When it comes to fantasy football drafts, what defines a sleeper and a bust?
Really, it's in the eye of the beholder. The most common definition of a sleeper is a player you can get in the middle or late rounds of your draft who can provide early-round value, the players who can win us leagues when they are combined with solid early-round picks. And the most common definition of a bust is just the opposite, a player taken in the early rounds who provides middle- or late-round value.
However, the definitions really are more basic than that. Between now and the start of the season, you'll see the word "value" hundreds of times, but really, that's what it's all about. A sleeper is someone who provides more value than you'd expect from someone drafted in a similar spot, and a bust is the opposite. So a player with an average draft pick in the first round can still be a sleeper, and a player with a middle-round ADP can still be a bust.
Thus, when we ask 12 ESPN Fantasy experts to give us a sleeper and a bust for each position, we get widely varying results. They view sleepers and busts in different ways, and that helps you, dear reader, because you have a handful of players throughout the draft -- not in just the middle or late rounds for sleepers, or early rounds for busts -- to target or avoid. You don't necessarily jump early for the sleepers or strike busts off your rankings altogether. Instead, this exercise is meant for you to consider moving the listed names up or down your personal rankings, or put a red flag or green "go" sign next to each. It's just to get you thinking, scheming, targeting, etc.
With that, here are our official ESPN Fantasy sleeper and bust picks for 2009, as well as an explanation for a handful of them from our experts. Read, nod (or shake) your head, digest … and enjoy. -- Brendan Roberts
The round in parentheses is the round that expert would take that player in an ESPN standard league draft. Because we advocate waiting until the last round to select your kicker, it was not necessary to include a round with them.
These are ranked in order of when you can expect to get them, earliest to latest.
Carson Palmer, Bengals (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): A player who ranked remarkably high in my consistency ratings column, Palmer was a heck of a passer before getting hurt, ranking sixth among active quarterbacks with 240.5 passing yards per game and 10th in passer rating (88.9). He avoided Tommy John surgery this offseason, and the reports on his elbow have been promising. On draft day, he'll be a No. 2 quarterback in terms of draft spot, with the potential to produce like a No. 1. It's a decent amount of risk, yes, but at that cost, and considering you'll have a No. 1 quarterback already in place, the possible reward is well worth it.
Trent Edwards, Bills (from James Quintong): Adding Terrell Owens will boost the fantasy value of most quarterbacks, and Edwards should be no different, especially since he still has Lee Evans as a No. 2 (a role that probably suits Evans better, anyway). And if Marshawn Lynch can live up to expectations, that's another solid target. Sure, Edwards is probably a bye-week fill-in for most teams, but there appear to be some potentially favorable matchups for Edwards during the bye-week period.
Ryan Grant, Packers (from Shawn Cwalinski): Perhaps too much was expected last season of Grant, who earned the "bust" label from many despite rushing for 1,203 yards. But Grant was slowed early in the season by a hamstring injury and did not have more than 18 carries in a game until Week 6. Grant is healthy now and in '09 will not see Aaron Rodgers rush for as many touchdowns as he did in '08. It also is worth noting that Grant plays against the vulnerable defenses of the Seahawks and Cardinals in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively, and those are the final weeks of the playoffs in ESPN leagues.
Derrick Ward, Bucs (from Eric Karabell): OK, so maybe Ward isn't going to follow in the considerable footsteps of Michael Turner and be the next backup to sign a big free-agent deal and become a top-5 fantasy player, but … why can't he? Ward ran for 1,000 yards as a backup in New York. I think he could top 1,500 yards in Tampa, and I certainly would spend a top-40 pick on him to find out.
Larry Johnson, Chiefs (from Dave Hunter): I'll be the first to admit I'm a sucker for LJ, but I really believe the guy has something left in the tank. I believe in him enough that I'm willing to draft him in the sixth round despite an unclear situation for him in Kansas City. LJ is young enough that if he's given a chance to carry most of the load, he'll produce. Just don't take him ahead of backs such as Joseph Addai and Reggie Bush.
