Seven ways to find an NFL sleeper
Josh Freeman has lost 20 pounds and is working with Eli Manning's old QB coach
Chargers coach Norv Turner has been raving about Eddie Royal since he arrived
Titus Young had 19 catches for 231 yards and four TDs in last five games of 2011
The term "sleeper" signifies many things, including a hibernating bear, Uncle Gus after Thanksgiving, the nerdy chick that is a makeover away from hotness, and a player that could see significantly increased fantasy value compared to last season. We're going to talk about hot nerdy chicks! [Editor's Note: No, we're not.] We're going to talk about fantasy sleepers! High-upside players can come from several different avenues and this article will try to touch on them all, with a few players to think about from each category. Here's what the sleepers would text us, if they had our phone numbers -- and they were teenage girls:
"I Heart the New HC/OC!"
Many times, a change at the top can signal a big change for a player on the field. Whether it's a head coach coming in with a more disciplined approach (Bucs coach Greg Schiano) or an offensive coordinator with a solid pedigree (Todd Haley in Pittsburgh), some players stand a great chance of raising eyebrows.
Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay: He showed his dedication to a rebound season by losing 20 pounds this spring. And former Giants QB coach Mike Sullivan will try to help him improve the same way he did with Eli Manning, who threw 60 touchdowns in two seasons with Sullivan.
Chris Rainey, RB, Pittsburgh: People want to keep comparing the rookie to Vikings WR Percy Harvin because they were both do-it-all tailbacks at the University of Florida. But Rainey compares more favorably to Dexter McCluster, who Haley used in a hybrid role in Kansas City.
"I'm BFFs With My New Teammates! LOL"
Sometimes it's not a change in surroundings, but more of a change in surrounding players.
Eddie Royal, WR, San Diego: The former Broncos receiver seems like he's been in the league for a decade, but he's just 26-years old. Chargers head coach Norv Turner has been raving about Royal since he arrived, and that Royal could see some targets that former Charger RB Mike Tolbert saw underneath last year.
Jacob Tamme, TE, Denver: OK, so his new teammate (Peyton Manning) is really his old teammate. But Manning has always loved getting his tight ends involved, which bodes well for Tamme. After the first 10 or so fantasy tight ends, the talent level is shaky. By grabbing Tamme with your last non-kicker pick, you'll have the advantage of getting better players at other positions earlier in the draft, and if Tamme stinks early, you'll be the first to drop a tight end for a breakout tight end by Week 3. The owners with top 10 tight ends will not be eager to move on as quickly.
"It's My Turn To Shine! YOLO!"
Finally, they have opportunities to strut their stuff, for one reason or another.
Matt Flynn, QB, Seattle: Flynn's a sleeper only in the respect that we don't really know what he's capable of yet, just like Matt Cassel a few years ago when he left the Patriots for the Chiefs. Flynn's not worth drafting, but an early injury to your QB and an early breakout by Flynn could make him a hot waiver-wire commodity.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Minnesota: Well, it's not totally his time to shine, but with Adrian Peterson trying to return from knee surgery, Gerhart's fantasy value is up in the air. But taking a chance on him in Round 9 or 10 is very smart. Sometimes, we all hope a player is healthy, when in reality, Peterson's probably going to be brought along slowly. I currently rank Gerhart 34th among running backs entering 2012.
"OMG! I Rocked It Late Last Season!"
Some players broke out toward the end of 2011, giving us a glimpse of good things ahead.
Titus Young, WR, Detroit: The man opposite Calvin Johnson had 19 catches for 231 yards and four touchdowns in the last five games of last season. QB Matthew Stafford threw his way 32 times in that span, not to mention the 10 times Stafford threw to him in the playoff loss to the Saints. I look at him as the best fantasy WR4 available in most formats.
Rashad Jennings, RB, Jacksonville: While Jennings didn't have a great finish to 2011, he did claim to have a healthy finish. He injured his knee in a preseason game and missed the entire year. But he didn't need surgery, and he rejoins a club that overused Maurice Jones-Drew last season.
"I'm Finally Healthy! :-P"
Think back to the hype placed on these guys when they were healthy.
Ryan Williams, RB, Arizona: Beanie Wells was the starter last season, but that's only because Williams injured his knee in his first training camp. He was a highly regarded rookie RB, and Wells is wildly inconsistent.
Kevin Smith, RB, Detroit: The Lions have lots of talent at the running back position -- but none of them can stay healthy. A concussion sidelined the always brittle Jahvid Best, and Mikel Leshoure is hoping to return from a torn Achilles' tendon -- in Week 3, since he's suspended for two games. Smith could prove to be a huge late fantasy pickup, considering he's the healthiest of the trio.
"Freshman Year Sucked ... SMH"
Last year was a tough one for some rookies, considering the NFL lockout delayed their chances to learn and get reps.
Greg Little, WR, Cleveland: With just two touchdown grabs and one 100-yard receiving season, Little could have had a much bigger rookie year in Cleveland. But this year, he gets a new offensive coordinator in Brad Childress, and he's going through his first full NFL training camp of his career.
Leonard Hankerson, WR, Washington: With just 13 catches and a torn labrum in his hip in 2011, the Canes product was nearly non-existent in 2011. But if he comes back healthy, the Redskins offense will have enough weapons to allow playmakers to shine. Along with Robert Griffin III and Roy Helu, Washington could have a solid fantasy trio for a few years.
"I Wish He Would Get Hit By A Train ... JK!!! "
Some players need bad things to happen to the starters in front of them, so good things can happen for them.
Isaiah Pead, RB, St. Louis: Steven Jackson's carry total is getting up there, and then you add in his catches, and you can see why Pead would be a great handcuff RB. His speed will make him a TD threat on every touch.
Taiwan Jones, RB, Oakland: Speaking of speed, Jones had a 7.3 yards-per-carry average on 16 carries last season. With Michael Bush in Chicago, Jones will battle Mike Goodson for the chance to back up Darren McFadden at tailback. McFadden has never played more than 13 games in his four-year career, and he's coming off a Lisfranc injury to his foot. The backup RB in Oakland is a nice fantasy player to own.
While many of the above-mentioned players could be considered potential breakout players rather than sleepers, the way you find them is still similar. If a player has an opportunity because of coaching changes, health changes, personnel changes or other influences, then he's someone you'll want to think about late in your fantasy drafts. Finally, a player would likely text us, "TTYL."
David Gonos is a fantasy sports veteran of over 20 years and 100 fantasy football leagues. He has drafted both Curt and Kurt Warner in his lifetime, and he owns a Bucs Trent Dilfer jersey (jealous, much?) He also dispenses fantasy advice on his own site, DavidGonos.com, along with various stories about life, love and beer. You can also follow him @davidgonos on Twitter.
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