Last week I took a look at some possible sleepers for this upcoming NFL season in the NFC East. They were mostly deep sleepers, guys that likely would not be drafted but also guys that I want to keep an eye on because I think they have the potential for more. But that's all a sleeper really is: A guy with potential for more.
Shouldn't really matter whether its an undrafted player or a player that's a third round pick that winds up as the top player in fantasy. In fact, it's usually a surprise player that winds up as the top scorer. Most drafts did not have LeSean McCoy as the top pick last season, but even with an ADP of 6, it turned out that it was too low for McCoy. In some respects, he was a sleeper.
I continue my trek across the NFL looking for sneaky sleepers and I stay out East for a look at some AFC teams. Starting with the...
Last season the Patriots had an explosive offense but despite the fact that they've had an explosive offense for many years, they still had a bunch of guys that outplayed their draft positions. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Deion Branch basically comprised all of the passing offense with Tom Brady and all overperformed where most expected them to perform. Even BenJarvus Green-Ellis did what he does: scored 11 touchdowns with 667 yards. The only real disappointment was Chad Ochocinco and any team that did not have Gronkowski.
Last year many teams brutalized opponents by drafting multiple Patriots, especially the Brady to Gronkowski (or Welker) connection and I suspect that the exact same thing will happen this year. Expect a lot of leagues to have a Brady-Welker-Gronk trio if they can manage to pull it off. (It's still a little too early for me to guesstimate exact draft positions.)
But is that the trio that is actually going to be the most productive or the most valuable to you? Is it better to spend a higher pick on Gronk and Welker or go deeper-fishing with some other Patriots? New England brought in some familiar names over the off-season and they already had some names on the roster that could be ready to break out thanks to some opportunities presented. My sleeper for the Patriots is...
Brandon Lloyd, WR
It has been a rather conspicuous/inconspicuous career for Lloyd who went from a fourth round pick of the 49ers to putting up some highlight reel catches in an otherwise unremarkable and inconsistent career that bounced him around from team to team until he broke off 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010. Everything clicked for him and he was in just the right offense and just the right time to make him a number one fantasy receiver.
Still inconsistent perhaps but if you are in the right place at the right time, the numbers can still rack up. Those numbers didn't really boost his fantasy draft stock a whole lot in 2011 as most expected things to dip without Josh McDaniels running the team and just based off of the fact that the 30-year-old Lloyd had never come close to numbers like that before. No, he didn't come close to 1,448 yards but Lloyd quietly had 70 catches for 966 yards and 5 touchdowns with Kyle Orton and Sam Bradford as his main quarterbacks all season long.
He had 51 catches for 683 yards in 11 games for the Rams, the worst offense in the NFL. Not too shabby when you look at it in context and now there is new context for Lloyd: The New England Patriots, who also happen to have an offensive coordinator by the name of Josh McDaniels.
At this point, Lloyd is in a battle for targets with Branch, Julian Edelman, Donte Stallworth, and Jabar Gaffney, but I believe he'll eventually rise up and make himself very comfortable with Tom Brady. He reportedly had great OTAs and is separating himself from the pack a bit. Of course, I would keep an eye on the rest of those names too as we get closer to week one, but I fully expect Brandon Lloyd to outplay his draft position by a wide margin this year. He's just a bit too overlooked... again.
Without being able to think of a great option, I decided to go big or go home with a selection that depends highly upon what happens in the next couple of months but still worth an early look. Let's suppose that there's no question that Mark Sanchez is the starter going into the year though. Then what?
In this case, I see a starting quarterback that is not very good. As far as being a passer goes, I would rate Sanchez as something like a 4/10 rating and Tebow as like a 2/10 rating. However, Tebow possesses a skillset with his legs that's unmatched by 98% of NFL quarterbacks which means... well, it means that my funniest-most-forward-to-looking-to-make-fun-of storyline of the 2012 NFL season is that Sanchez and Tebow are actually on the same team.
I was hardpressed to think of two worse passing QBs in 2011 than Sanchez and Tebow and now they are BFFs. Which also tells me that Sanchez will be hearing this a lot after every mistake in New York: "TEEEE-BOWWWW. TEEEEE-BOWWWWW. TEEEEE-BOWWWWW."
Unless Sanchez becomes a better passer this year, Tebow will get his shot.
Of course, maybe Sanchez will become a better passer. His numbers over his first three years in the league are not good (his 26 touchdowns last season might seem great on the surface, but his 56.7% completions and 6.4 yards per attempt show that he's much more than a touch behind the good NFL quarterbacks) but I've seen plenty of quarterbacks struggle to begin and then figure it out 3-5 years after the fact. Drew Brees being a prime example.
