Can you see it? The NFL regular season is less than 2 weeks away. That means you're finally ready to draft your fantasy squad and put your league mates to shame.
You've studied tirelessly and mocked out so many teams that your kids are starting to forget what you look like. But draft-day steals can still show up even this close to the season -- especially as teams show their stuff in the preseason and injuries change situations.
This "Last Call for Sleepers" feature was the spot where we told you to take a shot on Colin Kaepernick last year. Can someone deliver similar out-of-nowhere impact in 2013? Here are some candidates ...
Brandon Weeden, QB, Browns
Brandon Weeden?!?!?! That seemed to be the reaction from the new Browns regime when they took over this winter. The coaches took their sweet time finally naming him the starter ... but his preseason play left them no choice.
Weeden has completed 18 of his 25 throws through the 1st 2 exhibitions, a 72% completion rate. He racked up 3 TDs and 229 yards, a 9.2-yard average per attempt that falls right in line with OC Norv Turner's downfield pedigree.
Longtime NFL scout Gil Brandt called Weeden the #1 "camp riser" around the league this summer.
"The difference is like night and day," Brandt wrote on Weeden's improvement over last year. "Retooling a quarterback is Turner's cup of tea, and it looks like he's done a great job with Weeden's footwork."
Brandt also praised Weeden's arm strength and "ball-handling skills." We just like that he's developing beyond the brief flashes of fantasy value he showed last year. Weeden threw 2 TD passes in 4 of the 1st 7 games then, with 1 INT or fewer in 3 of those outings. He also hit 300 yards 3 times, including 2 of his 1st 4 pro outings.
Weeden's a good late backup QB for your fantasy squad -- especially if you landed a stud starter.
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Panthers
We could understand being apprehensive with Williams early in the summer. Heck, we were, too. But it's looking more and more like Jonathan Stewart will miss at least a third of the NFL season. That shifts big upside to this guy.
Back in 2008, Williams ran for 1,518 yards and 18 TDs to rank among the top 2 fantasy RBs across formats. And he did so despite not reaching 20 carries in a game or finding the end zone until Week 5.
Does that mean he has top 5 upside in 2013? Nah. But we don't need nearly that level of production to make him a draft-day steal.
Even with Stewart still missing, Williams has only climbed to RB33 in FF Calculator's ADP rankings. That puts him in fringe RB3 territory (or RB4) and behind shaky dudes such as Chris Ivory and Daryl Richardson. Would it be such a stretch for Williams to finish among the position's top 24?
Perhaps the fact that he's 30 concerns you, but it shouldn't. Williams has only reached 200 carries in a season twice and only surpassed 216 once. Eight other current starting RBs around the league have endured more career rushing attempts than Williams' 1,169. And he has remained productive, averaging 4.3 yards per carry or better 5 of the past 6 years. He even went for 5.4 per rush in 2011. Williams has also scored 7 total TDs 3 of the past 4 years even while sharing the backfield with Stewart -- and then Cam Newton.
Let's also not forget that the Panthers have ranked among the league's top half in rushing attempts each of the past 2 seasons.
Roy Helu, RB, Washington
Helu might not be quite the DS favorite he was a couple of years ago, but that's only because the opportunity no longer exists. Of course, all it would take is an Alfred Morris injury to uncover that aspect.
Helu has emerged as the backup to Morris and a potential 3rd-down factor. He took 13 carries for a solid 57 yards at Tennessee in the preseason opener before galloping to an easy 30-yard TD on his lone carry against the Steelers last Monday night.
"I was real excited about Roy," OC Kyle Shanahan told the Washington Times last weekend. "He's looked healthy since he came back. Roy is a legit back. He can help us a lot."
Most immediately, Helu brings the receiving upside that produced 49 receptions in his rookie season. His greatest value, obviously, comes as the handcuff to Morris in Shanahan's RB-rewarding scheme. Snap him up before his late 13th-round ADP, though, even if you didn't draft Morris.
Chris Givens, WR, Rams
All the Tavon Austin and Jared Cook hoopla has overshadowed the Rams' leading returning receiver. Givens has quietly earned consistent praise from his coaches and teammates, though.
