Fantasy: Sleepers to steal in your draft
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Considering the amount of in-depth NFL coverage available, a true fantasy sleeper can be difficult to find. Nevertheless, we'll aim to identify players who could emerge as fantasy assets despite likely being available later in drafts.
Daniel Jones, QB, Giants
Jones is coming off another disappointing season. He was unable to prove himself worthy of being the Giants' long-term answer at quarterback and ultimately sat out the final six weeks with a neck injury.
One would think after three years of underwhelming play, the team would be ready to move on, but that's not the case. The organization has been reinvigorated by the arrival of new general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll, who are hoping to bring some of their success with the Bills to the G-Men.
That begins on offense, where Daboll will try to mimic the development of Josh Allen with Jones.
Jones lacks the elite arm talent that turned Allen into one of the league's best quarterbacks, but the Giants QB does share some similarities in playing style - including a willingness to run the ball.
Jones was seventh in QB rushing yards two years ago with 423 - one spot ahead of Allen who had 421. Before he got hurt, Jones was on pace to finish fourth.
Even with an injury-riddled receiving corps and a porous offensive line, Jones' per-game fantasy production was better than people might realize in 2021. He was the QB15 in the 10 contests he played 100% of the snaps, averaging 16.87 fantasy points per game.
Jones will have a chance to improve on those stats with a healthy Saquon Barkley and an intriguing set of pass-catchers led by Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Wan'Dale Robinson, and Sterling Shepard.
He'll also benefit from the upgrades on the offensive line, which is now bookended by two solid top-seven draft picks in Andrew Thomas (who made a major leap last season) and rookie Evan Neal.
The cherry on top: Jones will face the easiest fantasy slate of any quarterback, according to our 2022 strength of schedule matrix.
If Daboll can work his magic, this might be the year Jones turns into more than just an occasional replacement starter in fantasy.
Other sleeper QB candidates:
- Jameis Winston, Saints - Winston performed well in his new role as the Saints' starter before being placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL suffered in Week 8. He even made two appearances in the top-five for weekly fantasy scoring thanks to a five-touchdown game versus the Packers and a four-TD outing against Washington. What's more impressive is that he did it with a no-name receiving corps. Winston will return this season with a WR depth chart that features first-rounder Chris Olave, veteran Jarvis Landry, and, hopefully, a healthy Michael Thomas. There's a lot of meat on the bone for fantasy managers to eat more Ws in 2022.
- Ryan Tannehill, Titans - The A.J. Brown trade has caused Tannehill's stock to plummet in fantasy, but the potential remains for him to be a sneaky starting option if some of the new additions like Robert Woods, Treylon Burks, and Austin Hooper can step up. It's also important to remember that Tannehill's numbers are boosted by his legs; he's rushed for seven touchdowns in each of the last two seasons. He's just a year removed from a top-11 fantasy finish.
- Jared Goff, Lions - It's been a while since Goff posted back-to-back seasons as a QB1 in fantasy points per game, but it did happen in 2017 and 2018 when he was a member of the Rams. Entering his second year in Detroit, the 27-year-old will have his best supporting cast since those days and could provide a significant return on value in two-QB and superflex leagues.
Darrell Henderson, RB, Rams
After Cam Akers tore his Achilles last summer, Henderson was thrust into the starting role as a featured part of the offense through the first 12 weeks of the season. He then got dinged up and turned the job over to Sony Michel down the stretch.
Michel has since left in free agency, and aside from fifth-round rookie pass-catching specialist Kyren Williams - who's recovering from a broken foot that will sideline him until at least training camp - the team didn't do much to bolster its backfield depth.
That once again leaves Henderson as the immediate replacement if Akers gets hurt or struggles to regain his form - like many other backs have in their return from an Achilles tear.
