It’s the time of year when fantasy enthusiasts obsess over draft order and which players will be available when the time comes to make that fateful first-round pick. Jamaal or Shady? Peyton or Brees? Bud or Miller?
But as important as your initial pick can be, it pales in comparison to the handful of selections you’ll make – or miss – several rounds later. After all, as happy as you may be to land Alshon Jeffrey or Julius Thomas now, they won’t be the bargains they were last year for the savvy players that stole them late in the draft 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 Emmanuel Sanders 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 2014, broken down by position.
(Note: ADP, or “average draft position,” indicates where the player is typically being selected within his position.“QB14” means he’s the 14th quarterback taken on mock draft sites. Compare to my Fantasy Fools “FF” rankings).
Jay Cutler, QB, Bears (ADP QB14; FF QB5). Long-time readers will be shocked to see this, because I’ve always been a Cutler detractor. This year, I'm prepared to see a lot more Good Jay than Bad Jay. With the blue-chip receivers at his service, Cutler's arsenal is fully loaded. He could have an elite year if he simply cuts down the boneheaded plays.
Josh McCown, QB, Buccaneers (ADP QB24; FF QB11). He was masterful as Cutler's replacement in 2013 and he was rewarded with a big contract and another pair of talented, jumbo-sized receivers in Tampa Bay. Draft him as your backup and you may be rewarded with starter-quality stats.
Zac Stacy, RB, Rams (ADP RB14; FF RB8). Stacy proved he could handle the bell cow role as a rookie. All he needs is for Sam Bradford to stay healthy and give him some cover, and he could put up elite numbers.
Rashad Jennings, RB, Giants (ADP RB21; FF RB14). His current ADP is virtually identical to his final 2013 ranking in Oakland, which makes sense only if you think he won’t keep his new starting gig. With David Wilson retiring, only fourth-round pick Andre Williams stands in his way. Jennings is no superstar, but he’ll handily out-perform his draft position while posting strong RB2 numbers.
Mark Ingram, RB, Saints (ADP RB49; FF RB28). A perennial disappointment, Ingram is currently listed as the Saints' starting RB. With Darren Sproles gone, and playing for a free agent contract, he’s absolutely worth a late-round flier. His upside is high in this offense.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos (ADP WR28; FF WR19). The ex-Steeler steps into the lucrative role vacated by Eric Decker, who is not blessed with Sanders’ speed or overall skill set. Peyton Manning has made stars of lesser talents (see Decker, Eric).
Kenny Stills, WR, Saints (ADP WR 51; FF WR32). With Lance Moore and Sproles both out of the picture, Stills will get his chance to shine opposite Marques Colston. Look for a quantum leap in production for the talented wideout, assuming he can put his preseason quadriceps injury behind him. Brandin Cooks is actually being drafted higher than Stills thanks to a stellar training camp, but don’t fall for the rookie hype.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers (ADP WR57; FF WR38). The second-year speedster is already listed as the starter opposite Antonio Brown, now that Sanders has moved on. Wheaton is a gifted athlete with great hands, and he should benefit from opponents’ focus on Brown.
Jarrett Boykin, WR, Packers (ADP WR54; FF WR42). Boykin put up some impressive numbers in 2013 when Randall Cobb was lost and before Aaron Rodgers went down. With James Jones now wearing a Raiders uniform, the third-year receiver has some serious breakout potential as the Packers' third wideout.
Next week: My oft-imitated, always controversial, yet magically delicious Perfect Draft.
Ladd Biro was named Football Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association for two consecutive years (2010, 2011) and was a finalist again in 2013. Follow all his advice daily at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com), on Facebook and via Twitter (@ladd_biro).