July 21, 2024

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Fantasy Football Draft Prep: Antonio Gibson, Isaiah McKenzie, Kenyan Drake emerging as sleepers

Fantasy Football Draft Prep: Antonio Gibson, Isaiah McKenzie, Kenyan Drake emerging as sleepers

Sleepers are very much an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing for me in Fantasy Football. You can come up with a specific definition – only players drafted outside of a certain ADP range, or only players who have never finished higher than a certain spot in the rankings – but there’s no need to box yourself in. 

For instance, Antonio Gibson was RB8 last season, but I still think he qualifies as a sleeper. It seems like he’s going to have a heavy role early in the season at least, given Brian Robinson’s unfortunate expected absence, but even when Robinson was expected to handle the early-down stuff, I liked Gibson as a sleeper given how much his price was falling. 

I get the sense that Washington really did want to use Gibson in more of the J.D. McKissic role this season. They might have soured on him as a more traditional between-the-tackles back, but getting him more involved in situations where he could use his athleticism in space might not have been a bad thing for his Fantasy value – this is an offense that targets the running backs quite a bit, after all.

Gibson fell to 76th overall in the 14-team PPR draft the FFT crew did with listeners Monday, and I’m perfectly fine waiting on my RB2 if I can get Gibson in the sixth or seventh round at this point. 

I’ll count that as a sleeper, though less so than three days ago, maybe. But he’s someone I think is being overlooked just a bit too much for his upside. He’ll definitely be a solid RB early in the season and just might have top-12 upside if he really does carve out more of a passing game role.

Ultimately, that’s all this process of looking for sleepers is about – looking for guys who will help you win games. And that’s what we’re looking for in today’s newsletter: One last round of sleeper picks to consider for your drafts. Tomorrow, we’ll get you some breakout picks, and on Friday, we’ll be looking for busts to avoid. I have some sleeper picks from the rest of the FFT team today as well, as well as the news you need to know about from cut day around the NFL. 

Before we get to that, one last reminder that our Fantasy Football Today Draft-A-Thon is tonight, Aug. 31, at 6 p.m. on CBS Sports HQ and then our FFT YouTube channel at 7:30. We’ll be live until after midnight with a ton of awesome guests — you can learn more about that here. Make sure you check out our eBay page as we continue to raise money for our friends at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, including an opportunity to get a one-on-one Zoom call with me to go over your prep before you draft. Don’t miss it. 

One last round of sleepers

On Tuesday’s episode of Fantasy Football Today on CBS Sports HQ, Jamey Eisenberg, Heath Cummings, and Dave Richard talked about some of their favorite sleepers for the 2022 season, so here are some of their picks before we get to mine. We also talked about some of these players on the FFT Podcast:

Jamey’s Sleepers

Heath’s Sleepers

Dave’s Sleepers

No real disagreements from me – there’s even some overlap from my picks. I’ve written about sleepers a lot over the course of the offseason, maybe more than any other topic – what are “late-round targets” but sleepers by another name, right? 

Early season sleepers

But, of course, not all sleepers are created equal. Some are simply being overlooked for their chances to be useful Fantasy options because they don’t have much upside – and those can be useful players to have on your roster when injuries strike or your favorite flier isn’t playing every-down snaps early on. 

I have a few of those for you here, and just note, these might end up being the first players you cut from your team. Because, again, there probably isn’t a ton of upside here – these guys are here to help you plug a hole in your lineup early on, but if they don’t hit in Weeks 1 or 2, feel free to let them go in search of higher-upside options. 

