Fantasy Football Sleepers for 2013: You're Welcome
The NFL season is over three months away, but there are players at every position that you’ll like more than me this season. By the same token, there are a handful of players you’re sleeping on a bit that need to be moved up your ranking list before you draft for this season. You’re welcome.
Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins):
Some may consider Tannehill’s rookie campaign a disappointment given the expectations that came with his high draft position, but there are plenty of reasons to like the soon-to-be 25-year-old. While some may look at his 12:13 touchdown to interception ratio and dismiss his potential as a backup level fantasy QB, I’m encouraged by the low interception total and believe his TD mark will rise with the addition of Mike Wallace. In a league that is placing more and more importance on the pass game, the fact that Tannehill threw fewer interceptions on a per pass basis (one interception every 37.2 pass attempts) during his rookie season than proven fantasy commodities Tom Brady (22.0), Tony Romo (27.4), and Drew Brees (32.9) did in their first season with 400+ passes.
My optimism regarding his TD growth is twofold: his natural progression after having 16 games to adjust to the speed of the NFL and the weapons added to his arsenal. The acquisition of Brandon Gibson went under the radar, but he has very quietly progressed into a reasonable third receiver. His yards-per-catch have increased in each of the last four seasons, peaking at 13.5 last season with the Rams. Over the last two seasons, Gibson has caught a pass of at least 20 yards in the majority of games, allowing him to mix nicely with the possession style of Brian Hartline (set career highs with 74 catches, 128 targets, and 1,083 yards) and the down the field threat of Wallace (averages a TD every 7.3 receptions for his career).
The Dolphins lack a true running game as they will rely on Lamar Miller to handle the load, and with the 11 games either in Florida or in a dome, Miami’s 2013 season should cater to the growth of their franchise QB. Due to the depth at quarterback, Tannehill won’t be an elite option this season, but don’t be surprised if he ranks ahead of super bowl champions Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco in fantasy value when all is said and done. He peaked late last season, as he had more passing yards for the season and a better touchdown to interception in December than …
Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks):
Twelve months ago, Wilson was “too short” to have extended success in the NFL, and now he is considered the future of the QB position. After an impressive rookie campaign he vaulted into the top 10 at his position in most ranks, and after the addition of Percy Harvin, some analysts went as far to place him in (or even atop) the second tier of fantasy QB after the Big Three (Rodgers, Brees, Brady). Is it possible that he went from underrated out of Wisconsin to overrated in just one season?
First, the depth at the quarterback position and sheer volume of passes being thrown these days both work against moving Wilson into the QB1 territory, let alone top 5 status. He tied for 25th in pass attempts last season (90 fewer attempts than Christian Ponder), something that limits his week to week upside. He ranks in the same tier as players like Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, and Andrew Luck, all of whom ranked in the top five in pass attempts in 2012. The argument here isn’t against the talent of Wilson, but the efficiency he has to exhibit given the low number of attempts. Now, is it possible that Coach Carroll gives Wilson a heavier workload this season? Sure. But with a healthy 27-year-old Marshawn Lynch (20 games with at least 130 total yards or a touchdown in his last 28 games), the Seahawks figure to still be a run first team. Scan the rankings of the top 10 or so running backs and you’ll be hard pressed to find one (maybe the Redskins depending how you rank Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III) team that also has a top 10 fantasy QB. Lynch is the proven commodity, and while Wilson made great strides last year, Beast Mode is the straw that stirs this drink.
In his rookie season, Wilson posted a 19:3 touchdown to interception ratio against non divisional opponents. While his schedule isn’t exactly brutal, but averaging over six touchdowns per turnover is tall task. Inside of his division, the Cardinals and 49ers allowed a total of 0 quality starts (300+ passing yards with at least two more touchdowns than interceptions) to opposing quarterbacks. Not only do those opponents make up 25% of Seattle’s schedule, they are also two of their final three opponents this fantasy season (excluding week 17). Wilson is a talented player, but his gritty nature has more value in the real world than it does in the fantasy world. In a fantasy vacuum that is simply worried about total numbers, I’ll take any of those pass happy QB’s along with Matt Ryan over Wilson this season.
