The NFL season is almost upon us, so it’s time to start looking ahead to daily fantasy (DFS). Here are players I believe will begin the season as sleepers until the general public wakes up to their ability/production:
Eli Manning, Giants – Did you know Eli Manning threw for 4410 yards (sixth-most in football), the seventh-most completions and the ninth-most (30) touchdowns (TDs) last season? The team retained their monster in the red zone (Larry Donnell), their productive second and third receivers (Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz) and, oh yeah, that guy Odell Beckham Jr. As we witnessed last season, Manning hardly has to put the ball anywhere near Beckham and he’ll go up and get it. If he stays healthy, it’s hard to believe Beckham wouldn’t put up another 12 TD this season after doing so in only 12 games last year. The Giants’ offense even added Shane Vereen, who adds a whole new threat in the passing game out of the backfield. It’s not so much that I love Manning’s talent but rather I think he’ll be in plenty of high scoring affairs. Plus, he possesses the targets to succeed. He has top-five QB upside, but the public perception of him is still negative. Let people remain pessimistic on the name value while you are reaping the statistical value.
Marcus Mariota, Titans – Remember golden boy Tim Tebow? In 2011 he managed to finish as a top-10 quarterback multiple weeks, despite a 46.5 percent completion rate for the season. How did he do it? He rushed for 660 yards (5.4 yards per carry) in 14 games with six rushing TDs. He eclipsed 55 rushing yards in six separate games and came close (49 yards) on another occasion. While Marcus Mariota is not quite the same player (especially from a passing standpoint), he possesses a reasonably similar rushing ability. In 15 games as a junior, Mariota rushed for 770 yards on 135 carries (5.7 yards per carry) and scored 15 rushing TDs. Hell, he even caught a receiving TD. There’s likely to be a learning curve for the young QB, but he should be able to produce a solid floor on most weeks due solely to his legs. He is better served for cash games in most matchups because his lower-tiered salary will allow you to spend big elsewhere and his passing upside will be limited. That being said, there should be at least a few games this season that he manages three total TD with one on the ground, and that can be potent if paired with the right skill players. If by midseason he starts to figure out NFL defenses, he has top-12 or so QB upside down the stretch.
Melvin Gordon, Chargers – Drafting a runningback (RB) in the first round of the NFL Draft is typically a losing proposition. The average length of a RB’s career in the NFL is a mere 2.57 years. In other words, it doesn’t leave much room for profit and backs pretty regularly come out of nowhere and develop into pro-quality runners. With all of that being said, Melvin Gordon, the second back taken in the 2015 NFL Draft, is an absolute special talent. On November 15, 2014, Gordon set the single game rushing record in college football (408 yards) against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on only 25 carries. That record was broken a week later but he still managed to rush for the second most rush yards ever in a season in Division 1 history behind only Barry Sanders. He finished his career with the highest average rushing yards per carry ever (7.79). He’ll head to a team that needed an every down back because they essentially relied on undersized Branden Oliver to carry the load last season. Danny Woodhead is back in the mix this season but his use in the offense already was on the decline at the beginning of last season (just five receptions in three games). According to Michael Gehlken of the Union-Tribune, Woodhead remains “a cog” for the Chargers “on third down and in the passing game.” Let others overthink that statement and avoid using Gordon until they see what he can do. The opening early in the season to take advantage of a back that should see 20+ touches in a productive offense along with goal line carries has me gushing. His price, at least on competing sites, will open around RB16. Without Ndamukong Suh up front, make sure to take advantage of Gordon beginning week one against the new look Lions on defense.
Joseph Randle, Cowboys – NFL Network’s Ian Rappoport reported the Cowboys number one RB job is “Joseph Randle’s to lose.” This isn’t a big surprise considering his competition heading into the season looked to be passing down specialist Lance Dunbar and injury prone/ineffective Darren McFadden. The Cowboys proved last season they possess one of, if not the, best offensive lines in football. In fact according to ProFootballFocus, the Cowboys’ run blocking ranked second in football behind only the Eagles. McFadden will start the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) which means he’ll miss at least six games. While Dunbar will factor into the offense more than last season, the show is all Randle’s. In short career, Randle has averaged 4.8 yards per carry (YPC). With an increased workload, this is likely to regress but it won’t matter because the overall production will surge. Randle isn’t DeMarco Murray but Murray managed 1,845 yards on 392 carries (4.7 YPC) with 13 rushing TDs last season. Assuming Randle sees 200+ carries, he’ll be likely to eclipse the 1,000 yard rushing plateau and I cannot identify another back who would be taking the goal line carries. This is a top 15 back and it may take the general public a few weeks to recognize. In that transition period, make sure to attack.
