You’ve probably already read our offensive sleepers article that also hit the site today, so now I’ll tell you a secret …
There are no offensive sleepers. Not really. We all know those guys. Some dude on some fantasy football site/podcast/Twitter feed is championing him somewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of value in Jared’s list. But if you really want players who will surprise your league mates, leaving them saying “where the hell did you find that guy?” by November, then this is your article.
You still can’t find meaningful ADP data on IDPs. And even if you check the “expert” consensus rankings over on Fantasy Pros, you’ll find wide variation on a number of players.
I’m surprised every year when I check that list to find players I like difficult to locate or even left out of the rankings altogether.
So I used that set of rankings to help create this list of 15 sleepers. We don’t have every 1 of these guys projected way ahead of where the rest of the industry does. That’s true of some, but others just present upside well beyond where we rank them. They might be the players you reach for as fantasy backups after you’ve locked down reliable starters.
Leonard Williams, DE, Jets
When you post 3 sacks as a rookie, you’re either prime sleeper material the following year or a potential bust. Williams looks like the former.
First of all, he performed better as a pass rusher than his sack total would indicate. Williams tallied 21 total QB hits, which tied for 13th in the league. He might never be a big sack guy, but we’d bet on Williams converting more of those into sacks in year 2. He posted 8, 5 and 7 sacks in his 3 seasons at USC, with at least 9.5 tackles for loss each year (and 2 campaigns of 12.5 or more).
Any improvement in his sack numbers will join already-stellar run play. Williams tallied 56 total tackles in run defense alone last year, which tied for 5th among all linemen.
The 2nd-year man has reportedly looked dominant in camp so far, while rumors have the Jets questioning Sheldon Richardson’s future with the team.
Kony Ealy, DE, Panthers
Ealy played 9 sack-free games during the regular season but sandwiched a 5-game sack streak in between. Then he racked up his biggest game of the year in THE biggest game of the year: 3 sacks, an INT and a forced fumble in the Super Bowl loss to Denver.
Ealy ranked just 5th on the team in QB hits (10) last year, but he’ll spend this season starting at right DE for 1 of the league’s best defenses. He doesn’t need to perform among the league’s most efficient pass rushers. Eight sacks and 50 total tackles would return value on where you draft him, while a step toward -- and perhaps into -- double-digit sack territory could make him a steal.
Draft Ealy as a matchup play and hope he turns into more.
Vinny Curry, DE, Eagles
Remember 2 years ago when many expected the Vikings to sign DE Michael Johnson from Cincinnati in free agency, but they opted instead to pay Everson Griffen -- who had spent his 1st 4 seasons with them as a part-timer?
That’s Curry with these Eagles, who made him the 5th highest-paid 4-3 DE in the league this offseason -- the same offseason in which they threw a $100 million contract at DT Fletcher Cox.
Curry actually enters this season -- his 5th -- more accomplished than Griffen in 2014. Curry’s 2 years removed from a 9-sack performance. Last year, he ranked 3rd on the team with 15 QB hits despite ranking 16th in defensive snaps played (35.3%).
Curry’s now set to start under DC Jim Schwartz, whose “wide 9” approach sets the DEs outside the OTs and tells them to attack the QB. Philly’s solid rotation at the position will also help to keep Curry fresh in his 1st turn as a full-time starter.
With that 9-sack season behind him, it’s not hard to see double-digit sack potential for the 28-year-old -- especially starting next to the pocket collapser that is Cox.
William Hayes, DE, Rams
I actually moved Hayes down our DL rankings this week, and not because I started to like him any less. It’s just that he’s getting so little attention from fantasy drafters that there’s no reason for you to draft him as early as we previously projected him.
I was quite surprised to see Hayes missing from the list when I checked the FantasyPros DL consensus for the 1st time. Even now, just 1 other ranker spots him at all. To me, this is nuts.
Sure, we’re talking about a 31-year-old who has never spent a full season as an NFL starter. But the veteran will take over full time for Chris Long at left end after playing half the defensive snaps over the past 2 years. Over his 4 seasons as a Ram, Hayes has posted the team’s 3rd most sacks (4.25 per year) while playing just 43.1% of the total defensive snaps.
If you take Hayes’ sacks per snap over the past 4 years and project them for the 839 snaps that Long played in his last healthy season (2013) and the 877 Long played the year before that, you get 10-10.5 sacks. That’s a plenty doable number for a guy who will benefit from playing on 1 of the league’s most talented lines. Hayes’ 14 QB hits last year ranked 2nd on the team behind DT Aaron Donald’s 37.
