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Off-The-Radar Fantasy Football Sleepers Who Could Make Noise - Tyler Johnson, Hayden Hurst, Justin Watson, and more

The term "sleeper" has been overused and abused by the fantasy community. The fact is that almost anyone can be a sleeper if you frame it the right way. It's gotten to the point that we can identify several subcategories of sleepers.

First, there's the non-sleeper: a player so obvious that it barely qualifies but we have to call them sleepers anyway because they haven't officially broken out yet (Travis Etienne, Gabe Davis, Elijah Moore). Then, there's the trendy sleeper who has been pumped up and overinflated by specific analysts despite no actual proof that they are worth drafting (Kadarius Toney, Cole Kmet, Mecole Hardman... always Mecole Hardman). The most annoying is the preseason buzz sleeper who garners hype based on exhibition game highlights or camp reports from thirsty beat reporters (George Pickens, Isiah Pacheco, Dameon Pierce, Isaiah Likely). Finally, there are under-the-radar sleepers who are like those $10 scratch-off tickets that look so promising until you actually see what's underneath the glossy exterior (Trey Sermon, Isaiah McKenzie, any Packers receiver not named Davante Adams).

I'm going deeper than that by providing some names that have generated little preseason hype, aren't being drafted inside the top 200 overall picks, and are not generally on anyone's radar. Many of these players may produce little to nothing during the 2022 NFL season. But all it takes is that one breakthrough to turn into a league winner.

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Rashard Higgins, Carolina Panthers

Baker Mayfield has his share of defenders and truthers to this day. I'm not that guy. I will grudgingly admit that he's a slight upgrade over Sam Darnold, though. He has supported fantasy-relevant receivers in his Cleveland days and he should be just fine for D.J. Moore, but who is behind Moore in Carolina?

There ain't much, to be honest. Robbie Anderson should be the WR2 but he is coming off a massively disappointing season in which his yardage total was cut in half from the previous season.

Whereas he averaged nearly 15 yards per reception in four years with the Jets, that dropped to 9.8 Y/R in 2021 with Carolina. Then there's the fact that he obviously doesn't want Mayfield as his QB.

One player who is more than happy to see Mayfield leading the team is his former teammate, Rashard Higgins. Per the RotoViz Game Splits app, Higgins has averaged twice as many fantasy points per game with Mayfield as his quarterback than anyone else.

Terrace Marshall was a bust last year and Anderson doesn't want to be there. The Panthers acquired former Jaguars receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., who has done little in his NFL career to this point to prove he is a threat. Would it be so surprising if the receiver he's already developed chemistry with becomes his #2 target behind Moore? That's not to say Higgins is set for a 1,000-yard season but it certainly puts him on the map.


Tyler Johnson, Houston Texans

Johnson was a receptions machine at the University of Minnesota his junior and senior years but has only caught 48 passes in the NFL. But late in 2021, in the final two games without Chris Godwin, Johnson saw 13 targets. This preseason, he has led the team with eight receptions and nine targets. It wasn't enough for him to make the final cut, however, as he was let go by the Bucs.

He was immediately snatched up by the Houston Texans and yes, that is actually a good thing. Instead of fighting to get on the field as the fifth receiver, he could immediately make an impact in Houston. Obviously, he'll need to impress the coaching staff and earn his snaps at first. But there are plenty of targets available and very little depth at the receiver position in Houston.


Justin Watson, Kansas City Chiefs

It's easy to make a case for a wide receiver playing under Andy Reid and catching passes from Pat Mahomes. That explains why Mecole Hardman still gets drafted every year. This year, unlike before, there's an open competition to become Mahomes' favorite wideout with Tyreek Hill gone. I also find it easy to make a case against each of the new receivers that have been brought in.

JuJu Smith-Schuster has been an elite receiver in the past and Skyy Moore is an exciting rookie but they will have to learn a new system and adjust to different roles. Marquez Valdes-Scantling has to show he can actually hold onto the ball, which hasn't really done this preseason.

