Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
You and everyone in your league knows plenty about the 2 QBs in this list. So perhaps “undervalued” would be fairer than “sleeper.” But here’s why Bortles fits this category:
That’s where Bortles has ranked among fantasy passers in each of his 3 full seasons as Jacksonville’s starter. He’s going 23rd among QBs in current MFL10 drafting -- 29th on Fantasy Football Calculator. Bortles finished 24th among fantasy QBs as a 2014 rookie who started only 13 games, rushed for 0 TDs and threw only 11 TD passes vs. 17 INTs.
Allen Robinson left, but the ACL tear had him gone last year. This year’s pass-catching corps should improve over the 2017 edition, which found only Marqise Lee and Keelan Cole cracking 60 targets. And since Bortles entered the league, only Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor have rushed for more yardage among QBs.
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals
Bortles sits ahead of Dalton in ADP, but the Bengals QB leads the Jag in our rankings. And their cases look pretty similar. Each guy might turn you off as a real-life signal caller, but let’s check out Dalton’s career fantasy finishes (working back from 2017):
QB16 (rookie year)
He’s sitting QB26 in MFL10 ADP right now. That means you could wait until most of your league has drafted 2 QBs and still land a pair of passers with multiple top-12 fantasy finishes behind them.
I could build a stronger case for Dalton here -- but, frankly, his ADP sits so low that I don’t even need to. You can check out his full profile if you need convincing. Just keep in mind that he finished 16th in fantasy scoring last year despite arguably his worst passing season as a pro.
Your biggest takeaway at QB, however, should be that you can address the position pretty much whenever you want. Make it fit with the rest of your draft plan, rather than building a plan around any QB target(s).
Jordan Wilkins, RB, Colts
I’ve been talking up the other Colts rookie RB, Nyheim Hines, all offseason -- particularly on the podcast. So it’s time to give a bit more attention to his classmate.
Wilkins rotated in with Hines -- behind Marlon Mack, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael -- during Indy’s preseason opener at Seattle. He looked solid, while gaining 21 yards on 6 carries and 7 yards on his lone reception. But more important was the hamstring strain that knocked Mack out of the game and rendered him “week to week.” Combine whatever time Mack misses with Turbin’s 4-game PED suspension to begin the year, and the opportunity is obvious.
We’ll see how Wilkins proceeds through the preseason and how the work breaks down between him, Hines, Michael and the rest of the backfield in the next 2 exhibition games. But he has earned some praise so far. The rookie brings nice size (6’1, 216), a 72nd-percentile SPARQ score and strong yardage efficiency over limited college work (6.3 yards per rush, 10.1 per reception).
One factor that could work against Wilkins’ draft value would be a serious ADP spike if Mack’s absence lingers and Wilkins enjoys a good preseason outing. But we won’t worry too much as long as the rookie stays in the double-digit rounds.
Peyton Barber, RB, Buccaneers
HC Dirk Koetter called Barber his starting RB back in March. It was more significant, however, when he echoed that just this past Monday.
Through training camp and 1 exhibition, 2nd-round pick Ronald Jones has yet to pull even with the incumbent on the depth chart. Barber not only got the start last Thursday against the Dolphins, he handled Tampa’s 1st 6 RB touches. Jones finally showed up for the next, but Barber’s night was done from that point on.
There’s still time for this picture to develop further. But even in drafting just since Aug. 10 (the day after that opener), Barber’s ADP sits late in Round 12 -- more than 6 rounds behind Jones.
The veteran makes for an easy selection and the rookie an easy pass at those prices.
James Conner, RB, Steelers
Conner suffered a groin injury Sunday, which could remove him from this list if it lingers. But if it proves a short-term deal, the 2nd-year RB would return to find opportunity still smiling at him.
We all know that Le’Veon Bell will not only be The Man in the Pittsburgh backfield from the moment he returns, but also 1 of the workhorsiest backs in the league. He topped 21 carries per game and 5.6 receptions per game each of the past 2 years.
But we also know that 2017 marked the 1st time that Bell has finished a season without a lower-body injury. He lost 13 games to injuries over his 1st 3 years. That history hasn’t elevated his injury probability particularly high for 2018. But it also doesn’t factor in potential impact from Bell’s 2017 workload or his 2nd straight preseason holdout.
Since 02 (32-team era), Bell's 2017 the 16th season of 400+ touches. Other 14 (Ricky Williams took a year off) averaged:
-- 14.2 games played the following year
-- a dip of 98.6 total touches (median: 77)
-- decrease of 3.8 touches per game
-- decrease of 0.75 yards per carry
— Matt Schauf (@SchaufDS) August 6, 2018
Should Bell go down at any point, Conner could step into at least the same level of rushing workload -- and at least a piece of the receiving. All for a Steelers offense that has finished 4 straight seasons among the top 10 in scoring and top 7 in yards.
