The term “fantasy football sleeper” has become grossly overused. Grossly.
Google it and the first few pages will yield names such as Trent Richardson, Marques Colston and Jeremy Maclin. Not even your grandma is sleeping on those guys.
So we’re making a stand right here, right now. The list of 16 sleepers and 10 deep sleepers below contains only guys going in the 10th round or later of average 12-team fantasy drafts. These are potential difference-makers that you can actually get late in your draft.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins
Tannehill didn’t make the 2nd-year leap that the Dolphins and some fantasy owners were expecting. But that wasn’t a major surprise. He was working in OC Mike Sherman’s predictable offense behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Plus, remember that Tannehill played QB for just 1-and-a-half seasons at Texas A&M.
His true breakout could be coming in Year 3. In addition to having another NFL season under his belt, Tannehill will be operating in what should be a more dynamic offense under new OC Bill Lazor. Lazor came from Philadelphia, where he just helped Nick Foles (who was drafted 80 picks after Tannehill back in 2012) post a ridiculous 27:2 TD-to-INT ratio.
We’re not expecting that type of efficiency from Tannehill this season, but we are expecting him to take a step forward both in real life and fantasy football.
And his rushing numbers will give him added fantasy value. Tannehill has topped 200 rushing yards in each of his first 2 seasons. He could set a new career high in 2014 with the Fins expected to use some read-option. And even last year's numbers placed him 11th among fantasy passers.
Tannehill is a nice QB2 target at his 13th-round ADP. If he and the rest of the Fins offense clicks with Lazor, Tannehill could emerge as a weekly fantasy starter.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Ravens
If nothing else, we know we’re getting at least 2 starts from Pierce with Ray Rice opening the season on suspension.
But that’s not why Pierce makes our sleeper list. It’s because he has a chance to be Baltimore’s lead back even when Rice returns.
You know all about Rice’s dreadful 2013 campaign. His 3.1 yards per carry ranked dead last among the 22 RBs who carried 200+ times last year. His 5.5 yards per catch wasn’t any prettier. And as we pointed out earlier this offseason, history doesn’t favor Rice’s odds of rebounding in 2014.
Of course, Pierce wasn’t any better last year, averaging a pitiful 2.9 yards per carry. But we like the 24-year-old’s chances of bouncing back more than Rice’s.
Remember that Pierce posted an impressive 4.9 per-carry average in his 2012 rookie campaign. And now he’s back in the zone-blocking scheme that he excelled in at Temple.
“I definitely like the zone scheme,” Pierce said. “I'm used to it. I got a knack for this kind of offense.”
Note that Pierce even drew Arian Foster comparisons coming out of college because of his fit in the zone scheme. Insider Jamison Hensley recently called Pierce the “best RB in camp.”
The Ravens open the season with a couple of tough matchups against the Bengals and Steelers. But if Pierce can rediscover that 2012 form, he could force a true committee when Rice returns. And if Rice can’t bounce back, Pierce could eventually emerge as the top dog in the Ravens backfield.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers
Thanks in large part to a Week 4 broken finger, there’s scant NFL tape on Wheaton. The 2013 rookie appeared in 12 games last year, snagging just 6 balls for 64 yards. He handled just 161 snaps in total and drew a mere 13 targets.
But that’s precisely why he’s flying under the radar this summer.
A look back at his college production shows his upside. At Oregon State, Wheaton’s numbers improved in each of his 4 seasons. They culminated in an eye-opening 91-1,244-11 line as a senior. It’s the type of growth you want to see out of a young WR.
Wheaton also showed the ability to beat defenses as a rusher. Typically used on fly sweeps, he handled at least 10 rushes and averaged more than 7.0 yards per carry in each collegiate campaign. Wheaton added 5 TDs on the ground.
This is a guy with phenomenal quickness and straight-line speed. He’s not the biggest WR at 5’11, 190 pounds, but he certainly has the ability to take short passes the distance. It’s no wonder he’s drawn comparisons to teammate Antonio Brown.
Wheaton’s locked into a starting role opposite Brown this season. The broken fingers are a thing of the past, while the Steelers failed to add a serious threat for the #2 job this offseason. Of course, they lost 2013 starter Emmanuel Sanders to the Broncos in free agency. Key contributor Jerricho Cotchery now resides in Carolina.
HC Mike Tomlin sounded confident in Wheaton’s ability to step up.
“He’s a detailed guy,” Tomlin said. “I see him not only working out (on the field) before and after but into the evening. He’s just taking a really professional approach. I think he understands what we expect and what we need from him.”
Some might have the image of the Steelers as a run-first team. But they’ve finished 12th and tied for 13th in pass attempts over the past 2 seasons, both with OC Todd Haley on staff. The #2 role produced 108 targets for Sanders last season. That number’s approachable for Wheaton, especially with TE Heath Miller in decline.
We’ll see how the young WR gels with Ben Roethlisberger over the coming weeks. In the meantime, we’re happy to grab Wheaton as an upside WR5 in the mid-to-late rounds.