Top 10 Fantasy Football Sleepers in 2022
This is probably the No. 1 question asked within the fantasy football community each year, but before we start diving into actual names, let’s understand the true definition of a fantasy football sleeper. This isn’t like the old days when some players are unknown to half your league. The amount of coverage we see today leaves no stone unturned and few player names take anyone by surprise. That used to be what a sleeper was, but, in those terms, the label is archaic.
Today, a sleeper is a player who significantly outperforms his draft position. Some may say it is a player who outperforms his fantasy football ADP (average draft position), but draft positions fluctuate from league to league. While a player’s ADP may read one way, where he is drafted in your league could be completely different. Instead, look at it as a sleeper being a great value. If you draft a player in the eighth round and he performs like a third-round player, you’ve got yourself a sleeper. It really is that simple. That being said, it’s time to dive in.
Howard Bender’s Top 10 Fantasy Football Sleepers for 2022
Don’t roll your eyes at me. Kirk Cousins scored the ninth-most fantasy points among quarterbacks in 2021 and he was in the top 10 for completions, passing yards, and touchdown passes. That’s pretty darn good for a guy in a run-first offense who was coming off draft boards in the 12th and 13th rounds as the 17th quarterback taken. Scoff all you like and continue to poke fun at the guy most well-known for his “You like that?” GIF, but Cousins has been a model fantasy citizen and will now be playing in an offense that will be more dedicated to the pass – thus increasing his opportunity to score more in fantasy. With former Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell at the helm for the Vikings and former Rams passing game coordinator/tight ends coach Wes Phillips as his new OC, Minnesota’s offensive direction will see more aerial work and put the ground game into the back seat. They won’t completely abandon the run because Cousins has proven to be most effective working out of play-action, but everything we saw the Rams do on their way to a Super Bowl title will be front-and-center for the Vikings. Justin Jefferson is going to be featured all over the field, just like Cooper Kupp was for LA, and Adam Thielen will remain the go-to receiver to move the chains. You can bet tight end Irv Smith Jr. will see more targets as well. The Vikings also have an array of receiver depth to mix in to keep defenses honest. Cousins may not be the mobile quarterback most fantasy owners covet, but with a better system, improved play-calling, and a strong arsenal of weapons, he’s going to return significant value at a major bargain price.
You never want to see a young quarterback have to learn a brand-new offense after a tumultuous rookie campaign, but that’s what we have in Jacksonville with Trevor Lawrence and the results should be positive. Doug Pederson brings his version of the West Coast offense to town and anyone who has watched over the years can attest that Pederson likes to run things very similar to his mentor, Andy Reid. Urban Meyer hadn’t run a successful ground campaign since he had Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State and when he lost Travis Etienne to a torn ACL, the run game went to pieces. For whatever reason, Meyer didn’t like using James Robinson and when he finally did, Robinson popped his Achilles. Things will be much different this year as both Etienne and Robinson are healthy and the fifth-round pick out of Ole Miss, Snoop Conner, will be rotated in to ensure that Lawrence has the proper support from his backfield. From there, the passing game should open nicely with an interesting array of wideouts as free agents Christian Kirk and Zay Jones join veteran incumbents Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault, and Laquon Treadwell. They even brought in Evan Engram to be another receiving target at tight end. Technically, this should still be a development year for Lawrence, but Pederson is a competitor who needs to show Jacksonville ownership they made the right move bringing him in. He and Lawrence should build a solid rapport, giving the second-year gunslinger good value in fantasy.
If when you saw Javonte Williams’ name here, your first thought was Melvin Gordon, then sit back and enjoy the analysis. Ignore the rumblings of wannabes from fantasy football Twitter telling you he’s sharing the backfield and doesn’t deserve to be drafted as high as he is going right now. Most of them, if not all, have no idea how to break down football – let alone know anything about offensive schemes. Go back and ask them what the impact of a wide-zone formation and heavy usage of outside zone runs might be on Williams’ value and they’ll sit there with stupid looks on their faces and not know what to say other than, “The team re-signed Gordon, therefore it will be a 50/50 split again.” Idiots. They’re more concerned with engagement farming and likes than they are about learning the X’s and O’s of football. What you need to know here is that Nathaniel Hackett is implementing an offensive scheme that features a lot more outside-zone runs with pulling guards and tackles. That scheme favors Williams, both as a runner and a pass-catcher. As a runner, he’s got the speed and agility to turn the corner on the outside. As a pass-catcher, he has the elusiveness to make tacklers miss when he’s out in space. Gordon, as he’s gotten older, can’t turn the corner like he used to and will likely only be featured on runs between the tackles. If last year was a 50/50 split, this season should be more like 80/20 or 75/25 in favor of Williams. The breakout is coming. Don’t be fooled by posers who don’t understand the game.
