Fantasy football. Sleepers. Basically, after those three words you've either clicked away from this article in disgust or you've begun to foam at the mouth. The entire industry of fantasy sports analysis basically exists to identify and acquire sleepers. Literally, two out of every three questions to Matthew Berry at bars involve the word "sleeper" appearing somewhere within the sentence. That effort is not without merit, of course, since there are few greater things in life than being able to lord an unknown player you found for your fantasy team over your friends. It's basically a chance for millions of bros who otherwise despise hipsters to become one in a very distinct niche.
The problem with sleeper articles, though, is that they're usually pretty bad. Some wade into the shallow end and act like they're making bold decisions. Those are the sorts of lists that have players like Demaryius Thomas and Isaac Redman as sleepers. Those guys are only sleepers if you literally haven't considered the possibility of football between October of last season and your fantasy draft. Others will build their sleeper lists for 12-team leagues with standard scoring and neglect to give attention to the 16-team PPR league, or the league where you can flex your quarterback, or the league where you pick a 53-man roster and start them all each week. Every league is different, and with different rules comes different value.
That's where this article aims to help. Instead of producing a stock list of sleepers that you and everybody else in your league will see on 50 other websites before draft day, we at Grantland aim to bring you a list of sleepers fit for virtually any league imaginable. These players on the verge of breakouts might not all fit in your league, but you're almost guaranteed to find a sleeper for the league you play in (or wish you played in).
Mario Fannin is — well, let me start from the beginning. Mario Fannin is a former backup running back at Auburn who, over four years, ran for 1,366 yards on 233 carries and caught 97 passes for 985 receiving yards. He's coming off of an ACL tear suffered in camp last year, he's somewhere around fifth on the depth chart, and he's an undrafted free agent who the Broncos can cut without any salary cap penalty. He has a better chance of being the best player in fantasy football than any other fifth-stringer in recent memory.
Why is that? Start with 125.5. That's Fannin's Speed Score, a stat I developed that combines a player's 40 time at the Combine and his weight in a formula that scales to 100 and provides the best representation of a player's athleticism. Over the past decade, it's correlated surprisingly well with running back success at the pro level.1 The previous record-holder was Brandon Jacobs, a mid-round pick who parlayed his mix of size (267 pounds) and speed (4.56 40-yard dash) into a nice career. At 231 pounds, Fannin ran his 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds.2 Fannin's score doesn't by any means guarantee that he'll be a star, but it suggests that he has truly elite athleticism.
The other reason Fannin has a prayer of becoming a superstar? His skill set vis-à-vis the new quarterback that just arrived in town. At Auburn, Fannin carved out a role as a third-down back who was capable of catching passes out of the backfield and keeping his quarterbacks upright as a blocker. Guess who likes having guys like that alongside him in the backfield? Sorry, let me phrase it more appropriately: Guess who gets furiously angry when somebody who can't do that stuff is in the backfield alongside him? Why, it's Peyton Manning!
The current lead back in Denver is Willis McGahee, who is a below-average receiver without any reputation as a great pass blocker. He was a great fit for the Tim Tebow offense, which inflated his yards-per-carry average by nearly a full yard, but he's simply not a good fit in the Manning scheme. Behind him is Knowshon Moreno, who is a genuinely good receiver, but one who spent the entire season in John Fox's doghouse before tearing his ACL last November. After that, it's 2012 third-rounder Ronnie Hillman and a bunch of flotsam. Fannin is speedy enough to profile as a possible return man, which might be a way to keep him on the roster long enough for McGahee to lose his job. If Fannin does somehow wrangle the opportunity away from all those other backs, well, there's a slim — but better than expected — possibility that he might be very, very great.
One of the biggest breakout stars from last season was Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, a Stanford product who went undrafted after only starting during one of his four years at school. He promptly went to the Seahawks and had a 51-catch season that saw him produce more receiving yards (788) than all but three other rookies. He had more receiving yards than five different wideouts taken in the second round of the draft, and after the Seahawks cut Mike Williams to open up a starting job for Baldwin last week, his future is bright.
That brings us to the case of Chris Owusu. Owusu played ahead of Baldwin in 2009 and alongside him in 2010, but the breakout year that one might have expected of a receiver playing with Andrew Luck during Owusu's senior campaign in 2011 never came. Owusu suffered three concussions over a 13-month period, which forced him off draft boards and pushed him all the way out of the draft despite the fact that he is a 196-pound man that ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the Combine.3 Owusu caught on with the Niners, where he knows the playbook implemented by former Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh, and he was reportedly very impressive during minicamp. With first-round pick A.J. Jenkins struggling to gain a foothold and Randy Moss still a question mark, couldn't Owusu have a meaningful role in San Francisco as early as this season?4
Todd Haley does not care about you, running back. He does not care if you are really talented. He does not care if you are paid an exorbitant amount of money. Todd Haley apparently takes great pleasure from rotating his running backs and making fantasy hearts cringe, based on his history as an offensive coordinator and head coach. In 2007, he let Edgerrin James run free for 3.8 yards per pop on 324 carries. Every year since has seen Haley rotate his backs, a plan that led him to bench James and give the incredible Jamaal Charles a smaller percentage of the workload than Thomas Jones. When Charles tore his ACL last season, Haley basically gave everyone a shot at running the football before he got fired.