Cedric Benson, Bengals (from Stephania Bell): Even I had to check myself on this one. But it's hard to argue with the fact that the Bengals fed Benson the ball plenty (214 carries) in 2008. The Bengals' No. 2 guy, Chris Perry, got the rock less than half that often. In only 12 games -- he was unsigned until late September -- Benson rushed for a career-high 747 yards. Now that he has the opportunity to play a full slate of games, you have to like his chances of improving both in carries and in scores. After all, why else would the Bengals sign him for two more years with more than a 500 percent raise? More than anything, Benson will be a good value since he no doubt will fly under the fantasy radar.
Ray Rice, Ravens (from James Quintong): He might not be as much of a sleeper once training camps open and preseason games begin, but he looks to be the first Ravens running back you should get. Injuries and some rookie jitters pushed Rice down the totem pole last year, but Willis McGahee is seemingly accepting a backup role and Le'Ron McClain is moving back to fullback, opening the door for Rice. His combination of rushing and receiving skill should keep him on the field for most downs, although McClain might steal away some touchdowns. Otherwise, though, Rice looks like a nice all-around threat.
Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers (from Brendan Roberts): To me, this is the epitome of a sleeper. He's second on the team's depth chart, but he's behind an injury-prone starter who lacks all-around starter skills (especially goal-line ability), he plays in a good offense that will score plenty, he's young and entering his prime, his legs are fresh after missing much of last season because of a fractured shoulder, and he's a powerful back who figures to get goal-line carries. Yahtzee!
Rashad Jennings, Jaguars (from Christopher Harris): Someone has to be an alternative for Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and right now my money's on the rookie Jennings, who was a star at Jaguars minicamps. Don't expect miracles, but I think Jennings will make some noise as a short-yardage option behind an improved O-line. (Chauncey Washington and Greg Jones aren't great competition, although Jones wouldn't be a horrible default option.) At some point this season, I'm betting Jennings will become a cause celebre of the waiver wire, especially in deep leagues, and if Jones-Drew gets hurt, Jennings could even wind up being startable.
Devin Hester, Bears (from Matthew Berry): He's speedy, he now has a good quarterback throwing him the ball and, from what I hear, he has become a good route runner. He led the Bears in targets and receiving yards in 2008, and once you get past the elite guys, all you're doing with your third and fourth WR picks is looking for upside anyway. This guy fits the bill.
Josh Morgan, 49ers (from Christopher Harris): The star of last year's Niners training camp, Morgan might be a hotter fantasy commodity heading into 2009 if he hadn't gotten sick early in the '08 season. Remember the kind of season Eddie Royal had with Denver last year? Well, Morgan was Royal's college teammate and probably is a more physical version of the Broncos star. Obviously, all of San Francisco's receivers could be limited if the team can't settle on a quarterback. But I'm giving Morgan a chance to be more valuable than his heralded rookie teammate, Michael Crabtree.
Steve Breaston, Cardinals (from Dave Hunter): Breaston will get plenty of action this season in the Cardinals' pass-happy offense. He is in a great system and has Kurt Warner throwing the ball once again. More importantly, Anquan Boldin's contract situation could play heavily into things. Grabbing Breaston as a third or fourth wide receiver is a risk well worth taking.
Nate Burleson, Seahawks (from Ken Daube): Burleson is my lottery-ticket pick this season. He missed almost all of last season after getting hurt in the third quarter of the first game, so he'll definitely fly under the radar. But he'll battle Deion Branch for the No. 2 receiver role for the Seahawks (behind T.J. Houshmandzadeh), and with a healthy Matt Hasselbeck under center, Burleson has serious fantasy potential.
Greg Olsen, Bears (from Eric Karabell): Jay Cutler lacks the same type of top-shelf receiving weapons he had in Denver, but the Bears do have a young, emerging tight end who could use a strong-armed quarterback to find him downfield. Cutler loved throwing to the occasionally healthy Tony Scheffler, and Olsen has exciting skills.
