If there was ever one section of fantasy football that players focus on more than anything else, it would be sleeper lists. It’s the main way that you can grab an edge over all of your opponents, by drafting players that will hopefully exceed expectations and become star players at their positions. Eventually, many of these players become overvalued and they lose their value. They’ll still get drafted by that guy that wants to say “I got all the big sleepers, my team is going to be awesome!”
But every year, without fail, there are guys that slip through the cracks of all these sleeper lists and go without a lot of attention. These players are the true sleepers. Players that get declared sleepers back in May (cough-Doug Martin-cough) will never go undervalued in drafts because they get pumped up too much. If you’re expecting to find guys like Torrey Smith, Eric Decker, Matt Ryan, and Stevan Ridley in this list, go look for another list. These players really have very little hype as fantasy football sleepers, but at some point this season they will be difference makers for someone’s fantasy football team.
Maybe it’s a backup to a guy that is receiving a lot of hype as a bigger “sleeper”. Maybe it’s a second-year player who failed to impress in his first season. Maybe it’s a role player who has been relevant in fantasy football before, but many owners are unaware that they’ve moved to a team where they have a chance to succeed. If you’ve heard of the saying “It’s always the quiet ones”, that still applies to fantasy football.
5. Keiland Williams, RB, Detroit
Look at it this way: someone is going to have to run the football for the Detroit Lions. Jahvid Best is on the PUP list and will not be back before week 7. Mikel LeShoure is suspended 2 games, and spent all of last year injured. Kevin Smith seems to be the guy to own so far, but he has never been the pinnacle of durability either. That leaves Williams, who was a product of the Mike Shanahan system in Washington and put up some solid if unspectacular numbers. Williams has put up 23 carries for 120 yards and a score so far this preseason, and most of those stats did come against the Cleveland Browns defense; enough said. But Williams likely could be the last man standing in the Detroit backfield. I’m not saying he’s going to be a star running back this year, but you could snag him in the last few rounds of your draft. Most likely though, he will be on the waiver wire and you should keep an eye on him all season long. If you’re looking for a waiver wire running back that will help a lot of teams this year, I think it could be Keiland Williams.
4. Jon Baldwin, WR, Kansas City
Baldwin will still be overshadowed this year by Dwayne Bowe, and Kansas City will not be throwing a whole lot under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Baldwin also dealt with maturity problems last year, getting in a locker room fight with veteran Thomas Jones. But things have started to turn around for Baldwin this offseason. ESPN’s Bill Williamson wrote a great piece outlining how Baldwin has made major strides this offseason, both in being more attentive off the field and making big-time catches on the practice field. At 6’4″ and 230 pounds Baldwin has loads of potential as a deep threat receiver that made him a first round pick a year ago. Baldwin is going in most fantasy football drafts outside the top 50 wide receivers. Dwayne Bowe will probably coast through this year before entering free agency, leaving room for Baldwin to entrench himself as the team’s top receiving threat. If you have three wide receivers and are starting to look for backups, Baldwin will be one of the top candidates I would look to.
3. Steve Smith, WR, St. Louis
Knee injuries really do destroy a lot of football players’ careers. Steve Smith (no, the other one) is still trying to find his way back from his. Smith took the NFL by storm in 2009 with 107 receptions for 1,220 yards and 7 scores. By all accounts Smith was the breakout receiver of that year. But then in 2010, Smith went down after 9 games and missed the rest of the season, allowing Mario Manningham to step up and replace Smith in the offense. Smith played low on the depth chart in Philadelphia last year, getting only 11 catches, and now he winds up in St. Louis. There’s a plethora of mediocre receivers competing with Smith, like Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas, and rookie Brian Quick. Smith has had more success in the NFL than any of those players, and it’s really not that close. Yes, Smith has had two knee surgeries and a torn pectoral since that 2009 season. But if he can latch onto a starting spot in St. Louis, I think Sam Bradford will be comfortable with the wily veteran who – get this – is still only 27. Getting Smith will cost almost nothing in your draft, and the rewards could definitely be better than most of the alternatives.
2. Le’Ron McClain, RB/FB, San Diego
For those that missed it, Mike Tolbert is gone from San Diego. Tolbert was the bowling ball for San Diego, and has been a top 25 running back the past 2 years getting goal line carries for the Chargers. In case you haven’t heard much about Ryan Mathews, he gets hurt a lot, and he will cost you a first or a second round pick. Ronnie Brown, the other backup, hasn’t done much since leaving Miami, and he’s spent time on the injury report as well. McClain had a sensational 2008 campaign with Baltimore, getting 902 yards and 10 rushing scores. Perhaps it’s time for McClain to reemerge in the spotlight as a standout fantasy football running back. If McClain can put up numbers remotely similar to what Tolbert did with San Diego the last two years, McClain will be worth a mid-round pick. The good news is that you probably won’t even need to draft McClain. I would say he’s worth drafting in the last round or so just to make sure you have him.
1. Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis
How this guy has not been getting more hype as a potential star tight end is beyond me. Andrew Luck will probably have some struggles as a rookie quarterback on a bad team. The Colts also drafted Dwayne Allen a round after Fleener, probably to run a lot of 2 tight end sets. They also have a ton of receivers that could be fantasy relevant, like Reggie Wayne (who was an honorable mention for this list), Austin Collie, and rookies TY Hilton and LaVon Brazill. But Fleener is the guy that has the most chemistry with Andrew Luck, and he’s the prototype tight end. Fleener is 6’6″ and 250 pounds and ran a 4.5 40 at his pro day. That puts him in the category of physical freaks that includes Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, and those guys were pretty good last season. Fleener is the 18th tight end in NFL.com’s ranks, and he’s going 16th in ESPN mock drafts, while I have him ranked 10th in my tight end rankings. Everyone seems to be all over Jacob Tamme, Jared Cook, and to a lesser extent Brandon Pettigrew and Jermaine Gresham as the tight end sleepers this year. Except for possibly Tamme, I’d rather own Fleener this year than any of those guys. Why? Because he has the quarterback, the size, and the skill set to join Gronkowski and Graham in the elite tight end category. I tend to think he’ll join them sooner rather than later.