This is a list of "deep sleepers," but understand that this is not a bunch of players you've never heard of. That would be a silly exercise of little value to anyone. A sleeper generally just needs to be someone who could surprise or overperform based on their average draft position (ADP). So please, spare me your @s about how Player X isn't a sleeper in YOUR league. We understand, congratulations. Let's move on. To qualify for this deep list, the candidates had to have a rough ADP in the double-digit rounds or beyond based on current mocks across multiple platforms (FantasyFootballCalculator.com, MyFantasyLeague.com, etc.). There is one exception, though, as you'll see shortly. Some of these players have easier pathways to realistic production, but all are names I'd at least circle as you prepare for your upcoming drafts, especially if you play in leagues with 12-plus members.
I'm cheating a bit here, but only because our staff hasn't given enough love to Hurns across this initial Draft Kit series and he's set to be the No. 1 wide receiver for the Cowboys. That might not seem like a great honor given recent fantasy returns from that position, but fantasy owners shouldn't ignore Hurns.
It seems like an eternity ago, but Hurns is just three seasons removed from a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown campaign and is only 26 years old. Between the release of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten's retirement, over 44 percent of the 2017 team targets are open. Dak Prescott regressed last year but is still a talented young quarterback. Even a minor bounce back statistically would benefit Hurns greatly, who already looks set to lead this team in targets, yards and possibly receiving touchdowns. Any way you slice it, Hurns looks like an absolute steal in the middle-to-late rounds.
The Titans offense struggled mightily in 2017 thanks to a combination of uninspired coaching, injuries, and team composition. The offense will have a completely new look in 2018 with Matt LaFleur running the show and an updated talent pool (Eric Decker and DeMarco Murray are gone; Dion Lewis is in). This all sets up nicely for Matthews, who is entering a contract year and coming at a steep discount in drafts.
Matthews has been the Titans most consistent receiver the last two years, seeing 21.4 percent of the targets in 2016, and 17.5 percent in 2017. His 13 touchdowns in that span lead the Titans and rank in the top 15 for wide receivers across the league as well. Marcus Mariota had an abysmal 2017 campaign, finishing with more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (15), but LaFleur has a track record of getting the most out of his quarterbacks. He coached Jared Goff to the Pro Bowl last year and helped Matt Ryan win the MVP a few years ago. Decker and Murray took 26.2 percent of the team targets with them when they left, and while plenty will go to ascending second-year stud Corey Davis and Lewis, Matthews should cross the century mark relatively easily. Improved play from Mariota, more team passing volume (the Titans ranked 28th in attempts in 2017), and a potentially increased target share all signal towards Matthews being able to post reasonable WR3/flex numbers.
Death, taxes, and me including Kenny Stills in some sort of offseason sleepers article. These are three things I simply cannot escape. Once again Stills is tumbling down draft boards, still several rounds behind the league's preeminent "This is the year!" player, DeVante Parker. And that's not a slam against Parker, as I truly hope this is, in fact, the year for him. I'm just pointing out that these two players shouldn't be so far apart in drafts. The fact that they are makes Stills an excellent sleeper target.
Stills has seen 17-plus percent of the team targets in each of the last two years, and his 15 touchdowns lead the team in that span as well. Jarvis Landry inhaled over 26 percent of the team's targets since 2016, so there will be plenty of opportunities available for Stills to land an expanded role. His percentage of plays lined up in the slot increased from 34 percent in 2016 to 40 percent in 2017. The team did add two slot wideouts in Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson to help fill the massive void left by Landry's departure, but Stills' flexibility will help him find more targets and stay on the field. His field-stretching speed, rapport with Ryan Tannehill, knowledge of Adam Gase's offense and potentially increased target share make him super attractive in drafts once the rounds hit double digits.
While we've yet to hit full-on "best shape of his life" mode with Leonard Fournette, the drumbeat is building for Duval's workhorse starting his sophomore season on the right foot. That being said, with Chris Ivory getting the boot this offseason, T.J. Yeldon looks poised to assume the role of top back-up and possibly the change-of-pace back as well.
Fournette shouldered a heavy load last year for Jacksonville, which took a toll on his body. He missed two games with injury (and one for a suspension). In those three games, Yeldon led the backfield in targets with 11 (tied fourth-most on the team), was second in carries (27), first in rushing yardage (190, aided in large part by a 58-yard touchdown run), and tied both Chris Ivory and Corey Grant with one rushing score apiece. Ivory is gone now and so too are his 112 carries and 28 targets. Yeldon only merits a dart throw in the final rounds, though, especially after offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett pumped up Corey Grant as a "major change-of-pace back." Fournette should own the majority of the opportunities in this backfield, but Yeldon is the likeliest candidate (right now) to handle secondary duties and be the 1A in the committee should Fournette miss time, and he does have a history of lower leg injuries dating back to college.
An undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, Clement was a bit of a surprise in 2017. Not only for making the Eagles' roster but for handling the second-most carries (74), seeing the second-most targets (15) and scoring the most rushing touchdowns (four) in the backfield. With LeGarrette Blount out of the picture, there's a chance for the Super Bowl hero to earn himself a bigger role.
