12 deep sleepers who offer significant upside

Incredible top-end speed makes Taywan Taylor a constant home run threat for the Titans. Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports

Here's the truth about fantasy football: The game changes early and often, and it's not uncommon to find that your end-of-season roster -- even for a league champion -- is significantly different from the one you drafted.

With 10- and 12-team leagues drafting a mere 140 or 168 non-kicker-or-defense skill players (if not fewer, if you foolishly select a backup of either), many players of significant value are sure to slip through the cracks. This is why scouring the waiver wire on a fairly regular basis is so crucial to a fantasy football team's success.

As with any past season, 2017 provided as good an example of this as any: Javorius Allen, Alex Collins, Case Keenum, Jerick McKinnon and JuJu Smith-Schuster each provided fantasy teams a minimum of five definitely-start-worthy-in-all-leagues games apiece as well as a top-15 (quarterback or tight end) or top-25 (running back or wide receiver) final seasonal PPR fantasy point total.

These five players had another thing in common: Not a single one was drafted in even 1 percent of ESPN leagues, making them complete unknowns at the time of your drafts. And that's just addressing the completely-out-of-nowhere, as many others selected in fewer than 5 percent could claim the same or better.

This is why it's so important to, in addition to merely preparing for your draft as far as the roster-worthy pool is concerned, familiarize yourself with players who will fall beneath the cut. These "deep sleepers" -- 12 of them, selected here -- are important to know for a variety of different reasons:

  • If you play in a 16-team league, they can be targets for late-round dart throws.

  • Familiarizing yourself with their names prepares you for the moment they move into prominent roles with their teams, giving you that split-second edge to pick up the player before the rest of your league is prepared to.

  • If the best-case scenario occurs, they could develop into overnight fantasy stars, never again leaving your lineup, but you'd have been ready to make them top waiver targets or FAAB bids when the time came.

To be clear up front, these are deep sleepers, meaning that you are not going to find Mitchell Trubisky, Aaron Jones or Kenny Golladay on this list (much as I do like all three). Those are all much more publicized players being selected in more than 15 percent of ESPN leagues. This list takes the sleepers exercise a step deeper, introducing you to players barely being drafted in even 5 percent, though it does come with the price of a much greater likelihood of player failure (Rico Gathers, from the 2017 list, didn't play a single game due to concussion symptoms).

One note: I try not to populate this list too much with rookies, for whom there is a glut of available information. My picks tend to be the more experienced types for whom information -- at least current information -- is more lacking. It's all in the quest to educate you better on beneath-the-radar contributors.

Repeats: From that same 2017 list, Matt Breida, Mack Hollins and Chester Rogers fit, and it's not uncommon to find that players on this list eventually develop, but in a later season than the one in which they're profiled. If you wish to expand this year's pool by considering these three 2017 picks, you can learn more about them here.

Geronimo Allison, WR, Green Bay Packers: He'll begin the season the Packers' No. 3 wide receiver, not a bad thing to be for a team that went three-wide on 75 percent of its snaps in 2017, fourth-most in the league, and on 82 percent of its snaps in Aaron Rodgers' 39 games played from 2015-17. Allison has stepped up with productive fantasy numbers when given the chance, best illustrated by his 18.2 PPR-fantasy point Week 3 last season starting in place of an injured Randall Cobb, which included a crucial 72-yard catch in overtime that set up the winning field goal. The presence of 2018 draftees J'Mon Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling might give the impression that Allison's role on the team is dwindling, artificially driving down his draft stock, but his experience does provide him an advantage. The Packers have been known to squeeze big years out of outside receivers who didn't necessarily start the season as prominent pieces; see: James Jones' 2012.

