Top 10 Fantasy Football “Sleepers” for 2014 NFL Season

As we gear closer and closer towards the fantasy football season (the most wonderful time of the year), it’s time to identify sleeper candidates, and not the obvious “sleeper” candidates. That means no Andre Ellington and no Cordarrelle Patterson here. I’m looking at players that rank outside the top 100 in draft rankings, and sometimes outside the top 200, who I think I have a shot at being great values if you snag them in your draft. I’ll factor in the upside, risk and the buzz they already have factors into this equation. So let’s get started.

1. Jay Cutler
Upside – Very High
Risk – Moderate
Buzz – High
A cumulative rank of 100 between the three major fantasy football playing sites: ESPN, NFL.com and Yahoo. He averages out to the #13 ranks among QB’s.

He just squeaks onto this list so I get to gush about him even more than I have already (I talked about him in my first Pre-Preseason fantasy preview). Cutler is currently being projected as a later round pick, and outside the top 12 QB’s. The Bears’ aerial attack is top flight, led by receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. The Bears were ranked 5th in the NFL last year in passing yards and passing TD’s. This was with Cutler missing time and journeyman (and fantasy hero last year) Josh McCown stepping in and not missing a beat. The knock on Cutler is his health and the mind-numbing interceptions he throws, but if he can stay healthy and cut back on those he is in line for a huge year.

2. Hakeem Nicks
Upside – Moderate
Risk – Low
Buzz – Low
Currently being ranked outside the top #40 at wide receiver.

Nicks has had a rough two year stretch. Mired in injury and poor play, he has been a headache to own and I’m sure he has burned his fair share of bridges with previous owners. The talk has been for Reggie Wayne to be the bounce back receiver in Indy but I am more interested in Nicks. I like T.Y Hilton a lot but he doesn’t consistently play like a #1 receiver and if Nicks could regain form he could step into the role of a possession receiver to balance the big-play ability with Hilton. The upside is limited here but he will have earned his flier pick if he cracks the top 25 and becomes a good third receiver on your team.

3. Johnny Manziel
Upside -High
Risk – Very High
Buzz – Off the Charts
Averaging out to the #20 rank among QB’s.

It’s all about the rushing. Johnny Manziel is a highly debated and highly controversial topic when talked about as a quarterback prospect. In terms of his value as a fantasy football quarterback, I think he has the potential to be a pleasant surprise if he gets the start from week 1. Having Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator is a big part of this. I think we are going to see a lot of the plays Robert Griffin III ran as a rookie in Cleveland this year. I expect Shanahan to limit Manziel’s passing attempts to 25 or under per game. I also expect for there to be a good amount of designed runs for Manziel. If he can gain consistent rushing yards with the occasional TD, along with competent throwing totals, he could be a top 15 QB. Or he could blow up in your face and be the next Geno Smith.

4. Terrance West
Upside – High
Risk – Moderate
Buzz – High
Ranked outside the top #40 at running back.

He is definitely getting some hype this off-season, and deservedly so. He is a big fast runner and if he gets the chance to start for the Browns he could burst into fantasy relevance fast. The problem, however, is that he isn’t the starter. Ben Tate is the starting running back but has some injury history, so West may get a crack at the job this season. As I described above, Manziel’s pass attempts will probably be limited when he plays this year, meaning there will be plenty of work in the ground game. If West can play, he could take on an Alfred Morris-like role in the offense, and if he plays like Alfred Morris he will be a sleeper success story himself.

5. Kelvin Benjamin
Upside – Moderate
Risk – Very Low
Buzz – High
Ranked outside the top #50 at wide receiver.

Someone has to catch the ball in Carolina, right? They only have three wide receivers who caught a pass in the NFL last year on the roster (Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood), and none of them even reached 50 receptions, which would have ranked 75th in the NFL last year. Kelvin Benjamin has been criticized for having stone hands and being very raw in his development as a player; both valid points. However, someone needs to be the #1 receiver on this team, and this is the only guy with the opportunity to do it who is also on the right side of 30.

6. Jarret Boykin, Davante Adams
Upside – Moderate
Risk – Very Low
Buzz – Low
Boykin is ranked outside the top #50 and Adams isn’t even on the radar.

