NFL fans and players can debate the merits and risks of playing preseason games, but here in Fantasyland, the games give us a glimpse into how players may fare once the regular season begins. That is often reflected in rising or falling average draft positions (ADP) and, in turn, that impacts whether a player may be a sleeper, bust or breakout candidate this year.
With a couple of preseason games in the books since the ESPN Fantasy Football staff offered up our initial top sleepers, busts and breakouts (as defined below), we are back to revisit the topics as draft mania falls upon us.
Sleeper: A player who will far surpass his average draft position in standard ESPN leagues this season.
Bust: A player who is expected to be a solid starter in standard ESPN leagues but will fail to live up to those expectations in 2015.
Breakout: A player who will make a leap into or close to the upper echelon of players at his position for the first time due to a dramatic increase in production compared to his previous seasons.
Our panel is comprised of: Matthew Berry, Tom Carpenter, Tristan Cockcroft, Ken Daube, KC Joyner, Eric Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, Jim McCormick, Matt Williamson and Field Yates.
Our writers listed one sleeper and one bust each at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, plus one breakout player at any position. They then provided a brief write-up for one sleeper, one bust and their breakout player.
Last season, the combination of Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez placed 16th in terms of Team QB fantasy points. Say what you want about the fragility of Bradford, but he's a better quarterback than either of the guys he's replacing. Expect Bradford to challenge for a top-10 QB rank if he can remain healthy. -- Ken Daube
I can relate to Giants fans and their confusing relationship with Manning. Just like them, Manning has won championships for my fantasy teams -- and also made me want to pull my hair out. It can be incredibly frustrating when he has that mopey look on his mug after throwing yet another horrendous game-losing pass. Yet, when he is on top of his game, he is one of the best in fantasy -- I expect that to be the case in his second season in OC Ben McAdoo's system, especially with a talented corps of pass-catchers in Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Larry Donnell and Shane Vereen, plus what looks like a vulnerable defense. I'll be surprised if he is not a top-five fantasy quarterback this season, which means he offers tremendous ADP value at QB13 and No. 104 overall. He has no business going after Cam Newton, Ryan Tannehill and Matthew Stafford. -- Tom Carpenter
It might be tough for any Buccaneers running back to find holes behind a poor offensive line, but Sims will do his best work catching passes from the backfield. He missed the first half of his rookie season with an ankle injury, but let's face it, he's just better than Doug Martin. And you can draft Sims later than all starting running backs, including Martin. Look for him in PPR formats, specifically. -- Eric Karabell
Forsett led the league in good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA, a measure of production on plays with quality blocking) last year. He's also a pass-catching back in a Marc Trestman offense that turned out a 100-reception running back (Matt Forte) last season. Forsett does have some competition for carries, but he's got the caliber of talent to win that battle and once again post RB1 figures that will well outpace his mid- to low-end RB2 draft value. -- KC Joyner
Ivory is currently being drafted 30th at the position on average, which is arguably commensurate with expected value, given he was 30th in standard fantasy points per game among running backs last season. NFL Nation's Jets reporter Rich Cimini envisions an uptick in passing game usage for Ivory, and recently predicted 225 carries for the sixth-year back. The combination of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson averaged an 18 percent target share from 2010 to 2012 while Chan Gailey was at the helm of the Bills. Gailey is now the offensive coordinator for the Jets. If Ivory's 5.9 percent target share for the Jets last season jumps to the nine or 10 range this year, a top 20 season at the position is realistically in reach. -- Jim McCormick
Ryan Mathews, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Do you want to win your league? If so, you use mid-round picks on players like Mathews, who is one DeMarco Murray injury away from being a top-10 fantasy running back. Yes, Mathews has his own troubling injury history, but something tells me that Murray, who racked up close to an amazing 500 touches (including playoffs) last year, isn't going to hold up. Also, even if Murray does start every game, Mathews still could be a quality flex or bye week option due to his talent and the sheer volume of Chip Kelly's running game. -- Matt Williamson