Jake Butt, TE, Denver Broncos: A torn ACL suffered during the 2016 Orange Bowl cost him the entirety of his rookie season, but all indications throughout the offseason are that he's now fully healthy. Butt might not be a high-ceiling player, but he has good size and good hands and can make things happen after the catch. He should be capable of feasting upon more favorable matchups, and he's now got a quarterback who did look frequently to the tight end in the red zone in Minnesota in Keenum, whose 30 percent target rate (15 of 50) to tight ends was seventh-highest of 36 quarterbacks with at least 20 red zone attempts. Without much competition for the starting role in Denver, Butt could quickly emerge as a larger-league contributor.

Gerald Everett, TE, Los Angeles Rams: I was a big fan of his selection 44th overall in the 2017 NFL draft, and I still think he has a star-caliber season in his somewhat-near future. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Everett was drawing prospect comparisons to Jordan Reed, who also worked with Sean McVay during McVay's days as Washington's offensive coordinator, in large part thanks to Everett's wide catch radius and ability to make things happen after the catch. Everett's development during his sophomore season could play a larger part in the Rams' chances to repeat their 2017 success than you might think, yet he's rarely regarded as fantasy-relevant because of the team's depth at wide receiver.

Wayne Gallman, RB, New York Giants: I understand why the Giants signed Jonathan Stewart as a free agent early in the offseason, but after Saquon Barkley's selection at No. 2 overall in the draft, Stewart is a much less sensible roster fit. Now turn to Gallman: He showed more burst as a rusher, and much better receiving skills, than Stewart last season. Gallman, in fact, caught 19 passes combined from Weeks 14-16 and at least six in each, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his final four contests. He's probably a better fit to be Barkley's caddy right now, and that could prove to be a more important role than you think, considering the likelihood of one of the league's largest workloads for Barkley right away. I generally don't like handcuffing players, but in the deeper formats, Gallman could yet prove smart.

Corey Grant, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Among running backs with at least 30 touches last season, none topped Grant's 8.8 yards-per-touch average, nor did anyone among that group exceed his 4.7 yards after contact per carry. Small sample, yes, but the numbers illustrate Grant's outstanding speed, just as did his unofficial 40-yard times at his pro day (4.25-4.30, depending upon your source). Chris Ivory's departure to Buffalo cleared the way for Grant to potentially ascend into the next-in-line role behind Leonard Fournette, who has battled some ankle issues in the past and will be tasked with a hefty workload in 2018. Grant is better suited to handle the backup chores than T.J. Yeldon, a stronger situational, pass-catching back.

Ryan Grant, WR, Indianapolis Colts: I generally do not make repeat picks here, but given the chance, I'm not sure I'd re-pick Rogers among Colts wide receivers. The reason is Grant, a coach's favorite including during his Washington Redskins days who has his sights on the starting role across from T.Y. Hilton, a prospect that strengthened after rookie Deon Cain was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Grant isn't a high-ceiling player; his role is driving the pick more than anything: The Colts (appear to) have a healthy Andrew Luck back, which significantly boosts the passing game and provides a lot more high-leverage targets. Grant finished his 2017 with 14 catches for 232 yards in his final five games, emerging seemingly from nowhere after players like Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder disappointed, and he faces much weaker competition this season in Indianapolis. Granted, I also generally do not base these picks more on opportunity than skill set, but I'll make an exception here.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens: He's not going to start in Week 1, but is he really all that far off from starter status? Joe Flacco's arm strength is clearly waning -- his yards-per-attempt has declined in each of the past three seasons and he posted a career-worst 6.4 yard average depth of target in 2017 -- so an in-season change is far from unthinkable. Jackson is one of the speediest, most mobile quarterback prospects in the history of the draft, having averaged 108.7 yards and 1.3 touchdowns rushing per game during his three-year career at Louisville, and he's certain to see NFL snaps right away, if only to utilize those strengths. Question his accuracy or his ability to run an NFL offense -- and either is a more-than-legitimate question -- if you wish, but similar doubts were raised about Cam Newton in 2011 and Deshaun Watson in 2017. That's not to say Jackson is a perfect comp for either quarterback nor will he have the kind of rookie season either did, but if any of this year's freshman quarterbacks might have a chance, he's your man.

