Around late July, just as training camps are about to start, another type of training also begins: preparation for the fantasy football season. Everyone knows the stars to draft in the first and second rounds, but this column looks at players who will fly under the radar. You would not draft any of these in the early rounds, but they would be solid picks for you late in order to gain a leg up on your competitors. That's why they're sleepers.
Honorable mention sleepers: Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens, Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
#3 sleeper: Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
Once upon a time, Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. In Cincinnati, he was showered with incredible receivers such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson (later, Ochocinco, and then later, back to Johnson) and Palmer was considered a top tier fantasy candidate. Palmer has not been a great fantasy play for the past few seasons because of his age and the lack of talent around him when he was in Oakland.
He's in the twilight of his career at age 35, but I think he still has a few good years ahead of him. Despite being injured last season and only playing six games, he finished his season with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions, never throwing for less than 240 yards. He's been rehabbing his torn ACL since Week 10 of last season, and will be ready for training camp. Plus, he has talent that could mirror the talent he had back in Cincinnati with a receiving corps in future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald, former first-round pick Michael Floyd, Jaron Brown, and John Brown, plus a coach that loves the big play. This combined with a less-than-stellar running game gives Palmer the green light to be a solid fantasy contributor this season.
#2 sleeper: Eli Manning, New York Giants
I feel like Eli Manning will always be underrated. A large reason for that is his brother Peyton, the new leader of all-time touchdowns. Peyton is the better quarterback, but Eli does have two Super Bowl rings to Peyton's one. In 2013, Eli threw 27 interceptions with just 18 touchdowns. That alarmed fantasy owners to stay away from him in 2014. However, he had a bounce-back year last year with 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. A large part of that had to do with an improved receiving corps and a new system headed by Ben McAdoo, Aaron Rodgers' former quarterback coach. With another year in McAdoo's system, along with one of the deepest receiving corps in the game in Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, and Rueben Randle, and newbie receiving back Shane Vereen, don't be surprised if Manning's fantasy stock rises this year.
#1 sleeper: Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
Tannehill is entering his fourth season in the NFL, and slides very under the radar because he plays for a team that has failed to make the playoffs with him under center. The Dolphins have been on the doorstep of the playoffs the past two seasons but have failed to make that final step. It can't be blamed much on Tannehill, who threw for more than 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. The Dolphins have made progress this offseason to improve their team on both sides of the ball. Not only did they win the big prize of free agency in Ndamukong Suh, but they also gave Tannehill some new toys to play with. While they sent Mike Wallace to the Vikings, they brought in speedster Kenny Stills from the Saints and they used their first-round pick on DeVante Parker from Louisville. Oh, and they got 2013 fantasy stud and real-life stud TE Jordan Cameron from the Browns. Tannehill might not be the flashiest name on the board, but getting him along with a top-tier RB and WR will make you a force to be reckoned with.
Running backs are definitely a tricky position in fantasy because there are so many of them who can contribute. Try getting running backs on teams who don't run a running-back-by-committee. Therefore, try to avoid drafting any running backs as a starter from any of the following teams: Jets, Patriots, Titans, Jaguars, Browns, Eagles (yes, even with rushing yards champ DeMarco Murray, the Eagles will likely run a committee with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles), Giants, Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers and Rams.
Honorable mention sleepers: Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers, Joique Bell, Detroit Lions
#3 sleeper: Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers
If you want to draft any rookies at the running back position for your fantasy team this year, then Gordon is your guy. In 2014 at Wisconsin, Gordon ran for more than 2,500 yards, and in six games, he had more than 200 yards of rushing. Very impressive for a guy who got more carries his senior year than his first three years combined. With Ryan Mathews out the door, Gordon walks into a situation where the starting job can be his right out of the gate. There are other running backs in San Diego looking to take away some reps like Branden Oliver, who ran for almost 600 yards last season, but will most likely be used in third-down situations. And there is Danny Woodhead, who is coming off a 2014 where he spent most of the year on IR with a broken leg, who will be used mostly as a receiving back. It's very difficult for a team to use a first-round pick on a running back and not start them. The Chargers are counting on Gordon to revitalize their running game, which has been somewhat inconsistent over the past few seasons. He's definitely an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, and a Fantasy Rookie of the Year candidate.
#2 sleeper: Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders
Through Week 10 of last season, Latavius Murray had six carries for 11 yards. By the end of the season, he had 424 yards. Murray started 2014 deep on Oakland's depth chart behind veterans Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew. The Raiders lost their first 10 games, and they were out of the playoff race, so they allowed their rookie running back to gain more carries. In their first win of the season, Latavius Murray had only four carries, but two of them went for touchdowns and one went 90 yards. On top of that, he left the game with a concussion as the Raiders beat the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football for their first win of the season. Murray failed to eclipse 100 yards or reach the end zone in his last four games, but his potential is real. He can also contribute as a pass catcher. His backup is Roy Helu, coming in from Washington, but all signs point to Murray being the starter. His coach is Jack Del Rio, who worked with great Jacksonville running backs like Fred Taylor and Jones-Drew, who won a rushing title in Del Rio's offense. Murray could get 1,000+ yards and surprise a lot of people.
