So I recently covered the topic of whether or not ex-Vikings running back Toby Gerhart is a ‘fantasy sleeper’. Simply put, a fantasy sleeper is someone whose on-field production exceeds expectation, based on either draft position, or projections prior to the season. There are usually a handful of these sleepers each year, and if you are fortunate enough to have one or more on your team, then it can be as satisfying as it is surprising.
Victor Cruz in 2011, Alfred Morris in 2012, and Julius Thomas in 2013 are all classic examples of players with little to no fantasy expectation before the season started, who then went on to be fantasy studs. The player’s don’t have to have low projections to be fantasy sleepers though. Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles in 2012 are two examples of players who have undeniable talent, but weren’t drafted quite as high as their production reflected because they were both coming off ACL injuries.
The common denominator with fantasy sleepers is value – they can all be categorised as diamonds in the rough. It is probably fair to assume that 2014 will also have its fair share of players, and here are five that I will spring some surprise.
1) Andre Ellington – RB, Arizona Cardinals
A man primed for a breakout year in his sophomore season is Arizona’s 2013 sixth-round pick Andre Ellington. He racked up 652 rushing yards, and 371 yards receiving in his rookie campaign – impressive considering he was the team’s second-string running back behind Rashard Mendenhall. Since the conclusion of the 2013 season Mendenhall has retired, leaving Ellington at the top of the depth chart by default. His competition is fellow second year player Jonathan Dwyer, as well free agent pick-ups Jalen Parmele and Stepfan Taylor, so there should be no doubt’s over Ellington’s status as the number one running back in Arizona.
Ellington is primed to have a big 2014. Not only is he now the top running back on the roster, but Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians suggested that Ellington may touch the ball 30 times a game next season, with ten of those being catches. If that is more than a mere suggestion, then Ellington will have the opportunity to delight his fantasy owners. He’ll also be running behind an upgraded offensive line that were one of the worst in 2013, and so should benefit from that. Drafting Ellington high would bring with it a risk, and he isn’t a big name. He won’t be playing on a top offense either, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him fall past round six. For a player who has a chance to crack the top ten at his position, Andre Ellington could be fantastic value.
2) Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns
The upcoming season gives Jordan Cameron the chance to cement his place as one of the premiere tight ends in the league. After failing to impress in his first two seasons, Cameron demonstrated some of the potential that led the Cleveland Browns to spend a fourth-round draft pick on him in 2011 by racking up 917 yards and 7 touchdowns. That may not seem all that impressive, but not only did Cameron have to deal with three different starting quarterbacks, he also had to wrestle with NFL receiving yards leader Josh Gordon for targets.
His performance last season should see Cameron have an increased role in Kyle Shanahan’s offense this year, and with the likely absence of Josh Gordon, Cameron will be the Browns’ top pass catcher. Another factor to consider is that the quarterback situation in Cleveland is still unclear. The competition appears to be between Brian Hoyer, and first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel. It is unlikely that Cameron will be playing with a top-end quarterback, which is something that will damage his fantasy stock. However, this may mean he is used as a safety blanket for whoever is under centre, which would be good for his production.
The team that Jordan Cameron is on and the situation he is in doesn’t seem favourable on the surface, and the fact that he is a tight end and not a wide receiver will only hamper his average draft position further. He may not be a pick you want to take in the first couple of rounds, but 2014 will provide Cameron with a great chance to build upon last year. He should be good for at least 1,000 yards, and his size means that he should be an effective red zone target. If he hits his potential, then Jordan Cameron may prove to be sleeper material.
3) Golden Tate – WR, Detroit Lions
It may be a little odd to see the name of the leading receiver for last year’s Super Bowl champions on a list of potential fantasy sleepers. But after Golden Tate switched Seattle for Detroit, his draft stock has declined. The reason – Calvin Johnson. With the signing of Tate, I believe that Detroit have finally found a true complimentary receiver to their 2007 first-round pick. Tate should be able to help take the pressure off Johnson, because defences will also have to account for him as well.
Last year was somewhat of a breakout season for Tate, who recorded career highs with 64 receptions from 98 targets, with 898 receiving yards. Although he didn’t record elite numbers, Golden Tate showcased his ability as a playmaker, has a good yards after catch average. He will also be entering a better passing attack than the one he was a part of in Seattle. The Seahawks had the least pass attempts per game in the league, compared to Detroit, who were ranked fifth in that category. Although he may have to share the ball more with other receivers including Johnson, Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick, Golden Tate should still see plenty of the ball in Joe Lombardi’s offense.
Because he will have to compete for targets in the Lions’ offense, Golden Tate’s upside may appear to be limited. Fantasy players may also be weary of drafting him too early, as he has never topped 900 yards. This could be good news for someone to look for a bargain to play at WR3 or to use as a flex player depending on draft strategy, as Tate may be available later on than he should. He isn’t really someone you should be relying on as an every-week starter, but if he hits his potential then Tate could be a nice fantasy option.
4) Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo is another name you may not expect to see on this list, but here he is. The signal caller for the Cowboys has been a tidy fantasy football option for a few years now, and there isn’t much reason to believe that he won’t be a safe pick in 2014. A hot topic in fantasy football circles this offseason is where quarterbacks should be drafted, with many believing that running backs and wide receivers should take priority. Aside from the elite players like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, the general consensus would suggest that most other quarterbacks will come off the board in round seven or later due to the depth of quality quarterbacks – and Tony Romo will probably be in that bracket.
If Romo’s name is available in rounds nine or ten, or he somehow slides even further down the rounds then he could be great value. He has been at the epicentre of some tragic Cowboys meltdowns, and certainly has taken a lot of flak from his own fan base. However, he is a great fantasy quarterback, and consistently puts up big numbers. Although Romo doesn’t scramble as much as other quarterbacks, he does have a great arm. As well as being behind one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, Romo has a host of weapons including Dez Bryant, Terrence Williams and Jason Witten so there is a lot of scope for Romo to have yet another big season.
He is, however, coming off of back surgery, which may put some people off drafting him, although Romo has been quoted as saying that he is “miles ahead” of where he was last year. I think Tony Romo would be a great value pick in rounds five or six, but if you gamble then he may be around even later. He should provide you with some good, if not better QB1 play.
5) Hakeem Nicks, WR, Indianapolis Colts
It has been dismal couple of years for former Super Bowl champion Hakeem Nicks. He didn’t live up to the hype generated in 2010 and 2011, in which the wide receiver put up two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. His level of play dropped so much last year that rumours began circulating that the Giants were looking into trading him before the trade deadline, but that never materialised and he stayed in New York for the remainder of his contract. Another concern with Nicks is that he has never managed to play a full 16 game season. As well as coming off the back of a season in which he recorded zero touchdowns, there isn’t much to be optimistic about for Nicks.
He does have a ton of natural talent though, and he had showcased it before his star began to fade. The change of scenery that Indianapolis will provide Nicks with could be enough to get his engine going once more. He should see a step-up in quarterback play, going from Eli Manning, who also had a terrible 2013, to Andrew Luck, and will be entering a more pass-heavy offense. If Nicks plays anything like the first round pick that the New York Giants intended him to be in 2009, then he could prove to be a steal.
Currently in ESPN leagues, Nicks’ average draft position is 109 overall, and he is ranked forty-fourth amongst wide receivers. There is great value to be had there, and he could slip into the last few rounds of the draft. Hakeem Nicks may well be worth taking a risk on from round ten, especially with Luck throwing him the ball.
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