Fantasy football 2014 draft preview: NFC sleepers

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One of the great tragedies in the English language in recent years is how we, as a society, let the most hyperbolic among us change the definition of the word literally. We all sat by while so-called English speakers said that their “head literally exploded” or that they “literally died laughing.” It’s sad, but it happened. Now we just have to accept it.

A similar set of malcontents is trying to wrest the word sleeper from the great protectors of the fantasy sports lexicon. Once upon a time, a sleeper meant a guy that was getting little to no attention from the mainstream. Someone the fantasy community was figuratively, not literally, sleeping on.

MORE COVERAGE: AFC Breakouts, NFC | AFC Busts, NFC | AFC Sleepers

Well, we’re here to save this great fantasy word. Below are the top sleepers in the NFC. You will not find anyone ranked within the top 90 by average draft position. You will find just one person inside the top 100. What you will find is a group of true sleepers. A group of guys that will, quite literally, significantly outperform their preseason expectations.

Doug Baldwin, Seahawks

2014 Fantasy Football Top 300

Did you know that Baldwin has an average draft position of 160.4? That’s the middle of the 13th round in a 12-team draft. Did you know that Baldwin will be just 26 years old in September? Did you know that he had 50 catches for 778 yards and five touchdowns last year? Did you know that Sidney Rice retired and Golden Tate left town for Detroit? Did you know that Percy Harvin, the Seahawks’ No. 1 wide receiver, is one of the most injury prone players in the league? Did you know that all the tight ends on the Seattle roster combined for a grand total of 53 receptions last year?

If you know all, or even just most of those things, then you should understand that it’s ludicrous that 62 receivers are coming off the board before Baldwin in a typical draft. Assuming a 12-team league in which everyone drafts the same number of receivers, that would make Baldwin a WR6. I’d be willing to bet that he ends the year inside the top 40 at the position. Baldwin isn’t especially big at 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds. He is durable however, playing in 46 games in his three-year career. His numbers last year were good enough to rank 37th among receivers, and his standing on Seattle only improved with all the changes this offseason. Baldwin didn’t start getting consistent time until Week 9 last year, right after Rice went on the shelf. From that point forward, he put up 27 catches for 406 yards and four touchdowns in eight games. He played at least three-quarters of Seattle’s snaps in all but two of those games, which is the floor for how frequently he should play this season.

If you do one thing between now and draft day, keep your mouth shut on Baldwin. This is a potential WR3 with a 13th-round price tag.

Jay Cutler, Bears

Two teams in the NFL have three non-quarterbacks being selected within the first 30 picks of a typical fantasy draft. One of those teams is the Packers (Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb). Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is the second-ranked passer by ADP, trailing only Peyton Manning. The other is the Bears (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte). Their quarterback, Jay Cutler, is hearing his name called in the middle of the eighth round, on average. Let’s see if we can do something about that.

First of all, Cutler is not Rodgers. The latter is the best player in the NFL, in my opinion. The former is a mercurial, frustrating talent who always seems to come up short of his potential. Still, with Marshall, Jeffery, Forte and Martellus Bennett at his disposal, Cutler can be a lethal fantasy quarterback. It stands to reason that if Marshall and Jeffery are going to be top-10 receivers, and Forte is again going to be one of the best pass-catching backs in the league, Cutler is going to have a big year. He has a legitimate top-five quarterback ceiling, yet is being drafted at the same time as Fred Jackson, Danny Woodhead and the Seahawks defense. Cutler is set for the best season of his career.

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers

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DeAngelo Williams had the Carolina backfield largely to himself last year. He finished the season as the No. 21 running back in standard scoring leagues, racking up 833 rushing yards, 333 receiving yards and four total touchdowns. Those aren’t encouraging numbers when your team’s other top ballcarrier is injured for most of the season. The aforementioned ballcarrier, Stewart, is back this year and has looked great in the preseason. He picked up 26 yards and two scores on four carries in Carolina’s 28-16 win over Kansas City, and looked to have his old explosion when he ripped off a 17-yard run.

