2012 fantasy football sleepers, busts

While ESPN Fantasy's analysts have worked together to assemble our 2012 fantasy football rankings, we also have individual preferences as to who will break through or disappoint. It's in this vein that we present our sleepers and busts lists.

Each analyst from our panel (Stephania Bell, Matthew Berry, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Shawn Cwalinski, Ken Daube, Christopher Harris, Dave Hunter, KC Joyner, Eric Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, AJ Mass, Jim McCormick and James Quintong) has named a sleeper and a bust at each of the six fantasy positions and explains the rationale for one of the sleepers and one of the busts on the list.

For this piece, the definition of sleeper is a player not likely to be drafted as a starter in standard ESPN Fantasy leagues (according to our consensus staff rankings) who could break through and whose performance will far outweigh his draft position. The definition of a bust in this piece is a player likely to be drafted as a starter in standard ESPN Fantasy leagues but is a good candidate to not live up to his draft position.


LeGarrette Blount, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs brought in Doug Martin to share the rushing load with Blount, who never quite warmed to the every-down role. But that's kind of the point. By sharing the load, Blount's performance may actually improve over the course of the season, and he may well return to the 1,000-yard rusher he was when he split carries and playing time with Cadillac Williams. (AJ Mass)

Vincent Brown, WR, San Diego Chargers: While Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem likely will go before Brown, I loved what I saw out of him during his four starts last November. I expect him to make a nice jump in his second season, especially with Vincent Jackson gone. Philip Rivers loves to spread the ball around, and Brown provides a nice big-play threat, as four of his 19 catches as a rookie went for 25 yards or more. (Keith Lipscomb)

Jared Cook, TE, Tennessee Titans: He's a physical freak who finished the year strong (335 yards and a score in his final three games), and he's the obvious answer to "who could become this year's Jimmy Graham." Here's one thing you might not know: In the first eight games of last season, the Titans were tied for 11th in pass attempts. In the final eight games? Sixth-most pass attempts. And in the final three games, when Cook went off? Only the Lions attempted more passes. They're much more of a passing offense than you think and when you're 6-foot-5 and fast, you tend to benefit. (Matthew Berry)

Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers: Crabtree just missed making it onto the Insider list of best matchup-buster wide receivers despite battling a foot injury for much of the season. He is now healthy, has more pass-catching help around him (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins) and is due to face eight cornerbacks that either gave up a high YPA total or were not even starters on their clubs last season. (KC Joyner)

Kellen Davis, TE, Chicago Bears: After being underused the past two seasons under Mike Martz, the 6-foot-7 Davis might finally get the attention thanks to a new contract and the direction of new offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Tice's offenses with the Minnesota Vikings prominently featured the position in the passing game (Jermaine Wiggins averaged 70 receptions and 636 yards per season in 2004-05). Davis flashed some red zone skills in 2011 with five touchdowns on just 18 receptions -- and a markedly increased role is expected in the new-look offense -- making him one of the savvier deep sleepers to pursue at the position. (Jim McCormick)

Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Freeman failed to live up to expectations last year, but a lot of his troubles were due to Tampa Bay's inability to run the ball (91.1 rush yards per game). I expect a dramatic improvement from Freeman's 22-INT season in 2011, where he forced the ball on too many occasions. Freeman comes into this season 20 pounds lighter and also gets a new target to throw to in Vincent Jackson. (Dave Hunter)

Mike Goodson, RB, Oakland Raiders: He's had his moments of fantasy relevance in Carolina, even while playing with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Now he's among those backing up Darren McFadden, who has never been a paragon of health during his career. There should be chances to steal goal-line carries, at the very least, and opportunities to do more if and when McFadden goes down. (James Quintong)

Peyton Hillis, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: I had Hillis in my "bust" category last year, but now the needle has gone too far the other way. Jamaal Charles is coming off a torn ACL and was never a full-time back anyway, and Hillis is only 26. I make him, at minimum, a terrific flex option, with the possibility that he becomes an early-down workhorse in KC, a la Thomas Jones. (Christopher Harris)

