It's "Fantasy Draft Week" here at NFL Media, which means we're refreshing our takes to help you get as prepared as humanly possible to dominate your fantasy drafts. The fantasy landscape has changed quite a lot since I last took a crack at highlighting some deep sleepers, with plenty of those players ascending to regular sleeper status, and others falling completely off the radar.
Nevertheless, after some deep roster diving, soul searching, and number crunching, I've found 12 deep sleepers I feel pretty confident in for the 2016 fantasy season. Some I've written about extensively this offseason, while others are new to the party. Regardless, these are players who I believe merit your attention in the double-digit rounds and beyond, or could become fantasy superstars off the waiver wire if the right series of events unfold in their favor.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
This is now the third time I've writtenaboutTyrod Taylor as some form of sleeper this offseason, so forgive me if you've heard some of this before. Taylor remains criminally underrated in early fantasy drafts as he's currently going as the 15th to 18th quarterback off the board. He missed two games with injuries in 2015, but was a fantastic fantasy quarterback otherwise. From Weeks 1-4 (pre-injury), he was the fourth-highest scoring quarterback, and from Weeks 9-17 (returning from injury), he was the ninth-highest scoring quarterback. Overall, he averaged 19.33 fantasy points per game in 2015, which extrapolated to 16 games (far from an exact science) would have netted Taylor a whopping 309.28 fantasy points. That would have earned him a fifth-place finish among all fantasy quarterbacks. He averaged the third-most fantasy points per drop back all season, behind just Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Sammy Watkins looks to be close to fully recovered from offseason injuries, and the team gave Taylor a pay raise this year, but he's still essentially playing for a long-term contract. So far, he's looked electric in the preseason and I'm expecting another outstanding fantasy season from him in 2016. With the Bills defense suffering numerous setbacks recently (Reggie Ragland out for the year, Marcell Dareus hit with a four-game suspension) they could be a little bit more porous, creating negative game scripts where Taylor needs to sling the rock even more. Even if his pass attempts don't rise, his ability as a runner gives him reliable weekly production. All told, Taylor is shaping up to be the perfect late-round quarterback to target on draft day with both a tremendously high ceiling and safe floor.
Terrance West, RB, Baltimore Ravens
For all intents and purposes, the Ravens backfield appears to be an absolute fantasy mess. Yet, the player I feel the most comfortable targeting late in drafts right now is Terrance West. The praise for West has been near-ubiquitous this offseason, coming from coaches, beat writers, and teammates alike. While Justin Forsett might end up the starter, this feels like a case where West slowly takes over this backfield, even without an injury happening to someone ahead of him on the depth chart. When mining the later rounds for running backs, often times it's all about upside. That's why David Johnson appeared on many of these lists last year, as he oozed potential but had several barriers to his ascension to the starting job. West is a dart throw, but one worth taking when chasing upside in the latter parts of drafts.
Spencer Ware, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
With Knile Davis's handcuff status now dead and buried, Spencer Ware looks to be the back to own behind Jamaal Charles after playing like an absolute beast in 2015. Yet, why he lands on this list is because he could provide some standalone value as well. Ware was the most effective runner near the goal line for the Chiefs in 2015, converting five of his nine attempts inside the 10-yard line into touchdowns. But he wasn't just a short-yardage specialist. He took his 72 attempts for 403 yards (5.6 yards per carry), with 12.5 percent of his runs going for 10-plus yards, trailing Charles' 16.9 percent but well ahead of Charcandrick West's 6.9 percent. Per Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus, Ware led all backs with 50-plus carries in yards after contact per carry and was seventh in missed tackles per attempt. He's a dynamic talent who is already playing ahead of Charcandrick West in the preseason. Ware is clearly the backup to own to Charles, but based on his size, power, and ability in the red zone he could get mixed in regularly throughout the season to help keep Charles fresh as he recovers from his second torn ACL. As we approach the season, Ware is a perfect high-upside handcuff who also could offer flex appeal in deeper leagues based on his own natural talent and potential role in this offense.
Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks
A tip of the hat must go to my colleague Matt Franciscovich for being among the first to board the Christine Michael career resurrection train. If you haven't read his Christine Michael Truther masterpiece yet, check it out before continuing. While the Seahawks and Thomas Rawls keep insisting Rawls will be ready for Week 1, I'll believe it when I actually see him on the field making cuts and absorbing contact as he did last year. Until then, Michael makes for a steal in the later rounds of fantasy drafts. Pete Carroll has indicated that Rawls and Michael could be a 1-2 punch this season, but that's if Rawls does come all the way back. If not, the team is in good hands with Michael. Including the first two weeks of this preseason, since what has been dubbed his "Awakening" prior to Week 17 he averages 4.92 yards per carry. And this isn't an accident either. Michael now shows top-notch vision, patience, and awareness to go along with his already immense physical gifts. Michael will potentially offer solid late-round value as part of a committee ... or be a borderline RB1 if Rawls can't make it back to full health in time for Week 1.
Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
For some reason, it seems the fantasy community has largely forgotten about Darren Sproles this offseason. Whether a case of height supremacy (Sproles is 5-foot-6) or ageism (Sproles is 33 years old), I am here to try and reverse this way of thinking. Considering Sproles' current ADP is undrafted in standard 10-team leagues, I have some work to do. There are a wealth of reasons to like Sproles in fantasy this year, so let's get to it.
While Sproles did post some of the worst statistics of his career -- 3.8 yards per carry was his lowest mark since 2009 and 7.1 yards per reception was his lowest since 2007 -- part of that also stemmed from the Eagles' offensive woes. Now, this isn't to say Doug Pederson is going to come in and be some sort of offensive savior, but he seems inclined to expand Sproles' role. Pederson recently raved about Sproles when asked about using him in a Danny Woodhead-esque role, which would be a huge boon to Sproles' fantasy value. Sproles was the second-most targeted Eagle in 2015 on third downs (28), and he hauled in 23 of those targets for 197 yards and one touchdown, with 194 of those yards coming after the catch. By comparison, Woodhead posted a line of 29-231-3 on 40 targets (with 188 yards after the catch). And this could just be the beginning for Sproles, as Eagles beat reporter Jimmy Kempski believes Sproles is an overall better fit for Pederson's system than Ryan Mathews, and expects him to be "used more creatively in Pederson's offense than he was in Chip Kelly's." Kempski doubled down with another piece analyzing how Sproles' role could expand after offensive coordinator Frank Reich was also talking up Sproles' ability and potential usage.
The Eagles backfield depth is a bit frightening right now. Mathews is already dealing with injuries, as is rookie Wendell Smallwood. The Eagles offense doesn't look like a lights-out unit either, and could be playing from behind a fair amount this year. That lines up well for a back like Sproles, who figures to be the primary option when the team runs the hurry-up. With quarterbacks who prefer checkdowns to challenging defenses deep, it's not difficult to envision a scenario where Sproles returns to the 70-80 target range he hit back in New Orleans. Let's also not forget the team shipped DeMarco Murray and his 237 touches off to Tennessee this offseason, leaving immense opportunities to be had in this backfield. Sproles isn't going to be a sexy pick by any stretch, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if he put up a dozen or so usable fantasy weeks in 2016 -- even in standard formats. If you pull up the tape from last year, you can see the 33-year-old still has what it takes to make the young bucks look silly. Sproles appears to be tremendous fantasy value right now.
Rishard Matthews, WR, Tennessee Titans
The hype around Tajae Sharpe is most certainly real, but I can't quite understand why everyone is casting Rishard Matthews to the side. The team signed him this offseason to a three-year, $15 million contract, making him the highest-paid wide receiver on the roster. He's pleased the coaching staff thus far and is starting with the first-team alongside Sharpe. Yet Sharpe recently jumped Matthews in ADP on fantasyfootballcalculator.com. While I'm all in on the rookie's upside, let's not forget about an ascending young veteran ready to take the next step in this Titans offense.
Matthews is not a prototypical No. 1 wide receiver, nor is he the type of matchup nightmare who can win games on his own. He is, however, a solid route runner with strong hands and nice after-the-catch ability who can produce when targeted. Through the first 11 weeks of 2015, Matthews was the WR22 in standard leagues, averaging 9.1 fantasy points per game and 11.4 fantasy points per game when he saw five-plus targets. Garnering a larger share of the targets in Tennessee could put Matthews on the path to push for a top-24 finish by season's end. While I understand buying in on an exciting young rookie making waves in camp, we shouldn't ignore the veteran making plays alongside him. Matthews looks to be a great value who can be scooped up in Round 13 or later in standard leagues.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Atlanta Falcons
I've been using a lot of digital ink lately on Mohamed Sanu, but it's for good reason. As the emerging No. 2 wide receiver in the Falcons offense, Sanu could be set for a breakout season. As Chris Wesseling noted in his great "Making the Leap" piece on Sanu, Leonard Hankerson was on pace for 68 catches, 964 yards, and eight touchdowns at the quarter-season mark last year. Those would have been good enough numbers for Hankerson to finish as the WR21 in standard leagues last year. Sanu is a more versatile and better overall player than Hankerson and is the best bet to inherit the majority of the 116 targets vacated by the departures of Roddy White and Hankerson. Operating in an offense piloted by a good quarterback in Matt Ryan and working in the shadow of Julio Jones will only help Sanu's fantasy value.
From his time in Cincinnati, we know Sanu can produce with more volume. In the four games A.J. Green missed in 2014, Sanu averaged 9.25 targets, 95.75 receiving yards, and 0.5 receiving touchdowns per game. While his volume doesn't figure to be that high in an Atlanta offense with Jones and Devonta Freeman, it helps paint a picture of how Sanu will be able to produce even with just 100-120 targets. All told, Sanu is a bargain that can be had at a WR4 draft price with WR2 upside.