Zach Miller, Raiders (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): There isn't a lot to like about the Raiders this season, but among their few bright spots is Miller, a player who actually performed fairly well the past two seasons in spite of all the turmoil around him. He easily led the team in receptions (56) and receiving yards (778) last season, both of those numbers in the top 10 in the NFL at his position. JaMarcus Russell, in spite of his problems, seemed comfortable throwing in Miller's direction, and with another year's experience for the two, Miller's touchdown total should rise to mirror his other numbers.
Kevin Boss, Giants (from Stephania Bell): Who led the Giants in touchdown receptions in 2008? Not Plaxico Burress with four (of course, he missed a few games, as you might recall), not Amani Toomer (four), not Domenik Hixon (two) and not Steve Smith (just one). Nope, it was the sneaky Kevin Boss (six), who also averaged double-digit yards per catch. Call me crazy, but I like to see my tight ends put points on the board.
Brent Celek, Eagles (from Ken Daube): In the 10 games he started in '08 (including the playoffs) because of L.J. Smith's miscellaneous issues, Celek caught 38 passes for 347 yards and four scores. Smith has moved on to Baltimore, and prorating Celek's performance in those starts over a full season would yield 91 fantasy points, good enough for sixth-best last season.
Garrett Hartley, Saints (from Keith Lipscomb): If I were feeling extra frisky and felt I could get a sleeper in the final round, yeah, I'd grab Hartley in the second-to-last round, especially if I picked late in that round. The kid will be worth it.
New York Jets (from AJ Mass): You don't have to rush to grab the Jets, as most drafters will be too busy grabbing the Steelers, Vikings, Titans and Giants. However, with the influx of all those former Ravens (including coach Rex Ryan) to a team that actually had more sacks than "mighty Baltimore" last season, we expect big things. Not to mention, you also get Leon Washington's kick-return skills for the price of admission.
San Diego Chargers (from Shawn Cwalinski): Just because you wait to take a defense does not mean you must settle. The Chargers had the top fantasy defense in 2007. Last season, the unit lost its best cover guy (Antonio Cromartie) and its best pass-rusher (Shawne Merriman), which helps explain its subpar effort. Well, Cromartie and Merriman now are healthy again, and the Chargers added four defensive players in the draft, including first-round pick Larry English. Add in one of the easiest schedules for a team defense this season, and you get a top-5 defense without having to use a true midround pick.
Dallas Cowboys (from Keith Lipscomb): For a team that led the NFL in sacks last season, its lack of interceptions (eight) really stood out to me. Since 1969, only three of the 245 teams to record 45 or more sacks in a season had single-digit picks. Those 245 teams averaged 18.5 interceptions, so I expect the Boys to force many more picks with all that pressure they're putting on opposing quarterbacks.
For busts, we have put ADP (live draft results in ESPN standard leagues) in parentheses to give you an idea of where that player might be taken.
Ranked in order of when they're expected to be taken, earliest to latest.
Tom Brady, Patriots (from Eric Karabell): As awesome as Brady was in 2007, it remains the only season in which he has topped 30 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning seldom disappoints. I hope Brady is healthy, but the second round is so laden with top wide receivers and valuable running backs, and 25-TD quarterbacks such as Donovan McNabb are still available five rounds later, that I can't justify any quarterback in that round, even Drew Brees or Manning.
Kurt Warner, Cardinals (from Christopher Harris): It's not that I hate Warner, it's just that I worry he's due for an injury. Last season was his first 16-game campaign since 2001. He doesn't get sacked a ton (26 last season, tied for 15th in the NFL), but he gets crushed after his release. If you take him early, you run the risk of getting nothing out of the pick. Of course, you also give yourself a chance for the No. 1 passer in fantasy, because the Cardinals will definitely throw. But where you have to take him, I'd rather take another rusher or receiver and get my signal-caller later.
Aaron Rodgers, Packers (from Ken Daube): OK, let's get this out of the way so all the cheeseheads can start hating me right now: I think Rodgers will finish in the top 10 at quarterback, but not in the top 5, which is right around where he is being drafted now. He's a great quarterback, but his 2008 stats were greatly influenced by how poor the Packers' running game was to start the season. He just won't be a good value.