Vick Ballard (Indianapolis Colts):
The Colts’ passing game got all of the attention last year, but their second half surge directly coincided with Ballard’s increased role. During Indianapolis’ 2-3 start, Ballard averaged less than six carries a game, failing to exceed 2.4 yards per carry four times. However, during their 9-2 stretch to end the regular season, Ballard ran the ball 16.5 times per game, recording double digit fantasy points four times in December. Andrew Luck ranked fifth in the league in pass attempts but 31st (just behind Mark Sanchez) in completion percentage. The Colts figure to focus more on balance in year two of the Andrew Luck era, and with constant injury concerns surrounding Donald Brown (averages 10.5 touches per game over his career), Ballard’s time could be now.
The Colts schedule lines up for a late season run nicely, as they face the porous Titans, Jaguars, and Chiefs in December. Furthermore, when Ballard was given at least 18 touches last season — a total that would be reasonable to assume he gets if he lands the starting gig — he totaled at least 98 yards or a TD 83.3% of the time last season. He appears to be the future of the Colts backfield, and with Luck learning on the job, Ballard could very well prove to be a mid level RB as opposed to an RB3 this season.
Stevan Ridley (New England Patriots):
Typically I am all for taking an undervalued running back that plays on a pass happy offense, figuring that he will make the most of the touches he sees against six or seven man fronts. That strategy, however, isn’t pertinent when you have to spend a second round pick on such a player. That is where Ridley is currently being ranked, which means he will not be on a single one of my teams and shouldn’t be on yours either.
The Patriots starter scored 12 times last season, providing his fantasy owners with production nearly every week. But can you really count on that again? Tom Brady has increased his pass attempts over each of the last three seasons, so let’s use New England’s 56/44 pass to run split from last season as a ceiling. The Patriots ran 1,186 plays last season, meaning they ran the ball 522 times last season. Brady has averaged 36.5 carries per season over his career and has been increasingly effective around the goal line (his seven rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons matched his total from the nine previous seasons).
For arguments sake, let’s give Brady 37 carries. This offseason, New England added LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington to a backfield that already included Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Would it be crazy to assume that each of those capable backs averages 3.5 carries per game? We have accounted for exactly half of New England’s carries, and when you consider that Ridley is nearly irrelevant in the passing game (nine catches in 32 games); you’re looking at a maximum of 265 touches in 2013 (a 10.5% drop off in touches from last season). Adjust his outstanding 2012 campaign by 10.5% and you’ve got yourself the 14th-ranked RB. And that ranking would be operating under the assumption that Ridley can repeat his scoring clip of one touchdown per 24.17 carries (ranking him behind only Arian Foster of all running backs with at least 230 carries in 2012). I believe the touchdown total drops off, resulting in a 2013 ceiling that looks more like last year’s DeAngelo Williams (924 total yards and seven touchdowns) than the low end RB1 or high end RB2 that he is being considered by most.
Danario Alexander (San Diego Chargers):
We know the book on DX: a gifted athlete with tremendous upside if he can keep his surgically repaired knees reasonably healthy. Steph Curry entered this NBA season with a similar story, and his fantasy owners were OK with risking a top 20 overall pick on him, overlooking the downside for the potential greatness. For every Curry story there is a Greg Oden counterpoint, but rarely do high risk/reward players show how good they can be (Alexander averaged 86 yards and a TD over his last seven games with a catch last season) and remain undervalued. With the Chargers top WR being ranked as a low end WR2 or WR3 entering this season, the risk is marginal when compared to his ceiling.
When drafting a player with great potential, both for production and injury, you are looking for a hot start. This would put you either in a position to sell high or ride his hot streak, both options give you more value than most players generally ranked in the mid 30’s at their position. Jumping out of the gate in a big way seems like a good bet for Alexander as the Chargers open with three games against teams that rank in the bottom six in terms of touchdowns surrendered through the air last season. Their first two opponents were snake bitten by the long ball (40+ yards) 11 times apiece last season, an encouraging sign for a 6’5” receiver who hauled in a 20+ yard pass in every game in which he was targeted.
