Know Which Players are Sleepers and Which are Going Too Soon

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As more exhibition games and live practices clear up more backfield situations and fantasy draft season gets into full swing, now’s the time when players start to really move around the board. That can turn plenty of sleepers into adequately valued players and propel other popular names out of worthwhile range.

Arian Foster is a player who has looked sleeperific for much of the summer, but you sure won’t find his name around here now. Expect the Texans’ top back to keep climbing in fantasy drafts from here to the start of the season in light of rookie Ben Tate’s broken ankle. Ditto C.J. Spiller, who was sneaking up on no one after going first among running backs in the NFL Draft. Injuries to Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch on the same drive have all but guaranteed Spiller enough work to be a solid RB3 in PPR leagues, which makes him a flex candidate as well.

That said, more drafting also gives us a clearer picture on where players will tend to go, and there will always be examples of value to be had later and individuals unlikely to match their August reputation. That’s why this week you’ll find the addition of “Going too early” to highlight overrated players.

QB sleeper: Matt Cassel, Chiefs

Draw whatever conclusions you want from Cassel’s 6-of-8, 25-yard exhibition opener Friday night. Odds are those results won’t tell you anything we didn’t already know. Cassel is a decent quarterback behind a less-than-ideal line on a team that probably isn’t going to the playoffs. Doesn’t that excite you about his fantasy prospects?

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that Cassel makes sense as your starter, but he’s not going anywhere near starter range (20th at RapidDraft.com). That range seems to fit Cassel’s overall numbers from last year, but if you’re depending on the overall performance of your fantasy backup, that means you’ve already lost your starter.

Look behind the unappetizing 16 touchdowns to 16 picks last year and you’ll find a guy who finished six different games with two touchdowns and no interceptions. A couple of those games look like mirages: Cassel finished with just 90 yards against Philly in Week 3 and 127 while completing less than half his passes against the Giants a week later. In the second half of the year, however, he performed well against Jacksonville and Cleveland, who ranked as the sixth- and seventh-most generous defenses to opposing fantasy quarterbacks by the end of the season. That kind of predictably positive week translates into the kind of player you can peg for a spot start here and there, which is generally all you can hope for from a fantasy backup.

It should help that Dwayne Bowe finally seems to be waking up, and Chris Chambers will be around all season. Bowe played in just 11 games last year (starting nine) and was nagged by injuries, and Chambers, a midseason import from the Chargers, performed like a No. 1 receiver at times as a Chief. Add any help that the tutelage of Charlie Weis can provide and you have reason for optimism for a guy whose situation (bad team, falling behind often) helped lead to an average of 35 pass attempts a game from Week 9 through Week 16, the same stretch in which Jamaal Charles was finally delivering running game punch.

Favorable-looking matchups for Cassel this season include Week 6 at Houston, Week 7 against Jacksonville, Week 12 at Seattle and Week 15 at St. Louis. The Week 7 matchup should look particularly good to owners of Peyton Manning or Matt Schaub, who face a bye that week.

Going too early: The first quarterbacks

I have nothing bad to say about Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. The simple fact, though, is that you likely need only one quarterback, as opposed to multiple players at running back and wide receiver, and the difference between Brees (No. 2) and the ninth quarterback last year was likely something between 30 and 40 points, depending on your particular scoring system. That’s a difference of about 2 points a week. It was also less than the average difference between Ryan Grant (the 10th running back in Athlon’s scoring) and the 20th guy.

A top quarterback is certainly nice to have, but taking that guy late in the first or early in the second round makes it harder to get top performers at positions where they’re harder to find. If you wait until at least late Round 3 or Round 4, you’ll probably find a similar passer and be off to a better start elsewhere. Waiting beyond that point can deliver value as well, and pairing a couple from the range of low-end starters and high-end backups can deliver top value if you play the hot hand or matchups right.

RB sleeper: Laurence Maroney, Patriots

It’s one thing to shy away from a runner or situation because of uncertainty in the team’s backfield. It’s a whole other thing to ignore that situation.