I’m buying the Packers’ third receiver, whoever it is. The Packers offense with Aaron Rodgers has consisted primarily of three wide receiver sets. Players such as Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and now James Jones have left or retired and the Packers are left with only two established receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. That means the third receiver spot is open for the taking. I would think Boykin has the inside track on that since he played with the team last year but Adams was a second round pick in this year’s draft and could land the job depending on how training camp goes. This one will be a wait-and-see until the roles are more clearly defined after training camp, but I definitely think it’s something to keep an eye on.

7. Markus Wheaton
Upside – Moderate
Risk – Low
Buzz – Moderately High
Ranked outside the top #50 at wide receiver.

There has been some buzz about Wheaton during the off-season that he is poised to be the #2 receiver in the Steelers offense. If he is, he could be in line to have a pretty solid season. There isn’t anyone of consequence at receiver on the Steelers beyond Wheaton, Antonio Brown, and rookie Martavis Bryant. Acquisitions Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey aren’t starting-caliber receivers so it’s Wheaton’s job to lose. Jerricho Cotchery caught an astounding (for him) 10 touchdowns last season for the Steelers and now that he is gone, there is a touchdown void to fill. So Wheaton can step into the starting role and be productive if he is up to it, and if he does he will be a bargain in fantasy football.

8. EJ Manuel
Upside – Moderate
Risk – Very Low
Buzz – Low
Currently ranking outside the top #25 at QB.

Considering where he is currently being ranked, I have to include EJ Manuel on this list. He wasn’t spectacular last year by any means and still has a lot of growing to do as a passer but if he can stay healthy he has a shot to shock a lot of people. Much of this has to do with the hunch that the Bills are finally going to throw more this year. They traded up for Sammy Watkins in the draft and traded for Mike Williams from Tampa Bay. That should make up for the loss of Stevie Johnson and go well with the young receivers they have in Robert Woods and Marquis Goodwin.  If you take out the big clunker game against the Buccaneers from Manuel’s season last year he finished with an 11:5 TD:Interception ration, which is pretty solid over nine games. He isn’t going to blow anyone away but could crack the top 15 at his position if things go right, making him worth a shot as a backup or a starter in deeper leagues.

9. Jordan Reed
Upside – High
Risk – High
Buzz – High
Currently being ranked as the #10 tight end in fantasy.

As I’ll write about in more detail later, I am really high on the Redskins offense as a whole, and especially Robert Griffin III and Jordan Reed from an individual standpoint. If he stays healthy (which is a concern with his injury history), Reed looks to be the safety valve of this offense. In the eight games he played last year, Reed averaged a stat line of 7.25 targets per game, a little over 5.5 catches a game and 60 receiving yards a game. Even with the additions of DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts, I think there will still be plenty of targets for Reed. Last year as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Jay Gruden had his tight ends (Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert split the work down the middle) targeted 125 times for 85 catches, 903 yards and 6 touchdowns.  That stat line would have been good for 126 fantasy points and the #5 spot among tight ends last year (Jordan Cameron and Jason Witten tied for 5th with 127 fantasy points). Reed has no one of consequence playing behind him, so this is very doable. Logan Paulson is primarily a blocking tight end so if Reed can stay healthy, he is in line for a big year.

10. Rams Defense/Special Teams
Upside – Very High
Risk – Moderate
Buzz – Very High
Currently being ranked as a top 5 fantasy defense.

All the potential in the world is here. They have the most stacked defensive line in the NFL. Robert Quinn is coming off a 19 sack season; Chris Long added in 8.5 last year and had 10+ sacks the previous two years.  They were 3rd in the league in sacks last year and should be in the top 5 again this year. They have two first round talents at defensive tackle in Michael Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald. Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis are high-quality starters at linebacker. The weak spot of the defense is the secondary. Janoris Jenkins is a pest at cornerback and can hold his own, but the rest of the secondary could be better. Their front seven is so terrifying, though, that I wouldn’t be surprised if they could help cover the secondary. Tack on the good returning of Tavon Austin as an additional plus. If they keep up the sacks and force along of turnovers, they could be a top fantasy defense this year.

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