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.
As such, you'll see more players on this list that have less explosive potential, and more who are just assets to give you a surprisingly steady output. In the midst of the bye week gauntlet, that's more important than anything else.
Looking ahead to this weekend's action, there are 10 sleepers I like to outperform what the masses expect from them in Week 8, including several I feel very strongly about, and at least one quarterback with the potential to strike big.
Colonel Sanders' Super Secret Sleeper
The prevailing narrative is that Joe Flacco is having a nightmare season. Indeed, the highly regarded eighth-year pro should be playing better than he is with a passer rating of 80.1. With that being said, Flacco is not completely worthless as a fantasy asset, despite ranking as the QB14. Flacco's overall ranking is depressed by two weeks where he scored a combined 8.24 fantasy point (against the Broncos and a Thursday night road game against the Steelers). Outside of those two contests, Flacco is performing at the same level he has in any other year.
You'd be surprised to know that Flacco actually has three QB1 scoring weeks to his name this season. He finished as the QB12 in Week 2, the QB7 in Week 3 and the QB6 in Week 5. The last two weeks, interceptions dragged down his performance to the QB 15 to 16 range.
In reality, none of this should surprise us regarding Joe Flacco's fantasy performances, as they're all in line with his historical trends. Going back to 2012, Flacco averages .65 interceptions at home per game, as opposed to 1.21 on the road. He's a safer bet in his home stadium, and has always been a matchup-based fantasy starter. In that same timespan, Flacco averages 22.27 fantasy points per game against bottom-half NFL pass defenses, and only 16 against top-half opponents. Throughout his career, Flacco has consistently been the same player he is this year.
One outlier is his passing attempts in the red zone. Flacco ranks second in the NFL in red zone passing attempts with 40 in seven games. However, he's thrown just six touchdowns inside the 20. We're always paying attention to scoring opportunities bound to regress to the mean. With Marc Trestman dialing up plenty of chances for him to chuck the ball into the end zone, Flacco's scoring rate should tilt more in favor of successful touchdown passes as the season goes on. Perhaps this week is the beginning of that reversal.
Despite his status as something of a fantasy disappointment this season, all the stars are aligned for Joe Flacco to deliver a QB1 outing in Week 8. The Ravens play at home, drawing a matchup with the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have an emerging star in second-year corner Jason Verrett, but the rest of their secondary just hasn't held up their end of the task.
The Chargers rank 16th in the NFL in both passing yards against, and 25th in fantasy points allowed per pass attempts. San Diego ranks a damning 29th in touchdown percentage, allowing a score on 6.3 percent of the pass attempts against them. Teams can pick on Brandon Flowers, and have all year, while the Chargers pass rush doesn't consistently get home.
The Ravens don't boast a sequence of high caliber weapons to exploit this matchup, but that didn't stop Flacco from positing three QB1 weeks this year. Everything points to this being yet another one of those games. At home and in a plus matchup, Flacco is one of the top quarterback streamers for the week. In daily fantasy, the Flacco/Steve Smith stack will be one of my personal favorites, and one I anchor my lineups with.
Giving Alex Smith a No. 1 wide receiver in Jeremy Maclin really hasn't helped him elevate his game, as he's currently the QB20 in points per game on the season. Smith averages 15.6 fantasy points per game this year, which is right in line with his Chiefs career average of 15.8. Much like our previous quarterback pick, Smith very much is what he is.
However, Smith is in play as a streaming starter this week against the Lions. The Chiefs offense is predicated on short passing that allows the pass catchers to make plays with the ball in their hands. Maclin, Albert Wilson and Travis Kelce are all open field playmakers. Of the 2,007 passing the Lions defense let up this season, 52.6 percent of it was accumulated after the catch.
Detroit's defense has issues tackling with star linebacker DeAndre Levy out, and a lack of speed in the secondary. The Chiefs offense, and by extension their quarterback, is perfectly constructed to attack the Lions at their weakest point. With Jeremy Maclin set to return after missing Week 7, Smith makes for a safe floor play at quarterback.
This is less of a recommendation to play for this week, and rather an answer to "what would I do" in replacing Arian Foster. Alfred Blue fits in the Ronnie Hillman "we know how this story goes" mold. Blue's fantasy point totals in Foster's absence went as follows: 4.9, 1.0 19.9, which was right in line with his work as a rookie where he only had two games with double digit fantasy points, surrounded by unusable weeks. Blue needs a ton of volume carries to get to that level of production, and he didn't consistently get that when Foster was out early this year. He lost snaps to both Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes, and none of the three topped 36 percent of the snaps.
Grimes is an interesting athlete, and played a fair amount of passing downs when Foster missed the first three games of 2015. He earned 14 targets over those three games. However, he hasn't played since Week 3, and is probably best left on the waiver wire until we see more from him. For now, Chris Polk is the most desirable acquisition out of the Houston backfield replacements. Polk was a talented pass-catching back who fell out of the 2013 draft due to medical concerns. He's still held a role in the passing game even with Foster's return, getting at least one target in all but one game this season. Polk is worth an add in PPR leagues for now, but temper expectations.
