The best deep sleepers to steal late in fantasy football drafts

J.J. Nelson sits behind several talented players on the Arizona WR depth chart, but could he still find a way to break out this season? Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

Fantasy football is about a whole lot more than your first overall pick or your first five picks or, heck, even your first 10 picks.

All are important, but it's the entirety of your player acquisitions that matters. This includes every draft-day selection as well as in-season pickups. Your homework isn't done with your starting lineup. It extends until your final pick of the draft and then into each weekly waiver period.

Productive contributors appear in-season all the time, often from the least expected places. Kirk Cousins, drafted in only 6.7 percent of leagues last season, scored the second-most fantasy points (107) during the ESPN playoffs (Week 14-17) and the eighth-most for the season. Jeremy Langford, selected in 5.2 percent, managed 93 fantasy points in the eight games after his emergence in Week 9, and Thomas Rawls, selected in 0.3 percent, tallied 106 points in the seven games he started. Allen Hurns, selected in 4.7 percent, finished 14th among wide receivers in fantasy points (155).

Unearthing these contributors -- these deep sleepers, if you will -- is crucial to your team's success, whether it's at the draft table or in Week 9. Your mission as a fantasy owner is to get to these players first, whether it's with a draft-day pick or, more likely, by composing a "watch list" of deeper sleepers so that you'll be prepared to add them in-season in the event that they fall into favorable on-field circumstances.

What follows below is my list of 12 deep sleepers for 2016, players who by all rights might not -- and perhaps should not -- be drafted in an ESPN standard league. That's the very definition of a sleeper: value coming from the least expected place (mid-round picks elevating themselves to superstar levels are "breakouts," in my book).

Whether you're in an extremely deep league and need names to tuck away for the final rounds, have drafted a rock-solid starting lineup and can afford to speculate with your 14th-round standard-league pick (always save rounds 15-16 for defense and kicker) or have identified a draft-day roster weakness and need some names for an in-season "watch list" for early-season pickups, this list is for you.

To be clear, these are sleepers, which means you won't find Dak Prescott, Christine Michael, Tajae Sharpe or Clive Walford included. All are potential values, but all of them have been more prominently discussed of late. This list takes things a step deeper than them; bear in mind that means a greater likelihood of player failure (hello, Bryce Brown from the 2015 list!).

The repeats: From the 2015 list, Ka'Deem Carey, Virgil Green and Zach Zenner fit the "well, maybe I was just a year early" repeat-candidate list. In the interest of expanding the sleeper pool, I'll let you flip back to last year's list if you wish to read more about their specific skill sets.

Trey Burton | TE | Philadelphia Eagles

A quarterback-turned-wide receiver-turned-tight end, Burton might lack the size of your prototypical tight end (he's 6-foot-3, 235 pounds), but he brings the kind of athleticism that might make him an ideal choice for a sizable snap-count boost, should Doug Pederson's Eagles decide to roll out a healthy number of two-tight end sets.

A former special-teams player, Burton generated some positive buzz throughout training camp and even snuck in some first-team work during the third preseason game on Saturday. Just 24, he's more of a dynasty-league speculative pick than a redraft commodity, but on a team such as the Eagles, who finished fourth and seventh in tight end targets the past two seasons (working backward), Burton could quickly move into relevance.

Jeff Driskel | QB | San Francisco 49ers

This year's quarterback sleepers are not starters and begin with Driskel, a player I'd be rather surprised to see sit on the bench for all 16 games. The No. 207 overall pick in the draft, Driskel has good arm strength and mobility, but more importantly, as a quarterback experienced with zone reads from his college days, he should make a quicker-than-average adjustment to Chip Kelly's scheme in San Francisco.

In short, his statistical floor might be greater than that of your typical rookie quarterback's -- at least among those not deemed franchise-caliber right out of the gate. Now consider the 49ers' depth chart: Driskel is third behind Blaine Gabbert, a checkdown specialist, and Colin Kaepernick, who is in severe danger of not making the team.

Tyler Ervin | RB | Houston Texans

There's so much buzz surrounding Lamar Miller in Houston this season that few people are thinking about his backups, but if you've been following the preseason trends, it appears that Ervin has a leg up on Alfred Blue to serve as Miller's initial caddy.

A versatile yet smallish back, Ervin has explosive speed that could serve the Texans in a variety of facets, including returns, slot receiver snaps and perhaps a handful of carries in the event that Miller needs a breather. Keep that in mind if your league is PPR and/or awards for return yardage, as Ervin could make an immediate impact in those formats, and if you're in a league with extensive benches, he's a worthy final-round insurance policy for Miller.

Tyler Gaffney | RB | New England Patriots

Gaffney graded extraordinarily well at the 2014 combine, and the Patriots suavely scooped him off waivers when the Carolina Panthers attempted to stash him on injured reserve in July 2014. Now fully recovered from the injuries that cost him each of the past two seasons, Gaffney is part of the wide-open mix in the Patriots' backfield, as the team seeks to fill the void left by Dion Lewis' knee surgery.

