1. Benny Cunningham, RB, St. Louis Rams
RotoViz absolutely loved Zac Stacy heading into the 2013 season, and that enthusiasm paid off in a big way. Our only caveat: Benny Cunningham was a pretty good prospect himself. Fast forward one season, and Cunningham seems to have distanced himself from Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson for the backup role.
When you compare the production of Stacy and Cunningham, you run into all types of sample size and strength of schedule issues. It’s still interesting that Stacy averaged 3.9 yards per carry while Cunningham was up at 5.6. The Rams play in a difficult division and don’t do their backs any favors with blocking or scheme. But they are willing to provide a high number of touches, and they prefer to avoid committees when possible. If you believe Sam Bradford and the offense will finally take a step forward next season, then Cunningham should be a priority acquisition. He would have Top 10 running back potential with an injury to Stacy.
June update: Cunningham loses a lot of value with the Tre Mason selection, but don’t cut him in deeper dynasty leagues or trade him away for nothing. Based on the above argument and questions about Mason’s readiness, it’s still possible Cunningham will be the No. 2 in 2014.
2. Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
I was skeptical of Ertz entering 2013 because of underwhelming results at the NFL Combine, but his collegiate DR of .32 would have bested Tavon Austin and dwarfed Cordarrelle Patterson. He finished 2013 averaging 1.93 yards per pass route, an elite number for tight ends. To help put it in context, breakout star Jordan Cameron averaged 1.46 and rookie peer Tyler Eifert averaged 1.47.
Among fantasy skill positions, tight end is the most difficult at which to make a rookie impact. Although efficient on a per play basis, Ertz finished No. 33 in routes. He may have been better than Cameron in translating opportunity into production, but he trailed 622-243 in routes run. We’ve probably only scratched the surface of Chip Kelly’s NFL offense. It remains to be seen if he will utilize the tight end enough in the passing game for Ertz to be fantasy viable.
June update: Ertz looks primed to be a monster breakout candidate. But if you want to keep from reaching in your draft, this argument against Jordan Matthews also applies to Ertz.
3. Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints
It’s always tricky to roster backs who project into a timeshare at best, but Pierre Thomas once again demonstrated the potential value of a Saints committee back by finishing as RB16 in ppr and outscoring preseason favorites like Frank Gore, Alfred Morris, and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Robinson gains dynasty value in part because Sean Payton raves about him – which is something I usually discount – and in part because other Saints backs are losing it. Mark Ingram is a fairly obvious bust. He could certainly undergo a Donald Brown-like renaissance in New Orleans’ offense but lacks the athleticism to ever be special. Meanwhile, Darren Sproles just finished his first disappointing season with the Saints. He will be 31 before 2014 begins, a perilous age for any runner.
Moreover, none of these backs is under contract for 2015. If Robinson emerges at all in 2014, it’s unlikely that both Thomas and Ingram are re-signed (it’s probably unlikely regardless). The value in New Orleans comes from the passing down backs and Robinson failed to see a regular season target. That’s probably because Sproles and Thomas are so good in that area. Robinson caught 38 passes for 430 yards and 4 touchdowns as a senior at West Texas A&M. He could end up as Thomas 2.0.
June update: Enthusiasm for Robinson spiked after Sproles was released and Thomas was a rumored cut. However, Thomas now looks like a tremendous bargain in his own right, and the exuberance for Robinson is dying down. You now have a window to acquire him before his ADP starts ticking up during the preseason.
4. Johnathan Franklin, RB, Green Bay Packers
This probably seems like a strange one considering Eddie Lacy is now being promoted as a mid-first round pick for 2014. Consider this for a moment though: Eddie Lacy averaged 4.1 yards per carry while James Starks and Johnathan Franklin combined to average 5.6. Now yards per carry is notoriously reliant on both situation and luck and tends to be skewed by a handful of long runs. But there’s more. They both averaged more yards after contact than Lacy. And if you want to know how much value they offered in terms of points, there’s this. Starks averaged 0.17 Expected Points Added Per Play while Lacy averaged 0.0. This also fits with our recent RotoViz article demonstrating that Lacy was only average in generating FPOP when adjusting for schedule. Meanwhile, Starks was elite. Until football stops using the scoreboard and starts using Olympic judges, it doesn’t really matter that Lacy looks more like the prototypical football player.