The introduction of Robert Turbin into the Browns running back rotation brought more clouds to an already murky backfield. However, Duke Johnson consistently played the most snaps of any Cleveland running back in every game from Week 2 on. Since Week 3, Johnson averages 7.2 passing targets per game. His involvement has only grown as the weeks wear on:
As JJ Zachariason intimates, Johnson has a great matchup this week for his skill set. The Cardinals have a strong defense, and aren't an easy group to run on. They rank sixth in fantasy points allowed to running backs per touch, and only give up 3.75 yards per carry. However, they give up over six catches to running backs per game. The Cardinals defense is aggressive, which forces the ball out of quarterbacks' hands, and to the running backs in short areas. The Browns offense functioned best during the two game stretch where Johnson piled up 18 targets.
The Falcons lap the field in receptions allowed to running backs with 64 in seven games. The next highest is 48 by the Raiders. They also just bleed yards, with 514 allowed through the air to running backs. The Atlanta linebackers are some of the worst coverage players in the NFL, and get thumped by pass catching running backs and move tight ends on a near weekly basis.
Doug Martin and Charles Sims split the passing down work for the Bucs, but Sims' best asset is his receiving ability out of the backfield. He's looked more elusive this year, averaging 13.1 yards per catch. This matchup with Atlanta quietly has good shootout potential, and Sims could break one if he gets matched up with Paul Worrilow in coverage. In a year where specialty backs continually show up in the top-20 running back scorers, Sims can get you through a bye week crunch.
The veteran receiver returned to his normal workload right away in his first game back from a hamstring injury. Steve Johnson played 81 percent of the team's snaps and logged eight targets against the Raiders. We here at NFL Fantasy were bullish on Johnson as a sleeper before the season started, and he rewarded that faith with a 91.7 percent catch rate and two touchdowns in the first two games of the season. Now that he's back in the regular rotation for an offense which has Philip Rivers leading the NFL in pass attempts, he'll find his way into lineup consideration often.
There's every chance Johnson's owner dropped him in your league when he missed Weeks 5 and 6. He was under-owned beforehand, and only resides on 7.8 percent of rosters on NFL.com leagues. He can go straight from the waiver wire into your lineup this week. The Chargers travel from the west coast to face the Ravens. Baltimore ranks 28th in wide receiver fantasy points allowed per target, and cedes 214 yards per game to the position. With the Chargers unable to even pose a reasonable threat of a running game, they'll take right to the air in hopes of exploiting that weakness. While Keenan Allen could run wild, Johnson should pick some production away here. He's a fine flex play this week, and should push for WR2 numbers in PPR.
One of the more disappointing draft picks this year, Golden Tate has topped 70 yards receiving just twice on the season. He needed 28 targets in those two games just to get there. With the Lions mired in a conservative approach in the first half of the season, Tate wasn't a big part of the game plan. However, Detroit did make a change at offensive coordinator, firing Joe Lombardi and promoting Jim Bob Cooter. We don't know much about Cooter at the NFL level, but Miami's resurgence is proof of the (at worst) placebo effect a coaching change can have on a team. Perhaps Cooter comes in and brings back the aggressive style of Lions offenses past.
If there was ever a week for Tate to return to form it's this one. The Chiefs defense ranks 26th in fantasy points allowed to receiver per target, with a 6.8 percent touchdown rate. Despite a big name, Tate is one of the more longshot plays on this list. However, if you're totally desperate, he has a good pedigree and favorable matchup.
In some effort to appease their best wide receiver, the Titans fed eight targets in Week 7 to Kendall Wright after he opined that his role needed increasing. While he did manage to score last week, those targets for Wright came via Zach Mettenberger and not from Marcus Mariota. The franchise quarterback practiced on a limited basis this week, but Wright is in play regardless.
The Texans defense just gave up 80-plus yards and two scores to Miami slot receiver Jarvis Landry. The team just doesn't have the discipline to stick with receivers from the Landry/Wright archetype, and rank 21st in fantasy points allowed per target. If you're looking for a bye week filler at receiver, these short target receivers provide a nice safe floor. Seeing a good matchup just adds to Wright's allure.
Quietly, the Giants have been atrocious at defending tight ends this season. New York gives up 11 fantasy points per game to the position, and tight ends catch 70.6 percent of their targets against them. Both figures could look even worse had Kirk Cousins hit Jordan Reed on two end zone passes back in Week 3. With the Giants rash of injuries to their safeties, and their consistent preference for heavy-footed linebackers, it only makes sense that tight ends routinely rip through them.
Ben Watson and the Saints welcome New York this week with open arms. While Week 6's 10 catch explosion is the clear outlier of not only Watson's season, but his entire career, he's settled back into a friendly five target per game role. That may be all he needs to give back value in this matchup. The Saints/Giants game will be one of the week's highest scoring, and Watson (two targets for two touchdowns inside the 10-yard line) has a great chance to score.
Not only is Crockett Gillmore available in 96 percent of NFL.com leagues, he has a steady role in his team's offense. In the four full games he's played this season, Gillmore averages 5.75 targets per game. Joe Flacco has long held a preference for targeting his tight ends, and that trust is bleeding over to Gillmore. In Weeks 1 and 7, Flacco's last throw of the games in efforts to win went to Gillmore in the end zone. Both resulted in interceptions, but the trust is there at least.
As Gillmore continues working his way back into the offense, the trust and relationship should continue to grow. He's a physical player, who takes the fight to the defense. The Chargers rank a surprising 28th with 1.395 fantasy points allowed per target to tight ends, and allow a touchdown on 9.5 percent of the targets against them. If you're in a bind at tight end, you're essentially just streaming hoping for a touchdown. Given the matchup and Flacco's history with the position, Gillmore is one of the stronger bets to come through.