Phillip Rivers has been the center of some hate in the fantasy world, but he has thrown for at least 3,600 yards in each of the five seasons. In each of those seasons, a player averaged at least 17 yards per reception, a great sign for Alexander owners in 2013. The big play is difficult to count on, but with Rivers constantly producing a big play threat, why not take a chance?
Given his elite physical gifts, above average quarterback play, and San Diego’s early season schedule, I’m targeting DX ahead of a other number one options like Cecil Shorts, Stevie Johnson, Tavon Austin, and …
Greg Jennings (Minnesota Vikings):
Jennings has had a pretty solid QB situation since entering the League, parlaying Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers for the first seven seasons of his career. Things are a little different in Minnesota where the Vikings lean heavily on Adrian Peterson and have possessed an average at best aerial attack since the Favre trial fizzled out for them in 2010. The change from being a vital piece in a well oiled machine in Green Bay to being the lone receiving threat on a run based offense has led to Jennings no longer being viewed as a WR1 or even a strong WR2 in most formats, but I contend that his stock more resembles that of a WR3 for this season.
Jennings has played 21 games over the last two seasons, and given the Vikings passing woes, he may need 21 games this season to produce the numbers that come to mind when you hear his name. A healthy Jennings had a three year average (2008-2010) of 1,223 yards per season, but the Vikings top two pass catchers managed just 1,170 yards via reception last season. Percy Harvin covered a lot of flaws with his versatility, but with him in Seattle, the Vikings pass game figures to be exposed. Teams are going to stack the box, and even if it’s a pass play, can Christian Ponder identify the mismatch quick enough? He hasn’t proven it thus far, and without a elite playmaker, it is hard to imagine Jennings reaching 1,000 yards. A season that mirrors Larry Fitzgerald’s 2012 in both numbers (798 yards and four touchdowns) and inflated name value.
Jermichael Finley (Green Bay Packers):
The Packers are going to throw the ball, and without Jennings in town, simple logic would say that Finley gets more looks by default. Despite a slow start to 2012, Finley managed to record 61 catches for 667 yards, numbers that are borderline TE1 in standard leagues. The disappointment came in his two total touchdowns, resulting in not one but two stretches of at least six games without finding paydirt. However, with the departure of Jennings (nearly 11 touchdowns per 16 games over the last three seasons) and the inevitable decline in TD rate from James Jones (scored 14 times in 2013, essentially 3.5x his per 16 game average over his first five seasons), Finley appears to be in a good spot to catch at least a handful of touchdowns.
Finley got into a bit of a verbal spat with Aaron Rodgers last season, and began producing once the air was cleared. He registered 42.6% of his receptions in the final month of the season, proving that he is once again a viable threat in this passing game. With more scoring upside and likely more targets, Finley could produce Dennis Pitta numbers (669 yards and seven touchdowns), landing him among the starting tight ends in your fantasy league.
Heath Miller (Pittsburgh Steelers):
A similar argument can be made against Miller that was made against Jennings. Who else are teams going to worry about in the passing game? The main difference is that Miller has a QB he trusts and has been remarkably consistent with over the past eight seasons.
He will be turning 31 years old this season and is coming off of an ACL/PCL injury (injured on December 23) that has pushed back his offseason workout schedule. Miller’s constant value over the past eight seasons has been a product of playing nearly every game (five missed games) as opposed to big play upside, and with his health no win serious question, his value plummets. Even when completely healthy, you’re looking at 50 catches for 600 yards and a handful of touchdowns, numbers that are no longer strong from the increasing important TE position. I’ve seen him ranked as a top 15 TE in some spots, but his lack of upside and health concerns scare me far away from such a ranking. In fact, regardless of the size of the league, I’d rather swing for the fences with a late round flier on a guy like Fred Davis (also an injury risk, but a younger player with a higher ceiling) and play the free agency pool if he doesn’t pan out. Simply put, I’m not extending myself to draft an aging player with health concerns and almost no reasonable upside.
If you’re just getting into the swing of fantasy football, you’re welcome. Do what you’d like with your draft guide, but think twice about drafting some of these high profile players. On the flip side, there is comparable value to be had much later in the draft.