The attention has been paid to DeVante Parker among the wide receivers this offseason, but Landry is the returning stud who should see a ton of targets again this year. The limiting factor is that the majority of throws he sees are at or near the line of scrimmage, but we've seen guys with a similar role -- such as Julian Edelman -- make a major impact. -- Field Yates
Nelson Agholor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Everyone is talking about Amari Cooper, and I get it. Both will be studs. But based on production and what it'll cost to acquire him on draft day, Agholor will be the fantasy rookie WR value this year. When Jeremy Maclin left town, more than 140 targets went with him. Some will be absorbed by Jordan Matthews, now the unquestioned No. 1, and I do believe Chip wants to run even more this year. But still. Lotta possessions, fast-paced offense that was top five in pass attempts last season, and Algholor, who has terrific after-the-catch speed, is a perfect fit for this offense. Also in his favor: He's not Riley Cooper. -- Matthew Berry
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I removed Marlon Brown as my sleeper wide receiver after his completely forgettable preseason to date. I've already, however, written up Markus Wheaton's sleeper potential. So Seferian-Jenkins, who has been overshadowed by wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, instead gets the nod, as he could carve out a critical red zone role thanks to his massive size. He drew raves during OTAs and the early preseason, and is finally healthy after a 2014 rookie campaign during which he was never really playing at full strength. In addition, remember that Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter coaxed a 10-touchdown season out of Marcedes Lewis in Jacksonville, and back-to-back eight-score seasons from Tony Gonzalez at the tail end of his career in Atlanta. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
He's still a very good real life NFL QB, right? But coming off a down year (for him), when he finished as the sixth-best fantasy quarterback, there's no scenario in which losing Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas is good for a quarterback's fantasy value, especially when they've been replaced only by C.J. Spiller. It's not just the loss of receiving weapons but the addition of more run blocking help via trade and the draft, plus reports we hear out of New Orleans, and everything points to a much more balanced (read: run-oriented) attack. He'll still be a top-10 guy, but he's in the Matt Ryan/Ben Roethlisberger top-10 tier, not in the Aaron Rodgers/Andrew Luck area -- and someone will still draft him as if he is. Don't make that you. -- Matthew Berry
It saddens me to say "Peyton Manning" and "bust" in the same sentence, but this is all about what I saw the final month of last season, when Peyton clearly wasn't right physically, and concerns that he won't be his usual prolific self by the time December rolls around. He's 39 years old, and I have great concern that we've seen the last of consistently dominant Peyton. I just can't pay the price it'll take with so many other safe QBs capable of putting solid numbers many rounds later. -- Keith Lipscomb
DeMarco Murray, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Murray carried the ball 392 times and had 449 total touches during the regular season, then added another 44 carries (48 total touches) in two playoff games. The history of running backs absorbing that large of a workload is not good during their follow-up seasons. The 28 previously to do it lost roughly 25 percent of their fantasy production, and averaged 3.3 fewer games played the following year. Murray will also have to fend off Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles for carries, with a committee approach (to some degree) actually a wise move for the Eagles considering Murray's 2014 workload. That said, such a committee angle is hardly a recipe for first round-caliber fantasy success. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
The Stewart love this year is way overblown. He had two games during last year's regular season where he surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark. His opponents in those games: the New Orleans Saints and the Cleveland Browns, each of whom finished in the bottom four in rushing yardage allowed. He isn't good close to the goal, either. If you rank the touchdown conversion rate of the 30 running backs with at least seven carries from their opponents' five-yard line or closer, Stewart finished 24th in that area of the field. -- Ken Daube
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers
