Fantasy football 2016: Sleeper picks to draft
In this time of abundant fantasy information, players who we would have tabbed as “sleepers” 10 years ago are well-known by even the worst owner in your league. The term is still in use because its connotation is understood, though the exact definition has evolved. In the modern fantasy game, a true sleeper is an undervalued player who comes off the board no earlier than the late-middle rounds of a standard draft.
In that vein, we present to you SI.com’s sleepers for the 2016 season. To qualify as a sleeper, a player must have an average draft position of 100 or lower. That means our sleepers are hearing their names called in the middle of the eighth round or later in a 12-team league.
(Note: One category of player you won’t find below is rookies. Rookies are some of the trendiest players in fantasy leagues, which makes them ineligible to be sleepers. We’ll be covering them, from Ezekiel Elliott all the way to Wendell Smallwood, in a column of their own.)
Stefon Diggs, WR, Vikings (ADP: 100.8)
Through Diggs’s first four career games, it seemed he’d more likely be a 2016 breakout than a sleeper. Diggs missed the first three games of last season but broke out over the next month, topping 87 yards in all four games and twice breaking the 100-yard mark. Through his first four games, Diggs had 25 grabs for 419 yards and two touchdowns, good for 13.48 points per game in standard-scoring leagues.
Diggs’s production slowed considerably the rest of the season, and he finished the year with 52 receptions for 720 yards and four touchdowns. It still wasn’t a bad rookie year, especially considering the state of Minnesota’s passing game, but fantasy owners are clearly putting more emphasis on how he finished the season than how he started it. Those who plan to fade him are making a mistake.
Last year, Diggs was forced to play split end, a position typically reserved for big, physical receivers along the lines of Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas. The Vikings added Laquon Treadwell in the first round of this year’s draft, freeing up the smaller, speedier Diggs to play the Y-receiver role, which lines up off the line of scrimmage and in the slot, two spots that better suit his skill set. The addition of Treadwell should also make Minnesota’s passing game more effective as a whole, and a rising tide lifts all ships.
A lot rests on Teddy Bridgewater, and Adrian Peterson remains the focus of the Vikings’ offense. Diggs’s upside is immense, however, as he showed in those first four games last season. He’s a bargain at his ADP.
Torrey Smith, WR, 49ers (ADP: 105.5)
Smith finished the first four seasons of his career ranked 22nd, 23rd, 21st and 19th among receivers in standard-scoring leagues. Last year, his first with the 49ers, he fell off a cliff, catching just 33 passes for 663 yards and four touchdowns and ending the season as the No. 49 receiver.
As is the case with most players in San Francisco, especially one with Smith’s track record, you’ll want to completely disregard last season. It was the epitome of a lost year for the 49ers, with a completely overmatched coaching staff in charge of a roster that never had a chance. Chip Kelly brings his up-tempo offense to the Bay Area this season, and that’s going to benefit all the team’s skill players. Outside of running back Carlos Hyde, Smith could see the largest gains.
Everything about last season was anomalous for Smith, most of all the fact that he had 61 targets despite playing all 16 games, an average of fewer than four per game. Over his first four seasons, he averaged nearly seven targets per contest. He remains a premier deep threat, bringing a 17.3-yard-per-catch average into his sixth season, and is easily the most dangerous receiver on the 49ers’ roster. He has a low-end WR2 ceiling and is a likely WR3, at a WR4 price.
Travis Benjamin, WR, Chargers (ADP: 107.8)
Benjamin deserved All-Pro consideration for catching 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns in the train wreck that was Cleveland’s offense last season. He signed with San Diego in the off-season and will now serve as Philip Rivers’s top deep threat. After a season of bouncing back and forth from Josh McCown to Johnny Manziel, Benjamin will unquestionably welcome the relative stability of Rivers under center. He has top-30 upside at the position.
The Chargers haven’t been a run-heavy team since the days of LaDainian Tomlinson. They called pass plays on 63% of their snaps last year, the third-highest percentage behind the Lions and Ravens. I haven’t been shy about my belief in Melvin Gordon’s second year, but the Chargers will likely remain one of the most pass-reliant teams in the league. Stevie Johnson suffered a torn meniscus at the beginning of training camp, and while the Chargers added veteran James Jones to the depth chart, Benjamin is in a good position to start alongside Keenan Allen. Moreover, Johnson’s injury ensures that Benjamin is the team’s lone field-stretching receiver.
