As futile as the exercise may seem this early, identifying sleeper candidates is one of the most important pieces of research you can embark upon. Below we’ll identify three leading candidates for you to keep an eye on before the preaseaon starts.
Eli Manning – New York Giants | ADP 127 – QB 16| Manning had a down season last year finishing as the 19th best QB, but in true Giants fashion, this offseason was about bulking up his receiving corps by adding former Bear / Jet Brandon Marshall. With the backfield in flux, Manning is going to be asked to throw it and throw it a ton. Prediction: 4,600 yards – 33 TDs – 16 INT
Joe Flacco – Baltimore Ravens | ADP 179 – QB24 | I was vocal in my support of Joe Flacco from a sleeper perspective even before they added Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead to his cache of weapons. With a favorable schedule and the commitment of his front office, Flacco can be expected to approach career numbers. Prediction: 4,300 yards – 25 TDs – 11 INT
Carson Wentz – Philadelphia Eagles | ADP 128 – QB 18| Coming off the board in the 13th round, second year QB Carson Wentz already proved he can operate an NFL offense. Give him a bonafide #1 WR in Alshon Jefferey and a balanced running attack featuring bruiser LeGarette Blount, and Wentz is primed to take the leap. Prediction: 4,200 yards – 28 TDs – 13 INT
Honorable Mention: Sam Bradford, Min (ADP 170+)
Over the next few days, we’ll publish a series entitled Sparknotes, each article will take a birds eye view into each NFL division and it’s most important fantasy players.
Last season saw the rookie duo of Zeke Elliot and Dak Prescott carry the Dallas Cowboys to a division championship and an 8-2 run to close the season pushed the Giants into the wild card round in what looks to be one of the most stacked divisions in football once again. Both teams have plenty to be concerned with as Philly and Washington both closed the gap in the offseason.
Notable Fantasy Stars: Carson Wentz (QB21), LeGarrett Blount (RB28), Darren Sproles (RB55), Alshon Jeffrey (WR13), Jordan Matthews (WR45), Zach Ertz (TE10)
Synopsis – While the Eagles managed a 3-0 start to the season, by the end of the year it was painfully obvious that young QB Carson Wentz needed more reliable weapons. He receives those in the form of jump ball specialist Alshon Jeffrey and bruising running back LeGarrett Blount to complement an improving Zach Ertz. Nelson Agholor falls off the radar completely, but Jordan Matthews figures to man the slot and Darren Sproles should reprise his role as the primary passing down back.
Notable Fantasy Stars: Kirk Cousins (QB7), Robert Kelley (RB31), Samaje Perine (RB35), Terrelle Pryor (WR20), Jamison Crowder (WR32), Josh Doctson (WR55), Jordan Reed (TE5)
Synopsis – One massive franchise tag later and the Washington Redskins return their wildly successful QB under center, and as the fates would have it Cousins has a new toy to play with. Converted QB Terrelle Pryor has elevated himself to WR2 status after a monster year in Cleveland and expects even better this year in Washington. Still, there are plenty of targets to go around for Crowder and a healthy Doctson. In the backfield, Kelley is expected to reprise the starting role, but rumors persist that Perine may be in line for some work should he falter.
Notable Fantasy Stars: Dak Prescott (QB9), Ezekiel Elliott (RB3), Dez Bryant (WR9) Cole Beasley (WR71), Jason Witten (TE16)
Synopsis – Prior to last year we had no idea Dak Prescott would push Elliott for the rookie of the year. This year, there are no such misconceptions as Dallas returns its potent two headed monster and hopes for a healthy year out of Dez Bryant. Under appreciated slot man Cole Beasley expects to far outperform his draft position with another 70 receptions, and the ageless Jason Witten is a safe TE2 who could score a bunch of TDs.
New York Giants
Notable Fantasy Stars: Eli Manning (QB19) Paul Perkins (RB30), Shane Vereen (RB72), Odell Beckham Jr. (WR4), Brandon Marshall (WR34), Sterling Shephard (WR54)
Synopsis – Not to be outdone by the rest of the East, the Giants went out and added former WR1 in Brandon Marshall, pointing towards a year in which Eli Manning does most of the offensive work. Paul Perkins should still see plenty of work on the ground (and Vereen on third downs) but this team is going to pass first and pass often. OBJ will still be the teams #1 but Sterling Shephard may take a bit of a hit with attention being given elsewhere.
