First I should define what I mean by sleeper. I don’t mean a player that is undervalued. A fantasy sleeper might be at the correct location in the rankings. Of course, any one considered a sleeper isn’t overvalued. What I mean by a sleeper receiver is one that is currently being drafted outside the top 35 who could wind up as a fantasy starter. I don’t mean a guy like Greg Little, who should be a decent spot starter and lock down a spot on a fantasy bench. I mean guys that have potential to become fantasy stars by the end of the season. Whether you draft them in the tenth or the last round, you are talking about a guy with potential to be more than he was last year. All players listed by current average draft position in ten-team leagues.
Darrius Heyward-Bey – Oakland Raiders – Round 11
This one is almost too obvious. When Heyward-Bey was drafted to universal scorn he was known as a project. He was a lightning-fast receiver who hadn’t shown much in college, at least compared to Michael Crabtree. Wrongly called a bust after 9 catches in 11 games as rookie, it has become clear that he was in fact a project. He brought down 26 receptions in his second year and in 2011, he hauled in 975 yards worth of passes in just 13 games and played through injuries at points. What’s even more telling is that in the last four games, Heyward-Bey averaged over 100 yards per contest. Typically, I would consider a late game streak to be noise, but in this case Heyward-Bey’s production boom corresponds to Carson Palmer adjustment to the Oakland offense. If season three is any guide, it appears that the Heyward-Bey project has been successful. In 2012, he has a strong case to be the number one in Oakland and he could easily find himself in a fantasy top three.
Titus Young – Detroit Lions – Round 10/11
This is one the people are catching onto. Some of the first fantasy rankings I saw in February, other than my own, had Nate Burleson listed ahead of Young. Though both put up similar totals in 2011, Young was a rookie and Burleson is closing out a decade in the league. Who is more likely to improve in 2012? Since then, analysts have woken up to this fact, and Young has approached his proper position in most drafts. So Young isn’t a sleeper in the sense that he isn’t being drafted high enough. But he is one in the sense that he is a guy currently draft onto fantasy benches that could turn out to be a starter. He should be a clear number two on an explosive Lion offense. Though he isn’t underdrafted, he is a guy that you want on your team.
Mario Manningham – San Francsico 49ers – Round 15
The Niners didn’t sign Manningham to be a third receiver. Injuries and the emergence of Victor Cruz limited Manningham’s production last season, but this is a guy who averaged 60 yards and close to a touchdown per game in years two and three of his NFL career. Yet recent drafts suggest fantasy owners are willing to spend no more than a fifteenth round pick on Manningham while Randy Moss has gone in the eighth. The Moss experience in Tennessee and Minnesote should make owners a lot more wary than that. I’d be mightily surprised if a healthy Manningham doesn’t outperform both Moss and Michael Crabree in 2012. The problem of course is that Super Mario has never played a full sixteen game season. However, that is a risk I’m comfortable with in round fifteen.
Randall Cobb – Green Bay Packers – Round 15/16
Cobb only garnered 375 yards receiving this season. But Jordy Nelson only gained 582 in 2010, a year before he exploded for over 1,200. Like Cobb, Nelson returned kicks that year. Could lightning strike twice? Likely not, but this is just a flier. And if we’re picking on upside, Cobb has a lot more in his sophomore outing than James Jones does. We know Aaron Rodgers will spread the ball around. We know he can put the ball into tight windows for fast receivers streaking downfield. And if you’re playing in a league that scores return yardage, Cobb is a must-own.
Vincent Brown – San Diego Chargers – Round 13
Consider. Fantasy owners have collectively decided that the Falcons will have two top ten receivers. The Giants will have two in the top twelve. The Chargers will not have a receiver in the top thirty. Yet somehow, Phil Rivers has more value than Matt Ryan and almost as much as Eli Manning. This does not compute. Quarterbacks can only score fantasy points by throwing to someone. (Well, they can run too, but this is Phil Rivers, not Cam Newton.) The answer is the Charger receivers are currently underrated. There will likely be two Charger wideouts in the top thirty, and at least one of them will crack the top twenty. Neither of them will be Robert Meachem. Malcom Floyd probably represents a bargain as well, but when you consider draft slot, Vincent Brown could be a bigger steal. Brown didn’t contribute on a consistent basis as a rookie but when Floyd was injured Brown came up with two big games. Now that Vincent Jackson is out of town, Brown should again be given a chance to contribute. Looking ahead, this is the one guy that might find his way onto all of my teams.
Jerome Simpson – Minnesota Vikings – Round 18
This is a sleeper for deeper leagues. Simpson was number two behind AJ Green in Cincinnati last year, putting it together on the field for the first time in his four-year career. When I look at the Minnesota roster, I see Simpson as the number two again. Bengal quarterback Andy Dalton may be more talented than Christian Ponder but the gap isn’t as big as the media portrays it. Simpson could improve on last year’s 725 yards just by getting Pittsburgh off his schedule. The Steelers held him without a catch twice in 2011. And four games against the Green Bay and Detroit secondaries never hurt anyone’s numbers. Just remember to keep an eye on his legal situation.
Alshon Jeffrey – Chicago Bears – Round 15
If Chicago hadn’t picked up Brandon Marshall this offseason, I would be falling over myself en route to drafting Jeffrey. The former South Carolina star is just what Jay Cutler lacked the last two seasons in the Windy City: a big, 6’3” target who can catch quick outs and get open before the porous Chicago oline lets a defender through. Now Marshall will demand more targets but he will also demand the most attention from the defense.
Bonus Deep Sleeper: Steve Smith – St Louis Rams – Round 20