Before getting down and dirty on the topic of sleepers and busts who could either make or break your fantasy team this season, the criteria used to arrive at such designations should be spelled out.
As easy as “ABC,” it’s not.
Far from it, in fact.
When you stop to think about it, every fantasy player can be deemed a potential sleeper or bust, as evidenced by the structure of the individual fantasy scouting reports that provide the foundation of this publication.
In every one of the reports, we offer well-thought-out reasons why each of these players could turn out to be either: (A) a “booming” success story or (B) a disappointing “bust.”
Admittedly unscientific, what we did for this article is simply start at the bottom of each skill-position ranking, intent on identifying “super sleeper” types based, as much as anything, on the increased opportunities our top candidates figure to receive courtesy of new surrounding cast members or schematic changes, among other factors.
In the case of busts, we simply turned the tables, starting from the top of the rankings and working our way down, intent on pinpointing risky propositions due to any number of reasons, including injury concerns, off-the-field baggage and team roles that could be streamlined to accommodate other potential heavy hitters.
In the following article, we offer a pair of sleepers and a pair of busts at each skill position (16 total), ones who stood out the most to us, and we also give you the reasons behind our determinations.
Sam Bradford, QB / St. Louis Rams
Bradford has several dynamic pass catchers who can stress defenses vertically and horizontally for the first time in his four-year NFL career. He has an All-Pro caliber — when healthy — blind-side protector, finally, after being sacked once every 14.3 pass attempts in his first 42 career starts. The top pick in the 2010 draft has a defense that not only keeps the Rams in games, it takes the football away, creating scoring opportunities for what some league observers are calling the “Greatest Show on Turf 2.0.” But perhaps more important than these changes is the one constant: Bradford finally has offensive continuity with coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. That familiarity means rather than spending the offseason learning a new offense, as he did in his first three campaigns, Bradford can work on developing a rapport with his explosive new weapons, including TE Jared Cook and the eighth pick in the draft, WR Tavon Austin. Bradford has always had the skills to flourish; now he has the supporting cast.
Jay Cutler, QB / Chicago Bears
Could this finally be the year Cutler fully lives up to his off-the-chart potential? For myriad reasons, we believe he could be a sleeping fantasy giant. Cutler’s natural skills have never wavered, most notably his rare athleticism and elusiveness and a rocket arm capable of fitting his passes in the tightest of windows when he is on his game. Unfortunately, Cutler had been hamstrung by an annoyingly bland Bears offense under former head coach Lovie Smith that would have had problems scoring in a brothel. Enter new QB-friendly head coach Marc Trestman with an up-tempo, West Coast offense featuring new weapons such as TE Martellus Bennett, who figures to be a badly needed force in the middle of the field, and former Saints OLT Jermon Bushrod to protect Cutler’s blind side and make him feel a lot more comfortable in the pocket. Directing an offense expected to feature a lot more than just WR Brandon Marshall, clearly the top playmaker in 2012, Cutler, who is entering his contract year, could end up being a cut above most of his signal-calling peers.
David Wilson RB / New York Giants
Did you happen to see this former first-round draft pick strut his stuff last season in the Giants’ 52-27 massacre of the Saints in Week 14 — 100 yards rushing and a pair of TDs on 13 carries? Or his effort in the 42-7 rout over the division-rival Eagles in the regular-season finale, when he rushed for 75 yards on 15 carries and displayed his scoring diversity with a 15-yard TD catch? Performances like those have Giants coaches believing Wilson has what it takes to be a lethal lead back, although plans, at least initially, call for him to share the rushing load this season with the powerful Andre Brown, who had his moments last season before a broken leg cut short his 2012 campaign. With rare speed and acceleration and unquestioned big-play ability, perhaps no fantasy player passes the eyeball test with such flying colors as Wilson. Although problems holding on to the ball and blocking on blitzes could alter his course, Wilson could be a giant fantasy threat lurking under the radar.
Chris Ivory, RB / New York Jets
Virtually every time the football was in Ivory’s hands during his three seasons in New Orleans, good things happened. The problem, of course, was that the ball was seldom in his hands; Ivory managed just 256 carries in his first 24 NFL games but 5.1 yards per clip. Out from the shadows of Drew Brees and a loaded Saints backfield, Ivory now shapes up as the centerpiece of a ground-and-pound offense that helped plodder Shonn Greene put up 1,000-yard campaigns for “Gang Green” the past two seasons. Ivory, unlike Greene, has enough speed to take the edge and the agility to sidestep open-field defenders. What’s more, he doesn’t have a clear competitor in the Jets’ backfield. Mike Goodson will serve as the change-of-pace back, but Ivory is expected to do the heavy lifting. Whether it’s Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith at the controls, New York is going to have significant limitations in the passing game, making it entirely possible that Ivory carries the ball more in his fourth season than in his first three combined.