DeShone Kizer, QB, Packers: You read that right, the NFL's leader in turnovers (28, 22 of them on interceptions and six on fumbles) and a player who was subsequently traded to best-quarterback-in-football Rodgers' team made the list. Hey, it's not the best of years for pure quarterback sleepers -- true definition sleepers -- who aren't the obvious names from the rookie class, and I generally want two on the list. In Kizer's defense, we're all too quick to criticize poor-performing rookie quarterbacks; he did show glimmers of hope and he does still possess the same good size and cannon arm he had when he entered the league. He averaged 8.8 yard average depth of target and did have 43 completions of 20-plus yards as a rookie, both of which ranked top-13 in the league. Can Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff solve the Kizer puzzle? Perhaps, with my concern with this pick in particular that any fantasy value might come as a result of a trade elsewhere for a greater 2019 opportunity. Hey, Jimmy Garoppolo made last year's list and at this time a year ago, no one expected a contribution from him, either.

T.J. Logan, RB, Arizona Cardinals: Like Kizer, Logan is the kind of player who might need a fresh opportunity in a new organization in order to thrive, but I like the skill set and he is depth fodder behind a starting running back who appeared in only one game last season. Logan is incredibly speedy -- he had a best-among-running-backs-at-the-combine 4.37 40 time in 2017 -- which is why Arizona appears likely to utilize him primarily on kick returns, but it's not unthinkable that strong performance there could earn him some carries in time. Logan missed the entirety of his rookie season after dislocating his wrist in the Hall of Fame Game, but has received favorable health reports so far this offseason. Logan might not begin any higher than fourth on the depth chart, but he's almost assuredly going to make the team and has much more upside than the typical running back you'd find in that spot.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Carolina Panthers: A Week 10 ankle injury -- a broken bone, ligament damage and season-ending surgery after a defender rolled onto the ankle -- came at a most inopportune time for Samuel, but it also helped keep his name beneath the radar for fantasy as 2018 dawned. In the two games in which he played following the trade of Kelvin Benjamin, Samuel's usage spiked, as he played 87 of 134 offensive snaps (64.9 percent) and had a 20.3 percent target share (12 of 59), after he had scarcely been used in his first seven contests. Samuel might not see that level of usage initially after such a serious injury and the team's decision to spend a first-round pick on DJ Moore, but he's also not in direct competition with Moore, as more of a gadget player who can contribute some as a running back, which helps. Samuel's combine metrics were eye-popping, and without a clear No. 1 receiver on the roster, he'll have plenty of opportunity to contribute.

Taywan Taylor, WR, Tennessee Titans: Eric Decker's departure during the offseason opened up a healthy number of slot-receiver snaps in the Titans' offense, and that's where Taylor did his best work as a rookie, catching 10 of his 16 passes and playing 57 percent of his offensive snaps (136 of 238). A speedy albeit smallish receiver who changes speeds well, Taylor is an ideal fit for the role, which is why he got so much run during the offseason program. That he'll likely begin the season as the Titans' No. 3 wide receiver behind Corey Davis and Rishard Matthews, who combined missed seven games in 2017, only helps pad his opportunity. The Titans' offense should be much improved by Mike Vrabel's installation as head coach and Matt LaFleur's as offensive coordinator, and is one of the better ones from which to speculate on a depth receiver.

Chad Williams, WR, Arizona Cardinals: I've gone back and forth between him and Brice Butler for weeks now, but I'm settling on Williams because of his greater upside and ability to provide Larry Fitzgerald the occasional breather out of the slot, where he'd benefit from a larger slate of favorable matchups. Following an awful rookie year, Williams spent the offseason on improving his play and studying the playbook, and the Cardinals have provided hints that they still regard him an important part of their offense. There is plenty of opportunity to go around in the desert this season, and Williams, Butler and rookie Christian Kirk are in a battle for positioning that could have bigger fantasy implications than you think.