It’s been one crazy offseason ride, as it often is in the NFL. The draft was as bonkers as it’s ever been (thanks Johnny Manziel), position battles in camp became daily news (thanks Johnny Manziel), and the behavior of one Cleveland Brown became the epicenter of a game of fantasy chicken (thanks Johnny Ma– actually that’s Josh Gordon, just making sure you’re paying attention). If that’s not proof that the NFL is a year-round league, I don’t know what is. But the games, the ones that actually count, are on our doorstep so it’s time to put up or shut up.
Everyone and their mother has their sleepers for this season, and I’m no different (for the record, I think my mom is calling a career year for Michael Floyd due to her Notre Dame and Arizona ties; good call Mom). With only a week left until the regular season kicks, I figured what better time to sneak my sleeper plays at each position in as well. After seeing the stars and starters play the bulk of their preseason action, I’m ready to give my vaunted Seal of Approval to one QB, RB, WR and TE play that I think will have you destined for your league’s Shiva Bowl. Thousands of leagues will be drafting in the next 168 hours, so play your cards right and you could end up with each and every one of these players on your team on your way to legendary status. Without any further adieu, I give you those earning the distinction of carrying the “Round Robinson Seal of Approval”:
QB: Jay Cutler, CHI – This was a toss-up between Cutler and Tom Brady. In Tom Terrific’s case, he’s got a lot of his weapons back healthy at least at the beginning of the season (although Gronk or Amendola might have just gone down as you read that sentence). He had a sneaky strong second half, passing for at least 296 yards in six consecutive games starting in Week 9. I do believe his ceiling is tied directly to the health of Gronkowski, but perhaps this is the year he gets his favorite target for all 16 games. I like the addition of Timothy Wright from the Bucs as well, giving the Patriots a super athletic TE to fill the role left by Aaron Hernandez. The only thing stopping me from giving Brady my seal of approval is that the rest of the community seems to have finally jumped on the bandwagon as well, pushing Brady’s ADP up into the 50s and making him the sixth QB off the board.
Meanwhile, Jay Cutler can be had another 50 picks later and I believe he carries the same upside as Brady. The difference is that Cutler’s floor is much lower in the eyes of many, but that won’t be an issue this year. Look at everything Cutler has going for him. He has arguably the most talented set of skill position players in the league including the most feared tandem of receivers out there. He’s in year two under the quarterback whisperer, Mark Trestman. And the Bears letting Josh McCown walk means Cutler doesn’t have the pressure of a successful backup breathing down his neck.
If you get Cutler as your QB2, you’re golden. Odds are, that’s going to be solid trade bait down the line when one of the top guys inevitably goes down. I have enough faith in Cutler to make him my QB1 in a 10- or 12-teamer, giving me plenty of leeway to load up at RB and WR before having to pull the trigger on him at QB. Those who are wary of the health concerns might want to grab one of the other notable QB2 candidates (Dalton, Roethlisberger, Rivers) as an insurance policy a couple of rounds later, but that all depends on the depth of your league. Ultimately, Cutler will finish the season comfortably ranked within the top-10 at the position and I see top-5 potential if things break his way. I prefer him to Foles, RGIII, Kaepernick and Romo, all of which are being drafted before the Bears’ gunslinger.
RB: Ben Tate, CLE – When it comes to my opinion on Ben Tate this offseason, just call me Waffle House because I’ve gone back and forth on him more times than I can count. When he first signed with Cleveland, I was 100% on board with him finally being the lead back on a team that doesn’t have too bad an offensive line and some nice weapons on the outside to take away some of the attention from the run game. Slowly but surely, a lot of those positives started to erode and caused Tate to steadily slip down draft boards.
The Browns spent a third-round pick on Towson running back Terrance West in this past May’s draft. Word started coming out of Browns’ camp that they were so enamored with West’s ability that it was no lock that he was just coming in as the second stringer. Then there’s the enigma that is Josh Gordon and his looming suspension. Word came down this week that Cleveland will indeed be without their best playmaker for the entire 2014 season.
So why am I now back on the Tate train? If you’ve read any of my previous entries, you know my favorite word in the fantasy game is value. Somehow, Ben Tate has slipped to an ADP in the mid-60s and, even more unbelievable, he’s now being drafted 25th among running backs, behind guys like Chris Johnson and Bishop Sankey. Without Gordon, the Browns running game now becomes a volume play. They’re going to run it 30+ times a game and even if Tate and West split the load 60/40, you’re still looking at 18-20 touches a game for Tate. When it comes to drafting an RB2 or RB3, give me the guy who I know is going to touch the ball. That includes Tate, Toby Gerhart and Rashad Jennings. And if you don’t think a Browns RB can be a good volume play in a bad offense, just look at Trent Richardson’s 2012 season. It might not have been pretty to watch, but at the end of the year, you can’t argue with the results.
