From Rip Van Winkle in the Catskills to Alice dreaming up her Wonderland, the literary world is filled with famous sleepers. The NFL has had more than its fair share, as well. They won’t wake up to live in a new country (like Van Winkle) or having warded off an army of cards (like Alice). They’ll simply outproduce their draft-day value and wake up in an entirely new tier of fantasy football player by this time next year.
In the ongoing search for value ahead of draft day, here are my sleepers to monitor in the AFC.
Chris Ivory, Jets
Let’s play a game I like to call “Chris Ivory Facts.” Fact one: Ivory has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in 636 career totes. Fact two: In seasons in which he has played at least 12 games, he’s never had fewer than 102 fantasy points, despite always being part of a timeshare. Fact three: Last season was the closest he ever came to being an outright starter. He racked up 964 total yards and seven touchdowns on just 216 touches. Fact four: The running backs listed second and third on the Jets’ depth chart right now are Bilal Powell and Zac Stacy. Meanwhile, Stevan Ridley is still rehabbing a torn ACL and is on the PUP list. Fact five: Ivory is set for the best season of his career to date.
Ivory has been an underappreciated player for some time now, and that has continued right on into the 2015 fantasy draft season. His average draft position is starting to rise, but he’s still just the 32nd back off the board in a typical 12-team league. Ivory has the reputation of being a bruiser, and at 6'0" and 222 pounds, there's no doubt he’s an imposing back in short-yardage situations. However, he’s much more than that. According to Pro Football Focus, Ivory forced 52 missed tackles on runs last season, the fourth-most in the league. The three players who proved more elusive—Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray and Le’Veon Bell—all had at least 90 more carries than him. Murray, who forced just 15 more missed tackles, bested Ivory in carries by nearly 200. Ivory can run you over, but he can make you miss, as well.
The Jets have two big receiving weapons in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and Ryan Fitzpatrick will at least provide a relatively steady hand at quarterback. This offense could actually be a bit better than expected, and a lot of that will rest on Ivory’s broad shoulders. Now with his first clear path to a starting job in his sixth year in the league, he’ll prove himself up to the challenge.
Roy Helu, Raiders
Rarely is leaving a team—any team—for the Raiders a boon for a player’s fantasy stock, but there are exceptions to every rule. Helu spent four solid but nondescript years in Washington, serving as the team’s primary pass-catching back. He’ll likely reprise the same role in Oakland, but he should have more opportunities to carry the ball, as well. Even if he doesn’t, he could turn into a Shane Vereen or Darren Sproles type of player with the Raiders.
Helu had his best season as a receiver in 2014, catching 42 of his 47 targets for 477 yards and two touchdowns. His low usage rate last season, however, was indefensible, especially given Washington’s offensive struggles. Despite his ability as a receiver, 23 running backs had more targets than he did. Helu led all backs with 10.1 yards per target, crushing both Matt Forte (6.2) and Bell (8.1) on a per-target basis. One of the backs who had more targets than Helu was Marcel Reece, the Raiders' versatile fullback who excels catching passes out of the backfield. It would be a shock if Helu had fewer than 65 targets this season, and he could realistically be in the 75 to 80 range. Bump him up your rankings in PPR leagues.
What’s more, Helu could have more chances as a runner this year. He never topped 100 carries in a single season in D.C. after his rookie year, in which he picked up 640 yards on 151 totes, good for 4.2 yards per carry. We have already touted Latavius Murray as a breakout pick this season, but he’s no sure thing. Even if he does break out, the Raiders will likely find more carries for Helu than he ever got backing up the forever underrated Alfred Morris in Washington. Helu could find his way to 175 or so touches this season. If that ends up being the case, he’ll blow away his RB56 ADP, which has him off the board in the middle of the 13th round.
Justin Hunter, Titans
Yes, we were in this place exactly one year ago. Yes, Hunter turned in one of the most disappointing seasons in the league in 2014. Yes, the Titans have a crowded wide receiver depth chart and a rookie quarterback. So why am I going back to the Hunter well this season? Price and potential.
Regardless of your format, Hunter will come at a pittance in your draft or auction. How do I know this? Well, for starters, he’s not even among the top-65 receivers in ADP over at Fantasy Football Calculator. Every league is different, but that’s usually a pretty good gauge for overall sentiment. The opportunity cost of taking Hunter is giving up another lottery ticket, like Devin Funchess or Eddie Royal. Both of those guys made the honorable mention section of our NFC sleepers column, but I’d rather throw a dart in Hunter’s direction. Why is that? Thanks to the second item listed above, potential.