  • Marcus Mariota – Mariota is a plus athlete at the QB position who has better numbers than you think as a passer, which makes him a very interesting streaming option. It’s unlikely he’s a must-start guy, but his rushing ability should give him both a solid floor and ceiling, especially if Drake London is healthy and emerges as a productive complement to Kyle Pitts right away. 
  • Kenyan Drake – Drake signed with the Ravens Tuesday, and while it’s not guaranteed he’ll be the starter, I’m expecting him to have a solid role, especially if J.K. Dobbins isn’t ready to go for Week 1, as looks increasingly likely. Drake could have value for the first month or so of the season, too, with Gus Edwards out for at least the first four games after being placed on the PUP list. The Ravens will use multiple backs even when Dobbins is at full strength, and he might not be there for a while. 
  • Ameer Abdullah – Another guy I expect to have more utility early in the season than as a long-term option, Abdullah seems locked in as the passing downs back in Josh McDaniels’ offense, which has historically been a very good role to be in. James White had some very good seasons in that role, and I’m snatching up Abdullah with one of my last picks anywhere I’ve got someone who is iffy for the early season like Dobbins or Cam Akers. 
  • Nico Collins – Unlike Drake or Abdullah, I’m not drafting Collins with the expectation I’ll just slot him in my lineup early on and then discard him. He’s here because while I like the talent and role, I definitely need to see production early on. He’s a talented player with a clear path to a bunch of targets in Houston if he can earn them; if he’s playing a full allotment of snaps in Weeks 1 and 2 and isn’t earning many targets, he’ll be easy enough to cut, but I’ll give him that opportunity to prove himself. 
  • Julio Jones – Jones enters the season with a lot of ambiguity about his role. Is he even ahead of Russell Gage in the receiving hierarchy? Is he a situational player? When healthy, he’s still been a very good player the past two seasons, but he’s played just 19 of 33 games, and finished fewer than that. But … it’s Julio Jones. Catching passes from Tom Brady. If he’s a bit player in Week 1, I’ll cut him – Chris Godwin’s role is only going to grow as the season goes on – but I want a chance to be there in case something special happens. 
  • David Njoku – Njoku finally stayed healthy and had a very efficient season in 2021, averaging 9.0 yards per target in what was a pretty dysfunctional offense overall. I think he has a chance to be more than a touchdown-or-bust tight end, but I’ll need to see route participation in the 80% range in the early weeks to keep the faith. If I draft him, I’m treating him like a streamer, but he’s one of the most talented ones out there to start off with. 

High-upside sleepers

And then there are the more classic sleepers, your late-round fliers who you go into the season knowing you might need to be a bit more patient with. Some of these guys might have a Week 1 role and surprise you, but all of them probably deserve more than just one or two weeks before you cast them off in search of something else. The payoff could be huge. 

  • Malik Willis – This is more for your 2QB leagues, but Willis has the right combination of skills to be a potential Fantasy star if he gets an opportunity. He showed that with his 50-yard run in the preseason finale, and he has a massive arm to go with the plus athleticism. It just feels like he could be the next Jalen Hurts. 
  • Zamir White – I’m leaving a lot of my drafts with either Abdullah or White, depending on what my team’s outlook is. If I feel good about my starters and I’m just shooting for upside, White is the late-round pick to go with, because he could just be one Josh Jacobs injury away from being the lead back in a very good offense – and it’s at least possible the Raiders just opt to hand things over to White at some point if Jacobs isn’t getting the job done. 
  • Jordan Mason – The 49ers have pulled productive running backs out of the late-round and undrafted player pool, so here’s a name to keep in mind. Mason had a good camp and looked good in the preseason, and he gives the 49ers a size and physicality that they haven’t had but have reportedly been looking for. That he made the active roster was a surprise — that he stayed on the active roster and last year’s third-round pick Trey Sermon was waived Tuesday is seemingly a sign that he might actually have a path to playing time. 
  • Dontrell Hilliard – Derrick Henry is a 28-year-old running back who has taken on a massive workload the past few years and needed foot surgery last season, so there’s some risk of missed time here. By all accounts, Hilliard is the backup here and he showed some intriguing skills last season, averaging 6.3 yards per carry with 19 catches from Week 11 on. He probably won’t play much if Henry is healthy, but don’t drop him just because of that – there’s real upside here if Henry misses time. 
  • Isaiah McKenzie – I actually think I’m probably going to end up ranking McKenzie close to the top 40, if not inside, for Week 1, so you might just be able to use him right away. He’s the primary slot receiver for the Bills and even saw some time in two-wide sets in preseason. He’s expected to fill the Cole Beasley role, and Beasley had 82 catches each of the past two seasons despite missing a game in each. McKenzie should be more explosive, too. 
  • Christian Watson – Watson ultimately wasn’t able to play in the preseason as he recovered from knee surgery, so he didn’t have a chance to build up any hype. It’s fair to assume he’ll start out the season lower on the depth chart, but he’s an elite athlete who put up big numbers in college and could come on strong once he forces his way onto the field. 
  • Curtis Samuel – Samuel is, by all accounts, finally healthy after a groin injury wrecked his first season in Washington, and I’m excited to see what he can do now that he’s reunited with Ron Rivera. When Samuel played with Rivera in 2019, he had the closest thing to a Deebo Samuel profile I can remember, ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in air yards while rushing for 130 yards on 19 carries. With Robinson likely out to open the season, Samuel could be part of the Commanders backfield situation while serving as the primary slot option in three-wide sets. 
  • Jameson Williams – Williams might’ve been the most talented offensive skill player in the draft and he was the No. 12 pick despite the Lions knowing he’d be out to start his rookie season. The nice thing is, you should be able to slot Williams into your IR slot to start the season, so you’ll basically get a free waiver pickup before Week 1. He could be huge in the second half when he gets healthy. 
  • Brevin Jordan – Jordan played a lot of snaps with the starters in the preseason, and he figures to split time with Pharaoh Brown. I’m hoping Jordan dominates the passing downs, because he’s a big, athletic target who could find himself as the No. 3 option in this passing game. I’m not grabbing him to start, and even in most 12-team leagues, he’s more of a wait-and-see guy, but if he’s running a lot of routes in Week 1, he has a chance to be a breakout. 

