Written by Lawrence Vos – 27/5/2019
Early non-playing season sleepers
I feel for all the British railway historians and weekend landscape gardeners who will Google this article hoping to find glorious pictures of blocks of abandoned wood they can drool over.
A sleeper for this particular article is defined as a relatively unknown or non-famous NFL player (veteran or rookie) who is projected to far outweigh his previous production, and breakout by exceeding his expected statistics, based on traditionally being a mid-to-late draft pick.
Before we dive into the 2019 fantasy pool Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani like, wearing a pair of borrowed swimming trunks, let’s take a look at some of the outstanding 2018 sleepers who were highly unlikely to have been drafted in any fantasy leagues before the end of August last year, but ended up breaking out.
2018 actual sleeper breakouts
Nick Mullens, San Francisco 49ers (2017 Practice Squad)
Mullens came in for C.J Beathard, who himself was subbing for injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo. Mullens ended up starting the entire second half of the season and recorded a respectable 2,277 yards through the air alongside 13 passing touchdowns. Nobody drafted Mullens to their fantasy team for week 1, but by the latter part of the 2018 season he was proving to be a half-decent waiver wire or late bye pickup. Mullens is not someone to draft or roster in 2019, but he gives the 49ers a low cost reliable backup, if he makes the 53-man roster.
James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers (2017 3rd round pick)
Philip Lindsay, Denver Broncos (2018 Undrafted Free Agent)
Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens (2018 Undrafted Free Agent)
Lindsay and Edwards were not drafted but both started for their teams. Edwards played 11 games, including 6 starts, helping to act as a battering ram taking handoffs from silky running quarterback and fellow rookie Lamar Jackson. Edwards ended up as the fifth leading rookie rusher. The person who finished three slots above him for rookie rushing was Philip Lindsay. The former Colorado player not only went over 1,000 yards (1,037) he became the first undrafted offensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl. Not so much a sleeper, more like someone coming out of a coma to run a marathon. James Conner’s story to date is remarkable, having recovered from cancer in 2016, he was somewhat of an afterthought when drafted by the Steelers at pick #105 in 2017, as LeVeon Bell was wowing the planet with his unique ‘delay and dash’ running style. Nobody thought Bell would hold-out the entire 2018 season, but he did and Conner came in to register just under 1,500 all-purpose yards (973 rushing and 493 through the air). Conner started the 2019 Pro-Bowl over Lindsay.
Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati Bengals (2016 2nd round pick)
Ok this is a bit of an anomaly to the traditional sleeper criteria as Boyd was picked #55 in the 2016 NFL draft. What gives Boyd the title is his progress from 2017 (1 start and 22 catches) to 2018 (14 starts 76 catches). In 2018 Boyd recorded his first 1,000-yard season (1,028) and led the Bengals in targets, catches, yards and touchdowns (7 – tied with John Ross). Boyd benefitted from a major injury to All-Pro wide-out A.J. Green, but circumstance does not generate statistics, effort, consistency and trust from your quarterback does.
Chris Herndon, New York Jets (2018 4th round pick)
Herndon was the sixth tight-end to be drafted last year and as of Week 1 he was the fourth-string behind a rag-tag bunch that included Eric Tomlinson, Neal Stirling and Jordan Leggett, names only their mother loves (or knows about). In a position that is notoriously punishing to first-year players Herndon ended up on the 2018 All-Rookie Team. His 39 catches led all rookie tight-ends and his 502 yards only trailed fellow rookie tight-end Mark Andrews of the Ravens (552). Achieving this with a rookie quarterback was pretty remarkable too, as Herndon ended up the second leading receiver on the team.
Five 2019 offensive sleeper candidates
So where does this lead us to in 2019? Who is sitting there like an about-to-be disturbed roof full of asbestos in a 1960s primary school, ready to join Baker Mayfield’s ‘dangerous club’, in experiencing an external transformation? Here are five offensive sleeper candidates:
Drew Lock, Denver
Broncos (2019 2nd round pick)
The Broncos have struggled at quarterback since the retirement of Peyton Manning at the end of 2015. Four passers have started since then, namely Brock Osweiler (4), Paxton Lynch (4),Trevor Simien (24), and Case Keenum (16). None are considered a franchise quarterback, and to top it off John Elway moved for past-his-prime quarterback Joe Flacco in free-agency. Still searching for a future star the Broncos drafted Drew Lock in the second round of this year’s NFL draft. Many draft-nicks had Lock getting selected in the first round, but he fell, and Denver had to move up and trade with the Bengals to acquire his John Hancock. Lock is the current backup on the depth chart, but he could be on the field by Week 6 if Flacco fails to get the Broncos moving smoothly. Lock was a highly productive college quarterback at Missouri throwing for over 12,000 yards and 99 touchdowns in 46 starts. Nobody is drafting Flacco in fantasy, but you may want to consider taking a flier on Lock on your bench.
