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11 Sleepers Who Flashed on Thursday Night and What You Need to Know About Them

The first night of the preseason is in the books, and exciting new players are already making their presences felt. Saquon Barkley took the field and immediately ripped off four carries for 43 yards. Baker Mayfield rose to the challenge of Tyrod Taylor’s perfect game and threw for over 200 yards. Immediate star turns were no surprise from this year’s elite prospects, but what about below-the-radar players fighting for starting roles or young veterans looking to break out?

Here’s a look at 11 players who are mostly off the radar and a potential star at No. 1.

No. 11 Isaiah Ford – 2 Receptions, 22 Yards, 1 TD

Remember Isaiah Ford? He caught a late tying TD and go-ahead 2-point conversion before the Bucs eventually kicked a field goal for the win. He’s been a camp sensation for a team searching for solutions following the departure of Jarvis Landry and the ongoing disappointment of DeVante Parker.

Long before Ford fell to the seventh round of the 2017 draft and then missed the entire season with a knee injury, he was an age-adjusted production star out of Virginia Tech. Ford’s age-19 production was right there with Corey Davis and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

No. 10 Shelton Gibson – 2 Receptions, 77 Yards, 1 TD

Gibson caught a 66-yard score on Thursday night, bringing back memories of all those long scores at West Virginia. While he never emerged as a yardage monster in college, the speedster averaged a shocking 22.6 per catch over his college career. That, and his sterling return value, made him a solid arbitrage play on John Ross.1

His sophomore training camp suggests Year 2 could be a different story.

No. 9 Marquez Valdes-Scantling  – 5 Receptions, 101 Yards, 1 TD

This was a fun one with the fifth-round rookie barely outdueling Jake Kumerow (3-76-1), he of the All-Buzz Team membership.

The 6-foot-5, 205-pound prospect out of South Florida earned the top Freak Score (76) in the 2018 class, a better mark than any receiver managed in 2017. Although a late-round pick, he went ahead of Packers teammate Equanimeous St. Brown (4-61). Aaron Rodgers has made a habit of creating big-time TD-scorers out of his peripheral receivers2 and since Freak Score is the best athletic measure for projecting NFL receiving touchdowns, Valdes-Scantling could get interesting in a hurry.

No. 8 John Kelly – 13 Carries, 77 Yards

Kelly played behind Malcolm Brown and Justin Davis in the battle to emerge as Todd Gurley’s handcuff, but he ripped off 77 yards when he got his opportunity. While Kelly wasn’t egregiously under-drafted based on the results of the RotoViz Scouting Index or the RB Prospect Lab, he was a value as the 176th pick in this year’s draft, especially when you consider his impressive score in the Backfield Dominator Rating.

No. 7 Tyler Boyd – 1 Reception, 3 Yards, 1 TD

It didn’t take long for Boyd to build on his Week 17 theatrics, albeit in a game that didn’t matter. Boyd has been playing outside more in camp, and the Brandon LaFell release elevates him to No. 2 on the depth chart. I made the case for Boyd as your third-year breakout WR3 on the Overtime pod last week.

No. 6 Demarcus Robinson – 3 Receptions, 48 Yards, 1 TD

Robinson was an enigma as a 2016 prospect but was staring at bust status after two years and just 212 scoreless receiving yards. A 4-57-1 line in the Chiefs’ playoff loss raised eyebrows, and he was emerging as a trendy player back at the time of our February startup mock. The Sammy Watkins signing eliminated any immediate intrigue, but a strong camp puts him in position to be fantasy relevant if injuries occur ahead of him.

No. 5 Tre’Quan Smith – 4 Receptions, 48 Yards

Smith has been getting Michael Thomas rookie-level hype so far in training camp. While not a huge opening line, he easily led the way on a night where the Saints were trying to get a look at their depth players.

Christian Kirk, Courtland Sutton, and Calvin Ridley have generated more buzz – and Michael Gallup already looks like the No. 1 in Dallas – but Tre’Quan Smith may be the top rookie WR after D.J. Moore.

No. 4 Peyton Barber – 4 Rushes, 21 Yards, 1 TD, 2 Receptions

I’ve been promoting Ronald Jones as my No. 2 rookie RB, but he’s reportedly struggled in pass protection during camp and didn’t distinguish himself last night outside of the TD run.

Meanwhile, Barber is a former Jon Moore favorite who was one of Charles Kleinheksel’s 5 RB Opportunities this spring.

No. 3 Rashard Higgins – 4 Receptions, 66 Yards

While Mayfield was the headliner, the Browns featured potential breakout players all over the field. Dynasty guru Jordan Hoover won the 2016 Writing Contest with a piece about Rashard Higgins’ impressive comps and video game numbers at Colorado State. In the midst of a strong camp, he was one of Eric Moody’s deep sleepers even before the Corey Coleman trade.

No. 2 Antonio Callaway – 3 Receptions, 87 Yards, 1 TD

Callaway was a difficult prospect to evaluate due to his impressive but truncated production. Many believe the fourth-rounder would have been the top WR in this year’s draft if not for his 2017 suspension, and Brian Malone has written about owning him everywhere for the RotoViz Blitz. His impressive play in camp appears to have been the impetus for the Coleman trade.

No. 1 David Njoku – 2 Receptions, 46 Yards, 2 TDs

Even after a mildly disappointing rookie season, David Njoku’s comps were still impressive. A year ago, John Lapinski combined the TE prospect model with a wealth of historical data to pick Njoku as the best fantasy selection in a loaded TE class. With Mayfield and Taylor both impressing and questions at WR, this could be the time to pounce.4

  1. Since both receivers were worth nothing, you could argue the play worked.  (back)
  2. Several of whom were either unheralded or from small schools.  (back)
  3. The “third-year breakout WR” isn’t actually a thing, but that doesn’t mean some receivers don’t break out in their third seasons.  (back)
  4. Perhaps wait four or five days for the buzz to die down.  (back)
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