This one might take a little more of a leap of faith. Considering the fact that Miles Sanders, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry behind a solid offensive line last season, is coming off the board as RB28 in the sixth round – you should probably pay him some attention. Will Boston Scott still see some work? Yes. Kenneth Gainwell? Him, too. But if you look at Sanders’ game log from 2021, you can see the overall struggles of the offense during the first half of the season until adjustments made in the latter half by Sanders and first-time head coach Nick Sirianni helped improve things even more. Sanders had a run in the second half where he saw at least 16 carries in three of four games and averaged 115 rushing yards in that span. The sample size is small, but that glimpse could be the portal to you stealing a solid running back in the sixth round in a draft range the running back position is a bit of a mess. Sirianni needs to make sure he’s utilizing the backfield enough and not putting the full rushing onus on quarterback Jalen Hurts. If Sanders can earn roughly 15 carries per game, his fantasy value will vastly outweigh his draft position. UPDATE (8/22) – A hamstring injury has kept Sanders out for the second week of the preseason games and fantasy players are stull pushing him down draft boards. Don't ignore him, but also don't pay too high a price here. If the rest of your league is going to leave him to the sixth round, then so be it. Take the discount. Gainwell and Scott are getting some buzz right now, but neither of them is lighting up camp to a point where you would be afraid to draft Sanders at all. Still believing.
Are you thinking “fresh start,” too? They should call him Febreeze, he’s feeling so fresh. Getting out of Tampa Bay was the best thing Ronald Jones could do for his career and he lands in a great spot in Kansas City. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has not panned out the way many had hoped and his role in the passing game was cut in half last year with the late-season emergence of Jerick McKinnon. While McKinnon has signed on for another year, Jones is expected to challenge both him and Edwards-Helaire for touches in the backfield. If successful, Jones could emerge as a real nice running back with fantasy flex appeal – maybe even more, but we won’t get too far ahead of ourselves. Obviously, Jones needs to work on a few things as his drops and fumbles found him falling out of favor with both head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Tom Brady in Tampa. Once Brady doesn’t trust you, you’re dead in the water. But with a clean slate in Kansas City, a scheme that favors pass-catching running backs, and very little competition for regular touches, Jones could be the late-round running back steal you’ve been looking for this year. UPDATE (8/22) – What in the world happened here? While I am not fully ready to give up on Jones, the presence of Isiah Pacheco puts an entirely new wrinkle into this backfield. Clyde Edwards-Helaire appears to be primed for an early-down, between-the-tackles role but the pass-catching job, which is how Andy Reid creates beautiful backfield monsters at the running back position, still seems very much up for grabs with Pacheco shining brighter than both Jones and McKinnon. You can take Jones with a very late-round pick if you're looking to throw some darts for your depth, but Pacheco seems to be the fan-favorite here. McKinnon and Derrick Gore will likely stay in competition while Jones….well, we'll just have to wait and see.
Let’s just stay in Kansas City as the arrival of JuJu Smith-Schuster could be really big for fantasy owners, especially when Patrick Mahomes is looking for another go-to guy to take some of the pressure off of Travis Kelce. Many will discuss the fact that Mahomes likes to spread the ball around too much and while it certainly looked that way last year, it seemed more like a reaction to the bracket coverage Tyreek Hill routinely saw as well as some extra coverage on Kelce. Like Hill did, I expect Smith-Schuster to work predominately out of the slot while Mecole Hardman and Marquez Valdes-Scantling line up on the outside. In Pittsburgh, he found most of his success when he lined up on the inside while Antonio Brown drew the cornerbacks away from him – we should see something very similar here. Smith-Schuster can be elusive in coverage and can put those skills to the test as Mahomes’ ability to scramble will open the door for some creative route-running as he looks to shake coverage. The rapport between JuJu and Mahomes is paramount to the success of this passing attack. The two have been working closely together throughout OTAs and mini-camp and should be on the same page come full training camp and the start of the season.
