- Jim McCormick, Fantasy Sports
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Not to be confused with the dually sad and disturbing Barry Levinson movie from '96, sleepers are elemental to the fantasy football experience. Few things are more enjoyable in this hobby than seeing one of your sleepers bloom into a statistical star.
Shrewd late-round investments can define your team's potential and make up for the early round blunders, injuries and plain bad luck that most of us must endure in the course of the long season. Having a soundly researched list of "cheap" prospects heading into your draft protects your team from the attrition of football. As the months wear on and our rosters erode, team depth is truly challenged. In fantasy, as in real football, it's often not who your perceived "best" three players are but rather your three "worst" that determine your fate, as a fantasy roster come December looks little like the September version.
There seems to be a saturation point of sorts with offensive fantasy sleepers, when continual mentions of promising talents like Beanie Wells and Donald Brown grows tiring. The definitive buzz generated around them come draft night means they're no longer worthy fringe considerations, but popular mid-round selections. On the IDP side, however, somnolent safeties remain unspoiled along with lethargic linebackers.
Consider the players below valid value picks with the potential to provide a starter's production at a backup's price tag.
Madieu Williams, Vikings: After an injury-plagued first year in Minnesota, Williams enters the season with a criminally deflated fantasy price. While it's true that his glaring lack of durability, with just two 16-game campaigns in his first five seasons, is a major reason his value is so down, he does bear considerable upside. When healthy, "Mad Will" is a punishing enforcer on a productive and deep defense capable of tallying triple-digit tackles with a coveted blend of peripheral production.
Kenny Phillips, Giants: With a full season as a starter in the books and the trust of the staff going forward, Phillips is in an ideal situation to excel for those willing to take a flier on him. With the return of a healthy and improved defensive line and a retooled linebacker corps, Phillips will have rare freedom to take risks on the field and can be had at a discounted price.
Atari Bigby, Packers: "Atari 2600" was a top fantasy option in 2007 with a stellar statistical clip and an obviously awesome name. Last season was a different story, as injuries slowed him in the few games he did play and eventually sat him for the remainder of the season after just seven appearances. Healthy heading into the new season with a premier role in Dom Capers' new scheme that will likely see him playing closer to the box and involved in blitzing, thus netting more tackles and sacks, Bigby should re-emerge as a valued fantasy talent.
Jarrad Page, Chiefs: Much like fellow Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, Page is a punishing hitter who racked up eight total turnovers (including recovered fumbles) in a quietly awesome fantasy season. Make note of the trend that safeties from poor rush defense teams often litter the fantasy rankings. Playing behind colander-like defensive lines makes for valuable defensive backs, particularly safeties like Page.
Michael Griffin, Titans: This rangy, ball-hawking safety out of Texas emerged as a valid fantasy star in his second season. His seven interceptions were tied for second best in the league and his proven production against both the run and pass should see him post another strong campaign as part of arguably the best secondary in football. Griffin could see a marked jump in tackle numbers thanks to the loss of the imposing Albert Haynesworth in the middle.
Cliff Avril, Lions: The notable names may be on offense, but Avril is one of the Lions' most important young players. With a scintillating finish last season with four sacks and three forced fumbles in the final six contents, an improved front seven and a new, aggressive Gunther Cunningham-led defense, Avril could be the most enticing upside defensive lineman prospect this year.
Chris Long, Rams: Howie's boy has had his one grace year and now the expectations for peak production begin to materialize. If last season was a wash given the interim coach, lack of help on the line and depleted roster, then consider this Long's anticipated breakout campaign.
Jay Ratliff, Cowboys: A seventh-round gem out of Auburn, Ratliff emerged last season as a solid complimentary player to Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware. The salient element to extract from Ratliff's breakout season is the healthy tackle numbers he was able to post and the even spread of his sacks, proving that he can be of use over the course of a full season. Ratliff's value gets a boost if he's afforded both DE and DT eligibility since he's taken snaps from both spots in recent seasons.
Aaron Schobel, Bills: Now two years removed from his last trip to the Pro Bowl, Schobel must remain healthy and productive in order to keep his gig in the what have you done for me lately climate in the NFL. When he was at his best, Schobel consistently posted double-digit sacks with a stellar blend of tackles and forced fumbles. Hoping for a return to greatness might be a reach, but with talented rookie rusher Aaron Maybin in town, Schobel has legit help across the line for the first time in years.
Gaines Adams, Bucs: With a new staff and a completely overhauled defense, Adams is being asked to step up as the face of the franchise. While he's yet to prove consistent on the field, he has shown flashes of brilliance. In a division rife with talent at tailback and established passing games, it's time for Adams to earn his hefty contract.
James Laurinaitis, Rams: Tabbed as the starting middle 'backer for the Rams, the Ohio State import should excel from a fantasy perspective. Playing behind a weak interior defensive line and in front of a patchwork secondary should lead to a volume of tackle opportunities for the rookie, making him an ideal late sleeper pick to target.
Larry Foote, Lions: The crop of talented young linebackers in Pittsburgh pushed the veteran out but his fantasy value may actually see a bump as he moves to Detroit and takes the reigns manning the middle. Consider Paris Lenon's production last season as the Lions' middle man a benchmark, making Foote a compelling late-round value.
Lawrence Timmons, Steelers: The combination of the words Steelers and linebacker often make for fantasy goodness and when they're used to describe Timmons it's no exception. With the team moving from Larry to Lawrence, letting Foote leave so that Timmons could step in as a starter, fantasy owners should expect Timmons' numbers to swell with the increased snaps. Much like the prototypical 'backer in this Pittsburgh system, expect a number of huge games to go with a passable tackle rate from the young gunner.
Justin Durant, Jags: We're looking at the man in the middle, and his team is looking for him to change some plays. Forgive me, but that just had to be done. Durant is making the full-time switch to the middle for Jacksonville after ably playing on the outside last season. If you must know one thing about IDP leagues, it's that 4-3 middle linebackers are like feature tailbacks in that they are consistent lynchpins for your squad. Unlike a starting running back, you can net this starting middle 'backer with little risk and considerable rewards.
Andra Davis, Broncos: Davis is a former fantasy star who has seen his stock drop dramatically due to some decidedly down recent seasons in Cleveland. With a spot secured in Denver's tackle-friendly system and the freedom to pursue the ball from the inside of the Broncos' new 3-4 scheme, Davis should return to relevancy and to fantasy rosters.
Jim McCormick is an IDP analyst for ESPN.com Fantasy.
Jim McCormick helps fantasy owners who play with individual defensive player leagues by offering his best sleepers, like Michael Griffin.