The Quarterback position is arguably the easiest position to navigate during your pre-draft research. After all, save for injury, we’re reasonably certain that the top 10 QB’s are going to perform somewhere near our expectations. But when waiting on a QB like every good fantasy guide tells us, who should we target in those middle rounds, and who should we avoid.
Using the consensus rankings at Fantasypros.com I’ve highlighted three quarterbacks who might far out produce their draft positions and three to avoid.
Derek Carr – QB,
Las Vegas Oakland Raiders
If you cringed at the mention of the Raiders signal caller due to his leg injury suffered at the conclusion of last season, then you’re one of the reasons the talented QB has slid into round 8-10 following what can only be described as a breakout season. With a talented cast of receivers and Beast Mode in the backfield, a now-healthy Carr looks to build on a 2016 that saw him finish as the QB10 despite missing the final week of the season.
Tyrod Taylor – QB, Buffalo Bills
His name doesn’t inspire confidence like you’d expect out of a guy who finished as QB7 in standard ESPN scoring, but the truth is that Taylor in the 11th round is a steal. Buffalo could have added a QB in the offseason or at the draft; but they didn’t. What they did do was add weapons to an offense that is already returning the ultra-talented Sammy Watkins to the fold after a lost season in 2016. While he’ll likely only throw for 3,200 – 3,500 yards, his ability to put another 400+ on the ground really rewards owners. Draft him after round 10 with confidence.
Eli Manning – QB, New York Giants
Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Eli is poised to bounce back after an awful 2016 that saw him finish with a paltry 199 fantasy points (12.5 per week). It didn’t help that the offense was a dysfunctional mess while OBJ worked out his personal problems on the field and a new system failed to maximize on the wealth of talent lining up on offense. Still, the Giants are committed to winning through the air, and adding talent at WR in the draft only helps to alleviate the pressure of throwing to Beckham Jr. every other attempt. You’ll still have to deal with the gunslingers disease (15-18 INT) but I’ll go out on a limb and say he’ll throw for 4,200 yards or more and 28 TDs or better.
Ben Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Before I say something stupid, I’ll preface this by saying I do like Big Ben as a QB. He’s the ultimate competitor and does what he can to help his team win. Unfortunately that’ll continue to hamper his ability to stay on the field. At 35, and recently considering retirement, the odds are greater that he falls off the proverbial cliff rather than treads water. Still, he’s being drafted ahead of guys like Mariota, Dalton, and Taylor, who all offer a modicum of safety when compared to the aging QB.
Carson Palmer – QB, Arizona Cardinals
While I will continue to root for Palmer the QB, it will be from a distance as I won’t be adding him to any of my rosters. Its fate that the wheels are bound to come off for the aging gun slinger. His WR core is nearing retirement age (L. Fitzgerald) hasn’t proven themselves (J. Brown) or are gone (M. Floyd) and Bruce Arians is committed to putting the rock in David Johnson’s hands as often as he can. This amounts to a rough year for owners.
Ryan Tannehill – QB, Miami Dolphins
I once felt that Tannehill was the best value amongst QB’s. That was before Matt Moore became a better starting option for the dreadful Dolphins last year. Could the former college WR bounce back? Sure, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Instead, I would avoid him altogether and let him be someone else’s’ headache this year.
Of course, every year there’s a surprise from each tier, and I implore you to use as much of your own research to reach conclusions of who to draft and when, but when in doubt; hold off on Quarterbacks. Don’t get caught up in the inevitable early round runs that may hamstring you when it comes to filling in your position players.
Below is a list of the top 10 teams in terms of total offensive plays in 2014.