Okay, so that’s an oversell. I’m exaggerating a little to help balance the boatloads of hyperbole going the other way. It’s not that Lacy isn’t a good player or that he won’t be a fantasy asset in the future. It’s just that he fits in that range of player who’s overvalued because of the way he looks. Similar to Marshawn Lynch, Green Bay’s new bellcow breaks a lot of tackles, but he doesn’t turn those broken tackles into as many extra yards as it seems on television (perhaps because, like Lynch, his forward progress is stopped at the contact point and it takes him a decent amount of time to regain speed). Among runners with at least 100 carries, Lacy ranked 19th in yards after contact. That would suggest he wasn’t even an above average starter in this category.
Our narratives tend to have a big impact on how we see runners. Lacy just averaged 2.28 yards after contact. During his rookie season, LaGarrette Blount averaged an absurd 3.68 yac on a not insignificant 201 carries. This season Blount received another chance in a good offense and averaged 2.73. By this measure, it wouldn’t be unfair to refer to Lacy as a Poor Man’s Blount, but that would certainly point us in a different direction as to his value.
We don’t necessarily know much about Franklin. He was tremendous in his only real opportunity, rushing for 103 yards on 13 carries against Cincinnati’s elite run defense. He doesn’t project as a full time back at the NFL level, but one of his closest comps is Shane Vereen, a back who also started slowly and now owns significant fantasy value.
The parallels beween Blount/Vereen and Lacy/Franklin are probably closer than most think. Lacy is an overrated dynasty prospect and Franklin an excellent sleeper.
June update: Franklin loses a lot of value with James Starks re-signing. I make the case for Starks as one of the Top 20 Deep Sleepers, and he would be my preferred play in this backfield.
July update: Franklin has sadly been forced to retire. James Starks is now one of the most underrated fantasy assets in all of football.
5. Robert Turbin, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Frequent readers know I’m the world’s leading Marshawn Lynch skeptic, an unpopular and inaccurate role as of late. At some point, Lynch is going to go on trial for his repeated DUIs, although, at the current rate of progress, it may not happen for several seasons yet. We’ve also explained why contractual issues could make Lynch a shocking cap cut.
Christine Michael is the obvious beneficiary of anything that happens to Lynch, and that makes him too expensive. Michael rose into the late first round in rookie drafts last year, and his owners are not going to hold him for a year and then give him away. Since you definitely want to own a part of the Seahawks running game, Turbin is the answer.
Turbin struggled in 2013, only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. However, his solid 2.2 yards per carry after contact suggest his problems were mostly blocking related. He only saw 10 targets, but his usage suggests he will probably be the preferred passing down back, at least initially, in a post-Lynch Seattle.
Turbin is probably an underrated athlete. His collegiate explosiveness shows up on this encouraging comp list, a list which helped pick out Stacy as an ubersleeper. Turbin could find himself in a committee with Michael next season, one injury from having one of the NFL’s plum running back situations all to himself.
June update: The Seahawks coaches are praising Michael’s work at OTAs, making Turbin an even cheaper piece to acquire.
6. Lance Dunbar, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Lance Dunbar accumulated 4,224 rushing yards, 1,033 receiving yards, and 49 combined touchdowns at North Texas. He followed that up by posting good numbers at his pro day, including a borderline elite 10.94 Agility Score. He can play.
Dunbar quickly dispatched Philip Tanner and Oklahoma State rookie Joseph Randle for the No. 2 role behind injury-prone Demarco Murray. Unfortunately, a hamstring pull limited him early in 2013, and his season ended prematurely when he injured his PCL at the end of his breakout Thanksgiving day game. Dunbar finished the season with a 5.0 yard per carry average on a mere 30 attempts.
Dunbar’s most recent injury dims his own projection, and that could allow you to get a bargain. The former undrafted free agent has a brighter future than Randle and would probably be an immediate upgrade on Murray in passing situations. As is the case with many of the backs on this list, you always want to add second-stringers in good offenses who can provide receiving value.
June update: Scott Linehan has been raving about Dunbar. You should look at him like Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush. Target in all leagues.
7. Bryce Brown, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Something of a post-hype breakout candidate, Brown should come much more cheaply this season after his initial struggles in Chip Kelly’s offense. Brown averaged a deceptively solid 4.2 yards per carry on the season – the same as Lynch, for example – but only 1.3 of those came before contact. This helps to confirm his lack of vision and discipline. McCoy, who probably acts as something of an unfair comparison, averaged 2.7 yards before contact in the same scheme.
Take advantage of sentiment turning against Brown. He retains elite athleticism and is one step from being the starter in a run-heavy juggernaut.
June update: The landscape has changed dramatically for Brown but not necessarily for the worse. Buffalo wants to run a similar offense to Philadelphia, and there’s not a McCoy-level talent blocking Brown in his new home.
