Fantasy Football Sleepers Week 1

Source: USA Today

Fantasy Football Sleepers Week 1

In week one of the fantasy season, it is difficult to determine who will be a breakout, who is a potential waiver wire add, and who will be a sleeper, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.  Clearly, if players like Justin Jefferson or Christian McCaffrey are on your squad, you’re starting them, and seeing as how they have a starting percentage of 100%, there is no reality in which they can be considered sleepers.  Other players, especially those that may find their way into your flex spots or are younger and therefore less proven, provide an opportunity for us to speculate about their upcoming success or failure.  This week, more than at any other time in the fantasy season, it is truly a guessing game as we look at players and the defenses they’re up against and assess them by a combination of their 2022 season on top of any free agent or draft day acquisitions or losses they may have endured.  In the end the goal is to find that diamond in the rough who is currently flying under the radar, but finds themselves with an opportunity to exceed expectations.  Below are, in my opinion, several such players.

Week 1 Sleepers

Start Stat Percentage, Via Sleeper

Sam Howell (QB)

Washington Commanders vs ARI (6% Start)

As they often say in fantasy circles (or on the Brady Bunch - I get those two confused), MATCHUP, MATCHUP, MATCHUP.  In that regard, Howell could not have drawn a better opportunity for fantasy production in week 1.  The Cardinals seem to be doing everything they can to put themselves in a position to lose.  They’ve traded away some key components, both on defense in S Isaiah Simmons and offense in OT Josh Jones.  On top of that, they have placed star QB Kyler Murray on the PUP list and are relying on either Josh Dobbs or Clayton Tune, neither of which necessarily strike fear in their opponents.  Howell could be without one of his major weapons as well in WR Terry McLaurin, but I’d be willing to bet it won’t matter.  Howell will still have many weapons at his disposal.  Whether it’s RB Brian Robinson, RB (or, let’s be honest, RB/WR) Antonio Gibson, or second-year WR Jahan Dotson, Howell should find a lot of success early and often.  We don’t know what Howell can be at the NFL level, but for at least one week, going up against a depleted defense that will constantly be on the field because the offense won’t be able to move the ball, Howell could end up looking like a star.

Anthony Richardson (QB)

Indianapolis Colts vs JAX (28% Start)

The preseason was full of ups and downs for Richardson.  There were several missed opportunities and errant passes, but one thing that the preseason put to rest was any doubt about his sheer athleticism.  It also became clear that Richardson has a strong arm and quick release.  With Richardson, as is the case with any rookie, there will be growing pains.  His success will rely heavily on those around him, coaching him and guiding him through any bumps along the way.  Where the excitement lies with Richardson is in a ceiling that seems to be high.  Very high.  With patience and time, Richardson could become one of the best fantasy assets at the position, and the road to fantasy dominance could start as early as this Sunday.  The Jaguars aren’t an especially frightening defense, and while Richardson’s accuracy may be a concern right out of the gate, his elite rushing upside gives him a solid floor.  The Colts will have to try to keep pace with what is arguably the best offense in the league, which means finding creative ways to get the ball downfield, and with no Jonathan Taylor to hand the ball to we will most likely see Richardson use his legs to keep the defense on their heels.  His ceiling, provided by the ability to run the ball, makes him an obvious sleeper and a top-12 QB candidate in week one.

Samaje Perine (RB)

Denver Broncos vs LV (16% Start)

Perine’s inclusion comes down to a few things.  The Las Vegas rushing defense was not good in 2022 allowing nearly 100 rushing yards, a TD, and over 21 fantasy points a game to the position.  Reports have also surfaced stating that RB Javonte Williams will be eased back into the offense, perhaps even starting the season on a pitch count.  If this happens, Perine, who has proven effective in the past, will find himself with a golden opportunity.  In three games last year where Perine saw the majority of the work, he averaged 21.3 fantasy points per game, a lot of which came from the passing game.  A role he is very comfortable filling.  While I don’t expect either of these teams to light up the scoreboard, the Broncos could find themselves down early, leading to more opportunities for the passing game to produce.  With a hobbled Jerry Jeudy, a recovering Williams, a rookie in Marvin Mims, and a lot of uncertainty as to which TE is the true starter, Sutton and Perine may be the only reliable passing options.  I’m honestly surprised that Perine is only being started in 16% of half-PPR leagues.  He is a solid flex play and could once again produce for anyone brave enough to take a chance on him.

James Cook (RB)

Buffalo Bills vs NYJ (50% Start)

I know, at this point it’s not going out on a limb to suggest Cook as a potential sleeper, but seeing as how he’s being started in just 50% of fantasy leagues, it seems it bears repeating.  Cook didn’t exactly blow anyone away with his fantasy totals in year one but his ability to catch passes, open field burst, and five yards per carry was very encouraging.  The Bills did sign Damien Harris to a one-year deal in the offseason, but anyone with eyes can see that Cook is the more dynamic and versatile player, which should lead to him taking over this backfield sooner rather than later.  As a more pure goal line back, Harris could cap some of Cook’s TD upside, but not in week one when they take on a much improved Jets offense led by future Hall of Fame QB Aaron Rodgers.  I expect to see a shootout when these two teams meet, and although QB Josh Allen has any number of weapons from which to choose, a rising tide lifts all boats, and I would expect Cook’s ship to set sail starting in week one making him a solid upside play as an RB2 or an extremely high-end flex play.  

