By JEFF PAUR
Sr Fantasy Writer
RealTime Fantasy Sports
Greg Little ready to emerge
Sleepers, sleepers and more sleepers. Yes, everyone loves a sleeper. Owners love to be the guy that drafted some relative unknown that blossomed into a legitimate fantasy star, leading them to the playoffs. Finding that diamond in the rough can be the key to your fantasy season. The big issue is trying to identify those players, which is never easy.
Jordy Nelson was a great example of a player that was on my sleeper list last season. Nelson had a career season the previous year, notching nearly 600 yards. He made his biggest mark in the playoffs, though, helping the Packers earn a Super Bowl title in 2010. Nelson had 21 receptions for 286 yards and two touchdowns in three playoff games.
Nelson was the top target for the Packers' passing game most weeks during the playoffs. I figured he would use that momentum for the coming season, which is exactly what he did. Plus, Nelson was poised to get more playing time at receiver with Donald Driver aging. He was setup for a big season in a prolific offense. And if you happened to draft Nelson last season, you likely did well as he had a monster, breakout year.
Nelson is just one example, though. Every season there is a group of players that live up to their potential and carry fantasy teams into the playoffs. As mentioned, the key is identifying those players and knowing where to take them during your draft.
On the flip side, there always are a group of players that don't live up to the hype. Last season, Peyton Hillis was a bust. But many had this predicted, including me. Hillis had a monster 2010 that carried many fantasy teams to championships. But Hillis faded down the stretch during his big year, failing to score a touchdown the last five games while rushing for fewer than 60 yards in all but one of those games. It seemed a stretch to see Hillis come anywhere near his production, especially in a Browns' offense that had plenty of struggles. Needless to say, Hillis lived up to expectations last season, battling injury and failing to do much even when playing. He didn't finish near his draft status, which burnt many fantasy owners in 2011.
Once again, the key is to do your homework and figure out the players on the rise or setup for a poor season. Below is my take on some sleepers and busts for the coming season. We'll start with the sleepers.
Rookie David Wilson has some potential for the Giants. He will be the top backup to Ahmad Bradshaw, who hasn't been the healthiest back the last few seasons. Bradshaw is no sure thing to make to through the season healthy with his history of ankle issues. Plus, the Giants like to use two backs, so even if Bradshaw is healthy and running well, expect Wilson to get plenty of chances in a backup role. Wilson has some upside for big things in a great offense his rookie season, making him worth a late-round grab for fantasy teams.
The Browns certainly had their struggles offensively last year but receiver Greg Little was one of the few bright spots. The rookie was erratic but flashed some good things at times, having a 100-yard game Week 15 and finishing with just more than 700-receiving yards despite getting terrible quarterback play much of the season. Little is poised for a breakout second season. Remember, he was pretty raw last year. Little should be a more polished product in year two and serve as the No. 1 receiver in the offense. And now he has a better quarterback (Brandon Weeden) throwing him passes.
You probably forgot about him after missing all of his rookie year with a torn Achilles, but Mikel Leshoure will be in the mix for carries with the Lions. He should be about 100 percent to start the season. And with Jahvid Best battling concussion issues, Leshoure could play a big role with the team if he proves recovered from his injury. Leshoure has the potential to be the red-zone back in an explosive offense, giving him a ton of touchdown potential.
The Texans have been searching for a legit starter opposite Andre Johnson for several seasons. Houston hopes to have found that guy in rookie Devier Posey. He'll be given every chance to start opposite of Johnson, who is coming off an injury-plagued season for the first time in his career. Posey could play a big role in this offense from day one. And he has the skill set to do well. For a rookie, Posey is a well-rounded receiver that runs solid routes and knows how to get open. He is a big kid that uses his frame well to shield defenders and get open. You never know with rookie receivers but Posey certainly seems like a guy that could make a big impact as a rookie, making him worth a late-round gamble come draft day.
Reggie Bush ran wild for the Dolphins last year, having his best season to date as the starter for much of the year in Miami. Daniel Thomas didn't have quite the rookie season as expected, battling injury and watching Bush have a breakout year. But Thomas still has a future as the possible No. 1 back in Miami. The Dolphins have a new offense this year that likely suits Thomas as starter better than Bush. Don't discount Thomas to start and get all the goal-line work for the Dolphins. He is a good buy-low candidate after a below-average rookie campaign. Remember, before getting hurt early in the year, Thomas had 239 total yards in the first two games he played.
The Jaguars used a first-round pick on Blaine Gabbert in 2011 but that doesn't mean he is going to be the surefire starter for the Jags. There is a new coaching staff in place that will put the best guy in there to win. And with what Gabbert showed last season, it likely isn't him. Gabbert might open the season as starter but look for Chad Henne to take over in the near future. Henne gives the team the best chance to win. He had some big games with the Dolphins while starting and a fresh start with a good offensive mind (Mike Mularkey) as his head coach could be just the thing to jumpstart Henne as a pro. Plus, the Jaguars added several new receivers to the mix, which should make the passing game much more exciting.