- Philadelphia Eagles (1,127 plays)
- Indianapolis Colts (1,105)
- New Orleans Saints (1,095)
- New York Giants (1,086)
- New England Patriots (1,073)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (1,068)
- Denver Broncos (1,067)
- Houston Texans (1,062)
- Carolina Panthers (1,060)
- New York Jets (1,052)
What’s important to understand is that this merely a baseline to understand how often a team puts its offensive players in position to score fantasy points. The uptempo offenses in Philly and Indianapolis enabled them to run 70.4 and 69.1 plays per game; this means players who line up in large percentage of their teams offensive snaps have a greater ability to procure fantasy points. This would seem rather obvious, but is important to note nontheless. Below is a list of the top 10 players ranked by participation percentage (using snap count statistics gathered at Sportingcharts.com)
- Torrey Smith* (1,098 total snaps, 96.7% of team snaps)
- Jordy Nelson (1,083, 96.5%)
- Dez Bryant (935, 93.7%)
- Vincent Jackson (969, 93.5%)
- Brandon Marshall* (988, 93.4%)
- A.J. Green (1,056, 93.3%)
- Mike Wallace* (951, 92.6%)
- Larry Fitzgerald (998, 92.1%)
- Demaryius Thomas (1,106, 91.6%)
- Alshon Jeffery (963, 91.0%)
*players have changed teams
What can be gained from these statistics? Well for starters, you can infer based on usage that a player like Kevin White in Chicago is in for a large number of snaps as Brandon Marshall vacates the roster. The same for Kenny Stills in Miami as the new top target for Ryan Tannehill in place of Mike Wallace. It certainly appears that Chicago uses their two top targets an awful lot, running them out for more than 90% of their snaps on offense. You could also argue that Vincent Jackson and Larry Fitzgerald are both heavy target receivers with a better QB outlook this year, and if the numbers are consistent could be in for a bump in usage.
A few surprises on this list would be players who were used far less than surface stats indicated in 2014.
TY Hilton only saw usage on 71% of Indianapolis’ offensive snaps. A number that if rising could mean enormous stats for the possession beast. Doug Baldwin as the top target in Seattle only saw 74% of the snaps, proving again that Seattle doesn’t trust its passing game, this is likely an indication of Baldwins value in the future. Houston, one of the leagues leaders in terms of total offensive snaps, had both the departed Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins in the 88% range, this could mean a huge uptick in Hopkins usage considering the lack of weapons behind him.
Like anything, it’s important to view these kinds of statistics as secondary, I’m not suggesting that Vincent Jackson should be ranked even close to Antonio Brown (4% less usage), but it’s fair to say that he’ll have far more opportunity then someone like Michael Floyd in Arizona who sees the field less than 85% of their offensive snaps.
Ryan Tannehill quietly put together a borderline top 10 QB season, and Lamar Miller proved he could run the football with some consistency and catch it on occasion in the passing game. The receivers on this team are young and talented, with high volume option in Jarvis Landry and burners in Kenny Stills and Rishard Matthews. Adding Jordan Cameron only makes it harder for defenses to match up when they want to spread you out. Worth Drafting: Ryan Tannehill will likely be valued lower than he should be, as a later QB1 he’s worth it. Lamar Miller may have some competition later in the year from the uber talented Jay Ajayi, expect him to be a workhorse if healthy. Landry should be a good bet for 70+ catches, and Stills could be a weapon for Tannehill over the top. Jordan Cameron, if healthy, will step in and replace Charles Clay’s production very well.
11. San Diego Chargers
Philip Rivers manages every year to put together a top 10 QB season, and expect this year to be no different. Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd should still see the bulk of the passes, new addition Stevie Johnson has a lot to prove and could be a nice late round WR addition. Despite Ledarius Green’s presence, Antonio Gates went out and killed it last year, and I’ll never again doubt the big mans ability or drive. Worth Drafting: Philip Rivers as always falls just shy of the NFL elite, but is a solid QB if you miss out on the top teir guys. Keenan Allen has the tools to be a WR1 and Michael Floyd will still stretch the field a bit (16.5 YPC last year). Stevie Johnson is a risk/reward player as his pedigree may trick owners into jumping early. Antonio Gates should be himself again this year, and I would caution against Ladarius Green fans against expecting any real fantasy value unless Gates gets hurt. Melvin Gordon could be this years highest scoring rookie… don’t be afraid to draft.
10. Chicago Bears
I know what you’re thinking, “the Bears in the top 10?” They may not be a top 10 NFL team, but we’re talking in terms of fantasy contributions. Jay Cutler may be inconsistent, as is evidenced by his second half slide, but he still has plenty of tools and a big arm. Alshon Jeffery will have an uptick in attempts as Cutler has shown a propensity to seak out his top target despite double teams. Matt Forte is a top 10 RB and top 3 in PPR formats, and Martellus Bennet moves into the top 3 conversation at TE thanks to Jimmy Grahams change of scenery. Worth Drafting: I was high on Jay Cutler last year, and this hasn’t changed. If you look at his first 5 or 6 weeks last year, he had some pretty good numbers that would have been even better if he didn’t turn the ball over. Kevin White is an unknown quantity but he should replace Marshall in the long run with the same kind of build. Jeffry should be a top 10WR and Bennett is a top 3 TE.
9. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan did the best he could with the rash of injuries that clipped the Falcons wings last year, but a healthy squad will make a world of difference. Ryan is a top 10 QB even without his top two targets healthy. Tevin Coleman could push Devonta Freeman but both are talented and whoever makes it out of camp as the #1 should see above average RB numbers. Roddy White is still an every week start even with the top 3 WR in Julio Jones across from him. They have question marks at TE as Toilolo Levine led their active TE’s with 62 points last year (in 1pt PPR). Worth Drafting: Matt Ryan had a few brutal weeks and still managed a top 10 finish, he’ll have a better grasp on this offense and health not withstanding should be a top 10 QB this year as well. Julio Jones has the talent to finish #1, and he’ll likely go in the first 15 picks. Roddy White gets over looked more every year but he’s still a top 20 WR. The real question is Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman? I think it’ll be a battle in camp, and both guys should have some fantasy relevance come week 1.
8. New York Giants
The world was against the Giants after a brutal season prior, but Eli Manning still finished top 10 at QB, and Odell Beckham emerged as a top WR threat. With the return of Victor Cruz this offense could have two scary weapons for Eli to use. Rashad Jennings may be a little older than the other top RB’s, but he still averaged 10-11 points per week (depending on your scoring system). Larry Donnell put together an admirable season and the Giants like to use TE’s in the passing game. Worth Drafting: Eli is a safe bet to out perform his numbers last year if he has a healthy WR corps. Beckham will likely be drafted incredibly early, but with Cruz back, he’ll be hard pressed to repeat his second half numbers. Rueben Randle is the real steal here, as his value takes a huge hit with two studs in front of him, but in a passing offense, he should out perform his ADP. Rashad Jennings was fine when he played, but grab Andre Williams late as a handcuff if you need to use Jennings as a RB 1 or 2.
7. Detroit Lions
I hate to say that Matthew Stafford is overrated, because I think he’s an entertaining gun slinger in the Brett Favre mold, but his terrible efficiency actually lowers his ceiling despite as often as he throws the football. That being said, he has two elite WR’s in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Either one can carry the torch if the other isn’t performing. At TE, they have two question marks: is Brandon Pettigrew capable of being used in the passing game and can Eric Ebron be healthy enough to contribute. I think Ebron is the TE the Lions would rather emerge. Joique Bell got a lot of touches last year, but averaged under 4 YPC. His value lies in the passing game, but the Lions served notice in drafting what they think is a 3 down back in Ameer Abdullah. A great talent, he should push Bell for touches early and often. Worth Drafting: Matt Stafford at the right price has enough volume to contribute but he’ll drive you crazy. Calvin Johnson slipping down the ranks only helps the owner who gets him, he’s still the best in the game in my opinion. Golden Tate is a solid second option, and a good one two punch in Bell and Abdullah in the backfield make this a formidable offense. Ebron is the TE to look at with a much higher ceiling.
6. Seattle Seahawks
The beautiful thing about this offense is that it’s predictable and consistent. Russell Wilson will beat you through the air or on the ground, and his ability to run at the right time means he’ll get you a ton of points that other QB’s won’t. Marshawn Lynch is a workhorse unlike any in the league. He’ll touch the ball with greater consistency and efficiency than anyone else. The homeruns aren’t always there, but 4-5YPC and double digit touchdowns make him my #1 back. Doug Baldwin has proven to be a solid #1 for a team that doesn’t throw it that much, his value will reflect that. Beyond him, Jimmy Graham should give Wilson a redzone threat, but no one else is more than a flier. Worth Drafting: This team features three top 5 position options. Russell Wilson ran for 850 yards last year… he’s in my top 3 for QBs. Marshawn Lynch may not have as many 30+ point weeks as a Le’Veon Bell, but his unparralleled consistency (12 weeks above RB average) make him my #1, and Jimmy Graham will likely be the #1 option inside the 20 plus just a tick behind Baldwin elsewhere. Draft all three confidently. Doug Baldwin is a safe WR if he’s available after the top options are off the board.
