An important aspect of your fantasy draft each year is identifying sleeper players. That is, players that will significantly outperform their draft ranking, and thereby elevate your team to championship status. I generally group sleepers into two categories: emerging players and comeback players.
An emerging player could be just coming into his own and on the verge of stardom. He could also be a perennially above-average player that has either changed teams or had his existing team acquire some talent to help his fantasy status. The great thing about emerging players is that if you can nab the right ones, you can see an output of double or even triple their previous career bests.
Comeback players are another story. Usually they are coming back from injury, and could be two or three years removed from being fantasy-relevant. A perfect example was Randy Moss in 2007. He had not been an impact player for the previous two seasons, and it seemed he was on the decline. In fact, before his resurgence in Patriot colors, Moss did not even play in the pre-season, and was dogged by rumors about the Pats releasing him before the season began. Safe to say, many fantasy owners that rolled the dice (in some leagues, as low as a sixth-round pick) on Moss reaped huge rewards.
That said, here is my top sleeper at each major fantasy position for 2009:
Quarterback: Carson Palmer, Cincinnati
Palmer is the classic comeback player. Prior to last year, he had put up either 4,000 yards passing or 30 TDs in each of the prior three seasons (2005-07). Last year’s elbow injury, suffered in Week 3 against the Giants, forced Palmer to write off the season — he and the Bengals opted not to have surgery, and allow it to heal naturally. Early reports have Palmer slinging the ball in camp with no lingering effects so far. Many fantasy owners will be wary of Palmer because he’s already had knee surgery, now the elbow, and Cincinnati’s 2008 season was a debacle. The Bengals imploded last year, with the well-publicized hysterics from Chad Ochocinco (nee Johnson) said to have alienated Palmer — they’ve also lost T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the Seahawks in free agency. On the brighter side, “Ocho” seems to be playing nice this year, the Bengals grabbed Laveranues Coles to replace Housh, there is the comeback try of WR Chris Henry (Henry has had great chemistry with Palmer in the past), and the team addressed their O-line by adding LT Andre Smith through the NFL Draft. Does all this mean the Bengals will be contenders in ‘09? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter to your fantasy team. Cincy will trail in many games, requiring Palmer to air out the football to his many receivers. He’ll throw many INTs, but 30 TDs is a good possibility again. You can get Palmer in the eighth round or later in seasonal leagues, and he’s a better option than many of the others in that neighborhood.
Running Back: Darren McFadden, Oakland
“DMC” had a questionable start to his NFL career, and was dogged by a nagging turf toe injury that cost him games. McFadden has reportedly rehabbed well, and has had a steel toe placed in his game shoe to prevent a recurrence of the injury. Also, the Raiders have brought in plowing veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal to help pave the way for the running attack. Fantasy owners may be leery of Michael Bush and Justin Fargas stealing carries, but McFadden will go in the fourth round of many seasonal leagues, and a talent like his is a bargain that far into the draft.
Wide Receiver: Lee Evans, Buffalo
Evans has been a feast-or-famine type of fantasy wide receiver in the past. Some owners have benefited from Evans’ monster performances, while others have suffered from his disappearing acts. Evans has been hurt by being the lone threat in Buffalo’s passing game. With the arrival of Terrell Owens, that is not the case any longer. I am expecting a big year from Evans as he will feast on single coverage and finally fulfill his potential as an elite fantasy receiver. You can probably grab Evans in the sixth round or later in seasonal leagues, and he is a bargain there with 1,000-yard, eight-plus-TD potential.
Tight End: Brent Celek, Philadelphia
Celek had a statistical breakout after the fantasy season ended (Week 16) in 2008, and as a result, he flies under the radar of many owners. Celek played behind L.J. Smith much of last season, but after Smith was shut down late in the year, Celek thrived. In Weeks 17-20 — which included Philly’s three playoff games — Celek recorded 23 receptions, 181 yards and four touchdowns. That averages out to over 10 fantasy points per game. Celek is coming into his third season, and will be given the chance to start now that Smith has left the Eagles. Some fantasy owners may be scared off by Celek’s ordinary stats for the entire 2008 season, but smart ones will concentrate on Celek’s stats at the end of the year, as well as his other start in Week 9 against Seattle. All Celek did in that game was set the Eagle tight end record for receiving yards in a game. The Eagles did pick TE Cornelius Ingram in the fifth round of the NFL draft, but Ingram will not yet be a threat to Celek’s playing time. Celek will go in the ninth round or later in seasonal drafts, and with a Week 4 bye, he may be available on the waiver wire in early September if he doesn’t stand out during the first three games. My advice is to spend a late-round pick on Celek and stash him on your roster before he breaks out. Philly could have a juggernaut offense in 2009.
Tom is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada and attended Ryerson University's Journalism School. After two years working for Hockey Night in Canada after graduation, he decided to go into the private sector for employment. He still has a passion for sports, and he's completely hooked on Fantasy Football.
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