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Staff Picks: Sleepers & Busts

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

A sleeper is anyone who's likely to be significantly underpriced. A bust is a likely overpriced top-10 QB/TE or top-20 WR/RB. The RotoWire Staff weighed in with their picks below:

Chris Liss


Tight ends almost never do anything in their rookie seasons Year 2 is when they typically break out. But Ertz's breakout might have started already, at the tail end of Year 1 when he had four TDs over his last six games including the team's wild card loss to the Saints. This year, Ertz finds himself in one of the league's best offenses with little high-end competition for targets, as Brent Celek is slipping, Jeremy Maclin's coming back from a torn ACL and Riley Cooper's had one solid season as a complementary piece. There's a chance Ertz could be the Eagles' top-scoring pass catcher.

SLEEPER Dwayne Bowe

Bowe struggled to become relevant last year, but part of the problem was the Chiefs' easy early-season schedule and opportunistic defense that saw the team playing with big leads. Between that and Jamaal Charles' huge season, conservative quarterback Alex Smith often had little reason to chance throws down the field to Bowe. This year, the Chiefs won't play backup quarterbacks every week, and as we saw in last year's Wild Card game against the Colts, Bowe, who had 13 targets for eight catches, 150 yards and a touchdown, was a big part of the offense. Moreover, free-agent receivers often struggle in their first seasons with new teams, and with a new quarterback and offensive system, it was as if Bowe were playing with a new team. Finally, the Chiefs made no moves to improve their receiving corps this season, so Bowe is again the unquestioned top dog in Andy Reid's offense.

BUST Peyton Manning

Of course, regression is an easy bet on a player who made the NFL record book his autobiography. But this isn't any player coming off a career year, it's a 38-year old who's had multiple neck surgeries. Even if Manning stays healthy, it's unlikely everything will go as right as it had to last year for him to put up such historic numbers. The Broncos defense could be better, his receivers might not stay as healthy (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas missed only five games combined last year) or the team might score more touchdowns on the ground. Bottom line, between regression, injury risk and the depth at the quarterback position, Manning's likely to underperform his draft slot.

BUST Marshawn Lynch

Lynch has averaged 300 carries per season the last three years, and that's not accounting the extra work he did during the playoffs 65 carries in last year's Super Bowl run alone. And these are not finesse carries where he bounces half of his runs outside and winds up out of bounds they're typically hard, between the tackles and end with violent collisions. While Lynch might have another peak season or two in him, you'll have to wager a first-round pick on that proposition. Finally, at press time, Lynch was holding out for a contract extension and skipped mandatory minicamps in June. While this isn't likely to affect his status for the season (assuming the sides come to terms), it is affording talented backups Robert Turbin and Christine Michael more work with the first team and more chances to impress the coaching staff.

Jeff Erickson

SLEEPER Jeremy Maclin

Assuming Maclin is all the way back from his torn ACL, he could be a nice under-the-radar value as the Eagles' No. 1 WR in Chip Kelly's attack. That he's coming off a serious injury and therefore didn't benefit from the new system last year makes him a risk, but that's why he'll likely be available at a discount.

SLEEPER Ahmad Bradshaw

Neck injuries are scary, but Bradshaw's competition in Indy is also recovering from injuries Trent Richardson had his shoulder scoped in February, and Vick Ballard is coming back from a torn ACL. Bradshaw is the only returning Colts running back to average more than 4.0 yards per carry, and his pass catching and pass blocking skills make him a good fit for Indy's offense.

BUST Giovani Bernard

The consensus is Bernard's workload is going to spike in Year 2, and while an increase is in order, there are reasons to think it might be somewhat modest. Consider the Bengals lost their offensive coordinator during the offseason and then spent a second-round draft pick on a running back in LSU's Jeremy Hill. Hill is a bigger back and more likely to take carries away from BenJarvus Green-Ellis than Bernard, but barring the Bengals waiving Green-Ellis before the start of the season, there are three mouths to feed, and Bernard will feel some of that crunch.

BUST Antonio Brown

Be wary of volume guys off breakout seasons when they don't see many opportunities near the goal line. Brown had 19 red-zone targets, but only four came inside the 10-yard line. The Steelers might have lost Emmanuel Sanders to the Broncos, but they'll presumably have a healthy Heath Miller for a full season, will integrate Markus Wheaton into the offense, have added Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey (at least for entertainment value in drops!) and also drafted Martavis Bryant.

Mike Doria

SLEEPER Bishop Sankey

Sankey was the first running back off the board in May's NFL Draft, taken by the Titans 54th overall. His main competition for carries now that Chris Johnson's gone is Shonn Greene, who had his right knee scoped last September and operated on again in April. While it's possible Greene will bounce back well enough to cut into Sankey's workload, look for the rookie, who is faster and more explosive than even an entirely healthy Greene, to emerge as the Titans starter and primary pass-catching back.

