It's the sleepers who win the leagues.
Just for fun, see if you can pull up, electronically or on paper, a draft from last year, and then find out which teams finished in the top three, at least in the regular season. Look at their drafts from about the sixth round and later, and you're bound to be impressed. In about 90 percent of cases -- the remaining 10 percent being teams that just happened to strike it big in the free-agent sweepstakes -- you'll see picks that you now can't believe would have been taken then. And it'll become obvious why that owner had a great season.
Use it as motivation to get you pumped up to prepare for those middle and late rounds and pay close attention during them. Use it to learn about players such as Glen Coffee and James Davis, Earl Bennett and Laurent Robinson. Use it to find this year's Aaron Rodgers, Derrick Ward, Steve Slaton, DeSean Jackson or Owen Daniels.
Of course, those are also the rounds in which you don't really know about a player. You don't know about his playing time, or his true upside, or how consistent he'll be, or whether he'll carry over a hot training camp/preseason into the regular season. You just don't know. But that's what makes these players sleepers; you're finding diamonds in the rough whom other people would gloss over. If you find the right ones, you can win your league.
On the flip side, if you botch the early rounds, you can lose your league. That's tougher to do than finding sleepers because there is so much proven talent to pick from. But it can be done, and our experts pass along the players who have "red flags" by them, be it because of nagging injuries (Terrell Owens), or age (Kurt Warner, LaDainian Tomlinson), or simply being overrated (Kellen Winslow). We're not necessarily saying we think these guys will tank; they just won't provide the production you expect from their draft spots.
With that, I introduce to you Sleepers & Busts 2.0. Our first version, while a popular offering, had become outdated, so here's a fresh batch of our sleepers and busts at each position, and a handful of explanations to go along with 'em. Enjoy. -- Brendan Roberts
The round in parentheses is the round that expert would take that player in an ESPN standard draft league. Because we advocate waiting 'til 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 Christopher Harris): Now let's be clear here: Just because I've had Palmer tagged as a sleeper all summer doesn't mean I think he's automatically a starter in shallow fantasy leagues. He comes with a significant risk of injury, both because of the recent past and because his offensive line is subpar. But this is a guy who was a top-three fantasy quarterback just a few years ago, and he does have some excellent receiving weapons. The Bengals will probably grind things out a bit more than we remember from back in the day because their defense looks pretty good. But Palmer has upside as your No. 2 quarterback.
Brett Favre, Vikings (from Eric Karabell): You don't have to like him or how he handled things this summer to draft him late. Before hurting his arm last season, Favre was among the leaders in passing yards, and 10 of his 22 interceptions came in the final six games. He was hurt! In theory, he's healthy now, and he's on a strong team. He doesn't need to be a wild gunslinger, but I expect 20-plus touchdowns and a real drop in mistakes. He's a solid backup in fantasy.
Joe Flacco, Ravens (from AJ Mass): The way he's using Ray Rice as a receiver out of the backfield this preseason, with tons of dump-offs over the middle, has been opening up things downfield for the no-longer-retired Derrick Mason. True, the preseason games "don't count," but they do matter. When a quarterback goes 23-for-28 in less than three quarters against the Panthers, you have to take notice.
Kevin Smith, Lions (from AJ Mass): He's not a "sexy pick," but I bet if his name were Kevlar O'Keefe or Cutback Suarez, he'd be in everybody's top five. I think Smith has the talent to rush for 1,500-plus yards this season, especially with an improved offensive line and more balanced game plan in Detroit. Heck, I might even take him as early as Round 2, just to ensure I don't miss out.
Larry Johnson, Chiefs (from Dave Hunter): I'm a sucker for LJ, and I'll be the first to admit it, 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 given a chance to carry most of the load, he'll produce.
Felix Jones, RB (from Ken Daube): Does anyone remember that the Cowboys invested a first-round (22nd overall) pick in the 2008 NFL draft on this former Arkansas running back? Jerry Jones sure does. With Terrell Owens gone, there are additional touches to be had, and it should surprise nobody if Jones, who averaged 8.9 yards per carry last season, is given those opportunities.