Marvin Mims (WR)

Denver Broncos vs LV (3% Start)

Don’t get me wrong.  I stand by my assertion in previous articles that the Denver Broncos will not be a great team or even a good one.  I simply think the dumpster fire will be delayed by a week.  Not only that, but we have often found fantasy production in less-than-stellar offenses.  The fact is QB Russell Wilson will have to throw the ball to someone, and rookie Marvin Mims finds himself in a prime spot to be a major benefactor.  Yes, I expect Courtland Sutton to be the target leader on this team on Sunday, but other than Sutton, the competition for targets is wide-open.  Mims was already going to see an uptick in playing time with Tim Patrick out for the season with a torn Achilles, but now Jerry Jeudy is in danger of missing week one with a hamstring injury.  Even if he suits up, hamstring injuries are tricky things and easily aggravated, so Mims should play a key role regardless.  Rookie wide receivers are hard to trust, especially in week one, since all we can do is speculate as to how they’ll fit into the NFL, but Mims is a young, talented receiver who should see a lot of targets on a team with a new head coach who is looking to reset the clock and build a competitive team for years to come.  Making the Broncos a team that others fear could take time, a lot of it, but in week one against a team with enough talent to consistently move the ball and a defense that allowed 21 points per game to wide receivers last year, Mims should find room to operate and produce as a flex with upside.  

Jahan Dotson (WR)

Washington Commanders vs ARI (44% Start)

I’ve spoken on Dotson before, in my start ‘em sit ‘em column for this week at FantasyData, but I had to mention him again since he is only being started in 44% of leagues.  That’s crazy to me.  There is legitimate doubt about whether Terry McLaurin will be active for the game on Sunday as he continues to recover from turf toe, an injury that tends to linger.  Even if he is out there I doubt he will be playing at 100%.  This means, in week one Dotson should be the #1 target for 2nd-year QB Sam Howell.  Last year, during his rookie campaign, Dotson averaged over 12 half-PPR points in games where he got four or more targets.  That was with a healthy McLaurin on the field.  He then carried that momentum into the 2023 preseason, finishing with seven receptions for 106 yards and one touchdown, all in limited action.  Now, he arguably has a better QB throwing to him and will more than likely take on the WR1 role for this team against a bare bones Cardinals team that was already allowing over 18 fantasy points per game to wide receivers.  I’d be happy to put Dotson in my WR2 spot in week one, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to use him as your flex, that’s a no-brainer.  

Tyler Higbee (TE)

Los Angeles Rams vs SEA (25% Start)

Whether you want to call him a streamer or a sleeper, I’m all in on Higbee this week.  Higbee has been the forgotten man in fantasy drafts, often taken toward the end of a draft as a backup TE.  People forget that Higbee finished as the TE9 in 2022 in half-PPR formats and TE6 in full PPR.  Granted, elite WR and de facto #1 target Cooper Kupp missed half of the season due to injury, but even with Kupp, Higbee averaged over six targets a game and had nine or more in nearly half of those.  What could give some managers pause is that those target totals were actually better with Kupp than without him, but, what those naysayers are missing is that Stafford’s absence mostly coincided with Kupp’s.  They simply threw the ball less.  In the eight games that Stafford played 100% of the QB snaps, the Rams threw 30+ passes six times.  In the remaining nine games, they did that twice.  Well, Stafford is back, but Kupp very likely won’t be due to the dreaded hamstring injury, and at 30 years old, it’s an injury that could sideline him off and on throughout the entire season.  They are also taking on a team that proved they can put up points and move the ball, so I expect them to rely on Stafford’s arm a lot in this one, which benefits Higbee, since the Seahawks were dead last against TEs in 2022.  Stafford loves to rely on the players he trusts.  With his breakfast buddy out of the lineup and a stable of unproven wide receivers taking the lead, that player should be Higbee.  

Juwan Johnson (TE)

New Orleans Saints vs TEN (10% Start)

I get the hesitancy with Johnson.  With Chris Olave and Michael Thomas on the team, it’s reasonable to wonder how big his target share can be.  There’s the added uncertainty with how fellow TE Taysom Hill will be deployed, and how much he’ll eat into Johnson’s usage.  Don’t let that scare you away from putting Johnson into your lineup in week one.  The truth is, at the TE position, there are only 2-3 options that you can be sure will produce week in and week out.  The rest are largely reliant on game flow, injuries to other players, and whether or not they score a touchdown, so why not pick someone with upside and who led his team in touchdowns last season?  That’s right.  Johnson was the team leader in touchdowns in 2022.  On top of that, he impressed in camp and the preseason this year.  There are also reports that he is improving as a pass blocker, which should help him get on the field more than his 61% snap percentage in 2022.  The biggest reason for optimism though, is that Johnson now finds himself with a QB in Derek Carr that should be an upgrade.  Outside of Olave and Thomas, there aren’t a lot of proven options, making Johnson someone who could immediately become a reliable target for Carr, especially against a defense that ranked 28th against the position in 2022.  The talent and matchup are there to help Johnson succeed.  If you lost Kelce due to injury or are deciding between fringe starters like Engram, Njoku, or Schultz, I would gladly take a chance on the upside and opportunity of Johnson.  

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