7 Deep Fantasy Football Sleepers for Week 1
Not every fantasy football sleeper is created equally.
As much as I love Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley, I know that rostering him in a 10-team, casual league with friends isn't exactly the best way to win. (It's become my long-winded mantra.)
Of course, in deeper leagues -- 12-teamers with bountiful bench slots and 14- or 16-team leagues, for example -- we can really plunge into the depths of the player pool to find useful options.
Heck, sometimes we just have no choice but to descend to the bottom of the ocean floor to find viable plays.
If that's the case for you entering Week 1, then consider these deep sleepers for Week 1 (and, hopefully, beyond).
Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (Owned in 24.3% of ESPN Leagues | Started in 7.5% of ESPN Leagues)
Nobody really loves starting Alex Smith in fantasy football, but in this matchup against the San Diego Chargers, Smith is hard to ignore if he's the level of player you're looking at for Week 1. The Kansas City Chiefs are 6.5-point favorites, and the Chargers ranked outside the top 20 last season in pass defense, according to our schedule-adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics.
Smith checks in as our QB14 for this week, and with just one game below 12.5 fantasy points last season, he's a safe option in deep leagues.
Shaun Draughn, San Francisco 49ers (7.5% | 0.2%)
Here come the game-theory suggestions. The Los Angeles Rams are 2.5-point road favorites over the San Francisco 49ers, a game our algorithms see the Rams winning 56.3% of the time. If the 49ers are playing from behind, then Shaun Draughn could be the back to see significant playing time down the stretch rather than Carlos Hyde. Hyde has 23 catches in 21 career games, and Draughn, meanwhile, has been compared to the Detroit Lions' pass-catching back Theo Riddick by offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins.
If the Rams do lead early, Draughn's receiving potential could make him a viable start in deep PPR leagues.
Charcandrick West, Kansas City Chiefs (19.2% | 3.3%)
With Jamaal Charles a "stretch" to play in Week 1, all eyes turn to Spencer Ware. Ware posted a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.20 last year, the second-best mark of all backs with at least 50 carries. Further, 50% of his carries boosted Kansas City's expected scoring. By contrast, Charcandrick West owned a mark of -0.04 (the same as the league average rate) and a Success Rate of 41%, just above the league average of 39%.
Still, Ware managed to lose a league-worst 3.04 points on 6 catches last season -- only 18 backs lost points on catches. He did have 8 grabs in the preseason, but West's 0.37 Reception NEP per target was, again, about league-average (0.36). Passing work should belong to West if Charles is out, and that can be enough to power him to a low-end flex play in in deep leagues in Week 1.
Tyrell Williams, San Diego Chargers (1.0% | 0.0%)
Tyrell Williams has as much season-long appeal as he does Week 1 appeal, which is certainly something to note. Williams had a rapport with quarterback Philip Rivers in the preseason, and the 6'3", 215-pound receiver was a tough guard in offseason drills. San Diego had the 29th-ranked defense last season, according to our Adjusted Defensive NEP per play metric, and that could wind up leading to a slew of Rivers drop backs. His 708 drop backs last year made him the only quarterback to drop back more than 660 times and trails only Matthew Stafford's 756 in 2012 since 2000.
Playing from behind should begin in Week 1, as we've already noted that the Chiefs should be ahead. With Williams as the third receiver in San Diego -- and sometimes the second -- on a team that operated with three receivers 73% of the time last year, he's a player to monitor closely early in the season.
Brandon LaFell, Cincinnati Bengals (2.5% | 0.2%)
Brandon LaFell squandered a great opportunity with the New England Patriots, the fifth-best passing offense by Adjusted Passing NEP per play last season, by hauling in just half of his 74 targets for a catch rate that battled with the league's worst mark.
You may not have guessed it, but one of the teams that ranked above New England was the Cincinnati Bengals, who were second in the NFL. Andy Dalton graded out as the most efficient passer on a per-play basis last season, and his fourth-ranked Passing Success Rate suggests he didn't rely on big plays to buoy his numbers.
For now, LaFell is the number-two receiver in this offense, which is without Tyler Eifert to start the year. The matchup against the New York Jets isn't ideal, including a gross 41.5-point over/under, but the Bengals are favored by 2.5 points. It could easily be Tyler Boyd who is the better option behind A.J. Green, but the depth chart says LaFell has a chance to be a solid producer as a low-end receiver in fantasy football.
Jesse James, Pittsburgh Steelers (7.8% | 2.5%)
This will be the first year in what feels like 25 that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be without Heath Miller, but Jesse James is going to do his best to fill those shoes. James, 6'7", could become the go-to red zone target in this offense, which ranked fourth in Adjusted NEP per play in 2015 despite missed action from Le'Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger's road splits are pretty worrisome, but in a game with an over/under of 50, James could find himself near the end zone often enough for a roster spot in a deep league.
Washington was a neutral matchup against tight ends last season, but they should be stronger on the outside with Josh Norman now in town. That could leave James open in Week 1, and if he carves out a solid market share in this offense, you'll want him moving forward as well. Additionally, Markus Wheaton looks iffy to play in the opener, so James and Sammie Coates get a bump in Week 1 stock.
Jermaine Kearse, Seattle Seahawks (5.8% | 0.6%)
All of the attention in this receiving corps is on Tyler Lockett to emerge for the Seattle Seahawks, but it's Jermaine Kearse who is the second receiver for Russell Wilson. Kearse, 6'1" and 209 pounds, signed a three-year contract this offseason to remain with the team, and aside from the monstrous Jimmy Graham could be the team's best red zone option. Of course, Doug Baldwin saw 15 red zone targets last year to Kearse's 9 (and 5 targets from inside the 10 to Kearse's 3), but if Graham struggles to return to health, Kearse could see a bump in goal-line looks given his new contract and potentially stable role.
That's all speculation, but that still comes into play in Week 1 with Seattle as 10-point favorites over the Miami Dolphins. Their implied team total is 27 points. There should be touchdowns up for grabs in this offense, and Kearse might be able to get a piece. His stock could rise if he really is treated like a second receiver even in this low-volume passing offense.