I can't understand why now, all of a sudden just because DeAngelo Williams is gone, that people presume Stewart will stay healthy and productive for a full season at age 28. Yes, Stewart played well the final six games last season, but we cannot ignore his track record or assume that someone else in the team's backfield can't step up. Cameron Artis-Payne seems to be a decent candidate. Draft Stewart as a flex option, not RB2. -- Eric Karabell
I don't dislike Ellington as a player, but the workload is almost certain to decrease this year. And that's probably better off for the Cardinals from a pure football perspective -- managing touches has a lot of value -- but I just can't talk myself into Ellington having another year where he dominates the carries in Arizona. Rookie David Johnson seems likely to have a role. I'm shying away from the Cardinals' backfield in drafts. -- Field Yates
This offseason showed us the Detroit wants to take a little off Matthew Stafford's plate and run the football more. They drafted a road-grading guard in the first round, while also trading for a veteran potentially starting guard as well. But then in the second round, the Lions drafted Ameer Abdullah. While Abdullah isn't as powerful or as physical as Bell, he is far more talented, dynamic and creates much more on his own. Bell averaged just 3.9 yards per carry both of the past two seasons and still isn't healthy from his knee/Achilles injury from a year ago. Simply put, Bell, who just turned 29 years old, doesn't have the excess in movement skills to lose a percentage of what he once had. This will be Abdullah's show in the Lions' backfield. And don't overlook Zach Zenner either, who could make Bell entirely expendable. -- Matt Williamson
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos
Just about everything about the Broncos' situation points towards this offense leaning on the run game a lot more this season. That will likely result in at least 50-100 targets being taken away from Denver pass catchers. If Sanders loses only 20 off of his career-high 141-target pace, he would already likely drop outside of the top 20 in this category, and it would not be a shock to see him lose even more targets than that. Quality can only go so far to make up for a lack of quantity, so it would not be a surprise to see Sanders drop to WR3 territory this year. -- KC Joyner
While Johnson should enjoy a relatively valuable weekly usage floor in working with Andrew Luck in a pass-happy offense (Luck was third in passing attempts last season), I prefer several receiver commodities going later in drafts with significantly more attractive upside profiles and similarly high usage floors. I would rather have shares -- cheaper ones at that -- of Davante Adams, Allen Robinson and Jeremy Maclin than Johnson. -- Jim McCormick
Owen Daniels, TE, Denver Broncos
I believe the thinking behind those who have pushed Daniels up to the No. 11 TE in ESPN ADP is that he has talent and is replacing Julius Thomas, who was a fantasy beast, in a system run by his ol' coach Gary Kubiak. That's flawed thinking, though. Despite having opportunities to make a significant mark in fantasy, Daniels has failed to do so repeatedly over the years, maxing out at 70 catches for 862 yards in 2008 and never topping six TDs in a season. Now, Daniels is nearly 33 years old and hasn't been able to stay healthy the past six seasons. Sure, he may finally top six scores, but I expect him to remain far too inconsistent to rely on as a weekly starter. -- Tom Carpenter
Bridgewater closed out the 2014 season on a tear, tying for the league lead in completion percentage (72.1 percent) and leading all QBs in vertical yards per attempt during the last five weeks of the campaign. His prorated pace of 250 fantasy points for the season would have been a near top-10 caliber number, and that was before Adrian Peterson and Mike Wallace joined the Vikings lineup. There is low-end QB1 potential here. -- KC Joyner
Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Since Chip Kelly took over the Eagles, only Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning have more fantasy points than "Eagles QB." Now, some of that is inflated by Michael Vick's rushing, but whatever. A broken-down Vick, Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez have combined for the fourth-most fantasy points among QBs the past two years. Insane. And Bradford's going as QB25! Twenty five! Top-10 upside. -- Matthew Berry
No one had more rushing yards after Nov. 1 than Jeremy Hill, the power back out of LSU who took over a starting role last season. And on top of his 240-pound frame, Hill is a legitimate big-play threat, too. During that late-season stretch, Hill had three games with a 60-yard run or longer. A do-it-all back who could catapult into the top five among runners. -- Field Yates
