Preseason football has few charms, but one of those is the emergence of late-round fantasy targets who can turn a significant profit for their owners. Most of these players start the summer on a watch list, and develop over a month’s worth of training camp and preseason games. The following 11 players have turned themselves into deep sleepers this season.
To set the field, we first drew a line after the first 12 rounds of a typical draft. Anyone above that line could not qualify as a deep sleeper. There are 144 picks through the 12th round of a 12-team league, so anyone with an average draft position of 144 or higher was immediately ruled out. From there, we extended the cut line to an ADP of 150 for a few reasons. The first was to sweep all the players on the borderline of the 12th and 13th rounds into the ineligible group. The second was to land on a nice, round number like 150.
And now, the 10 players who must be on your radar once your draft reaches the 13th round.
Will Fuller, WR, Texans
Fuller hasn’t needed much time to get comfortable in the Houston offense. The 21st overall pick in this year’s draft has eight receptions on 13 targets for 144 yards and two touchdowns. However the surest sign of all that Fuller will have a significant role in the Houston offense is that the Notre Dame product has been on the field for 64 of Houston’s 68 first-team snaps in the preseason. Brock Osweiler threw for 146 yards, 11.23 yards per attempt and a touchdown in the team’s third preseason game, which is great news for everyone involved in the passing game. Fuller will contend with fellow rookie Braxton Miller, who’s an intriguing deep sleeper in his own right, for targets behind DeAndre Hopkins, but the former’s presence on the outside makes him the better fantasy bet this season.
Terrelle Pryor, WR, Browns
We’ve discussed Pryor specifically, and the Browns offense generally, on more than one occasion this summer. For more on the offense as a whole, check out our “offenses to target” column from earlier this month. Pryor has emerged as a real downfield threat for Robert Griffin, catching two long passes in the preseason, one of which went for a 50-yard touchdown against Atlanta’s Desmond Trufant, who just happens to be one of the best corners in man coverage in the league. Pryor’s transition to professional receiver from college quarterback has understandably taken some time, but he’s set to prove his viability this season. Josh Gordon’s Week 5 return could have a deleterious effect on Pryor’s production, but he’ll have a month to show what he can do. That could be enough for him to carve out a role after Gordon’s return. If he plays well in that time, he could become an attractive trade piece for his fantasy owners in short order.
Terrance West, RB, Ravens
The Ravens backfield is as muddled as it gets, with the team likely to keep four tailbacks on its 53-man roster. While Justin Forsett is the incumbent starter, West has arguably been the most impressive in the preseason. The Baltimore native has rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries succeeding in a short-yardage role that is always lucrative from a fantasy perspective. Rookie Kenneth Dixon has been just as good, if not better, but he suffered an MCL sprain that is likely to cost him 4 to 6 weeks. While that makes Buck Allen more interesting, given that he’s now the best receiving back in an offense designed by Marc Trestman, West has as good a chance as Forsett to be the team’s primary runner, and he’s coming off the board about 60 picks later in an average draft. It should be easy to figure out which one you’d rather target.
Buck Allen, RB, Ravens
Speaking of Allen, he was reportedly in danger of being cut before Dixon’s injury, but he survived that initial cutdown and is likely to be on the active roster at the start of the season. Allen hasn’t been great running the ball in his career, but he has proved himself a skilled receiver out of the backfield, and that matters in Trestman’s offense. Michael Pittman caught 73 passes for 579 yards with Arizona in 2000 with Trestman as the team’s offensive coordinator. He moved on to Oakland the next year, where Charlie Garner caught a total of 163 passes for 1,519 yards and six touchdowns in his two-year tenure as OC. As head coach of the Bears, Trestman turned Matt Forte into the most prolific pass-catching back in the league, highlighted by an NFL record (for a running back) 102-reception season in 2014. With Dixon injured, Allen has the inside track to be Baltimore’s primary receiving back, and that makes him a worthwhile late-round flier.
Kenny Stills, WR, Dolphins
DeVante Parker has received a lot of attention this summer as a potential breakout player, but Stills has outplayed him in the preseason and turned himself into a post-hype deep sleeper. Stills was once seen as a possible game-breaking receiver in New Orleans, but he never did enough to command a large role in the offense. He’s remaking himself in Adam Gase’s offense in Miami, catching eight passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason. Jarvis Landry’s role in the offense is on strong footing, but the Dolphins need someone to develop into a weapon outside the numbers. Parker has the tools to be a true WR1, but Stills is the one who has actually produced this summer. This isn’t necessarily a Parker fade. It is rather an endorsement of Stills at a sub-200 ADP that essentially makes him free.
