By August, the act of proclaiming players a "fantasy sleeper" has become as tedious as a trip to the DMV. People have their own hot takes as to who can actually be a sleeper, and for those of us who do this for a living and have been writing sleeper-filled missives since Atlanta was up 28-3, there are few stones left unturned.
Nevertheless, in an effort to help those of you in deeper leagues or who want a leg up on the competition in your casual league, below are 10 players with extremely low ADPs (average draft positions) who could surprise if the fantasy cookie crumbles the right way. Some of these players are starters already, others have minimal obstacles to a featured role. And all of them, in my eyes, are deep sleepers. Disagree? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @AlexGelhar, or on Facebook.
Carson Palmer went from MVP candidate in 2015 to fantasy bust in 2016, but looking back on it, the hate has gone too far. Palmer struggled in 2016, especially early, but he was without two of his top-three targets for much of the year (
John Brown). Once he adjusted to his new reality, he bounced back, averaging 17.6 fantasy points per game over his final nine contests. Looking ahead to 2017, his receiving corps should be better (assuming
John Brown gets healthy, more on that later), but the most appealing part of Palmer's outlook is his early season schedule. Three of his first four opponents finished in the bottom 10 in terms of fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, but also in the bottom five in passing DVOA,
per Football Outsiders. Palmer should be able to exploit those matchups for even reasonable fantasy success, and if he doesn't you can cut him and look for another streamable quarterback on the waiver-wire.
Deep sleepers at the running back position are hard to come by, which is why we generally turn more toward handcuffs. And there aren't many handcuff running backs more appealing than Jonathan Williams. The Bills led the league in rush attempts over the last two years and more importantly run the ball 61 percent of the time in the red zone during that span. LeSean McCoy is set up for another fantastic season, but he is 29 years old with over 9,300 career touches under his belt. Even if he doesn't get injured, the team will likely spell him at times as they did in 2016, when they gave Mike Gillislee 101 carries. Williams should have some low-end appeal as the change of pace back in a run-heavy offense, but carries massive upside in the event LeSean McCoy misses any amount of time.
There are numerous road blocks obscuring Joe Williams' path to fantasy stardom in 2017, but there are certainly situations where he could end up having several fantasy relevant weeks. Williams appears to be third on the 49ers running back depth chart behind presumed starter Carlos Hyde and veteran backup Tim Hightower. He'd need an injury to one or both of those two to see significant snaps in the regular season, but Hyde hasn't played a full season yet in his career and Hightower is a 31-year old veteran who was out of football from 2012-2014. It's not exactly as if early-career Adrian Peterson is starting ahead of Williams. Williams has game-changing ability, as evidenced by his 1,407 rushing yards during his final collegiate season (1,300 of which he accumulated in just seven games). Head coach Kyle Shanahan pounded the table for the team to draft Williams, as general manager John Lynch initially had Williams off his board. It might not even be worth drafting Williams yet except in deeper leagues, but he's an important name to watch on waivers as the season progresses.
This one is pretty cut and dry: Marshawn Lynch is old and the last time we saw him in the NFL was battling core and back injuries. His backup in the high-octane Raiders offense will have plenty of fantasy value. Washington was efficient with his opportunities in 2016, and so far appears to be the No. 2 option for the Raiders. Jalen Richard made the splashier plays last year, but Washington is the player to roster in this race.
While Tyreek Hill is sliding into the more exciting and fantasy relevant wide receiver role in Andy Reid's offense, Chris Conley merits some consideration as well -- even in more of a possession-style role. An athletically gifted receiver, Conley has yet to put it all together on the football field for the Chiefs, but that's partially due to a lack of opportunities. To date, his career-high in targets is 69 from 2016. With Jeremy Maclin and his 76 targets from a year ago out of the picture, Conley could see a nice bump up in his usage. Hill and Travis Kelce will lead this team in targets, but don't underestimate Conley's ability to turn short passes from Alex Smith into big gains for fantasy points. Given his availability late in drafts, Conley is certainly worth a flier for wide receiver-needy teams.
