The prospect of identifying "sleepers" can be a frustrating one in fantasy. Pick a player some deem too obvious and your Twitter mentions become a digital punching bag. So when it comes to identifying deep sleepers, the stakes are raised even higher. Now, it is of no use to anyone if I spend hours researching and writing a column on players like Tyler Varga and his fantasy potential (it's minimal), just to flex my NFL knowledge and avoid the inevitable complaints from devoted fantasy enthusiasts. However, toeing that line between too deep and too obvious, we can highlight several players who could surprise, or who could see increased opportunities in 2016 with the potential for a huge workload if the chips fall the right way.
So without further ado, let's get to what you came here for in the first place: my top 10 deep sleepers for the 2016 fantasy season (plus a few bonus names who just missed the cut). None of these guys are likely to win a fantasy league on their own, but they could all turn in some surprisingly useful fantasy weeks at a supreme draft value. When it comes to deep sleepers, that's really all you can ask for. Hit me up on Twitter @AlexGelhar with questions or to ask me about other deep sleeper candidates.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Baltimore Ravens
I feel I must preface this by acknowledging my inherent bias here: I'm a huge fan of Kenneth Dixon's game. He was one of my favorite incoming rookies I studied this offseason, and I was actively rooting for him during the 2016 NFL Draft. And that's part of why I cheered a bit when he was selected by the Ravens in the fourth round. Dixon possesses the tools that could allow him to thrive in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's system, and the running back depth chart in Baltimore is far from set in stone.
While Justin Forsett's resurgent 2014 campaign (1,529 total yards, eight touchdowns) was a tremendous story, he's an about-to-be 31-year-old journeyman coming off of a broken arm. Second-year rusher Javorius Allen showed flashes at times last year, but averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on 137 attempts (compared to 4.2 YPC on 151 totes for Forsett). Dixon has excellent quickness, burst and vision through the hole. He also focused on bulking up this offseason so he could handle a featured back workload. He won't start the season as the featured back, or probably even earn that role by season's end. But the opportunity is there for Dixon to come in and earn touches out of the gate, particularly in the passing game. Dixon was probably the best pass-catching back in this draft class, and he's joining a team that could use a dynamic option in that space. In 2015, of the 33 backs who saw 40-plus targets, Allen and Forsett ranked 27th and 33rd in yards per target, respectively. Now, that's just one metric, and the Baltimore offense was a disaster late last season, but it speaks to the opportunities that could exist for a back like Dixon. At worst, I think he mixes in on passing downs and the occasional series here or there. At best, Dixon is the most productive back in this offense and emerges as a nice fantasy option. I'm all about that type of upside when it comes to finding deep sleepers in fantasy drafts.
Jeff Janis, WR, Green Bay Packers
Yes, we're going down this road again. While the Packers receiving corps underperformed last year, size/speed freak Jeff Janis remained on the sideline, much to the ire of some passionate Packers supporters. Watching the tape, it was clear why Janis sat as long as he did -- he could barely run routes early in the year. However, the main reason Janis makes this list is, of course, his historic playoff performance in the NFC Divisional Round.
With Randall Cobb getting injured in the game, and Davante Adams injured the week before, there was no choice left for the Packers brass ... they had to play Janis. His 40 snaps in that contest tied his season high from Week 6 versus San Diego. And on the biggest stage of his career, he delivered a great performance. Everyone remembers the Hail Mary touchdown, but as Matt Harmon's Reception Perception shows, Janis actually played pretty well aside from those two insane deep catches on the Packers' final drive. He hauled in seven receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns, becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to achieve that feat in a road playoff game. So what does all this mean for 2016? Well, Jordy Nelson, Cobb, Adams and Ty Montgomery are all returning from some sort of injury. Janis remains the best pure athlete in this wide receiving corps, which could help him see the field more if he continues to refine his game this offseason. Lastly, the Packers drafted Trevor Davis back in May, and he could supplant Janis as the kick returner, freeing him to be more involved in the actual passing attack.
As he was last year, Janis is a long shot for fantasy in 2016. We're talking Steph Curry from the other free throw line kind of long. However, as we saw in the playoffs, Janis possesses the physical trump cards that could make him fantasy relevant. I like Janis as a super late flier in best ball formats, and he should be at least monitored on waivers in standard leagues.
