Fantasy Football Deep Sleepers: #10-1
So here we are, the post that you’re going to want to bookmark and re-read before your 2015 fantasy drafts. While offseason movements may take the air out of some of our top 10 players, they’re all up-and-coming members of dynamic offenses, and some even flashed serious potential in small doses in 2014 (note: see links below for the first 90 players revealed in this series).
Also, I would like to acknowledge the fact that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and hopefully I’ve used the data taken from such people as C.D. Carter, Evan Silva, Graham Barfield, Matt Kelley and playerprofiler.com, Pro Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, Shawn Siegle and most likely many others I’m forgetting off the top of my head. If anything, this series should serve as a deeper companion piece to the great work done by Adam Levitan on Next Year’s Starters. Lets get to it, here are your top 10 deep sleepers for 2015!
10) Zurlon Tipton RB IND: While much ado was made about the sad decline of Trent Richardson, there was precious little written about the player who passed him on the Indianapolis depth chart, Zurlon Tipton. Despite the lack of pixels/ink spilled on the NFL’s most productive Zurlon, he has both shown that he can produce, and also sits in a position to take control of one of the most lucrative gigs in the NFL when it comes to fantasy production; starting RB for the Indianapolis Colts.
Initially, when I first stumbled upon Tipton, I wrote him off as an unathletic mid-major plodder destined to bounce around on practice squads. But upon further review, I found that he has real potential. Of all the backs from the MAC who are currently on NFL rosters, a list that includes Bernard Pierce, James Starks, Branden Oliver, and Ahmad Bradshaw, none of them had a season as impressive as Tipton’s 2013 in which he had 1,779 yards from scrimmage on 252 carries and 24 catches. His draft stock took a major hit, as his 2014 was almost completely wiped out due to a broken ankle, but he was able to come back in a big way on Central Michigan’s Senior Day victory.
The fact that nearly every scouting report on Tipton praises his receiving and pass-blocking abilities shows that he could, if given the chance, stay on the field for three downs. His physicals, college production, and plus pass-game ability remind me a lot of a store-brand Jeremy Hill. His power-running, pass-catching skill-set in what is shaping up to be an explosive Colts offense, could be a recipe for some late-round goodness in 2015. Tipton is going to have to most likely fight off a combination of Daniel Herron and a draft pick/free agent for a roster spot, but the fact the Colts kept him around as the fourth back shows that the team is high on him, and you too should take a look at Big Z.
9) Ryan Williams RB DAL: The player that stands to have the biggest fantasy stock boost if DeMarco Murray leaves isn’t Joseph Randle or Lance Dunbar. That player is the forgotten man of the Dallas backfield, former touted prospect Ryan Williams. Stashed on the Dallas practice-squad all year, the formerly highly-regarded Virginia Tech Hokie was re-signed to a two-year deal, which signals that the Cowboys sense that Williams could finally be physically healthy for the first time in a long time. Williams has true lead back size, the ability to be productive out of the backfield and has flashed at times in his career.
Part of the reason that you should be high on Williams is the fact that Joseph Randle, despite averaging a very impressive 6.7 yards per carry in 2014, is a marginal talent at best. I just can’t get his atrocious rookie season out of my head, and in the only game in which Randle received more than 10 carries (Week 16 vs Indianapolis), he slipped on the proverbial banana peel, posting a 13 carry 37 yard performance. His athleticism is below average, and he didn’t completely blow the doors off at Oklahoma State either. To top this off, he seems like an A-grade knucklehead, to put it nicely. He very well could continue his current pattern of behavior and be let go, due to the fact that players as fungible as Randle have very rarely been given as much rope as he has.
Even if Murray is retained, his well documented injury history makes whomever is running behind him a viable fantasy option. With Williams having had plenty of time to get healthy, a previously “iffy” option as recently as 2013 starting, with a personality-case as his immediate backup, Williams’ time may come in 2015.
8) Brock Osweiler QB DEN: Kanye West’s best album was Late Registration, mochi is delicious and Peyton Manning is old. While two of these three statements can be taken as opinion, the age of (statistically speaking) the greatest passer of our time cannot be argued. Although QBs tend to peak later in their careers than their fantasy counterparts, Manning is entering some extremely rare, and statistically perilous territory at age 39. Even if Manning decides to continue his playing career, it’s a smart bet that we’ll see the first extended regular season action of the 2011 second-round draft choice out of Arizona State.