Danny Amendola, WR / New England Patriots
It seems as though you can almost always count on Bill Belichick and Co. to come up with surprisingly effective pickups that fit the team’s well-honed offensive and defensive systems like custom-made gloves. Amendola, the projected replacement for longtime slot machine Wes Welker, could be the Pats’ latest worthwhile pickup along those lines. Before establishing himself as a rock-solid slot receiver in his own right as a member of the Rams, Amendola was often referred to as a “poor man’s Wes Welker,” a fellow alum out of Texas Tech. Because he is adept at working the middle of the field with excellent hands, you might be well-served investing your fantasy money in Amendola, who shapes up as a very intriguing — as well as a very productive — new target for Tom Brady. The one problem with Amendola, and it could be a pretty big one, is his penchant for injuries. The injury bug has pounded the 5-11, 188-pounder throughout his four-year career (only one 16-game season, in 2010 with the Rams). But if you are willing to gamble that he will be able to stay on the field, you just might be handsomely rewarded.
James Casey, TE / Philadelphia Eagles
One position group that is top-heavy in 2013 is tight ends. As a co-worker astutely pointed out during the PFW mock draft, the difference between the No. 6- and No. 16-ranked tight ends is negligible. What about the difference between Nos. 17 and 37, though? If you’re interested in a deep-sleeper special, we have one for you: Eagles FB/H-back/TE James Casey. Although Chip Kelley’s offense remains shrouded in secrecy, it is a safe bet that he will find better ways to utilize the former Texan, Casey, than did Gary Kubiak, who insisted on trying to jam a round peg (Casey) into a square hole (lead blocker role). A converted college TE with exceptional hands, Casey has seam-busting speed and athleticism and the smarts and selflessness to wear any hat he’s assigned. Sure, the Eagles have a pair of athletic TEs in Brent Celek and rookie Zach Ertz. Even so, Casey’s versatility means he is a candidate to catch a lot of passes, making him a fascinating sleeper, especially in PPR leagues.
Zach Miller, TE / Seattle Seahawks
After managing no more than 59 yards receiving in any game as a member of the Seahawks the last two seasons, Miller burst out of the woodwork with an 8-142 explosion in Seattle’s playoff loss to the Falcons. Dare we suggest the strong possibility that Miller could pick right up where he left off last season, even though the Seahawks suddenly have weapons galore? Absolutely, when you take into account Miller’s pre-Seahawks accomplishments, most notably his back-to-back 60-catch campaigns as a Raider before signing a lucrative deal with Seattle as a free agent. In an offensive scheme that is just beginning to branch out big-time after catching fire in the second half of the season under the stellar direction of QB Russell Wilson, Miller is a lot more likely to be a solid receiving threat this season (particularly in the red zone) than he was the past two seasons, when he was counted on much more as a quality blocker in the Seahawks’ power-packed ground game.
Robert Griffin III, QB / Washington Redskins
Just imagine if RG3’s gruesome torn ACL in the playoff loss to the Seahawks occurred during most fantasy leagues’ playoffs. How can you not avoid that nightmarish vision of him going down in that game every time you seriously consider making Griffin your hopeful fantasy answer under center, especially since it was his second torn ACL in four years? By all accounts, Griffin is making steady progress in his recovery, with the Shanahan Boys at the same time exercising caution to the third degree. But in the not-so-proud tradition of other running QBs (Michael Vick, Cam Newton in his second season) who have run into their share of potholes on the fantasy landscape, Griffin could be facing an uphill battle in his return to action anywhere near the spectacular level he displayed last season, both rushing (815 yards, seven TDs) and throwing (20-5 TD-interception ratio).
Ben Roethlisberger, QB / Pittsburgh Steelers
Roethlisberger has been a known fantasy commodity for a number of years. Yet, where are his usual partners in crime? WR Mike Wallace took his talents to South Beach. TE Heath Miller is coming off his best NFL season, but also a late-December ACL tear. WRs Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are dynamic players, but both of them carry durability concerns. After an occasionally tumultuous first season partnering with coordinator Todd Haley, whose offense he described as “dink and dunk” (7.3 yards per pass attempt), Roethlisberger’s opportunities to drive the ball downfield could decrease further. The drafting of RB Le’Veon Bell clearly is in line with Haley’s desire to pound the football, a continued departure from Roethlisberger’s aerial acrobatics under former coordinator Bruce Arians. Of course, there is also Big Ben’s well-documented injury track record: He has started 16 games just once in nine seasons. In arguably the deepest QB class in fantasy football history, Big Ben’s days as a productive fantasy starter could be numbered.
