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.
Looking ahead to this weekend's action, there are 10 sleepers I like to outperform what the masses expect from them in Week 13.
*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. *
Colonel Sanders' Super Secret Sleeper
Surprisingly, the 49ers starting running back was a great floor play the last three weeks, especially in PPR leagues. Shaun Draughn averaged 8.63 standard points the last three games, and 13.3 in PPR formats. That's a remarkable amount of consistency from a position where players drop like flies every week, even if it is all on the back of volume.
Since he and Blaine Gabbert's insertion into the starting lineup three weeks ago, Draughn averages 20 touches per game and leads the team in passing targets. Additionally, he's played 95 percent of the snaps the last two games, including 100 percent of their 56 plays last week. While he hasn't been the model of efficiency (.432 fantasy points per touch), the volume he gets is a far better indicator of how the team views his ability and how we should deploy him in fantasy. Draughn is the lead back on an offense that's at least functional, and that's not for nothing these days.
While Draughn's last two matchups were daunting, he has an excellent chance to finally turn that volume into a big fantasy day in Week 13. The 49ers travel to face the Bears, who over the last four weeks, allow 5.99 yards per touch to the running back position and rank near the bottom of the NFL with .717 fantasy points per touch allowed to the position. By both attrition and matchup, Draughn has an excellent chance to sneak into the top 15 running back scorers for Week 13.
Oddly enough, Jay Cutler has been more of a play for a floor at quarterback this year, even though he's typically thought of as a high-variance player. Cutler averages just over 16 fantasy points this season, but this is a great week to chase his ceiling as a quarterback streamer.
Despite this being a steadier season from Cutler than normal, he still has the potential for a high-ceiling outing. The correlation lies with the presence of his top weapon, Alshon Jeffery. In games where both Cutler and Jeffery took the field together, Cutler averages 4.25 more fantasy points and throws for 35.83 more yards per game. Jeffery had seven catches for 90 yards last week, and looks a full-go for the time being. Both players will square off with a 49ers defense that performs at a league-worst level on the road:
With Jeffery on board, two healthy pass catching running backs and Zach Miller emerging as a legitimate threat at tight end, Cutler has a full complement of weapons heading into a cakewalk matchup. Cutler's season-high point total to date is a 24.7 mark against the Chargers in Week 10. He could certainly push past that in this spot.
The new Broncos starting quarterback was a safe floor play in his first two starts, as Brock Osweiler averaged 15.8 fantasy points. However, he started to cut it loose last week against the Patriots. Osweiler averaged 9.6 air yards per attempt in Week 12 and had six passes travel at least 20 yards in the air, compared to 6.8 air YPA and only one pass off 20-plus yards in Week 11.
The Chargers play poor pass defense overall, with Eric Weddle battling through injuries and Jason Verrett their only competent cornerback. Osweiler showed some strong rapport with Emmanuel Sanders last week, who should run most of his routes from the slot and against Brandon Flowers, while Verrett tracks Demaryius Thomas. Osweiler and Sanders could quietly finish as one of the better daily fantasy stacks this week.
The last time the Jaguars and Titans squared off, Mariota ran five times and scored 18.1 fantasy points, despite playing on the road in a Thursday night game. He followed that up with a three-passing touchdown game last week against the Raiders. What makes Mariota such an attractive fantasy option is that the entire offense runs through him. With their running game inconsistent at best, Mariota shouldered more of the load lately, and he averaged over 10 air yards per pass attempt over the last two games.
Jacksonville's pass defense has fallen apart at this point in the season, allowing the second-most passing yards in the league the last four weeks and a 9-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio. Their run defense is one of the best in the NFL, with just 3.44 yards per carry given up on the season, which funnels production against them to the air. Don't be surprised if Mariota has to carry this offense again, and sneaks into the top-10 of quarterback scorers.
Among the many running back handcuffs added over the last three weeks, Terrance West went largely overlooked as an add after Javorius Allen took over as the Ravens starter. In his first game active for Baltimore, West handled seven touches to Allen's 16 and went for over five yards per carry against his former team. The Ravens had some affection for West when he came out of the nearby Towson University in 2014, and despite only playing him on 13 snaps, they trusted him with some crucial carries on Monday night.