Derek Wolfe, DE, Broncos
The Broncos let QB Brock Osweiler walk in the offseason. They let DT Malik Jackson leave for Jacksonville. They allowed LB Danny Trevathan to bolt for Chicago. They permitted RB C.J. Anderson to ask around before matching an offer sheet to bring him back. Yet they locked up Wolfe in January with a 4-year, $36.7 million deal -- after a season that began with him losing 4 games to a PED suspension.
Wolfe has yet to match the 6 sacks of his rookie season, but we’re betting on a new career high in 2016. He racked up all 13 of his QB hits over the final 9 games last season, with at least 1 in every contest. That stretch included sacks in 6 of his final 7 outings, 3 games of 3 tackles for loss and 5 total QB hits over the final 2 regular-season weeks. Wolfe then followed with 2.5 more sacks and 5 total QB hits -- plus a pass deflection -- over 3 playoff games.
He also tallied 15 total tackles in the postseason to tie for 3rd on the team. Wolfe’s 4.1 tackles per game over 12 regular-season contests put him on pace for 65 over a full season. That would have tied for 7th in the league among D-linemen last year.
Wolfe’s 2016 ceiling rises into top-12 territory.
Kiko Alonso, MLB, Dolphins
Since entering the league back in 2013, Alonso has spent a lot more time hurt than actually in the lineup. Even last year, with an Eagles team that traded RB LeSean McCoy to get him, Alonso started just 1 of the 11 games in which he played.
He lost 2014 to a torn left ACL and then hurt the same ligament in his 2nd game in Philly. So it’s certainly fair to worry about that joint in his 1st year with the Dolphins. Fortunately, the injury risk matters a whole lot less on the defensive side. Even if Alonso goes down for the season in the opener, you’ll be able to find a solid replacement in just about any IDP league.
If Alonso stays healthy, though, his new DC views him as a “modern-day Mike ‘backer.” The coaches like his size, range and instincts. He’ll stay on the field in all packages and play in a defense whose “wide 9” front is designed to funnel the run game up the middle.
In his 1st turn as a 4-3 MLB, Alonso should see more tackle opportunities than he has in the past, while presenting the big-play upside that made him a big IDP name in the 1st place. He has already displayed scoring potential into the top 10 at the position.
Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Bears
New teammate ILB Danny Trevathan could easily finish ahead of Freeman in the LB rankings come season’s end, but we’ll start the year betting on Freeman.
Trevathan’s the younger player and the guy who garnered a bigger contract in free agency, but Freeman’s the stronger run-defense player and has averaged 8.4 total tackles per game in his 4 years since returning from the CFL. That projects to 134 per 16 outings. Even while missing 7 contests -- plus nearly all of 1 other -- over the past 2 years, Freeman still averaged 8.3 total stops over the other 25.
On top of those steady tackle numbers, Freeman has added 3 sacks and 4 pass breakups per year -- enough to push him up the ranks a bit further and to add weekly upside in a Vic Fangio defense that Freeman says can be “pretty linebacker-friendly.”
Will Compton, ILB, Washington
It’s never exciting to draft Jason Witten, but at some point the Cowboys TE just makes sense. Compton looks like the defensive version of Witten -- albeit with a lot fewer years of proven production behind him.
Compton’s not going to win you weeks with his big-play ability. Even if you go back to his college days, you’ll find just 1 season of 100+ tackles and 3 of his 5 career sacks coming in his senior campaign. He never defensed a pass after his freshman season and forced 0 fumbles.
But Compton stepped into the lineup late in 2014 -- after filling in twice earlier in the season -- and racked up 38 total stops from Week 14 through Week 16, before giving the job back up. Last year found Compton taking over as the MLB for a naggingly injured Keenan Robinson, whom he’ll take over for full time this season. Then, Compton tallied 88 total tackles over 11 starts -- including the playoffs. Those 8 tackles per game project to 128 over a full season, which would have tied for 6th in the league last year.
Anthony Barr, OLB, Vikings
Barr has finished just 31st and 42nd in fantasy points per game in his 2 seasons, but he has dealt with way too many injuries.
In 2014, a meniscus tear ended his promising rookie campaign with knee surgery and cost him the final 4 weeks. Last year found hand, knee and groin issues costing Barr 2 full games and parts of others while landing him on the injury report every game from Week 10 through Week 16.
But when on the field, Barr has showed the kind of big-play ability that can vault a guy into the top 15. He has racked up 7.5 sacks, 10 pass breakups and 5 forced fumbles even while dealing with the physical issues … and, of course, being just 22 and 23 years old.
No one in the Fantasy Pros consensus ranks Barr higher than 28th, while the average puts him at just 41. That means you should be able to take a shot on him late in just about any IDP draft.
Melvin Ingram, OLB, Chargers
Want a consistent source of value for IDP drafts? Target some sack-heavy LBs, regardless of format.