5. Dallas Cowboys
My value of the Dallas Cowboys is contingent on the offensive line. Darren McFadden’s ability hasn’t been his big question, it’s been his health. If he can stay on the field he’ll benifit greatly from the O-Line that helped DeMarco Murray lead the league in rushing last year. Dez Bryant and Tony Romo have a special connection, allowing both to creep towards the top 5 in their catagories. Cole Beasley should be a good value pick in PPR leagues, and Jason Witten is ageless and productive. Worth Drafting: At their relative ADP’s I’d say nearly all of the offensive weapons are worth a look. Bryant, Romo and McFadden all three will be drafted in the first 4 or 5 rounds. Witten, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley all have a good chance to produce weekly for this team as well.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Who knew Le’Veon Bell would bounce back from a tough rookie year to lead the league in fantasy scoring? We knew he’d be good, but it gave the offense the freedom to throw different looks at the defense. They were rewarded with a career year by Roethlisburger and the emergency of Antonio Brown as a top WR office. Marcus Wheaton will put up solid WR fantasy stats as well, and Heath Miller, although no longer Elite, still has some gas in the tank. Worth Drafting: Ben Roethlisberger may not finish with the totals he had last year, but he’s a good bet to finish at or near a top 5 QB. Le’Veon Bell is going to miss a few games to start the year, but it’s clear he’s the focal point of that offense and he’s young enough to eat up 300+ touches and is a beast in PPR. Antonio Brown is the Marshawn Lynch of the receiving game. Quietly posting 300 or so points in PPR leagues and nearly 15-20 points every week. Bell and Brown are likely first or 2nd round picks. Don’t sleep on Miller either as there is really only 5 or 6 elite TE’s on the board, and after you’re looking at either consistency (miller) or home run weeks.
3. Denver Broncos
This wouldn’t change if Peyton Manning was 50 years old, and that’s because they finally found their RB to compliment their lethal passing game. Peyton is a general, and will use his elite weapons liberaly, and will make mediocre talents look even better. Julius Thomas is gone but anyone that can run routes will look solid in this offense. CJ Anderson as a 3 down back compliments Manning in ways Montee Ball never could, averaging 180+ points in PPR formats over the final 7 weeks (on par with Le’Veon Bell). Worth Drafting: Manning may be falling behind his contemporaries a bit but should still finish in the top 5. Demaryius Thomas looks to be a top 2 WR with Emmanuel Sanders not far behind. CJ Anderson is a bit of an unknown quantity but even if he’s only a quarter of the back he was over the last 7 weeks, he’ll be a top 10 back. Not sure about Virgil Green, but I think we said the same thing about Julius Thomas a few years ago, and Manning turned him into a top option.
2. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy… do I need to say more? A high powered offense with consistency and familiarity unlike any squad in the league, they could break records if the schedule shakes out for them. They play through the air, and on the ground, but they give everyone their due which is rare for a team with as many options. Worth Drafting: Aaron Rodgers may have been supplanted by Andrew Luck, but he hasn’t fallen far. All four of the players above will be gone in the first 3 or so rounds, which is scary for opposing defenses. Andrew Quarless is the other player to target, but they’ve never been a heavy TE use team.
1. Indianapolis Colts
AFC Championship withstanding, this is the most outstanding offense in football. A team that is often in shootouts, Indy has a quarterback to compete with them all. Adding Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, and Phillip Dorsett through the draft makes this offense even better than last year. Luck could (and I’d argue should) crest 5k yards and 50 TD’s, contributing to TY Hilton’s continued emergence as a 2nd round WR. Frank Gore has proven he can play forever, and in this Indy offense should contribute on the ground and in the air, and Andre Johnson may have lost a step but as a route runner, the dangerously accurate Luck should have no problem finding him in the soft spots of the defense. Worth Drafting: Andrew Luck will finish the year as the highest scoring player in football, draft him in the first round if you want him, he’s that good. TY Hilton and Andre Johnson should both have 70-80 Receptions with 1100 plus yards, although I expect Johnson to be the bigger red zone threat and higher ADP. Frank Gore may not be a top 5 or even top 10 RB, but expect some huge weeks from the old dog as he will be highighted in the passing game. Even Dwayne Allen, for all his deficiencies, should finish inside the top 10 of the TE ranks.
If you have a problem with any of these rankings, I say good, because debating and conversation is the best way to explain why we feel the way we feel. Tell me where I’m wrong, and who is your Fantasy Elite?