Jarvis Landry, Dolphins – Jarvis Landry enjoyed a productive rookie season while Mike Wallace was on the team but now it’s time for him to run the show. With Wallace leaving for Minnesota, Landry will assume WR1 duties with Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings and Jordan Cameron in the mix. There are two ways to look at Landry’s 2015: either you’re disappointed by his 5.5 yard average depth of target (aDot) or you’re encouraged by his surge in the second half. To put it in perspective, Landry’s aDot was the second worst among all receivers who played at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps. To put his second half in perspective, he set a 105 catch pace the final nine weeks of the season. In my opinion, the aDot will skyrocket with Wallace out of town. He was the team’s big play threat and now they’ll need to fill that role with players on the roster. Obviously, Stills’ skills fit that role perfectly but Landry is more than a short possession WR. The Miami Herald expects Landry to serve as Tannehill’s “go-to guy” and I do too. Seeing around 10 targets per week, expect him to approach 100 receptions and maybe even add in 7-8 TDs. He’s a safe cash option in any matchup where he’s not matched up against an elite opposing corner.
Kevin White, Bears – While most are licking their chops over rookie Amari Cooper, another rookie may go unnoticed in DFS: Kevin White. Sure Jay Cutler is as frustrating as they come but he still manages a way to compile the numbers. Despite a disappointing season, Cutler threw for the 13th most yards in the league and completed the 10th most passes. The only asset he lost was Brandon Marshall who White is essentially going to attempt to replace his production. Marshall caught 61 of his 105 targets in 13 games last season and scored eight TDs. Over 16 games, that’s a 75 catch, 10 TD pace which is hard to expect from a rookie. In an offense that isn’t afraid to air it out, I don’t think it’s too much to expect 60-65 catches and eight TDs from the rookie. Alshon Jeffery is going to be an absolute monster but White should complement him quite well. He’s a solid WR3 in the right matchups for DFS that will be priced as a WR4-5. UPDATE: Kevin White will undergo surgery for a stress fracture in his shin and may miss the whole season. Therefore, Alshon Jeffery becomes a true WR1 and Eddie Royal makes for a nice PPR WR sleeper.
Travis Kelce, Chiefs – Is it possible that Travis Kelce’s 67 catch, 862 yard, five TD season last year was actually a disappointment? Kelce’s talent was evident early and peaked it’s head in week four when he caught nine passes for 93 yards and a TD against the New England Patriots. From there on out, there were huge expectations each week but Andy Reid refused to involve the tight end partially because he just didn’t trust the passing game. Alex Smith’s 464 attempts last season ranked 18th in football last year and Jamaal Charles/Knile Davis certainly supplied them with a dominant running attack. This year, I think Reid has no choice but to get the ball to his best weapon in the passing game. The team added Jeremy Maclin to help take some attention away from Kelce and assure the team doesn’t go another season without a WR scoring a TD. Hopefully with the new weapons, Smith will improve on the 6.6 yards per attempt which ranked 21st in football and signifies a low ceiling. If he isn’t throwing too far downfield, however, that means plenty of targets will be heading Kelce’s way. I think Kelce actually has the upside of TE1 if Andy Reid uses him right because he’s just oozing with ability. He’s a cash option early because the targets will be there (at least five targets in six of the last seven games) but I think he’s worth using in tournaments as well. All of a sudden he starts getting targets in the red zone and we’re looking at Rob Gronkowski 2.0.
Eric Ebron, Lions – Reggie Bush exited stage left in the offseason while Ameer Abdullah entered the picture. All-in-all Abdullah should see a few less targets but take over the pass catching back role that Bush and Theo Riddick played so well last season (with Riddick still seeing targets every once in a while). With all that being said, Eric Ebron will emerge as a sleeper more so because of his talent than any changes to the offense. Ebron was drafted 10th overall by the Lions in the 2014 draft but the NFL is not an easy place for rookie tight ends to emerge. Factor in he went to an offense with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush and two productive tight ends and it’s understandable why he didn’t bust out in year one. Now he has a full season under his belt and the talent hasn’t gone anywhere. Johnson is a year older and so is Pettigrew. MLive.com projects TE for 50 receptions, 500-600 yards and 4-5 TD this season but I think those are a little low. I like him for a Kelce-esque season from last year although I think he will be inconsistent. Like most guys on this list, rostering him early is the time to strike before the story is out on him. Just know he has had a problem with drops in the preseason and he’ll need to correct that in order to succeed.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals – Encouraging news came out of Bengals camp when Tyler Eifert declared himself 100 percent healthy for Bengals camp. After undergoing shoulder surgery last season, those who were still concerned should have those eased with the recent development. That being said, Eifert was picked 21st overall in the 2013 draft and probably possesses more talent as a receiver than the aforementioned Ebron. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. envisions a breakout for Eifert in 2015 and I have to agree. It’s hard to learn anything from Eifer’s 2014 considering he played eight total snaps. Still, he caught eight passes and still made ProFootballFocus’ top 23 TEs in terms of pass catching skills…which again, means very little. That being said, he was an absolute stud at Notre Dame (50 REC for 685 YDS and 4 TD in 13 games as a senior) and has the speed of a receiver. Behind A.J. Green, Marvin Jones is recovering from an injury, Mohamed Sanu is more of a slot receiver and Giovani Bernard commands some targets. In other words, there are plenty of targets available especially in the red zone. Don’t be surprised if the Bengals get creative with where Eifert lines up and he ends up with the second most receiving TDs on the team. If I had to choose between the two, I prefer Eifert over Ebron.