Cameron Meredith, WR, Saints
Drew Brees has spent 12 seasons quarterbacking the Saints. Here’s how his #2 WR (going by fantasy points) has finished each of those years:
Meredith is no lock to bet the 2nd highest-scoring Saints wideout this year, but he looks like the favorite to do so. New Orleans signed him to a 2-year deal as a restricted free agent coming off a double knee-ligament tear. Meredith has been practicing since the spring, though, and might have rookie Tre’Quan Smith as his nearest competition behind Michael Thomas. ADP also has Meredith coming off the board 2nd among New Orleans wideouts, about 2 rounds ahead of Ted Ginn.
But that draft position also finds Meredith just 49th among WRs. If he ranks 2nd among Saints receivers in fantasy points and scores at that level, he’d be the 2nd-worst #2 WR in the Brees era.
A healthy Meredith would more likely challenge for at least low-WR3 production -- even if he has to miss a game or 2 at some point. Throw in significant roster turnover: Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead and Coby Fleener are gone from last year. Plus, last year’s suddenly run-heavy approach leaves room for a potentially large rebound in passing volume.
The result: None of us really knows the high end for Meredith’s range of possible 2018 outcomes.
Update: Of course, just after we posted this came word that Meredith is dealing with an undisclosed injury. If you draft before he returns -- or even after -- then rookie Tre'Quan Smith fits nicely as a sleeper option available even later.
Mike Williams, WR, Chargers
A year ago, Williams arrived as the 7th overall pick in the NFL Draft. But then came a back injury early in training camp, a slow return and then a knee injury. By the end, Williams basically endured a lost debut campaign.
This time around, though, he seems like the talk of Chargers camp. A potential breakthrough 2nd season would coincide with the Chargers losing all of their TE production from 2017. Last year, Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates combined for 114 targets (19.6% of the team total), 75 catches (20.5%) and 7 TDs (25%). The year before: 146 targets (25.2%), 89 catches (25.5%) and 15 TDs (45.5%).
That duo figures to be particularly missed in the red zone. Pro Football Reference counted 23 RZ targets between them in 2017 and 39 the year before. At 6’4, 218 pounds and strong in contested situations, Williams looks particularly capable of capitalizing in that area.
The camp buzz, meanwhile, has yet to push him higher than low-WR5 range -- mid-Round 13.
Tyler Lockett, WR, Seahawks
Are you worried about Doug Baldwin’s knee, despite Pete Carroll’s assurance that he’ll be ready for Week 1? Are you wary of investing in a Seattle backfield that lacks clarity between Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, all behind what was 1 of the league’s worst O-lines in 2017? Still believe in Russell Wilson, but don’t want to pay a draft-day premium for him?
Lockett presents your opportunity to buy an inexpensive share in the Seattle offense -- and to take a chance on a young guy who really wasn’t himself in 2017.
Carroll called last year “a struggle” for Lockett, coming off the ankle fracture that closed out 2016. Now, the former 3rd-round pick is all the way back and heading into just his age-26 campaign.
Lockett has drawn just 69, 66 and 71 targets in his 3 seasons. But WR Paul Richardson and TE Jimmy Graham left behind 176 targets from last year when they left in the offseason. They ranked 2nd and 3rd -- between Baldwin and Lockett -- in that category. Lockett should climb that chart, with players such as WRs Jaron Brown and Brandon Marshall and TE Ed Dickson (who has spent all of camp on the non-football injury list) stepping in.
Lockett has averaged only 2.9 receptions per game as a pro so far, but he has displayed his explosive ability with 3 return TDs and 192 rushing yards on 21 career attempts. Lockett also dominated market share over his final 2 college seasons, including 41.1% of team receptions as a 2013 junior at Kansas State and 39.1% of receptions in 2014.
Chris Godwin, WR, Buccaneers
You’ve probably heard the buzz on Godwin, and he already flashed as a rookie (lines of 5-68, 3-98 and 7-111-1 over the season’s final quarter). His strong finish to 2017 and buzz that started in the spring seemed likely to pump up Godwin’s 2018 ADP. But he’s still going after teammate DeSean Jackson at an average position near the Round 13-14 turn.
If you listen to the podcast or caught our QB rankings before Jameis Winston’s 3-game suspension came down (he opened inside our top 10), then you already know we believe in the QB for fantasy purposes. Winston’s 11 healthy games last year produced 308 passing yards per outing, 20 yards more than Tom Brady’s league-leading total for 2017.
There are plenty of Bucs to spread targets around to once Winston returns in Week 4, but Godwin looks like as good a bet as anyone else to follow Mike Evans’ lead on that distribution list. He also boasts the speed (4.42-second 40) and athleticism (95th percentile SPARQ score among WRs) to create after the catch.
