By: David Kromelow
It’s FINALLY that time of year again. After nearly six months of impatient waiting, a new season of NFL football is upon us. Training camps are in full swing and it’s only a matter of days until the players take the field for preseason action. That means that the time is NOW to start preparing thoroughly for your 2014 fantasy football league drafts.
While studying, fantasy owners should want to be able to identify players that can put up early-round production at a later-round cost. Last year, for example, Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery, and Zac Stacy proved to be huge steals that propelled countless people to fantasy championships. The following 10 players, I believe, can pay similar dividends this season…they are DKROM’s Top 10 Fantasy Sleepers For 2014:
1. Toby Gerhart (RB, Jacksonville Jaguars): Although he spent his first four seasons in Minnesota behind future hall-of-famer Adrian Peterson, Gerhart gave us a rather healthy glimpse of his immense potential during that time, despite a limited number of totes. In 2013, Pro Football Focus ranked him fourth in the NFLin yards after contact per rushing attempt (3.8). This offseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars gave him the highest payday for running backs ($4.5M guaranteed) in his free agent class and thus clearly envision him as the key to their offense. Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley (formerly the Seahawks defensive coordinator) brings that run-first, defensive mindset from Seattle to Duval County thus Gerhart (as he himself stated) will essentially be Bradley’s new Marshawn Lynch. The Jaguars coaching staff has repeatedly referred to the 6-0, 231-lb. bruiser as a “horse” and his production during his senior season in Stanford’s pro-style offense (343 carries, 1,871 total yards, 28 TD) proves he is fully capable of handling such a workload. In order to mask suspect quarterback play, expect Jacksonville to feed Gerhart the ball until the wheels fall off. Should the Jaguars be more competitive as many believe, it is quite possible that Gerhart will lead the NFL in carries this season...and post early-round fantasy numbers at a mid-round expense.
2. Zach Ertz (TE, Philadelphia Eagles): Another Stanford alumnus is next on the list. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted Ertz at 35th overall in 2013 to be a vital mismatch toy in head coach Chip Kelly’s innovative offense. After playing just 24% of snaps during his first three games, the versatile tight end grew up rather quickly, seeing the field for 47% of Philly’s downs during the Eagles’ final 11 contests. That minimal playing time still translated to a rather productive 36/369/4 line. In May, Kelly told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Ertz “can have a huge role” this season, and that is very realistic given the departure of DeSean Jackson. Since the Eagles coaches are satisfied with his improvements in blocking, Ertz will certainly see an uptick in playing time. Whenever his number is called, Kelly will line up Ertz anywhere on the field in order to create the best possible matchup advantages for the second-year tight end. That should especially come in handy in the red zone, where Ertz’s 6-5, 250-lb. frame and abilities to high-point the football and make contested catches should lead to more touchdowns…and make him a late-round gem for fantasy owners.
3. Terrance West (RB, Cleveland Browns): New Browns head coach (and Rex Ryan disciple) Mike Pettine is fully expected to bring the “ground and pound” offense to Cleveland. With a patchwork receiving corps in wake of Josh Gordon’s probable yearlong suspension plus questionable QB play, it is a virtual certainty that the Browns are going to run the ball more than pass it. Although they did sign former Texans RB Ben Tate in free agency, the Browns are fully aware that it is wishful thinking to count on the oft-injured Tate for a workhorse role. That’s why they traded up in the third round of the 2014 draft in order to select West. Browns OC Kyle Shanahan and many other scouts have compared the 225-lb. star out of Towson University to Redskins RB Alfred Morris, another small school prospect that Shanahan has coached to successful fantasy seasons. Many believe that West is not that far behind Tate in the battle for the starting job and so far in camp, West has been quite impressive. A promising rookie on what figures to be one of the NFL’s most run-heavy offenses, West could at most turn out to be 2014’s Zac Stacy if injuries strike Tate again and at least provide fantasy owners with a high-upside (10-15 carry per game) bye week replacement.
4. Kyle Rudolph (TE, Minnesota Vikings): Rudolph is not an unknown fantasy commodity. He burst onto the scene in 2012 posting a sensational 93/493/9 line. However, he missed half of last season with a foot injury. Now fully recovered, the Vikings are counting on him to explode in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s TE-friendly system, as evidenced by a five-year, $36.5M contract extension. Turner’s offenses have made fantasy tight end studs out of Jay Novacek, Randy McMichael, Antonio Gates and most recently, Jordan Cameron. Plus, with the declining Greg Jennings and the still-raw Cordarrelle Patterson as Rudolph’s major running mates in Minnesota’s pass-catching corps, it is a solid possibility that the 6-6, 259-lb. Notre Dame product will lead the Vikings in receptions in 2014. Like Ertz, Rudolph can turn out to be late-round thievery.
5. Rueben Randle (WR, New York Giants): Despite an abysmal 2013 campaign for the Giants offense, Randle still put up a respectable 41/611/6 line. Now, new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo (formerly the Packers QB coach) brings in a new scheme that has Eli Manning “re-energized.” McAdoo’s WR-heavy Packers-style system consists of a fast tempo and short, quick throws. The 6-2, 208-lb. Randle is expected to be one of the main beneficiaries of this new offense, as he will essentially play the Jordy Nelson role for the Giants. He is the tallest member of the Giants receiving corps, thus Eli will look to him first in the red zone. With more targets and receptions headed his way, Randle can potentially deliver a double-digit TD season at an extremely cheap cost.