It has been awhile since Stewart was healthy for a full season, but his ankles look structurally sound thus far. Williams is 31 years old while Stewart is just 27, and the seventh-year man out of Oregon has typically been the better runner of the two when both have been healthy. They both will have roles in the offense, but Stewart figures to be the goal-line back. Should he prove himself healthy, he should earn at least a 50/50 split of the carries with Williams. Given their respective ADPs, Stewart is the Carolina back you want to own.

Santonio Holmes, Bears

This prediction could admittedly look very silly in a few weeks. But hey, we’re looking for true sleepers, here, and Holmes certainly fits that bill. As previously discussed with Cutler, the Chicago offense figures to be among the most potent in the league. Cutler could put the ball in the air upward of 600 times, and this passing game is certainly capable of supporting three fantasy-worthy wide receivers. Understand that Holmes is getting what amounts to an extended tryout with the Bears. The team doesn’t owe him any money unless he makes the 53-man roster. If he does, however, he could turn quite a profit for fantasy owners.

Part of the reason Holmes flamed out with the Jets was because the team needed him to be their primary offensive weapon. In Chicago, he’ll be the fourth guy, at best. He’s still just 30 years old, and should have plenty left in the tank. In his last year with the Steelers, he caught 79 passes for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns. He’s just three seasons removed from an eight-score campaign with the Jets. Holmes won’t have to worry about any double teams with Marshall and Jeffery lined up out wide, and the Marc Trestman-Aaron Kromer brain trust could revive his career. There’s no downside in taking a shot on Holmes late in your fantasy draft.

Greg Jennings, Vikings

Matt Cassel saw significant time in seven games last season. In those seven games, Jennings had 41 catches for 491 yards and all four of his touchdowns. Extrapolate that over a 16-game season, and Jennings finishes with 94 receptions, 1,122 yards and nine touchdowns. That would have been good enough to make him the 14th-ranked receiver in standard-scoring leagues. It’s rarely as simple as extrapolating numbers, but this little exercise should show how unjust Jennings’ tumble down draft boards truly is.

The Minnesota offense as a whole should be operating in a more competent state this season. No matter if it’s Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater, they should get better quarterbacking over the full 16-game slate. Jennings’ strong finish to the season coincided not only with Cassel taking over as the starter, but with Cordarrelle Patterson’s increased role in the offense. Both will benefit from the continued presence of the other. Jennings carries a 147.7 ADP, which translates to the middle of the 12th round in a 12-team league. That’s a pittance for a guy who could end up as a regular starter for fantasy owners.

Honorable Mention

Lance Dunbar, Cowboys -- DeMarco Murray finally played in 14 games for the first time last season. If he succumbs to injury, Dunbar would take over as the primary back in what could be a high-scoring offense.

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings -- Rudolph is being drafted as a starting tight end in fantasy leagues, so he’s just barely eligible to be considered a sleeper. For the same reasons that Jennings is undervalued, so too is Rudolph. He’ll be safely inside the top 10 at the position at the end of the year.

Kenny Stills, Saints -- Everyone is ready to hand the No. 2 receiver job in New Orleans to rookie Brandin Cooks. Even if that is the case, the Saints’ base offense is three-wide, and there are plenty of targets to go around to keep Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Cooks and Stills -- last year’s preseason darling -- fed and happy.

Tre Mason, Rams -- Mason will need to show improvement in pass protection if he is going to get on the field enough to make an impact in fantasy leagues. Assuming he can do that, he should wrest away the backup role behind Zac Stacy. The rookie ran for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns in his final year at Auburn.

Richard Rodgers, Packers -- If any tight end is going to emerge for the Packers, the smart money is on Rogers. That alone could make him worth a late-round flier. The Packers selected Rogers in the third round out of California, and he appears to be ahead of Andrew Quarless on the depth chart.

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