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Wide Write: Fantasy Football Sleepers

“Sleeper” is one of the most overused terms in fantasy football, ranking behind only a host of expletives used by fantasy owners each week when their players get hurt, fumble or are removed for replacements near the goal line. Our friends at the “FOX Fantasy Freaks” show on FOX Sports Radio are so sick of the word “sleeper” that they’ve made a blanket change to “fantasy ninja” in its place We won’t go that far, but we’ll admit that it’s hard to find real sleepers these days with so much information at our fingertips.

Still, we’ll give it a shot here this week, using the following criteria:

Quarterbacks: Must be ranked outside the top 15 at the position in terms of Average Draft position (ADP) at Mock Draft Central, but have the ability to play their way into fantasy starting status more often than not.

Running backs: Must be ranked outside the top 40 at the position in ADP, and not be No. 1 on their NFL team’s depth chart right now. Houston’s Steve Slaton was in last week’s bargains and busts column, so we won’t use him again here. Besides, you probably already know who he is.

Wide receivers: Must be ranked outside the top 40 at the position in ADP, but have both the ability and opportunity to post stats that merit at least part-time fantasy starting status. Minnesota’s Bernard Berrian was No. 41 at press time, but we tabbed him as a bargain last week, and he’ll be in the top 40 by the time you read this.

Tight ends: Must be outside the top 15 at the position in ADP. Players at this position are usually a dime a dozen after the top six or seven guys, so why not wait for the last round or in-season free agency to get one of them as a fantasy backup or bye-week fill-in?

If you disagree with any of the selections, or want to offer some of your own, please post a comment at the bottom of the page. Also, remember that we’ll be here every Thursday until the end of your fantasy season, with Start ‘Em/Sit ‘Em/Pick ‘Em Up recommendations beginning next week.

Quarterbacks

Matthew Stafford, Lions (positional ADP: 17) – Stafford is entering his second season after being the top overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, and had a rough rookie year, with 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 10 games. For reference’s sake, former top pick Peyton Manning threw 26 touchdowns with 28 pickoffs in his rookie season, and followed that up with a 26-TD, 15-INT, 4,135-yard statement of greatness in Year Two.

OK, maybe comparing Stafford to Manning is a reach, but we don’t think the Lions’ franchise player will turn into Tim Couch, either. Stafford has a huge weapon in stud wideout in Calvin Johnson, along with exciting rookie RB Jahvid Best. Most second-tier fantasy quarterbacks on draft day play like second-tier fantasy quarterbacks during the season. Stafford has a chance to be much more than that.

Alex Smith, 49ers (positional ADP: 21) – In just 11 games last season, Smith threw for 2,350 yards and 18 touchdowns. With second-year WR Michael Crabtree, star TE Vernon Davis and multi-dimensional RB Frank Gore around to help rev up the Niners’ spread offense, Smith could post some pretty good numbers for fantasy owners. Remember that Smith averaged about 34 pass attempts per game – his team won’t be shy about throwing the ball. You won’t start Smith much if your fantasy QB1 is Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, but if you have a shakier, lower-tier top guy like Brett Favre or Kevin Kolb, he can help you.

Jason Campbell, Raiders (positional ADP: 27) – Campbell is the deepest sleeper in this group, but we think he got a bad rap in Washington. His completion percentage and passing yardage have improved for four consecutive seasons, and his supporting cast in Oakland probably isn’t worse than he had in D.C. Campbell is being drafted like a third fantasy QB, but if he can come close to repeating his 3,618-yard, 20-TD campaign from 2009, he’ll be a solid QB2. Yes, we’re telling you it’s OK to draft a Raider. We’re as surprised as you are.

Running backs

Donald Brown, Colts (positional ADP: 42) – Brown pretty much started 2009 as the co-starter with Joseph Addai – he had 29 carries to Addai’s 36 after three games. However, Brown played sparingly after the first month of the season due to injuries, and turned into an invisible man for fantasy owners.

