Fantasy football sleepers: Watch out for Bennett, Ivory, Blackmon
If a fantasy football owner shows up at the draft without a list of keepers guarded more closely than an ATM code, then that owner probably hasn't played a ton of fantasy football. Everyone likes looking like the smartest guy in the room, and there's no better way to do that than by grabbing your favorite sleeper late in the draft and riding him to a championship.
However, here's the bottom line: Many sleepers don't work out the way we think they will. That's why they're sleepers; a lot of them don't wake up. For the purposes of this column, we're talking true sleepers -- if a guy is coming off the board within the first 100 picks of the draft, he's not a sleeper. Some of those guys will outperform their draft stock, but those are the types of players you can find in my breakouts column.
True sleepers are guys going in the late rounds that no more than a handful of owners in your league will target. If all goes to plan, hopefully you'll be the only person going after your sleepers. Nothing is more rewarding in fantasy football than circling a name or two on your sleeper list by the end of the draft, and reminding your league-mates how smart you are all season long.
• Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears: As someone who watched every Bears game last season, I feel comfortable saying the Kellen Davis dropped approximately 137 passes in 2012. (At least it felt like that.) So, to address one of the team's biggest needs, the Bears went out and signed Bennett on the first day of free agency. After toiling in anonymity behind Jason Witten in Dallas from 2008 until '11, the talented and physically imposing Bennett caught 55 passes for 626 yards and five touchdowns with the Giants last year. The Bears have weapons all over the field, and Bennett will be a major part of what could be a sneakily great offense this season. His draft price is on the rise, but he's still plenty affordable given his upside.
• Chris Ivory, New York Jets: Ivory never really got a chance to play consistently in New Orleans, but when he did carry the ball, he usually did so to great effect. In his three years with the Saints, he racked up 1,307 yards and eight scores on 256 carries, good for 5.1 yards per carry. The good news in New York is that the offensive scheme is more suited to his skills, and he only has to deal with Bilal Powell as competition. The bad news is the Jets offense isn't giving anyone reason for optimism. Still, Ivory has a chance to carry the ball north of 200 times this year. If he does that, he could provide a nice return on investment.
• Darrius Heyward-Bey, Indianapolis Colts: Heyward-Bey proved to be the draft bust in Oakland many thought he would be when the Raiders selected him with the seventh pick in the 2009 draft. So why am I high on him this season? Well, DHB has never played with a quarterback who was anywhere near as talented as Andrew Luck. Heyward-Bey still has the speed that seduced Al Davis and the Raiders four years ago, and now he can put it to use with a quarterback who can actually get him the ball deep down the field. Despite all his struggles in Oakland, DHB caught 64 passes for 975 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. He could finally start to realize his potential in Indy.
• Mohamed Sanu, Cincinnati Bengals: Sanu was enjoying a breakout run in the middle of the season last year, becoming a potent weapon for Andy Dalton in the red zone. Over a three-week stretch in November, Sanu had 11 catches for 98 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, in the final game of that streak he broke a bone in his foot and missed the remainder of the season. Now, he's back and fully healthy, and looks ready to pick up where he left off last year. The Bengals need weapons in the red zone other than A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Sanu can be one of those weapons.
• Justin Blackmon, Jacksonville Jaguars: Blackmon, viewed as easily the best receiver in the NFL draft last season, exploded once Chad Henne took over for a perpetually-struggling Blaine Gabbert. In the final seven weeks of the season, he caught 38 balls for 615 yards. In his first nine games, all with Gabbert at the helm, he was targeted at least 10 times just once. Blackmon had a minimum of 11 targets in five of the last seven games, and pulled down 51.4 of the passes thrown his way. His four-game suspension is a bit of a bummer, but it'll also keep his price tag low, which may lead to many overlooking him during the draft. Don't make that mistake. His quarterback situation remains iffy, but he's one of the most naturally talented receivers in the league. We saw what he can do even with an average Henne leading the team. So long as the Jaguars get competent quarterback play, Blackmon will build on last year's late-season success.
• Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins: Tannehill isn't going to get mentioned in the same sentence as fellow Class of 2012 quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Luck and Russell Wilson, and with good reason. He completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 3,294 yards and had a 12/13 TD/INT ratio. However, Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland went on a shopping spree this offseason, adding Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller to give Tannehill the weapons he lacked in the passing game last season. Along with Brian Hartline and Lamar Miller, the second-year quarterback now has a nice complement of pass-catchers at his disposal. He's not going to be a starter in traditional fantasy leagues, but he could be a key player for those of you in two-QB leagues.
• Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals: Pay no attention to Floyd's seemingly pedestrian 2012 stats. That he managed to catch 45 passes for 562 yards and two scores with John Skelton and Ryan Lindley playing quarterback speaks to his talent. Now that Carson Palmer is piloting the ship, Floyd should be ready to capitalize on his monstrous potential. Larry Fitzgerald takes a ton of pressure off Floyd, and his size makes him an ideal target in the red zone. The Cardinals also hired Bruce Arians, a pass-happy coach under whose watch Luck threw 627 passes in Indianapolis last season. With his combination of size, strength, environment and draft-day price, Floyd is a textbook sleeper.
• Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears: Every move the Bears have made this offseason was focused on giving Cutler everything he needs to give him a chance to lead this team to the Super Bowl. Out is defensive-minded Lovie Smith. In is offensive guru Marc Trestman, who has helmed some of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. The team signed tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson, and used its first-round pick on Oregon guard Kyle Long. As mentioned earlier, Martellus Bennett gives Cutler a big, reliable target for the middle of the field. He still has best bud and elite receiver Brandon Marshall out wide, and a great pass-catching back in Matt Forte. Alshon Jeffery missed six games with a broken hand, but he showed flashes of what he can do for the team opposite Marshall. Everything is there for Cutler to prove he's a top-tier quarterback. It's up to him to go out and do it.
• LaMichael James, San Francisco 49ers: Forget about his costly fumble in the Super Bowl. James is a highlight-reel runner who fits in perfectly alongside Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco's read-option offense. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are both still in town, but James brings a home-run element to the team that they'll likely want to see on the field a lot more this season. He didn't get a carry until Week 14 last year, but ended up running for 125 yards on 27 totes, and had 55 yards on eight carries in the Niners' first two playoff games. Gore has played 16 games each of the last two years, but he celebrated his 30th birthday in May, and is closing in on 2,500 career touches, including the playoffs. James will come super cheap on draft day, and we might look back on him as one of the true steals this year.
• Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins: Keller played in just eight games due to injury last year, but he had 120 receptions, 1,502 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010 and 2011 combined. He'll benefit from getting away from the Jets, an offense that is on the short list to be the worst in the league. With the tight end pool deeper than it once was, Keller isn't likely to break into the first or second tier at the position. However, he has a track record fantasy owners can trust, and he can be a lot more reliable than some flashier choices at the position, such as Jermichael Finley and Brandon Myers.
• Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears: In the first game of the 2012 season, Jeffery caught three passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, and looked primed for a breakout rookie season. Unfortunately, the South Carolina product broke his hand a month later, and never really got back on track. That's all behind him now, and in an offense with a ton of options for Cutler, Jeffery could be routinely overlooked. He's a favorite sleeper for a large portion of the fantasy community, and I'm no different. At 6-foot-3, 216 pounds, Jeffery is an imposing force for any corner to handle. Marshall, Bennett and Forte will occupy much of the defense's attention, which should put him in a lot of favorable situations. If the Bears' offense takes off this season, everyone on the team will benefit. Given that Jeffery comes at such a low price, he could end up giving you the best bang for your buck.
• Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson notched his eighth-straight 1,000-yard season last year, earning himself a contract, and shot at a Super Bowl, with the Falcons. He has also racked up nearly 3,000 career touches and turned 30 at the end of July. Rodgers is one of the most dangerous backs in the league, and piled up 764 yards on just 147 touches last year. Even if Jackson serves as the de facto starter, you can bet Coach Mike Smith would like to increase that number to something at or exceeding 200 this year. The Falcons figure to have one of the best offenses in the league again, making everyone with a role on the team valuable. Not only will Rodgers be a solid flex play, he's an injury away from potential stardom.