Injuries, news and notes

The Ravens are expected to sign Kenyan Drake after bringing him in for a workout Tuesday, and as I wrote on CBSSports.com, that seems to be an indication that J.K. Dobbins’ chances of being ready to go for Week 1 aren’t great. It isn’t proof of anything, obviously, but Drake seemingly had interest from other teams, and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Dobbins’ status for Week 1 is “certainly in doubt.”

That isn’t terribly surprising. Dobbins hasn’t been cleared for contact as he continues to recover from a complicated torn ACL last summer. There’s still time for him to be cleared for Week 1, but it has seemed obvious all along that Dobbins wasn’t going to be ready for a full workload for the start of the season. He’s still worth drafting – not at his top-40 ADP in CBS Fantasy leagues, but in the sixth round, perhaps. But you need to know going in that September may be a wash for Dobbins as he works his way back to full strength. You’re drafting him to be a high-end RB2 later in the season, and he has that kind of upside if he can avoid setbacks. Just be patient. 

The Texans released Marlon Mack

Oh boy, the Dameon Pierce hype is about to get really out of control. Maybe the Texans really do view him as an every-down back, despite his limited workload in college. But I think the more likely explanation here is that Mack, coming off a ruptured Achilles two years ago, just isn’t an NFL-caliber running back anymore and wasn’t going to be much competition anyway. Not that Dare Ogunbowale and Royce Freeman likely will be, either, but I’m still expecting Rex Burkhead to see a significant share of the third-down work, which makes Pierce a two-down back in a bad offense – at least to start the season. There’s a path to being more than that, but Pierce is going to be at least a fifth-round pick in nearly all drafts, if not more, and I just can’t get excited about that price.

Michael Gallup is not on the PUP list 

That’s not exactly surprising, given comments from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the last few weeks. Gallup has said he won’t be ready for Week 1 as he recovers from a torn ACL, but this is a sign that he’ll at least be ready to go in the first four weeks, assuming he can avoid a setback. Gallup signed a big extension this offseason and has an opportunity to emerge as the No. 2 option in this passing game whenever he’s up to full speed – and the last time he had that kind of role he had 1,107 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games in 2019. That kind of production is on the table again. 

Jaylen Waddle still isn’t practicing

The Dolphins haven’t given many details about Waddle’s injury, but it is of a soft-tissue, lower-body nature, per Pro Football Network’s Adam Beasley. The injury has been downplayed consistently throughout camp, but we’re now about three weeks removed from the last time he practiced. There’s plenty of time for Waddle to be ready for Week 1, and we don’t have any reason to think that’s in doubt, but seeing as he’s playing in a new offense with a new No. 1 WR in Tyreek Hill, you’d rather see him getting these reps. There’s plenty of upside with Waddle even taking a step down in the hierarchy – I think he’ll get a lot more opportunity for big plays than he had in last year’s RPO-heavy offense, but he has to be on the field first. Waddle is a WR2 with some risk.