Addai was a fantasy stud last year due to his 13 touchdowns, but do you really think the Colts are going to make him anything close to an every-down back after seeing him average 3.67 yards per carry over the last two seasons? The reason the Colts drafted Brown in the first place is because they weren’t thrilled with Addai’s production, and no less than Manning has said that Brown should be a “huge contributor” in the offense. Who wants to bet a nickel that Brown gets more yards from scrimmage than Addai this season?

Tim Hightower, Cardinals (positional ADP: 43)Chris “Beanie” Wells will probably get the majority of the carries in Arizona, but Hightower has shown a nose for the end zone (18 TDs in two seasons), and caught 63 passes last season. Beanie is a better runner, but Hightower could still post something like 800-900 total yards and score 8-10 times. In points-per-reception (PPR) leagues, Hightower should start for you in most weeks.

Kareem Huggins, Buccaneers (positional ADP: 63) – Huggins wasn’t on anyone’s radar until recently, when the Bucs waived the disappointing (and reportedly overweight) Derrick Ward. That transaction made Huggins the clear backup to Cadillac Williams, who has played in 48 of a possible 80 games during his five-year career. Nobody trusts Williams to stay healthy, which is why Huggins is starting to climb fantasy draft boards. If you happen to draft Williams, make sure to take Huggins late as a handcuff. Williams playing 16 games for the second consecutive season would be a stunning development, so Huggins should have at least a few weeks of solid value. His upside is as a regular NFL starting running back, and there aren’t many of those.

Wide receivers

Jabar Gaffney, Broncos (positional ADP: 44) – Pro Bowl WR Brandon Marshall was traded to Miami in the offseason, leading many pundits to write off the Broncos’ offense. However, we mentioned last week that QB Kyle Orton is better than many people think, and he’s shown a fondness for Gaffney, who caught an astounding 21 passes for 282 yards and a pair of TDs in the final two games last season. To repeat, that was in two games. Orton and Gaffney have continued their friendly connection into this year’s preseason, and seem likely to do so in the regular season as well. Someone has to be Denver’s leading receiver, right?

Jacoby Jones, Texans (positional ADP: 50) – The Texans’ high-powered offense is led by QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson, but Johnson can’t catch everything (although it often seems like he does). Jones is pushing Kevin Walter for the starting spot opposite Johnson, and even if he’s unsuccessful, he could put up strong numbers. The Texans led the NFL with 4,654 yards through the air in 2009, and Jones – who had 144 receiving yards with two touchdowns in last season’s final two games – is a dangerous deep threat.

Louis Murphy, Raiders (positional ADP: 74) – With Chaz Schilens likely to miss at least the season opener due to a knee injury, Murphy will be in the starting lineup for the Silver and Black. Murphy caught 34 passes for 521 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie last season, and hauled in a 74-yard TD in last week’s preseason loss to the 49ers. If the aforementioned Jason Campbell is as good as we think, he’ll put a deep threat at wideout to good use. Teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey has the blazing speed to be that threat, but as an older guy we know likes to say, he couldn’t catch a cold. Murphy is a late-round flier with plenty of upside.

Tight ends

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals (positional ADP: 20) – QB Carson Palmer has never really had much to work with from the tight end position, but this rookie from Oklahoma is talented and ready to contribute. Gresham caught four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in last week’s preseason game against the Bills, and once Palmer realizes that Terrell Owens is too old and slow to get open as much as he used to, he’ll start to look for Gresham more and more.

Tony Scheffler, Lions (positional ADP: 21) – Scheffler disappeared last season due to reported issues with the Broncos’ new coaching regime, but in 2007 and 2008 he averaged 44 receptions, 597 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers don’t quite make him Antonio Gates, but they would have put him among the top 15 fantasy tight ends in most formats last season. The improving Stafford will need a safety net sometimes, and Scheffler fits the bill. You’ll be able to get him very late on draft day.

See you back here next week, when you’ll be ready to set your Week 1 lineups. Are you getting excited yet?

John Halpin writes his “Wide Write” fantasy football column every week during the NFL season for FOXNews.com. He also writes fantasy columns and early-morning blogs four days a week at FOXSports.com/fantasy, and co-hosts a daily fantasy podcast. You can receive more fantasy news and contact John by following him on Twitter (@jhalpin37), or e-mailing him at jhalpin37@gmail.com.