Ben Tate should be drafted as a top-20 RB and the return should be even better than that. Since there are injury concerns that can’t be shrugged off, I would go the extra round or two to land West as well. But the Browns backfield is not the mine field some seem to be treating it as. In fact, I think this situation will only improve if and when Johnny Manziel takes over at QB. His ability to run gives opposing defenses one more element to consider when defending the Browns and could only serve to help the production of both Tate and West.
WR: Emmanuel Sanders, DEN – This would have looked like an even better call this time last week, but Sanders and the Broncos decided to ruin the surprise when he went berserk in Denver’s third preseason game (5 Rec, 128 Yds, 2 TD). Without a doubt the price has certainly gone up on Sanders as the two things I foresaw both came to fruition in this game.
First, Sanders now occupies one of the optimum receiving positions in the entire NFL: lining up alongside Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas and catching balls from Peyton Manning. Honestly, is there a better spot to be in than the #2 WR in a Peyton Manning-lead offense when there’s a Pro-Bowler on the other side? Ask Reggie Wayne. Ask Pierre Garcon. Ask Eric Decker. There’s no way teams roll extra help to Sanders’ side when D. Thomas (AKA Megatron Jr.) is just aching to streak down the sideline against one-on-one coverage. There aren’t many places you could go to upgrade from Antonio Brown, but Sanders has done just that.
I’ll give you that Sanders does not have the size of an Eric Decker, but the Broncos are going to play him outside as his replacement. Decker posted 1,288 yards and 11 TD last season, and while most people see Sanders getting to the 1,000 or 1,100-yard mark, they’re giving him no respect in the TD department, often projecting just five or six trips to the end zone. Even though he won’t be getting the jump ball treatment in the end zone, let’s not forget that Manning managed to find Wes Welker for 10 scores in just 13 games last year. Size isn’t everything when it comes to touchdowns.
Speaking of Welker, his recent injury history was the other reason I saw Sanders getting a larger chunk of the Denver passing pie. As it turns out, Welker didn’t make it to the end of this past Saturday’s exhibition before a shot to the head caused another concussion, his third in the last 10 months. I hate to see this happen again, and while I do believe now is the time to consider retirement, we will probably see Welker back on the field this season. How long he remains there is another story, but no Welker means increased opportunity for Sanders to work inside the numbers as well as outside.
As I mentioned, Sanders’ coming-out party was ill-timed for someone who hoped to catch him at bargain basement prices. He was going in the late-sixth, early seventh in 12-team leagues and was a steal at that point. The events that unfolded Saturday night will probably shoot his draft stock into the fifth round, but I’m still willing to pay that kind of price for him. He deserves to go before names like Julian Edelman, T.Y. Hilton and even Percy Harvin and makes one hell of a WR3 or Flex play.
TE: Zach Ertz, PHI – All the talk about who steps in to replace Desean Jackson’s production in the Philly passing game has centered around fellow wide receivers. Some are claiming that Jeremy Maclin will come back after injury and fill the void. Others are touting Riley Cooper as being the real deal and taking another step forward. And there are those that think rookie Jordan Matthews is primed to hit the ground running in Chip Kelly’s uptempo offense.
I submit to you the Eagles’ second-year TE, Zach Ertz. Without Jackson taking the tops off of defenses with his blazing speed, I think Philly becomes a more methodical offense in the sense of working the ball down the field in smaller chunks rather than hitting the home run. Ponder this for a minute: last season the Eagles had just nine touchdown drives that took nine plays or more. Against the Steelers in their third preseason game, they had four such drives in the first three-quarters of the game. Nick Foles will use more short and intermediate routes in the passing game this season, and Ertz stands to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses in that area of the field.
The one statistic you’re going to want to keep an eye on with Ertz is his targets. In the final 11 games of the 2013 season, Ertz got at least five targets in six of those games after getting no more than three in any of the first five games. I expect his workload to increase even more so in 2014 as he becomes one of Foles’ go-to guys and continues to excel in the red zone (four TD in final eight games of 2013). Grabbing him outside the top-100 picks justifies waiting on a TE and allows you to load up everywhere else without sacrificing much of the production. I really like all the guys in that 7-12 range (Olsen, Reed, Pitta, Rudolph and Bennett), but I prefer Ertz slightly over Reed and Bennett especially and I wouldn’t be surprised if he outdoes the entire group, in which case he’ll be the steal of the position.