This year, Haley's made his way to Pittsburgh as the offensive coordinator, where he inherits a running game in crisis. While the Steelers did draft offensive linemen with their first two picks in the draft, nominal starting halfback Rashard Mendenhall tore his knee up at the end of last season and will be alternately injured or ineffective during the 2012 campaign. He's bequeathed the job to backup Isaac Redman, but if Haley will bench the rich and successful, what's stopping him from benching Redman? That could open up an opportunity for Jonathan Dwyer, who had a 76-yard run against the Titans last year before breaking his foot. Dwyer's lost 20 pounds to get into the vaunted "best shape of his life," a move that could come in handy for a guy about to get his best chance at steady pro carries. The only downside is that Haley's guaranteed to take the job back from Dwyer eventually, no matter how well he plays.
Some running backs go through an early-career path that I link pretty closely to Ray Rice. It involves a player drafted in the first two rounds struggling mightily during his first year, almost always thanks to nagging injuries, before breaking out with more playing time and a healthier body during a big second season. Beyond Rice, there are players like Arian Foster, Rashard Mendenhall, Beanie Wells, and Ryan Mathews who followed a roughly similar track.
The obvious player who would fit into this role is Dolphins halfback Daniel Thomas, who was bothered by a hamstring injury for virtually his entire rookie season. Thomas is a versatile back who should be capable of catching passes out of the backfield if the team trusts him enough to stand up in pass protection, and while he's behind Reggie Bush on the depth chart, waiting for Reggie Bush to get injured is basically a national pastime. Thomas will get his chance, and as a post-hype sleeper, he's undervalued.
I fell in love with Titans tight end Jared Cook before last season. Here are Cook's measurables from the Combine as compared to another prominent tight end:
Player B is Jermichael Finley. Think about that for a second. Jared Cook makes Jermichael Finley's athleticism look pedestrian.
Instead of delivering a Finley-esque sophomore season, though, Cook was wildly erratic and spent weeks out of the Tennessee offense. When he did play, Cook did things like beat Ed Reed on a go route. Even worse, he was tantalizingly brilliant at the end of the season for the second year in a row. In 2010, Cook had 15 catches for 196 yards over the final three games of the year. He had 28 catches for 424 yards through the first 13 weeks of the 2011 season, but over the final three weeks, Cook caught 21 passes for 335 yards. Maybe he's just going to save his best stuff for the fantasy playoffs every year.
• Bret "Hitman" Hart in your 1990 WWF keeper league draft
• Noah Wyle in your 1993 ER keeper league draft
• Henry Rowengartner in your 1992 NL-only 5x5 redraft rotisserie league
• The drunk colonel's wife in your Battlestar Galactica 12th Cylon draft
• Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) in your "Surviving Reservoir Dogs" fantasy draft
Here's a small list of players you might want to consider for your league that employs an extremely unlikely lineup spot or scoring system:
If your league has a spot for "personal punt protectors": Mr. Timothy Tebow, who will reportedly play that role for the Jets on punts this season. Imagine having Tim Tebow as your own personal protection agency in real life. He would protect you from I don't know, silence and solitude, maybe. But he will be great this year in leagues that give bonuses for yardage on fake punts and blocks by quarterbacks.
If your league awards points for muscle tears: Giants tight end Martellus Bennett, who put 25 pounds of muscle on his frame this offseason to get up to 291 pounds. Bennett credits the massive weight gain to "rocking out" in the weight room. This wasn't the sort of rocking out Saves the Day advocated in "Shoulder to the Wheel," I bet.
If you get points in your league for people saying "He's still in the league???" and/or "Who does he play for now? THEM?!?": Buccaneers tight end Dallas Clark. This joke looked a lot better before Ichiro Suzuki got traded out of nowhere.
If your league gives out playoff bonuses for players appearing on ticket stubs: Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, whose absence from recently delivered Patriots tickets inspired one of the dumbest brouhahas of the offseason on Monday. Were the Patriots getting back at Welker for refusing to sign a long-term deal under team-friendly terms? As it turns out, Welker's absence occurred because the Patriots sent the tickets to the printer six days before Welker signed his franchise tender. If the Patriots get a home playoff game, though, Welker will surely find his way onto a ticket stub for New England completists. And then, at the press conference announcing his contract extension next offseason, Welker can become the first athlete in the history of professional sports to say, "I really felt respected by the team once they put me on a game ticket."
If your league requires you to have one player on your team who serves as a meta-commentary on the flimsy pseudo-reality of fantasy football: Packers wide receiver Shaky Smithson.
If your league requires you to have one player on your team who is a Packers skill position player: Shaky Smithson.
If your league pool consists exclusively of players with names that sound like rejected fictional names for rappers Dave Chappelle would play on Chappelle's Show: Shaky Smithson.
The actual name of that guy whose freestyle ended with "Oops pow, surprise!" who got absolutely destroyed on the commentary track of the Chappelle's Show DVD: Shaky Smithson. Pretty sure of that.
• Chow in your Breaking Bad Season 5 draft from a couple of weeks ago
• Mudhoney in your 1992 grunge bands fantasy draft
• Dave Brass, the basketball-playing prison guard, in your Oz reality D-League dispersal draft
• Amil in your 2001 Roc-A-Fella Records draft
• Brian Dunkleman in your American Idol debut night draft
• Vacuums in your nature fantasy draft
More on that Speed Score class here. You'll note that the article knocks Mark Ingram for his low Speed Score while hyping up mid-round picks DeMarco Murray and Roy Helu. So far, so good.
The average back between 230 and 235 pounds over the past decade ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds.
Speed Score doesn't apply to wide receivers, but that's still pretty impressive.
The disprove-a-negative technique is part and parcel for sleeper talk. Sure, Owusu has virtually no chance of getting into the starting lineup and may very well get cut during training camp, but you can't say for sure that he won't become a wild success à la Baldwin, right?