Kamar Aiken, WR, Ravens (ADP: 115.9)
Steve Smith played seven games before tearing his Achilles last year. In those seven games, Aiken had 21 catches for 255 yards and two scores. In the nine games he played without Smith, he pulled down 54 receptions for 689 yards and three scores. When Smith was on the field, Aiken averaged 5.36 points per game. When Smith was out, Aiken averaged 9.66 points per game. There’s no question the guy can play. It appears there’s also no longer a question about his opportunity.
The Ravens’ first depth chart of training camp listed Aiken and Mike Wallace as the starting receivers. Smith is listed at Aiken’s split-end position, but there are two things to keep in mind here. As indestructible as Smith has been throughout his career, he’s a 37-year-old receiver coming off a torn Achilles. The more important factor at hand is that Aiken is almost certainly the best receiver on the roster.
Smith is likely best cast as a part-time player in Baltimore’s offense at this stage of his career. Breshad Perriman is dealing with the same knee problem that cost him all of last year. Wallace is Wallace. Aiken is the best bet to lead the team in targets, a fact reflected by the team placing him atop its initial depth chart. Baltimore’s backfield is a work in progress, and the team could be back among the leaders in pass percentage. Like Benjamin, Aiken has a top-30 ceiling at nearly a WR5 price.
Theo Riddick, RB, Lions (ADP: 129.9)
Riddick isn’t going to make a significant impact for the Lions on the ground. He has all of 72 career carries in three years, 43 of which came last season. Of all the running backs in name only across the league, Riddick might be the most extreme case.
At the same time, Riddick is a touch undervalued in standard leagues, because his receiving ability could be the best individual skill in the Detroit backfield. First, consider that the only backs on Detroit’s roster likely to factor into the running game in a meaningful way are Ameer Abdullah and Zach Zenner. The jury is still out on Abdullah, but he flopped in his rookie season, running for 597 yards on 143 carries. Zenner, meanwhile, can be a nice depth piece for Detroit, but he’s akin to an organizational pitcher in baseball.
Consider further what the Patriots have been able to do with their receiving backs over the years. From Kevin Faulk to Shane Vereen to Dion Lewis to James White, the Patriots have time and again substituted a short passing game for the run game with great effect. Matthew Stafford and the Lions are far from Tom Brady and the Patriots, but the latter have given the rest of the league a blueprint, so long as the back in question is capable. Riddick caught 80 of his 99 targets for 697 yards and three touchdowns last year. There’s no doubt he’s capable of being the back in a faux-running game engineered through short passes. Drafters in PPR leagues are all over him, but those in standard leagues should have him higher on their boards.
Sammie Coates, WR, Steelers (ADP: 132.1)
Of all the players on this list, none is likely to have more helium than Coates. With Martavis Bryant suspended for the entire year, it has long been clear that a receiver would have a chance to break out in Pittsburgh. Early speculation in the summer centered on Markus Wheaton, largely because he was the early favorite to start opposite Antonio Brown. Coates has opened eyes in training camp, edging in front of Wheaton in their position battle. That makes him the Pittsburgh receiver most likely to nab that lucrative second spot on the depth chart.
Coates didn’t play at all as a rookie last year, getting on the field in six games and a total of 8% of the team’s snaps. Going back to his days at Auburn, though, we know he can use his 6' 1", 212-pound frame to be a physical option out wide for Ben Roethlisberger. Wheaton, on other hand, has largely proved who he is during his first three years in the league, and that’s a decent third option whose real-life value doesn’t really translate to the fantasy game. Coates’s size cannot be ignored, especially considering Brown, for all his immense charms, is not a big receiver.
Bryant has averaged 6.71 targets during his NFL career. Someone is going to get those targets, and not all of them can go to Brown. Coates has a bead on the No. 2 job in Pittsburgh, and that could make him a huge steal in drafts this year.