Vance McDonald, TE, 49ers
There may not be a whole lot to like this season about the 49ers offense, especially if its ineptitude continues to undermine Carlos Hyde’s talent. There are a few late-round targets on the offense, however, and McDonald has a real chance to develop into a regular fantasy starter last year. McDonald didn’t play more than half of San Francisco’s snaps in a game until Week 9 last year. From that point forward, a stretch covering seven games, he caught 23 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns, good for an average of 6.59 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. That’s not exactly a bounty, but remember that McDonald was becoming a starter on the fly in a terrible offense. This season, he’ll start right from the jump, and while the offense might not be much better, it is going to play at a faster pace. The 26-year-old is an ideal target if you play the waiting game at tight end.
Shane Vereen, RB, Giants
The Giants are ditching the all-hands-on-deck approach in the backfield favored by Ben McAdoo, the offensive coordinator, last season, in favor of a more typical two-man approach in year one under Ben McAdoo, the head coach. Rashad Jennings will be the primary runner, with Vereen changing pace and handling pass-catching and third-down duties. Vereen outsnapped Jennings 14 to 13 in the team’s third preseason game, and played on all but two of the first team’s third downs. Vereen can be a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield for a team that has gotten precious little from its running backs in the aerial attack over the last few seasons. Keep him in your sights for the final stages of your draft, regardless of format. Just be aware that you might need to act a bit sooner in full PPR leagues.
Chris Hogan, WR, Patriots
Hogan has made a lot of plays for the Patriots this preseason, catching nine passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. Three of his nine receptions have gone for more than 20 yards, and he’s likely to open the season with a key role in the offense, potentially starting opposite Julian Edelman. The latter, along with Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett and James White, eat up the lion’s share of the targets in New England, but there’s still enough to go around to support one more fantasy-relevant receiver, thanks in large part to the efficiency and ruthlessness of the Patriots offense. Hogan has made himself the most likely receiver to occupy that spot. He flashed every now and again for the Bills, totaling 77 catches for 876 yards and six touchdowns the last two seasons, and he’ll have more of a chance to hold down a consistent role this year than he did in his first three in the league.
Chris Thompson, RB, Redskins
Thompson was always going to have a role as the primary pass-catching back for Washington. That was never in question after he reeled in 35 of his 47 targets for 240 yards and two touchdowns last year. Those aren’t gaudy numbers, but were enough to put him on the radar in deeper PPR leagues. It’s entirely possible, however, that his role grows before the season begins. Matt Jones is on the shelf with a sprained shoulder, and rookie Keith Marshall could land on IR after leaving last week’s preseason game with an elbow injury. That leaves Thompson as one of the few healthy, viable running backs on the roster. Before you get too excited, understand that Thompson almost certainly couldn’t handle a role as a three-down back, and Washington likely wouldn’t even let its running back situation devolve to that point. Still, Thompson has no competition as the team’s top receiving option out of the backfield, and he could start to earn more carries than anticipated.
Marqise Lee, WR, Jaguars
In 2012, Lee was one of the best college receivers in the country. That year at USC, Lee, then a sophomore, caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns, finised fourth in Heisman voting, and looked headed toward a bright pro career. It was also the last season of his life that he was healthy. Lee suffered a sprained MCL in 2013, which forced him into the second round of the ’14 draft. His Jaguars tenure has been littered with various leg injuries that have limited him to 15 receptions in two seasons. Lee, who’s still just 24 years old, has enjoyed his first entirely healthy preseason, and will be the Jaguars third wide receiver behind Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns when the team opens play against the Packers in Week 1. The Jaguars have an eye on running more this year, and an improved defense could bring down the passing game’s volume from a season ago, but Lee doesn’t cost you anything in a typical league. His talent and newfound health are an attractive combination in the endgame of any fantasy draft.
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Panthers
Artis-Payne, the second-year player out of Auburn, isn’t likely to have a huge role in the Carolina offense. He’s the No. 2 back on the depth chart, and would need an injury to Jonathan Stewart to register in a meaningful way in fantasy leagues. Stewart missed three games last year, three the season before that, and 17 across 2011 and ’12 combined. He set a new career-high in carries last season, and added another 54 touches in the Panthers run to the Super Bowl. At 29 years old, Stewart is approaching the age at which the typical running back starts to lose his fastball. In other words, there’s a far greater chance that Artis-Payne contributes this season than there was a year ago. Given his cheap draft-day cost, a Stewart owner would be wise to circle back to him in one of the draft’s last few rounds. So would someone looking for a potential lottery ticket in a deep league.
Photos: Eric Christian Smith/AP (Fuller), Michael Ainsworth/AP (Stills), Streeter Lecka/Getty Images (Hogan)