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Expect the unexpected from AFC West sleepers

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Recent posts by Eli Kaberon

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Posted Aug. 04, 2011 @ 1:08 p.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

The key to winning fantasy football usually isn't the picks in the early rounds of a draft: the difference in points per week of Adrian Peterson with the first pick and Roddy White with the 12th isn't that huge.

Instead, winning is often determined by finding sleepers in the middle and late rounds, the players other owners chuckle at on draft day, while you laugh all the way to a championship. Last summer, had you picked unknown Texans RB Arian Foster, you might have been mocked in August then congratulated come January.

This year, Foster is PFW's top-ranked player after leading the NFL in rushing last season, while a new crop of sleepers are waiting to be unearthed. In the AFC West, there are quite a few players who could emerge as fantasy forces by the end of 2011. Some are well-known but looking to make a larger impact this season, while others are diamonds in the rough just waiting to be found.  

Here is one AFC West player from every position that could be a pleasant surprise to fantasy owners in the coming months.


Matt Cassel, Chiefs — In 2010, his second season in Todd Haley's offense, Cassel was a surprisingly good fantasy option. His yards and touchdown passes took huge spikes up from '09, and his interceptions and sacks taken saw a heavy decrease. Now, with a wideout to team with Pro Bowler Dwayne Bowe, Cassel's numbers could become starter-worthy in most fantasy leagues. Rookie WR Jonathan Baldwin, the team's first-round pick in April, worked out extensively with Cassel during the lockout, even spending some of the time living in the QB's basement. With defenses focusing on Bowe and the league's No. 1 rushing attack, the combo of Cassel-to-Baldwin could be lethal.


Jordan Todman, Chargers — Ryan Mathews will get most of the touches, and Mike Tolbert is still expected to be the Chargers' goal line back. So what's left for Todman, San Diego's sixth-round pick? How about 50 carries, 59 receptions and 51 kickoff returns? That's what Darren Sproles, the team's third-string running back last season, recorded. It might be too much to ask the rookie to duplicate that many touches, but Todman's skill set is similar to Sproles', and he will be used in a variety of ways. Outside linebackers are not going to enjoy seeing Todman and his 4.44 speed coming around a corner, and it wouldn't be a shock if he snuck a few touchdowns in, too.


Louis Murphy, Raiders — The biggest problem for Murphy isn't talent or opportunity; it's consistency. Last season, he showed flashes of being a fantastic fantasy option, topping five receptions and 70 receiving yards three times each, with both of his TD catches coming in those games. Problem was, he also had eight games with just two or one receptions, and missed two other midseason games because of injury, leaving owners in a lurch wondering which Murphy would show up to play each week. With Oakland in desperate need of pass catchers, the time is now for Murphy to elevate his game. Receivers often need a couple of years to figure out the speed of the NFL, but now in his third season, Murphy will have to put it together in the Raiders' vertical passing offense to be a fantasy threat.  


Julius Thomas, Broncos — One of the major themes from the 2010 fantasy season was the instant impact that rookie tight ends can make. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jermaine Gresham, Jimmy Graham, the list went on and on of first-year players at the position who made weekly contributions. Five tight ends were picked before Thomas in April, but it wouldn't be a shock if the Broncos' fourth-round choice is the top performer of them all as a rookie. A former basketball player at Portland State, Thomas could be the athletic target that Denver QBs Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow look to often in short passing situations. The Broncos don't have many other reliable receiving options, so the rookie could crack the starting lineup quickly and begin making a difference for both the team and his fantasy owners.


Ryan Succop, Chiefs — Being clutch doesn't matter to fantasy football kickers, a reason Chargers PK Nate Kaeding is a top option. Playing on a winning team also has no factor, so Sebastian Janikowski of the Raiders is usually one of the first players at the position off the board too. But being reliable is maybe the most important element to a fantasy kickers success, which is why Succop is viewed as a marginal prospect entering the 2011 season. In his first two years in the NFL, the former Mr. Irrelevant has made 81.8 percent of his kicks, and had only two games last season where he made more than two field goals. With the Chiefs' offense likely to improve this season, Succop could see a few more opportunities and have his stock rise in the world of fantasy.


Raiders — How, you might be asking how the Raiders' defense improved after losing its best player, free-agent CB Nnamdi Asomugha? Because as good of a player as Asomugha is, he didn't make a weekly impact on the team's fantasy numbers. The past four seasons, Asomugha has recorded a grand total of three interceptions, zero sacks and one forced fumble. While he is highly skilled at keeping opponents out of the endzone, his departure could lead to increased fantasy numbers. The Oakland defense, especially the front seven, might wind up as more aggressive as a result of Asomugha's departure, increasing their sack total that was already among third best in the NFL a year ago. Interceptions might rise, too, making the Raiders a team worth keeping an eye on as a fantasy sleeper.


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