8. Rex Burkhead, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
In 2013 BenJarvus Green-Ellis turned 220 carries into only 756 yards. He was poor both before and after contact and almost single-handedly acted as an anchor for the otherwise emerging Bengals offense. The Law Firm is under contract for another season but doesn’t have much future as an NFL player.
Enter Rex Burkhead who at a bare minimum should be able to replace those short yardage plunges with pyrrhic victories of his own. Unlike BJGE, Burkhead brings receiving value to the table. At Nebraska, he caught 60 passes for 507 yards and 5 touchdowns. His shockingly good 10.94 Agility Score belies supposed athletic limitations. In many ways, Burkhead is the perfect NFL backup, a shifty, pass-catching back with plus size.
9. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
Kelce ran an impressive 4.63 at the 2013 Combine and possessed the best size/speed profile of any tight end in the class. It gets even better when you consider he accounted for 722 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final season at Cincinnati, good for a Dominator Rating of .28, an elite number for a TE. (To put that in context, Tyler Eifert’s DR was .26.)
If not for injury and character concerns, Kelce might have vied with Eifert to be the first tight end off the board in the 2013 draft, and now further injury issues have torpedoed his dynasty stock. Many in the draft community are even projecting Jace Amaro to the Chiefs. If anything, this underlines how desperate Kansas City is at the position and the potential that exists for a pass-catching tight end with Alex Smith at the helm.
June update: Kelce sat out recent OTAs as he struggles to come back from the knee injury, but the Chiefs clearly anticipate him having a huge role.
10. Andre Holmes, WR, Oakland Raiders
As I said at the top, if you’re looking for sleepers at wide receiver, Jon Moore has 10 speculative adds for 2014 in his excellent article. I’m less interested in the deep receiving guys here, but Andre Holmes does jump out. He’s a player who could be the No. 1 receiver on his team next year and yet shouldn’t be very expensive.
Over the final six weeks of the regular season, Holmes led the Raiders in receiving with 398 yards. He would have been an even bigger factor if not for only catching a single touchdown, a byproduct of Oakland’s inability to move the ball. For the full year, he averaged 17.2 yards per catch and was targeted much further down the field than Rod Streater or Denarius Moore. At 6’4” and 206 pounds, Holmes has the build of a No. 1. If the Raiders address their quarterback situation without adding significant parts at wide receiver, Holmes could be in for a 2014 breakout.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of caveats. Holmes only caught 48% of his targets, a low number even for a vertical receiver in a bad offense. Add in the two interceptions thrown on passes intended for him, and quarterbacks only posted a 67.1 rating when throwing his way. That’s Kris Durham territory. Finally, he averaged just a fraction fewer yards per route than Streater or Moore, another sign they could move back in front of him even if no additions are made.
So try to add Andre Holmes, but don’t overpay. And if someone is willing to give up something significant to acquire him, don’t be afraid to sell either.
June update: The Raiders didn’t add Sammy Watkins, so Holmes may even be the favorite to emerge as their No. 1. Davis Mattek recently penned a full length sleeper column on the Oakland breakout candidate.
Those are 10 of my favorite sleepers for 2014, but the best bargains in fantasy are probably the post-hype guys. Recently I took a look at the unprecedented glut of young veteran receivers who could quickly jump back to WR1 status. If you need a receiver to compete this season, that’s a great group to choose from. If you’re building for the future, I’ve got an early look at the deep and eclectic 2014 WR class.
Here’s a quick look at a few other articles with a sleeper theme.
- Who Will Be 2014’s Keenan Allen? An in-depth look at five rookies who are undervalued for the same reasons everyone missed on Allen last season.
- The RotoViz Guide to Deep Receivers in the 2014 Draft: An examination of how all 18 receivers drafted between Rounds 4 and 7 performed on the holy grail metrics.
- Five Guys Who Could Be the Next Priest Holmes: This year’s draft had five big talents with UDFA grades. See why they could outperform their more heralded peers. Comp lists for four of these players are provided in Finding the Next Joique Bell or Pierre Thomas.
- Four Discount RB Agility Stars: This four players provide an elite mix of agility and explosiveness. I recently targeted them in my PFF rookie draft.
- Allen Robinson, Davante Adams and the RotoViz Reach: History tells us the wrong receivers were trendy this year. A comprehensive statistical breakdown.
- The Fantasy Douche takes a qualitative look at Four Undervalued Receivers.
- Jon Moore gives you a list of 18 Speculative Adds. Spoiler: It includes Now or Never candidate A.J. Jenkins.
If you liked this article, you’ll love the Top 20 Deep Sleepers with twice as many players and twice as much actionable info.Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. He recently cashed for over $200,000 by winning the 2013 NFFC Primetime Championship.