Zach Zenner, RB, Detroit Lions
Ah, Zach Zenner. An explosive athlete who rushed for over 2,000 yards in three straight years for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, Zenner battled his way onto the Lions roster last year, but was sent to IR after he cracked his ribs and suffered a partially punctured lung. Now fully healed, some close to the team already believe Zenner could see an increased workload, and that was before it was revealed that Ameer Abdullah was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Abdullah is supposed to be 100 percent by training camp, but with Joique Bell out of the mix the Lions could use a new short-yardage power back, and that very well could be Zenner. Count me among the believers in an Abdullah rebound this season, but if he falters again or continues to struggle with fumbles, Zenner could be the next man up as he's a better between-the-tackles runner than pass-catching specialist Theo Riddick.
Kamar Aiken, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Over the final eight weeks of the season, Aiken posted the 11th-most yards (611) in the entire NFL. More than guys like A.J. Green, Larry Fitzgerald and Eric Decker (to name a few), and he did it with a combined 61 of his 83 targets over that span coming from Ryan Mallett (ew), Jimmy Clausen (double ew) and Matt Schaub (I think I'm going to be sick). Yes, Aiken's success was partly a result of high volume, as he averaged over 10 targets per game over the final eight contests while Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman were both out with injuries. While both should be healthy for this season (or at some point this season), there's reason to believe Aiken could still be a relevant fantasy asset in 2016.
This wide receiving group is a mixed bag right now, as it features a 37-year-old veteran coming off an Achilles tear, a second-year former first-round pick (Perriman) who's yet to see an NFL snap, and Mike Wallace who's now on his third team in three years. There is plenty of room for Aiken to emerge as a reliable possession receiver for Joe Flacco, assuming there are no setbacks in the recovery from his own injury (torn ACL). As an undrafted free agent in 2011, Aiken's path to the NFL has been an arduous one. But his path to fantasy success in 2016 could be much easier. His upside as a possible fantasy WR3 for an elite quarterback is hard to pass up in the extremely late rounds (or off the waiver wire) in fantasy drafts.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
Rookie wide receivers really became en vogue ever since 2014 when Odell Beckham Jr. headlined one of the best first-year wide receiving draft classes in NFL history. However, with the exception of Amari Cooper, last year's class disappointed, bringing us back to reality. While this year's class has some standout names in positions to succeed (Corey Coleman, Sterling Shepard, Laquon Treadwell), an under-the-radar player with fantasy potential is Michael Thomas in New Orleans. Coming out of Ohio State, Thomas has ideal NFL size (6-foot-3, 212 pounts, 10.5-inch hands) and NFL bloodlines (he's the nephew of Keyshawn Johnson), which are a few of the reasons why the Saints selected him in the second round back in April, and why fantasy fans should keep his name circled in August.
The Saints passing game will have a new look in 2016, as Marques Colston and Benjamin Watson are gone, with Thomas and Coby Fleener joining the fray to pick up the slack. The early consensus among football heads is that Fleener will absorb most, if not all, of Watson's 110 targets from a season ago. While Fleener received a massive $36 million deal from the team, his play over the last few years has not been on par with what Watson did last year, or Jimmy Graham did years before. Drew Brees isn't just going to hurl the ball at someone because they line up at tight end -- he's going to find the mismatch and the open receiver. Given Thomas' size and route-running ability, that could be him more often than not while lining up in the slot (as Colston used to do). Even if Fleener concedes 15-20 targets in favor of Thomas, that should allow him to do some damage in the stat sheets. Moreover, 24 red zone looks and eight touchdowns walked out the door with Watson and Colston, so there are opportunities to be had for Thomas where it counts. Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead will remain above Thomas in the pecking order when the seasons starts, but I wouldn't be surprised if Thomas turned in a sneakily good first campaign at the NFL level.