He has added bulk to his thin frame, apparently without sacrificing speed. He dug into the offense over the offseason to learn multiple positions and improve his versatility. He has improved his route-running. HC Jeff Fisher and QB Sam Bradford have each praised his focus and work ethic.
On the field, Givens has already made catches of 57 and 59 yards through just 2 preseason games -- displaying again the big-play ability that made him a fantasy factor in his rookie season.
Givens has climbed to the middle of Round 9 in some ADP rankings but continues to go outside the top 40 WRs. Even if he doesn't lead the Rams in targets, his playmaking chops can return big value on fewer catches. Don't be at all surprised if he becomes your regular WR3.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Colts
The early August knee scare and T.Y. Hilton's impressive preseason start seemed to derail the DHB hype train. But the former Raider returned earlier than initially expected and went right back to starting opposite Reggie Wayne.
Heyward-Bey caught a solid 4 passes for 42 yards against the Giants last Sunday night while leading the team with 5 targets. He'll always be the tall, speedy guy with inconsistent hands who will infuriate you on occasion. But he hasn't regained his earlier momentum in fantasy drafts.
DHB is going just 56th among WRs in standard-scoring drafts on FF Calculator and 58th among PPR wideouts. Playing with a QB who makes his WRs better and a running game that scares no one, Heyward-Bey could certainly provide nice returns on such a low investment.
Jordan Cameron, TE, Browns
How could anyone not take notice when this guy caught 2 TDs in last Thursday's beatdown of the Lions?
One was a fairly easy catch as he stood wide open near the back of the end zone. But the 1st was a nice leaping grab of a Weeden bullet. Cameron's other reception in the game was another sweet leaping snag after he got behind the coverage for 27 yards. That followed a 30-yarder on his only Week 1 catch.
We weren't sure what to make of Cameron after he caught just 16 total passes at USC and added only 26 over his 1st 2 NFL seasons. But it seems pretty clear that this guy is ready to step up under TE-friendly coaches Norv Turner and Rob Chudzinski. That's why we moved Cameron in to starter range in our TE rankings over the weekend.
At this rate, though, you'll probably have to pounce if you want him.
Zach Sudfeld, TE, Patriots
New England's rookie isn't a starting fantasy option ... at least not yet. Sudfeld is, however, a guy who has steadily built buzz throughout the summer after arriving as an undrafted free agent.
He spent 6 years at Nevada thanks to myriad injuries, including a fractured leg that ended his 2011 season in September and required 2 surgeries. The medical history shows us why Sudfeld didn't get drafted, but we don't care about the injury risk on a backup TE.
Sudfeld has racked up 90 yards on 6 catches while serving as the Pats' top receiving TE through 2 exhibitions. He figures to hold down the job at least through the 1st week or 2 of the regular season while Rob Gronkowski continues his return from back surgery.
We can't know yet whether Gronk will be back to full strength right away or even whether he'll hold up through the regular season after his 2nd significant back injury. And even if he does, New England has become the center of the 2-TE universe over the past few years.
Despite all the buzz and his wonderful situation, Sudfeld remains just 18th among TEs in My Fantasy League drafts conducted since Aug. 15. There's plenty of value in that price.
LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, Steelers
We mentioned him in reaction to the Le'Veon Bell injury news earlier this week. As expected, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have drawn the focus of drafters in the wake of Bell's Lisfranc trouble. That's fine. And we wouldn't fault anyone for drafting either player at his current 12th-round ADP. But LSH brings more late-round flier appeal.
For starters, you can draft him whenever you want. Even just in drafts since Aug. 15, The Hyphen hasn't found his way into enough MFL drafts to even register among the 76 RBs on the ADP list. He also doesn't show up in the up-to-date FF Calculator rankings. We're just fine with that.
We'll be happy to spend a pick in the final 2 rounds on a guy who topped 100 yards twice with the Cardinals last season and scored 3 TDs in his 5 starts. All of that came behind the league's worst run-blocking line.
Stephens-Howling doesn't impress with his career stat line (3.6 yards per carry) or his physique. But at 5'7 and 180 pounds, he has surprised teammates with his willingness to run inside.
