Every summer fantasy football owners work themselves in a frenzy about who the big sleepers are. There might be a few disagreements, but it's usually the same list of second-year running backs and third-year receivers. Sometimes the hype gets so big that a "sleeper" isn't drafted like one at all, but rather as if he's already a top performer.
But a true sleeper is a player you pick up in the mid-to-late rounds who ends up outperforming expectations; a good value pick in other words. With that in mind, we've taken a look at some players going later in fantasy drafts who probably deserve a bit more attention. Just don't call them sleepers.
Kevin Kolb. Every year there's at least one sleeper fantasy signal caller who goes much, much later in drafts than he should. Sometimes it's a young quarterback breaking out, other times it's a veteran rebounding from injury. Last year it was Matt Schaub (and Brett Favre). This season it's Kevin Kolb (and Brett Favre). Going off an admittedly ludicrously small sample size, we know Kolb has the smarts and accuracy to pile up impressive stats in Andy Reid's offense; last season Kolb became the first quarterback ever to record 300-yard passing days during his first two starts. It'd obviously be foolish to project that kind of production over a full season, but even much more modest totals would put Kolb on pace for a top-10ish type fantasy season. Given that running the ball is still anathema to Reid -- and the Eagles brass want to prove themselves right for jettisoning McNabb in the trade to the division rival Skins -- look for Kolb to air it out and immediately establish himself as a viable fantasy starting option.
Matt Ryan. Last year the fantasy community went a bit nuts for Ryan. He was the best rookie quarterback since Peyton Manning, and the Colts' star had exploded during his second season, so that meant...nothing apparently. Ryan put up nearly identical numbers during his sophomore season as he had as a rookie, and now he's more or less a fantasy afterthought -- going in drafts at a spot that indicates fantasy owners don't think he'll improve much. That's a bit nuts. With an easier schedule and Roddy White returning to form after a relatively sub-par season, Ryan should at least be a fringe starter in most fantasy formats, going a few rounds higher than he is. The upside
Jonathan Stewart. What's the difference between Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams? Not much, fantasy-wise. Outside of Williams' scorching second half of the season in 2008, the Panthers' pair of first-round backs have more or less put up comparable numbers. Consider last season: Stewart finished with 1133 yards and 10 touchdowns to Williams' 1117 yards and seven touchdowns (albeit, in three fewer games due to injury). Snatch up Stewart 3-5 rounds after Williams and enjoy the similar production.
Arian Foster. Is there a more anonymous lead back on such a high-octane offense? Houston's running game was catastrophically bad last season, primarily due to a team-wide case of fumble-itis. However, the undrafted Foster managed to (mostly) hold onto the ball, and the top job, after finishing the season with a pair of strong outings. And with second-round pick, and presumptive back of the future, Ben Tate likely out for the year after undergoing ankle surgery, the depth chart is clear for Foster to keep getting the majority of the carries -- assuming he can fend off the especially fumble-prone Steve Slaton. 1200 yards and double digit touchdowns seems like a safe bet.
Michael Bush. The perpetually injured/disappointing Darren McFadden is all that stands between Bush and fantasy football sleeperdom. Which is to say, you should take a flier on Bush The bruising Bush has shown flashes in the past, but has been held back by a combination of the Raiders' time-share in the backfield and their offensive woes in general. Jason Campbell should remedy their inability to complete a forward pass, which should open up some running lanes for Oakland's backs. With McFadden already battling nagging injuries, this could be the year Bush wrangles the starting gig for himself.
Santana Moss. Washington is going to be much improved offensively. After years of watching their quarterbacks get maimed behind a porous offensive line, the Skins brought in what should be a pair of standout bookends in Trent Williams and Jammal Brown. Add in the quarterback upgrade from the Donovan McNabb trade, as well as the massive coaching upgrade from replacing the comically inept Jim Zorn with Mike Shanahan, and the Skins figure to actually be a reliable threat through the air. Despite McNabb's propensity to spread the ball around, Moss should be the main beneficiary as the Skins' lone proven receiving threat not named Chris Cooley.
Malcolm Floyd. Vincent Jackson isn't walking through that door for at least the first three games, due to his drug suspension, and possibly longer, due to his ongoing holdout. Sure, Antonio Gates is still Option 1A in the San Diego passing attack, but someone is going to get looks on the outside -- and Floyd is the most likely someone. A gargantuan target like Jackson, the six-foot-five Floyd is dangerous both in the red zone and on deep jump ball plays. If Jackson really does follow through on his threat to sit out the season (or even just the first ten games), Floyd could easily finish as a top-25 wide receiver.
Mike Wallace. Consider this your obligatory reminder that Mike Wallace is a must-draft player. As a rookie he led the league with his staggering 19.4 yards per catch as the Steeler's third wideout. And now, with Santonio Holmes decamped to the Jets, Wallace will get a chance opposite Hines Ward. Even with Ben Roethlisberger absent for the first few games, there's simply too much breakout potential here to ignore Wallace come draft day.
Zach Miller. Even amidst the abomination that was the JaMarcus Russell era, Miller managed to post 805 and 778 yards the past two seasons. He really deserves some kind of medal for that. Touchdowns were, of course, a rarity for Miller (or any other Raider for that matter), which put him just on the fringe of being starting-worthy in fantasy formats. But with a competent quarterback in Jason Campbell now under center -- and one who often looks to his tight end as a security blanket -- Miller's prospects are considerably brightened. 900 yards and a half dozen touchdowns seems like a decently conservative bet. Not bad for the 12th round.
Greg Olsen. Last season, Olsen was a fantasy darling at draft time. With Jay Cutler slinging passes to him, Olsen was a surefire breakout star. Oops. While Olsen's yardage numbers were disappointing, he did make up for it by snagging ten touchdowns; indeed, Olsen was Cutler's preferred red zone target. Much has been made of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's tight end-unfriendly system, but Martz has never coached a tight end quite as talented as Olsen. Figuring that Cutler should see a substantial bump in his passing yardage under Martz, Olsen should as well, simply due to increased opportunity. 800 yards and another 8-10 touchdowns is realistic.
San Francisco 49ers. If you don't want to spend a mid-round pick on a fantasy defense (that more often than not won't pan out), the Niners defense might be just what you're looking for. After finishing as the fourth-best fantasy defense last season (abetted by a generous St. Louis offense that let the Niners rack up 43 points one week), San Francisco should feast on what looks like a relatively toothless slate of offenses this coming season, as Yahoo!'s Brad Evans points out.