Matt Ryan, Falcons (from Shawn Cwalinski): Not that I think Ryan will have a bad season; this is more about the quarterbacks you can get around the same area of the draft. Donovan McNabb is going later in drafts and will throw more often this season than in recent seasons. Tony Romo will go a couple of picks earlier and should be more productive. Ryan is going to be a very good quarterback, but the Falcons had the second-most rushing attempts and threw the fourth-fewest number of passes last season, and those numbers likely won't be much different this year.
Matt Cassel, Chiefs (from Stephania Bell): He'll be good again -- just not this season. Despite having arguably the best offensive line in the league around him, Cassel took the most sacks of any signal-caller last season (47). Despite having a reliable receiver such as Randy Moss, Matt Cassel struggled to complete passes in the red zone. And guess what: The Chiefs' offensive line is not quite the equivalent of the Patriots', there's no Randy Moss and, by the way, there's not even a Tony Gonzalez (the Chiefs' leading receiver for each of the past five seasons). New coach, new surroundings, new teammates … consider it a rebuilding year for the Chiefs and build your fantasy team around someone else.
Eli Manning, Giants (from James Quintong): It's quite telling that in our first mock draft, Manning wasn't even selected as a backup. His name value and his team almost assuredly will get him taken in your draft, but realistically, he's a marginal fantasy quarterback entering the season. Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer are gone, so the Giants are going with a somewhat unproven receiving corps of youngsters such as Domenik Hixon, the "other" Steve Smith and rookie Hakeem Nicks. Sure, one or more of those wideouts (and in turn, Manning) could break out this year, but will it be enough to justify a relatively high pick for a backup fantasy quarterback? No way.
Michael Turner, Falcons (from Ken Daube): There were seven games last season in which Turner averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry. Five of those teams -- Detroit, Green Bay, Kansas City, Oakland and St. Louis -- aren't on the Falcons' 2009 schedule, and all five finished 26th or worse in terms of rushing yardage allowed per game. That leads me to wonder whether Turner's remarkable 2008 was pure talent or more of a favorable schedule.
LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): Understand that this pick is relative to draft value, because Tomlinson is currently our No. 7 running back (and might be picked higher in many leagues), but I see no way he'll earn you a profit or even break even at that spot. He's now 30 years old with a lot of mileage on his legs (2,657 carries), which are two big red flags. Another flag: He has lost 80-plus fantasy points of value in each of the past two seasons. Not that I'd avoid Tomlinson outright, but there's no chance I'd take him in the first round of my drafts.
Brian Westbrook, Eagles (from AJ Mass): I don't necessarily dislike Westbrook, but he always has been an "all or nothing" back. He'll get 30 points one week, then two points the next, then 30 again … all the while keeping you on pins and needles as to whether his latest injury will make him a last-minute scratch. The Eagles' offensive line isn't as good as it used to be, and LeSean McCoy is bound to steal more than a few series from the veteran over the course of the season. That's simply not worth a first-round pick in my book.
Ronnie Brown, Dolphins (from Eric Karabell): Nearly half his 2008 season total of touchdowns came in one glorious match against the Patriots. Brown also must deal with Ricky Williams sharing carries. I'm not saying Brown shouldn't be drafted, but he's not in my top 30.
Thomas Jones, Jets (from Keith Lipscomb): Jones went in the third round in our initial mock draft, but I'm concerned that defenses will put even more guys in the box to slow the Jets' running game because of the inexperience the team has at quarterback. Of course, the fact that Jones will be 31 years old to begin the season factors in slightly for me as well.
Terrell Owens, Bills (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): Another big name you might be shocked to see on my busts list. Again, it's not that I wouldn't welcome T.O. on my roster, but when he's regarded as a top-25 pick overall, it's too steep a price to pay. Owens will be working with arguably the least-talented quarterback of his career (Trent Edwards), he's now 35 years old and bound to decline sometime soon, and he'll play a lot of cold-weather games. In his career, in games of 60-degree weather or colder, he has averaged 70.6 receiving yards and 0.71 touchdowns. When the temperature is warmer than 60, those numbers are 81.2 and 0.81, respectively.