6. Jeremy Hill (RB, Cincinnati Bengals): New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson plans to transform the Bengals into a run-first attack in order to take pressure off of inconsistent QB Andy Dalton. Although a lot of the hype in this new system is swirling around uber-talented sophomore RB Gio Bernard, fantasy owners must also NOT count out Jeremy Hill. The Bengals selected the LSU product in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, which means they want him involved a lot right off the bat. Beginning in OTA’s, Hill was handed the second-string RB job and he has not let up, putting BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s roster spot in jeopardy. Considered by some scouts as a more athletic version of LeGarrette Blount, the 238-lb. grinder is the perfect complement to the 208-lb. jitterbug Bernard. Although Bernard should get the majority of totes between the 20s, Hill will probably be the go-to guy in red zone, goal line, and short-yardage situations. Last season while playing the latter role, Green-Ellis carried the ball 220 times for 756 yards and 7 TD. With the Bengals rushing attempts expected to rise dramatically, Hill could very well eclipse all of those numbers.
7. Josh McCown (QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers): McCown was an unexpected surprise in 2013. Filling in for the injured Jay Cutler with a sterling, almost mistake-free (13:1 TD/INT ratio) performance, countless Bears fans were clamoring for the 35-year old journeyman signal caller to be re-signed as opposed to Cutler. That did not happen and McCown bolted for Tampa in free agency to reunite with former Bears head coach Lovie Smith. Even though he changed teams, McCown has a strikingly similar supporting cast in Tampa. With the Bears, he was able to thrive thanks to a “quarterback whispering” coach (Marc Trestman) and a receiving corps with the size of an NBA frontcourt (Brandon Marshall [6-4, 230], Alshon Jeffery [6-3, 216], and Martellus Bennett [6-6, 265]). This year, McCown finds himself under the tutelage of another acclaimed QB guru (new Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who coached Aaron Rodgers in college) and a similar mega-sized trio of weapons in Vincent Jackson [6-5, 230] plus rookies Mike Evans (6-5, 231) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-5, 262). The pieces are clearly in place for McCown to replicate his 2013 magic in Tampa and he enters 2014 with top-QB2 fantasy upside.
8. Kenny Stills (WR, New Orleans Saints): So far in New Orleans, a lot of the buzz has been surrounding rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks as the heir apparent to Darren Sproles in the passing game. However, that is not enough to leave Kenny Stills out of the picture of fantasy relevance. Last season, despite being targeted only 51 times, Stills emerged as one of Drew Brees’s favorite home run threats as he turned in a remarkable rookie stat-line of 32/641/5. Moreover, the Saints released Lance Moore, another favorite target of Brees, in an effort to clear cap space. The departures of Moore and the aforementioned Sproles leave a combined 143 targets on the table and Stills should get at least half of those. In offseason practices, the second-year receiver out of Oklahoma proved adept at running the underneath routes that were Moore’s specialty in the high-powered Saints offense. Add Stills’ amazing ability in the vertical passing game and he could turn out to be a more versatile version of Lance Moore. Also, with an extra year in the system, Stills should get more balls thrown his way as Cooks continues to build chemistry with Brees. When looking for a bye-week replacement with massive fantasy upside at the wide receiver position, Stills should be at the top of your list.
9. Carlos Hyde (RB, San Francisco 49ers): RB Frank Gore remains the centerpiece of the 49ers ground-oriented offense. However, he is 31 years old and showed huge signs of aging last season (3.65 YPC average over his final ten 2013 appearances). In addition, the injury bug has pestered the Niners backfield corps in training camp so far. RB Kendall Hunter is out for all of 2014 with an ACL tear plus LaMichael James is expected to miss most (if not all) of the preseason with a dislocated elbow. Marcus Lattimore is also still nicked up after a redshirt rookie campaign. Enter Carlos Hyde. Many considered the 235-lb. rookie from Ohio State as the best running back in the 2014 NFL draft. The fact that the 49ers selected Hyde in the second round (57th overall) implies that they see him having a significant role sooner rather than later. It is quite possible that the 49ers give him at least a prominent feature in short-yardage and goal line situations in order to keep Gore fresh. At most, if the wear-and-tear finally seems to catch up to Gore, Hyde could wind up spelling him in the red zone. This mammoth rookie back in a run-first attack could be a fantastic bargain, especially in touchdown-only, dynasty, or keeper formats.
10. Devonta Freeman (RB, Atlanta Falcons): Like Hyde, Freeman finds himself amidst a terrific opportunity for playing time behind a declining 31-year old workhorse. In 2013, Father Time appeared to finally catch up to Steven Jackson. A hamstring injury sidelined him for four games and he averaged a career-low 3.5 YPC average. Also, Jackson is out for the remainder of the preseason with another hamstring issue. Even though he’s expected to be ready by week 1, this only increases the concern that Jackson’s body is breaking down exponentially. Freeman, a rookie from Florida State, could very well eat into Jackson’s snaps significantly. Like Jackson, he is outstanding at catching the ball out of the backfield and runs between the tackles very well for someone his size (5-8, 206). Most important, the Falcons will be playing from behind regularly this season given their ‘sieve-ish’ defense forcing them to be extremely pass-heavy. Freeman (whom many have compared to Patriots RB Shane Vereen) is a much better fit than Jackson for such a scheme. Also [as suggested earlier], he is a more complete player than fellow “spread” back Jacquizz Rodgers. If he satisfies the coaches with his pass protection in preseason play, expect his fantasy stock to skyrocket. If he does not, Freeman will remain a fantastic late-round jewel in dynasty and keeper leagues.