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (ADP: 132.4)
Fellow SI.com fantasy writer Pat Fitzmaurice and I have both made the case for Ryan in multiple columns this summer, so I won’t spend too much time on him here. The stats from his disappointing 2015 season were almost entirely in line with the four-year run before it, during which he put up four top-12 and three top-seven quarterback seasons. The lone difference was in the touchdown department. Ryan threw just 21 touchdowns last year, his lowest total since his rookie season, after averaging 28.75 per year from ’12 to ’14. Nothing in his underlying predictive stats suggests the touchdown drop-off. Ryan could easily be back in the QB1 mix this year, especially considering he has one of the best receivers in the league at his disposal. He’s a golden target in superflex and two-quarterback leagues.
Dwayne Allen, TE, Colts (ADP: 145.8)
For the first time in Allen’s career, he’s safely atop the tight end depth chart in Indianapolis. Coby Fleener is in New Orleans, giving Allen the chance to prove his TE1 legitimacy.
Allen missed all but one game in 2013, and last year was a lost season for everyone on the Colts’ offense with Luck missing nine games. In Allen’s other two seasons, he totaled 74 receptions for 916 yards and 11 touchdowns. Of course, Fleener was always there to steal at least some, if not most, of the spotlight. If nothing else, the opportunity to be one of the three primary pass catchers in an offense led by Luck that figures to be among the most reliant on the pass in the league makes Allen an attractive fantasy target. Add in the fact that you can be the last person in your league to grab a tight end and still have him as your starter, and he becomes the best late-round fantasy tight end this season.
Phillip Dorsett, WR, Colts (ADP: 147.8)
Just because Fleener is out of town doesn’t mean Allen’s path to fantasy relevance is without obstacles. We know T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief will likely lead the Colts in all of their receiving stats, and that the Colts are likely to throw enough to make a third pass catcher a viable fantasy option. Dorsett also has a chance to be that player.
After surprising the entire league by taking Dorsett in the first round in 2015—he was a first-round talent, but the last thing the team needed was a receiver—the Colts used him sparingly last season. He played 11 games and got 39 targets, catching 18 of them for 225 yards and a touchdown.
At 5' 10" and 185 pounds, Dorsett is similar in stature to Hilton. While that helps lock in the 6' 2", 222-pound Moncrief as the team’s No. 2 receiver, Dorsett will likely play in most of the Colts’ three-receiver sets. Opportunity is the key factor for Dorsett. Luck has averaged 38.3 pass attempts per game in his career, and with Frank Gore leading the Colts’ run game this season, that number is likely to, at worst, remain flat. With all those targets to go around, it’s possible that all three receivers and Allen will have fantasy value, but it’s a near-lock that at least one of Allen or Dorsett will. That makes both of them worthy buys at their ADPs.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins (ADP: 155.1)
Tannehill was a popular breakout selection last season, a belief I admit I subscribed to eagerly. But it wasn’t all bad for Tannehill in his fourth season: He set new career highs in yards (4.208) and YPA (7.18), while throwing 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The big surprise was his lack of rushing production. After running for 311 yards on 56 attempts in 2014, Tannehill had just 141 yards on 32 rushes last year.
If Tannehill reaches his elusive potential, there’s a great chance we’ll look back on the off-season between the 2015 and ’16 seasons as the most important of his career. The Dolphins hired offensive guru Adam Gase, who helped rein in Jay Cutler in his one season as the Bears’ offensive coordinator, resulting in the most efficient season of Cutler’s career. Tannehill doesn’t have Cutler’s arm, but he’s a similar project for Gase. If Miami’s new head coach can get the same growth out of Tannehill that he did from Cutler last season, the former is going to make some major strides.
The Dolphins waved goodbye to Lamar Miller in the off-season, but Tannehill has enviable pass-catching weapons at his disposal. DeVante Parker is a legitimate breakout candidate, and Jarvis Landry has caught 194 passes in two years in the league, racking up 1,157 yards last season. Tannehill didn’t run much last season, but he still has that club in his bag, and Gase could implement some read-option principles with Tannehill, Arian Foster and Jay Ajayi. Tannehill is an excellent late target in superflex leagues, though you won’t want to count on him as a regular starter, at least at the outset.