Ronald Jones III, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2018 2nd round pick)
To say Ronald Jones’s rookie season was a disaster would be a gross understatement. If his inept performance was caused by injury there would be a valid reason to relax, but Jones participated in 9 games. His one touchdown (in a 26-23 win against the Browns) was a lone highlight. Besides that his 44 rushing yards and 33 receiving yards were barely worth typing in this sentence. Currently listed as number two on the Tampa depth chart, behind Peyton Barber, Jones has the opportunity for a fresh start under new head coach Bruce Arians. The Buccs didn’t draft a running back this year, another good sign for Jones to have some genuine fantasy impact in 2019. He is durable, as indicated by a 591 carry college career at USC, including a 1,550 rushing performance in 2017. Jones can go from zero to hero and with a good start to his season he could end with 1,000 all-purpose yards.
Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams (2015 Undrafted Free Agent)
The dictionary definition of an insurance policy, Brown is crouching in the weeds whilst the news of Todd Gurley’s knee ailments appears to be gaining growing concern by Rams coaches and fans alike. Brown has already been subject to a poaching bid earlier in the year by the Detroit Lions, with the Rams deciding he was too valuable to let go. Brown averaged a respectable 4.9 yards a carry in 2019. He missed the Rams playoff run to the Super Bowl having gone on injured reserve in December. Much like a cockroach after the apocalypse Brown has been on the Rams roster for four seasons now, and is one Gurley injury from one of the biggest opportunities of his career. Much like James Conner in Pittsburgh Brown is in a great positing to have immediate fantasy impact. You only need look at the production of C.J. Anderson as Gurley’s backup in 2018 to see how impactful a back in L.A. can be. Brown has fresh legs and knows the offense inside out. As a #2 he can get 400-500 rushing yards. As a starter he has the capability to go over 1,250 all-purpose yards in 2019.
Demarcus Robinson, Kansas City Chiefs (2016 4th round draft pick)
Former Florida Gator wide-receiver Demarcus Robinson has been like a Velcro-covered ball that has been rolled around some freshly mowed grass, he has the potential to stick and hit the target but hasn’t quite managed to yet. The Chiefs have had Robinson on their roster for three seasons now, but he has only started 13 games (out of 48 he played in) and this has resulted in underwhelming statistical production (43 catches for exactly 500 yards and four scores). Where Robinson elevates his sleeper status over other wide-outs is not just potential, its opportunity. With Tyreek Hill (I shudder even typing his name) facing a major suspension and current #1 WR Sammy Watkins missing 18 games over the last four seasons, Robinson can easily triple or even quadruple his average production over the past two years. Yes the Chiefs drafted Mecole Hardman, but with few exceptions, rookie receivers struggle to have a huge impact. With the NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes throwing to him in 2019 its time for Robinson to step up to the NFL dance floor.
Matt LaCosse, New England Patriots (2015 Undrafted Free Agent)
Up there with Snow White, Rip Van Winkle and Dracula Matt LaCosse is a classic sleeper. Another winner through self-destruction around him by others, not just pure talent, LaCosse is in a pretty perfect place at a pretty perfect time. With perhaps the greatest tight-end in NFL history now retired in New England, and ageless-wonder Ben Watson recently suspended, all the 6ft 6inch man mountain has to do is beat Austin Seferian-Jenkins to the starting spot for Week 1. LaCosse had a mini breakout of his own with the Broncos in 2018, with 24 catches for 250 yards. Prior to that LaCosse generated no impact with the Giants (two-stints), spent six days as a New York Jets player, and was on injured reserve throughout 2016. His three catches prior to 2018 were barely worth a Wikipedia note. LaCosse is the sort or reclamation project that Bill Bellichick will love to get his evil claws right into. Staying on the field both as a starter and part of some two tight-end sets could see LaCosse generate over 50 catches for over 650 yards and 6-8 touchdowns. That would be a viable starting output from someone who will be only slightly rising up fantasy draft boards at the moment.