James Davis, Browns (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): This pick is as much disparaging Jamal Lewis as it is praising Davis for his preseason play. As in, I'm firmly convinced now that the Browns must consider Davis at the bare minimum as a part of a backfield rotation. All the rookie has done thus far is average 7.8 yards per carry and catch seven passes, while his veteran competition has averaged 2.6 yards per carry with five catches (the catches are actually unexpected from Lewis, who is generally mediocre in that area). Lewis is also 30 years old, and an old 30 at that, with 2,399 career carries on his legs. Even if he had the job to himself, how likely is it that he would last an entire season as a starter? Davis won't cost you a dime -- he's barely draft-worthy in ESPN standard leagues -- but he's the kind of player I'd be happy with as my final nonkicker. Simply put, he's a lottery ticket who by year's end could conceivably have elevated his status to weekly No. 2/flex play. He has that kind of upside.
Glen Coffee, 49ers (from Keith Lipscomb): He's just one Frank Gore injury away from being a factor, and I love how hard this guy runs. He would put up solid numbers if given the opportunity. Of course, playing more than one-third of your games against NFC West opponents isn't a bad thing, either.
Mike Bell, Saints (from Stephania Bell): And not just because we share the same last name. With Reggie Bush likely to be utilized differently this season by the Saints, in part because of his injury history, Pierre Thomas is likely to see plenty of action in the team's backfield, and his value is widely known. But Thomas is recovering from a sprained MCL, and although he's expected back in Week 1, it exposed the need for another tailback who could also do some damage around the goal line. Enter Mike Bell, who has performed well in the preseason and is expected to be part of a three-back rotation. Consider him a deep sleeper who could provide intermittent value from a flex spot.
Eddie Royal, Broncos (from Stephania Bell): Fantasy owners already know Royal will have value, but the key here is just how much value he'll have. Royal began training camp as the No. 2 receiver but might find himself at No. 1 to begin the regular season if Brandon Marshall can't get his hip or his attitude ready. Also, Broncos No. 3 receiver Jabar Gaffney, who was comfortable in new coach Josh McDaniels' offense from their Patriots days, was expected to steal some targets from the starting duo, but now has a broken thumb and won't be returning anytime soon. Royal should get plenty of opportunities right from the get-go.
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.
Chris Henry, Bengals (from Dave Hunter): I'm not a Henry fan because of his past off-field antics, but smart fantasy owners know how to sacrifice their personal dislike for a player to get statistical results. Henry has looked fantastic so far in preseason games, showing soft hands, great leaping ability and excellent speed. Laveranues Coles likely will win the No. 2 slot for the Bengals opposite Chad Ochocinco, but Henry will get plenty of looks this season in the team's pass-heavy offense. If I'm looking for a late-round WR sleeper with upside, Henry is my guy.
Steve Smith, Giants (from James Quintong): Eli Manning doesn't have a go-to receiver just yet, but of all the current options, I think Smith could emerge as the most dependable guy of the group. He can fill a lot of different roles within the Giants' receiving game and did have a catch in every game last season. Sure, he might not be a home run threat like some of the others on the roster, but if he can get himself open early and often, he'll pile up his share of stats, and at a bargain price.
Earl Bennett, Bears (from Eric Karabell): Clearly Devin Hester has quite a following in drafts; he's being selected ahead of Derrick Mason, Steve Breaston, Lance Moore and other wide receivers who have played the position for years and have been productive. Hester hasn't. New Bears quarterback Jay Cutler must throw to someone, and he has familiarity with Bennett, whom he threw to at Vanderbilt. Bennett is not a definite fantasy starter, but there's upside in him in what should be a better passing offense, and one that is wide-open in terms of targets at this point.
Laurent Robinson, Rams (from Christopher Harris): A few interesting receiving options have emerged as the exhibition season winds down. Robinson, Kenny Britt and Hakeem Nicks all look like interesting deep sleepers to me, guys to store deep on your bench to see what happens. I gave my primary WR sleeper pick to Robinson because the other guys are rookies. Robinson is a burner on the outside who figures to get single coverage provided Donnie Avery stays healthy. I have to admit, I expected the Rams to go with someone like Keenan Burton as their No. 2 receiver because Robinson's skill set overlaps a bit with Avery's. Still, there could be some big touchdown plays as long as Robinson is a starter.