Maroney is clearly a poor bet to start for your fantasy team all season. He has yet to start more than six NFL games in any of his four years. However, over nine games last season — from Week 6 through Week 15 — Maroney averaged 17.4 carries, finding the end zone in six straight contests and seven of nine. His yardage numbers weren’t terrific and fumbling issues made his role tenuous, but Maroney sure looks like the strongest option in that backfield.

The fact that he didn’t start the exhibition opener last week might cause hesitation, and it’s certainly an example of the fluid situation in New England. Try not to read to deeply into one game, though, under a coach who likes to tinker. Maroney is available into Round 10 (or beyond) in many drafts at this point, which is plenty late enough to take a shot on a guy with obvious risk. Despite a disappointing career overall for the former No. 1 pick, he has finished every season in which he played more than three games with at least six rushing touchdowns.

Going too early: Beanie Wells, Cardinals

Wells looked like the more productive runner in the Arizona backfield to anyone who watched the Cardinals last season, and that’s clearly showing in his draft-board ascension this year. If you’re among the crowd picking him in Round 3 or 4, however, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.

I won’t argue that Wells has the talent for that level of production, and I won’t overplay Tim Hightower’s continued presence atop the depth chart. At best, though, Wells will be sharing some work with an experienced guy who has served two years as Arizona’s goal line back and caught more passes in 2009 than any runner other than Ray Rice. Wells can have a terrific year and still simply not get enough touches to provide top-20 numbers at his position. I see no reason to draft Wells a round or more ahead of players such as Joseph Addai, Jahvid Best and Ronnie Brown — and three rounds ahead of Ahmad Bradshaw, who finds himself in a pretty similar situation but with more passes likely coming his way and a better O-line.

WR sleeper: Mike Thomas, Jaguars

It’s easy to see why the Jacksonville passing game doesn’t generate excitement, but the opportunity afforded Thomas is similarly easy to like. Here you have a guy who finished college as the all-time Pac-10 leader in receptions, with enough speed and quickness to have returned two punts for touchdowns as a senior. Add a rookie season that saw him post the best catch rate of any NFL wide receiver with at least 30 receptions (according to FootballOutsiders.com), subtract a Torry Holt-sized lineup blockage and you have a potential fantasy breakout in 2010.

Thomas produced a decent 48 receptions as a rookie last season, and that came despite just 62 targets. By comparison, Holt garnered 103 looks as the starter opposite Mike Sims-Walker. Elevate Thomas to that level and he could be in for 70 catches or more without even matching his 77 percent catch rate.

At 5-8, Thomas won’t present the most attractive red zone target — though he has reportedly performed well in such drills lately in practice — and he isn’t likely to unseat Sims-Walker as the top option. He doesn’t have to come close to that to outplay his current draft status; many leagues don’t yet see him picked at all. The upside only increases when you consider Sims-Walker’s injury history — including a shoulder ailment suffered just recently — and a newly focused David Garrard. Thomas looks good as a fourth or fifth fantasy wideout who could turn into a regular PPR starter.

Going too early: DeSean Jackson, Eagles

Let me start with some transparency: I’m an Eagles fan, and I strongly hope that Jackson’s fantasy ADP is more right than I am about his 2010 numbers. I just don’t see how he holds up as a second-round value, though.

Jackson was terrific last year, but he finished just 27th among wideouts in receptions on a pass-happy team with a veteran quarterback and a rookie starting across from him. Jackson’s nine receiving touchdowns put him in or near the top 10 at his position in most formats, but six of those scores came from at least 48 yards out. His speed and elusiveness make him a threat to score any time you give him space, but Jackson benefited from the top-notch deep ball of Donovan McNabb last year. Kevin Kolb’s strength is short-distance accuracy, which should produce a better catch rate — and likely 70-plus receptions for the first time from Jackson — but it probably won’t lead to as many long scores.

Jeremy Maclin is a year into this complicated Eagles offense and similarly skilled, tight end Brent Celek has already proved a favorite target of Kolb’s and plenty of other mouths require at least a little feeding. I just don’t see Jackson realizing the top-10 fantasy numbers at his position to match where he’s being drafted.

