Fantasy Football

RotoWire fantasy football sleepers Kevin Payne
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It's not too early to start preparing for fantasy drafts, and this week we'll look at some early sleepers for standard 10- or 12-team leagues. As summer continues, these players could lose their sleeper status if the word gets out. But for now, the following players look like they'll return a better value than their draft-day price. Next week we'll move on to busts.

Stevan Ridley, RB, NE - The key for Ridley to fulfill his sleeper status will be getting the lion's share of work in New England after the Patriots let BenJarvus Green-Ellis sign with Cincinnati. Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry in a limited role last season and should make a better impact now that Green-Ellis leaves behind his 181 carries. Green-Ellis also found the end zone 24 times the last two seasons, showing the Patriots were willing to run the ball near the goal line. Ridley had a bigger impact last season than teammate Shane Vereen, who fought through a variety of injuries during his rookie campaign. It could be Vereen who ends up the sleeper pick if he gets the bulk of the workload (not much upside with Joseph Addai, and Danny Woodhead shouldn't get the goal-line work). Vereen was initially thought of higher by the Patriots as a second-round pick over Ridley and his third-round status, but the production last season should have Ridley ahead on the depth chart. As long as Ridley cures his fumbling issues, he should be the best fantasy option in the New England backfield.

Carson Palmer, QB, OAK - While some of his statistics are not overly impressive (such as his 16 interceptions in 10 games), there's a lot to be optimistic about with Palmer this season. Six of those interceptions occurred in his first two games in a Raiders uniform while he was still adjusting to a new offense and teammates. His 8.4 YPA was good for fourth most in the league, more than Drew Brees or Eli Manning. With a whole offseason to figure out the offense and work out with his receivers, Palmer should be ready to put in a stellar 16-game season. His receiving corps is one of the league's younger groups and possesses a ton of upside with speed. Darrius Heyward-Bey fell 25 yards short of a 1,000-yard receiving season last year and Denarius Moore showed big-play potential with 18.7 yards per catch. Jacoby Ford and Darren McFadden should be healthy to start the season, and the Raiders added Juron Criner in the draft. The Raiders gave up 27.1 points per game (fourth most in the NFL) and 6,201 total yards (fourth most in the NFL) as a team, which should mean high scoring games this season. As such, 4,000 passing yards and 25 touchdowns seem like Palmer's floor this season.

Greg Little, WR, CLE - Despite not being named a starting wide receiver until Week 6, Little managed to lead the Brown in receptions (61) and receiving yards (709) last season. While those numbers aren't typical of a team's best receiver it's important to keep in mind Colt McCoy was under center. The Browns drafted Brandon Weeden, who should start and be an upgrade over McCoy immediately. While Little suffered from the "dropsies," his 121 targets were good for 18th among wide receivers, and he should see at least that many this season. Trent Richardson should attract most of the attention from opposing defenses, and the Josh Cribbs/Mohamed Massaquoi duo should prevent too many double teams on Little. With at least a similar number of targets, better quarterback play and improved hands, Little should be in line for a 1,000-yard receiving season.

Sidney Rice, WR, SEA - Typically, it's tough for me to justify a player as a sleeper who has missed more games (17) than he's played the last two seasons (15). Rice is coming off a season mired by concussions and needed surgery on both his shoulders in January. The red injury flag raised, let's look at some of the positives. Throwing to him this season likely will be Matt Flynn, who should be at least a league-average quarterback. That's a big improvement from last season. Rice should be healthy by the time Week 1 rolls around, and while it seems ages ago, the 25-year-old had a 1,312-yard season with eight touchdowns in 2009. Rice should develop good chemistry with Matt Flynn and lead the team in targets. The potential here is a top 15-20 wide receiver, but you'll pay a much lower price come draft day.

Mikel Leshoure, RB, DET - It's not a bad idea to stay away from players with "character" issues considering what that can potentially mean. However, an exception should be made for Leshoure, who, with a rare combination of size and speed, could end up with most of the Lions' carries this season. He's expected to be healthy following an Achilles' injury that cost him his rookie season, which appears to have been a freak injury as opposed to something chronic (i.e. see the rest of the Lion's backfield). Leshoure's price tag has likely dropped after receiving a two-game suspension for attempting to clear up his glaucoma without a prescription. If he carves out a significant role in the Lions offense, he'll be more than worth a late-round flier at your draft.

Robert Meachem, WR, SD - While Eddie Royal was added as well, it's interesting that the Bolts essentially were fine with letting Vincent Jackson go and grabbing Meachem as his replacement. Meachem, almost two years younger than Jackson, will get around half as much ($14 million) guaranteed money as Jackson ($26 million), showing that this move had a lot to do with business. Looking at Meachem's numbers, it's difficult to draw conclusions. The last three seasons he's had anywhere from 9.7 to 11.1 YPT, elite numbers from a wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald has never had more a 9.3 YPT, for comparison). However, that number is influenced by being shadowed by inferior defensive backs and seeing fewer targets than a normal No. 1 wide receiver. Speaking of targets, Meachem should easily eclipse his career-high 66 this season, which bodes well for his fantasy prospects. Neither Malcom Floyd nor Antonio Gates has been a model of health the last two seasons while Meachem hasn't missed a game the last three years. Don't be surprised if Meachem ends up the most valuable fantasy receiver for Phillip Rivers this season.

Fantasy Draft Guide

Need help with your fantasy football draft? Our experts provide a helpful fantasy football draft guide that includes rankings, stats, mock drafts, and downloadable cheat sheets.

Buffalo Bills Defense - Playing the matchups and grabbing a different defense each week off the waiver wire is usually a safe practice. However, it's probably been a decade since anyone has drafted the Bills defense in a standard leagues. Buffalo's defense has made huge strides this offseason, highlighted by the signing of Mario Williams. The Bills also signed Mark Anderson and his 10 sacks, while Marcell Dareus should take the next step in his second season. Pro-Bowler Kyle Williams should be healthy, and the Bills added Stephon Gilmore with their first pick in the draft. Buffalo had 20 interceptions last year (6th in the league) and forced 15 fumbles (11th in the league), showing the ability to create turnovers. Between the 35 turnovers they turned six into touchdowns. With an improved defensive line, the sack totals should rise and the Bills could end up a top-5 defense by season's end.

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Tagged: Bills, Bengals, Browns, Lions, Raiders, Patriots, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Chargers, Carson Palmer, Vincent Jackson, Robert Meachem, Sidney Rice, Matt Flynn, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mikel Leshoure, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Greg Little

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