The terms “sleeper” and “bust” get tossed around quite a bit, but in order to interpret these terms properly and execute a solid strategy on draft day, one must have some clear-cut definitions.
Sleeper — There are two levels of sleepers. The first level is composed of players on the brink of becoming fantasy studs. They should be taken in the middle rounds. Second-level sleepers are those who could become key contributors to a fantasy squad and should be drafted in the later rounds.
Bust — Again, busts come in two flavors. The biggest busts are those who are taken in Rounds 1-3 and either fall short of their previous year’s stats or are outperformed by players taken later. The lower-level busts are those who merit selection in Round 4 through the middle rounds but don’t play well enough to warrant starting consideration most weeks.
Now that this is clear, let’s get started.
On the brink of becoming studs.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers
The Chargers released LaDainian Tomlinson this offseason and replaced him by trading up to the 12th pick in the first round and selecting Mathews, a 6'0", 218-pound bruiser from Fresno State with explosive speed. Coach Norv Turner plans to get Mathews at least 250 carries and 40 to 50 catches as a rookie. As the true feature back in San Diego’s solid offense, Mathews should be a third-round gem.
Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys
In a limited role, Jones had four runs of 40 or more yards last season and rushed for more than 9.0 yards per carry in four of 16 games (including the playoffs) and for more than 5.0 yards per carry seven times. He is expected to take over for Marion Barber as the team’s starter and see an increased workload, making him a solid value RB2.
Shonn Greene, RB, Jets
Greene’s performance in the playoffs — 304 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries in three games — was impressive enough for the Jets to release Thomas Jones and give Greene the starting gig heading into 2010. The 5'11", 226-pounder should be at least a two-down back with all goal line duties and is capable of putting up scary digits behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.
Beanie Wells, RB, Cardinals
The 2009 first-round pick did not carry the rock more than 17 times in a single game last year but still scored seven times while sharing duties with Tim Hightower. Wells should be the main back in Arizona, and his blend of power, shiftiness and speed makes him a calculated sleeper and potential top RB2.
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants
Even while hobbled last year, Bradshaw made the most of his opportunities, rushing for more than 6.0 yards per carry on four occasions. Bradshaw is similar to Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, and there’s a good chance he’ll eat into Brandon Jacobs’ playing time. He should be targeted around Rounds 7 and 8 and could end up being an every-week starter and brilliant flex option.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
He finally has a legit No. 1 wideout option in Anquan Boldin, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is confident that Baltimore will be a top-five offense. Flacco’s stat line will be a huge reason why. He’s a great pick as a starting quarterback in Round 8 or 9.
Will contribute as solid fantasy backups.
Kevin Kolb, QB, Eagles
Many believe that Kolb, after being Donovan McNabb’s understudy for three seasons, can be the next Aaron Rodgers. The Eagles obviously agree; they gave him a one-year, $12.26 million contract extension. He proved capable of racking up big numbers when he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300-plus yards in his first two NFL starts while McNabb was sidelined for two games in 2009. With explosive weapons around him, Kolb looks like a potential every-week starter.
Alex Smith, QB, 49ers
After taking over for Shaun Hill in Week 7, Smith tossed touchdowns in 10 games, and the 49ers appear committed to him as their starter. He could prove to be a bargain with an improved offensive line and young weapons such as Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore.
Chad Henne, QB, Dolphins
Henne threw for more than 300 yards in three of his final five games, and that was before he had Brandon Marshall — who hauled in more than 100 balls in each of the last three seasons — as his top weapon. Entering a season as a starter for the first time, Henne should blossom into a solid QB2.
Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
Wallace is a big-play threat and skilled route-runner with great awareness who scored three touchdowns in his final three games of 2009. The Steelers were more comfortable trading Santonio Holmes due to the presence of Wallace, who will step into a starting role. Once Ben Roethlisberger returns, expect Wallace to be a strong WR3.
Johnny Knox, WR, Bears
The speedy vertical threat scored five touchdowns as a rookie and developed strong chemistry with Jay Cutler. Word is that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz loves him, and the potential for him to play the storied Torry Holt role in Martz’s pass-happy offense is high.
Devin Aromashodu, WR, Bears
Aromashodu was a Cutler favorite in practice all year, but he didn’t make his first start until Week 14. Over the last four weeks, the 6'2" receiver averaged 5.5 catches, 70.5 yards, one touchdown and 9.8 targets per game. If he impresses Martz — a stickler for precise routes — he could put up some huge games.
Early Doucet, WR, Cardinals
Doucet looked like a junior version of Anquan Boldin when he lit up the Packers for six catches, 77 yards and two scores in the Cards’ wild card playoff victory. He followed up with eight catches for 68 yards against the eventual Super Bowl champion Saints. Doucet will start the season behind Steve Breaston on the depth chart but should finish as Arizona’s No. 2 wide receiver behind Larry Fitzgerald.
Don’t pay too much for these guys.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
Even though he’s ranked as a top-20 wide receiver, be careful not to select him too high. He had 11 total plays of 40 or more yards and seven touchdown plays (seven receptions, one rush) of 35 or more yards last season. That will not happen again. Not only will Jackson face double- and triple- coverage, but the Eagles also have reportedly revamped their offense for Kolb to throw more short, quick slant routes and fewer long balls.
Matt Forté, RB, Bears
Forté took a step backward last year, and now he has heavy competition for touches from veteran Chester Taylor, who many believe is a better fit for Martz’s offense. Draft Forté prior to Round 4 and risk being hugely disappointed.
Marion Barber, RB, Cowboys
Barber’s rushing yardage increased from 2008 to 2009, but his total yardage and touchdowns decreased because of the emergence of Felix Jones. With Jones expected to start, Barber’s touches will go down, and his physical running style will phase him out of the league prematurely.
Joseph Addai, RB, Colts
Addai surprised many last season, posting solid overall digits and being very effective around the goal line. However, it will be hard for him to continue to score consistent fantasy points while Donald Brown, last year’s first-round pick, develops and wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez returns from injury.
Avoid these guys until very late.
Thomas Jones, RB, Chiefs
Yes, he rushed for 2,714 yards and 27 touchdowns over the last two seasons. But make no mistake: Jones is not running behind the Jets’ line anymore. Combine that with the fact that he’ll be 32 in August and will share carries with Jamaal Charles, and he’s probably one to avoid.
Ricky Williams, RB, Dolphins
Williams is coming off a season in which he had 1,385 total yards and 15 touchdowns, but he’s 33 and will return to a secondary role upon the return of Ronnie Brown. A repeat of his 2009 season is highly unlikely.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Seahawks
After averaging nine touchdowns a year from 2005-07, Housh has only seven combined over his last two seasons. While he could be a decent fantasy backup, his price tag will likely be too high based on name alone. The shaky quarterback situation in Seattle and the presence of rookie Golden Tate will make it difficult for the 32-year-old to live up to his draft slot.
This article originally appeared in the Athlon Sports 2010 Fantasy Football magazine. Buy your copy now at newsstands and bookstores or by clicking here.
Paul Hickey is the lead contributor for Athlon Fantasy Football and operates the website NoOffseason.com, a 365-day resource for obsessive fantasy owners who eat, breathe and sleep fantasy football. While the site appeals to all fantasy heads, there is a special emphasis on dynasty formats and individual defensive player leagues.