#1 sleeper: Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
Miller quietly ran for almost 1,100 yards last season without carrying the ball more than 20 times in a game. He scored eight touchdowns, and that was as part of a committee for most of the season, either splitting carries with Knowshon Moreno or Daniel Thomas. This year, his backup is Jay Ajayi, a fifth-round rookie from Boise State who dealt with injuries in college. Ajayi's workload should be steady and may get featured in third down situations. But Miller is definitely the Dolphins running back you want to have. I think a full year as a starter in the Dolphins' lineup will only show improvement from Miller and he could definitely be a sneaky mid-round pick-up that could give you RB1 numbers as an RB2 or a FLEX.
Honorable mention sleepers: Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles, Jeremy Maclin, Kansas City Chiefs
#3 sleeper: Breshad Perriman, Baltimore Ravens
Perriman really couldn't have asked for a better situation to walk into when he was drafted 26th overall by the Ravens this past May. Torrey Smith left the Ravens to join the 49ers, and Perriman will be asked to contribute immediately and fill his shoes. That's a big step for the rookie out of Central Florida, but he has two things that will make him stand out over other rookies. First, he has a great mentor on the opposite side of the field in Steve Smith, Sr. and second, he has a former Super Bowl MVP, Joe Flacco, as his quarterback. Standing at 6'3'', Perriman will be a red zone target. Torrey Smith had 11 TDs last season and with Perriman inheriting his spot, this bodes well for the rookie. Before the draft process began, most scouts had Perriman as a second- or third-round pick. However, his 4.26 40-yard dash had him climbing up draft boards. He's played with an NFL quarterback before (Jaguars QB Blake Bortles) and he was a part of that Central Florida team that won the 2014 Fiesta Bowl in an upset over Baylor, which put Bortles on the map. He also had an eye-opening, please-rewind Hail Mary catch against East Carolina last season that ended up on SportsCenter's Top 10. If you're looking for a rookie who has the most potential to break out at the wide receiver position this season and has some of the best hair in the league, Perriman is your guy.
#2 sleeper: Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
Cooks is probably the most forgotten player in last year's amazing rookie class of receivers because his season ended in Week 11 after a thumb injury forced him onto IR. He has all the reasons in the world to get on the same level as those of his rookie class this season. First, his quarterback is former Super Bowl MVP, current McDreamy doppelganger, and future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees. Secondly, he finished second in targets with the Saints last year despite only playing 10 games. The only guy to receive more targets is Jimmy Graham, who is no longer with the team. Also, Kenny Stills is out of the picture as well, meaning the deep threat of the team is Cooks. Third, the former Oregon State speedster was also used in running plays last season, one of which resulted in a touchdown in a win over the Green Bay Packers. Cooks is the featured playmaker in the Saints' offense this season. And in an offense that always loves to score and does it quite frequently, it's always nice to have the guy most likely to score on your squad.
#1 sleeper: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Despite being WR2 on Houston's depth chart last season, Hopkins finished the season with over 1,200 yards and was a Top 15 WR. Now, with Andre Johnson wearing a rival Colts uniform, Hopkins has been handed the keys to Houston's offense as its primary playmaker. Houston had a rough QB situation last season, playing four throughout the season. And this year's situation isn't that much clearer with Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett in a battle for the starting position. During Mallett's healthy game in 2014 against the Cleveland Browns (he played injured in his start against the Cincinnati Bengals, effectively ending his season), Hopkins had four catches for 80 yards as the WR2. He eclipsed 100 yards on four separate occasions last season and found the end zone six times. And he had a career game against the Titans in week 13, catching the ball nine times for 238 yards and two scores. The sky is the limit for Hopkins as he enters 2015.
Honorable mention sleepers: Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins, Tyler Eifert, Bengals
#3 sleeper: Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions
Ebron was drafted #10 overall last season, which means the Lions think he can play. The Lions played a very interesting trick when they brought in Golden Tate to the offense. Although it seemed like Calvin Johnson would be the prime playmaker in the offense, it was actually Tate who led the team in yards. Granted, Johnson missed three games, and played most of the 13 other games less than 100%, but Tate was a playmaker. In coach Jim Caldwell's second year, he may unleash another unexpected playmaking source in Ebron. He's been working hard this offseason with his quarterback Matthew Stafford, and if the Lions are going to return to the playoffs, the offense needs to stay fresh and powerful with the defense losing Ndamukong Suh. Look for Ebron to potentially be that guy.
#2 sleeper: Owen Daniels, Denver Broncos
Daniels is playing for his third team in three seasons. However, he's played for new Broncos coach Gary Kubiak for 10 years, his entire career, so he knows the system by now. And we all know how Peyton Manning loves his tight ends. He turned Marcus Pollard, Dallas Clark and Julius Thomas into stars, and although Daniels may not turn into a star, you better believe he'll see the end zone. Even after 10 years, he's durable, smart, and talented for a tight end. He may not catch 12 TDs like Julius Thomas did in 12 games last season, but he is definitely a threat to score every week, and that's always something good to have on your fantasy team.
#1 sleeper: Josh Hill, New Orleans Saints
Other than Who Dat Nation, Hill isn't well known in the rest of the league, but I have a feeling that is going to change this season. He had only 14 catches last season, but five of them resulted in a touchdown. Hill is going to step into the position that has been occupied by Jimmy Graham, the No. 1 fantasy TE for the past several seasons. Hill definitely has a lot of potential being in the spot on a team that likes to throw to the tight end. Hill won't be taken early in drafts, but definitely has the potential to be the most pleasant surprise in not only tight ends this season, but all of fantasy football and the NFL.
Fantasy football is all about debate, so reply in the comments if you agree or disagree with my picks. Football season is upon us finally! Happy Fantasy Season everyone!