August 26, 2008

Before the arrival of the Internet, a savvy fantasy football league owner could find sleeper picks by reading several pre-season football magazines or even watching a lot of ESPN SportsCenter. Well folks, those days are over. There are no more sleepers because even the most obscure prospect is now overhyped.

Still, you know that one surprise is going to come out of every NFL team this year and you also know that one top player from each team is going to crap out. So with that in mind, here is a list of the AFC's top sleeper picks and top busts from each team:

Buffalo Bills

Sleeper: WR James Hardy: Hardy has missed the last couple of pre-season games with a hamstring injury and may begin the season in a rotation with Josh Reed for the starting split end job. That's not exactly what folks expected when the Bills grabbed him in the second round of this year's draft. As a result, he's dropped to 159th in our latest National Fantasy Football Championship Average Draft Position rankings of pay leagues, making him a solid bargain. When his hammy is finally healed, you'll see a dynamic 6-4, 220-pound receiver in Hardy.

Bust: QB Trent Edwards: Unfortunately for Hardy and the rest of the Bills' wideouts, the QB play will be troublesome all year long. This second-year QB out of Stanford struggled at times last year when he took over the starting job and this year he's missed the last couple of pre-season games with a quadriceps injury. He wasn't a top fantasy QB to begin with, but his troubles could affect the likes of Hardy, WR Lee Evans and even RB Marshawn Lynch.

Miami Dolphins

Sleeper: WR Ted Ginn Jr.: The 2007 first-round pick out of Ohio State had a nice finish to his rookie season, catching 26 passes in his last seven games and he's been the best receiving option for the Dolphins this pre-season. He's still more electric on punt returns than as a wideout, but he provides good upside as your fourth wide receiver. He needs help from QB Chad Pennington and his ADP has inched up to 102 in our preseason drafts, but he could easily finish with solid numbers by the end of '08.

Bust: RB Ronnie Brown: Something isn't right in south Florida when the coaches keep giving Ricky Williams more playing time than their most talented back. Brown is still a top-50 fantasy pick these days, but the latest thumb injury on top of last year's knee injury and the availability of Williams is just too much for me. There are just too many bad vibes here to take Brown over any reliable WR at that point in the draft. Stay away unless he falls so far on Draft Day that you just can't resist because this has platoon written all over it.

New England Patriots

Sleeper: WR Jabar Gaffney: With teams trying to double-team Randy Moss and trying to control Wes Welker, it's easy to forget about the other starting wideout in this offense. Gaffney will start opposite Moss and has the ability to put up solid WR4 numbers. His ADP is a low 132, so getting a starter in Point Per Reception leagues like this in the second half of the draft is a major steal in my opinion. Grab him if you can.

Bust: TE Ben Watson: Too many people fall in love with the potential that Watson brings, but he's just too injury-prone to count on each year in fantasy football. He's coming off ankle surgery and may avoid the PUP list, but he was limited to 12 games last year and could have trouble topping that number this year. Watson set a career high with six TD catches last year, but it would be foolish to expect more than that this year.

New York Jets

Sleeper: TE Dustin Keller: It's tough for first year tight ends to put up big numbers as Greg Olsen proved last year and Marcedes Lewis proved the year before him. Keller won't even play fulltime as Chris Baker is the starter, but this 6-4, 240-pounder is going to get most of the looks in passing situations from the slot position and the Jets have already proven they like to use him in the Red Zone. He's a Dallas Clark-type tight end who will be good soon and even as early as this year.

Bust: Laveranues Coles: Coles is banged up again and he's really hitting the wall physically. He's a solid gamer who plays through pain, but he's missed all three pre-season games thus far and really hasn't practiced with Brett Favre much. This latest leg injury could linger into the regular season and without reps with Favre this spells trouble. His ADP is 66, which is just too high for what I've seen so far this pre-season.

Baltimore Ravens

Sleeper: RB Ray Rice: With Willis McGahee coming off knee surgery, Rice has gotten a lot of reps this training camp and could actually open the season as the starter. The rookie out of Rutgers is exciting and he showed good glimpses of his potential when he totaled 94 yards in the second pre-season game, but there's no doubt he is short for an NFL back. I can't see him carrying the offensive load full-time, but his stock is on the rise now and the Ravens are ready to use him early and often. His ADP is 100, so don't wait long if you want him.