Enter former Bucs receiver Justin Watson who was only active for one game and didn't catch a pass in 2021 due to a knee injury. He was subsequently waived by Tampa and has caught on in a big way in KC. Braden Holocek of FullPressCoverage believes Watson already has a spot on the final 53-man roster locked up. "He has wowed coaches on the Chiefs staff with his improving training camp performance."

Watson is by far the leader in receiving yards this preseason for the Chiefs and has started to run with the first unit more often. While Moore acclimates to the pros and MVS continues to drop passes, it might be Watson who becomes a preferred target.


Jerome Ford, Cleveland Browns

I firmly believe that NFL front offices do everything for a reason, even if fans don't understand it at the time. They aren't always great reasons nor are they all smart moves, but they have purpose nonetheless. Case in point, the Browns drafted another running back in 2022. They already have Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D'Ernest Johnson, so why spend a pick there?

First, Ford fell way too far in the draft. After transferring from Alabama to Cincinnati, he broke out as a senior with 1,539 total yards and 20 touchdowns. He posted a 4.46 40 time and 84th percentile Speed Score, begging the question of why he wasn't taken sooner.

Next, Ford has been a true standout in training camp and exhibition play.

Lastly and most significantly, there now looks to be a real possibility that Ford has a role on this year's Browns. When the Browns took Ford, they were primarily looking ahead to next year when Kareem Hunt becomes an unrestricted free agent. Now, there is plenty of smoke around trade rumors with some linking Hunt to the Eagles. If Hunt is traded or holds out for a new deal, Ford jumps up to third on the depth chart with a shot to supplant Johnson.

I don't mind taking a flier on a rookie RB on a team that will lead the NFL in rush play percentage while they wait for their franchise quarterback to get back from suspension.


Trestan Ebner, Chicago Bears

The death of David Montgomery's fantasy value may be greatly exaggerated but it is also a good bet that he won't see nearly the team market share of touches he did in 2021. Monty was third in Snap Share%, ninth in rush attempts, and fifth in red-zone touches, only ceding work when he was injured and unable to play. We've already heard reports that the team will use a committee-oriented approach which boosts Khalil Herbert's value.

But there's one thing Herbert doesn't do well – catch the ball. He received a very low 54.6 receiving grade from PFF. Another thing he does even worse is block. His run-blocking and pass-blocking grades were both in the low 60s as a rookie. He will garner the occasional carry but don't expect him out there on third downs or obvious passing situations. With a Chicago team that could have one of the worst defenses in the league and is looking questionable on offense as well, I anticipate a lot of come-from-behind scenarios.

Enter Ebner, a late-round pick out of Baylor with excellent speed at his 209-pound frame. He caught at least 20 passes in all five college seasons (yes, five) and looks like a natural receiver. Like most Bears skill players, more than a couple of touchdowns may be a pipe dream but in full PPR leagues, Ebner is a player to watch.


Hayden Hurst, Cincinnati Bengals

Remember when Hayden Hurst was the first tight end drafted in 2018? It's hard to believe that the Ravens made Hurst the 25th overall pick while snagging Mark Andrews in the third round. Mike Gesicki, Dallas Goedert, and Dalton Schultz all went later than Hurst in that draft.

It's easy to label him a bust based on the fact he averages 22.9 yards per game for his career and is now on to his third team in five years. But when Ozzie Newsome selected Hurst as the first pick in his final draft as Ravens GM, he was doing more than taking a tight end for the sake of nostalgia.

Hurst has the physical tools to be a proficient pass-catcher but he was passed by Andrews in Baltimore and never quite fit into the scheme in Atlanta. The primary reason he signed with Cincinnati this offseason is the promise of more usage, which he should get with C.J. Uzomah gone.

Jay Morrison of The Athletic writes that Hurst "has slid right into the offensive schemes and is seeing a lot of targets in training camp." We know the TE position won't be the first choice when Joe Burrow looks to pass but there will be red-zone opportunities and open seams for Hurst to settle into.

The touchdown upside alone makes him worth exploring as a second tight end on fantasy rosters.

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