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2014 Sleeper Targets

With one final weekend of drafting set to get underway following tonight’s preseason finales, it’s a good time to re-examine who some of the better sleepers are to snag in those mid-to-late rounds. Here’s a peek at my favorites, in the order I prioritize them, not the order I feel they need to be drafted. While I like Kelvin Benjamin a lot – particularly in keeper formats – I’ve seen him go a bit high for my taste in some leagues, while a guy like Jordan Matthews can be had later with perhaps even better upside.

So far I’ve found myself most invested in the top three (nearly every league), while I’ve actually left off this list perhaps my two favorite sleepers – Brandin Cooks and Zach Ertz. The hype trains on these two have risen them out of the range I’m comfortable selecting them in the majority of drafts I’ve done thus far. In PPR formats though I fully condone reaching on Cooks as a No. 3 wideout. Barring injury I’d be quite surprised if he didn’t top all rookies in receptions.

With all that said, on with the list:

1. Jordan Matthews, WR (PHI)

As pro-ready as they come at the wide receiver position, Matthews is simply too good to stay off the field in Philly. Given that Jeremy Maclin is coming off an ACL injury and carries a shaky durability history it would not be surprising to see Matthews – the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards – top the Eagles’ prolific offense in receiving. At 6-3, 212 and with sub 4.5-speed, the rookie wideout is a precise route-runner with sticky hands, excellent body control and decisive moves after the catch. Wherever he lines up for Chip Kelly he will excel from Day 1.

2. Devonta Freeman, RB (ATL)
Steven Jackson has 2,993 career touches on a 31-year-old body that is entering the 2014 season with a hamstring injury. It’s true that the veteran workhorse is a physical freak, but even the best athletes cannot outlast time. When he goes down Freeman may be an every week starter. Jacquizz Rodgers is not a complete slouch, but he also cannot stack up to Freeman – Florida State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn.

3. Mark Ingram, RB (NO)

The former Heisman trophy winner was running angry late in the 2013 season, particularly the playoffs. Now in the preseason he looks like a man possessed when he’s carrying the football; much like Knowshon Moreno did prior to busting out last season in a similarly potent offense. In three preseason games he’s flashed excellent vision, burst and balance while churning through defenders for 148 yards on only 19 carries (7.8 YPC). In a contract year the still-only 24-year-old Ingram is poised to stand out in the Saints’ three-headed monster of a backfield.

4. Justin Hunter, WR (TEN)

One of the most eye-opening stats I’ve seen in the offseason: in NFL games, including the preseason, Hunter has caught 30 passes. He has scored eight touchdowns. Hunter is a poor man’s A.J. Green and after a year to gain some seasoning, he’s going to prove that on the field.

5. Carlos Hyde, RB (SF)

The 49ers need a spry Frank Gore to make a deep playoff run for the fourth consecutive year. It would be a surprise if they didn’t mix in Hyde early and often to keep the 31-year-old Gore fresh come winter. And should the rock of the Niners’ offense finally break down, the beefy Hyde would be poised to dominate touches behind one of the best lines in football.

6. Terrance Williams, WR (DAL)

Williams has speed, size, natural hands and, equally important, an excellent opportunity. The Cowboys may have the worst defense in football so they figure to be among the league leaders in pass attempts when they're forced into shootouts. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten will see the most targets, but they’ll also draw the most attention, leaving Williams to burn defenses deep and make plays along the sideline using his long frame and tremendous body control to consistently move the chains for Tony Romo.

7. Kelvin Benjamin, WR (CAR)

A behemoth. A monster. You can’t coach size and at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds Benjamin lines a ton of it opposite overwhelmed corners. In an offense devoid of playmakers, Cam Newton is going to have to call this first-rounder’s number often. Benjamin has the hands and athleticism to overcome the learning curve, and as a red zone nightmare he could be a sneaky mid-to-late round source of touchdowns.

8. Ladarius Green, TE (SD)

Green entered the league as a raw athlete with 4.45-speed, excellent length (6-6, 240) and a solid 34.5 inch vertical. Entering his third year with more polish he may finally overtake the aging Antonio Gates and play the "Robin" to Keenan Allen’s "Batman" in the Chargers’ pass attack. Green only hauled in 17 catches in 2013 but he averaged a whopping 22.1 YPC as nine of those went for 20-plus yards and three found him in the end zone. The upside here is enormous.

9. Mike Evans, WR (TB)

Big, fast and smooth. And the opportunity for this supremely gifted athlete couldn’t be much better. Evans is unlikely to ever face a team’s top corner or see doubles as Vincent Jackson dominates that attention, and in a Bucs’ offense with limited weapons he will be called upon often to make the type of big plays he’s already flashed in the preseason.

10. Donald Brown, RB (SD)

On 102 carries last season Brown averaged 5.3 YPC and racked up 22 missed tackles forced while leading the league with a very healthy 3.3 YPC after contact average (according to Pro Football Focus). And that was running behind a dreadful Indianapolis offensive line. In his four seasons Ryan Mathews has struggled with a wide variety of injuries while missing 10 games and parts of numerous others. If an injury launched Brown into a feature role he could quietly emerge as an every week starter. After all, in his final 10 games counting the playoffs last year Brown piled up nine touchdowns in limited duty.

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