Redman and Dwyer have each gotten their chances to lead the Pittsburgh backfield and proved pedestrian. Once they disappoint coaches again this year, LSH should see an uptick in touches. With him stashed at RB6 or so, you can patiently wait until that time. And if it doesn't come, just drop him for some help elsewhere at no loss.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers
You'll have to act a little earlier to grab this Steelers rookie -- but only slightly.
Wheaton also doesn't register on all ADP lists, though MFL has him leaving the board 65th among receivers. We're fine with that low investment, because Wheaton could find immediate opportunity.
Pittsburgh obviously must replace WR Mike Wallace this season, and passing success has become more urgent with Bell's injury. Football analyst Lance Zierlein recently opined that Wheaton will be the Steeler's best WR "by the end of 2014." Adam Caplan chimed in that Wheaton's a more complete player than Wallace.
That's high praise for the 3rd-round pick, but he impressed scouts heading into the draft process. Wheaton capped off a nice career at Oregon State with a 91-catch, 1,244-yard, 11-TD senior season. He also ran the ball 20+ times in each of his final 3 years with the Beavers and scored 5 career TDs on the ground. That indicates a playmaker the team insisted on getting the ball to.
We like what we've seen from him so far, and Wheaton will be just an injury away from stepping in for Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders.
Dexter McCluster, WR, Chiefs
Here's what HC Andy Reid told The Kansas City Star back in April about McCluster: "He’s got a heart of a lion. He’s got tremendous quickness and can catch. He’s pretty good at running the football, so there is a place for him. You line him up everywhere. You can move him around and kind of do some unique things with him. ... I've got some things in mind for him."
Since then? Crickets.
We haven't heard anything positive or negative about McCluster since the start of camp. And the games have revealed nothing. He caught 1 pass each time out for a grand total of 21 yards. That just makes McCluster all the sleepier.
He caught 52 passes last year and 46 the year before. McCluster also carried the ball 114 times in 2011 at a 7.1-yard average. Now he'll play for 1 of the league's friendliest coaches to fantasy passing value.
This scheme is still developing behind new coaches and a new QB, so it's too early to know what we can expect out of McCluster. But it's worth spending a late-round PPR pick to find out what Reid has "in mind."
Andre Roberts, WR, Cardinals
We've made no secret of our affinity for the revamped Arizona passing game. (And it's not just Smola.) But we haven't said a whole lot about the dude who led the team in TD catches last year.
That was Roberts, who used a 64-759-5 line to finish 33rd among PPR WRs in 2012 and 39th in standard scoring. Michael Floyd's ascension as pushed Roberts into the #3 WR role this year, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll become fantasy-irrelevant.
When Bruce Arians led the Colts offense last season, #3 WR T.Y. Hilton drew 90 targets in 15 games and finished with 50 receptions. And that came despite Reggie Wayne dominating targets. Only Brandon Marshall drew a larger percentage of his team's total targets in 2012. Indy’s #2 WR, Donnie Avery, nabbed another 124.
So even if Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald combine for 51% of Arizona's targets this year -- as Wayne and Avery did in Indy -- there will still be room for Roberts to do something. He'll obviously have more room if they fall short of that target share.
TE Rob Housler's role also threatens Roberts' cut. But that's what makes him a deep sleeper instead of just a regular sleeper. Arizona's running game doesn't look promising yet, meaning this could be 1 of the league's pass-heaviest teams. That'd grow the upside for everyone.
Julius Thomas, TE, Broncos
Remember Gil Brandt's list that named Weeden the top "riser" this summer? Well Thomas ranks #2.
Brandt says that Thomas has proved he can block and be a passing-game asset. He also believes the 3rd-year pro will push Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen aside this season to become Denver's top non-WR passing target (i.e. #4).
"Thomas reminds me of a slightly heavier Shannon Sharpe, someone who could finish the season with around 50 catches and a handful of touchdowns," Brandt writes.
Thomas caught all 4 of his targets against Seattle last Saturday, taking those 4 catches for 70 yards. He also caught 4 passes -- for 35 yards -- in the preseason opener.
We're not expecting Shannon Sharpe to show back up in the Mile High City this year. But we'll be keeping an eye on this athletic former college hoopster.
He's not draftable in most leagues, playing 1 of fantasy's deepest positions, but could turn into a waiver target at some point. Now would certainly be a good time to pursue him for your dynasty roster.