NFL: SleeperScope

A Look at Guys Going Not Quite Early Enough

A Look at Guys Going Not Quite Early Enough

My inclination through the first few weeks of this column has been to move down the list of sleeper candidates to generally go deeper into the average draft positions to point out value. At some point, though, you can get too deep to be useful to the majority of fantasy leagues.

So, this time around I’m going to lean more toward players going earlier … just not early enough.

QB sleeper: Alex Smith, 49ers

It’s not wrong to label Smith a bust in the NFL so far. Five years after he was drafted first overall, Smith has started for a full season only once and sits with six more career interceptions than touchdown passes. Then again, to apply the bust label and ignore Smith would be a mistake.

Between the myriad offensive coordinators and the serious shoulder injury — not to mention the sheer pressure that comes with being drafted first overall — Smith has dealt with quite a bit to date. That’s why it wasn’t hard to feel good for him last year when he took over for the final 11 games (starting 10) and looked like a worthwhile quarterback. Smith posted six games with two touchdown passes or more. He also endured three multiple-interception outings, but each came against a defense (Tennessee, Arizona and Philadelphia) that ranked among the top eight in the league in picks.

Perhaps most important, Smith finally benefited from the emergence of two high-quality targets: tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Add wide receiver Josh Morgan, who has more physical ability than his numbers have yet indicated, and running back Frank Gore, and you suddenly have a pretty attractive stable of options.

Smith’s numbers from last year project to 26 touchdowns over a full season (as well as 17 interceptions, which would have tied for sixth most in 2009). He doesn’t need to reach that to be a good fantasy backup, and that position allows the fantasy owner to more easily play the matchups. Smith is going as just the 18th quarterback at, but I’d take him over Matthew Stafford and I think he has more to work with than Chad Henne (each of whom regularly goes earlier).

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RB sleeper: Jamaal Charles, Chiefs

I can understand if you don’t want to draft this guy in the first round. I don’t agree with it — especially in point-per-reception formats – but I can understand if you simply like another running back a bit better.

What I can’t understand is Charles falling all the way to the start of Round 3 in that format, and I’ve been seeing that a lot. We’re talking about a guy who was better than any other fantasy back in the league not named Chris Johnson over the eight games he finally took the lead role last year. Charles finished among the dozen at his position despite carrying the ball just 190 times and not garnering more than six attempts in a game before Week 10.

Do you really think Thomas Jones is going to usurp that kind of value? I don’t care what the August depth chart says, this isn’t about who’s starting. Anyone in charge of winning football games in Kansas City is well aware that his biggest weapon is Charles.

Obviously, the diminutive back won’t get the same workload this year (161 carries over the final eight games), but he doesn’t have to. Again, last season’s production came via just 190 carries. Charles would need to average just 12.5 a game to reach 200, which would represent less than half of the woeful Chiefs’ rushing workload from last season. Charles’ receptions were solid last year — 12 over his first four games — even when his playing time wasn’t.

There’s some level of risk on just about any player you draft early, but I see more question marks when I look at Rashard Mendenhall and Shonn Greene, for instance, than I do with Charles, who carries a first-round ADP at

WR sleeper: Derrick Mason, Ravens

I suppose it’s possible that I wind up looking stupid on this one. I was, after all, willing to believe in Torry Holt bouncing back a bit in Jacksonville last year. I’m baffled, though, by the wide acceptance of Anquan Boldin continuing to match his Arizona value while Mason slides to the very bottom of starter range (or beyond).

I mentioned this situation last week, so I won’t belabor the point here, but Mason has drawn 121 and 134 targets in Joe Flacco’s two seasons. That marked about 28 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of the team’s total pass attempts for those years. Then there’s the part about him missing zero games since 2002. Sure Boldin is the bigger talent, but there’s something to be said for familiarity and dependability between quarterback and receiver.

Mason and Boldin are often separated by about six rounds in fantasy drafts. I won’t be surprised if at the end of the season they are separated by just that number of receptions … or fewer.

TE sleeper: Benjamin Watson, Browns

I’ve pretty much covered the starter-level tight ends who aren’t getting appreciated enough on draft day, so let me opt here for a backup who could perform like a starter.

Watson has always offered the talent that originally got him drafted in the first round by the Patriots; he just hasn’t ever delivered on it for a full season. For all that disappointment, though — just one season with more than 36 catches — Watson has been a solid touchdown producer and now lands in perhaps the ideal situation.

Cleveland is embarrassingly short at receiver, to the point that the team leaders in receptions last year tied at 34. For what it’s worth, running back Peyton Hillis leads the way in this exhibition season so far with nine. Watson, meanwhile, has caught first-half touchdowns in two of three games.

Now, I’m not one to overrate the fake games, but this is obviously a team in need of receiving options. That’s why it signed a talented tight end with whom coach Eric Mangini was familiar from their Patriot days. Watson has proved a poor bet to make it through the season healthy, but at a backup tight end spot, you aren’t looking for 16 games. If you can get two or three useful weeks, you’ve gotten plenty from a guy who isn’t even picked in the average draft.

D/ST sleeper: Dallas

I strongly dislike the Cowboys (that’s as nicely as I can say it), so I really hope I’m wrong about this defense being worthwhile in fantasy. I don’t really see how that would be the case, though.

Here you have a defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the league last year. It fell 17 sacks from its 2008 total and still ranked seventh in the league. It ranked fourth in fewest yards allowed per carry. In short, the Dallas defense was pretty good last year.

This season, OLB DeMarcus Ware is healthier, after a merely mortal 11 sacks last year — as opposed to 20 in 2008. The starter opposite him, Anthony Spencer, should be in for his best season after coming on late in 2009. Nosetackle Jay Ratliff is reportedly healthier than he’s been in several years. Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman now constitute arguably one of the league’s best corner tandems. The only visible hole seems to be at free safety, but the rest of the unit will make it challenging enough to even test that position.

As an Eagles fan, I want to believe that the Cowboys will keep giving up just as many points as they did to the Texans the other night. As a fantasy owner who prefers to wait on a defense, I’ve ended up with this one a lot.

Matt Schauf is the senior football writer for

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