Dynasty Fantasy Football: Top 20 Deep Sleepers for 2014
Earlier this offseason, I proposed a list of 10 dynasty sleepers that appears to have already hit on Khiry Robinson and is meant to work in concert with an Antifragile Zero RB approach. Due to the current saturation of the fantasy landscape, it may seem trans-utopian to suggest there are 20 even deeper sleepers who still have value, but I’m definitely fighting to get these 20 guys onto rosters in my 45-plus roster spot dynasty leagues. If you’re a regular RotoViz reader, you may already have these guys on your radar. Feel free to substitute “still significantly undervalued” for “sleeper” if that feels more appropriate in some cases. And if these guys are still too mainstream for you, the always interesting Matthew Freedman has 30 receiving prospects nobody is talking about.Author’s Note: Originally published in April, this piece is now updated for draft developments and other personnel moves. I’ve also linked to new important work by Jon Moore, Davis Mattek, James Todd, Max Mulitz, and Dwayne McFarland. At least 11 of these guys still make very intriguing additions to your roster.
1. Marlon Brown – Brown finished with more rookie receiving yards than high profile guys like Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson. A consensus Top 5 wide receiver prospect out of high school, his Georgia career was adversely affected by numerous injuries. Now, with NFL size and speed and a solid rookie campaign, the RotoViz Sim Score App likes him better for 2014 than trendy breakout players like Patterson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Kenny Stills. The Steve Smith signing appears to eviscerate his short term value but actually gives you cover to acquire Brown on the cheap.July Update: Very little movement here, which is good news in this situation. As Jon Moore wrote recently, Brown’s value will never be this low again.
2. Cierre Wood – I’ve written about Bill Connelly’s highlight yards metric in examining four potential under the radar stars for the 2014 Draft. Sometimes the level of explosiveness a running back possesses can be surprising. In 2012 Gio Bernard averaged 6.7 highlight yards per opportunity, a good number but worse than Wood’s 6.8. It was Wood, not Dennis Johnson, who was first in line to replace injured runners Arian Foster and Ben Tate in Houston last year before the infamous hotel room marijuana imbroglio. Gary Kubiak saw enough to encourage the Ravens to take a flier. Ray Rice faces a likely suspension and Bernard Pierce disappointed to the tune of 2.9 ypc last season. Wood caught 52 passes at Notre Dame and could be a sneaky PPR option in a timeshare.July Update: The draft pushed Wood to the edge of irrelevancy. Lorenzo Taliaferro will be the new Shanahan-system star as he best fits the profile for the S2K running back machine.
3. Dwight Jones – Two years ago, Jones was my No. 7 ranked receiver in the 2012 class, ahead of both Michael Floyd and Kendall Wright. Had it not been for character red flags, he would have been even higher, probably No. 4 behind only Blackmon, Hill, and Jeffery. Recently Ryan Rouillard reiterated the case for Jones, and explained why those perceived character issues – and his decision to quit the NFL before his career even started – were due to a personal decision to care for his dying son. In many ways the deck is still stacked against a player who’s been out of football for two seasons, but Jones once had true No. 1 wide receiver potential.July Update: Released by the Jets after they selected three receivers in the draft, Jones’ career is again hanging by a thread.
4. Ryan Williams – Most believe Williams’ career is over, derailed by multiple significant knee injuries, but it might mean something that the Cardinals decided to burn a roster spot on him all last season. Had Arizona selected Zac Stacy instead of Stepfan Taylor this wouldn’t be an issue, but the Cardinals still need a back to pair with Andre Ellington. Williams landed on last year’s Explosion Index Breakout list based on his pre-injury athleticism and is the only runner on the roster with feature back upside.July Update: Williams probably possesses even more upside in Dallas.
5. Chris Thompson – A year ago, Davis Mattek ranked Thompson as the No. 8 back in the 2013 class and suggested he would emerge as the pass-catching complement to Alfred Morris. The former Seminoles back was the most electric runner in last year’s draft. Jay Gruden recently suggested that he may use him similarly to Gio Bernard. Many focus on size as a roadblock for Thompson, but I believe injury will be the only thing that keeps him out of the low-end PPR RB2 range by 2015.July Update: Roy Helu is still generating most of the buzz for the receiving role, but at least non-passing-down back Lache Seastrunk doesn’t seem like a factor.