TE sleeper: Jacksonville tight ends

Wait a second … two Jacksonville receiving options in the same article? Aren’t we getting a bit carried away? Sure, I don’t think that you’ll wind up submitting a lineup with Thomas and a Jaguars tight end starting this year. Remember, though, tight end is a tough position at which to find true sleeper value.

Depending on whom you listen to around Jaguars camp, either Marcedes Lewis is ready for a breakout season or second-year man Zach Miller has a chance to produce like a wideout. Either way, you don’t have to invest much to take a chance. At 6-6, Lewis’ red zone attractiveness is natural, even though he has yet to realize that potential in the pros. Miller flashed what he’s capable of late last year with an eight-catch, two-touchdown game at Cleveland.

I’m not a strong believer in Lewis after four forgettable seasons, but five more touchdowns over the course of a season can turn a forgettable tight end into a startable one, particularly in non-PPR setups. Miller, on the other hand, presents plenty of physical upside but has been limited by injury this offseason.

Going further would belabor this point, so I’ll just say that in the end-of-draft range when you might add things like a sixth running back, a seventh receiver or a backup defense, why not take a shot here in an offense that has been searching for receiving options since back when Keenan McCardell was last pouting? At worst, you have a player who will be easy to drop if you need the roster space.

Going too early: Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings

We all knew that adding Brett Favre last year should mean more touchdowns for Shiancoe, and it most certainly did. Eleven touchdown catches tied him for fourth in the league, but it also presented fantasy owners with a number Shiancoe is unlikely to repeat.

Since 2000, no tight end has put forth two seasons with at least 11 touchdowns. Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark have each reached at least 10 twice, but each also gets targeted significantly more than Shiancoe, who caught just 56 balls in all last season. Favre returning would obviously help, but Shiancoe seems much more likely to dip to around eight touchdowns in any case. Especially with PPR, I’d rather take a shot on someone such as John Carlson, Heath Miller or Oakland’s Zach Miller, who play bigger roles in their respective offenses.

D/ST sleeper: Cleveland

If you’re talking third sleeper D (since I already shared two in previous articles), you’re talking about a unit you draft as a backup or watch on the waiver wire. That is certainly the range in which I like the Browns.

Cleveland actually got worse on defense last season in terms of points and yards allowed last season, dropping five spots in the league standings for each from 2008, but it got a big jump in sacks. The Browns went from 17 in 2008 to 40 last year, which tied for eighth in the league. That came despite significant injuries among the linebackers and facing fewer passes than all but two teams.

The Browns traded away top pass rusher OLB Kamerion Wimbley but welcome a full season for Matt Roth, who joined the team late and performed well. Players such as Marcus Benard, David Bowens and Scott Fujita will also help a pass rush that should remain stronger collectively than any of its individual parts suggest. One also shouldn’t ignore a secondary that helped the team rank second in the league in interceptions in 2008 with 23 (before falling to 10 in that category last year). Cleveland improved that group by trading for CB Sheldon Brown and drafting CB Joe Haden and S T.J. Ward.

Take into account that Cleveland opens with Tampa Bay and Kansas City, and folks could be plucking this defense off the waiver wire by Week 3 (if you let them). Another matchup that could be worth targeting is a Week 14 visit to Buffalo.

Going too early: New Orleans

This one is simple: The Saints ranked high among team defenses last year because they got a lot of picks and defensive scores. Neither of those stats is especially repeatable. The Saints enjoyed eight defensive scores in 2009. S Darren Sharper led the charge with nine interceptions (and three touchdown returns), marking just the second time since 2002 that he picked off more than five passes in a season.

Aside from those stats, New Orleans ranked just 20th in points allowed, 25th in yards and tied for 13th in sacks. If you want to take a shot on the Saints among the last starting units drafted, go for it. They sure seem likely to be a defense dropped early and often in fantasy this year, though.

Matt Schauf is the senior football writer for RapidDraft.com.

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