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Panthers (ADP: 158.7)
Jonathan Stewart enjoyed one of the finest, healthiest seasons of his career last year. He played 13 games for the second straight season and the sixth time in eight years as a pro. Stewart was the No. 16 running back in standard-scoring leagues, and even though he missed three games, his season was still built on volume rather than efficiency. He ran for 989 yards on 242 carries, which comes out to just 4.09 yards on an average tote, and was a non-factor in the passing game. Stewart didn’t have much competition in Carolina’s backfield, getting at least 17 carries in 10 of his 13 games. That may not be the case this season.
Artis-Payne struggled with pass protection in his rookie year, and that, combined with Stewart’s health and effectiveness, limited him to one-quarter of the team’s snaps last year. The second-year player out of Auburn has been drawing rave reviews in camp for the improvements he has made as a blocker, and that could have him on the field more often this season. On top of that, the Panthers once again have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, and if they’re going to clear that final hurdle this season, they need Stewart just as fresh in December and January as in September and October. Assuming the Panthers find a second back to share the load this year, the chances are it’s Artis-Payne. And should the 29-year-old Stewart suffer an injury, Artis-Payne would be the starter in one of the league’s best running environments.
Rishard Matthews, WR, Titans (ADP: 159.8)
Matthews was likely one of the few Dolphins who enjoyed 2015, at least from an individual standpoint. He set new career bests across the board, catching 43 passes for 662 yards and four touchdowns. Matthews then joined the muddled receiver corps in Tennessee as a free agent this off-season. That uncertainty on the depth chart gives Matthews a real opportunity to surprise this season.
Take a look at Tennessee’s receivers. Who really jumps out at you? Kendall Wright is a decent real-life player, but the bloom has come off his rose over the last two years after he had 94 catches for 1,079 yards in 2013. Dorial Green-Beckham might be the team’s most talented receiver, but they don’t trust him a bit, evidenced by his position far down the depth chart. Harry Douglas is just a guy. Justin Turner has done nothing but disappoint. Tajae Sharpe is a fifth-round rookie. The receiver position is such a mess in Tennessee that the team added Andre Johnson at the end of July.
If Marcus Mariota takes the next step in his maturation process, he’s going to need someone other than Delanie Walker to emerge in the passing game. The door is open for someone in Tennessee to turn into a reliable WR3. Matthews is the best bet to take advantage.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Patriots (ADP: 136.5): Bennett has brighter fantasy prospects than anyone else in this section, but chances are he won’t be a true sleeper by draft day. The Patriots are likely to lead the league in two-tight end sets, so Bennett could realistically be a TE1, even with Rob Gronkowski dominating the position.
Tim Hightower, RB, Saints (ADP:147.9): Mark Ingram has missed an average of 3.6 games per year in his five seasons. Hightower remains second on the depth chart in New Orleans. If and when Ingram misses time, Hightower will be fantasy-relevant.
Anquan Boldin, WR, Lions (ADP: 155.3): Boldin signed with the Lions right before the start of training camp and will contribute to the team’s efforts to make up for Calvin Johnson’s retirement. If Eric Ebron’s injury hobbles him during the season, Boldin will be all the more intriguing.
Bruce Ellington, WR, 49ers (ADP: 157.1): Torrey Smith is the only receiver in San Francisco locked into his role. Ellington is the favorite to start opposite Smith, and the opportunity to have a significant presence in Chip Kelly’s offense makes him worth a late-round flier.
Pierre Garçon, WR, Redskins (ADP: 159.9): Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder are already hurt. Garcon, who was likely to start opposite DeSean Jackson, shouldn’t have any trouble holding on to that gig now. Washington is likely to be one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league.
Will Fuller, WR, Texans (ADP: 166.6); Jaelen Strong, WR, Texans (ADP: N/A): DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Miller are going to dominate the touches in Houston’s offense, but there’s room for a second receiver to emerge. Strong and Fuller are equally likely to grab that spot, which carries WR4 potential.
Terrelle Pryor, WR, Browns (ADP: N/A): Pryor, who has been working hard to remake himself as a receiver, is likely to start opposite rookie Corey Coleman in Week 1. Josh Gordon’s impending return complicates matters, but Pryor is an interesting player to watch during training camp and the exhibition season. He has the tools to be an effective fantasy receiver.