2008 Sleepers and undervalued players

As the preseason approaches, as well as many of your fantasy football drafts, it’s time to write about some of the players that we recommend you target in your draft…players that most of the other owners in your league might not be thinking about (or even aware of). While making this list, I realized that a few of the players I wanted to include are not necessarily “sleeper” picks, so the list was expanded slightly to include players that are simply undervalued at their position, and that you should be able to pick up late in your draft. If you’re in a keeper league, the young players on this list usually make for good pickups, with the hope that they can become stars in the future. Even if you’re not in a keeper league though, the hope is that these players can help your team at some point in the season, if not immediately, so keep an eye on ’em!

Quarterbacks

Aaron Rodgers (GB): As long as Brett Favre does not somehow weasel his way back into the starting role in Green Bay, Rodgers is primed to have a pretty solid year in Green Bay. Last season Favre managed to thrown 28 touchdowns in this offense, which other than Donald Driver, consisted primarily of players with very little experience in the offense (or the league for that matter). I expect this year that while there will be an obvious drop off at the quarterback position, all of the other players on the team should take strides forward and allow Rodgers to have a great “rookie” season. You might not want him as your QB1 going into the season, but if you’re starting him consistently from week 3 or 4 on, don’t be surprised.

David Garrard (JAX): The past two seasons Garrard has made the Jaguars move to release previous starter Byron Leftwich look like one of the smartest moves in the NFL during that time span. From out of no where, Garrard emerged as the guy the team had been looking for to compliment the solid rushing attack of Freddy T and MJD. Last season, in only 12 games, Garrard threw for over 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns, while only throwing three interceptions! After saying all that, I guess it’s tough to call him a “sleeper” this season, but in real and mock drafts that I’ve participated in so far, he hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves. In our 12 team blogger league, he was taken as the 13th quarterback, behind names like Marc Bulger (see the Bust list…coming soon!), Eli Manning and Matt Hasselbeck. If you can get him as your backup, that is a great insurance policy, but if he’s your starter, there’s really no reason to complain. If new-comer’s Troy Williamson and Jerry Porter can open this passing game up even more (I envision a lot more deep passes), Garrard is poised for an even better season this year.

Running Backs

Ricky Williams (MIA): While I might not suggest that Miami chooses Williams as the face of their franchise, I am not against you selecting him for your fantasy roster this season (as an RB3/RB4/handcuff that is). Apparently Ricky has looked great in practice so far, even earning a “fist bump” from coach Parcells (although no “terrorist fist jabs” were handed out I hope!) The Miami Herald reports that Williams has looked like the best player on the team so far in practices. If starting running back Ronnie Brown is not able to return immediately, or at least not at 100% at the beginning of the season, Williams will get a chance to prove that he still has what it takes to compete in the NFL. While he is 31, he hasn’t taken all the abuse over the past few years that many running backs in the league have, so he could still have at least one good season left in the tank. If the Ronnie Brown owner in your draft (or if it’s you) hasn’t taken Williams yet and it’s around the 9th round or so, you might seriously consider taking him, as he is a low risk, high reward player this season.

Chris Johnson (TEN): If you’re a LenDale White owner, or you’re targeting him in your draft, Johnson is a mandatory handcuff…but if you’re sneaky enough, you might be able to scoop him up before that owner has the chance to get him. Currently Yahoo Fantasy Football has an average draft position of 160, meaning that he is going in the 14th round of a 12 team league’s draft. That’s not bad at all for a guy who could eventually take over as the feature back for the Titans this season. While White seemed to have a solid year last season, rushing for over 1,100 yards and 7 touchdowns, he still averaged under 70 yards a game, while posting a rushing average of just 3.7 yards per carry. Johnson was the fastest player at the NFL combine this season (just watch the first clip of the video to see what we’re tlaking about), with a 4.24 second 40-yard dash, and looks like he will see at least some action immediately when the season begins. While he might not be the feature back in the offense, the team plans to use him in all sorts of ways…catching passes out of the backfield, lining up in the slot, and even lining up along side White in a dual back formation, so expect some solid production from this guy at some point in the year and feel confident taking him as your third or fourth running back.

