For the football starved fan, it can be tempting to view the early preseason as an oasis that is reached after months of wading through the dry desert that is life without football. Then you watch a couple drives, maybe even a couple plays and realize this really isn’t it.
Just look at the Green Bay Packers win over the Cleveland Browns last Friday. A 17-11 nailbiter that saw both teams combine for three safeties, an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers offense that totaled 169 net yards passing and an ugly showing from Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III who went four-for-eight for 67 yards and an interception.
No, just no. You can’t put preseason football in the same class as the football that we will be privileged to enjoy in just over three weeks. Unless you are a diehard fantasy football junkie and want to put on the scouting glasses for some deep sleepers that could stun people this season.
Though preseason success is very rarely indicative of regular season success, sometimes players who show “flashes of greatness” in these meaningless games will go on to have great careers. As an unknown rookie free agent, Victor Cruz had a game for the ages in August 2010 where he scored three touchdowns against the New York Jets. Just one year later, he was Salsa-dancing his way in the end zone for a season with nine touchdowns and 1,536 receiving yards.
The following players are all categorized as deep sleepers, meaning that they likely will go late in drafts for most standard formats or might even fail to be drafted at all. Rather, these are names to watch and see if injuries or ineffective starters can push these players into the limelight.
Michael Thomas, NO, WR.
We all know that Drew Brees likes to throw a ton and that Brandin Cooks is his top target. After that, we don’t know very much, due to the New Orleans Saints having so many new faces on offense. Willie Snead had some nice games last year so he could very likely start alongside Cooks. And Colby Fleener could definitely have a career year due to the vital importance of the tight end in Sean Payton’s offense.
But maybe Cooks doesn’t have to be the only fantasy stud receiver down in New Orleans. Second-round rookie Michael Thomas caught four passes for 67 yards in the Saints’ preseason opener against the New England Patriots. He’s currently behind both Snead and Brandon Coleman on the Saints’ receiver depth chart. Still, Brees has a habit of making no-name receivers break out every year and with trusty Marques Colston finally gone, it’s easy to like Thomas’s chances of becoming one of Brees’ favorites.
Tyler Gaffney, NE, RB.
This is one to take with a grain of salt. Coach Bill Bellichick doesn’t always seem to operate with any sort of rhyme or reason when it comes to running backs. Just ask anyone who grabbed Jonas Gray on the waiver wire after his breakout performance against the Indianapolis Colts in 2014.
Tyler Gaffney put up a nice preseason debut against the Saints, finishing with 64 yards and a touchdown. A sixth-round draft pick from 2014, he’s kind of on his last legs. Even with LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis looking like the top backs on the New England Patriots’ depth chart, there’s still room for a newcomer to crash the party. With Lewis still on the physically unable to perform list, the time is now to see if Gaffney can make the roster and vie for a breakout game during Tom Brady’s four-game suspension.
Terrence West, BAL, RB.
Justin Forsett is the starting Baltimore Ravens’ running back right now. But just like every other running back over 30 years old who is not named Frank Gore, there are serious questions about whether he can be an every-down back for the Ravens this season. With Forsett sitting out the Ravens’ preseason opener, both rookie Kenneth Dixon and former Cleveland Brown Terrence West made cases that they could replace Forsett as the top option in the backfield.
West is one name to watch. He’s gone from being buried on the depth chart back in May to being a running back who is getting rave reviews during training camp. West ran nine times for 25 yards and two touchdowns in the Ravens’ preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers. Between that performance and his training camp work so far, he is pressuring the Ravens to consider keeping four running backs this season.
Mike Davis, SF, RB.
Conventional wisdom has the San Francisco 49ers as a top contender to finish with the worst record in the NFL this season. As such, many fantasy owners are tempted to completely avoid the team. Yet even should this team be a trainwreck, there could still be some fantasy gold to be mined from the 49ers and Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense.
Look no further than the running game. Last year, Carlos Hyde had a monster Week 1 performance before injuries rendered him ineffective for several weeks and then sidelined him for good in December. If the 49ers can stay in some close games this year, he could be in for some big performances.
But Hyde is not a deep sleeper since he will most certainly be drafted as the 49ers clear-cut No. 1 running back. The deep sleeper to watch for is second-year player Mike Davis. Davis recorded 72 yards on just five attempts last Sunday, including a nice 44-yard run in the first quarter. Davis has shown some good speed this preseason and he’s also a decent pass blocker, so he may yet find a role in the 49ers offense.
Braxton Miller, HOU, WR.
The quarterback-turned-receiver has to be one of the most intriguing rookies in this year’s class. Brock Osweiler, despite a shaky preseason performance in Week 1, has the Houston Texans’ quarterback starting job on lock. This means Braxton Miller will likely have to catch on the team as a receiver or return specialist.
The good news for Miller is that after superstar DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans don’t have a lot of depth at wide receiver. Veteran Cecil Shorts and second-year player Jaelen Strong look to be strong candidates to contribute in the passing game. Miller helped his cause on Sunday by catching four catches for 34 yards. Even if he doesn’t make at impact at receiver early this year, he’s a name to watch due to just how dangerous he could be as an offensive weapon.