Akers looked like a shell of himself when he shockingly rushed back after just six months to suit up in the playoffs. Though he'll be over a year removed from the injury by Week 1, we've seen other ball carriers take a couple years before finding their pre-injury explosiveness. And sometimes, it never comes back.
While durability issues remain for Henderson, we know the 24-year-old is capable of excelling as the team's lead back when healthy. He topped 80 yards from scrimmage in six of his first seven outings last year and maintained RB2 fantasy production until injuries derailed his season in Week 12. Michel then picked up where Henderson left off.
The Rams' willingness to feed their starting tailback is an approach that's becoming increasingly rare in the NFL, but it's a big reason why we remain extremely interested in this backfield.
Targeting backups with significant upside is nothing new for fantasy managers, but in Henderson's case, he has multiple paths to more volume and a track record that proves he can handle the job when called upon.
Other sleeper RB candidates:
- Ronald Jones, Chiefs - 2020 first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire will get every opportunity to grab hold of the lead back job in Kansas City. But Jones is an underrated runner who could carve out a role on early downs, especially around the goal line. We've seen veterans like Damien Williams, Darrel Williams, and Jerick McKinnon turn into fantasy starters when given touches in this backfield over the last few years. Jones could be next.
- Kenneth Gainwell, Eagles - Despite serving in a complementary role for most of his rookie season, Gainwell had six contests where he topped 40 yards from scrimmage and scored a touchdown, including in the playoff loss to the Buccaneers. He's slightly undersized to be a workhorse, but his pass-catching skills (33 receptions in 2021) should earn him snaps as the main backup behind Miles Sanders. If Sanders struggles or misses time, Gainwell could explode in fantasy.
- Marlon Mack/Dameon Pierce, Texans - Houston has one of the only running back depth charts without a clear starter entering training camp. Mack is the favorite to begin the season as the lead option. The 26-year-old posted two consecutive campaigns with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the Colts before tearing his Achilles in 2020. He'll face competition from hard-charging fourth-round rookie Pierce and incumbent Rex Burkhead who was miscast as the starter last year. While you should keep your expectations in check for all the Texans' backs, there'll be value here if Mack or Pierce can separate themselves from the pack.
Tim Patrick, WR, Broncos
We've repeatedly highlighted Patrick in columns over the last two years as someone who deserves more respect from fantasy managers.
When Courtland Sutton was sidelined for most of 2020, Patrick was a top-30 fantasy wideout from Weeks 3-14 thanks to seven games with 100 yards and/or a touchdown.
He was at it again as the Broncos' No. 3 receiver last season, totaling 85 yards and/or a touchdown in eight of his 16 games played. The team saw enough to reward him with a three-year, $30-million extension in November.
With Russell Wilson taking over as a true franchise quarterback and a massive upgrade over what Denver has had at the position in recent years, the passing attack is about to hit a new gear. In one of his first interviews after the trade, Wilson mentioned Patrick as one of the pass-catchers he was excited to have as a teammate.
Fantasy managers should be excited too. We witnessed this type of scenario play out last season when Matthew Stafford joined an already loaded Rams offense that just needed a competent NFL passer under center. While people will focus on Cooper Kupp's historic campaign, it's worth noting it led to career years for other receivers like Van Jefferson (50 receptions, 802 yards, six touchdowns), who finished as a fantasy WR3 in half PPR leagues.
Patrick still has to compete for targets with the likes of Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, but Wilson's presence will elevate efficiency across the board and lead to more scoring opportunities. And if Sutton or Jeudy miss time again, Patrick could provide league-winning value at his current ADP in the 10th round.
Other sleeper WR candidates:
- Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Chiefs - Despite having a much bigger contract (three years, $30 million) than the next highest-paid Chiefs receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster (one year, $3.25 million), Valdes-Scantling continues to go off the board behind JuJu and rookie second-rounder Skyy Moore. Patrick Mahomes said he expects to spread the ball around more in the post-Tyreek Hill era in Kansas City, but several beat writers have commented on the growing connection between him and his new speedster, Valdes-Scantling. Tight end Travis Kelce will likely lead the team in targets, but MVS could turn out to be the best fantasy wideout on the roster in 2022.