Bust: WR Mark Clayton: After two solid seasons, Clayton was a bust last year and he's back on the bust list again. Why? Because some owners are still grabbing him based on his '06 season and just hoping that he returns to that level. Sorry, it's not going to happen. He had 48 catches and 0 TDs last year and with inept QB play expected again, his '08 numbers won't be much better than last year's final numbers. Stay away.

Cincinnati Bengals

Sleeper: RB Chris Perry: Because of persistent injuries, Perry has played in only 22 games and carried the ball only 73 times during his first three NFL seasons. But the Bengals feel he can be a solid starting back and he has passed Kenny Watson on the depth chart. With Rudi Johnson battling a hamstring injury, this could be the year that Perry emerges as an every-down back. If he can stay healthy, that is. He's worth the gamble, that's for sure.

Bust: RB Rudi Johnson: Before last year, there were few backs more dependable than Rudi Johnson. But a hamstring injury suffered in Week 3 killed his season and now he's battling another hamstring injury this pre-season. With Perry coming on strong, it's very possible that Rudi will be a platoon player or a reserve back. Don't take the gamble that it's 2006 all over again because time has moved on without him.

Cleveland Browns

Sleeper: WR Donte Stallworth: Stallworth was in an ideal situation in New England last year, but finished with only three TD receptions. Now he may be in an even better situation as he's the No. 2 wideout opposite Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow. He has battled a hamstring injury during training camp, but if he can stay healthy he could be a great bustout player in this offense. With an ADP of 106, there's still value to be had there.

Bust: RB Jamal Lewis: It's hard to argue with Lewis's production last year as he surprised everyone during his first season in Cleveland by rushing for 1,304 yards and 9 TDs. He's still in position to put up solid numbers again this year, but his ADP is now 29 and that's just too high for a 29-year-old back with as much mileage as Lewis has on him. There will be few busts in this offense, but this battered back is my first candidate on this team.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Sleeper: WR Santonio Holmes: As a second-year wideout last year, Holmes took a big leap forward by catching eight TD passes in just 13 games. This preseason, you can see how explosive Holmes can be when he's completely healthy and this is definitely going to be his coming out party. Holmes will eclipse Hines Ward as the No. 1 WR this year and could be a top 10 wideout by season's end. Yes, he's that talented.

Bust: WR Hines Ward: Ward is an NFL warrior who played through a bad knee injury last year to finish with 71 catches for 732 yards and 7 TDs. But you can see that the years of NFL wear and tear are starting to get to this 32-year-old and the emergence of Holmes is going to cut into his final numbers. He won't be a complete bust, but you can tell by his ADP (58) compared to Holmes (36) that the passing of the torch is already taking place.

Houston Texans

Sleeper: RB Steve Slaton. This rookie out of West Virginia has been getting some reps with the first team this pre-season and he showed his explosiveness last week by accumulating 44 yards on 10 carries. The starting halfback job is there for the taking and even though he's probably not big enough at 5-10, 190 pounds to be a 20-carry per game back he's strong enough to emerge as the top back here. He's definitely worth a shot late in the draft.

Bust: RB Ahman Green. Either Green or Chris Brown will likely be cut next week, but you can put both veteran backs in this category. Green is far past his prime and too injury-prone to count on any further. Go with the younger back if possible and let somebody else gamble with this 31-year-old.

Indianapolis Colts

Sleeper: WR Anthony Gonzalez. The second-year pro out of Ohio State made progress last year filling in for Marvin Harrison, but this could really be his breakout year. If Harrison is slowed at all, Gonzalez will step in and produce. Even head coach Tony Dungy said this offseason that Gonzalez will take that "second year jump with him." We agree.

Bust: WR Marvin Harrison. Harrison looks like he will be OK this year as he battles back from last year's knee injury, but at the age of 36 he's a real risk. Forget about '06's numbers because he won't return to that level anytime soon. The combination of Manning and Harrison both being unable to practice full-time together this off-season is too much to ignore and his ADP of 49 is just too high for my liking.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Sleeper: TE Marcedes Lewis. The 6-6, 265-pounder has all the physical tools to be one of the best tight ends in the league and he's ready to make the next leap this year. He caught 37 passes in 16 games last year and QB David Garrard said he'd like to get Lewis more involved in the offense this year. Garrard knows how to take care of the ball and he will take the short yardage often with Lewis as a safe target. He's a safe TE2 pick who will fill in nicely as a starter in certain matchups during the season.

