It’s the time of year when fantasy enthusiasts obsess over draft order and which players will be available when the clock begins ticking on that fateful first-round pick. Antonio or Odell? Gurley or Gronk? Adrian or Zeke?
As important as your initial selection can be, it pales in comparison to the handful of choices you’ll make several rounds later. After all, as happy as you may be to land Todd Gurley, DeAndre Hopkins or David Johnson now, they won’t be the bargains they were last year for the savvy players that stole them in the mid-rounds (or later) and rode them into the postseason.
Fantasy veterans know the secret to great drafting is not simply choosing the best players available, but doing so no earlier than necessary. You may share my belief that Tyler Lockett is on the verge of a breakout season; but you’re hurting yourself – and, worse yet, begging for ridicule from your opponents – if you pull the trigger too early.
Who are this year’s hidden gems? Let’s take a look at my Sleeper Picks of 2016, broken down by position.
Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals. Despite his stellar – and fully upright – 2015 campaign, Palmer is still undervalued, mostly because we all know how brittle he is. Yet he has played in no less than 15 games in three of the last four seasons, and he is armed with arguably the most lethal WR corps in the league and a sure-handed receiver in RB David Johnson who is drawing comparisons to Marshall Faulk.
Derek Carr, QB, Raiders. Carr showed the kind of year-over-year improvement you want from a second-year player in 2015, and he’s poised to make another leap this season. In addition to having all the physical skills and intangibles of a franchise QB, he’ll be teaming again with emerging superstar Amari Cooper, a rejuvenated Michael Cooper and promising TE Clive Walford. Carr could make a push for the elite ranks and offers tremendous value as a QB2 in the middle-to-late rounds.
Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers. Throughout the NFL’s storied history, only Andrew Luck and Cam Newton have passed for more yards in their first season than Winston did last year (4,042). And only Newton notched more than the rookie’s six rushing TDs in 2015. After spending the offseason building rapport with Mike Evans, and with Vincent Jackson returning to health, Winston is primed to take the next step into fantasy stardom.
Justin Forsett, RB, Ravens. Though he’s on the wrong side of 30, Forsett is still a relatively low-mileage veteran because he was used so sparingly over the first six years of his career. After losing the final six games of 2015 to a broken forearm, he appears to be flying below the radar. But Forsett is drawing raves in training camp and none of the inexperienced backs behind him is a threat to his workhorse role. He’s going off the board after guys like Melvin Gordon, T.J. Yeldon, Charles Sims and Isaiah Crowell, and that’s just nuts.
Danny Woodhead, RB, Chargers. Woodhead finished the 2015 season as a Top 12 fantasy back, thanks mostly to his stellar receiving skills. I have serious doubts about Gordon being the workhorse back San Diego drafted him to be, which means Woodhead should continue to play a key role in the Chargers’ offense – especially around the goal-line and on third downs. PPR leaguers should not let him slide too far.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Eagles. Mathews made DeMarco Murray expendable, and now he’ll be counted upon as the bell cow in Philly’s new offense. Mathews had some fantasy success in San Diego and will have the opportunity to replicate that this season. Now recovered from a pre-camp ankle injury, he offers nice upside as an RB2 or RB3.
James White, RB, Patriots. Drafting a New England RB can make you crazy, but it has its occasional benefits. With Dion Lewis (knee) out for an extended period, White will see a significant increase in touches, especially as a receiver. He could be a late-round PPR gem.
Tyler Lockett, WR, Seahawks. Doug Baldwin grabbed all the headlines late last year, but Lockett likewise came into his own during the stretch run of his rookie season. His head coach loves his breakaway speed and versatility and has vowed to make him an integral cog in Seattle’s offense this year. Lockett is arguably the most talented receiver in Seattle and he could easily supplant Baldwin as the apple of Russell Wilson’s eye.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Colts. In his sophomore season, Moncrief led the team in receiving TDs and he was working his way onto the fantasy radar when Andrew Luck’s injuries grounded the Colts’ passing attack. Moncrief will start opposite T.Y. Hilton and, assuming Luck returns to elite form, he could prove to be as valuable as his more-heralded teammate.
Kevin White, WR, Bears. The 7th-overall draft pick of 2015 never saw the field after undergoing surgery on his injured shin. Now 100% healthy and as fast as ever, he’ll see single coverage opposite Alshon Jeffery, making him a prime target for Jay Cutler. He has Top 20 WR potential, but is hanging around two to three rounds longer than he should.
Bruce Ellington, WR, 49ers. Many are predicting a bounce-back year from Torrey Smith, but Ellington is the receiver that has been most in sync with likely starter Blaine Gabbert. I’m certainly not anticipating anything near elite production from any Niner wideout, but Ellington should be targeted frequently and could be a solid late-round flier, especially in PPR leagues.
Rishard Matthews, WR, Titans. Dorial Green-Beckham is now an Eagle and Kendall Wright can’t seem to stay healthy. Enter Matthews, who flashed enough promise last year as a Dolphin that the Titans now have him listed at the top of their depth chart. He’s a big-play threat with significant upside that can be scooped up near the end of most drafts.
Dwayne Allen, TE, Colts. He’s been injury-prone for most of his career and has had to share tight end duties with Coby Fleener. But now that Fleener is a Saint, Allen should see a big uptick in targets in Indy’s high-octane offense. Draft him as your backup TE and you could get TE1 production.
Jaguars defense/special teams. Every year, a defensive unit comes out of nowhere to become a fantasy powerhouse. Jacksonville, a perennial doormat, could very well be that team in 2016. They’ve added a tremendous amount of talent – both through free agency and the draft – and they’ll finally get to see their 2015 first-round-pick, DE Dante Fowler, Jr., on the field. If you choose to pass up the elite defenses, grab the Jags in the last round or two and watch them roar.
Next Monday: My oft-imitated, always controversial, yet magically delicious Perfect Draft.