Things change swiftly, and suddenly, in fantasy football.
Think that success in this game is entirely about the draft? You'd be wrong.
Productive -- absolute-lock-'em-in -- starters pop up during the season all the time. Last season alone, Odell Beckham Jr. (No. 5 WR), Justin Forsett (No. 8 RB), Travis Kelce (No. 8 TE), Matt Asiata (No. 16 RB), Tre Mason (No. 22 RB), Brandon LaFell (No. 23 WR) and Jordan Matthews (No. 24 WR) finished with fantasy point totals in the "start-worthy" tiers, despite all of them being either entirely undrafted or barely so in the deepest of ESPN leagues. Meanwhile, two of the top five single-game performances came from entirely undrafted players, Jonas Gray (44, Week 11, tied for first) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (39, Week 13, fifth).
Getting these players a step before the competition is critical ... and this doesn't always happen during the draft. It can, but value often sneaks through the draft cracks, which is why it's a good idea to not only compose a list of your favorite draft-day sleepers, but also some you might track in-season.
Remember: Draft preparation is not the final step to your championship! Save your notes; they might help you with in-season roster management.
What follows below is my list of 10 deep sleepers.
To be clear up front: Not a single one of these players might be drafted in an ESPN standard league, and by all rights perhaps none should. But if you: (A) are in an extremely deep league, preferably 12-team or more; (B) drafted a strong starting corps, want an upside play with your 14th-round pick -- remember, always save Rounds 15-16 for your defense and then kicker -- and one of these names resonates with you; or (C) recognize a draft-day roster weak spot and need names to tuck away as early-season pickups, then this list is for you.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: He's an NFL starting quarterback, but after posting by far the league's worst qualified Total QBR (25.2), he's poorly regarded in fantasy, a complete non-factor in one-quarterback leagues and well beneath the cut-off for starter consideration even in two-quarterback formats. I think it's an unfair characterization, especially amid reports that Bortles dealt with shoulder/"dead arm" issues late in the season, besides the significant adjustment to the NFL level. Bortles has slimmed down, spent the offseason working on his mechanics with Tom House and now has Julius Thomas as a red zone target, and someone from this quarterback tier, every year, unexpectedly breaks through.
Bryce Brown, RB, Buffalo Bills: When we say "so-and-so team's starter might not be on the roster," what we're referring to is the late-preseason, roster-crunch game in which cuts or low-draft-pick trades shuffle on-the-bubble players. Brown fits, facing an uphill battle to make the Bills behind LeSean McCoy, Fred Jackson, Boobie Dixon and Karlos Williams, his fumbling issues the primary obstacle to his getting another chance at a prominent role. Now here's where it gets interesting: The Bills' backfield has been battered by injuries, Brown (hamstring) included, so depending upon how things settle, Rex Ryan might have to take a look at Brown to begin the season. More likely, Brown will find himself available at the beginning of September, with teams in need of running back help like the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys or Houston Texans perhaps interested. My opinion: Brown's future -- even 2015 -- isn't in Buffalo.
Corey Brown, WR, Carolina Panthers: Formerly known as "Philly Brown," Corey could be one of the benefactors in the Panthers' passing game following the season-ending injury to Kelvin Benjamin. Brown represents a stark contrast in skills to Benjamin, six inches and 60 pounds smaller in size, but that could be a good thing. It seemed like the Panthers might try to win the size advantage in receiving matchups, between Benjamin, Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess. Now I wonder whether they might lean more on Brown to provide contrast and take more shots downfield to draw coverage off the two bigger men. Brown could use some polish on his route running and separation, but his role instantly expanded with the Benjamin news, meaning he'll surely get the opportunity to improve.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Chicago Bears: It's somewhat strange that he hasn't garnered more attention during the preseason's early weeks, being that there's a growing sentiment that Matt Forte -- that's first-rounder Matt Forte to you -- is due for a disappointing season under new coach John Fox. The Forte criticisms are somewhat fair, being that Fox's sans-Peyton Manning offenses have been more run-oriented, plus Forte is now 29 years old with a good amount of wear on his tires. Carey's combine and preseason performances last season lowered his fantasy stock, yes, but he's still a good between-the-tackles runner capable of absorbing a hefty workload if necessary. To be clear: I hate handcuffing players. But in deeper leagues in which the final-round running backs are scarce, Carey simply makes sense for Forte owners.
