At this point on the NFL calendar everyone looks good in shorts, some players are in the best shape of their career, and the bulk of the money is on each team’s “over” in the Vegas win-loss pool. Most fantasy drafts are three summer months (and hopefully a bunch of training camp snaps) away. But that doesn’t mean we don’t already have our eye on select players who are being overlooked and undervalued in the early going.
Of course this list is subject to change—maybe significantly—once camps open, but for now here’s a rundown of our early pre-camp sleepers and undervalued fantasy players.
Eli Manning (NYG) – If it feels like Manning is an annual fixture on this list… well, he is. That’s what happens when you grow up in the shadow of one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Tough to justify Eli as a below-average fantasy quarterback when he’s throwing to a top-two wideout. Mix in a quietly productive tight end rotation, an upgrade at WR2 via the draft, an improved offensive line, another year of understanding Ben McAdoo’s offense, a top-three easiest strength of schedule for the passing game, and a backfield whose top two players are both better known for their pass-catching than their running and Manning is looking at another year of delivering fantasy starter numbers at a fantasy backup price.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (NYJ) – You know Fitzmagic is re-signing with the Jets. I know Fitzmagic is re-signing with the Jets. Apparently the only people on the planet who don’t accept this are the Jets front office, Fitz’s agent… and fantasy owners, who have Fitzpatrick slotted as the 30th quarterback off the draft board. Considering he tossed his way to the seventh-best fantasy season last year and returns to an offense that still has Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, gets back tight end Jace Amaro from injury, and replaced Chris Ivory with elite pass-catching back Matt Forte, things can only get better. Eventually the two sides will come to their senses, Fitzpatrick will be back in green, and your fantasy roster will get top-10 quarterback production from a late-round acquisition.
Blaine Gabbert/Colin Kaepernick (SFO) – Even if Chip Kelly hasn’t picked a winner by the time your fantasy draft rolls around there’s value here as a Team QB option, especially in 2QB leagues. The last time he had an über-athletic quarterback (Michael Vick in 2013), Eagles QBs ranked third in fantasy production—and Nick Foles scored three of the team’s five QB rushing touchdowns. In Chip’s hurry-up offense the play count will increase, as will the pass attempts. Combine an average Chip Kelly passing season with a typical San Francisco QB rushing season and you get a quarterback posting top-10 fantasy stats. Considering neither Niners’ QB is among the first 30 fantasy quarterbacks off the board, this is a lottery ticket worth scratching.
Jonathan Stewart (CAR) – Maybe you pulled a Rip Van Winkle and just awoke from a full offseason of slumber. As your blurry vision comes into focus you spot Stewart way down the ADP list as the 33rd back off the board. You assume the Panthers drafted his replacement in May, or maybe he pulled some off-season shenanigans that landed him in jail or rehab or at minimum in the commissioner’s office for a stern talking to. Well, you assumed wrong; they didn’t, and he didn’t. The same back that ranked 16th in fantasy production despite missing his annual three games returns to the same depth chart and the same offense that wound up in the Super Bowl. He hasn’t hit the mythical “drop off a cliff” age of 30 just yet, so enjoy a season of starter-level production at a backup price.
Ryan Mathews (PHI) – The Eagles already unloaded DeMarco Murray and are trying to do the same with Darren Sproles. As much as they like fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, that pruning still leaves Mathews atop the depth chart—where he’ll be the lead back in an offense similar to the one that spurred Jamaal Charles to fantasy stardom. Mathews was often the more productive back last season en route to a career-best 5.0 yards per carry, and he’s demonstrated receiving ability that will help him stay on the field after Sproles leaves while Smallwood acclimates to the NFL. Nothing wrong with getting a poor man’s Charles for the price of a backup.
Frank Gore (IND) – Eventually time or whatever deal with the spirits Gore has made will catch up with him and he’ll stop being a productive fantasy running back. But it didn’t happen last season at age 32 when he switched jerseys and carried a mostly Luck-less Indy offense; even though by his standards his numbers were off, Gore still clocked in as the 11th-most productive fantasy running back. Luck returns to stir the offensive kettle, and Indy used the draft to upgrade their offensive line—to the benefit of both their franchise quarterback and of Gore. Frank’s only depth chart competition is UDFA Josh Ferguson (a solid late-round dynasty stash, by the way), so buck the trend of getting out too early; at this point all it costs to stick around until the bitter end of Gore’s career is a double-digit round draft pick, and the upside remains intact.
