Each year in fantasy, an unknown and/or surprising name pops up and puts up big numbers. Last year had Philip Lindsay and (to an extent) Patrick Mahomes as the guys who were not highly thought of to begin the year in regards to fantasy production, but quickly established themselves as two of the most prolific players at their respective positions. Smart fantasy managers jump on these guys while they linger in free agency, but the smarter ones seek them out before their breakout begins.
This is my attempt at helping you, the reader, become one of the smarter ones. Here are five fantasy sleeper picks that might end up being the difference between making a championship run and being forced to do something horrendous because you came in last.
Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles traded a 2020 sixth-round pick to Chicago for Jordan Howard back in March, and it seemed apparent they planned to use him as their Jay Ajayi replacement. But Sanders has been impressing the team and those who have been watching in his first NFL training camp after going in the second round of this year’s draft. He seems primed to start stealing touches from Howard sooner rather than later.
The former Penn State tailback finished his final season in college with 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns, so he can tote the rock. Both his fantasy and real-life potential hinge on if he can make an impact in the passing game, but he may end up as the No. 1 back by midseason. In an offense as prolific as the one Doug Pederson has put together, that’s a productive fantasy option in the making.
Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots
For all of his postseason heroics, Edelman has never put up particularly impressive stats, and his status as a low-end flex option in fantasy has not changed as he worked his way up the ladder in New England. That will change this year. Edelman is the only receiver Tom Brady has complete trust in right now, and Brady will get him the ball on a regular basis.
The reigning Super Bowl MVP will have a lot of value in PPR leagues, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him put up multiple games with double-digit receptions next year. The Patriots are notoriously unreliable when it comes to fantasy, but with no Rob Gronkowski, Edelman will be the No. 1 option. It’ll be reflected in his fantasy output.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Oakland Raiders
Similar to Sanders, Renfrow has been impressing his coaches and teammates at camp. While (as always) those kind of reports should be taken with a grain of salt, Renfrow’s value recently went up because of his teammate who goes by the moniker of Mr. Big Chest. Antonio Brown’s bizarre frostbitten feet situation may result in him missing regular season time, and it would be Renfrow’s time to shine.
He was productive during his time at Clemson, and his ability to create separation close to the line of scrimmage will translate to the pro game. Similar to Edelman, it’s tough to see Renfrow putting up big numbers on a consistent basis, but as far as PPR goes, he’ll be quite valuable.
Kalen Ballage, RB, Miami Dolphins
Ballage was completely out of everyone’s purview until people started noticing that Brian Flores was splitting carries between him and Kenyan Drake. While Drake is still the presumptive starter, Ballage will see some action, and has the potential to get most of the touches down in Miami.
They’re still high on Drake, but are likely giving Ballage first-team reps because of Drake’s injury history; he’s been healthy enough over the last few years, but was riddled with one ailment or another throughout college, and toughed through a shoulder injury in the back half of 2018. Ballage will be the next man up if Drake goes down, and seems to be the 1B to his 1A heading into the year. His value will skyrocket should Drake miss time, but for the time being, he’s a solid flex option with a decent ceiling.
James Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
For the first time since 2012, the Steelers will trot out an offensive unit that does not include Antonio Brown. JuJu Smith-Schuster will take the mantle of the No. 1 option for Ben Roethlisberger, which leaves an opening at the No. 2 spot. From all accounts, it’s Washington’s job to lose, and while he won’t be as good of a sidekick Smith-Schuster was to Brown, the offense is good enough that it won’t matter.
Defenses will key in on Smith-Schuster and should give Washington plenty of one-on-one opportunities. He showed flashes during his rookie season, but was generally inconsistent. If he figures it out in training camp, he’ll end up with plenty more targets and opportunities, making him a worthwhile sleeper to take a swing on late in your draft.