Osweiler’s main drawback upon drafting was the fact that he was considered raw after only having one full season as a starter at Arizona State. After three years learning under Manning, that shouldn’t be an issue, and despite the fact that he’s only thrown 30 regular season passes, there are both quantitative and qualitative indicators that he’s progressing nicely. His preseason YPA has trended upwards each year that he’s been in the league (4.2 in his rookie season, 6.3 in his 2nd year, and 8.3 yards per attempt in the 2014 preseason), and the Broncos have stated on multiple occasions that they’re pleased with his progress and would continue to function at a high level if he was thrust into the starting lineup.
While the fact that he’s progressed, and the team has faith in him is all well and good, for fantasy purposes Osweiler would be walking into quite literally the best possible situation in terms of fantasy production that you could dream up for a first-time starting QB. Both of his starting receivers ranked in the top 8 in terms of DVOA in 2014, and even if he loses top TE Julius Thomas in free agency, the Broncos could conceivably replace him with any of the interesting receiving options mentioned earlier in this list, or even get splashy and bring in the oft-injured but undeniably talented Jordan Cameron. If that wasn’t enough, he has more than one talented option at running back, and a top-10 offensive line. Did I forget to mention he also has an extremely interesting second-year WR in Cody Latimer to work with? To say Denver has an embarrassment of riches is a tremendous understatement.
In summation, If you hate Osweiler’s talent, you can’t hate his situation, and vice-versa. As of Feb. 18, we know Manning could come back, but we don’t know if the Broncos even want him at his current salary, if at all. Even if Manning returns, the time is now to see if you can buy low on Brock Osweiler.
7) Richard Rodgers TE GB: Tony Romo has Jason Witten, Philip Rivers has Antonio Gates, Ben Roethlisberger has Heath Miller, Drew Brees has Jimmy Graham, Tom Brady has Rob Gronkowski, Matt Ryan had Tony Gonzalez, heck Peyton Manning‘s been around long enough to have Pollard, Clark, and Julius Thomas. The analytics are easy enough for even Charles Barkley to grasp. There is a strong correlation between top QB play and fantasy TE production. As of right now, a second-year TE out of CAL is prepared to ride that top-QB wave to a possibly unforeseen fantasy tsunami in 2015.
First off, Rodgers himself is an interesting player due to his versatility. He reportedly had to fluctuate his weight between 270 and 240 pounds to play outside receiver, in-line tight end, slot receiver, h-back, and also take snaps out of the backfield. He possess neither prolific collegiate production, or eye-popping athleticism, but neither did his predecessor, the frustrating but productive Jermichael Finley. Despite his lack of timed speed, Rodgers showed that he can get deep, as well as make contested catches in his rookie season, and had his role expand as the year wore on.
Dubbed “the most improved” player on the Packers, Rodgers is parsec’s ahead, statistically speaking, of Finley after their rookie campaigns. Despite posting a 6-74-1 2008 rookie line on 12 targets, Finley broke out in 2009 for a 55-676-5 year. Rodgers posted a relatively healthy 20-225-2 rookie line. Is a similar break out in store for the second-year TE?
6) Damien Williams RB MIA: While Lamar Miller is coming off something of a breakout season, and has a bright future due to his relative youth and athleticism, there are looming signs that former undrafted free agent Damien Williams may force a committee in Miami.
First off, you’re probably wondering why a possible committee back would rank so highly on this list. You’re right for wondering, but I’ll let you in on a fairly known secret, Miami is building something really impressive on the ground. From Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, one of my favorite factoids of the year thus-far, “Every player who saw a snap at guard for Dolphins in 2014 earned a negative grade there from Pro Football Focus. Fins still led AFC in YPC (4.69).“ Wow, just wow. It seems that the Dolphins have more than just become Eagles south, they’re a few linemen away from becoming the premier rushing team in the NFL.
While I personally think Miller is an absolutely dynamite back, and should continue to produce at a high level, it seems the Dolphins have shown through their handling of Milller that they view him as a high-end complimentary back. Through his three years in the league, two of which he was the starter, he has only recorded more than 20 carries once (a 22-carry, 72-yard effort against the Jets in 2013). In a somewhat shocking development, his YPC took a tailspin after the 10-carry mark in 2014. It’s safe to say Miller needs a Rob Base to his DJ EZ Rock. Enter Damien Williams.
