I love the segments of the NFL offseason and how things change over the course of several months. It allows us to dissect information as it becomes available, and we get to share our thoughts with you.
Then it’s up to you to decide if what we’re saying makes sense for the upcoming season, and if that information can help your Fantasy team. We hope it does.
So before you rant and rave that we’re writing a sleepers column in March, a month or so before the NFL Draft, we’re aware things will change with the incoming rookies. And we’ll react accordingly, which is why this is the first of three sleepers columns you’ll be reading before the start of the season.
This current list of sleepers reflects things that have happened from the end of the 2016 campaign through the start of free agency. For example, you’ll see that Eli Manning and Carson Wentz get a boost with additional weapons. Rex Burkhead’s stock is on the rise since he could become a starter, and Tyler Higbee should benefit with a new coach in Sean McVay, who has a good history of using his tight ends.
I also realize that Kenneth Dixon is already out for four games because of a suspension, Jerick McKinnon got replaced by Latavius Murray and Corey Coleman still needs a quarterback. But there’s a strong chance those players are still successful no matter what happens over the next few months.
And that’s the fun of figuring out the players to write about, with all the changes still to come. You should also enjoy agreeing or disagreeing with these selections because it means you’re already thinking about your Fantasy team for this year.
The season is getting closer. And the more prepared you are, the better off your Fantasy team will be.
There are plenty of sleeper quarterbacks this year, and Manning might not be on your list, which is understandable given his struggles last season when he finished as the No. 20 Fantasy quarterback in standard leagues with 4,027 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. But I expect Manning to bounce back in 2017, and I’ll happily draft him with a late-round pick in all leagues.
He was the No. 7 Fantasy quarterback in 2014 and 2015, and the Giants gave him a significant weapon this year with the addition of free agent receiver Brandon Marshall to go with Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard. We still need to see the Giants upgrade the offensive line, but Manning should be in line for another season of at least 4,400 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, which he did in the two years prior to 2016.
Manning is 36 now, and last year could be the start of a decline for his career. Or the addition of Marshall could rejuvenate his production, which is what I expect, and Manning should rebound as a No. 1 Fantasy quarterback in all formats.
You can argue that Wentz has had the best offseason to date of any quarterback with the additions the Eagles made to their receiving corps, which should help their second-year passer in Fantasy and reality.
Philadelphia added free agent receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, which is a significant upgrade over the weapons Wentz had as a rookie in 2016. When you factor in Zach Ertz, Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles, this is one of the better receiving corps in the NFL. Jeffery needs to stay healthy, and Smith needs to show he’s better on the East Coast than the West Coast after a failed stint in San Francisco when he left Baltimore. But Wentz is definitely better on paper with these additions, and he played well in 2016 when his offensive line was intact, mostly before Lane Johnson’s suspension. In his first four games, Wentz scored at least 20 Fantasy points in a standard league three times, but he reached that mark just twice in his final 12 outings.
We expect plenty of 20-point performances this season, and Wentz is an excellent quarterback to target with a late-round pick.
It’s the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick, so we have no idea what will happen week-to-week with their backfield if what it looks like now remains intact. They can still add a new face or bring back an old one like free agent LeGarrette Blount, but Burkhead, Dion Lewis and James White are the three main options as of now. And if that’s the case you better look into spending a late-round pick on Burkhead because he could be the primary rusher for the Patriots this year.
Burkhead signed a one-year deal for $3.15 million, which makes him the highest-paid running back in New England since Fred Taylor in 2010, according to the Providence Journal. That might seem insignificant, but it could also suggest the Patriots have more in store for Burkhead than just a complementary role or on special teams. Lewis has struggled to stay healthy the past two years and might not be able to handle a heavy workload, and White has proven to be more of a third-down back than a featured option.
Burkhead doesn’t have much NFL experience in the feature-back role, but he was impressive for the Bengals with 27 carries for 119 yards and two touchdowns and two catches for 25 yards when Jeremy Hill (knee) was out against Baltimore in Week 17. Maybe that’s a sign of things to come or it could just be a fluke, but New England has to replace 299 carries for 1,161 yards and an NFL- best 18 rushing touchdowns if Blount is gone. A big chunk of that could go to Burkhead, and he’s a low-risk, high-reward player to target in Round 9 or later.
He also had two years in college at Nebraska as a sophomore and junior when he combined for 456 carries for 2,308 yards and 22 touchdowns and 36 catches for 325 yards and two touchdowns, so it would be fun to see what he can do in a featured role.
