Have you started obsessing over your first-round pick yet? Will it be Bell or Brown? Jordy or Jordan? A.J. or Ajayi?
That’s fine, but that decision pales in comparison to the handful of choices you’ll make several rounds later. After all, as happy as you may be to land Melvin Gordon, Michael Thomas or Matt Ryan now, they won’t be the bargains they were last year for the savvy players that stole them in the middle rounds (or later) and rode them into the postseason.
Fantasy veterans know the secret to great drafting is not simply choosing the best players available, but doing so no earlier than necessary. You may share my belief that Jamison Crowder is on the verge of a breakout season, but you’re hurting yourself – and, worse yet, begging for ridicule from your opponents – if you pull the trigger too early.
So who are this year’s hidden gems … the players poised to significantly out-perform their average draft positions? Let’s take a look at my Sleeper Picks of 2017, broken down by position.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans: Honestly, I don’t have a true QB sleeper this year. I won’t jump on the Carson Wentz bandwagon, because he’s working with a whole new receiving corps and his 16:14 TD-to-INT ratio in 2016 was pathetic. But if anyone is positioned to significantly outperform his average draft position, it’s Watson. Like Dak Prescott, Watson has the “it” factor, and he can compensate for any weaknesses in his passing game by scoring regularly as a rusher.
C.J. Anderson, RB, Broncos: Denver will be a run-centric offense, and Anderson will be its centerpiece* (*yes, there’s always that injury bug thing). Jamaal Charles is literally on his last legs and Devontae Booker is still nursing a wrist injury. Anderson’s draft position has been sliding, increasing his value every step of the way.
Danny Woodhead, RB, Ravens: In PPR leagues, Woodhead very easily could finish the season as the most valuable back in Baltimore, as he was in San Diego two short years ago. Woodhead will be a perfect outlet option for Joe Flacco and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him seizing a large share of the rushing workload as well.
Frank Gore, RB, Colts: When will we learn? Gore is as unexciting as rushers get, but he’s still locked in as the starter on a good offense and his biggest competition is his age. He’s coming off yet another 1,000-yard season, and he hasn’t missed a game since 2010! Selecting Gore may elicit yawns, but he’ll be a reliable RB3.
Jamison Crowder, WR, Redskins: With the departure of both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Crowder is Kirk Cousins’ most familiar, and reliable, target left. I named him “Most Likely to Succeed” in my end-of-season awards in January, and the addition of Terrelle Pryor doesn’t change that. Crowder should be a high-frequency receiver.
Tyrell Williams, WR, Chargers: The clock is already ticking on Keenan Allen’s next injury, rookie Mike Williams may not hit the field until October and Travis Benjamin is little more than a deep-ball threat. That leaves all kinds of room for Williams to reprise his 1,000-yard campaign of 2016. He’s a steal in the 100-pick range.
Cole Beasley, WR, Cowboys: Easily overlooked among Dallas’ higher-profile players, Beasley is the secret sauce that keeps the chains moving. Prescott loves him and opposing defenses underestimate him, just like your fantasy competitors. He may not even be drafted in some leagues, so grab him late and enjoy.
Taylor Gabriel, WR, Falcons: Nobody has squandered the freedom that comes with playing opposite a star more than Mohamed Sanu. Gabriel, by contrast, managed to prosper in Julio Jones’ shadow in his first season in Atlanta. Look for him to take another step forward as a speedy, sure-handed option for Matt Ryan.
Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings: You won’t ever see me gush over the Vikings’ passing offense, but Thielen managed to make chicken salad out of chicken scratch last season. Both he and Stefon Diggs were inconsistent, thanks in large part to their QB issues, but Diggs is being drafted several rounds earlier than his counterpart. Thielen represents much better value.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals: Three words to remember while watching the future Hall of Famer slide in your draft: Never underestimate Fitz.
Austin Hooper, TE, Falcons: Every fantasy team should have a stake in the Atlanta passing game, and Hooper is a value option. He showed flashes as a rookie, and now that Jacob Tamme has moved on, Hooper has the starting role all to himself.
Next week: My oft-imitated, never replicated, magically delicious Perfect Draft.
Ladd Biro is a two-time winner and five-time finalist of the Football Writer of the Year Award by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Follow all his advice daily at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com), on Facebook and via Twitter (@ladd_biro).