Williams may have gone undrafted, but it wasn’t due to physical limitations or college production, as he both tested out with one of the highest speed-score’s in the NFL. In his first season at Oklahoma he worked his way to the top of the depth chart and recorded a very impressive 1,266 yards from scrimmage on 210 touches in 2012. However, Williams was dismissed from the team in 2013, prompting an adverse reaction from former Sooner and current Saint Kenny Stills. Despite a lukewarm maiden voyage (a disappointing 122 yards on 36 carries, but an encouraging 187 yards and a touchdown on 21 catches), the team feels like he’s a three-down contributor.
While bringing in another talented RB in a loaded draft-class isn’t out of the question, with Knowshon Moreno and Daniel Thomas‘ departures likely, look for Miller and Williams to be the hottest duo in Miami since Crockett and Tubbs, and both should have fantasy value in 2015
5) Kamar Aiken WR BAL: With Steve Smith Sr. about to turn 36, and the status of Torrey Smith unknown, Aiken is currently the Ravens No. 1 receiver on the roster, which is a far cry from where he entered the preseason fighting for a spot on the roster.
With a combination of determined play of Aiken’s part, and a rash of injuries at WR, he managed to snag 24 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns. What’s remarkable to me is that Aiken received 10% of the Ravens total red-zone targets, despite only being targeted on roughly 5% of the Ravens passing attempts. Compared to Anquan Boldin by his teammates, Aiken has the makings of a red-zone maven.
While it is rumored that the Ravens will look to bring in outside help to the WR room, they already have the aforementioned Aiken, as well as the interesting Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro. While watching 19 games of Seahawks football may have made me forget what an actual receiver is supposed to look/play like, I doubt that the Ravens make more than one or two additions, if any. New coordinator Mark Trestman just came from an offense known for its colossus-sized receivers, and it would be easy to see him falling for the emerging Aiken.
4) Dontrelle Inman WR SD: One of only three receivers currently under contract for the Chargers, much like Aiken, Inman’s prospects look infinitely better than they did a year ago. He looks to build upon flashes of success in a high-powered offense.
If you live outside of the wonderland known as SoCal, I wouldn’t blame you for missing out on the former Virgina Caviler/Toronto Argonaut, as he only appeared in two regular season contest. But my oh boy did he pique my interest. The mere fact that the Chargers made the decision for the two most critical games of their season shows that over the year, Inman gained a large measure of trust from those running the show in San Diego. It’s even more impressive that he was made a huge part of the offensive game plan, posting back-to-back 79-yard games. To top it off, guess who the Chargers turned to on probably their most important play of the season. You guessed it, it was Inman.
I began to dig into finding out if Inman’s incredible final two-week run was mere happenstance, and the more I read about him, the more I’ve come to believe that he’s the genuine article. Everything you read about him seems to paint him as a guy who, excuse my use of cliche, “just gets it.” From media reports, he’s dedicated himself to his craft, and genuinely enjoys playing football. While his stats from the CFL and his college days leave something to be desired, he offers above average speed, and an outstanding catch radius. If you’re a fan of watching athleticism in action, you may be interested in clicking here, and here.
The two receivers in front of Inman, Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd, have both battled injuries throughout their careers and aren’t getting any younger. If Inman can somehow find his way onto the field, he’s got a real shot to impress at a WR2/3 level in what figures to be a high-powered Charger attack in 2015.
3) Sam Bradford QB STL: Can a former No. 1 draft choice be a deep sleeper? When that draft choice has missed the better part of the last two seasons with injuries, the tag feels apt. While some may look at Bradford as a bust, that assumption isn’t right, but let it continue to be said, as it’s going to drive down the average draft position of what is shaping up to be a very nice low-end QB1 season for Bradford.
To jog your memory, here’s a small sampling of the receiving talent that Bradford has had to work with during his time in Saint Louis; Laurent Robinson, Daniel Fells, Brandon Gibson, and Chris Givens. These have all been starters at one point or another for the Rams during Bradford’s tenure, ick. You could make an argument that the 11 games of peak (but moody) Brandon Lloyd played with the Rams have been the high-water mark for receiving talent in the gateway city since Bradford was drafted. With a bunch of marginal talent futilely attempting to shake free down field, the “eh what the heck, dump it to Amendola” option was Bradford’s best choice when he was healthy.