I originally had Dixon planned for a spot in the breakouts column, but that was before he was suspended four games for performance enhancing drugs. We’re also not sure if the Ravens are done adding to their backfield, even after free agent Danny Woodhead was signed in March. But with the suspension and the addition of Woodhead, Dixon’s Fantasy value has been driven way down, making him a potential bargain on Draft Day. And he could easily still be the starter in Baltimore once he’s back after his suspension is over.
Despite not starting any games as a rookie in 2016, Dixon still had at least seven Fantasy points in a standard league in six of his final eight games. He averaged at least 4.0-yards per carry in six of those outings, and he proved capable as a receiver with at least three catches in five of those games. Additionally, Dixon averaged 2.9-yards after contact, which was tied for No. 11 with Ezekiel Elliott of running backs with at least 80 carries. Woodhead has been a quality running back when healthy and will play a prominent role, and Terrance West should get the chance to start while Dixon is out. But Dixon has the most upside of the current running backs on this roster, and he’s someone to target in all leagues with a late-round pick.
Doug Martin appears on track to return to the Buccaneers this season, and he could even regain his starting job once his three-game PED suspension is over. But until that time it appears that Tampa Bay will lean on Rodgers as its No. 1 running back, which worked out well for Fantasy owners in 2016.
Rodgers started five games last season, and he scored at least 12 Fantasy points in a standard league in four of them, including at least 78 total yards in each outing. If you project his five starts over a 16-game season, he would have 342 carries for 1,478 yards and six touchdowns and 32 catches for 208 yards. Coach Dirk Koetter, who was offensive coordinator in Atlanta from 2012-14 when Rodgers was there, wasn’t afraid to lean on Rodgers when he started with at least 17 total touches in each game.
It seems like Rodgers has been in the NFL for a long time, but he’s only 27 and entering his seventh year. And he could be an ideal Fantasy running back to target with a late-round pick if you wait on the position. He’s almost guaranteed three starts while Martin is out, and he could see much more than that if he remains in a featured role all season.
The Vikings signed Latavius Murray this offseason to a three-year, $15 million contract, which on the surface appears bad for McKinnon. But Murray underwent ankle surgery within a week of signing, and that could prove to be problematic for a player trying to learn a new system.
McKinnon wasn’t great last season taking over for an injured Adrian Peterson (knee), but he started to improve toward the end of the year, especially as a receiver out of the backfield. McKinnon had at least seven Fantasy points in a standard league in four of his final six games, and he averaged at least 4.0-yards per carry in four of those games, which isn’t bad when you consider the poor play of the Vikings offensive line. And he had 31 catches for 212 yards and two touchdowns over that stretch as well.
Minnesota has tried to address the offensive line this offseason with the addition of free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, which should help Murray and McKinnon, and McKinnon will still play a prominent role even when Murray is healthy, especially in the passing game.
Your best bet is to let someone else reach for Murray with an early-round pick on Draft Day, and you can settle for McKinnon later. You might end up with the best Vikings running back that way.
The rookie receivers from 2016 that will likely stand out for Fantasy owners are Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill and Shepard since all three were significant contributors. But Coleman looked like he was on the way to joining that group after he had seven catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games last season. A broken hand prior to Week 3 caused him to miss six games, and things were never the same. He scored just one more touchdown the rest of the season, and he was easily outplayed by Terrelle Pryor.
We know now that Pryor has left Cleveland as a free agent for Washington, and his replacement is journeyman Kenny Britt, who signed as a free agent from the Rams. While Britt is coming off a career year with 68 catches for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns, there’s more upside with Coleman this season. We hope he will have an upgrade at quarterback since Coleman had to deal with Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, Robert Griffin III, Charlie Whitehurst and Kevin Hogan as a rookie, but the quarterback situation for the Browns will likely limit Coleman’s upside.
It’s best to think of Coleman as a No. 4 Fantasy receiver on Draft Day with the chance to become a No. 3 option, but there’s a lot to like about Coleman heading into this year. Remember, while Thomas, Hill and Shepard were better as Fantasy receivers in 2016, Coleman was the first one selected in the NFL Draft last year. His upside is great, and hopefully this year he gets a chance to show off his skills -- with a good quarterback for the Browns.