6. Gavin Escobar – While Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce are generating significant sleeper interest, the buzz on a tight end drafted between them has been relatively nonexistent. Escobar pops as a potentially elite receiving threat on two interesting metrics rolled out by Jon Moore. If you use the Tight End Phenom Index, Escobar ranks in the Top 15 since 2006 and slots in between Dwayne Allen and Kyle Rudolph. He comes in ahead of players like Jermichael Finley, Jace Amaro, and Jordan Reed. Using Moore’s Weight-adjusted Agility metric, Escobar bests both Kelce and Ertz.July Update: Remains one of the best breakout candidates in the NFL.
7. James Starks – Starks is 28 and just re-signed with the Packers to be Eddie Lacy’s backup. As a result, he’ll be incredibly cheap to acquire this offseason. Starks’ 2013 efficiency level was incredible, even when you adjust for schedule. That contrasts sharply with Lacy who was actually below the expected efficiency level for someone with his schedule.
FPOP/Opp by Opposing Defense FPOP/Opp Allowed
Starks may also be a higher ceiling talent than people realize. As a college player, his name shows up on both of the comp lists I recently made for Charles Sims. Considering Lacy’s injury history, his 2013 concussion, and his ferocious running style, Starks could be a fixture on 2014 championship rosters.July Update: I originally made the case for Johnathan Franklin’s emergence in Top 10 Sleepers. With Franklin forced to retire, the benefits of that thesis fall to Starks. He may now be the most undervalued player in fantasy football, especially if the Packers follow through on their threat to lead the NFL in snaps.
8. Zach Line – The Vikings will probably add to their RB corps in the upcoming draft, but Line is the back to own in the interim. Last year Matthew Freedman made the case for Line as the most undervalued runner in the 2013 draft based on size and collegiate productivity. Currently, Matt Asiata acts as Adrian Peterson’s backup, but as Freedman also points out, Line is younger, more athletic, and owns a greater history of production.July Update: Feel free to ignore Line. You want the 2014 version of Christine Michael. Jerick McKinnon is actually the upgraded version.
9. Jarius Wright – Last offseason Wright was one of four players I suggested as Discount Tavon Austins. In fact, Wright probably sported a superior draft profile, which helps underline the arbitrary and – at least for those who don’t benefit from Austin-like enthusiasm bubbles – capricious nature of our projections for small, fast receivers. Wright responded by performing extremely well despite receiving minimal playing time. In fact, in my Cordarrelle Patterson breakout piece, I argued that Wright, not Patterson, is likely to be the beneficiary of the vertical passing game.July Update: No change. Wright could very easily be a free version of what we expect from Kenny Stills or Marvin Jones.
10. Marquess Wilson – Well, Wilson probably doesn’t count as a deep sleeper anymore after Jon Moore focused on him in his recent Phenom Index article and Ryan Rouillard pointed to Wilson as the prototypical example of a “high vol” player.July Update: Drafters are beginning to notice the value embedded in Wilson’s profile, but he remains a terrific add. Edit: The broken clavicle complicates matters for 2014.
The Intersect was right in projecting Joique Bell and not Leshoure as the back to pair with Reggie Bush in 2013, but all it takes is an injury to Bell for the former second round pick to end up back in the spotlight. Even with three years of NFL experience, he’s only six months older than Charles Sims.July Update: Theo Riddick is the deep sleeper being bandied about in Detroit, but he’d probably need injuries to Bell and Bush to have value. Leshoure has a better pedigree and an easier path to touches as a possible bell cow back.
12. Vance McDonald –The 49ers are another team with an intriguing tight end selected in that same range between Ertz and Kelce. One of the best visualizations we’ve posted on RotoViz is James Todd’s marriage of Dominator Rating and age for tight ends. McDonald shows up in a very favorable portion of the graph amidst a cluster of other intriguing candidates. This may come as a surprise but as Maeby Funke will tell you, Vernon Davis is old.July Update: The 49ers suddenly have far more bodies than roles available in the passing game, although McDonald could end up with TE2 value if Vernon Davis holds out.
13. Ronnie Hillman – Hillman isn’t exactly a no-name after being drafted with the 67th overall pick of the 2012 Draft, but he’s fallen to deep sleeper status following a 2013 season where he went from possible first string tailback on a Super Bowl squad to weekly inactive behind practice squad type C.J. Anderson. Hillman is still the same guy who went for 1981 yards from scrimmage as a 20-year-old at San Diego State. Those numbers included 24 receptions and led to 20 touchdowns. In fact, Hillman was pretty clearly the most dynamic Broncos runner with the ball in his hands last year. Unfortunately, it frequently wasn’t in his hands long enough. If I’m putting together a redraft team for 2014, I’m trying to get Montee Ball on as many squads as possible even though Ball’s true talent projection is probably a low end backup. Should the Broncos decide to give Hillman a legitimate chance to win the starting position in 2014, he’s probably the most talented back on their roster. Even if the former Aztec doesn’t make it with the Broncos, he’s a good threat to have value with his second team. He’s still very young. The third year pro is only one week older than Carlos Hyde. He’s younger than Storm Johnson, Terrance West, Tyler Gaffney, and Charles Sims.July Update: About to be featured as a wild card in my RB Breakout article.
