10 Fantasy Football Sleepers | Draft Sharks

DS Sleepers

10 Fantasy Football Sleepers

By Jared Smola 9:08am EDT 8/17/16

What the hell is a fantasy football sleeper nowadays? You’re bombarded by so much fantasy analysis that it’s nearly impossible to find a guy who’s not getting talked up by someone somewhere.

So consider this list of 2016 sleepers more like an extension of our Undervalued Players. We distinguished between the 2 based mostly on past fantasy impact.

Vincent Jackson, for example, went in the Undervalued article. Phillip Dorsett? Sleeper.

No matter what you call them, these 10 guys should be highlighted on your cheat sheet.

Blaine Gabbert, QB, 49ers

Done laughing? OK, good.

Gabbert isn’t likely to suddenly become a good QB in his 6th NFL season. But ya know who else isn’t a good QB? Nick Foles. And he was a top 3 QB in fantasy points per game in the same offense Gabbert will be running this year.

Volume boosts fantasy production in Chip Kelly's system. The Eagles ranked 13th in total offensive plays in Kelly's 1st season and then 1st and 2nd in the last 2. That helped them finish among the top 12 in total offense all 3 years -- despite shaky personnel.

The personnel is even shakier in San Francisco. The offensive line looks like 1 of the league’s worst. The WR corps is completely unproven behind Torrey Smith. And Gabbert is … Gabbert.

It won't be pretty, but volume should help Gabbert rack up numbers. (Volume that will be boosted further by San Francisco playing from behind early and often.) You should also remember that this guy is a plus athlete, owning a SPARQ score in the 86th percentile among QBs.

We got a preview of what life with Gabbert will look like in the preseason opener. He didn't play particularly well but totaled 63 yards and a score passing, plus 18 yards rushing -- all in just half a quarter of action.

You're obviously not relying on Gabbert as your weekly starter. But he makes a nice QB3 in best-ball leagues or a QB2 behind a reliable weekly starter in lineup-setting formats. You can probably snag him with 1 of your last few picks.

Gabbert, of course, hasn't locked up the Niners' starting QB job. But all signs point to him being the odds-on favorite. And if Colin Kaepernick gets under center at some point this year, he'll carry sleeper appeal for all the same reasons listed above.

Bilal Powell, RB, Jets

Powell’s name is dwarfed in magnitude by Matt Forte’s. But signs point to this being much closer to a 50-50 backfield split than name values would suggest. ESPN’s Rich Cimini got the ball rolling in July by predicting a “timeshare system.” Daryl Slater took that a step farther in August, saying that he expects an "even carry split" between Powell and Forte.

The more you dig into the situation, the more sense that makes. Forte is 30, has racked up over 2,500 NFL touches and has a history of knee problems. He’s already missing time this summer with a hamstring issue.

Powell, meanwhile, earned a bigger role by posting career bests in yards per carry (4.5) and catches (47) last year. He was especially good down the stretch, averaging 5.8 yards per carry, 9.3 yards per catch and ranking 7th among RBs in PPR points from weeks 11 to 16. Powell got just $750,000 less than Forte on his 3-year deal this offseason.

While we still like Forte as a RB2, there’s room for Powell to also be a weekly fantasy starter -- especially in PPR leagues. Last year’s Jets ranked 10th in total yards and 11th in points, and produced a pair of top-34 PPR RBs.

DeAndre Washington, RB, Raiders

After a buzzy spring, Washington got off to a quiet start at training camp. But it didn't take him long to flash in last weekend's preseason opener.

Washington racked up 43 yards on 8 totes, highlighted by this impressive run. He tacked on a 32-yard reception.

That burst and change-of-direction ability is what made Washington a stat-piling machine at Texas Tech. He tallied up 2,595 rushing yards on a 6.2-yard per-carry average over his final 2 seasons. And he totaled 124 catches during his 4-year career.

Latavius Murray remains Oakland’s lead back after last year’s top-10 fantasy finish. He drew 308 total touches, though, largely because the Raiders didn't have anyone else to give the ball to.

Washington looks ready to immediately step in as a change-of-pace option. And if Murray doesn’t improve on last year’ 4.0 yards per carry and 5.7 yards per catch, the rookie’s role could grow beyond that.