SLEEPER Trent Richardson

While the Colts still roster Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, both of whom are returning from serious injuries, Richardson is a classic example of a once highly-touted player in both real and fantasy terms who finds himself on the discount rack after a pair of disappointing campaigns. At the very least, he'll benefit from a full offseason/preseason with Indianapolis after having been acquired from Cleveland two games into the 2013 season. While it's unlikely he'll ever justify the Browns using the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft or even the Colts' trade of a 2014 first-rounder on him, Richardson's stock has dropped to the point that he's now a good buy-low target.

BUST Andre Johnson

Although the heavily-targeted Johnson caught 109 passes in 2013, his team context has changed. New head coach Bill O'Brien is now in charge, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is currently atop the team's depth chart. In addition, DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 52 passes as a rookie, is bound to eat into Johnson's looks in Hopkins' second pro season. Moreover, not long after May's NFL draft, Johnson who turns 33 in July expressed frustration with the rebuilding Texans. While a trade is unlikely, Johnson should be hard-pressed to match his recent statistical output even if he stays put.

BUST Ryan Mathews

Suiting up for all 16 games for the first time since entering the league in 2010, Mathews recorded a career-high 285 carries for the Chargers last season, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. Don't count on a repeat from the player who missed 10 games due to injury over his first three pro seasons. While the 26-year old's healthy 2013 isn't automatically an aberration, note that the Chargers added former Colt Donald Brown to their backfield mix, with an eye toward keeping their starter fresh. Moreover, change-of-pace back Danny Woodhead remains in line to see his share of carries and third-down work.

Luke Hoover

SLEEPER Stepfan Taylor

Gone is veteran Rashard Mendenhall and his 235 touches and eight scores. Back is highly touted 2013 first-rounder Jonathan Cooper from a broken leg that prevented him from opening a single hole during his rookie campaign. Sure, Andre Ellington's role will increase, and his dynamic ability figures to produce numerous big plays. Coach Bruce Arians has expressed, however, what we already know Ellington is not equipped to handle a feature workload. Taylor will have to fend off the bruising Jonathan Dwyer, but he seems to have Arians' trust despite seeing only 44 touches as a rookie. Although the NFC West will be a brutal slate, the all-time leading rusher in Stanford history with a similar build and running style to Frank Gore, predicated on quick feet, vision and balance could be one of the cheaper sources of 200-plus touches.

SLEEPER Cordarrelle Patterson

As Patterson proved with multiple scores receiving (four), rushing (three) and returning (two) as a rookie, he's a threat to take it the distance on any play. In fact, the electric playmaker found the end zone nine times despite just 57 touches from scrimmage, including a remarkable six touchdowns over the final five games on only 26 combined catches and runs. Now he'll enter a Norv Turner system that fed Josh Gordon to the top of the receiver food chain despite a Cleveland offense that had no ground game and a carousel of shoddy passers. With an expanded workload for the second-year wideout, the torch for the best weapon in purple may well be handed from Adrian Peterson to Patterson before the end of 2014.

BUST Le'Veon Bell

Bell piled up 1,259 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in 13 games. However, it took 289 total touches (thanks to a measly 3.5 YPC) to get there. Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones never provided competition to the young bell cow, but the Steelers used free agency and the draft to add major reinforcements in the form of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer. Over 18 games with the Patriots, Blount rushed 182 times for a much more efficient 944 yards (5.2 YPC) and 11 touchdowns, including a beastly playoff effort when he hammered Indianapolis for 166 yards and four scores. Blount is a more gifted overall runner who could carve out a relatively even split while vulturing touchdowns. And though Bell is a more natural receiver who should add yards through the air, those opportunities may be sapped by Archer and his lightning 4.26 speed.

BUST Cam Newton

It's not exactly going on a limb to say a quarterback who lost his top three wide receivers from the year prior is going to struggle living up to his abilities. And, in fact, Newton was falling off last year, too. Although his 24 passing scores were a career high, and he tallied at least 550 yards and six touchdowns on the ground for the third straight year, Newton threw for nearly 700 fewer yards than during his spectacular rookie year and put up his lowest rushing totals as Carolina won with defense. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin and the older possession wideouts Newton has aren't enough for him to produce at the level to which we've grown accustomed.

Kevin Payne

SLEEPER Toby Gerhart

Gerhart moved this offseason from being Adrian Peterson's backup with the Vikings to a starting gig for the Jaguars. While Gerhart is 27, there's little mileage here as he has only attempted 276 carries in his four-year career, during which he's averaged 4.7 YPC and has proven to be a solid receiver he had 20 or more catches in three of his four seasons as a backup. Moreover, Blake Bortles is likely to take over the starting quarterback role at some point this season, and typically rookie quarterbacks love to check down to their running backs. Gerhart doesn't possess breakaway speed but can break tackles and should be the goal-line back, leading to some easy touchdowns this season as well.

