Every year it happens — some random guy seems to fall off the turnip truck to turn into a fantasy football star that leads anyone lucky enough to snag him off the waiver wire first to a championship. What a glorious feeling that is, if you’re that lucky guy. If not, it sucks. It really sucks.
Just look at last year. David Johnson was buried behind Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington for the first half. Then injuries to the veterans opened the door for the third-round pick out of Northern Iowa to dominate fantasy football.
Then there was Blake Bortles. The guy wasn’t even drafted in most 10- or 12- or even 14-team leagues last year and he ended up as fantasy’s No. 4 scoring QB.
So who will be this year’s deep sleeper extraordinaire?
Here are five candidates that you definitely want to keep an eye on and maybe even take a flier on in the later rounds of your draft.
Bruce Ellington, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Ellington finds himself in the perfect situation in 2016. The 49ers don’t really have a true No. 1 wide receiver (by default it’s Torrey Smith) and now the offense will be run by new head coach Chip Kelly.
All you need to know is that the No. 1 wide receiver in a Kelly-coached offense produces. Look at DeSean Jackson in 2013, Jeremy Maclin in ‘14 and to a lesser extent Jordan Matthews last year.
Plus, you know that the 49ers are going to be forced to throw the ball a lot as they will be playing from behind for the majority of the fourth quarter. If you are looking to add some serious home-run potential with your WR6, don’t hesitate to grab Ellington.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
Seeing Tannehill on a deep sleeper list probably means that you’re rolling your eyes right now. Tannehill was a popular sleeper pick back in 2014 and was high on everyone’s breakout list last year.
Unfortunately for everyone who bought into him last year, he seemed to regress and at time struggle to make proper reads and adjustments.
But never fear, 2016 might be Tannehill’s year as he now as quarterback-whisperer Adam Gase as his head coach and believe it or not, Gase actually helped Jay Cutler put together a decent fantasy campaign in 2015.
The Dolphins have surrounded Tannehill with excellent weapons in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Arian Foster and with the help of Gase, Tannehill should finish the season as a QB2 and has the potential to be this year’s Blake Bortles and come off the waiver wire to finish as a top-12 fantasy quarterback.
Chris Hogan, WR, New England Patriots
The Patriots are very good at this. They take some unknown player, usually off the scrap heap from another team, and then turn them into fantasy gold, especially in PPR leagues.
It first started with Wes Welker, then it was Julian Edelman and now it might be Hogan’s turn. It’s true that Edelman is still around but he’s missed 16 games over the past four years and his foot injury is worrisome.
The Patriots quickly snatched up Hogan from the Bills as soon as he hit free agency because they love that he is a savvy route runner who can line up in the slot or work along the outside. That kind of versatility should keep him on the field even if Edelman is back to his old, productive self.
Hogan also has proven to be a quick study, using his quickness and football IQ to draw rave reviews during training camp. And unlike Edelman or even Danny Amendola, Hogan has some decent size (6-1, 220). An 80-catch, 900-yard season is not out of the question for Hogan, which would make him quite the steal on draft draft day.
Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
Ebron was an excellent sleeper pick heading into this season, but with his ankle injury, he now enters the deep sleeper category because he’s seen his average draft position (ADP) plummet. It appears that people are scared of his injury, which was initially reported to be much more serious when it happened.
There is good news though as all reports coming out of Lions camp suggests that Ebron will definitely be ready for Week 1. That should be music to your ears as somebody has to help pick up the 149 targets that Calvin Johnson left behind.
Yes, it’s true that new teammate Marvin Jones will get a bunch of them, but Ebron should play every down and ready to break out in his third year in the league. At the very least we’ve seen him improve his catch rate and receiving average over his first two years.
A little step forward in Year 3 would result in numbers in line with the last of the start-worthy fantasy tight ends, whereas a big leap would put beyond him in even better company. Given the makeup of the Lions’ offense, which still could rely on the pass even without the presence of Megatron given questions about the running game, there's a shot Ebron could end up getting 100 targets (he had 70 in 14 games last season), if he stays healthy.
Chris Thompson, RB, Washington Redskins
With the word that Matt Jones is currently out for the rest of the preseason with a second degree separation of his left shoulder, Thompson needs to start climbing your sleepers list.
A shoulder injury can easily happen again and it’s not as if Jones was running away with the starting running back job in Washington anyway. Thompson was always going to be their third-down back and even with a healthy Jones out there, Thompson could easily be this year’s Theo Riddick and catch 80-plus passes out of the backfield.
But if Thompson can get close to 120-150 carries, he could finish the year as a low-end RB2. That makes him someone to snag late in deeper fantasy leagues and monitor weekly on the waiver wire.
Tajae Sharpe, WR, Tennessee Titans
What good sleeper list doesn’t contain the Titans’ rookie wide receiver? Everyone covering the team has been raving about him since rookie camp and now Sharpe finds himself fighting Rishard Matthews for the No. 1 WR spot following the trade of Dorial Green-Beckham to the Eagles.
The 21-year-old out of UMass was taken in the fifth round of the draft, but likely would have garnered far more respect had he played for a bigger program because of his excellent route-running. He’s also shown himself to be a quick study of the playbook and appears to have the skill set to do anything and everything that NFL wide receivers are required to do.
In fact an argument can be made that Sharpe has basically run away with a starting job, shining in both padded practices and preseason games. He erupted for six catches for 68 yards in one half of work in the Titans’ second preseason game.
While there are no guarantees when it comes to the Titans’ target distribution (other than the fact that TE Delanie Walker will likely lead the way again), it does appear that Sharpe has gained the trust of second-year QB Marcus Mariota, which makes the rookie an intriguing late-round flyer, especially in PPR leagues.
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.