Frank Gore, RB / San Francisco 49ers
Can you say “thirtysomething?” Gore, the Niners’ ultrareliable career rushing leader, turned 30 on May 14 — a number that can’t help but cause concern in fantasyland, considering the dearth of really successful running backs 30 years or older on the NFL scene these days. A strong case can be made that Gore is actually getting better with age. In addition to rushing for 1,214 yards last season (his highest total since 2006) and averaging 4.7 yards per carry (his best average since 2009), Gore had two 100-yard efforts, gaining 319 yards and averaging 5.1 per carry in three playoff games. He also benefited considerably from the presence of Colin Kaepernick under center, as was the case in the Niners’ playoff win over the Falcons, when Gore burrowed up the gut to the tune of 90 yards rushing and a pair of TDs while Atlanta’s defense was concentrating on limiting Kapernick and keeping him from escaping to the perimeter (only 21 rushing yards). But the same thing goes for fellow Niners RBs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, both of whom could end up stealing much of Gore’s thunder with their younger legs and innate big-play skills.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis RB / Cincinnati Bengals
It’s not like Green-Ellis was bad in his first year in orange and black — he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, including six visits to paydirt. But the Bengals’ clear offseason direction of adding more explosive and versatile weapons to maximize QB Andy Dalton’s skills doesn’t exactly mesh with a one-dimensional power back like the “Law Firm.” Jack-of-all-trades rookie RB Giovani Bernard is likely to get plenty of opportunities, especially in the passing game, to make plays with the ball in his hands. And although Green-Ellis is the natural back for goal-line carries, it should be noted that Cincinnati has a number of enticing red-zone targets in its pass-catching stable, including All-Pro WR A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu, who gave the Bengals an immediate red-zone boost once he was inserted in the starting lineup as a rookie. Also worth noting: Green-Ellis averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and one TD in five games against AFC North opponents.
Mike Wallace, WR / Miami Dolphins
Wallace’s body language indicated he was seldom interested in 2012, a rare instance of a player failing to deliver in a contract season. Thus, we have serious trepidation about the elite vertical weapon’s fantasy outlook for ’13, now that he is the richest receiver in NFL history. We’re not predicting Wallace will no longer have the fire after getting paid, but it is at least worth considering. This much we know: Ryan Tannehill is a talented, ascending QB, but he is currently nowhere near as polished as Ben Roethlisberger, the man — other than Wallace — most responsible for the receiver’s development. That development, by the way, has been slow outside of running deep routes. Although perhaps no NFL player can threaten vertically like Wallace, he is essentially a nonfactor elsewhere on the field. Throw in inconsistent hands and effort, plus an adjustment period with his new club, and we will gladly let others overdraft Wallace while we delve into an especially deep fantasy WR class.
Rob Gronkowski, TE / New England Patriots
Just like RG3, Gronkowski has injury issues that simply can’t be ignored — a severe forearm injury that first cropped up in Week 11 last season and has ended up requiring multiple procedures, with the risk of infection ever-present. In addition, there were reports at presstime that Gronkowski could also be facing back surgery. You can’t be blamed for still seriously considering the prodigious tight end (he’s averaged 12.7 TDs each of his three seasons teaming up with Tom Brady) as a core fantasy draft pick this season. But both on and off the field — where his penchant for living life to the fullest might not be conducive to a 100 percent recovery from what’s currently ailing him — “Gronk” quite simply scares us to death.
Kyle Rudolph, TE / Minnesota Vikings
Rudolph’s propensity for finding the endzone in 2012 (nine TDs) certainly increased his fantasy stock this offseason, but his troubling habit of disappearing for stretches (six games with two or fewer catches) made him a regular source of frustration for owners, too. At just 23 and entering his third NFL season, the athletic Rudolph has a bright future. But for fantasy purposes in ’13, his outlook could be murky. Minnesota made a splash in both the draft and free agency, acquiring veteran WR Greg Jennings and rookie chess piece Cordarrelle Patterson, respectively, to give QB Christian Ponder more weapons. Additionally, the Vikings are counting on a bounce-back season from TE John Carlson, who was dismal in 2012 but averaged more than 45 catches and four TDs in his first three seasons. Ponder targeted Rudolph with great frequency last season, at least in part because of the Vikings’ woeful WR corps. With badly needed reinforcements now on board, however, Rudolph is a prime candidate for regression.