Antonio Bryant, Bucs (from James Quintong): His 2008 numbers, especially during the fantasy playoff weeks, were ridiculous, but I'm still not buying. The uncertainty at quarterback gives me pause, and outside of last season, there hasn't been much consistency in Bryant's game throughout his career. That's not going to help whoever takes over under center, since that signal-caller needs at least one reliable target to get him comfortable. I just don't think Bryant is that guy.
Michael Crabtree, 49ers (from Ken Daube): Since 2005, only three of the 33 wide receivers taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft have amassed at least 100 fantasy points during their rookie campaigns. That means you have less than a 10 percent chance of getting 100 fantasy points from your ninth-round pick.
Tony Gonzalez, Falcons (from Christopher Harris): The Falcons have me spooked with this talk about Gonzo becoming more of a blocker than he has ever been. I'm sure that's overstated to some extent, but the only way he's worth a fifth-round pick is if he's basically a wide receiver. That's sounding less and less like it'll be the case. Gonzalez is still probably my No. 1 fantasy tight end, but I'm all for waiting on the position. For where I'd have to grab Gonzalez to get him, I'd rather get a guy at a different position.
Owen Daniels, Texans (from Stephania Bell): He scored only two touchdowns last season -- and they came in the same game, against Detroit. The Texans don't play the Lions this season, and scores will be harder to come by. I don't know about you, but I want my tight ends in the end zone. He'll be too pricey for a starting tight end who will face consistently tough defenses in 2009.
Chris Cooley, Redskins (from AJ Mass): The perception about tight ends is that there's an elite tier, and once those four are gone, fantasy owners will panic and grab Cooley or Owen Daniels a bit too early. Not me. I'll wait a few rounds and "settle" for Greg Olsen, John Carlson or even Visanthe Shiancoe, and be just as competitive at the position, if not more so.
Kellen Winslow, Bucs (from Keith Lipscomb): For all his talent, I just can't help but worry about Winslow staying on the field. Where I'd have to take Winslow, I'd rather keep drafting depth at running back and wide receiver, and wait another round or two for someone like Zach Miller.
Vernon Davis, 49ers (from Dave Hunter): Is there a reason anyone would still believe in Davis? Three miserable seasons of subpar numbers will keep him off my draft board entirely. All the potential Davis supposedly had coming into the league is now gone, so don't buy into the rumblings that he could finally break out because Mike Martz has left town. Word out of San Francisco is that Davis has a difficult time remembering his routes, which is never a good sign for fantasy owners.
Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots (from Shawn Cwalinski): Drafting is all about maximizing the value of your picks. Gostkowski is pretty much the consensus pick to be the No. 1 kicker in fantasy this season. After all, he was last season. But last season, you could get Gostkowski in the last round, whereas this season, you will have to pick before the final round to get him. Even if Gostkowski is once again the top kicker, last season provides a good example of why you shouldn't reach for him -- he scored just 25 points more than the 10th-highest-scoring kicker. Sure, every point matters in fantasy, but the extra point or two per week you get from Gostkowski is not going to make up for the points you might lose by picking him where you'd have to pick him.
New York Giants (from Matthew Berry): I acknowledge the team still has a good D, but this unit lost its defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo), and last season, as great as it was, it still was only 10th in fantasy scoring among defense/special teams. Ultimately, the Giants have a better real-life defense than fantasy defense.
Baltimore Ravens (from Dave Hunter): The Ravens' defense will be taken around the eighth round based on name recognition and what it has done in the past. That said, smart owners will dig deeper, notice all the changes on staff and see this is not the same Ravens D that dominated in seasons past. A new defensive coordinator and the departures of Bart Scott and Chris McAlister, among others, are enough for me to avoid it until the later rounds.