John Brown, WR, Ravens
Just this week, HC John Harbaugh said Brown has been delivering even more than Ravens coaches expected. Back at full health, Brown has reportedly flashed the speed (4.34-second 40) that made him both a deep threat and yards-after-catch producer when healthy with the Cardinals.
Brown now finds himself in a pass-catching corps with no Larry Fitzgerald-level presence. Michael Crabtree figures to lead the group in targets, but he also hasn’t been an explosive option for a while. The TE hodgepodge figures to be led by a rookie. And the best receiver in the backfield -- Kenneth Dixon -- can’t stay healthy.
Baltimore should be looking for more from its wideouts after decreasing the position’s target share each of the past 3 years. As long as he can stay healthy, Brown should at least follow Crabtree as the #2 target there -- and perhaps team wide.
John Ross, WR, Bengals
Ross snagged just 1 catch in a limited appearance for the Bengals’ #1 offense in the preseason opener, but even that lone play reminded us of the quickness as Ross juked the defender and then jetted past for a 20-yard gain on a short sideline completion.
Cincinnati recently set WR Brandon LaFell free, opening up 89 targets from last year. Only he and A.J. Green topped 62 looks among 2017 Bengals. Ross will face competition from Tyler Boyd for 2nd among this year’s wideouts in targets, and last year’s 9th overall pick is no lock to become a player you comfortably start in fantasy.
But at a late Round 16 price, you can easily afford to take the chance that he does. And Ross’ long speed at least makes him a nice late addition to any best-ball roster.
Taywan Taylor, WR, Titans
Rishard Matthews likely would have landed on this list, but he still has yet to come off the camp PUP list because of an injury we still know nothing about.
That situation has helped afford Taylor extra 1st-team reps through camp, and he drew the 1st target (and 1 of just 2) from Marcus Mariota in the preseason opener -- with Corey Davis also out.
We’ve found Taylor tantalizing since he arrived in the league with terrific measurables and college production a year ago. He’ll play with a QB we’ve already highlighted as a prime fantasy bounce-back candidate.
And the injuries around Taylor have yet to affect his ADP. He remains in such a late range that he’s not even going every time in 20-round best-ball drafts.
Austin Hooper, TE, Falcons
The Falcons haven’t produced big TE numbers since Tony Gonzalez left town, but they also haven’t had a ton to work with.
Gonzalez retired after 2013, following 5 straight seasons of 108+ targets with Matt Ryan. Levine Toilolo led 2014 Falcons TEs with 54 looks. Then came 81 for Jacob Tamme in 2015 (14th at the position league wide) and 31 from a half-season of Tamme in 2016.
Hooper has yet to change that trend (65 targets in 2017), but he’s also just 2 seasons removed from being a 3rd-round pick and still nearly 3 months away from his 24th birthday (Nov. 4).
More importantly, Hooper took up residence in QB Matt Ryan’s pocket this offseason. He made himself available for daily workouts with Ryan, following a season that found Hooper ranking 4th among all TEs in catch rate (according to Pro Football Focus).
We’re not betting on Hooper getting into 100+ target territory like Gonzalez used to. But he does carry significant upside in the red zone. Hooper ranked 3rd on the team in RZ looks a year ago, despite falling short of Tamme’s 8-game total in that category the year before.
Hooper’s 6’3, 254-pound frame could play well in that area, alongside a QB who finished 6th, 4th and tied for 8th in red-zone pass attempts over the past 3 years -- while ranking 10th, 17th and 5th in total pass attempts, respectively.
Benjamin Watson, TE, Saints
Can we just point out that Watson’s going 23rd among TEs in ADP and that he’ll catch passes from Drew Brees -- and leave it at that? Probably. But we’ll go a little further anyway.
Last time Watson was in town, he checked in 7th across fantasy-scoring categories -- despite catching just 15 passes over the 1st 5 games. After losing 2016 to a torn Achilles’ tendon, he bounced back for a TE11 finish in PPR (TE17 in non-PPR) with the Ravens last season.
Watson returns to find a similar New Orleans situation to what played out in 2015. He benefitted from volume, ranking 2nd on the team and 7th in the league among TEs with 110 targets. WR Brandin Cooks led that team in looks. WR Willie Snead ranked 3rd at 101. And everyone else tallied 67 or fewer.
This year’s Saints return 149-target man Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara off a 100-target debut and no other player who drew more than 71 looks.
There’s certainly competition for Brees’ favor, from additions Cameron Meredith and Tre’Quan Smith, as well as incumbent Ted Ginn (and, of course, the backfield). But you’re not picking late-draft sleepers based on what you’re sure they’ll get or produce. You’re looking for what could happen.
Watson’s range of possible outcomes includes ranking 2nd or 3rd on this team in targets. That’s a nice place to be -- especially when Drew Brees is the one targeting.