But that also doesn't mean that Sanchez will and so I find myself wondering about Tebow, a player I advocated you pick up when he was named starter last year not because of his arm but his ability to create touchdowns. Last year Tebow made 13 starts and he scored at least one touchdown in all but two of them, including his playoff loss to the Patriots.
You can certainly find quarterbacks that are better passers or guys that will have those 4 TD/0 INT games, but it's still rare to find a guy that you feel is almost a guarantee to score at least one touchdown during any given game. Tebow managed 21 touchdowns over those 13 games and threw just 6 interceptions. Compare that to Sanchez's 16 starts: 26 TD and 18 INT.
I don't think that there's any doubt that Sanchez is a better "quarterback" than Tebow, and I'd hardly call what Tebow does as "quarterbacking" at all, but whatever it is, it seems to produce touchdowns on a consistent basis and in fantasy football that's all that I care about. It's hard to see exactly what role Tebow will play on the team this year, and that's why I think he makes a fantastic sleeper.
Buffalo Bills Defense
All of these offensive players in the AFC East that I name as sleepers may have to contend with a much bigger sleeper in the division: The Bills Defense.
Yes, the Bills defense.
Last year the Bills were 30th in scoring defense and 26th in total defense, and allowed the 3rd most rushing touchdowns in the league. This is a passing league now, so at least get beat in the air like everybody else. Buffalo allowed over 30 points seven times and over 40 points twice last year. In an effort to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, Buffalo has focused most of it's efforts on the defensive side of the ball and it may actually pay off this year.
First the Bills fired defensive coordinator George Edwards and promoted Dave Wannstedt to the position, 13 years after he last held that position in the NFL. Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys from 1989-1992 (getting them to the top of the league in that category) and the Dolphins in 1999. He was also head coach of the Bears from 1993-1998, the Dolphins from 2000-2004 and then spent six years coaching Pitt at the collegiate level. The newest task for the 60-year-old Wannstedt: Getting the Bills to be an elite defense.
They're certainly giving him the tools and ridding Buffalo of excuses.
The Bills made the biggest move of the off-season by signing Mario Williams to the largest contract in team history to help accommodate their switch to a 4-3 defense. Lining up opposite of Williams will be the newly acquired Mark Anderson, who had 10 sacks for the Patriots last season. Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick in 2011, will enter his second season in the middle with a healthy Pro Bowl DT in Kyle Williams.
On top of that, the Bills used the 10th overall selection on CB Stephen Gilmore, who some considered to be the best defensive back in the class and might turn into a shutdown cover corner.
Add it all up and yes, the Bills have all the makings of a top 10 defense if it all works out right. Also, outside of their two matchups with New England, it doesn't seem like the Bills have a lot to worry about on the schedule with the likes of Miami twice, the Jets twice, Chiefs, Browns, 49ers, Cardinals, Titans, Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Rams, and Seahawks.
Not all shlubs but not many that would worry you as of today in terms of offense. You get the Browns and Rams. Just more reason to believe that Buffalo might become a top 5 fantasy defense at a much cheaper price.
Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins
I don't find much to go on in Miami for sleepers. I think that Matt Moore or David Garrard might be sneaky. Then again, who the hell are they going to throw it to? Unless Chad Ochocinco summons the ghost of Chad Johnson, who is a number one receiver in Miami? Legedu Naanee? Davone Bess? Brian Hartline?
I still like Reggie Bush, but he'll be over-drafted. I am interested in Steve Slaton still and I am curious about Lamar Miller, but I am still left coming back to Thomas, who was supposed to be a sleeper last year that got overhyped as a legitimate number one running back despite his lack of a single NFL carry and not being on a great offense. Well, the start of his career was great: 107 yards in week two against the Texans and 95 yards in week three against the Browns.
However, injuries and inconsistency plagued the rookie and he finished with 581 yards and 0 rushing touchdowns in 13 games with 3.52 yards per carry. But hey, that's sometimes what happens to rookies. He didn't have very many good games but he's still the talented running back that was a beast at Kansas State and a second round pick in 2011, which is why I expect that even though he'll get overlooked in drafts, he has all the makings of a great sleeper.
How well will Bush do in the followup to his breakout season? How much can we rely on the new rookie, Miller? What day do you have in the "Steve Slaton to IR" pool?
Thomas... post-hype sleeper alert.