This week I'll start to take a look at some sleepers for standard 10 or 12 team leagues. Next week we'll move onto some busts. As always, post in the comments if you agree or disagree.
Stevan Ridley, RB, NE - The key for Ridley to fulfill his sleeper status will be to get the lion's share of work in New England after they 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 total 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. I completely acknowledge here that it could be Vereen who ends up the sleeper pick if he's the one getting 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. While a lot can happen between now and Week 1, 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 the 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 best in the league, better 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 younger groups in the league that possess a ton of upside with their speed. Darrius Heyward-Bey fell 25 yards short of a 1,000-yard receiving season 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 worst in the NFL) and 6,201 total yards (fourth worst in the NFL) as a team which should mean high scoring games this season. 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). 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 try and justify a player being a sleeper who has missed more games (17) than he's played over the last two seasons (15). Rice is coming off a season mired by concussions and needed surgery on both his shoulders back in January. Now that I've raised the red injury flag, let's look at some of the positives. He's going to have Matt Flynn throwing to him, who should be at least a league-average quarterback. That's a big improvement from last season and the fact is Rice hasn't been completely healthy when on the field the last two seasons. He should be healthy by the time Week 1 rolls around and while it seems ages ago, the 25-year-old had a 1,312 receiving yard season with eight touchdowns back in 2009. Rice should develop a good chemistry with Matt Flynn and lead the team in targets. The potential here is ending up as a top 15-20 wide receiver, and you'll pay a much lower price come draft day.
Mikel Leshoure, RB, DET - I typically stay away from players with “character” issues considering what that can potentially mean. However, I'm going to make an exception here considering Leshoure, with the rare combination of size and speed, could end up with most of the Lions' carries this season (notice I stayed away from saying “Lion's share of carries”). He's expected to be healthy following an Achilles injury that cost him his rookie season and this 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's able to carve out a significant role in the Lion's 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, I find it 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 decipher what his stats mean. Over the last three seasons he's had anywhere from 9.7-11.1 YPT, which is indicative of elite numbers from a wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald has never had over a 9.3 YPT, for comparison). However, that number is influenced by being shadowed by less than a top defensive back and having fewer targets than a normal #1 wide receiver. Speaking of targets, Meachem should easily eclipse his career-high of 66 this season which bodes well for his fantasy prospects. Neither Malcom Floyd or Antonio Gates have been models of health the last two seasons while Meachem hasn't missed a game over the last three seasons. Don't be surprised if Meachem ends up the most valuable fantasy receiver for Phillip Rivers this season.
Buffalo Bills Defense - Yes, I know I'm a homer and biased here. I also usually preach playing the matchups and grabbing a different defense each week off the waiver wire. However, it's probably been a decade since anyone has drafted the Bills defense in a standard 10 or 12 team league. The defense has made huge strides during the 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 were able to turn those into six touchdowns. With an improved defensive line the sack totals should rise and the Bills could end up a top-5 defense at season's end.