While the Browns are known for giving up big running back performances this season, Baltimore's Week 13 opponent may be even more generous. In the last four weeks, Miami has given up the second-most fantasy points per game to running backs and ceded five rushing scores. West is a pure Hail Mary desperation play, and more of just a stash, but don't be surprised if he punches in a score against the Dolphins if he still gets work.
For good reason, all eyes are on David Johnson this week. Chris Johnson is done for the remainder of the regular season, and Bruce Arians does not expect to have Andre Ellington available for Sunday. The logical assumption is that talented rookie running back David Johnson should see 15 to 20 touches, and playing in one of the NFL's best offenses, that's an attractive proposition.
Johnson, who still isn't all the way there as a between-the-tackles runner, is at his best as a receiving threat out of the backfield. He gets a great matchup for what should be his first career start. The Rams are really struggling with middle of the field coverage, and have been obliterated by pass-catching running backs over the last three games. St. Louis game up a combined 22 catches for 247 yards over that span including a massive game to Jeremy Langford.
One word of caution to those planning to go all-in on Johnson: the rookie has struggled some with ball security this season, coughing it up three times on the season. Arians loves to defer to veteran players, and spoke publicly about not wanting to throw Johnson a big workload too early. There's far too many positives to turn away from Johnson, and he could be a true league winner down the stretch, but also recognize that there is a very real potential nightmare 15-touch Stepfan Taylor game in our range of outcomes this week.
For the first time in the last month, Duke Johnson saw more touches out of the Browns backfield than the ineffective Isaiah Crowell, who averaged one yard per carry on Monday. Johnson played 64 percent of the team's snaps and caught five of his six targets. If he holds that sort of role in the rotation he becomes an instant flex play in PPR leagues.
The Bengals will surely be a favorite over the Browns in their Week 13 matchup with Austin Davis under center. Such a game script would lead Cleveland to run more passing plays, which should result in a clear lead in the snap share for Johnson. With Davis, a bit of a frenetic quarterback, under center, there should be plenty of situations where they dump the ball off to the running back for a quick completion. Duke Johnson could come away with seven receptions in this game without breaking a sweat.
One of the more physically gifted receivers in the 2015 NFL Draft, DeVante Parker was slowed early in the season as he developed on a slow pace with an injury, and by Rishard Matthews' performance. However, it may finally be Parker's time to ascend to a full-time role in the offense. When Matthews went down early in the Week 12 loss to the Jets, DeVante Parker stepped in and played 82 percent of the Dolphins snaps, second on the team behind Jarvis Landry. He also tied for second on the team in passing targets, which we should expect to continue.
Parker certainly still has some work to do as a technician, but he won't need to do much advanced execution to get over in this matchup. The Ravens are still a pass defense to target. Their secondary gave up seven wide receiver touchdowns in three of their last four games played -- throwing out their matchup with the abysmal Rams. Parker is a talented athlete who could bust off a big play in this spot.
The last man standing in the Patriots receiving corps, Brandon LaFell totaled just 16.8 fantasy points the last three weeks, despite tying for second in targets during that span. However, as mentioned, he is the last man standing in a once formidable group of pass catchers. LaFell should push for 10 targets on Sunday just by attrition alone.
The Eagles, in addition to appearing in outright give up mode the last two weeks, have been dreadful all season at slowing down the pass. Football Outsiders ranks them as the 31st defense in the NFL in terms of defending opposing No. 1 receivers, in particular. Again, just by lack of other options, that is LaFell for New England right now. If you have to plug him in your lineup, odds are he turns in a good day against Byron Maxwell and a fading Eagles stop unit.
He was one of the fastest faders from fantasy relevance this season, and his dropped touchdown against the Raiders three weeks ago seemed to be the final nail in Kyle Rudolph's coffin. However, in the two games following, Rudolph has 19 targets for a clear-cut team lead. Even better, he's turning that into production with 13 catches for 159 yards and a score during that span.
The Seahawks seem intent on letting tight ends rip through their defense with seven touchdowns allowed on just 86 targets this season. Last week, Heath Miller was well on his way to a big game against them, but left early with an injury. He racked up 9.5 PPR points prior to his exit, and Jesse James caught a two-point conversion not long after. Rudolph is widely available on waivers, and can fit right into your lineup facing Seattle this week.