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Finding a Sleeper

The 2006 season was a very good season for me in fantasy football. I had prepared well prior to the draft, as I always do, and had drafted some excellent teams. As is often the case, though, I wasn’t a fan of my tight ends after the draft because I had waited until later rounds to draft one. My solution to this dilemma came from an unexpected place.

Heading into the 2006 season, a wide receiver on everyone’s radar was Donte’ Stallworth. Since his entry into the NFL in 2002, Stallworth had been a bright spot on what was a dreary New Orleans Saints squad. In 2005 he had posted 945 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, by far his best season, and had surpassed Joe Horn as the Saints’ best receiver. It was clear that with the arrival of Drew Brees leading up to the 2006 season, Stallworth was going to be one of the most valuable players on the team. Needless to say, he was being drafted in the first few rounds in most drafts. Suddenly, without warning and leaving us fantasy footballers scratching our heads and adjusting our lineups, the Saints traded Stallworth to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fourth-round pick. It was already late August, and this move was completely unbelievable. I, and a lot of other folks with me, chalked it up to the haphazard Saints making yet another bone-headed move.

Opening Sunday was Sept. 10, and I was watching football from my home in Los Angeles. Generally, Sunday afternoon brought us Angelinos football games involving one of the three California teams or the St. Louis Rams, who still maintained a fan base in Southern California. But Sept. 10, 2006 was different because it marked the arrival to the NFL of USC star Reggie Bush. On this Sunday, a local Los Angeles station was airing a matchup that would never otherwise have been aired: the New Orleans Saints against the Cleveland Browns. Personally, I had only a marginal interest in Bush, who had been drafted far too early in most of my Los Angeles-based fantasy football drafts anyway. I had no interest in the matchup because I’m a fan of neither team. I did, however, watch that game for three reasons. It was opening Sunday. I was curious to see how Drew Brees would recover from his shoulder surgery. And Cleveland’s Kellen Winslow was a free agent in my fantasy leagues. Winslow had been injured for much of the previous two seasons but was still an incredible talent at a position I needed to fill: tight end.

Nothing much happened in the first quarter of that game. Winslow had been passed to exactly one time and caught it for two yards. Brees hadn’t done much, but Bush and fellow running back Deuce McAllister, had helped the Saints to put up the game’s only score, a New Orleans field goal. It was 12 minutes and seven seconds into the game when the fortunes of my 2006 season changed dramatically for the better! On 1st-and-10, Brees passed the ball over the middle (the box score says deep right, but it was middle) for 20 yards to a guy most people, including myself, had never heard of. His name was Marques Colston and he was a rookie wide receiver drafted in the seventh round. I watched this man of fantastic size and speed get by the Cleveland defenders with ease. In the same moment, a flash of lightning went off in my brain and I knew exactly why the Saints had so thanklessly dismissed Stallworth a couple weeks earlier: Marques Colston.

Immediately I ran to my computer and started claiming Colston off waivers in all of my leagues. What was particularly awesome about this was that Colston had been projected to play as a tight end, meaning he was still listed as such on many fantasy websites., where most of my leagues were being played, made the rare move to list him as both a tight end and wide receiver, making bye week management that much easier. The point is – any and all thoughts of Kellen Winslow bailing me out at tight end were gone. After just one NFL pass I had found the player that would lead all of my teams into the playoffs in 2006. Colston finished the season with 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns, leaving him considerably behind the top wide receivers, but far ahead of all tight ends except for Antonio Gates. And I got him 12 minutes and seven seconds into a Sunday afternoon in Week 1.

As fantasy football fanatics, we often become slaves to stats. And that’s when we’re not being slaves to projections, prognostications, and all the stuff that comes out of the mouths of talking heads. Those of us who’ve been partaking in this crazy hobby for decades have all been victims of this at one time or another – or a bunch of anothers. How many times have we seen some receiver on some junky team light up the stat boards in the preseason, encouraging us to waste a pick on him in our draft only to see him hit the practice squad at season’s start? How many times have we drafted a worthless player in Round 4 because all the experts are telling us what a great sleeper he’ll be? I’ve made these and many more mistakes like them far more than I’d care to remember.

There is nothing – no expert advice, no stat line, no prognostication – that can make up for good old-fashioned game watching. It’s funny to me when I see some of my friends with their face buried in their laptops on Sundays. What are they looking for? Stats? Stories? Expert opinions? The most important thing that they should be looking at is right on the TV in front of them! Spotting Marques Colston was easy! He was bigger and faster than just about anybody on the field. He was completely off the radar heading into that first game, but it took all of one reception to identify a star. You will not find that information in a box score!

Every year in the NFL there are breakout stars that most people had never heard of. There will be some in 2012. I use the Colston example because he was one of my best in-season pickups ever. But there are more examples I could site. If you’ve been playing for a long time, there are more examples you could probably site, too. But if you want to be the owner that gets the rising star, you had better be the owner watching the games!

ESPN’s Skip Bayless likes to ask the question, “What do your eyes tell you?” As fantasy football owners, we should be asking ourselves the same question. Watch the games – even (and especially) in the preseason. Find out what your eyes tell you. This is the single best way to identify sleepers, pass on the popular pick that is just not worth the accolades, and grab those free agents nobody knows about. Oh, yeah … and put the laptop down on Sundays! It doesn’t contain anything you won’t find on the ticker at the bottom of the TV screen anyway!

Steve Smith is the author of Fantasy Football 2012: Strategies for Dominating Your Fantasy Football League from the Draft to the Playoffs!

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