Theo Riddick (DET) – Among running backs last season only Danny Woodhead was targeted more frequently or caught more passes for more yards. Despite seeing only 43 rushing attempts all season, that work in the passing game was still enough to plant Riddick firmly inside the top 40 fantasy running backs—ahead of erstwhile Detroit feature backs Ameer Abdullah (41st) and Joique Bell (50th). Bell is gone and Abdullah coming off surgery, while Matthew Stafford lost Calvin Johnson to early retirement. All those signs point towards an uptick in Riddick’s role in the offense, as a viable flex starter or even a legitimate RB starter if you opt to fill other positions first and chase backfield touches in the later round.
Rashad Jennings (NYG) – The sexier play here is rookie Paul Perkins, a fifth-round pick who might be the most talented back on the depth chart. And while it remains to be seen just how the Giants’ RBBC sorts out post-Tom Coughlin, with new head coach Ben McAdoo calling the plays last season Jennings saw a career-high 195 carries, which he turned into the 19th-most fantasy points amongst running backs. An early read of the Giants’ tea leaves has Perkins either taking Shane Vereen’s third-down work or taking a red-shirt year to acclimate to the NFL, leaving Jennings to battle the uninspiring Andre Williams for the rest of the work. Nothing about Williams’ NFL performance thus far suggests he warrants more touches, so grabbing Jennings and his lead-dog role in New York at his current ADP of the 55th running back off the board smacks of value.
Jordan Howard (CHI) – The Bears didn’t exactly invest heavily in Howard, drafting him in the fifth round to flesh out their running back depth chart. But his advantage over incumbents Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey and Jacquizz Rodgers in the battle to claim Matt Forte’s touches is that he’s 20-plus pounds heavier and compares stylistically to John Fox favorite Stephen Davis. Langford didn’t exactly dazzle in his run as the feature back, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and failing to find the end zone over his final five games and 64 touches. Given his girth, don’t be surprised if Howard takes over the designated scorer role in Fox’s RBBC—and maybe even horns in on some early-down carries as well.
Larry Fitzgerald (ARI) – Fitz is one of the classiest players in the league, has been a rock-solid fantasy contributor for the past decade, and is coming off a top-10 fantasy performance after finally getting the quarterbacking he’s long deserved. None of this matters to fantasy owners, who apparently hate Fitzgerald so much they’d rather have 41 other wideouts instead—including both Michael Floyd and John Brown. So long as Carson Palmer is upright he’s going to target him, and with career averages of 6-71 per game when Palmer is throwing—that works out to about 100 catches for 1200 yards, along with eight touchdowns per season, and they’re even gaudier over their last 10 and 20 games together—Fitz will once again dramatically outperform such a lowly draft position.
Travis Benjamin (SDC) – That the Browns’ top wideout from a year ago barely cracks the top 50 among wide receiver ADP shouldn’t come as a surprise. But Benjamin fled Cleveland for an upgrade in quarterback, a more prolific offense—over the past two seasons, Chargers WRs finished an average of 10 spots ahead of the Browns’ WR corps—and less defensive attention running opposite Keenan Allen in San Diego. Instead of being rewarded for turning in a top-30 WR performance amid last season’s circumstance and upgrading his surroundings, fantasy owners are ignoring Benjamin with aplomb. Given that Benjamin should unify the numbers Stevie Johnson, Malcolm Floyd, Dontrelle Inman and others compiled last season, and Antonio Gates isn’t getting any younger, there is definitely an opportunity for Benjamin to outperform market expectations.
Mohamed Sanu (ATL) – Sanu was barely fantasy relevant in Cincinnati, stuck behind AJ Green and Tyler Eifert while competing for secondary targets with Marvin Jones. Both receivers moved on in hopes of landing a larger share of the pie, and Sanu seems the better value as Julio Jones’ sidekick in Atlanta. Fantasy owners weren’t moved by Sanu’s change of address, preferring 64 wideouts ahead of him on draft day. The Falcons have finished sixth and eighth in passing yardage the past two seasons; with only Jones ahead of him in the pecking order, Sanu should easily surpass a healthy chunk of the 60-plus taken ahead of him.
