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Fantasy Football 2012: Sleepers on the Rise Part I

Evan Royster is getting most of the first-team reps. This is yet another reason why the fantasy world would be better had Mike Shanahan just retired.
Evan Royster is getting most of the first-team reps. This is yet another reason why the fantasy world would be better had Mike Shanahan just retired.

There's arguably no greater feeling than hitting a home run on your picks in the last couple rounds of your draft. Yeah, it's a weak argument, but die-hard fantasy owners will probably hit on women by saying, "hey baby, I drafted DeMarco Murray in the 16th round last year and I held him all year. I like holding hot properties." Or not..

My brother still talks about drafting Frank Gore in the 15th round in his sophmore year when the Niners traded Kevin Barlow to the Jets during training camp. That was in 2006 and there has been a handful a breakout players every year.

The new crop of sleepers is starting to ripen and it's time to take note on which players are right at the top of the list to possibly break out. I'm sure my Fake Teams posse and I will discuss ad nauseam which players perform during their preseason games, too. Here's a quick list of guys making waves in training camp:

The following is a list of players on the rise that fantasy owners might want to consider at the end of their draft. Most of these players should be available after the 100th pick in most formats.


Emmanuel Sanders- As I said on Twitter over the weekend, no player has seen a larger rise in value than Emmanuel Sanders. While Mike Wallace is still very likely to to come to an agreement, fantasy owners still have to cover their bases. Sanders would have enormous upside as the split end in Todd Haley's offense. He'd be a very good bet to be a WR2 for most fantasy leagues with the upside of being a low-end WR1.

Bottom Line: Until Wallace signs, I would gladly invest a ninth-round pick in a standard 12-team league on the SMU product.

Josh Gordon- The Browns said that they graded Josh Gordon higher than Justin Blackmon. Gordon is taller, bigger and more sober than Blackmon, so it's not as far-fetched as you might think. Gordon has been impressive in camp so far according to beat writers and is already running with the first team in three-wide sets. Greg Little has moved to the slot in those formations, which indicates that they'll be looking to use Gordon's long-striding 4.5 speed along the sideline. Brandon Weeden throws a nice deep ball and this could be the making of a beautiful friendship.

Bottom Line: I'd still prefer Greg Little at this point, but Gordon has cracked the top 50 on my WR board.

Evan Royster- We're a week into camp and Evan Royster has been taking most of the first-team reps. Just about any fantasy owner can chalk this up to Shanahan giving us more gray hairs, but it has to stand for something, right? Royster was a great pickup for fantasy leagues in Week 16 and 17 with 305 yards on 45 touches combined. The Penn State product did post a monster 5.9 YPC in his rookie campaign over his 56 carries. For what it's worth, Helu had 4.2 and Hightower was the low man with 3.8.

As great as this sounds, don't forget about how important it is to keep their franchise player from getting his shirt dirty. Tim Hightower is one of the best backs in picking up the blitz and Helu has fantastic skills as a safety valve catching passes. Helu caught 14 balls against the Niners in Week 9. This situation is going to get messy.

Bottom Line: Royster showed up at 52 in my latest Running Back Rankings, so he's got a ways to go before he's a player that should be drafted in all leagues. On the flip side, Helu does drop about five spots to the 25-to-30 range. Damn you, Shanahan.

Kyle Rudolph- Every Minnesota beat writer has been raving about Kyle Rudolph and most say he's the best player in camp. His opportunity for success is certainly there with the Vikings fairly thin at receiver and John Carlson suffering a Grade-2 MCL sprain (partial tear) this week. If things keep pace, Rudolph will be a player I'll draft on almost every team.

Bottom Line: The upside of Rudolph makes him a desirable player to draft for any owner that doesn't get one of the G boys at TE (Gronkowski, Graham and Gates). You can call it shortsighted or myopic, but he's my TE9 right now.

Titus Young- The passing of the torch to be the guy next to Megatron could have been passed to Starscream Young. The Lions passed the ball more than any team last year and Young would almost certainly see 100 targets in the event he can pass Nate Burleson. Burleson got 110 targets last year.

Bottom Line: Upside, ya'll. He's a solid WR4 in a 12-team right now.


