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Before we even take one step forward in this column, let's take at least one step back. What is a "sleeper?" In this day of rapid information, it's almost impossible for a moderately interested fantasy sports player to not hear about almost every player, whether it's a guy tearing it up on the practice squad or the latest free agent signing. So do "sleepers" exist anymore? No, not in the old sense of the word -- guys who you grab while your league mates are, at least metaphorically, asleep at the wheel. But in the actual application of that term -- players who are drafted far below their actual value (which you therefore recognize, while others don't) ... they are EVERYWHERE.
I prefer to call them "slippers" instead of "sleepers," because they simply slip in the draft from where they should go, not fly under the radar where folks don't know about them [Actually, my brother came up with that term, so props are due where they are due. But does he have a fantasy football column? Ha!]. Anyhow, since sleeper is the preferred nomenclature, let's run with that.
So, as we used to say back in the neighborhood, "Who ya got?"
Let's break it down by position.
Matt Leinart, Cardinals
Forget about his injury last year; the questions are whether he is the starter and whether his offseason shenanigans will affect him. Leinart is extremely talented and has one of the best set of receivers in the league. What's more, the running game is getting worse and worse, meaning this could be an air show in the desert. Use Leinart's somewhat shaky status and grab him late -- he could easily be a top-10 quarterback when all is said and done.
Matt Schaub, Texans
Maybe folks just don't trust quarterbacks named Matt. Schaub had inconsistent starts before getting hurt last season, but the guy has an absolute hose for an arm and throws to one of the best wide receivers in the league, Andre Johnson. You don't have to draft Schaub as your starter, but there's a good chance he'll unseat guys in the lower half of the top 10 QBs drafted before mid-season.
Philip Rivers, Chargers
After tossing 22 touchdowns in 2006 and 21 TDs last season, Rivers shouldn't be on this list -- except that he's recovering from a torn ACL. That should scare some owners away, and if that's the case, Rivers could be a big time value. With a full season of receiver Chris Chambers and the expected development of receivers like Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, plus the best tight end in the league, Antonio Gates, Rivers has tons of options. And oh, did we mention he's got a pretty good running back sharing the backfield? Keep an eye on his health updates, but downplay them for your league mates if he looks sturdy.
(Here's something worth noting -- RotoExperts writer Paul Bourdett, and undoubtedly others, disagree with me about Rivers. Indeed, he included Rivers in his "Busts" column in this same Draft Kit. That's fine, of course -- and in fact, I'm thrilled to hear it. Why? Because the more doubt there is about Rivers, the cheaper I (and you) can grab him. Paul and I are going to have a running bet on Rivers this season, which we'll update in our various columns throughout the year.)
Who's not on thislist:
Aaron Rodgers, Packers. His one game of filling in well for Favre notwithstanding, Rodgers has almost no in-game experience, and the team is more likely to suffer from Favre-free-malaise for awhile. I'm not optimistic. Whether or not the rumors about Favre wanting to play for another season are true or not, Rodgers is simply not a plug-and-play option here. He's going to have some serious growing pains, and I personally don't have Seaver Fever (That's a 1980s sitcom reference, for you young-uns). Other folks might tell you that Alex Smith, 49ers, is another sleeper candidate. As a diehard 49ers fan, I'm here to tell you to pass (Ouch, that's a bad pun). I know Mike Martz still has some street cred here, but Smith has to throw to someone, and Isaac Bruce is his No. 1 wide receiver. Bruce could be Smith's father, I think. Look elsewhere.
Michael Turner, Falcons
I'm not one of the guys who thinks Turner will simply take his career 5.5 yards per carry and keep it going in the Georgia Dome. But Turner is being listed as barely a RB2 (that is, maybe going as the 19th or 20th RB overall). If that's the case, he should provide some pretty good value, because Turner is as talented as any other back in the league. Yeah, you heard that right. As bad as the Falcons are -- and they are in contention for being the worst team in the entire NFL -- running the ball hasn't been something with which the Falcons have ever struggled. With Warrick Dunn leaving the team, there is no one else really threatening to take carries away besides Jerious Norwood, who hasn't proven himself yet. Turner could be a very nice surprise this season, so grab him if he's lingering in your draft for too long.
Kevin Smith, Lions
Now this is the kind of 'sleeper' most folks want ... a hotshot rookie, right? The Lions made a huge change this off-season, dumping Kevin Jones for ... Kevin Smith. Don't worry; this isn't the director of Clerks, who undoubtedly has a really slow 40-yard-dash time. But even still, don't put too many eggs in this basket -- Smith is no Adrian Peterson, but he also might provide you with some value. He plays in Detroit, which hasn't been a great fantasy landscape for awhile, but Smith has the tools to bring his owners some good value. At this point, you don't have to draft him as anything but a flex back, and he could easily provide upside value from there. He has been worked a LOT, averaging more than 30 carries a game last season, but he's a big, bruising guy (6-foot-1, 211 lbs) and has no real threat to take away his carries.