The thing is, when he was healthy, he wasn’t half bad. At the time of his season-ending injury in 2013, Bradford was on pace for 20.5 fantasy-points per game, which according to fftoday.com would’ve made him the 15th highest scoring QB in the NFL on a points-per-game basis. Let me remind you, he did this on a team with a leaky offensive line, and Chris Givens (still in the league, I think?), Tavon Austin (trending downward), and Austin Pettis (since cut) as his top three wide receivers. The degree of being able to be in the top half of NFL passers with the receiver position being so thin boggles the mind.
Since he’s been gone, it’s been a micro-renaissance at the skill positions for the Rams. Kenny Britt is both insanely talented and wanting to play for the team that employs him for the first time in a long time, Brian Quick was emerging as a legitimate WR2 for fantasy purposes before losing his 2014 to injury, Stedman Bailey showed that he could be fascinating to watch if given a chance, and diminutive alleged deep-threats Chris Givens and Tavon Austin are still in the Rams orbit. Oh, and I failed to mention that Jared Cook is still around, and the Rams have gone via the Zac Stacy bridge from the not-so-great Darryl Richardson to the snappy Tre Mason. Beyond the skill players, they’ve upgraded the front line and the coordinator position. It’s an unarguable point, the talent surrounding Bradford has improved by leaps and bounds since he last started a regular-season game in a Rams uniform.
At worst, Bradford is a very interesting streaming option, as the NFC West due to injuries in Seattle’s secondary, dysfunction in San Francisco, and coaching turnover in Arizona may take a step back defensively, lowering the degree of difficulty to posting top-12 numbers. While it has to be brutal coming back from multiple torn ACL’s, he wasn’t wrong when he said that the Rams were on the cusp in 2014, and Bradford looks to be the one to take them over that cusp in 2015. 2QB managers take note, Bradford is a near lock to deliver value from his ADP this year.
2) Albert Wilson WR KC: With the release of Donnie Avery, and the possible release of Dwayne Bowe upcoming, the Chiefs seem to have decided that if they’re going to get NFL-worst production from their receivers, they’re going to do it on the cheap. Although the team may look like they’re punting the position, it really means that they are quite giddy about what they have with Wilson.
Undrafted in 2014, Wilson gradually made his way up the depth chart, recording a 16-260-0 debut season. While his main role for most of the year was on special teams, Wilson was targeted 20 times in week’s 14 through 16. While the sample was small, Wilson made a huge impression and looked a bit like the player he builds his game around, Steve Smith Sr, at times. If you extrapolated Wilson’s final four games of the season, he projects for 48 catches for 836 yards, tremendous numbers from one of the final picks in your 2015 drafts.
Wilson has proved in college that he was capable of dominating his team’s offense, and with only intriguing prospects and the declining Dwayne Bowe on the roster with him, Wilson may have that chance again in 2015.
1) Ka’Deem Carey RB CHI: The top deep sleeper on the list has both an innate gift for the game of football, and also a sneaky route to playing time in 2015.
Character/timed speed concerns dropped the ridiculously productive Carey into round four where the Bears snatched him up. His college tape proved that he could both run and catch at a high level, despite his athletic limitations. Playing in mop-up duty in 2014, Carey made the most of his 36 carries, totaling 158 yards (a 4.4 average rush) on the year. The Bears are also predicted to expand his role in 2015. Carey both has the size and talent to handle a lead role, now it’s just a matter of getting playing time.
That matter may be closer at hand than one might think. Despite being a top fantasy performer, Matt Forte heads into the season as a 29-year-old back who is among the leaders in career touches, coming off a season in which his yards per carry dipped under 4.0. Metrics-wise, he finished with a relatively unimpressive .14 missed tackles per-touch (less than half of that of Marshawn Lynch), and his DVOA ranked 18th amongst qualifying backs. There isn’t a 130-target season on the horizon for Forte to prop up his totals, and it’s probable that we’ve entered the decline phase of his career.
This is the year in which Carey could very well ascend. John Fox, when he doesn’t have Peyton Manning as his QB, likes to run an offense that’s based off the run, and he has an extremely talented back in Carey who looks to spell, and eventually pass, Forte on the depth chart.
Brian Tesch is a former AmeriCorps VISTA and current happy-go-lucky Economics student by day, FantasyPros NFC West Division Leader by later in the day.