Zach Miller, TE, Chicago Bears
With Martellus Bennett now in New England, and no proven options behind him on the depth chart, Zach Miller is now the unquestioned TE1 for the Bears, and he's going largely unnoticed in fantasy drafts. It was a small sample size, but from Week 9 to Week 13 (exluding Week 12 when Bennett didn't play) Miller outplayed Bennett on fewer snaps and with fewer targets, posting 11 catches for 183 yards and three scores compared to Bennett's 16 catches for 115 yards and one score. Miller benefitted from his 87-yard touchdown in Week 10, but overall he did play well and built a quick rapport with Jay Cutler. That could bode well for his fantasy prospects, as over the last three years Cutler has thrown roughly 24 percent of his passes to tight ends. The tight end position is pretty deep this year, but if you'd prefer to load up on other positions and wait until the end of the draft to choose one, Miller is a great name to target with loads of upside.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
An underdog for his entire career, Tyrod Taylor once again appears to be fighting an uphill battle in 2016, and not just for a contract extension from the Bills, but for respect in the fantasy world. He missed two games with injuries in 2015, but had spurts of fantastic fantasy production. 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. Now, Taylor isn't a perfect passer by any stretch, but he's competent enough, has an elite wideout in Sammy Watkins and has the rushing ability to give him a safe weekly floor and a ridiculously high weekly ceiling. Of course, there are concerns too, namely that we still don't have a 100 percent clear picture on how Watkins will return from offseason foot surgery (reports are he should be fine by Week 1, but we'll see), and that the Bills still haven't ponied up the dough to extend Taylor. They see him in practice and in the meeting rooms every day, so perhaps they aren't sold yet. Either way, TyGOD is playing for a new contract and put up excellent numbers last season. He's a fantastic option to target if you wait on drafting a quarterback until the very end of your drafts. In TyGOD we trust.
DeAndre Washington, RB, Oakland Raiders
Last season, the Raiders gave 307 touches and nearly 72 percent of the backfield opportunities (carries and targets) to Latavius Murray. While he did finish as the RB10 in standard scoring leagues, that was largely a result of running back attrition, as Murray wasn't too effective with his touches. He averaged a solid four yards per carry, but his 5.66 yards per reception was the lowest mark of any back with 50-plus targets. Enter DeAndre Washington, a shifty back out of Texas Tech who the team already holds in high regard. While Washington won't take the starting gig away from Murray, he should at least be able to serve as a nice pass-catching complement that the Raiders sorely lacked in 2015. And there are opportunities to be had, too. Oakland throws an average of 143 passing targets per year to its backfield over the last two seasons, many of which could head Washington's way. Running backs with high volume in passing attacks can usually offer a safe, sustainable fantasy floor, which is why I like Washington as a late-round flier, especially in PPR formats. Plus, if Murray were to go down with some sort of injury, Washington could be in line for a sizeable workload.
J.J. Nelson, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Currently, the Cardinals boast one of the best three-headed wide receiving corps in the game between Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, so why on Earth would I waste digital ink writing about their fourth wide receiver? Well, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim is high on Nelson's talent and declared him faster than John Brown. After the leading trio, there were only 51 targets left over in the wide receiver pool for Nelson, Jaron Brown and Brittan Golden. Nelson won't have much fantasy value, other than a deep best ball target, unless something changes in the pecking order above him. However, he's certainly a name to monitor if he starts making a splash in the preseason, as his elite speed led him to a 27.2-yards-per-catch average last year, which was the highest mark among wide receivers with at least 25 targets.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Minnesota Vikings
McKinnon has long been a darling of draft and football Twitter thanks to his scintillating athleticism that led to a SPARQ score (a metric to determine overall athleticism developed by Nike) higher than players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson. Ah, yes, Adrian Peterson ... the reason McKinnon will forever be a deep sleeper and not a regular sleeper, at least until A.D. decides to hang up the cleats (or McKinnon changes teams).
McKinnon has done his most damage in the stat sheets and in fantasy when Peterson was out of the lineup, because for the most part when Peterson is active, this is his backfield. In his two years in Minnesota, McKinnon has only seen double-digit touches twice when Peterson has been active, and one of those games (Week 16 vs. Giants, 2015) was a blowout for the Vikings. McKinnon makes this extremely early list for two reasons -- he's Peterson's top handcuff and there's a chance they use him more this season to keep Peterson fresh. That second part is pure conjecture, but it does have some credence. Over the final eight games of the season (including playoffs), Peterson averaged just 3.67 yards per carry versus 4.9 over his first nine games. Sprinkling in McKinnon more regularly on passing downs and for the occasional series would give the Vikings an added explosive element in the offense, and help keep Peterson's 31-year-old legs even fresher. McKinnon is worth a late-round pick as he has the potential to turn into a Charles Sims or Theo Riddick-like role player for the Vikings.