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Early Draft Sleepers to Target (2023 Fantasy Football)



The word ‘sleeper’ has maintained its status atop the trendiest fantasy football terminology list for quite some time. And for good reason. Although the semantics of what truly labels a player as a sleeper can be debated, there’s no question that finding the right ones will put your team a step ahead.

Nailing the studs early in a draft is important, but hitting on a sleeper or two later can take you from contender to champion. They aren’t solely limited to the last few rounds, though. Sleepers can be found throughout the draft, as players who are being drafted later than they should. However, the later you get them, the more value you will squeeze out.

A lot can change between now and Week 1, but it’s far better to be early than late when identifying sleepers. I’ll give you a few names to keep an eye on throughout the offseason to put you a step ahead of the competition.

Early Redraft Sleepers to Target (2023 Fantasy Football)

James Cook (RB – BUF)

The rookie running back, known for his pass-catching, produced some hype last offseason after landing in an explosive Bills offense. The early season returns were not kind to investors, as James Cook was seldom used and appeared out of sync when he was on the field. After fumbling his first NFL carry in Week 1, Cook didn’t touch the ball for the rest of the game. Surprisingly, he carried the ball 11 times in Week 2 for 53 yards but wouldn’t see double-digit touches again until week 11.

To make matters worse, Buffalo acquired Nyheim Hines at the trade deadline, which seemed to all but bury Cook for the remainder of the season. Instead, he reeled off his most productive stretch of the season and relegated Hines to a depth/kick return role with Devin Singletary entrenched as the starter. With just three weeks of double-digit (PPR) fantasy production, each came in the season’s last five weeks.

Despite higher hopes entering the season, a late-season surge shows promise for Cook, especially after flashing on the ground and through the air. We knew he could make plays in the passing game, but averaging 7.12 yards per carry on 25 totes over the last three weeks hints at his potential. With Singletary set to hit free agency, a lot is yet to be determined in this backfield. The biggest concern with Cook may be his protection of Josh Allen, as that’s the most important piece of lining up next to the QB. Even if the Bills are comfortable with that, they will likely either bring Singletary back or add another piece to share the workload, which should be just enough to keep Cook’s cost down, even though he’s good enough to take over.

Jameson Williams (WR – DET)

There’s no shortage of viewpoints on Jameson Williams’ rookie season. On one hand, he was returning from a torn ACL, and we knew he would miss a chunk of the season. On the other hand, he appeared in six games but only caught one of nine targets. Neither of those views tells the whole story, as Williams played no more than 18 snaps in any of those six contests and sat between two and nine routes in each game. He accounted for just two total touches but turned each into 40+ yard gains, with his lone reception resulting in six for the Lions.

Although the development was slow, we saw the explosive element that Williams brings. Detroit was overly cautious with the rookie, and for good reason, but onlookers may confuse that with a disappointing season and forget how strong of a prospect he was a year ago. He was my top wide receiver in last year’s class, and I’m not backing off that evaluation. The Lions might be a dangerous team next season, and Williams will be a huge part of that.

Kenneth Gainwell (RB – PHI)

Perhaps the Kenneth Gainwell hype train that rolled through town late last offseason was just a year ahead of schedule. But I feel many travelers have already made their way to the exit and boarded a different train by now. Obviously, the status of Miles Sanders and his impending free agency will go a long way in determining Gainwell’s value, so it’s tough to project his ADP at this point. Even if Sanders walks, the Eagles will likely add a running back, but whether it’s Sanders or a player to be named later, Gainwell is due for a bigger share of the workload.

Although he didn’t take an obvious leap forward in year No. 2, his 7.7 fantasy points per game were 2.5 points higher than his rookie season, and he was effective around the goal line when Jalen Hurts shared the football. More importantly, Gainwell was fifth among running backs in fantasy points per opportunity with 1.07 and eighth in expected points added with 9.6. He also put together an impressive string of games late in the season and through the playoffs. Through his first 11 games of the season, he could not reach 40 all-purpose yards in a game, but he accomplished that feat seven times in his last 11 games.

He gashed the Giants for 121 yards and a score in the Divisional Round before notching 74 yards against a stout 49ers defense in the NFC Championship. These were the only two games in which he received double-digit carries. With a lot of players set to hit the market, the Eagles may prioritize their spending at other positions and look to pair Gainwell with a rookie.

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Jake Ferguson (TE – DAL)

The Cowboys’ rookie tight end slid under the radar playing behind Dalton Schultz. As with many of the players in this column, Jake Ferguson’s value will largely depend on where Schultz lands in free agency. There’s a good chance Schultz priced himself out of Dallas, especially with a promising young talent in Ferguson on the roster.

Despite the limited usage, Ferguson made the most of his opportunities. His 2.02 yards per route run would fall within the top five of tight ends if he qualified, while his 2.20 fantasy points per target narrowly trailed George Kittle‘s league-leading 2.33. His 100% true catch rate is as good as it gets, but 22 targets are too small of a sample size to project anything long-term. It may be enough for the Cowboys to let Schultz find his way to the exit. At a shallow position, Ferguson is a deep sleeper worth monitoring.

Khalil Shakir (WR – BUF)

The Bills brought Khalil Shakir along slowly as a rookie, but he could be a big part of the offense in 2023. Jamison Crowder is unlikely to return, and while Isaiah McKenzie may return, he did nothing to solidify a role going forward. In both games where Shakir saw five targets, he topped 50 yards. In his last three games, playoffs included, he tallied 119 yards on just nine targets. Shakir seems to belong in the NFL and the Bills’ offense. Im betting he gets a bigger opportunity to prove it next year and that he capitalizes on it.

Alexander Mattison (RB – MIN)

Alexander Mattison finally gets a chance to get out from under Dalvin Cook‘s shadow as he enters free agency. While there’s no telling where he will land, I believe he will be a highly sought-after free agent. He’s consistently posted big games when given an opportunity and has long carried efficiency along with him. His .96 fantasy points per opportunity was the 13th-highest mark among all running backs.

Isaiah Hodgins (WR – NYG)


Isaiah Hodgins was given a legitimate opportunity with the Giants, and he exceeded expectations. The Giants’ wide receiver room was beaten down with injuries, but Hodgins has a chance to stick with a legitimate role in 2023. He was the WR13 in Weeks 13-17 and came through with 105 yards in the Wild Card round. The Giants will certainly be in the wide receiver market this offseason, perhaps somebody who could pair up with Hodgins outside while Wandale Robinson works out of the slot.

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