- Jalen Tolbert, Cowboys - With Amari Cooper no longer in Dallas and Michael Gallup unlikely to return from a torn ACL until at least midway through the year, the Cowboys need to find pass-catchers who can step up. CeeDee Lamb is positioned for a huge year and tight end Dalton Schultz will be heavily involved, but rookie Tolbert began making a case for playing time by flashing his abilities in minicamp practices. The third-rounder will compete with veteran James Washington to be the No. 2 receiver early in the year. Both players should be on your late-round watchlist.
- K.J. Osborn, Vikings - With Adam Thielen banged up down the stretch, Osborn took on a larger role in the offense and delivered with five touchdowns in his last six outings. Another Thielen injury would surely unlock Osborn's potential. But with the Vikings expected to throw the ball more under their new coaching staff, Osborn could see his production rise regardless, as The Athletic's Arif Hasan recently suggested.
Austin Hooper, TE, Titans
There tends to be plenty of late-round sleepers at tight end each season, and 2022 is no exception.
Out of all the options, we're choosing to shine the light on Hooper since it seems like he's largely being forgotten by the fantasy community.
It's understandable that he'd be overlooked after he failed to provide much in return for the four-year, $42-million contract he signed with the Browns, which briefly made him the league's highest-paid tight end.
He was cut after two disappointing seasons and now finds himself on a Titans offense that's desperate for reliable pass-catchers after moving on from four of their top five target leaders in 2021.
The front office is hoping veteran Robert Woods can make a smooth recovery from his torn ACL, but even his best recovery timeline will cut it close for him to be 100% in Week 1.
First-rounder Treylon Burks, who's penciled in as the replacement for A.J. Brown, hasn't been able to stay on the field in offseason practices as he deals with asthma and possibly reported to the team out of shape.
That could leave a lot of opportunity for Hooper, who has an intriguing history as a volume-dependent fantasy producer.
During his final season with the Falcons in 2019, Hooper was the top-scoring fantasy tight end in all formats before spraining his MCL in Week 10. His 75 catches, 787 yards, and six touchdowns had him on pace for 104 receptions, 1,182 yards, and 10 scores had he stayed healthy the entire year.
Though he shouldn't be confused with some of the more athletic players at his position, Hooper could be a stat-accumulator in the Titans' offense - giving him a chance to flirt with low-end TE1 fantasy numbers.
Other sleeper TE candidates:
- Evan Engram, Jaguars - The ultra-athletic Engram is out to rehabilitate his career after his production went downhill with the Giants. Head coach Doug Pederson has a strong track record of featuring tight ends and quarterback Trevor Lawrence also favored throwing to the position as a rookie. Journeymen Dan Arnold, James O'Shaughnessy, and Jacob Hollister combined for a 37.5% target share in 2021. Don't write off Engram's fantasy potential yet.
- Gerald Everett, Chargers - Through five NFL campaigns, Everett hasn't put together the kind of complete fantasy season many were expecting when he was drafted in the second round in 2017. However, he did post career highs in catches (48), yards (478), and touchdowns (four) last season with the Seahawks. Now, he's attached to one of the best young passers in Justin Herbert and should inherit the majority of Jared Cook's 83 vacated targets. Another career year isn't out of the question.
- Brevin Jordan, Texans - With an unproven set of receivers behind veteran Brandin Cooks, it's possible Houston's sophomore tight end could emerge as the de facto No. 2 pass-catching option. Jordan's first real opportunity as a rookie came in Week 8 when he caught three passes for 41 yards and a score. The 21-year-old found the end zone three more times during the rest of the season and should enter 2022 atop the depth chart. He's a long shot to be a weekly fantasy starter, but it's within his range of outcomes.
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