Jonathan Baldwin- Reports of out Kansas City are that Baldwin has done a fantastic job as the split end in camp. Dwayne Bowe still is almost a lock to be on the field for Week 1, but these extra reps for Baldwin should help build rapport with Matt Cassel. The Pitt Panther wasn't able to debut until Week 7 after breaking his wrist during camp by fighting Thomas Jones. The extra camp time and a full offseason should help him take at least a small leap as a number two wide receiver.

Bottom Line: Baldwin only had one game worth a damn last season -- Week '8s five-catch, 82-yard, one-score game vs. the Chargers. If he has a big preseason, the Chiefs favorable schedule could make him a WR3 for some weeks.

Alshon Jeffery- While everyone has been and will be talking about Brandon Marshall reuniting with the QB that helped him lead the league in targets for 2007 and 2008, you might not want to forget about the guy on the other side. Alshon Jeffery saw his draft stock plummet with his flop in 2011 at South Carolina thanks largely in part to pulling a "Big" Mike Williams and packing on the pounds. Well, it looks like he finally put down the fork and is ready to play in the NFL. The Bears are using packages for him in the red zone and he could be on his way to be lined up as the flanker in most of the two-wide packages. The Bears are going to score a lot of points and Marshall will see a lot of double teams.

Bottom Line: I'd much rather have Josh Gordon. It's not close. Jeffery is creeping near the top 50 for wideouts though.

Davone Bess- The Dolphins and Rams are by far the two cloudiest pictures at receiver. Anyone that claims they know how their depth charts will shake out is just guessing. Ryan Tannehill is starting to get first-team reps and conventional wisdom would suggest that Bess would be best suited to help him succeed. Bess is a slot guy, in the mold of Wes Welker and Percy Harvin, and the Dolphins would likely try to focus on a West Coast system to get the ball out of Tannehill hands faster. David Garrard is also a check-down guy with his completion rate of 63 percent over his last four years as the Jacksonville starter.

Bottom Line: Bess is a decent option in PPR leagues and he has a fair chance to catch 80 balls this season.

Jacquizz Rodgers- Quiz is showing the capability to be a three-down back at camp. This is big because it could lead to him being the workhorse should Turner get burned and miss time. He also could see time as the third-down option and with the Falcons ramping up their passing game, his skills on screens and swing passes could become useful.

Bottom Line: He's a legitimate handcuff at this point. He might become a little more than that with a nice preseason.

Nick Toon- Toon has been making big plays in training camp and it seems like every day a beat writer will say how impressive he is with the ball in the air. Besides Marques Colston, things are wide open for their receiving corps. Lance Moore is really nothing more than a slot guy and Devery Henderson's route tree has about two branches on it.

Bottom Line: Toon has the pedigree to be a big receiver with his dad being one of the best receivers in NYJ history. He isn't worth drafting just yet.

Bilal Powell- Shonn Greene could conceivably be the least talented starter in the NFL not named BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Jets saw him destroy the competition in his rookie year during the playoffs with 304 yards at a 5.6 YPC clip. Since then, it's been a little downhill for the Hawkeye. He averaged 4.1 YPC and only four of his 253 carries went for more than 20 yards in 2011.

Bilal Powell's numbers make Greene's look like Jim Brown's. He had just 1.6 YPC on his 21 carries last year. This training camp Powell has stepped it up and the word on the street is that he looks better than anyone else. He has a solid frame for the Jets ground-and-pound game at 205 pounds and 5-foot-10.

Bottom Line: His sleeper status is still in the embryonic stages, but if Greene doesn't take the next step this year, there's plenty of upside on a team that should be in the top five for rushing attempts.

Montario Hardesty- Hardesty is part of the torn ACL fraternity after he suffered the devastating injury in September 2010. Although, most people wouldn't know it based on how he "looks as fast as ever" at Cleveland's camp. The Browns have not been bashful about saying that rookie Trent Richardson is going to get a huge load at tailback. Consequently, the more carries he gets, the more chances he'll have to get injured. Hardesty could set himself up for a featured role sans the rookie phenom.

Bottom Line: He's nothing more than a handcuff for Richardson right now.

IDP Bonus

Chandler Jones- I ranked John "Bones" Jones' brother in IDP Defensive Line Rankings and he could be climbing to DL2 status. He has been receiving starters' reps at practice and he's a guy I wouldn't mind using in a spot start against the Titans Week 1.

Thanks for reading!