Brandon Stokley, Broncos (from Ken Daube): I am falling in love with Stokley all over again. He might not be as quick as he once was, but he's a level-headed veteran with above-average speed, and he fits very well into the new offensive system being installed in Denver. Stokley has been practicing almost exclusively as the slot receiver, which is the position that helped make Wes Welker a fantasy star in McDaniels' offense in New England. The experienced Stokley has 80-catch upside this season yet is being drafted in few leagues. Don't make that mistake.
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.
Kevin Boss, Giants (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): I'm thinking of donning my Giants jersey and heading out to the team's training camp site to audition, because, gee, who else is going to catch passes for this team? That's primarily the reason Boss makes for a fine fallback tight end should you ignore the position in the early rounds, as he's actually a veteran of this bunch, comparatively speaking. More importantly, he's one of the team's few trusted red zone options in the passing game, with six touchdowns in 2008 on 19 red zone targets, the latter number placing him third in the league among tight ends. The Giants can't live and die with Brandon Jacobs as their only red zone threat. They need others, such as Boss, so don't be surprised if he sneaks in eight to 10 scores.
Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings (from James Quintong): Shiancoe finished fifth in fantasy scoring last year behind the "big four" of Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates, but he's nowhere near them in the rankings. I would have written off last season as a bit of a fluke, but now that the Vikings have Brett Favre, there's hope for Shiancoe. Favre has operated well with tight ends in his career, and he got a reasonably good rookie campaign from Dustin Keller last year. Favre should help vault Shiancoe back into the top 10 again this year.
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.
David Akers, Eagles (from Matthew Berry): How did I arrive at this? Because I closed my eyes, pointed at a list, and Akers was the guy my finger was on when I opened 'em. I hate kickers.
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 head 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 are now healthy again, and the Chargers also 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-five 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 (8) 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 when that player might be taken.
Ranked in order of when they're expected to be taken, earliest to latest.
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 five, 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.
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 year 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 given where you have to take him, I'd rather take another rusher or receiver and get my signal-caller later.
More on Kurt Warner, Cardinals (from Keith Lipscomb): Warner is coming off his first full season of games played since 2001 -- and let's not forget he played four additional games in the playoffs -- is still recovering from hip surgery, and he turned 38 in June. I think he'll still be great when he's on the field, but since he has never played a full NFL schedule two seasons in a row, I'm concerned about his durability.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (from Eric Karabell): Few quarterbacks can lead a team to a Super Bowl victory like he can, but be careful about relying on him for fantasy supremacy. Roethlisberger dropped to 17 touchdown passes last season … but did he really drop to that number? The fact is he has thrown 17 or 18 touchdown passes in four of his five seasons; clearly that 32-touchdown 2007 campaign is the outlier. Expect 17 or 18 touchdowns this season.
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 year (47). Despite having a reliable receiver such as Randy Moss, 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). And Cassel is already battling a knee injury. New head coach, new surroundings, new teammates … consider it a rebuilding year for the Chiefs and build your fantasy team around someone else.
Michael Turner, Falcons (from Ken Daube): I devoted a whole 32 Questions article to my distaste for Turner, but in a nutshell, there were just seven games last season in which Turner averaged 4.0 yards per carry or better. Five of the teams he did that against -- Detroit, Green Bay, Kansas City, Oakland and St. Louis -- aren't found on the Falcons' 2009 schedule. Each of those five teams finished 26th or worse in terms of rushing yardage allowed per game. That leads me to wonder if Turner's remarkable 2008 was less talent and more 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.
Brandon Jacobs, Giants (from AJ Mass): I like Jacobs, but not as a No. 1 back, which is where he's being drafted in many leagues (Average Draft Results: 10th running back off the board, 15th player overall) right now. He's an injury waiting to happen -- thankfully, X-rays on his forearm were negative after he got banged up against the Jets this past weekend -- and I think the Giants won't hesitate to put more of the load on Ahmad Bradshaw and Danny Ware as the season moves on.
More on Brandon Jacobs, Giants (from Shawn Cwalinski): Jacobs is a unique back, and a great talent. But he also has missed eight games over the past two seasons and hasn't managed 220 carries or rushed for 1,100 yards in a single season. Jacobs also has only 40 receptions in his four-year career, including only six catches last season. Factor in Jacobs' tough playoff schedule -- Philadelphia, at Washington, Carolina, at Minnesota -- and you have a player who looks like a pretty big risk for a second-round pick.