LenDale White, Titans
Why does White consistently get no love? He's ranked as a flex back (that is, as the 25th-30th running back) but gained more than 1,100 yards last year, scoring seven TDs. Chris Brown is now in Houston, and White -- though always a threat to break his waistband as much as a tackle -- has the job all to himself. His legal troubles are not going to keep him off the field, and Vince Young is not the quarterback everyone assumed he would be. That means the running game is alive and well in the Music City, and White is the big-time beneficiary there.
Who's not on this list:
DeAngelo Williams, Panthers. When DeShaun Foster left town for San Francisco, folks who had been waiting for Williams to become the star they envisioned began to salivate. Then, the Panthers implicitly acknowledged what many others had thought -- that Williams isn't capable of handling a full load. They did that by drafting Jonathan Stewart, who also doesn't make the above list simply because he's sharing carries with Williams. Without injury, neither should get enough carries to warrant a starting slot this season. I'm also not crazy about Matt Forte, Bears, though I do think he is an improvement on the dreadful Cedric Benson. Forte is worth owning, but he's being drafted right around the same place as the Titans' White. I'll take LenDale and have a much better sense of what I'm getting.
Anthony Gonzalez, Colts
There's been a lot of chatter about the decline of Marvin Harrison, and there's debate to be had on both sides of that coin. Most of the resulting discussion is about how Reggie Wayne is now the main recipient of all that is Peyton Manning, but not as much about the downstream benefit to Gonzalez. A-Gonz, as he'll undoubtedly be called if he isn't already, has all the tools to be a solid second receiver in that system, which means at worst he'll be a great WR3 for your team. He's being drafted far below that point right now, so scoop him up and enjoy.
Joey Galloway, Buccaneers
It's not like folks don't know about Galloway, who has been in the league for 14 years (Random trivia: the Seahawks selected Shaun Alexander with the draft pick the Cowboys traded them for Galloway; yeah, he's been around), but Galloway just never, ever gets the respect he deserves. He's a virtual lock for 1,000 yards and about 60 catches, and yet he has slipped in every one of my drafts during the last five or six years. Do you think it's because he's a grown man named Joey? Joe Galloway might get a bit more respect. Regardless, when it comes to snaring Joey, don't be one of those guys (or gals) who ignore his value.
Steve Smith, Giants
Yes, that's the Giants' Smith, not the Panthers' stud. While the Carolina star is a top-10 receiver and therefore generally gone by the third round or so, the Giants version is a guy for whom you might not even have to use a draft pick at all. But he has a decent chance to be Eli Manning's No. 2 WR, since Amani Toomer is in deep decline, and the Giants want to see what they have in Smith. With Manning's development, that second receiver is one that will undoubtedly be beneficial to your fantasy squad. Smith hasn't done much as a pro, but he's got the tools to thrive. If he can stay healthy -- a big if -- he should pay large dividends on a very small investment.
Who's not on this list:
Donte' Stallworth, Browns. Now a Brown, Stallworth has been on someone's sleeper list every year since entering the league in '02. That year he notched his career high in TDs (eight), and yet he still has never gone over the 1,000-yard mark. People are always ready to make excuses for why he hasn't quite clicked yet, but insist that this season is the one ... the recent word is that he couldn't thrive in New England because he was too similar a receiver to Randy Moss. When you finish laughing, think about the fact that Cleveland has Braylon Edwards, a true stud in his own right, and a great tight end in Kellen Winslow Jr. There's no real reason Stallworth should change his career direction this season. Darrell Jackson, Broncos, is also on many sleepers list, but I remain unconvinced. He has hands like anvils, and it's impossible to believe he's only 29, as he seems to have lost several gears of speed in recent years. While his presence should help in the maturity (on the field, that is) and stats of Brandon Marshall, I'm not expecting much fantasy production out of D-Jax myself.
Vernon Davis, 49ers
He's been hyped up for a few seasons and has disappointed his owners. That's good news for you this season, because he should take a step forward, as should his quarterback under Mike Martz's offensive tutelage. While Antonio Gates has little to worry about in terms of tight end dominance, Davis might be the 10th or 11th tight end off the board, and he could provide more value than guys taken rounds before him.
Donald Lee, Packers
While it's hard to predict success for a tight end, with Aaron Rodgers taking over, a safety valve is a young quarterback's best friend. Lee was extremely capable last year. With many owners (like me) nervous about Rodgers' own fantasy success, an outlet like Lee might be just what the doctor ordered. He should provide good value.
Seriously? There's no such thing as sleepers in these categories. Sure, every season one or two kickers and one or two defensive squads completely outshine their peers. The only problem is that there is no rhyme or reason about why that's the case. Last year, the Ravens were one of the top defenses drafted, and were decidedly mediocre. A few years ago, Neil Rackers had a career fantasy season kicking for the Cardinals, and presumably went into the Witness Protection Program since that time, for all he's been worth to your teams. In many leagues, Mason Crosby was the best fantasy kicker last year and almost assuredly went undrafted in many leagues. It's just a complete guessing game -- and yes, it's our job to help you make those guesses when we can. But not as sleepers. Why is that? Because the best strategy, as far as this writer is concerned, is to not draft for these positions until the last available draft slot. That's the draft tip here, not whether the Bills are a better under-the-radar defense than, say, the Broncos (though they are ... slightly).