After last season’s abomination, Allen Robinson was eager to get out of Chicago and landed in a really nice spot in Los Angeles, especially with the departures of Robert Woods and Odell Beckham. There is some talk about bringing OBJ back, but his return wouldn’t be until November as he continues to recover from the torn ACL he suffered during the Super Bowl. While Cooper Kupp may be best friends with Matthew Stafford and the likely No. 1 receiving target, Robinson is going to play an extremely important role in this passing attack. Even with the departure of Kevin O’Connell, we expect this offense to have a heavy passing scheme once again. Stafford threw just over 600 passes last season and with Sean McVay calling the plays, that should continue with Robinson being a strong beneficiary of targets. He’s always been an incredibly talented receiver and we’ve seen him find success with lesser talents than Stafford, as in Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky. Last season there was weak chemistry with Justin Fields as Robinson cited a lack of reps together during training camp. While we haven’t seen them together for OTAs or min-camp, Stafford is expected to resume his throwing when camp opens in August as he and Robinson will have plenty of time to get ready for the season. UPDATE (8/22) – Stafford's elbow still makes me a little nervous, but more for him than for Robinson. No, I don;t relish in the possibility of John Wolford throwing him the ball but we've seen Robinson play with worse. He's at a fair price where his current fantasy football ADP is sitting at, so no need to reach at all.
While all eyes are on Michael Thomas and rookie wideout Chris Olave, I’m taking a long look at Jarvis Landry, who could even end up as the No. 1 receiving target for Jameis Winston this season. First off, as I said in the Top 10 Busts article, I’m not sure Thomas even wants to play football anymore. He hasn’t played or practiced since 2020, having skipped OTAs and mini-camp while he recovers from ankle surgery he had back in July of last year. Though Thomas did restructure his contract to give the Saints some extra cap room, we still don’t fully know. We’ll see what happens, but in the meantime, Landry has been a full participant in OTAs and mini-camp while building a strong rapport with Winston. Olave is also getting his time in, but when it comes to clean route-running, strong hands, and a reliable presence on the field, Landry is the guy. How things translate inside the red zone will have a clearer picture during camp, but with or without the touchdowns, Landry should be a machine for those in full-point PPR leagues.
So much attention is being put on the departure of Josh McDaniels and what he does for the tight end, but let’s all remember that this is Bill Belichick’s team and his offensive game plan. In the realm of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you can expect the Patriots' scheme to remain the same as it has always been – meaning the tight ends are just as important as the wide receivers. Receiving targets – whether to a wideout, a tight end, or a pass-catching running back – are interchangeable cogs in the machine that is the New England offense. If you have a strong, reliable, wide-bodied tight end with great hands, you’re going to see the work – just as Hunter Henry saw last year. We still don’t need to worry about Jonnu Smith, as we saw last year, since he is the superior blocker and will reprise that role again this season. Meanwhile, Henry will continue to be that dominant red zone target for Mac Jones. He saw a 23.6-percent share of the red zone targets last season, which he turned into a team-leading nine touchdown receptions, and we expect him to continue his production in 2022. Obviously, we wouldn’t mind seeing his overall target share increase to build up those receptions and receiving yards totals, but when you’re looking at the 16th tight end off the board and that’s around Round 12 or 13, you can be happy with a simple repeat of last year’s numbers.
Funny enough, we had Hayden Hurst as a sleeper tight end back in 2020 when he landed in Atlanta, While he didn’t put forth the season we had originally hoped, it actually turned out to be his best in the NFL – catching 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns, all career-highs. Well, he’s back in the sleeper pages as he leaves the shadow of Kyle Pitts and becomes the new lead tight end for the Bengals. Yes, I am very aware of the target pecking order in Cincinnati. Still, let’s not forget that even with Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd running around out there, C.J. Uzomah still saw 63 targets which he turned into 49 catches for 493 yards and five touchdowns in 2021. The numbers aren’t eye-popping, but I’m encouraged by the fact that Hurst is faster and has more mobility than the plodding Uzomah. He should fit into this passing scheme very well. Let’s also keep in mind that defenses around the league have now seen a full year’s worth of action from this Bengals team and will likely try to tighten up coverage against them. Should the wideouts struggle at any point, Hurst could become an even more popular target for Joe Burrow.
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