Rashad Jennings, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Sidelined for the entire 2011 season with a knee injury, Jennings was out of sight while Maurice Jones-Drew grabbed the spotlight. Now Jones-Drew is out of sight during OTAs (contract dispute), and Jennings has had a chance to impress. His knee, which did not require surgery, appears to be fully recovered, and Jennings appears poised to snag a bigger role in the Jags' running game. After all, can Jones-Drew really be expected to play in all 16 games for a second consecutive season? (Stephania Bell)

Randy Moss, WR, San Francisco 49ers: Moss has proven that he can be the most dominant receiver in the league. The questions are: Does he want to? And can he still do it? Early reports from San Francisco indicate the skills may still be there. If those reports are right and he wants to be an elite receiver, you'll strike gold. (Ken Daube)

Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland Raiders: Shocking as it might seem, Palmer ranked seventh in yards per game and third in yards per attempt among QBs last season. If you prorate Palmer's stats over 16 games -- with no improvement -- he would have had as many fantasy points as Ben Roethlisberger last season. He did so despite being traded during the season, having to learn a new playbook and work with unfamiliar wide receivers. Palmer knows the playbook and his receivers this season. (Shawn Cwalinski)

Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings: Sleeper speculation means taking some wild stabs at raw skills, and Ponder certainly possesses athleticism. The question is whether the core surrounding him will jell. Will Adrian Peterson tay healthy enough to take pressure off the passing game? Will Jerome Simpson, once his suspension ends, be as good a No. 2 wideout as advertised during OTAs? Will Kyle Rudolph's role expand during his sophomore season, and if so, will be realize his potential? Let's assume for a second the answers are "yes." If so, Ponder could be a handy fantasy backup -- or borderline starter in the best-case scenario -- as evidenced by an eight-game stretch in Weeks 7-14 last season, during which he totaled 1,658 yards and 13 TDs passing. (Tristan H. Cockcroft)

Ryan Williams, RB, Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals obviously had reservations about Beanie Wells when they made Virginia Tech's Williams a second-rounder in 2011. Williams shredded a knee before last season, while Wells dealt with more injuries and inconsistency, as he hardly inspires All-Pro confidence. This seems like a wise handcuff situation, even if it takes Williams all of September to get going. (Eric Karabell)


Kenny Britt, WR, Tennessee Titans: When healthy, the production of this premier deep threat has proven to be nearly elite. The issue is that the "when healthy" portion of his career has been far too infrequent, as the talented young wideout has been plagued by injuries over the past two seasons. While injuries can hit any player at any time, hearing injury expert Stephania Bell's considerable concern at the staff fantasy football summit this past May over the nature of the soft tissue injuries Britt has regularly incurred in his career helped confirm to me that the risk associated with this big-play talent is too great to make up for the potential rewards. (Jim McCormick)

Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears: Sure, he was having a revival of sorts last year before going down with a knee injury, but despite averaging 4.9 yards a carry, he still finished with just four total touchdowns in 12 games, thanks in large part to Marion Barber racking up six touchdowns as the goal-line back. Now, the Bears upgraded from Barber by adding Michael Bush, who had 15 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons for the Oakland Raiders and knows something about sharing carries. Forte's offseason contract dispute doesn't help his cause, especially when the Bears have someone who's ready to be a lead guy, if need be. (James Quintong)

Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo Bills: Jackson is 31 years old and just got the big contract he was aiming for, so he could be battling complacency. He could also have to compete with C.J. Spiller (who rushed for 391 yards in the final five weeks of the 2011 season) for carries against a slate of opponents that my draft guide says is the second toughest set of rushing matchups in the NFL. (KC Joyner)

Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans: Johnson is one of the most vexing fantasy players. He has the skills to be the top fantasy wide receiver, which he has been. He also has three seasons in which he has failed to top 1,000 yards receiving and two seasons in which he has failed to play 10 games. I am just not willing to use a second-round pick on a guy who played in seven games and had only 492 receiving yards last season, especially when the guy has already had knee surgery this calendar year. (Shawn Cwalinski)

Brandon Lloyd, WR, New England Patriots: We know the guy is talented, but we also know Wes Welker and a pair of tight ends will see many, many targets, so Lloyd's recent success with the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams, despite playing with iffy quarterback situations, might not be relevant. Tom Brady is awesome, but there's only one football. Lloyd has value, but he's out of my top 20, and is more of a flex choice. (Eric Karabell)

Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos: What's with all this "He's back!" talk? He's been out for a year, he's almost 36 and has had four neck surgeries. New players around him, slightly new offense and he's no longer in a dome. During his career, when playing outdoors, he has higher interception rate and a lower TD rate than he does in a dome. Plus, while Denver isn't, say, Green Bay, it's not exactly balmy there. Very small sample size, but in 11 games where the temperature was below 40, he has just 15 TDs and 12 INTs. If I have to pick a top-10 drafted QB that's most likely to finish outside the top 10, it's clearly Peyton Manning. (Matthew Berry)

Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears: I appreciate Marshall's consistent yardage production during his career, but getting into the end zone? That's another story. I'm not buying into the idea that just because Marshall is reunited with Jay Cutler that his TD production will skyrocket, like some assume. We'll see a slight uptick in TDs, but Marshall won't be worth where he'll go in drafts this season. (Dave Hunter)

Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: Defenses basically took the deep route away from Newton's favorite target, Steve Smith, from Week 6 forward. If you think you are getting an elite passer and runner, you are only half right. Newton is an average passer and will need an exceptional season via the run to come close to his draft slot. (Ken Daube)

Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings: Even if he's ready Week 1, it defies all logic that Peterson would be back to his usual self. How many times have we seen RBs coming off torn ACLs recapture only a fraction of their glory in the year after their injury? And that's to say nothing of AP's injury coming in Week 16. Drafting him to be a borderline No. 1 RB is crazy. (Christopher Harris)

Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers: I can't help but worry that defenses will continue to make Cam Newton beat them downfield with someone other than Smith this season. After an amazing first half of 2011 in which he had 12 catches of 25 or more yards, Smith had just three such catches in the second half and recorded just one 100-yard game. Since the supporting cast at WR didn't change much, he'll have fewer big games in 2012 and his value will suffer. (Keith Lipscomb)

Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta Falcons: One number summarizes the risk that is Turner in 2012: 30. That's his age, and if you know anything about NFL history, you know that's, oddly enough, the age at which running backs' production tends to fall off the proverbial cliff. Consider that there have been 68 seasons of at least 1,000 yards or 10 TDs rushing by a running back aged 30 or older; there have been 187 of them for players merely aged 27-29. Turner also has a lot of wear on his treads; he has three years of 300-plus carries in his past four, 1,189 carries in those four years combined and another 43 during the playoffs in those seasons. The steep decline is coming. (Tristan H. Cockcroft)

Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Even taking the injury risk out of the equation, which I'm not sure you can do, part of Vick's strength is the uniqueness of his playing style. But consider that Robert Griffin III is now in the NFC East as well, and while he's not a Vick clone, his style of play is similar enough that teams that play both (and several teams face the Washington Redskins first and then the Eagles in 2012) will not be as dazzled by the unusual style of play. (AJ Mass)

Jason Witten, TE, Dallas Cowboys: I know, I know. Witten a bust? He's the equivalent of Old Reliable in Dallas, a long-favored outlet for Tony Romo. But it's all relative. Witten is, in fact, getting older (30) and his numbers last year were his lowest in the last five seasons. With Romo's receiving options on the rise, Witten's days of being the automatic go-to guy may be behind him. And his legendary durability (he's played in all 16 games for the last 8 seasons!) is due to take a hit. (Stephania Bell)