With the preseason winding down, fantasy football drafts are upon us. If you already had yours, I'm sorry I'm late. If you already had yours and you picked Teddy Bridgewate...I'm really sorry. But for the rest of you, here are some sleepers to grab in the later rounds.
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1. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Antonio Brown is remarkably consistent, scoring fewer than than six fantasy points in six games over the last three years, three of which Ben Roethlisberger missed due to injury. In fact, if you look at only the 12 games Roethlisberger played last year, Brown was on a 16-game pace for 158.7 catches, 2,132 yards and 13.3 touchdowns. He’s capable of winning fantasy games singlehandedly, which he displayed when he caught 17 passes for 284 yards in a win over the Raiders last season. With all due respect to Odell Beckham and Julio Jones, Brown’s track record, age and offensive environment in Pittsburgh make him the No. 1 fantasy receiver heading into the 2016 season. Not only is he the top choice at his position, Brown is the best overall player in the game.
Photo: Fred Vuich
2. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
Not including his modest rushing totals, Odell Beckham has averaged 15.76 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues in his career. He and Antonio Brown have been 1-2 in points per game both of the last two years, flipping spots from 2014 to last season. He’s the only receiver with at least 12 touchdowns in both of those seasons. Beckham is one of three receivers who had an 80-yard catch in 2014 and 2015, with the others being A.J. Green and Martavis Bryant. All Beckham has done since making his debut in October of 2014 is every single thing a fantasy owner could ask of a receiver. Beckham might break the 200-target mark this season, and that sort of volume could make him the best player in all fantasy formats.
Photo: Carlos M. Saavedra
3. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones led the NFL with 1,871 yards last year, and tied with Antonio Brown for the league lead in receptions with 136. He had just eight touchdowns, largely a reflection of the ineffectiveness of the Atlanta offense as a whole, as well as the fact that he shared a huddle with fantasy’s No. 1 running back, Devonta Freeman. As talented as Jones is—and make no mistake, from the standpoint of raw talent there’s no receiver better in the league—he has just one double-digit touchdown season in his five-year career. That Jones remains, without question, one of the three best fantasy receivers in the league speaks to his raw talent and unparalleled ability to rack up yardage. Jones seems to have a reputation for being injury prone, but he has played in 31 of 32 over the last two years.
Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
4. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Le'Veon Bell has played 35 games in his NFL career, averaging 15.65 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. If we take his rookie year out of the equation and start with the season in which he became the player we know today, he has put up 17.03 points in an average contest. Bell has fumbled once—once!—in 799 touches, and that was in his rookie season. If you went into a lab with the goal of engineering the perfect back for the style of offense favored in today’s league, Bell would be the end product. He’s shifty with breakaway speed, and easily a top-three receiver out of the backfield. He protects his quarterback and converts in short-yardage situations. Bell does everything you want from a running back in 2016, and he does so in one of the league’s most potent offenses.
Photo: David E. Klutho
5. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Let’s quickly recount the first four games of Todd Gurley’s career: 19 carries for 146 yards; 30 carries for 159 yards; 19 carries for 128 yards and two touchdowns; 20 carries for 133 yards and a score. Let’s also remember that he did all of this with one of the worst passing teams in the league, placing an opposing defense’s entire attention on the backfield. Oh, and let’s also not forget that he started that stretch less than 11 months removed from a torn ACL in his final season at Georgia. Defenses keyed on Gurley over the back half of the season and were able to slow him down a bit, but he ended the year on a 271-yard, four-touchdown binge in the Rams last four games. Concerns about the passing game are still present, but no back has the success Gurley did in his rookie year by accident.
Photo: Ron Johnson/Peoria Journal Star via AP
6. Lamar Miller, RB, Houston Texans
If you’re looking for the running back in his first year in Texas with a new team who found the most ideal landing spot, you won’t find him in Dallas. You’ll have to shift to Houston. Lamar Miller spent the last two years as one of the league’s most underappreciated talents, not by the media or fantasy community, but by his own organization. The fifth-year player left behind Miami in the off-season and steps into a lucrative position in Houston vacated by Arian Foster who, even last year, was on his way to another RB1 season before a season-ending Achilles injury. Miller is equally adept at running and catching the ball, an ideal fit for the Texans’ offense. The only question for the Texans is Brock Osweiler, but it’s not as though the team had great quarterback play last year.
7. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing at 30 years old, carrying the ball 327 times for 1,485 yards, while scoring 11 touchdowns. He has missed more than two games in a year because of injury just once in his career, and famously returned from one of the most gruesome knee injuries in just eight months to rush for 2,097 yards. The typical aging curve just doesn’t seem to apply. It’s true that most running backs don’t belong anywhere near the first round once they’ve hit 31 years old, but Peterson is not most running backs. He’s the focal point of the Minnesota offense with no one in position to steal away many touches, save for a handful of Jerick McKinnon receptions.
Photo: Tom Lynn
8. Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
Jordy Nelson has two red flags that might as well have alarms and sirens attached to them: 1.) He’s 31 years old and 2.) He’s coming off an ACL tear that cost him the entire 2015 season. While Nelson unquestionably has his work cut out for him, if he proves to be the player he was before the injury, he’s going to be a top-five receiver this season. Remember, when we last saw him on the field for a full season, he had 98 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. Don’t forget who’s on the other end of all those passes Nelson catches, either. Aaron Rodgers desperately missed Nelson last season, and the two of them are once again primed to wreak havoc on the secondaries they face this season. In the last 24 games started and finished by Rodgers, Nelson has 147 receptions for 2,329 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Photo: Al Tielemans
9. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Chances are if you grabbed David Johnson off waivers last year, you won your league. Or at least came very close. A bit player for Arizona’s first 11 games, Johnson was one of the best fantasy weapons over the last five weeks of the season, running for 442 yards, catching 17 passes for 216 yards and hitting pay dirt five times. He enters this season as the unquestioned starter, and it’s easy to see why that should be a great spot. The Cardinals offense figures to be among the best in the league, with Carson Palmer, Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and an impressive line surrounding Johnson. Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington are still in Arizona, and both will have roles in the offense. Johnson’s appeal this season is strong and easy to see, but given the company, he does carry some risk at his ADP.
Photo: John W. McDonough
10. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas has had the best rushing offense for the past two years on the back of the league’s best offensive line. After helping DeMarco Murray to a 1,845-yard season in 2014, the Cowboys line paved the way for Darren McFadden to finish fourth in rushing last year with 1,089 yards despite getting more than 10 carries just nine times. Ezekiel Elliott’s unquestionably a more talented back, running for a total of 3,699 yards in his final two years in Columbus. In today’s NFL, it’s hard to imagine a team using the fourth overall pick on a back they didn’t plan to feature immediately. At the same time, the Cowboys have McFadden, Alfred Morris and receiving threat Lance Dunbar on the roster. As good as Elliott is, and as perfect as the Dallas environment is for him, he’s still a rookie.
Photo: Dominic DiSaia/AP Images for NFLPA
11. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Is A.J. Green the NFL’s quietest superstar? The sixth-year player out of Georgia has never had fewer than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns in a season, and both of those low points came in 2014 when he missed three games and was never 100% after suffering a foot injury in Week 1. In his three fully healthy, non-rookie seasons to date, he averaged 93.7 catches for 1,357.7 yards and 10.7 touchdowns. While Tyler Eifert emerged last season, it is Green who will command the bulk of Andy Dalton’s attention. Green is as steady as they come, and while he may not have the ceiling of players ranked ahead of him, or, for that matter, a couple of the players behind him, he does have one of the safest floors at the position. You can pencil Green in for 85 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Photo: John W. McDonough
12. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
There is no debate when it comes to the NFL's best tight end. Like Tiger Woods in his prime, there’s simply Gronk and the field. His 6' 6", 265-pound frame inherently gives him a distinct advantage, but he is nimble enough to create space, not that he needs much. Over six seasons, Gronkowski has scored 65 touchdowns in 80 games. He's scored double-digit TDs in all but one season (2013), during which he played in just seven games. The only issue with Gronk is that his physicality makes him injury-prone, but hey, that’s a pretty acceptable tradeoff when you get to trot out one of the most dangerous, game-changing weapons of the modern era.
Photo: Carlos M. Saavedra
13. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
DeAndre Hopkins enjoyed a true breakout season last year, finishing third among receivers with 111 receptions and 1,521 yards, and sixth with 11 touchdowns. That he did this while playing the entire season with the quarterback quartet of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden not only underscores how good he was, but also breeds confidence for the first year of the Brock Osweiler era. Hopkins benefited from 192 targets last season, third only to Julio Jones (203) and Antonio Brown (193), and that’s not likely to change this season. A completely healthy Lamar Miller will command more share of the offense than the backs who replaced Arian Foster after his injury last season, but the presence of a legitimate run game makes the Miller addition a net positive for Hopkins.
Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
14. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Jamaal Charles is one of the trickiest players to rank this season. He’s 29 and coming off the second ACL tear of his career, but has been one of the most productive per-game players since entering the league in 2008, and ripped off three of the best seasons of his career between ACL injuries. Both Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware showed something to the Kansas City coaching staff last season, meaning Charles might share a sizeable portion of his workload for the first time in his career. But might the company serve to protect him and keep him on the field for 16 games? With Charles, the good still comfortably outweighs the bad. He played a bit more than four games last year, running for 364 yards on 71 carries, catching 21 passes for 177 yards, and scoring five touchdowns.
Photo: AJ Mast
15. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Dez Bryant lost most of 2015 after breaking his foot Week 1. By the time he returned, Tony Romo was all but done for the year and the Cowboys season was effectively at its end. Before last season, he had three straight years with at least 1,200 yards and 12 scores. For fantasy purposes, though, we have to evaluate players based on their real-life context. Romo is now a 36-year-old who has fractured his left collarbone three times. The Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in part because they believe him capable of taking some pressure off of Romo and the passing game. Even when Bryant was at his best, he was never a yardage monster. His opportunities could be fewer this season than at any other point of his career.
Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
16. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Many misinformed fantasy owners believe Evans was a disappointment last year. That theory, however, is based entirely on the fact that he had three touchdowns after hitting paydirt 12 times as a rookie. It also conveniently ignores the reality that receiving touchdowns are among the most volatile, hard to predict statistic in football. Just ask Andre Johnson, who has never had a 10-touchdown season. Or Calvin Johnson, who had five or fewer touchdowns three times in his career, including his record-setting 1,964-yard season. Evans set new career highs in receptions (74), yards (1,206), yards per catch (16.3) and targets (147). Evans’s lack of TDs was an anomaly that will correct itself this season. It’s only intuitive that as Jameis Winston matures as a quarterback, Evans’s fantasy prospects will brighten.
Photo: Rob Foldy/Getty Images
17. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
Alshon Jeffery missed seven games due to injury last season, but when he was on the field he proved himself capable of being a WR1. Freed from Brandon Marshall’s shadow for the first time in his career, Jeffery caught 54 passes for 807 yards and four touchdowns in nine games. Last year’s first round selection, Kevin White, will finally make his NFL debut after missing all of 2015 because of a shin injury, but there’s no question who will be Jay Cutler’s favorite receiver. We saw just how lucrative a status that can be for a talented receiver during Marshall’s first two years in Chicago, a fact Jeffery learned while he was getting the short end of the stick. He can win jump balls, a key for any Cutler favorite, and is the team’s best weapon no matter where the offense is on the field.
Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images
18. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
To evaluate Eddie Lacy this season, you must forgive his 2015 campaign. Lacy was one of the biggest busts in the game, failing to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage and finishing as the No. 25 back. This is a new season, however, and Lacy’s arrow is pointing up. He slimmed down over the off-season, which should help him reclaim the surprising burst he showed in his first two seasons in the league. With Jordy Nelson back on the field, the Packers will have all the clubs in their bag. Nelson’s absence significantly limited what the Packers could do in the passing game, and that trickled down to Lacy and the run game, The fantasy community fully understands and appreciates what an Aaron Rodgers-led offense can do when it’s at full strength, and how that rising tide lifts all ships.
Photo: John W. McDonough
19. Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
This might seem low for a receiver who had 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns last year and will turn 23 about two weeks before the season begins. But this is less a commentary on Allen Robinson than a concern over the state of the Jaguars. They should be a lot more competitive this season, and that’s bad news for Robinson’s fantasy value, as well as that of Blake Bortles and Allen Hurns. Robinson was eighth in the NFL with 153 targets last season, while Bortles attempted 606 passes. That’s going to happen when a team is 24th in total defense and 31st in points allowed. Jacksonville’s defense can’t help but improve, and there’s a real chance it’s much better than it was last season. Robinson is a safe WR1, but no one should expect him to repeat last year’s numbers.
Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
20. LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills
It’s seemingly in vogue to knock LeSean McCoy’s RB1 prospects this season, a tendency likely driven by his perceived fragility. McCoy played in 12 games last season, marking the fourth time in his seven years he failed to appear in all 16 games. He did, however, play all 16 in 2013 and 2014, and missed just one game in 2010 and 2011. McCoy’s owners might hold their collective breath every time he takes the field, but his per-game production has never been in question. He has been a top-12 back by points per game in all but two of his seasons, and one of those he fell short was his rookie year. Last season, McCoy was 17th in total points despite missing four games, and seventh in points per game among backs who played at least eight games.
Photo: Carlos M. Saavedra
Top 20 Fantasy Football Rankings (2016)
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