Phillip Dorsett, WR, Colts

Dorsett was in a tough spot last year — even as a 1st-round pick. He joined a Colts team that:

1. Had T.Y. Hilton locked into a starting job

2. Had a promising 2nd-year WR in Donte Moncrief

3. Was hell-bent on making Andre Johnson happen

Then QB Andrew Luck got hurt and the whole passing game went to crap.

Let’s step away from 2015 and reset Dorsett’s outlook. The Colts spent the 29th overall pick of the 2015 draft on him after a senior season at Miami that saw him score 10 times and average a scintillating 24.2 yards per catch on 36 grabs. Dorsett checked into the Combine at just 5’10, 185 pounds but blazed a 4.33-second 40-yard dash with a 37-inch vertical and strong showings in the agility drills. It earned him a SPARQ (athleticism) score in the 82nd percentile among WRs.

Now Dorsett enters 2016 with a massive opportunity. There are 162 targets from a year ago up for grabs after the offseason departures of Andre Johnson and Coby Fleener. Indy didn’t add anyone to soak those up.

After a strong offseason, Dorsett is locked in as the #3 WR on a team that’s expected to go 3 WRs as its base offense. That essentially makes Dorsett a starter — in an offense that led the league in passing yards and TDs with a healthy Luck in 2014.

Devin Funchess, WR, Panthers

A 21-year-old who spent most of his college career at TE, Funchess shouldn't have been expected to make much of a rookie-year impact.

Through that lens, he might have exceeded expectations. He finished with 31 catches for 473 yards and 5 TDs. And most of that production came over the 2nd half of the season: 21 catches, 312 yards and 3 scores, to be exact. Funchess ranked 34th among WRs in PPR points during that stretch and 27th in non-PPR.

So he doesn’t even need to up his production in 2016 to finish as a WR3. But it looks like he will.

Funchess has been buzzing all offseason. HC Ron Rivera said during the spring that his 2nd-year WR was “light years” ahead of where he was as a rookie. Beat writer Joe Person dubbed Funchess the MVP of OTAs. And fellow beat writer Jonathan Jones recently noted that Funchess is having an “outstanding” training camp.

Kelvin Benjamin, of course, is back for 2016 and should be considered the favorite to lead Panthers WRs in fantasy points. But he also has just 1 NFL season under his belt, is returning from a torn ACL and is still working back into shape.

ESPN’s David Newton earlier this week called Funchess a "sleeker, faster version of Benjamin" and said "it wouldn't surprise me if Devin Funchess outperforms Kelvin Benjamin this year.”

We’re not ready to bet on that. But at minimum, Funchess looks like a better draft value than his teammate. He’s going in the 11th round vs. Benjamin in the 3rd.

Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

From the moment Thomas was drafted, we heard comparisons to Marques Colston. Like Colston, Thomas is a physical, big-bodied, possession-type receiver.

Colston, of course, was an instant fantasy star in New Orleans. He posted a 70-1,038-8 line and 17th-place PPR finish as a rookie.

Thomas’ 2016 ceiling doesn’t climb that high. Colston took advantage of a weak WR depth chart in 2006 and led the group with 115 targets. Thomas has to contend with Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Coby Fleener for looks.

But there’s still enough to go around to give him a shot at weekly starter production. The Saints have finished among the top 10 in passing yards and TDs in all 9 seasons with HC Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees. Four of those 9 seasons have produced 3 top-50 PPR WRs.

We’re looking for better than just top 50 production from Thomas, though. To get there, he’ll probably need to pass Snead in the pecking order. That’s certainly within the range of potential outcomes. Snead is a former undrafted free agent with just 1 season under his belt. New Orleans just spent the 47th overall pick on Thomas, who’s bigger and faster than Snead.

And Thomas appears ready to make an immediate impact. He earned 1st-team snaps in spring workouts, was deemed the most impressive Saint early in training camp and has impressed his QB.

Bruce Ellington, WR, 49ers

Torrey Smith is the odds-on favorite to lead the Niners in targets this year. Who’s #2? Our bet is on this guy.

Ellington’s had a rough start to his NFL career, mustering just 19 catches across his first 2 seasons. He’s dealt with injuries, crappy QB play and a coaching staff that didn’t know how to use him.