Bust: WR Jerry Porter. The Jaguars signed Porter to a $30.4 million contract this offseason, but for as much physical talent as Porter has there's obviously something missing here. He's now trying to come back from hamstring surgery and there's no guarantee he will be ready for the season opener. He's too unreliable to count on each and every week and by season's end his total numbers will again be a disappointment.

Tennessee Titans

Sleeper: RB Chris Johnson. He might be the fastest riser on ADP lists this pre-season, but a lot of folks still haven't seen this exciting rookie out of East Carolina. During his first three pre-season games he's averaged 6.3 yards per carry and he's already shown his incredible speed in a 66-yard run during the opener. He will be the lightening to LenDale White's thunder and by season's end he could have even more total yards than White.

Bust: QB Vince Young.Young has said that he still has a quad injury from last season, but so far this pre-season his legs have looked fine while his arm has been terribly erratic. He has gotten worse as a pocket passer since his dazzling rookie debut and now it's foolish to think he will be a serviceable fantasy QB. This offense is too conservative and Young is just too erratic to rely on even for a few weeks this year. Pass and let somebody else take this gamble.

Denver Broncos

Sleeper: RB Andre Hall. It looks like Selvin Young will emerge as the starting halfback here and he could be listed as the top sleeper pick on this team. But something tells me that the fragile 210-pounder isn't going to last the full season. Hall is entering the season as the backup to Young and he's already the featured goal-line back, so he already has sleeper value. If Young breaks down, Hall could take over and never give this starting job backup.

Bust: RB Selvin Young. Some folks would list Young on the sleeper list, not the bust list, but his durability is a question with me. He was limited to 140 rushes last year and definitely will be replaced by Hall near the goal-line. His ADP of 60 is just too rich for my blood.

Kansas City Chiefs

Sleeper: WR Devard Darling. Is there really an offensive sleeper on this team? Well, someone has to start opposite Dwayne Bowe and TE Tony Gonzalez and few fantasy owners realize that Darling is the No. 2 option in Kansas City right now. If he can remain a starter most of this year, he will easily top last year's career high of 18 catches and 3 TDs.

Bust: QB Brodie Croyle. The reason there are no good sleepers on this team is because the quarterback play is expected to be horrible this year. Croyle has looked bad this pre-season and the entire offense is just struggling behind him. It would be a surprise if he keeps the starting job for the full season, but even if he does he has no fantasy value in '08.

Oakland Raiders

Sleeper: RB Justin Fargas. While Darren McFadden is a top 40 pick in fantasy drafts, Fargas just quietly goes about his business and continues to earn the starting job. He's not going to be the 1,000-yard rusher he was last year, but this former USC star is still going to put up good numbers this year and will have great value as your third RB. With an ADP of 111, he's a real good bargain in '08.

Bust: WR Javon Walker. Walker looked like his old self in the Raiders' third preseason game, catching four passes for 60 yards, but before that he was in danger of losing his starting job. He hasn't been the same since his knee injury with Green Bay, and the experience in Denver obviously left a lot of personal scars. He had to be talked into reporting to camp this year and it's obvious he's struggling with a lot of things right now. Let someone else take the gamble on Walker and take a safer choice later in the draft.

San Diego Chargers

Sleeper: RB Jacob Hester. The rookie out of LSU isn't flashy, but he could surprise some folks as the backup to LaDainian Tomlinson and a receiver out of the backfield. Hey, he's not going to put up big numbers as long as LT2 stays healthy, but he's a worthy option as a very late pick who could surprise if, God forbid, anything happens to the consensus No. 1 fantasy pick.

Bust: QB Philip Rivers. I know a lot of folks believe that Rivers is an up-and-comer who can lead the Chargers to the Super Bowl this year, but he's going to have to show more to me this year. With defenses again likely to stack the line of scrimmage to take LT2 out of the game, Rivers will have even more pressure on him to excel this year. His 15 INTs were too high last year and his 21 TDs too low to be a top fantasy QB. I don't think much will change this year either as he struggles to top last year's numbers.

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