Cincinnati let last year's starter Cedric Benson walk and signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to take over the starting duties. But the Bengals continue to insist Bernard Scott will be in the mix more at running back. Scott hasn't excelled when given more chances in the past but it seems this season might be his best chance for more work. Green-Ellis could have his struggles away from the Patriots' offense and in a system that might not suit him best. It wouldn't surprise to see Scott getting double-digit touches before long, especially if he can improve his pass-catching skills. Scott is a playmaker that could finish with career best numbers in total yards this season.
Christian Ponder didn't open his rookie season as the starter for the Vikings but got his chance to start about half the season. And while his numbers weren't off the charts, he had five multiple touchdown games, showing some fantasy potential. The Vikings remain a bit thin at receiver but showed last season they aren't afraid to throw the ball. Ponder will get his chances and is capable of the big game in this offense. He'll be worth some spot starts throughout the year. He also has some rushing ability, topping 200-rushing yards last season.
Those were some sleepers for the coming season. Now for the flip side. The guys you might want to avoid come draft day. Here is a compilation of some busts for 2012.
The first guy on the bust list is Broncos running back Willis McGahee. He had a career season and carried the Broncos' offense at times last year, posting consistent numbers. McGahee is 30 years old, though, with a history of knee injuries and moves into an offense this year with Peyton Manning at the helm. You can expect a lot more passes than runs this season, which doesn't bode well for McGahee. And while McGahee posted huge yardage totals last season, he scored just five touchdowns. Don't overvalue him come draft day.
If you look at this overall numbers, Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey looked just fine for fantasy teams last season. But Heyward-Bey was all over the map for fantasy teams. He had three 100-yard games but also had two games without even a reception. Heyward-Bey had seven games overall with fewer than 50 yards. He still lacked consistency, which could impact his playing time this season, especially if rookie Juron Criner continues to impress.
The 49ers upgraded at receiver, adding several new players to the mix. Mario Manningham might be the biggest addition. He should man one of the starting spots for the team or at least serve as the No. 3 if Randy Moss reverts back to old form. Either way, Manningham will play a lot. But even with that said, his numbers won't be great in the 49ers run-first offense. The highest yardage total for a receiver last season in San Fran was 874. Manningham might have the occasional big game but probably would have posted better numbers if he stayed with the Giants - even if he was just the No. 3 receiver for New York.
Laurent Robinson is another receiver moving to a new team. He cashed in on a huge season with the Cowboys, signing a lucrative deal with the Jaguars to become a starter in their offense. Robinson is 27 years old, though, and never had a season with more than 500 yards before last year. He can be productive in what should be a better Jags' offense but he'll have a real hard time getting double-digit touchdowns and posting big yardage totals in this system. Let someone else grab Robinson too early come draft day.
The guy seems to keep chugging along but you have to think Michael Turner will hit the wall sooner than later. And this could be the year that happens. Turner turned the magical age of 30 this offseason, which normally spells the beginning of the end for running backs. And Turner has gotten a ton of work with the Falcons, having 300-plus carries three of the last four seasons. He might not have started early in his career but his huge workload the last few seasons is a concern going forward. It would be a surprise to see Turner keep playing at his usual high level in 2012.
The Jets didn't get Tim Tebow to sit him on the bench, so expect him to play even if Mark Sanchez is starting for the Jets. While Sanchez wasn't great for the Jets last season, he was a productive fantasy player, finishing 10th in scoring at quarterback. Sanchez scored 32 total touchdowns, so his fantasy value was intriguing before Tebow came around. But with Tebow vulturing yards and touchdowns, Sanchez's value takes a big hit this season. He could still have some big touchdown games on occasion but he'll be a big risk for fantasy teams.
Mike Tolbert was a surprise last season, having more than 900 total yards and double-digit touchdowns for the Chargers. He moves to a new team for this season, though, signing with the Panthers. He has a lot to compete with for playing time at running back and moves to a less explosive offense. So even if he starts getting goal-line work, his touchdown totals won't be as high as with the Chargers. His production is going to slip with the Panthers.
His numbers kind of flew under the radar because his team wasn't very good but Fred Jackson was having a monster season before breaking his leg. He had about 1,000-rushing yards in 10 games before the injury. Jackson has only been in the league five years and doesn't have a ton of wear and tear but is 31 years old. You have to wonder how much he really has left in the tank at his age. And C.J. Spiller finally looked the part at running back while filling in for Jackson last year, meaning Spiller could be in the mix for more carries from day one. Jackson is setup for a down season, especially compared to what he did while playing last year. His career high in touchdowns is seven and he has topped 1,000-rushing yards just once in five seasons.
If you have any questions or comments, please email Jeff Paur at firstname.lastname@example.org