Most bounce-back candidates who are related to injuries don’t usually have to overcome what plagued Brown in 2016, which is the impact of his sickle-cell trait. While his game log says he appeared in 15 games, Brown was limited because of his health and finished with just 39 catches for 517 yards and two touchdowns. This wasn’t the third-year breakout campaign we were hoping for after he had 65 catches for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015.
Cardinals president Michael Bidwell said in February that the team has solved Brown’s sickle-cell issue, and he is “very healthy.” Bidwell also added that the Cardinals will get Brown “back the way we had him,” which could be vital in Arizona with Michael Floyd gone and Larry Fitzgerald on the decline.
J.J. Nelson is one of my favorite breakout candidates, but I have no problem taking a flier on Brown with a late-round pick. When healthy, he could repeat his 2015 stats and, hopefully, improve if he’s back to his old self.
The Redskins added Pryor as a free agent this offseason, which is a great move to make him their No. 1 receiver. And Jamison Crowder should be solid as the No. 2 option. But even with Pryor, Crowder and standout tight end Jordan Reed, there’s still production to go around for Doctson, who has the chance to shine as a sophomore after a disappointing rookie campaign in 2016.
Remember, the Redskins lost DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon as free agents, and that duo combined for 135 catches for 2,046 yards and seven touchdowns last year on 216 targets. A big chunk of that will go to Pryor, but Doctson can also help fill the void. Remember, there are high expectations for Doctson, who was Washington’s first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (No. 22 overall) from Texas Christian. He was limited all season with an Achilles injury and appeared in just two games with two catches for 66 yards, but he had 78 catches for 1,326 yards and 14 touchdowns in his last year at TCU -- and ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
There’s plenty of upside here, and Doctson could be a sophomore sensation based on his expected expanded role in 2017. He’s easily worth a late-round pick in all leagues.
The Bears let Jeffery go as a free agent to Philadelphia, and Kevin White has played in four games since being drafted in 2015 because of injuries. Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton were added as free agents, and more help will likely come in the NFL Draft, but Meredith could easily open the season as the No. 1 receiver in Chicago. Even with Mike Glennon as the quarterback, that should be a good thing for Meredith’s Fantasy value, and he’s entering his third year in the NFL.
One detractor for Meredith could be the addition of Wright because Meredith played well when he saw time in the slot toward the end of last season. Over his final five games, Meredith had 31 catches for 439 yards and two touchdowns on 43 targets. He threw a touchdown pass in Week 17 at Minnesota, which allowed him to score double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league in four of those outings. Meredith also had two games earlier in the season with at least 11 Fantasy points in a standard league, and he has the potential to be a No. 3 receiver in all formats, with the chance to be a starter if he and Glennon click.
We hope White is healthy to give us another Fantasy option (he’s also a sleeper), but Meredith has plenty of upside to draft with a late-round pick in all leagues.
The Rams are excited about Higbee this season, and we hope they are true to their words. Because general manager Les Snead said “expect big things from Tyler,” and new coach Sean McVay added that Higbee has “a nice catch radius. He can stretch the seam; he’s got a good feel and savvy in the pass game.”
Lance Kendricks is gone as the No. 1 tight end, and the Rams also lost their No. 1 receiver in Britt as a free agent to Cleveland. Tavon Austin and Robert Woods are the top two receivers, which isn’t exactly encouraging, and second-year quarterback Jared Goff should lean on Higbee as much as possible. Higbee had a quiet rookie year with only 11 catches for 85 yards and one touchdown on 28 targets, but he should get a lot more involved this season under McVay. In two years as the offensive coordinator in Washington, McVay’s tight ends were fifth in targets (289), fifth in receiving yards (2,397) and tied for third in touchdowns (20) during that time. Reed was a big part of that (153 catches for 1,638 yards and 17 touchdowns from 2015-16), and no one expects Higbee to play at that level. But in an offense lacking playmakers, Higbee has the chance to establish himself as a go-to option, especially under McVay.
He’s a No. 2 tight end with No. 1 upside, and he’s worth drafting with a late-round pick.
Hooper should step into the starting tight end job for the Falcons this year, and we hope to see him get an expanded role in the passing game. He only had 19 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns on 27 targets as a rookie in 2016, but he also added three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown on six targets in Super Bowl 51. We hope that performance will help him build momentum leading into this season, and he is a No. 2 Fantasy tight end to target on Draft Day with a late-round pick.
He has potential as a streaming option during the year, and hopefully he can become a consistent starter if he takes advantage of this opportunity in his sophomore campaign.