Hunter is 6’4” and ran a 4.4-second 40-yard-dash at the combine when he was coming out of college. He also posted a 39.5-inch vertical leap, tops in his draft class ahead of DeAndre Hopkins, who has already become a star, and noted freak athlete Cordarrelle Patterson. Added to the numbers from his final year at Tennessee, in which he caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns on a Volunteers team that went 5–7 and lost to Vanderbilt by 23 points, and it was enough to make him the 34th pick in the 2013 draft. Hunter has had a case of the drops since entering the league, but he’s incredibly dangerous on the deep ball. He has received 39 targets on passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air in his career, catching 10 of them for 402 yards and five touchdowns. Given how frequently the Titans push the ball to him down the field, he only needs three or four receptions in a game to make a meaningful fantasy impact. That’s exactly what I want out of a lottery-ticket receiver.
Denard Robinson, Jaguars
Everyone seemed ready to hand the Jaguars’ starting running back job to rookie T.J. Yeldon after the team used a second-round pick on the Alabama product. Everyone, that is, except for head coach Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Greg Olson. They listed Yeldon and Robinson as co-starters on the team’s first depth chart, confirming that the two will wage this season’s best training camp battle for the right to be the lead dog in the backfield. Only the foolhardy would count out Robinson.
Robinson made his name as a quarterback at Michigan, but he quickly took to the running back position when given a chance last year. Toby Gerhart flamed out as the team’s starter, and Storm Johnson quickly proved he wasn’t up to the task either. Robinson got his first start in the backfield in Week 7 against the Browns and carved them up for 127 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. The next week against the Dolphins, he totaled 108 yards on 18 rushes. One week later in Cincinnati, he scampered for 94 yards and a score on 17 carries. Robinson capped off his impressive four-week stretch by getting 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Cowboys, despite the fact that the Jaguars trialed 24–7 at halftime and had to abandon the run for nearly the entire second half.
Robinson missed the final three games of the season with a foot sprain, but that injury is entirely in his rearview mirror. He has, to an extent, proved he can be a starting running back in the NFL. This is likely to be some sort of timeshare regardless of who has a better camp, but don’t be surprised if Robinson, whose ADP is 61st among running backs, is on the larger side of the divide.
Ladarius Green, Chargers
Green's big breakout was first supposed to happen two years ago, but he ended up catching just 17 balls for 376 yards and three touchdowns, while Philip Rivers threw 116 passes in Antonio Gates’s direction. Then 2014 was supposed to be his coming-out party—Anyone can be held off for one season by a future Hall of Famer, but surely the Chargers would gently nudge Gates aside in favor of Green. It was clear from Week 1, when Gates caught six of 10 targets for 81 yards, that would not be the case. Ultimately, Gates finished with 12 touchdowns, while Green had 19 receptions.
All that has done, however, is turn Green into a prime sleeper at the tight end position this year. Gates, you’ll recall, will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, opening the door for Green to finally wrest the torch from his hands. Green, who is 25 years old and entering his fourth season in the league, is a big, catch-first tight end, checking in at 6’6” and 240 pounds. Despite that size, he is exceptionally fast, running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the combine as a prospect out of Louisiana-Lafayette. It’s not often you find someone that big who can run that fast. If Green can put it together as a receiver, honing his route-running and learning how to use his body to his advantage, he could be San Diego’s best weapon in the red zone and down the field. The biggest factor driving his sleeper status, though, is opportunity. The Chargers won’t scale back any of the playbook during the first four weeks of the year, and that means he’ll get four games in Gates’s role in the offense. If he plays well in that first month, he may finally push Gates aside for good.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Jets: Fitzpatrick will be the Jets’ starter for the foreseeable future. He has a great pair of weapons in Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, both of whom can be beasts in the red zone. Fitzpatrick has great potential in two-QB leagues.
Maxx Williams, TE, Ravens: From Todd Heap to Dennis Pitta to Owen Daniels, tight ends have never gone hungry with Joe Flacco under center. The rookie out of Minnesota should be fed plenty this year.
Cody Latimer, WR, Broncos: After essentially going missing for his entire rookie season, Latimer enters 2015 as the third receiver in Denver. That’s usually a spot that pays nicely in an offense led by Peyton Manning.
Travaris Cadet, RB, Patriots: Cadet takes over as the primary pass-catching back in New England. He’s unlikely to get too many carries behind LeGarrette Blount, but he can carve out a really nice role for himself, especially in PPR leagues, in what should be a potent offense.
Harry Douglas, WR, Titans: Douglas always played well when given a chance in Atlanta, highlighted by a 1,067-yard 2013 season in place of an injured Julio Jones. He brings a veteran presence for Marcus Mariota and could take advantage of the muddled wide receiver depth chart in Tennessee.
Andy Dalton, Bengals: There’s no way to sugarcoat Dalton’s 2014 season, but don’t forget that A.J. Green missed four games and was at less than 100% for a handful of others. With Green and Tyler Eifert healthy, along with a strong two-headed backfield of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard behind him, Dalton is an intriguing player in two-QB leagues.