SLEEPER Jeremy Maclin

Last season we saw how explosive the Chip Kelly offense can be for the Eagles, and, coming off a knee injury, Maclin could be a forgotten man in many drafts. DeSean Jackson (1,332 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) is no longer on the roster, making Maclin the team's top target, only in an improved offense with a better passer in Nick Foles. Provided Maclin's completely healthy (which he should be), there's a lot of upside for the fast, shifty wideout.

BUST Tom Brady

Since his big 2011 season, Brady has been steadily going backward from a fantasy standpoint. He's had a drop of roughly 400 passing yards in each of the last two seasons despite attempting about the same number of passes. Brady's decreased efficiency can be blamed on a few things: Rob Gronkowski hasn't been able to stay healthy, smaller, less-explosive receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, sit atop the depth chart and Brady's getting older he'll turn 37 before this season starts.

BUST Andre Johnson

While he's finally going to play in a new offense under Bill O'Brien, Johnson never seems to find the end zone, scoring five touchdowns last season and four the previous year. It's also doubtful Johnson matches last year's career-high 181 targets, and his 7.8 yards per target was the lowest of his career. The low yards-per-target number is likely due to poor quarterback play, something that's likely to persist in 2014 as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and fourth-round rookie Tom Savage are the main candidates for the job.

Mark Stopa

SLEEPER Marcus Lattimore

Frank Gore is 30 and has a lot of mileage on his legs, so a breakdown seems like a fair bet. Think Steven Jackson, 2012. On a Niners team that runs a lot while playing with the lead, there's potential for someone behind Gore to emerge as a top-15 fantasy back. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are small, and rookie Carlos Hyde will likely cost you more at the draft table.

SLEEPER Kendall Wright

Ninety-four catches for 1,079 yards on 139 targets are palatable numbers, but the two TDs in 2012 will reduce his price tag. Wright's small frame (5-10) will prevent him from ever scoring 10 TDs, but Antonio Brown showed us last year how what Wright's ceiling might look like. Entering his third year, Wright's time could be now.

BUST Tom Brady

Brady's per-game stats in 2012 were abysmal without Rob Gronkowski nowhere close to being QB1 worthy. Yet Brady will be drafted as a QB1 in 2013 because of the name on his jersey, even though Gronkowski's coming back from a late-season ACL tear, and the Patriots made only the most modest upgrades to their receiving corps. Don't do it. Take Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers or Russell Wilson instead.

BUST First-Round Running Backs

Every year, early-round backs become fantasy flops at an alarmingly high rate. Remember 2013 Trent Richardson, Ray Rice or C.J. Spiller? The scary part is we don't know who the 2013 busts will be we just know half will flop. Spend your auction money or late first-round pick on a higher floor at another position, e.g. Jimmy Graham or a top-tier WR.

Mike Rathburn

SLEEPER Bishop Sankey

Sankey has a great shot at starting in Tennessee behind a solid offensive line on a team with a questionable QB situation. This means the Titans are likely to lean on him even more heavily. Sankey's combine numbers were top of the class between the 40 time, shuttle, cone and bench press. He's also a solid receiver and blocker, which means he will be on the field for third-downs/passing situations.

SLEEPER Colin Kaepernick

In 2013, the difference between the third-ranked and the 13th-ranked QB was only three points per game. Kaepernick came on in the second half of the season, especially once Michael Crabtree returned from injury. Add newcomer Steve Johnson, and the Niners will throw more this year. At press time, Kaepernick was going in Round 7 vs. Cam Newton in Round 4. The difference between these two last year five total TD, 182 passing yards, 62 rushing yards. Take the guy with a great receiving corps instead of the guy who has next to nothing.

BUST Eddie Lacy

Lacy had a great rookie season considering he was not even involved the first four weeks. He was also the beneficiary of injuries to Johnathan Franklin, Randall Cobb and Aaron Rodgers, as the Packers had to lean heavily on him. With everyone healthy heading into this season, it's hard to project more of the same. And if that's the case, the 4.1 yards per carry with only three runs of 20-plus yards aren't going to get it done for a mid-first rounder.

BUST Zac Stacy

Coach Jeff Fisher said this offseason that Stacy could be a 70-percent workload running back. It's hard to buy that, especially after the Rams drafted Tre Mason in the third round. Stacy's production last year was more about opportunity than talent. He averaged only 3.9 YPC and was not heavily involved in the passing game. Just as the Packers relied on Lacy due to injuries, the Rams relied on Stacy with Sam Bradford out.