For all of the chance and uncertainty that comes with playing fantasy football, NFL fantasy drafts actually are quite predictable.
The first few rounds of your draft almost certainly will have the same players go off the board. Peyton Manning, for example, will be among the first quarterbacks to go. Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles likely will top the list of running backs selected, and if someone takes another tight end before Jimmy Graham, they probably should find another hobby.
Where many fantasy leagues often are won or lost, however, is in the later rounds, when lesser-heralded players who can make a big impact on your team still are available.
The term “sleeper” sometimes can be misleading, but in this case, we’ll define it as a player who we believe is undervalued at his position and will be still be around later than expected in many drafts. You shouldn’t reach for these players, but if you time it right, there will be plenty of opportunities for huge bargains.
Without further ado, let’s examine the top 10 sleepers of 2014.
1. Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints (Bye week: 6)
We know what you’re thinking — the Saints already have Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. But Robinson has the potential to beat out both of them this season. New Orleans puts up tons of yards and tons of points, and if Robinson sees significant time, he could do the same.
2. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans (9)
If the Titans can get consistent production out of Jake Locker, you might want to take a look at Hunter. He caught just 18 passes as a rookie but averaged almost 20 yards per catch, and his 6-foot-4 frame makes him a potential red-zone target with tons of upside.
3. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers (12)
Aside from Bishop Sankey, Benjamin might be the rookie who can make the most impact in his first year. Cam Newton lacks a big-body deep threat, and while the Panthers aren’t exactly pass-happy, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin could stretch the field and develop into a key red-zone target.
4. Andrew Hawkins, WR, Cleveland Browns (4)
With Josh Gordon’s potential suspension looming, the Browns need someone to step up and shoulder the receiving load. The speedy Hawkins, fully recovered from an ankle injury in 2013, could play a big role and emerge as the home-run hitter for the winner of the Brian Hoyer-Johnny Manziel quarterback battle.
5. Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks (4)
Marshawn Lynch is one of the NFL’s top running backs. He also had the second-most carries in the league last season. Lynch’s physical running style means he takes a beating, and if Pete Carroll and Co. want to lighten the load, they might turn to Michael, an explosive second-year pro with tons of potential.
6. James White, RB, New England Patriots (10)
White has drawn some attention at Patriots camp, and rightfully so. The rookie out of run-happy Wisconsin also totaled 300 receiving yards as a senior, and if Shane Vereen is bitten with the injury bug again, expect New England to turn White loose as a versatile third-down back.
7. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins (10)
The reality is that Griffin has slipped on many draft boards because of his shaky injury history. If the third-year pro can stay healthy, though, look out. Griffin has a new weapon (DeSean Jackson), a new head coach (Jay Gruden) and a new offensive coordinator (Sean McVay), as well as a massive chip on his shoulder to prove he belongs among the NFL’s elite.
8. Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (12)
Antonio Brown is the No. 1 receiver in Pittsburgh. That much is obvious. Yet Emmanuel Sanders’ departure leaves a void at No. 2, and Wheaton appears to be a strong candidate to fill it. The second-year speedster out of Oregon State can stretch the field with his quicks, and with the spotlight glaring on Brown, Wheaton could see plenty of balls head in his direction.
9. Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles (7)
Don’t feel like spending big on Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas or Gronk? You might want to give Ertz a look. He came on late in his rookie campaign, snagging three touchdown passes in the month of December, and looks poised to play a substantial role in Chip Kelly’s high-powered Eagles offense.
10. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints (6)
It might even be a stretch to call Cooks a sleeper, as the Saints’ first-round draft pick out of Oregon State turned heads in the preseason opener by snagging a touchdown pass in his first real action on an NFL field. Drew Brees loves to spread the ball around, and with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles out of the picture, Cooks could benefit in a big way.
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