Bruce Ellington, WR, San Francisco 49ers
When I first penciled together this list, I was planning on writing about Jaelen Strong, but the emergence of Will Fuller in the preseason has me worried. So naturally to find a replacement I turn to one of the most worrisome offenses in the league -- the 49ers. The Bruce Ellington hype is real this year though, with praise coming from Chip Kelly, beat writers, and all corners of the fantasy industry. One of the better arguments came from NFL Media's own Matt Harmon, who listed Ellington among his must-own wide receivers and also wrote about how the 49ers passing offense is worthy of more fantasy attention. I highly recommend you read both pieces.
What it boils down to is this: Ellington looks to be the starting slot wide receiver in a Chip Kelly offense that gave 229 targets to Jordan Matthews over his two years in Philadelphia, with most of them coming while Matthews was in the slot. Kelly offenses are always high-volume, even when the quarterback play is suboptimal (the Eagles ran the second-most plays last year). The 49ers don't figure to be leading in too many games this year, too, giving the offense a wealth of negative, pass-heavy game scripts that will help bolster the production of a player like Ellington. Lastly, Ellington's also a pretty good player in his own right, which can't be ignored.
The 49ers offense might not entice you (especially when it comes to the quarterback), but there are reasons to believe that Ellington is in line for a surprisingly productive fantasy campaign. Considering he can be taken with essentially the final pick in standard 10-team leagues, he could be a huge bargain and figures to be relevant in larger leagues (especially PPR).
Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington
While we're all excited to see Josh Doctson grace an NFL field, the rookie is battling an Achilles injury that could keep him out until Week 1, or land him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to start the season. That's less than ideal for a first-round pick, but it opens the door for Pierre Garcon to maintain some fantasy relevance in his ninth NFL season.
Garcon rather quietly posted a stat line of 72-777-6 on 111 targets in Washington last year but made his money in the red zone. He was the second-most targeted player on the team behind Jordan Reed in the red zone but was also quite efficient. Garcon hauled in four of his 10 targets inside the 10-yard line, converting all four into touchdowns. Jamison Crowder found the end zone just once on seven looks, and DeSean Jackson has never been much of a red zone threat, especially inside the 10 (33 career targets and just five touchdowns in eight years). Garcon will never duplicate his ridiculous 2013 season (113 receptions, 1,346 yards, five touchdowns), but he could offer some sneaky value late in drafts this year, especially in PPR formats. The Washington backfield is a mess right now after Matt Jones injured his shoulder, and the team could lean on the right arm of Kirk Cousins more often than not. Garcon is a bit of a longshot in a crowded pass-catching group, but the veteran could make some noise while playing for a new contract. He has enough upside to chase with one of your final picks.
Jared Cook, TE, Green Bay Packers
I've been high on Jared Cook since the Packers signed him this offseason, as he gives the team a dangerous threat up the middle of the field they've lacked since Jermichael Finley was wearing the green and gold. Now, I understand your reservations. Cook has been #bad for much of his career, never fully realizing his mouth-watering potential. But throw out the past, because Cook could rewrite his own NFL history in 2016.
For starters, he's now operating in far and away the best offense of his career. He will catch passes from Aaron Rodgers and eat up soft coverage thanks to the threats of Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Mike McCarthy (a former tight end) loves featuring tight ends in his offenses and has retaken control of the play-calling in Green Bay for good. Richard Rodgers had a solid fantasy season last year, but the next time he outruns a defender in the flat or up the seam will be the first. Cook boasts 4.37 speed in a 6-foot-4 frame, giving the Packers a truly dynamic middle-of-the-field threat. Last year, Rodgers averaged six yards per target catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, while Cook averages 7.4 yards per target over his career catching passes from the likes of Matt Hasselbeck, Vince Young, Kerry Collins, Rusty Smith, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, and Nick Foles. For what it's worth, Jermichael Finley averaged 8.6 yards per target while in Green Bay, and he has a similar athletic profile to Cook. The more I look at this picture, the more I struggle to envision a scenario where Cook doesn't finish the year as a top-10 fantasy tight end. Call me a homer, but I don't care. I'll draft Cook in the later rounds, cruise with him to the fantasy playoffs and wave to you as we pass by.
Cameron Brate, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sometimes in fantasy, you just have to go down with the ship when it comes to a hot take, and that's how I feel with Cameron Brate after hyping him up on the NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast a few weeks ago. With Austin Seferian-Jenkins underperforming and getting kicked out of training camp, Brate emerged as one of Jameis Winston's most-trusted targets. While ASJ returned and started making splash plays, there's still plenty of opportunity for Brate. Dirk Koetter's offenses have a history of targeting tight ends, as the top tight end has received more than 11 percent of the targets in seven of his nine years as a coordinator. Even if ASJ puts it together and earns his starting spot back (Brate remains No. 1 on the team's unofficial depth chart), the team could run more two-tight end sets to get Brate on the field. The third wide receiver right now for the Bucs is Adam Humphries, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound second-year player. Brate gives Winston another huge target (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), especially near the red zone. All told, Brate probably won't be drafted in most standard leagues, but he makes for a nice late-round pick in best-ball formats or deeper leagues if he holds onto the starting gig. If not, Brate will just be on the waiver wire radar until ASJ suffers an injury or makes another bone-headed mistake (though I'm by no means wishing for that).