Markus Wheaton (PIT) – Last year no group of wide receivers scored more fantasy points than the Steelers. Sure, Antonio Brown is a huge part of that but even he can’t catch every pass. And with Heath Miller retired, Ladarius Green injured and Martavis Bryant in a league-imposed time out, the opportunity for Wheaton to improve on last season’s top-40 finish is there. Sammie Coates is his only threat to an uptick in targets; even if Wheaton and Coates evenly split Bryant’s looks that’s more than a 50 percent increase for Wheaton. If he managed 749 and 5 on 80 targets, what could he do with 120? Certainly something worthy of more than the 54th wideout off the fantasy draft board.
Torrey Smith (SFO) – Even in a down year for the Eagles and Chip Kelly, Jordan Matthews managed to crack the top 20 fantasy wideouts—just as Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson had done the previous two seasons. Now Chip is in San Francisco, where the quarterback situation is similarly unstable and the wide receiver situation even more so. But history tells us Kelly’s offense will produce a viable starting fantasy wideout, and right now Smith is the only name on the 49ers depth chart within sniffing distance of such a role. DeAndre Smelter and Quinton Patton are generating buzz as deep sleepers, but with Anquan Boldin gone there’s a far greater chance it’s Smith who steps up with something resembling his better Baltimore years—and in the process rewards fantasy owners who see the upside beyond his ADP of WR61.
Kenny Bell (TBB) – With an ADP of QB6, Jameis Winston is hot. But aside from Mike Evans, who’s he going to throw to? Vincent Jackson is falling victim to the “we hate old receivers” fantasy mantra, sporting an ADP of 77. He’s bound to outperform that, but we’ve already filled our graybeard quota with Larry Fitzgerald and Torrey Smith. The speedy Bell gives Winston a different type of target, something the combination of Donteea Dye, Adam Humphries, and Louis Murphy couldn’t supply last season. With an ADP of 75, you’re risking little in banking on Bell, injured most of last season, to consolidate those numbers—something in the neighborhood of 50 catches, 600 yards and three TDs. And if he bites into the veteran Jackson’s totals while at the same time flourishing alongside the burgeoning Winston, there’s legitimate fantasy value to be had.
Zach Miller (CHI) – Fantasy fans were unmoved by Miller outperforming the likes of Jimmy Graham, Charles Clay, Ladarius Green, and even the guy ahead of him on the depth chart Martellus Bennett in just 11 games last season; in fact, in terms of fantasy points per game Miller was a starter over Graham, Zach Ertz, Julius Thomas, Jason Witten, and many more. Bennett’s in Boston now, leaving Miller to serve as Jay Cutler’s security blanket. You have to believe his ADP, currently at 23, will rise as people realize he’ll be the starter in Chicago—and skyrocket if Kevin White can’t get on the field again and/or Alshon Jeffery holds out.
Jared Cook (GBP) – Aaron Rodgers has been lacking a reliable target at tight end since Jermichael Finley left. Last season Richard Rodgers tried to fill the void but just wasn’t up to the task. In a rare free agent move the Packers brought in Cook, who has turned in multiple fantasy-relevant campaigns in some bad offenses. If he can catch 50 balls for 600 yards and five TDs for the Rams—with Lance Kendricks sniping him to boot—you have to like his chances of fantasy relevancy in Green Bay—especially if his ADP holds as the 29th tight end off the fantasy draft board.
Vance McDonald (SFO) – Chip Kelly likes big receivers, and that extends to his frequent use of multiple tight ends. In Philadelphia he employed both Brent Celek and Zach Ertz to three straight seasons of top-10 rankings; unfortunately it was a combined ranking amongst tight end units as the duo split an average of 90-1136-7 over Kelly’s time in Philly. Vance will have to battle another Celek, Garrett, in San Francisco, but McDonald was more productive last season and heads into camp with the advantage. The Niners haven’t done much to upgrade their wide receivers, and with the addition of Kelly’s philosophy both tight ends should improve on their respective 31st and 39th rankings last season among fantasy tight ends. If McDonald improves his share of the workload, his increase could push him near every-week starter status—not bad for a tight end currently sporting an ADP of TE37.