Top 15 Sleepers
Posted: Thursday August 12, 2004 6:09PM; Updated: Thursday August 12, 2004 7:32PM
By James Quintong, SI.com
Everyone wants to know who the "sleepers" are, although no one is really sure what fits the definition. For the most part, you're looking at players whose eventual fantasy value will exceed their draft-day value. So what could be a sleeper in some leagues will be a normal or even a bust pick in others.
Still, most sleepers share common traits: their numbers the year before don't necessarily knock your socks off, but there is a potential for largely improving stats because of a new job, new offensive system, health, etc.
Instead of ranking the top sleepers, here is a list, by position, of the players whom you might be able to steal at your draft and reap the dividends later. It's a mix of shallow sleepers (solid starters who might be reaching the next level) and deeper sleepers (speculative picks on players who still have to win starting jobs this spring):
Joey Harrington, QB, Lions: It's time he proved he was worth a high pick, and now that Detroit has brought in some semblance of a running game (rookie Kevin Jones) and a receiving corps (free agent Tai Streets and rookie Roy Williams to go with Charles Rogers), it'll be hard for Harrington not to be at least reasonably effective.
Tommy Maddox, QB, Steelers: Speaking of working with star receivers, Maddox has Hines Ward and the enigmatic Plaxico Burress, plus whatever you can call Antwaan Randle-El. While Maddox slumped last year, he could be re-enerized with a new contract plus the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger, who is being groomed for the starting job. The better Maddox plays now, the longer he can hold off Big Ben (think Jon Kitna last year for the Bengals). One thing that will also help Maddox is the addition of Duce Staley, who is a solid pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Byron Leftwich, QB, Jaguars: This is more of a speculative pick, given the lack of weapons in the passing game. Leftwich had his ups and downs in rookie season, but did throw six TDs and just four picks in his final five games. Leftwich has the game, and he just needs another receiver to complement Jimmy Smith. That could come in the form of first-round pick Reggie Williams.
Vinny Testaverde, QB, Cowboys: He somehow got handed the starting job with the sudden release of Quincy Carter, but working again with coach Bill Parcells and receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the veteran signal caller should have a decent season. Don't rely on him as your No. 1 quarterback, but he makes a solid No. 2 or 3 choice.
Mike Alstott, RB, Bucs: After missing much of the 2003 season with injuries, Alstott is ready show his stuff again despite the addition of Charlie Garner, who has a somewhat similar game to former teammate Warrick Dunn. While Alstott probably won't be the every-down back, he still has the capability to catch some passes out of the backfield, and more important, score goal-line TDs, which racks up the big fantasy points. Tampa Bay could use a healthy Alstott, and so could you as a third or fourth back.
T.J. Duckett, RB, Falcons: Dunn is still struggling to return from offseason foot surgery, which opens the door for Duckett to be more than just a goal-line back. Duckett had 11 TDs last season and averaged a decent four yards a carry. He was just fine as the every-down back at the end of last year when Dunn went on IR, and you'd think he should be able to do more of the same this season if given the opportunity.
DeShaun Foster, RB, Panthers: Stephen Davis is still the man in Carolina, but Foster earned himself more playing time after a great run during the playoffs. Foster may not take over the starting job, but he'll get enough carries to earn at least a backup slot -- and lower Davis' value.
Justin Fargas, RB, Raiders: Everyone is fighting for work in the Oakland backfield, but this may be Fargas' year to shine, even coming off a knee injury. Fargas has the speed and power to be an every-down back, and he could find playing time if any of the somewhat underachieving crew of Tyrone Wheatley, Troy Hambrick and Amos Zereoue don't pan out.
Tyrone Calico, WR, Titans: Derrick Mason is the star of Tennessee's receiving corps, but his supporting cast can have its moments. Justin McCareins played well enough to land a nice deal with the Jets, and Drew Bennett has become a regular target for Steve McNair. However, the 6-foot-4 Calico could be this season's breakout star. Despite just 18 catches, he had four TDs, plus he had a couple of 90-yard games in 2003 -- all as the No. 4 receiver. He'll move up to at least the No. 3 guy, and could be No. 2 with a good summer.
Donte' Stallworth, WR, Saints: He started last year nicely with eight catches and a 100-yard game, and he ended it well with 114 yards and a score in the season finale. In between was a lost season thanks to injuries and general ineffectiveness. Stallworth has the ability to break free for a score on almost any play, but he never seems to get the ball enough. For many receivers, the third year is when they truly break out, so this might be the time for Stallworth, especially as he feels the heat from rookie third-round pick Devery Henderson.
David Givens, WR, Patriots: With the way New England spreads the ball around, it's hard to recommend any receiver, but Givens became the closest thing to a go-to guy during the playoffs. Givens had 13 catches for 137 yards and two TDs during the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, which is the closest to big numbers anyone on the Patriots will get. But it may good enough to fill out your fantasy team.
Justin Gage, WR, Bears: Gage hardly saw action until the middle of last season, but he had a 100-yard game and a couple of scores as Chicago tried to figure out their passing game. In the process, Gage proved to be a big-play threat and solid complement to Marty Booker. With a full season of Rex Grossman throwing to him, Gage should improve considerably. He's at least got more upside than the ever-disappointing David Terrell.
Peerless Price, WR, Falcons: He was a major bust last year after seemingly moving into the elite class of receivers after a huge 2002 campaign. Some of it could be attributed to the loss of Michael Vick, but his one huge game (12 catches, 168 yards, one TD vs. Minnesota) was during Vick's absence. He did post his best yards-per-catch games in the final two contests with Vick at the helm, so there's hope that Price isn't a modern-day version of Alvin Harper. He still has No. 1 skills, as long as a No. 1 quarterback is throwing the ball.
L.J. Smith, TE, Eagles: The tight end can be a major weapon in Philadelphia's offense, with Chad Lewis being at least marginally valuable. Smith, a second-year player out of Rutgers, is starting to take over Lewis' role as the starting tight end, which should mean good things. Lewis once had a 700-yard season and a six-TD season as the starter in Philly -- both solid stats for a tight end. If Smith gets either of those marks, he'll zoom up the tight end list.
Ben Troupe, TE, Titans: Erron Kinney takes over the starting job for good from the retired Frank Wycheck, but don't be surprised to see fellow Gator Troupe grab his share of catches. With some uncertainty in the Tennessee passing game, Troupe could swoop in for a nice season.