QB play remains an issue heading into 2016. But Ellington has had a healthy offseason and saw a coach arrive that seems intent on getting the ball in his hands. HC Chip Kelly is exactly the type of creative offensive mind that should maximize Ellington’s unique skill set.

The 5’9, 197-pounder looks as much like a RB as a WR. He contributed through the air, on the ground and in the return game at South Carolina. In 3 college seasons, Ellington compiled a 106-1,586-16 receiving line, ran for another 148 yards and a score and averaged 22.7 yards per kick return.

The Gamecocks clearly wanted to get the ball in his hands. We found out why at the Combine, which Ellington crushed with a 4.45-second 40 time, a 39.5-inch vertical and elite marks in the 3-cone and shuttle drills. He earned a SPARQ (athleticism) score in the 93rd percentile among WRs.

Ellington seems to be fitting into Kelly’s offense nicely, creating consistent buzz this offseason. He’s expected to serve as the slot receiver, a spot that fed Jordan Matthews an average of 116 targets over the last 2 seasons. As we mentioned in Blaine Gabbert’s writeup above, the fast pace of Kelly’s offense raises the fantasy ceiling for everyone involved.

Jared Cook, TE, Packers

This is the 489th time Cook has appeared on a Sleepers list, by our last count. But it’s the 1st time he’s done so as a Packer.

That's important. Cook has spent his first 7 seasons playing in Tennessee and St. Louis. His QBs have included Vince Young, Kerry Collins, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Nick Foles and Case Keenum. Six of those 7 teams finished 22nd or worse in passing yards.

Now he’s in Green Bay, where he’ll catch passes from Aaron Rodgers in an offense that ranked among the top 9 in passing yards in 9 straight seasons before last year’s hiccup.

And the Packers have produced impact TEs under Rodgers’ guidance. Richard Rodgers ranked top 11 across fantasy formats last year. Jermichael Finley finished among the top 14 in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Offseason foot surgery delayed Cook’s Packers debut, but he returned to practice on Aug. 9 and immediately flashed with multiple TDs in a scrimmage.

Meanwhile, no one has stepped up in Green Bay’s #3 WR battle. It’s possible that Cook finishes 3rd on the team in targets this year.

Clive Walford, TE, Raiders

You've probably heard us mention that rookie TEs are bad fantasy bets. It’s a different story with 2nd-year guys, though. Just over the last 10 seasons, 22 second-year TEs have finished among the top 15 in PPR points.

That's certainly a range Walford could reach in 2016. He’s an intriguing prospect: a 3rd-round pick who posted a 44-676-7 line as a senior at Miami.

And Walford flashed late in his rookie campaign. After totaling just 13 catches for 151 yards in his first 11 games, Walford racked up 15 grabs and 178 yards over the final 5.

Walford's targets per game jumped from 2.2 to 5.2. That late-season pace equates to 83 over a 16-game slate. Only 12 TEs saw more looks.

That type of volume would give Walford a shot at high-end TE2 or low-end TE1 production on what looks like a young, ascending Oakland offense.

Virgil Green, TE, Broncos

OK, we’ll admit it: We fell off the Virgil Green Bandwagon at some point over the last year. But we’re scrambling to get back on now.

Denver’s starting TE job is wide open after Owen Daniels and Gary Kubiak finally got divorced. And it looks like Green is the favorite for that job. He played clearly ahead of Jeff Heuerman in the preseason opener and hauled in 3 balls for 26 yards -- all from starting QB Mark Sanchez. (Heuerman’s only catch came from QB Trevor Siemian.)

If Green gets a shot at the lead job, he’ll present plenty of fantasy upside. An uber-intriguing prospect coming into the league way back in 2011, Green averaged 13.0 yards per catch at Nevada and tested in the 91st percentile among TEs in athleticism. He's more athletic than fellow 2011 draftee, former teammate and established fantasy factor Julius Thomas.

Couple Denver’s shallow WR corps behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders with Kubiak’s TE-friendly offense, and Green has a shot to finish 3rd on the team in targets. In fact, a TE has finished among the top 3 in targets in 7 of Kubiak’s 9 seasons as a HC.

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