By Rahul Lal
The advent of NFL training camps is almost upon us as rookies begin to report at the end of this week. With the return of football comes the return of our favorite form of legal sports betting, fantasy football. As you scour the internet for the latest news and rankings getting ready for your league’s draft, we’ll be providing you lists of the top fantasy prospects by position for this season. Sleepers are almost as important to a winning team as your top overall pick, here’s a list of our top sleepers.
1) Matt Jones, RB, Washington Redskins
Matt Jones started off the season being one of the hottest commodities on the waiver wire. While he had a solid season, he was consistently inconsistent. With the departure of Alfred Morris to the Dallas Cowboys, Jones won’t have much competition when it comes to his carries. Chris Thompson will be a threat on passing downs and while the Redskins project to be a pass-heavy team, high-scoring teams like the Redskins will always produce a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns. The most encouraging part about Jones’ outlook this year is that he should handle upwards of 50 red zone touches, which would have put him in the company of Devonta Freeman, Doug Martin and DeAngelo Williams last year as the only running backs with that many red zone carries.
2) Dion Lewis, RB, New England Patriots
Lewis had his fair share of injuries last year so it’s understandable to be cautious in drafting him but you can’t deny two things: production and opportunity. Last year, Lewis was a dual-threat running back who was often even more dangerous in New England’s passing attack than their rushing attack. Lewis only had one game with less than three receptions out of the backfield. The second factor is that the Patriots will be without Deflategate Tom for the first four games. This projects to provide a healthy dose of carries for Lewis in the early part of the season and an obvious boost in receptions when Brady does return from Roger Goodell’s dungeon. Expect Lewis to be available toward the back end of fantasy drafts but provide RB2 numbers.
3) Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
I’m all in on the Derek Carr train. The former second round pick made a huge step last season towards stardom and with another year of experience is ready to take this Raiders team to a level of competitiveness they haven’t seen in years. Carr showed a great relationship with his top receivers Amari Cooper and a revitalized Michael Crabtree last season but showed a knack for reading coverage and hitting the open target. Carr got to see the start of rookie Clive Walford’s development last season and made good use of his legs when he was pressured. Jack Del Rio will put out a pass-heavy offense this season and that means a lot of opportunities for Carr to turn into a legitimate QB1.
4) DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
Last year, Parker was held out for a large portion of the season with a foot injury. Heading into 2016, look for Parker to give us a taste of what we saw in the last few games of the season, which came with three touchdowns in the final five games. Playing alongside Jarvis Landry can only help Parker when it comes to targets as he will be an open target for Ryan Tannehill. Don’t forget that Parker is a physical specimen at 6-foot-3, 218-pounds sporting a 4.4 40 time. Parker will be a top 20 fantasy wide receiver.
5) Torrey Smith, WR, San Francisco 49ers
People often forget that, while frustrating, Torrey Smith has been a solid fantasy option for a number of years. In most mock drafts, Smith is the forgotten man for many reasons: new system, quarterback controversy, lack of consistency – take your pick. While those are all fair concerns, don’t forget that Smith is only 27 and is still one of the top touchdown threats in the NFL. Not sold? Think about frequently targeted receivers in Chip Kelly’s system: DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin each set career highs in both targets and yards and tied their highest touchdown totals. Still not sold? Who else will they throw to in San Francisco? Jerome Simpson?
6) Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
Well, someone has to continue to step up for the massive loss of Calvin Johnson. While no single player can actually fill his shoes on the roster, Eric Ebron will see a huge bump in targets and receptions, especially the ones in the red zone. While newcomer Marvin Jones will be a good addition to Golden Tate’s steady hands, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound tight end will be a trusted target for Matthew Stafford, who frequently threw the ball high and wide for Johnson in years past. By no means would it surprise me to see Ebron reach around eight targets a game including multiple red zone targets, so get ready for a breakout year.
7) Jeremy Langford, RB, Chicago Bears
Jeremy Langford was something of a revelation last season as he found a way to make the Bears part ways with Matt Forte. Langford will now be expected to carry a large load in Chicago and trust me, they wouldn’t let a guy like Forte walk if they didn’t believe Langford was ready. While Ka’Deem Carey and Jacquizz Rodgers are solid backs, Langford is a lite version of another former Michigan State back in Le’Veon Bell. While the Bears’ receivers health is often a question mark, if Langford can stay healthy, he’ll have about as much opportunity as Forte did to contribute in both the running game and the passing game.
8) Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins
Yes, I saw that the Dolphins signed Arian Foster. No, it doesn’t really shake up as much as you think. While Foster has had a great career, he was unsigned until mid-July for a reason. Ajayi was slated to come into camp as the starter and should remain there as he is the most talented back in Miami. Ajayi should have no problem beating the oft-injured Foster for carries and don’t look now but the Dolphins have a pretty dangerous offense in the making this season. Expect Ajayi to get a good amount of carries and strike a good balance by hauling in some solid targets in the backfield.
9) Clive Walford, TE, Oakland Raiders
He’s 6-foot-4, 250-pounds and sneaky quick. He can jump, has good hands and developed into a trusted target for Derek Carr as the season progressed, including two games in the final four where he received seven targets. As stated above, Carr loves to spread the ball and the offense looks to be even more pass-heavy this year, so expect Walford to step us as he begins the year as the starter and is part of the ever-growing youth movement in Oakland.
10) Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Tennessee Titans
I hope you’re sensing a pattern here: young guy with injury last year, physical specimen, showed flashes last year and more opportunity coming this year. Green-Beckham checks off each one of these categories and showed a growing chemistry with Marcus Mariota as the season progressed last year. Green-Beckham dropped to the second round last year and is one of the most built players in the NFL at 6-foot-5 with long arms and a serious vertical. Given a taste of what he can do with some opportunity, Green-Beckham delivered a couple 100-plus yard games in the team’s last few games as the Titans began letting him loose after limiting him most of the season. If he can show some consistency, look for Green-Beckham to develop into the player we all expected to see last year.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.