Yes, Jay Ajayi is the favorite to lead this backfield in touches and yes, the team just re-signed Darren Sproles, but I still like taking a stab at Clement in the later rounds thanks to how strongly he finished 2017. I'm of course referring to his 4-100-1 receiving performance in Super Bowl LII. Sometimes, players carry over a strong postseason finish into success the next year (Jordy Nelson did this from 2010-2011, for instance). Clement has hurdles to a larger workload, but he scored six times as a rookie and both Ajayi and Sproles have health/workload concerns. Clement may not even need an injury to find himself receiving enough touches to warrant flex consideration in what should once again be a high-powered Eagles attack.
While it feels there is a deeper crop of elite fantasy tight ends than we've seen in a number of years, those who want to wait on the position have their fair share of options as well. Rookie Mike Gesicki could be one of those in deeper leagues. Most fantasy analysts will tell you that rookie tight ends historically don't accomplish much in fantasy, and that's largely true. However, occasionally the right player falls into the right situation to flourish from the get-go (i.e. Evan Engram for the Giants last year).
Gesicki is an incredible athlete, with most of his testing numbers landing in the 90th-plus percentile. With Jarvis Landry being traded and Julius Thomas leaving in free agency, 42.3 percent of the Dolphins' red zone targets from 2017 are now up for grabs. That could be where a big (6-foot-6), athletic (41.5-inch vertical leap) player like Gesicki thrives. Here's head coach Adam Gase on the topic, "We kind of emphasize that position of a pass-catching-type tight end that can win one-on-one matchups versus safeties and linebackers." Gesicki feels like a strong bet to receive heavy looks in the red zone based on his pedigree and Gase's history with tight ends (remember Julius Thomas in Denver?). It's certainly a long shot, but as far as deep sleepers at tight end go Gesicki has little competition and the ability to make an immediate impact in Miami.
When it comes to deep sleepers, many candidates don't have illustrious resumes. Brice Butler's may take the cake as "least likely to inspire confidence," though. Per Cardswire.com, he hasn't had a season with at least 350 receiving yards in a decade. He was a seventh-round pick in 2013 and whose career highs are 35 targets (2014), 21 receptions (2014), 317 yards (2017) and three touchdowns (2016, 2017). Yet, despite all this Butler could be poised for a breakout season in 2018 and he's pretty much free in drafts.
First, let's dive into Butler the player a bit more. He's an exceptional athlete who posted eye-popping testing numbers -- 4.36-second 40-yard dash, 129-inch broad jump, 39-inch vertical, 6.6-second three-cone -- at his college pro day (he wasn't invited to the combine), and his 21.1 yards per catch last year led the NFL ... among players with 15 catches (an admittedly small threshold). Now, his opportunity. The Cardinals have over 200 vacated targets heading into this year, with Butler and rookie Christian Kirk serving as the only real additions made in the passing game. David Johnson will see plenty of those opportunities now fully healthy again, but Kirk was primarily a slot option in college and will be adjusting to life outside. Butler, meanwhile, can already play outside and should press for plenty of looks behind Larry Fitzgerald. Finally, the Cardinals quarterback situation is far from dire, with Sam Bradford penciled in as the starter and Josh Rosen waiting in the wings. There's a lot to like about Butler in 2018, especially at his current undrafted price tag.
Clement wasn't the only undrafted rookie running back to make a statement in 2017. Ekeler came from relative obscurity (Western State in Colorado) and landed on the Chargers roster, essentially becoming the No. 2 option behind Melvin Gordon. However, later in the year the team realized what type of weapon they had and built in a more consistent role for Ekeler. Following the team's Week 9 bye, he had a four-game stretch where he averaged just under 10 touches per game. Unfortunately, not long after that Ekeler suffered a season-ending injury. Looking ahead to 2018, the only real addition the Chargers made to their backfield was Justin Jackson, drafted in the seventh round this spring. After showcasing his dynamism (three catches of 20-plus yards) and reliability in 2017, Ekeler has a strong chance to hold on to both the No. 2 role and possibly even be a weekly flex option if the team uses him as a more constant change-of-pace for Gordon, who's averaged over 280 touches per season the last three years.
I almost removed Lockett from this list after the Seahawks signed Brandon Marshall to a one-year deal. But then I paused, thought for a moment, and remembered that Marshall is 34 years old and has scored three touchdowns over the last two years and his last 161 targets, of which he's caught just 47.8 percent. Lockett is entering the final year of his rookie contract on an offense that could be passing a lot. He has the incentive to perform and will have plenty of opportunities to, as the Seahawks have barely addressed their pass-catching positions this offseason after losing Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham in free agency (as well as their combined 176 targets). Marshall and Jaron Brown are the only additions of note, and neither has the look of a target monster. Lockett scored well in Matt Harmon's Reception Perception once upon a time, so we know he has the skills to deliver if given the chance. Considering his ADP is already bargain-bin cheap and it might fall after the signing of Marshall, Lockett is looking like another high-upside flier to take in the final rounds of your drafts.
The Packers offense has two touchdown hogs at the top of the target pecking order (Davante Adams, Jimmy Graham) and a potential bounce-back candidate sitting in third (Randall Cobb), but someone else in this offense is going to make some noise in the passing game. It could be one of the three rookies the team drafted this April, but for the sake of this column, I'm going with Allison. Aaron Rodgers can support several fantasy relevant pass-catchers, so Allison (or whomever the WR3 becomes) will have some standalone value in certain matchups. Plus, Adams, Cobb, and Graham all have recent injury histories, creating a pathway to a much bigger workload as well. Allison could become an afterthought come the preseason if one of the rookies asserts themselves, but let his inclusion on this list be a note for all of you to keep an eye on this position battle during the summer. The potential reward could be massive.