If you follow pretty much any fantasy writer on Twitter, you've likely seen praise showered upon the Lions' rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay. And there's a lot to like too, a 6-foot-4 athletic specimen who made splash plays in the preseason and is now earning first-team reps in practice. HOWEVER, talent can only carry players so far in fantasy. The cold hard truth of reality washes over us with this lesson time and time again in fantasy. What truly matters is opportunity, and as I detailed on Twitter Golladay's path to opportunity is rife with obstacles. Golden Tate should lead the team in targets again, while Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick will all be ahead of Golladay in the pecking order for targets. The Lions total number of offensive plays has dropped in three consecutive years, as have Matthew Stafford's pass attempts, shrinking the overall pie Golladay is attempting to cut into. Moreover, 2016 was the first year in Stafford's career where four players saw 14 percent of more of the targets, perhaps signaling a maturation of the passer under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Stafford used to funnel far more of his passes into one or two players, but under JBC he's been more judicious with his targets. Golladay makes this list not because he's set to inherit massive opportunity starting in Week 1, but because if Tate or Jones gets injured (or Golladay somehow leapfrogs Jones on the depth chart), then Golladay becomes very worth our fantasy attention. He's worth a stash in deeper leagues but don't reach for him over guys with easier paths to volume if his ADP continues to climb.
I want to believe in the John Brown bounce-back in 2017. I really do. But he's already dealing with a quad injury and missed tons of time last year with sickle-cell related ailments and a concussion. All of this caused head coach Bruce Arians to announce fifth-year receiver Jaron Brown the team's No. 2 wideout. This could all be bluster and a means to motivate John Brown to get back on the field and the other wide receivers to step up. However, if there's truth to this sentiment, Brown could fall into a wealth of opportunity. When John Brown emerged as the No. 2 wideout back in 2015, he saw 101 targets, catching 65 of them for 1,003 yards and seven scores. A lot would have to happen for Jaron Brown to find himself receiving that type of workload, but as a late-round flier he could be worth a shot -- especially if he continues to play a lot in the preseason.
Often times, playoff production can help signal a breakout performance the following year. It happened in 2010 with Jordy Nelson, and it could happen again this year with Paul Richardson. Now, I'm not projecting Richardson for 1,200-plus yards and 15 touchdowns (Nelson's 2011 production), but the kid looks ready for the spotlight. Over the final four games of 2016 (including the playoffs), Richardson caught 15 of 21 targets for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Extrapolating those numbers to a full season (SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT) puts him in the range of 850 yards and eight touchdowns, or smack dab in the middle of the WR3/flex tier for fantasy scoring. Richardson picked up where he left off in the first preseason game with another highlight reel catch but injured his shoulder in the process. If he returns to full health before Week 1 (as the team expects), he could be the missing piece that takes this Seahawks passing offense to new heights. A WR3 in the late rounds with breakout potential is a pick worth taking a flier on.
Coby Fleener's arrival in New Orleans last year was met with fanfare and Mardi Gras-like celebrations in the fantasy community. Some sites/analysts had him as high as the TE2 for the year, though I wasn't buying the hype. Fleener largely disappointed, but still finished as the TE12 thanks to the position having a bit of a down year. That has pushed Fleener's draft stock so far down in 2017 that he's now become one of the more attractive late-round tight end values. The opportunity was there in 2016 as Fleener saw 16 red zone targets. He just didn't make the most of them, converting only two into scores. Fleener said he struggled to pick up the playbook last year and is expecting to be "more effective" in Year 2. A better understanding of the offense combined with more opportunities (
Brandin Cooks is now in New England) sets Fleener up in a great position to outperform last year's pedestrian totals of 631 yards and four total touchdowns.
Even though his eight touchdowns tied for the league lead among tight ends, Cameron Brate is currently being undervalued in 2017 fantasy drafts. Granted, that's what happens when your team uses a first-round pick on a high-profile rookie tight end (O.J. Howard) and you went undrafted out of Harvard. So far, early reports from the Buccaneers camp are that Howard will be featured more as a pass-blocker as a rookie, while Brate will maintain his pass-catching role thanks to the rapport he built with Jameis Winston last season. The duo was lethal in the red zone, as Brate tied for the fourth-most red-zone targets among tight ends (16), and all eight of his scores came in the red zone as well. Tight end is a touchdown-dependent fantasy position, and Brate is an excellent scoring threat with a defined role in an ascending offense. He's a great option to target if you wait on the position.