Wide Receivers

Sidney Rice (MIN): Last season I promoted Rice multiple times (he definitely has some serious skills), including recommending that he was drafted in keeper leagues…but he never quite lived up to the hype that I put on him. He finished the season with around 400 yards receiving and four touchdowns, which isn’t anything spectacular. However, if you only consider the four games in which he scored touchdowns, he averaged 4.5 receptions and nearly 70 yards a game to go along with the trips to the endzone. If Tarvaris Jackson can progress this season, I expect to see a lot more of those type of games throughout the year for Rice. In our draft, we got Rice in the 10th round as our 4th receiver and I bet by the end of the season, he will have started at least a few weeks for our team.

James Jones (GB): Last season as a rookie, Jones posted some pretty solid numbers as the third receiver (676 yards, 2 touchdowns) for the Packers, although he seemed to taper off at the end of the season (seemed to hit the “rookie wall”). This year though I see him improving dramatically on those numbers, with the expectation that he worked on his conditioning in the offseason so that he could survive the entire 16 games without slowing down. Donald Driver is another year older, so he’ll most likely see less balls his way this year, while Jones now has a full season in the league and the Green Bay system behind him. I see quarterback Aaron Rodgers forming some solid chemistry with the young receivers (Greg Jennings and Jones) this year and it could lead to some big things for Jones fantasy numbers. In our 12 expert league draft, he was taken in 14th round, a spot where he should definitely be considered undervalued.

Troy Williamson (JAX): Taken with the 7th overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, Williamson has been a major league bust so far in his career, which has been with Minnesota up till this point. This year though, Williamson plays for the Jaguars and claims that his previous disappointing seasons can be attributed to a “mental block”. For some reason, I believe that a change of scenery could be just what the doctor ordered for Williamson and he gives quarterback David Garrard a deep threat that he never really had last season. If Garrard improves this year, expect a decent season from Williamson as well, and he could potentially work his way into a WR3 role on your fantasy roster, which isn’t that bad from a guy you can most likely get in the final round of the draft, or even in free agency after the draft.

James Hardy (BUF): The Bills have been looking for a receiver to line up opposite of Lee Evans and they think they might have found one in the 6’7″, 220 pound James Hardy out of Indiana. As a Hoosier, he caught a school record 36 touchdowns and in his final he caught 79 passes for 1,125 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s also got some speed (go to 0:25 in video), running a 4.45 second 40-yard dash at the combine, so expect to see more from him than just a red-zone threat (something that the Bills hope he will be really good at though!) He will cause matchup problems for nearly any player that tries to cover him and so as long as he proves that he can learn the Bills playbook quickly, we should see him become an integral part of the offense early in the season. Hardy is going very late (if at all) in 12 team drafts, so especially in a keeper league, you might want to take him with one of your last picks or grab him off waivers with the hope that he can be a bye week or injury fill-in for your team.

Tight Ends

Kevin Boss (NYG): With all the interest over the Jeremy Shockey trade to New Orleans, there’s a chance that no one in your league took notice of the guy who took over the gig in New York. Boss is the new starting tight end for the Giants and is apparently playing very well in practice. Last season Boss didn’t play all that much, but he did have a coming out party of sorts during the last week of the season, where he caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots. If you miss the first, second and possibly even third run on tight ends in your draft, you’ll most likely be able to grab Boss very late and he should prove to be a serviceable option at the position.

Zach Miller (OAK): As with Kevin Boss, another tight end you can get at the end of your draft that should prove to be pretty decent this season is Zach Miller of the Raiders. Last season, in only his rookie year, he racked up 444 yards and three touchdowns, which isn’t that bad considering the guys he had throwing to him (Daunte Culpepper, Josh McCown and JaMarcus Russell). This season, there is no question marks at the quarterback position. Russell will be the starter the entire year, barring injury, which shouldn’t be a bad thing considering in the final game of the season, he found Miller eight times for 84 yards. I don’t expect anything too special from the wide receiver position in Oakland this year, so expect Russell to look to Miller a lot this year when no one else can get open (of course that’s in between all the hand offs to Darren McFadden and Justin Fargas!)