Ronnie Brown, Dolphins (from Keith Lipscomb): Sure, he scored 10 touchdowns last season -- five more than his previous career high -- but he rushed for more than 70 yards in a game just three times. If I can't get better consistency from a back being taken in the late third or early fourth round, then I'd rather take one with high upside, something Brown doesn't have.
Thomas Jones, Jets (from James Quintong): I don't think anyone is expecting Jones to repeat the 15 touchdowns he scored last season, but I wonder how much he'll drop off, especially with Leon Washington poised to get a lot more looks in the offense. Jones hasn't looked all that sharp in the preseason, while Washington has played well, which could lead to some sort of a passing of the torch in the Jets' backfield. For now, I'm not too concerned about Shonn Greene's presence, but he's a guy who could steal a few more touches from Jones as well, possibly at the goal line.
Terrell Owens, Bills (from Tristan H. Cockcroft): Another big name you might be shocked to see on my "busts" list. It's not that I wouldn't welcome T.O. to my roster, but when he's regarded as a No. 1 fantasy receiver by my league mates, it's too steep a price. 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 temperatures or below, he has averaged 70.6 receiving yards and 0.71 touchdowns. When the temperature is over 60, those numbers are 81.2 and 0.81. Owens also has been hobbled by a nagging toe injury, and the turf-toe whispers couldn't ring louder in my ears. Not that there's official word that's what he has, but even the threat of it has me valuing him conservatively.
Antonio Bryant, Bucs (from James Quintong): Last year's 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.
Laveranues Coles, Bengals (from Eric Karabell): Chris Henry is healthy, focused and, well, not in trouble, and he's poised to vault past Coles and Chad Ochocinco to become the Bengals' top wide receiver. Certainly Henry is the most dangerous playmaker they have. Ochocinco will get his 60 catches, but Coles is having trouble acclimating himself to his new team. He could be stuck with No. 3 WR duties this year, which means he likely won't produce like a No. 3 wide receiver for fantasy purposes.
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 to some extent that's overstated, 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 year -- and they came in the same game against Detroit! The Texans don't even play the Lions this year, 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.
Greg Olsen, Bears (from AJ Mass): Olsen was my sleeper pick the first time we did this survey, but I fear things have tipped too far in that direction, and now he's being drafted way too early. I still like him with Jay Cutler at quarterback, but I can wait several rounds after he's off the board and still get quality in a tight end such as John Carlson, Zach Miller or Kevin Boss without having to spend one of my eighth-round picks on Olsen.
Kellen Winslow, Bucs (from Keith Lipscomb): For all of his talent, I just can't help but worry about Winslow staying on the field. Given where I'd have to pick Winslow, I'd rather keep drafting depth at running back and wide receiver and wait another round or two for someone like Zach Miller.
Jeremy Shockey, Saints (from James Quintong): He's still a big name, which is why he's being drafted among the top 10 tight ends, even though his production doesn't match the reputation. Shockey is constantly an injury risk, and he often has been outplayed by other tight ends on the roster, such as Billy Miller. Sure, he should thrive in New Orleans' wide-open offense, but there's too much risk if you're drafting him early because of who he was supposed to be, as opposed to what he is.
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 year. 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'd potentially 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): I'm not saying I wouldn't want the Ravens as my team defense this year, but I won't draft them as early as most owners. And I still believe that the Ravens' defensive player turnover and coordinator change will bring them down a notch. Why draft the Ravens' D in the eighth round when you can pick up the Jets, Dolphins or Patriots four to five rounds later? The potential point variance isn't enough for me to grab the Ravens' D so early, and I'm very confident they won't earn their current ADP.
Pittsburgh Steelers (from Shawn Cwalinski): A lot of people were bothered and questioned my sanity when I listed the Steelers' defense as a bust the first time we did this list, so I figure an explanation is in order. I am not insane. It is not that I don't think the Steelers will have a good defense this season; they will. My problem is that you'd have to draft this unit in the seventh round. Last season the fantasy point differential between the best fantasy defense and the fourth-best fantasy defense was 16 points. I also can't remember the last time the defenses drafted first actually ended up being the best fantasy defenses.