Sleeper lists flood NFL fantasy sections of websites in August. They provide immense intrigue because they’re populated by players with untapped potential.
Busts are not nearly as fun to read about, but fantasy buffs and casual dabblers generally venture into the buyer-beware articles when it comes time to double- and triple-check preparation.
But what about the guys who are slightly better than their fantasy stock depicts? Not as exciting as high-ceiling sleepers, but drafters’ opinions on middle-round players matter plenty.
Ever argue if a TV show you kind of enjoyed provided B-minus- or C-plus-level enjoyment or debate which “Fast and Furious” installment is your third-favorite? (Early-2000s “Scrubs” was a solid B-minus with upside; “Fast Five” not having Michelle Rodriguez lowered its ceiling, The Rock’s addition notwithstanding. See. Totally possible, and relevant, debates.)
Well, subtle categorization matters in fantasy, too. Middle-round mastery wins championships.
This list mostly consists of players football-watchers know are good, but they’re a little better than they’re regarded by Average Draft Position (ADP). Again. Unsexy, but necessary.
Note: This list is based on non-PPR leagues.
Drew Brees; ADP: 40
This is not a claim that Brees is better than Tom Brady, but is the fantasy gap between these future Hall of Famers really a 15-spot chasm?
Brady is going off boards at No. 25 on average. He has thrown for more than 5,000 yards once. Brees has lapped the field by doing this five times — including 5,208 last season, his second-best yardage campaign. Brady also has thrown more touchdown passes than the New Orleans Saints icon exactly twice since Brees and Sean Payton linked up in Louisiana in 2006.
There should not be a substantial gap between a 40-year-old Brady and 38-year-old Brees. You can even make the case Brees should be the QB2. Even if you’re not ready to go there, the Brady/Brees gulf is well overblown.
Jarvis Landry; ADP: 45
Drafting the Miami Dolphins slot receiver doesn’t come with stupendous upside, especially now that Jay Cutler is going to be running things. Selecting Landry is a vote for WR2 reliability.
Landry followed up a 1,136-yard season with a 1,157-yard showing in separate offensive systems the past two years. Yes, he’s scored just nine touchdowns in that span. But he’s by far coach Adam Gase’s most consistent weapon. Compare him to more volatile players on this tier going ahead of him — Demaryius Thomas (ADP: 33), Sammy Watkins (34), Terrelle Pryor (36), Allen Robinson (39), Keenan Allen (42) — and you may enjoy the stability Landry provides.
And he’s gunning for a new contract; that matters.
Mike Gillislee; ADP: 61
We have to use process of elimination when valuing New England Patriots backs. James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead probably aren’t going to be asked to do LeGarrette Blount’s old job. Gillislee will be given that chance, and while counting on Pats backs from week to week can be dicey, Blount amassed 299 carries last season. And Gillislee’s 5.71 yards per carry was one of the best marks of the 21st century.
LeSean McCoy’s former backup had some strange bedfellows atop Football Outsiders’ 2016 running back rankings, and while some of that can be attributed to the Bills run scheme, the Patriots have a plus offensive line as well and are as loaded as any offense in football. The Pats will be in position to score touchdowns, and Gillislee is the top goal-line threat.
Emmanuel Sanders; ADP: 65
Both Sanders and Demaryius Thomas finished with the same number of touchdown receptions the past two seasons (11 total). The 30-year-old Sanders is closer to partner than sidekick in Denver. Last season, Sanders drew just seven fewer targets (137) than Thomas. He will remain at worst the Denver Broncos’ 1-B option in an offense that hasn’t produced a viable third target in years.
Sanders’ role and three straight 1,000-yard seasons (with apex Peyton Manning, decaying Peyton Manning and Trevor Siemian) make him more bankable than several wideouts above him. His ceiling is lower, but you’re getting a high floor.
Zach Ertz; ADP: 104
This is slightly cheating since Ertz’s ADP is based on a universe where Jordan Matthews was a member of the Eagles, but now that he’s been shipped to Buffalo, Ertz becomes a clear TE1. He hasn’t shown himself to be Travis Kelce to this point, but coach Doug Pederson knew how to get Kelce involved in Kansas City. Ertz now becomes Carson Wentz’s top over-the-middle threat.
Coming off back-to-back 800-yard seasons, Ertz can leapfrog Kyle Rudolph (88) and Hunter Henry (100) in tight end hierarchies. He’s a 1,000-yard candidate in Year 5.
Eli Manning; ADP: 119
Production dipped a bit in 2016 for the New York Giants’ 14th-year starter at quarterback. Manning’s touchdown passes dropped by nine from 2015 and his air yardage plummeted by more than 400. But the Giants did their best to augment his twilight years this offseason, adding Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram.
Manning is now 36, and New York has a quality defense. But Big Blue’s meh offensive line won’t let the team become a run-based operation. Manning never has missed a start since taking over and is two years removed from a 35-TD-pass season. And with as balanced an arsenal as he’s had since the Tiki Barber/Jeremy Shockey/Plaxico Burress days, here’s betting there’s another surge ahead.
Manning’s being drafted late in the 11th round on average. I’m just not of the belief Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott should be going three rounds ahead of him.
Tyrell Williams; ADP: 125
Allen and Mike Williams are major health risks. The Los Angeles Chargers’ lower-profile Williams recorded 1,059 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. If Allen stays healthy, Tyrell Williams may not get to 119 targets again — but he’s being taken in Round 12.
If you are more bullish on Eric Decker (93), Cameron Meredith (96) or even Randall Cobb (99), that’s cool. I’d just rather have an ascending player who already showed he can thrive — with a consistent quarterback — despite the 25-year-old pass catcher being an undrafted free agent in his first real year of NFLing last year.
Julius Thomas; ADP: 170
Basically, this is an argument for Thomas to be drafted.
He’s injury-prone, and of all the pass catchers on that intergalactic 2013 Broncos offense, he profiles as the biggest Peyton Manning creation. But Thomas also was a Gase creation. Thomas totaled 12 touchdowns by Week 9 during his previous season with Gase. As the unquestioned receiving tight end in Miami, he should be strongly considered as a final-rounds flier.
If it doesn’t work out for Thomas this season, he will forever be in the Austin Collie/Jacob Tamme contingent of Manning-dependent fantasy assets. But there will be opportunity here.
Alvin Kamara; ADP: 178
Adrian Peterson does not have a defined role in New Orleans. He’s 32 and coming off a torn meniscus. Mark Ingram is the early-down back. The argument for Kamara as a draftable player hinges on the Saints’ annually elite passing offense and the ex-Tennessee Volunteers player having a niche as the passing-down back.
Darren Sproles made this incredibly valuable in the early ’10s and it’s at least worth it to see if Kamara — who has skills no one else in the Saints backfield does — can carve out a comparable role. He’s a 10-team stash but a player who could flirt with FLEX appeal at some point.
Cole Beasley; ADP: 189
With two starting linemen already leaving the equation, the Dallas Cowboys may be operating without Ezekiel Elliott for six games. That means fewer dynamic ground gains and more pass attempts for Dak Prescott. While Tony Romo established connections with Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, the Prescott/Beasley rapport was noticeable.
Beasley went 75/833/5 last season, and that yardage figure was 297 more than his previous best. The sixth-year slot has the same role as he did in 2016 and should absolutely be drafted. He’s going nearly 40 spots behind Taylor Gabriel (35/579/5) and Kevin White. Breshad Perriman (167) is even going 22 spots ahead of Beasley.
You don’t have to grab sleepers in every round. Sometimes, take the production that’s there and don’t chase false hope.
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