Every NFL season, a number of players seemingly come out of nowhere to far exceed expectations and majorly reward those who drafted them as sleepers in fantasy football.
Identifying potential sleepers is paramount in fantasy football because the stars typically perform similarly, which means it’s the guys who fill out your roster who ultimately decide if you are going to have a winning season.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five players who could shock the masses during the 2016 fantasy football season.
Michael Thomas, WR – New Orleans Saints
It’s no secret that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees loves to air it out. And after tallying 4,870 passing yards along with 32 TDs last season, it’s clear Brees’ fantasy demise has been prematurely reported.
The Saints got Brees a shiny new toy in former Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas during the 2016 NFL Draft, and he projects to utilize Thomas’ speed and prowess for running crisp routes early and often. Whether he’s used mainly in the slot or moved around in deeper patterns, Thomas is expected to receive an abundance of targets this season, which is essential for success in fantasy.
Rod Walker of the New Orleans Advocate has been blown away by Michael’s performance thus far this summer, going as far as to say Thomas was the best player in camp. Obviously, Michael has never played a regular season down in the NFL so he needs plenty of seasoning. But he’s being ranked around the likes of Mohamed Sanu and Sammie Coates on most fantasy sites, yet carries far more upside in New Orleans’ high-octane offense over the course of an entire season.
Martellus Bennett, TE – New England Patriots
Martellus Bennett had a solid three-year stint in Chicago with the Bears, and thus became a trusted name in fantasy. Now in New England this season and taking a backseat to the best tight end in the world, Rob Gronkowski, many fantasy football aficionados are apprehensive about obtaining his services.
While I understand not wanting to put much stock into any team’s No. 2 tight end during a fantasy season, it’s worth noting that the Patriots flourished for three seasons in a two-TE set when Aaron Hernandez was still with the team. Considering Tom Brady and Co. don’t heavily feature any of their wide receivers outside of Julian Edelman, there should be plenty of targets to go around for both Bennett and Gronkowski to flourish this season.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has always showcased an incredibly aggressive offensive mentality and tends to place an emphasis on racking up as many points as possible against inferior opponents. It seems like a subconscious passion of his at this point. Thus, there should also be plenty of red zone opportunities for both Rob and Martellus for fantasy owners to feel confident in pulling the trigger on Bennett in the later rounds.
Marcus Mariota, QB – Tennessee Titans
Marcus Mariota didn’t particularly overwhelm during his 2015 rookie campaign. Mariota tallied 2,818 passing yards and 19 TDs in 12 games, to go along with 252 rushing yards and two TDs on the ground. But keep in mind, the Tennessee Titans were an unmitigated disaster last season and couldn’t run the ball if their lives depended on it.
With DeMarco Murray now leading the way on the ground and the rookie Derrick Henry wearing defenses down with his bruising style, Mariota should see loosened coverage in opposing secondaries which will undoubtedly make things easier.
There’s really no downside to rolling the dice on Mariota in your fantasy draft considering he’s currently ranked as the No. 19 quarterback by most fantasy experts and will only cost you a late-round pick. Barring something entirely unforeseen, the Titans will be playing from behind on a regular basis. This will force Marcus to do a plenitude of passing, which could lead to fantasy gold.
Draft Mariota late as your backup and you’ll be able to reap the benefits if he indeed takes a massive step forward in his sophomore season.
Matt Jones, RB – Washington Redskins
Matt Jones flashed glimpses of brilliance in his 2015 rookie season for the Washington Redskins, tallying 794 total yards (490 rushing, 304 receiving) and four total TDs (three rushing, one receiving).
Jones was a popular topic among fantasy football enthusiasts last season but floundered down the stretch averaging just 2.7 yards per carry over Washington’s final six games. This trend devastated fantasy owners who continued to roll the dice on Jones during the final quarter of the season.
Fumbling woes essentially cost Matt all trust head coach Jay Gruden had in him last season, but the Redskins appear to be confident Jones can be a breakout star in 2016 according to offensive coordinator Sean McVay.
“If you asked most people here, they’d say he’s definitely a breakout candidate. If you look at his best stuff from last year, he’s got all the things that you look for in a number one back. It’s just does he have the maturity and the focus to maintain that throughout the course of a game? Do I have that same level of focus and concentration on play 1 as I do on play 55 or 60?”
“It’s just about reps for him — seeing it over and over and over and over again.”
The Redskins don’t exactly play against impregnable defensive juggernauts in the NFC East. Expect big things from Jones this fantasy season.
Bruce Ellington, WR – San Francisco 49ers
We all know the San Francisco 49ers aren’t in great shape at quarterback again this season. Whether they start Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert, they aren’t likely to win many games. However, that doesn’t mean the 49ers skill players will be fantasy irrelevant this season.
Wide receiver Bruce Ellington is beginning to garner attention as a player that undoubtedly deserves some exposure. The 24-year-old is lightning fast and can make plays with his legs after the catch, which is a prowess that will be huge on a team with quarterbacks who have struggled to get the football to No. 1 wide receiver, Torrey Smith, downfield.
Considering the 49ers are a bad football team and aren’t favored in a single game on their schedule during the 2016 season, it’s fair to assume Chip Kelly’s bunch will be doing endless passing throughout the entire campaign. This is typically a trend that is conducive to fantasy success, and will be so for Ellington, if no one else, on their roster this season.
[Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images]