How to Spot A Fantasy Football Sleeper
The first thing you need to know about finding a "sleeper" is figuring out what a sleeper is. Many people will have many different explanations as to what a sleeper really is, where to find them and how important they are, but they will pretty much agree that a sleeper is someone who doesn't have a big name, probably doesn't start, hasn't put up big numbers in the past, who now might have a chance to have a breakout season and be a difference maker on your team. Sleepers are usually either late round draft picks or waiver-wire pick-ups who went undrafted.
Now how to spot sleepers, when to draft them, and how long you wait until you believe they are actually worth putting in your lineup are all a little different. Having one of the few sleepers who pan out and be a worthy starter can make the difference in winning your league or not winning. No one starts off the season knowing which sleeper will for sure breakout; all you can do is try and draft one or two and hope that a couple of things fall your way and your sleeper goes from nobody to somebody just like that.
It's very hard to go into the draft focused on the guys who will be drafted in the later rounds, but the truth is many drafts are won in the later rounds. If you can have a good draft from top to bottom, it will help you down the line; having a deep team will help you in the event of an injury or to make trades. It's not very difficult to draft players in the first bunch of rounds, guys like Alexander, Tomlinson, Owens, Moss, these players have a history, they have done it before, we can look at their numbers and see where they should be drafted, but a sleeper is different. Most sleepers haven't played enough to accumulate enough stats to make decisions on, so you have to take a small sample (if one exists) to figure out who might be the sleepers of this year's draft.
There are many different places and ways to find sleepers. One way is to look for 2nd or 3rd year players who had a chance to play near the end of the year before. At the end of most seasons, the teams out of the playoff hunt will look at some young players, giving them starts and letting veterans sit out. Watching these players can sometimes give you a hint into who might be a good sleeper the next season, if they play a good game or two.
Look at Willie Parker who was undrafted out of college and was sitting on the bench in 2004 when the Steelers went 15-1. In the last game of the season, once they had already clinched home field advantage, they decided to rest veteran running back Jerome Bettis, and see what Parker could do. He went into Buffalo, on a cold January Sunday, to face the hottest team in football. The Bills were looking to get a victory and a spot in the playoffs. Well, Parker gained 102 yards on only 19 carries, to help the Steelers win the game, and give anyone who was actually paying attention to this Steelers backup a 1200 yards rusher out of nowhere in 2005. Now this doesn't mean things will always work out for you, but it's a good way of finding a sleeper.
Another way of finding a sleeper is to watch the player and coach movement in the off-season, and see which players have been put in situations where they might be able to break out, with the help of certain coaches and their philosophies. A player who might have been going downhill in his career, or hasn't been able to find his way yet might be able to change that by being on a team whose system better suits their abilities.
Koren Robinson is a good example. He's a former 1st round pick of the Seahawks, and while he had a couple of solid seasons with them (78 for 1240 yards and 5 TD's in 2002), he was let go at the end of 2004 because of off-field and poor behavior issues. He latched on to the Vikings as their top return man and part time WR. During the off-season they hired new head coach Brad Childress, who brings with him his West Coast offense, and they traded Nate Burleson, leaving the spot of #1 WR open. With those and many other changes the Vikings made on offense, they go into the season looking for players to step up and be leaders. Robinson has a good chance of doing that because he is a step ahead of most of the other WR's because he played in the West Coast offense while in Seattle. He could be in for a very big season. While all this looks good and could very well happen, many times it doesn't, and guys like Robinson will always be picked up for his potential, but might never realize it, because he can't control his other issues.
These are just a couple of the many ways to find a sleeper. So, make sure to always pay attention to injury situations, and follow closely what players are doing at training camp. Doing this can help you find many sleepers. Lastly, don't forget that you can still find sleepers after the draft in the first couple of weeks of the season. If you see a player break out and do better then expected, don't sit on the sidelines and watch - make an effort to pick them up and see if they can sustain that output. Or if you know that a starting player has any injury at all, make sure you're the one to get anyone who might back that player up, because once a player goes down, whoever takes over can be a real steal.