Bill Belichick's plans are as difficult to decipher -- and arguably much, much more so -- as any coach's, but he's quick to cling to the hot hand, which could reveal itself at any moment. Gaffney shared first-team reps in Friday's preseason game and has averaged 4.5 yards per carry through three August contests, so he might be closer to a prominent role than you'd think.

Tyler Higbee | TE | Los Angeles Rams

Rookie tight ends are typically risky investments -- only six have scored as many as 70 fantasy points in a season this century -- and that makes Higbee a poor redraft-league draft pick, but in dynasty leagues, he's a worthy stash, and it's conceivable that he could be a second-half contributor.

A converted wide receiver, Higbee possesses an attractive combination of size (6-foot-4, 243 pounds) and good hands, which gives him rare Year 1 touchdown upside at the position. Off-the-field concerns had a lot to do with his late selection in the draft, but he has opened eyes in camp and could quickly emerge in a starting role.

TJ Jones | WR | Detroit Lions

Although the offseason signings of Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin pushed him down the depth chart, Jones' role in the Lions' offense bears watching in the season's early weeks. Jones, who missed the entire 2014 season because of nerve damage, concluded 2015 with a 16-fantasy-points-on-15-targets run in his final five games, then caught coaches' attention with a strong OTA performance with the first-team offense.

With the Lions moving to a more up-tempo offense in 2016, there will be more snaps to go around, and a 35-year-old Boldin might require some rest, which could free up slot receiver snaps for Jones. In the event of an injury, Jones could get 35-40 snaps per game in a potential 650-attempt passing game.

AJ McCarron | QB | Cincinnati Bengals

Arm strength might not be McCarron's strong suit, but he's an accurate passer who got valuable experience in a four-start stretch to conclude 2015 that included a playoff start against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

His 39 fantasy points during the three games in the regular season won't wow you, but McCarron had his moments. He was remarkably effective in the Week 16 game against the stingy Denver Broncos defense, for instance. With Andy Dalton now healthy, McCarron won't be fantasy-relevant initially, but he'd be one of the more attractive backups if pressed into starting duty once again.

J.J. Nelson | WR | Arizona Cardinals

He's quick, to say the least. Among receivers with at least 10 catches last season, Nelson averaged by far the greatest average depth per target (22.1), and his 5.3 yards after catch were not only a whole yard greater than the league average but also easily best among receivers who averaged at least 15 yards in average depth of target.

Now all Nelson needs is a prominent role, which might be difficult to grab on a depth chart led by Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown. Still, opportunities pop up in the NFL, and both Floyd and Fitzgerald are free agents at season's end, which could perhaps lead the Cardinals to consider expanding Nelson's role as the season progresses.

Paul Richardson | WR | Seattle Seahawks

His recovery from Jan. 27, 2015, ACL surgery effectively ruined his 2015 -- he appeared in only one game before suffering a hamstring injury that ended his year -- but Richardson generated a healthy amount of 2014 camp buzz and appeared to be settling into his own late that season before getting hurt.

He has since spent offseason time working out with quarterback Russell Wilson, and in the Seahawks' most recent preseason game on Thursday, he was even sneaking in first-team snaps -- a hint that he might be regarded as part of the team's wide receiver rotation.

Eli Rogers | WR | Pittsburgh Steelers

In an offense in which Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates tend to draw all the attention, Rogers' ascension as the Steelers' likely slot receiver to start the season is one of the preseason's more relevant developments. Foot surgery cost the undrafted free agent his 2015 rookie season, but this preseason, he has been getting work with the first team, yet not generating much draft buzz for it.

At 5-foot-10, 187 pounds, Rogers might seem smallish, but he's a quick, elusive receiver with the requisite experience out of the slot, dating back to his days at Louisville. He's capitalizing on what has been a poor camp for Coates, and in the Steelers' high-octane offense, he could be an especially attractive stash in PPR formats.

Terrance West | RB | Baltimore Ravens

He might be the weakest fit for the "sleeper" label of any of the 12 on the list, but at the same time, seeing his name on said list might be more apt to elicit an "ugh" than a positive reaction.

The Ravens are going to include West on their opening-week roster, and what's more, his arrow is easily pointing upward more than that of any of the running backs on said roster. I know, I know, West was a bust as a rookie in 2014, and he has been traded and released by a pair of running back-starved teams since, but he spent the offseason losing weight and getting into shape, has been drawing raves for his explosiveness in camp and is getting the majority of short-yardage work this month (read: goal-line carries). Meanwhile, Justin Forsett and Javorius Allen haven't overwhelmed this preseason, and Kenneth Dixon will miss a month because of a torn MCL, which paves the way for West to be fairly involved, even if in an initial timeshare.

Tyrell Williams | WR | San Diego Chargers

Like Rogers, Williams has put himself in position for a possible Week 1 starting job and has earned additional first-team snaps since Stevie Johnson was lost for the season to a torn meniscus in his right knee. Reports out of camp have Williams running crisper routes, a key improvement for a player considered more of a developmental prospect as a 2015 undrafted free agent out of Western Oregon.

Williams had eye-popping Pro Day numbers and showed his big-play potential with an 80-yard touchdown grab behind Broncos Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib in Week 17 last season. Considering the Chargers attempted the third-most passes in 2015, Williams is a worthy stash in leagues of 14 or more teams.