Brandon Coleman, WR, New Orleans Saints: He's one of the trendiest sleepers of the past week, which unfortunately put him on the fringe of removal -- oh-too-obvious, Tristan! -- entering the second preseason week, during which coach Sean Payton promised first-team reps for the sophomore. Fortunately, Coleman, a 6-foot-6 undrafted free agent who tied the Rutgers record for career receiving touchdowns (20), went 0-for-2 on his late-game targets during the opener, so for the short term, at least, the description remains apt. His size presents a potential matchups advantage for opposing corners and safeties and the Saints, a pass-friendly team that absorbed many changes to their receiving corps, have plenty of opportunity to go around.
Virgil Green, TE, Denver Broncos: Gary Kubiak might not have historically produced individually elite fantasy tight ends, but the statistics support his leaning more heavily on the position in the passing game than most coaches, not to mention Peyton Manning's historic reliance upon his tight ends. This is why many are gravitating toward Owen Daniels as a trendy sleeper; I'm instead looking to Green, who granted is the clear second-string right now. Daniels' age (33) and injury history -- he hasn't played a 16-game season since 2008 and has missed 27 of his team's 96 games, or 28 percent, since -- cannot be overlooked. Green, meanwhile, brings quite a combination of athleticism and blocking ability to the table. At the bare minimum, I'd expect he challenges Daniels for the greater snaps total, and if Daniels misses time, Green could slide in and never look back.
Ryan Mallett, QB, Houston Texans: Big arm, poor accuracy. Those four words sum up Mallett's skill set, though there are worse things to be for a player on the Texans, who have one of the league's most wide-open quarterback pictures. He's the hand-picked Bill O'Brien talent, and he has one of the better deep targets in the game in DeAndre Hopkins, who ranked 10th in catches (38) and 14th in targets (82) on throws 15 yards or deeper the past two seasons combined, despite playing for a run-heavy, poor-quarterbacked offense beside Andre Johnson. In the event Mallett sneaks in a start -- or 10 -- he's at least worth a speculative stash.
Richard Rodgers, TE, Green Bay Packers: He was a sleeper pick of mine a year ago, and after watching too many of those break through the following year, I've learned my lesson: Stick with 'em. Rodgers simply wasn't up to task with the blocking chores required of a tight end, but he's also a substantially better receiver than Andrew Quarless, perhaps capable of serving as either a possession type or infrequent red zone target. When throwing darts at tight end, those on teams that go three- and four-wide and are as productive as the Packers are good targets.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: A la Rodgers, Wheaton was another name on my 2014 sleeper list and, frankly, I'm surprised he's not on more people's lists entering this season. There's an obvious explanation -- Martavis Bryant's skyrocketing fantasy stock -- but as so much attention has been paid to Todd Haley's pass-happy Steelers offense, why isn't Wheaton at least on the 10-team radar? Perhaps Wheaton's ceiling is that of a high-volume, slot-receiver type, but let's not forget that the Steelers ran three-wide sets 66 percent of the time in 2014, seventh-most in the league. Oh, and Ben Roethlisberger has done nothing but rave about Wheaton this preseason, which only helps.
Zach Zenner, RB, Detroit Lions: While everyone coos over Ameer Abdullah's fantasy potential while Joique Bell slowly recovers from both offseason knee and Achilles surgeries, Zenner has snuck by without so much as a glance. A 5-foot-11, 223-pound, undrafted rookie, Zenner rushed for more than 2,000 yards while playing every game for South Dakota State in each of the past three seasons. He's a smart, workhorse-potential back who might fit the Lions' offense as a one-cut runner, and again, right now there's opportunity. He's opening eyes in camp, and as his prospects of making the team increase while Bell's prospects of playing in Week 1 decrease, Zenner's fantasy stock could soon increase to the point he's worth the late-round pick.