The rookie could not have landed in a better spot, as coach Jeff Fisher has always preferred leaning on one workhorse running back. We also know that Rams rookies can step right in and have success at this position. Last year, Fisher got six games of 80-plus combined yards out of third-round rookie Tre Mason. The year prior, he coaxed four 100-yard games and seven TDs out of fifth-round rookie Zac Stacy. Unlike them, Gurley is supremely talented and has been compared to the likes of Adrian Peterson, who cranked out 1,608 combined yards and 13 TDs as a rookie. We can't expect that kind of overall production from Gurley, since he is coming off of ACL surgery and should be eased into his rookie campaign. But don't be surprised if Gurley sets the fantasy world on fire once he gets up to speed for the second half of the season and the fantasy playoffs -- when it matters most. -- Tom Carpenter
Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams
Gurley's been clocked with exceptional speed -- in the 4.4 second range for the 40-yard dash -- and has prototypical size for an NFL running back. While he is still recovering from a torn ACL, the length of time other elite athletes have needed to get back to full speed has been becoming shorter and shorter. Look for Gurley to be the starter by Week 4 and be dominant from that point forward. -- Ken Daube
Several factors seem to hinder Watkins' prospects of a breakout, but sometimes, raw ability alone can drive them. Rex Ryan's Bills are sure to employ a "ground-and-pound," run-heavy approach, Percy Harvin's arrival might seemingly threaten Watkins' targets, and Watkins is fresh off hip surgery, perhaps causing fantasy owners to expect a spinning-of-wheels or a slight regression in 2015. Still, when elite talent faces role doubt, I consider it a prime time to pounce. Nothing has changed with Watkins' skills: He's one of, and I'd argue the most talented receiver from the 2014 draft class, and a rookie year's time to adapt to the league surely did him some good. And if you worry about the Bills' quarterbacking, consider that Watkins managed the 27th-best fantasy point total at his position despite 18 teams totaling more points from their quarterbacks. He's the kind of player who helps elevate his quarterbacks' play, not vice versa. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft
Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees isn't going to stop throwing the football, and Cooks, in his second season, is well equipped to become his leading target and approach WR1 numbers. Remember, Jimmy Graham is elsewhere, and so is Kenny Stills. The Saints just need to get the ball to Cooks; he's capable of taking short passes for touchdowns and he can also beat any secondary. Don't be surprised at 90 receptions and 1,100 receiving yards. -- Eric Karabell
Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
At the beginning of summer, I felt the Saints were going to turn up the volume in Cooks' game in his sophomore season, and the preseason only has me more giddy about the possibilities. In his first five games as a rookie, he averaged just 4.1 yards at the catch (how far downfield he caught the ball), but in his final five games before his season-ending injury, that number was 12.0. You know the Saints still want to throw the football but don't have their top-two pass-catchers from last season. Cooks is a dynamic talent, and this season he'll get every opportunity to show the masses, including more chances to make plays down the field. -- Keith Lipscomb
Even with continuous sleeper chatter all summer among the fantasy community, Robinson's average draft position is glaringly low in ESPN live drafts at 32nd among wideouts, and 84th overall. Removing a no-show professional debut last season, Robinson averaged 8.6 targets per game in his next nine outings before going down with a foot injury. Extrapolated out over a full season, Robinson was due for a 138-target pace, a number that would have tied with Dez Bryant for 12th-most in the NFL in 2014. Combine a volume of targets -- which can help offset natural efficiency fears in working with Blake Bortles -- with gifted route-running skills and you can strike strong ROI on Robinson in the middle rounds of drafts as your third receiver. -- Jim McCormick
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
Eifert was drafted in the first round to be a very Andy Dalton-friendly option in the middle of the field and red zone. Injuries have derailed this talented pass-catcher's career thus far, but all reports on Eifert out of Bengals camp have been extremely positive. Marvin Jones has some sleeper potential as Cincinnati's second wide receiver, but it is Eifert who is ready for a breakout as the Bengals' second leading receiver in 2015. This is a top-five fantasy tight end. -- Matt Williamson