We’re roughly two weeks, more or less, away from the start of NFL training camp for all 32 teams, and that also means preparations for the fantasy football season.
Owners will pour over draft kits loaded with cheat sheets and oodles upon oodles of statistics, knowing full-well how a team performs is largely based on how successful they are during the draft.
Most championship teams last season wisely used their picks on running backs like Denver’s Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno and then-rookie Green Bay Packer Eddie Lacy. The surprise receivers last year included San Diego’s Keenan Allen, New England’s Julian Edelman and Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, among others.
It was a bit easier to pick up a decent quarterback, but Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton provided some surprises with his stellar 35-touchdown season, though Bengals fans are quick to rightly mention his performances in the playoffs. Philadelphia passer Nick Foles was also a pleasant surprise for owners, benefiting from head coach Chip Kelly’s offense perhaps better than any other Eagle except for running back LeSean McCoy.
A few tight ends also emerged from relative obscurity with Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron and Denver’s Julius Thomas lighting up opposing defenses for 19 touchdowns.
This year owners might bank on the aforementioned players repeating their 2013 performances and as a result they’ll be tougher to snag in the later rounds.
Thus we’ll return to the tried and true task of finding under-valued players in the middle to late rounds, better known as sleepers.
Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
The consensus calls for Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers to be the first three quarterbacks selected, and for good reason, and then there’s a drop off with Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in the second tier.
Foles would likely fall down to the third tier, with many doubting he can recreate his awesome sophomore season of 2,891 passing yards and 27 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Nevertheless he’s still a solid value pick in the fourth to sixth round, and allows for owners to focus on receivers and running backs early.
Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
Cutler again is the focus of derision, but it has more to do with the seven-year extension he signed with the Bears potentially worth $126.7 million. Is he worth that much after failing to throw for more than 19 touchdowns in three straight seasons and missed 12 games due to injury over the same span?
Likely not. But when you look at the awesome weapons at Cutler’s disposal, like receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, rushers Matt Forte and rookie Ka’Deem Carey and tight end Martellus Bennett, Cutler is worth a gamble.
E.J. Manuel, Buffalo Bills
Before he injured his knee and Buffalo cautiously, and wisely, limited his reps and plays outside of the pocket, Manuel showed real promise on the field. Takeaway his dreadful four-pick, zero-touchdown performance at Tampa Bay and he would’ve have had a much better rate of 11 scores to five picks in his rookie year.
Also if he is knee holds up, Manuel poses a serious threat in the running game. Oh, and he’ll be paired with No. 4 overall pick and rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, the best wide out in the draft.
Manuel could drop as low as the 10 th to 13 th round range, where he’d be a total steal.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
The number of touches he’ll receive in 2014 is still up for debate, but he put up 5.5 yards per carry and 9.5 yards per reception. The Cardinals offensive line may leave him vulnerable, but Ellington is best served coming out of the backfield for receptions, so in a PPR league he’d be an excellent selection.
Target him somewhere in the fourth to sixth round. In keeper leagues, Ellington will go higher.
Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
The first running back taken in the most recent draft, Sankey was an absolute stud at Washington, racking up 3,496 yards and 37 touchdowns at 5.4 yards per carry. With Chris Johnson now gone, and veteran Shonn Greene questionable for training camp due to a knee injury, Sankey has the chance to be the starter in Week 1 and beyond.
Chris Johnson, New York Jets
Speaking of Johnson, it’s strange to think of him as a sleeper since he’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his six seasons in the NFL. But his touchdown numbers have dropped off significantly.
Matched up with second-year passer Geno Smith and without a proven receiving corps would normally be red flags, but Johnson likely has a chip on his shoulder and could carry the Jets’ offense for long stretches of games and the season. Not to mention rushers Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell having solid years despite teams daring Smith to pass.
He’ll still go high since he still has that blazing, breakaway speed, so a third or fourth round pick isn’t out of the question. But anywhere lower and Johnson is a steal.
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
Sproles went from one high-octane offense in New Orleans to another that could utilize him even more. Yes, he’ll get whatever touches don’t go to McCoy, but Sproles’s three-season run of 70-plus receptions should continue for at least another year.
Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals
This one’s tough since a quarter of Floyd’s season will be spent lining up against Seattle and San Francisco’s defense, but he showed such promise opposite Larry Fitzgerald last season with 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns.
Floyd is a solid second receiver, and can probably be picked up as late as the ninth or 10 th round but no later.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The quarterback situation in Tampa Bay might be a red flag, but Evans can flourish under Vincent Jackson’s tutelage, and the Bucs will have to throw the ball plenty with a running back corps that might not be 100 percent healthy.
At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Evans has the size and strength to shuck off most defensive backs, and the hands to haul in plenty of touchdowns.
Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
Injuries and inconsistent play plagued his time with the N.Y. Giants, but should he remain healthy Nicks enters a Colts offense that needed a third receiver with Reggie Wayne coming off a serious knee injury, and a banged up running back corps.
Barring injuries, Nicks will at best be a second option for Luck, but he still represents value in the 12th to 14th round.
Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
His 11.4 yards per reception was the most eye-popping stat for Eifert in his rookie year, otherwise he was relatively pedestrian. But with Jermaine Grisham recovering from a hernia, Eifert could get enough camp reps to increase his role in the offense.
Monitor his situation as training camp progresses, and make a decision on draft day. Likely a late-teen pick with tons of upside, especially in keeper leagues.
Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
Antonio Gates just turned 34, and it’s time for San Diego to anoint his replacement. Enter Green, who started eight games last year, and came up with 17 receptions for 376 yards and three scores. His role could grow, and the Chargers had one of the best offenses in the league last year.
Green has tremendous size at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds, and had some good games against Kansas City and Cincinnati’s top defenses. He’s another late-teen pick steal.
Jace Amaro, New York Jets
The rookie Amaro is stuck behind the Jets leading touchdown target Jeff Cumberland, who managed four scores off 26 receptions for 398 yards. Its likely Eric Decker gets the majority of targets in the passing game, but Amaro could emerge as the season progresses.
Amaro might not be worthy of a draft pick just yet, but good news out of training camp is all he needs to move up draft boards.