You know you fantasy football too much when the question of sleepers sends you into a Simone Biles level of mental gymnastics.
"Sleeper? What's a sleeper? Do you mean an under drafted player? A late-round gem? Someone who might outperform his ADP? I need more clarity!"
Hopefully you, dear reader, have a healthier relationship with our fake football game and don't tie yourself into knots over a simple question. The good news is that weekly sleepers feel a little easier to discern than the season-long variety. That is the journey we'll take together in this space every week. I'll put out a list of names that might not immediately come to mind as starters for the week. I'll try to include some logic and maybe a few pithy comments to go along with them. Hopefully this helps you win a few fantasy matchups. More importantly, I hope you enjoy this. Because really, what if sleepers are just the friends we make along the way?
That was weird. Let's start the column now.
It's a strange world in which we live. Trevor Lawrence is the most heralded quarterback prospect in nearly a decade and was a unanimous choice for the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Yet us fantasy types have spent most of our offseason talking up Justin Fields and Trey Lance. That's not to say we've completely glossed over Lawrence. It's just that we have … concerns. If any team can quell those fears, it could be the 2021 Houston Texans. Last year, they were one of the worst defenses in the league. This year, they might be even worse. Lawrence will probably be a streaming option outside of 2-QB or superflex leagues, but he finds a soft place to land for this regular season debut.
You know the names. Ryan Tannehill. Kenyan Drake. DeVante Parker. The list goes on. Sam Darnold hopes to become the latest Adam Gase ex-pat to find delayed success. He'll get the chance to do it against the team that gave him his first shot in the NFL. It's a new day in Florham Park with Robert Saleh now calling the shots. Yet it's hard to imagine that Gang Green's turnaround will be immediate. Darnold is blessed with a forward-thinking offensive coordinator and the best supporting cast he's ever had. With all apologies to the old Klingon proverb, revenge might be best served at around 80 degrees on a sunny Charlotte Sunday.
James Conner doesn't inspire scores of hot take fantasy Twitter threads. This offseason, he hasn't inspired much of anything. That ambivalence could work in someone's favor this season -- but especially in Week 1. Kliff Kingsbury was not shy about doling out touches to both of his running backs last season. That shouldn't change this season. What should change is how both players are used. Conner is a different back than the departed Drake and appears headed for a role as a short yardage and goal line specialist. That's encouraging news in the season opener versus a Titans defensive front that had wasn't always stout against the run last year.
The Trey Sermon hype machine went into overdrive in the last couple weeks of fantasy draft season. That's what happens when you're a talented rookie runner in a Kyle Shanahan offense after your primary competition (Wayne Gallman) gets released. The 49ers start the season with an inclination to run and two running backs in Sermon and Raheem Mostert who can get it done. Oh, and they open with the Detroit Lions, who gave up a league-high 27 rushing touchdowns last season. Feels like a good place for the rookie to get his feet wet.
I've repeatedly said that the Colts wide receiver room is long on potential but short on production. **Michael Pittman** looks like the prime candidate to turn that potential into production –- especially with Carson Wentz on track to start in Week 1. Over the second half of last season, Pittman was Indy's receiving weapon of choice after T.Y. Hilton. This season, Hilton starts the year on injured reserve, opening the door for the second-year wideout to take the lead. His first opponent will be a Seahawks secondary that made a season-long improvement from Historically Bad to Just Plain Ungood.
I put Terrace Marshall Jr. mostly because signs point to him making an immediate impact in Carolina's offense. He's expected to do most of his work from the slot, a spot Darnold has traditionally peppered with targets. Marshall also comes into an offense led by Joe Brady. Two years ago, Marshall was part of a record-setting, national championship-winning offense at LSU led by … Joe Brady. Expect the learning curve to be short. However, I also put Terrace Marshall Jr. on this list to let you know that if you insist on calling him "TMJ" you are wrong and bad and uncreative. Stop that.
DeVonta Smith has been my favorite rookie receiver to draft this offseason. From the moment the Eagles selected him, he was the best receiver on their roster. I also expect Philly to throw the football quite a bit this season. That avian aerial assault is likely to begin with Week 1's Battle of the Birds versus the Falcons. With a pair of defenses that don't project to be very good this year, look for a high-scoring contest. That should mean plenty of targets for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and a productive start to his professional career.
One day while scrolling the Twitters, I came across the Tyler Higbee Post-Hype Truther Club. For the uninitiated, that's the contingent of fantasy drafters who think we might have been a year too early on the Rams tight end. Aside from a three-touchdown game against the Eagles in Week 2, Higbee did little that was memorable last year. I'm not among this year's Higbee proponents but the Rams season-opening game against the Bears piques my interest. Last season, Chicago was vulnerable against tight ends, allowing the second-most fantasy points per game and 12 touchdowns to the position. There may not be many weeks you can start Higbee with confidence. This could be one of them.
The Vikings D/ST hasn't looked like the same fearsome stop unit we were familiar with at the end of the last decade. But with the right matchup, they can still make hay. This looks like one of those matchups. Bengals quarterbacks were constantly under fire last season behind a porous offensive line. Despite the cries from Who Dey Nation to beef up the front five and protect franchise quarterback Joe Burrow , the team spent its first-round pick on receiver Ja'Marr Chase. Expect Minnesota to get plenty of pressure in Week 1.
Did I mention sacks and turnovers? The Colts D/ST was pretty good in both areas last season. They were tied for the 12th-most sacks and fifth-most takeaways. Meanwhile, the Seahawks had trouble protecting Russell Wilson at times last year (48 sacks allowed) and were only average at protecting the football (18 giveaways). Indy could be a sleeper defense this year -- four games against the Jaguars and Texans will help -- but they have a chance to get off to a quick start against Seattle.
Marcas Grant is a fantasy analyst for NFL.com and a man who is unclear on the concept of "off days." Send him your leisure time struggles or fantasy football questions on Twitter @MarcasG or TikTok at marcasgrant.