Ingram -- and other 3-4 edge players -- will obviously carry more value in sack-friendly scoring, but there’s room to play the matchups with pass rushers even in more balanced formats. (Tackle-heavy? Probably not worth it.) Either way, Ingram looks like a fantasy target this year.
It’s surprising that he’s not garnering more attention after breaking through for 10.5 sacks in his 4th season. The former 1st-round pick mustered only 6 total sacks over his 1st 3 campaigns, but a torn left ACL cost him nearly all of 2013, and then a hip injury put him on IR (designated for return) almost half the season in 2014.
But Ingram finally spent his 1st full, healthy season starting in 2015 and delivered, after shedding 20 pounds in the offseason. His combo of 10.5 sacks, a healthy 65 tackles -- plus 6 pass deflections and 3 forced fumbles -- made Ingram a top-30 LB in balanced scoring last season. Yet you’ll probably be able to draft him well into LB4 range.
You’ll find him just outside LB3 range in our default LB rankings, while sack-leaning scoring will push him further up the board.
Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks
Thomas looks like the least sleeper-ish player on this whole list. He’s widely regarded as 1 of the league’s top safeties and boasts a top-5 fantasy finish in his past. Yet I’m apparently 1 of the few (or maybe the only 1?) willing to draft him higher than 15th at the position.
As long as things go well with SS Kam Chancellor and his groin, this will mark the 1st time since 2013 that Thomas will have his backfield mate with him at full strength. Thomas spent much of that year leading all DBs in fantasy scoring en route to a top-5 finish.
Thomas made a tackle on a career-high 13.3% of the running plays Seattle faced that year. He also tallied 5 INTs, a career mark that he has matched 2 other times. The INTs dipped in 2014, while the tackles decreased in 2015 (when Thomas also began the year with lingering shoulder trouble).
If he and Chancellor are well to open 2016, Thomas should at least carry upside into the top 10 once again.
David Amerson, CB, Raiders
Here’s another player who shouldn’t appear on this list. I certainly didn’t plan to call Amerson a sleeper after he parlayed last year’s Oakland move into a top-20 fantasy finish among DBs. But then I saw that others apparently aren’t even ranking him this year.
That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me after a guy leads the league in pass breakups. And since last year, Oakland upgraded its other starting CB slot by signing Sean Smith away from the Chiefs in free agency. Rookie S Karl Joseph and former Bengals S Reggie Nelson arrive to fortify a position that finally lost Charles Woodson to retirement. And the pass rush added LB Bruce Irvin from Seattle to play opposite Khalil Mack.
This is an upside defense, and Amerson garnered buzz before Washington gave up on him. The Raiders did the opposite by extending the 24-year-old for 4 more years in mid-July.
Ron Parker, S, Chiefs
Parker has finished 2 straight seasons among the top 12 fantasy DBs, depending on your scoring format, so he doesn’t even need to do anything new in 2016.
He has played CB, S and a mix of both while starting over the past 2 years. Parker’s tackles dipped in 2015 when he moved from primarily corner to primarily safety, but he also registered 5 sacks. The 11 INTs over his final 2 college seasons also suggest he might possess more INT upside.
Su’a Cravens, S, Washington
We worried at first that Washington might designate Cravens a LB, which would most likely hurt his fantasy value. A strong tackle profile stands out more among DBs than it would at LB.
But Cravens will play SS behind an ordinary front 7 and next to a converted CB, DeAngelo Hall, seeing his 1st turn at FS. He’ll do so coming off a pair of college seasons that showcased his ability to come forward and make plays.
Cravens racked up 32 tackles for loss over his final 2 years at USC, numbers that would have been good for a lineman or edge-rushing LB. That included 10 sacks, while Cravens added 9 career INTs and 15 pass breakups over just his final 2 years. He should quickly make plays across categories.
Jimmie Ward, CB, 49ers
We’ve been waiting for fantasy relevance from Ward ever since the Niners made him a surprise late-1st-round pick in 2014, but he played just 55% and then 64% of the team’s snaps his 1st 2 years.
This time around, Ward’s set to start at right CB and could still move in to cover the slot in nickel and dime packages. That would increase the 3rd-year man’s playing time, while maintaining the slot role he has played in the past would keep him near the ball and help his tackle opportunities.
Ward has yet to display big upside in the coverage stats, but he did defense 10 passes in his final college season and grab 3 INTs the year before. He also finished his time at Northern Illinois with 3 straight seasons of 94+ total tackles.
Most importantly, you can take a shot on Ward near the end of your draft, where you’re risking nothing.
Opening the season against the likely run-heavy Rams, Panthers, Seahawks and Cowboys might hurt Ward’s numbers, but this sometimes SS isn’t afraid of playing run D.