this week, DeSean Jackson has a chance to go off against the Saints pass defense. Players in their first game back from an injury are always something of a dice roll. Jackson was no exception, recording three catches for just 15 yards coming off a long hamstring injury. This week should be a fine chance at a rebound, as he should find himself against Brandon Browner on a fair amount of his snaps. Browner is one of the most inconsistent cornerbacks in the NFL, and his stiff-hips leave him exposed to small speed receivers. Jackson should get a chance to smoke Browner on more than one occasion, and we know it only takes one big Jackson catch to turn your week. With owners frustrated during his long injury absence, he's only owned in 72 percent of NFL.com leagues.
Long oversold as a breakout candidate, Zach Ertz is one of fantasy's bigger disappointments relative to expectations this season (he's scored exactly zero times this season). However, simple touchdown regression indicates he should see a bit more fantasy burn over the last half of the year. His complete lack of end zone trips on 48 passing targets is pretty unsustainable, especially considering he plays 73 percent of the snaps.
The Dolphins rank 19th in tight end points allowed per target, and give up 11.84 yards per reception to the positon. There's enough room against this lackluster defense for Ertz to make his first trip into the painted area of 2015. The dream of Ertz being some future superstar is long dead, but he can still be a fine week-by-week tight end streamer.