14. Ryan Griffin – Back at the end of 2013, James Todd used the RotoViz College Career App to demonstrate why Griffin’s market share production didn’t trail Ertz and Tyler Eifert by the gap that their respective draft slots might suggest. More recently, Griffin does well in weight-adjusted agility.July Update: The draft selection of C.J. Fiedorowicz puts up a roadblock for Griffin.
15. Marvin McNutt – You didn’t really think we’d do a Top 20 list without our favorite player, did you? Check out Jon Moore’s list of speculative adds to find out why this time McNutt really might get a chance.July Update: This is McNutt, so we’re in the same place we always are.
16. Mike Brown – A former college quarterback at Liberty, Brown won his conference player of the year award at a different position than the one he now plays for the Jaguars. While Brown is a pretty deep sleeper, he posted a few intriguing numbers for the Jags last year and led them in WR Rating. According to Pro Football Focus, he and Ace Sanders both ran 100-plus routes out of the slot, and Brown averaged 1.94 yards per route to Sanders’ 0.94. While Sanders is overextended as a receiver, Brown has some future with the team even with Blackmon and Shorts both on the field.July Update: The Jags added two potentially elite receivers in the draft. Although he still has more value than Ace Sanders, he basically has no value.
17. Geno Smith – Smith is the rare quarterback who went from college to the NFL and experienced a downgrade in his wide receiver play. In fact, James Todd has an excellent chart demonstrating how terrible weapons might explain almost all of Smith’s troubles. Now is the time to acquire Smith as his receivers are getting better in a hurry. Stephen Hill resides on my post-hype super sleeper list and still has excellent comps even after two terrible seasons. (While the 3rd year breakout meme is not particularly accurate, it originated because there are plenty of examples of guys having two pedestrian seasons and then exploding. Some of the highest profile examples are physical dopplegangers for Hill.) Dwight Jones is on this list, and Eric Decker remains one of the best and simultaneously most underappreciated receivers in the league. Meanwhile, you can get Smith dirt cheap due to New York’s acquisition of Michael Vick. Sleeper stat: Smith averaged more fantasy points per drop back in 2013 than Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, and Joe Flacco.July Update: The addition of Jace Amaro could put Smith over the top.
18. Jonathan Grimes – The William and Mary career record holder for rushing and all purpose yards, Grimes emerged as the Texans Week 17 starter last season and broke out for 126 combined yards. At 5’10” and 207 pounds with a supposed 4.55 forty, Grimes has a size/speed/health profile that easily trumps Dennis Johnson and Andre Brown. I’m partial to small school success stories and Jonathan Bales explains why those types of backs can be significantly undervalued.July Update: The Texans failed to add a meaningful RB in the draft. Andre Brown could be a great late round value, but I’d still roster Grimes in deep leagues.
19. Taylor Thompson – With June Jones running the chuck-n-duck at SMU, Thompson switched to defensive end, but he moved back to tight end for his 2012 pro day where he ripped off an absurd 4.57 forty at 6’6” and 259 pounds. He drew some sleeper buzz last offseason but saw only 272 snaps. The good news: Delanie Walker is already 30 and Ken Whisenhunt could choose to emphasize the position.July Update: The Titans chose not to address TE, and beat writer Jim Wyatt believes Thompson will see more action.
20. Ryan Nassib – In my original draft, I started this blurb by explaining why Matt Schaub is a much better quarterback than Eli Manning, but I’ll spin that into a separate post. Nassib profiled as a late round pick or priority UDFA in our 2013 QB prospect rankings, but Jon Gruden had him as the top quarterback in the draft. Perhaps you should view this paragraph as a reminder that Victor Cruz, Jerrel Jernigan, and Rueben Randle are all very risky picks in 2014.July Update: None.
If you’ve already read the updated Top 10 Sleepers article and the 10 Post-Hype Super Sleepers, be sure to check out Rob Gronkowski and the 10 Most Undervalued Dynasty Players and The 8 Breakout WRs You Must Own in 2014.
Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.