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THE FIRE SALE: Wake up the 2018 Sleepers

It’s here. The time has come for me to release my award-winning 2018 fantasy football sleepers list.

I also want to point out this is the 20th year of The Fire Sale. I’m fortunate enough to make a living writing about sports in my underwear and none of it would be possible without the Fire Sale. I started this column to have some fun and the following I built over the years helped propel me to other great opportunities. As always, I want to thank everyone who has come along for the ride. I greatly appreciate it.

Those of you who have followed me for years know this list first started years ago with Priest Holmes. He’ll always have a special place in my heart as the player who put me on the map. Three years ago, it was Allen Hurns. Two years ago, it was Cameron Brate. Last year, it was a guy named Alvin Kamara. None of those players were being drafted before the 12th round and they all hit it big.

Sure, some people may point out that Cade McNown, Montee Ball, Charles Johnson and A.J. Derby are other players who made the list but why be negative? Besides, I still think Ball will come back and rush for 1,000 yards as soon as he’s released from prison.

One last thing to remember is I try to list real sleepers. Cooper Kupp going in the eighth round is a joke because he will be the Rams’ top receiver this year. Book it. However, Kupp isn’t a sleeper, he’s a value pick. So draft Kupp, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jarvis Landry along with these sleepers. You’re welcome.

If you like fantasy football, gambling or Chicago sports, follow me on Twitter @ThePigskinGuy. Besides writing The Fire Sale, I’m an editor @BetChicago1. I respond to all questions/comments. Grab a brew and stop by…Don’t cost anything.

Now, on with the Fire Sale…

Trent Taylor, WR 49ers

Taylor edges out O.J. Howard as my top sleeper this year. I’m all in on Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers’ offense. I have Garoppolo in almost every league as my QB1.

I’m not sure why more owners aren’t all over a quarterback that has shown he can be a high-level starter and plays in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Hell, Garoppolo came in cold from New England last year and won five straight games. What do you think Garoppolo is going to do now that he’s had a whole offseason to learn Shanahan’s offense?

It’s surprising Taylor isn’t getting sniffed in most fantasy drafts after catching 43 passes for 430 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games as a rookie on a terrible offense. Remember, Taylor had Garoppolo throwing to him for just five games last season. Those numbers may not look great on the surface but for a rookie receiver to put up 40+ catches with C.J. Beathard playing quarterback isn’t bad.

Garoppolo comes from a New England system that utilizes slot receivers. According to Pro Football Focus, Taylor was the only player to catch all his targets on slant routes in 2017. His 15 receptions on such routes resulted in 189 yards and one touchdown, as well as a collective 141.0 passer rating for quarterbacks throwing the football.

There seems to be some debate on how good the 49ers’ offense will be this season. I see no debate. San Francisco’s offense will be among the NFL’s best units and Taylor will be the 49ers’ version of Cooper Kupp. See what I did there?

I expect Taylor to become Garoppolo’s security blanket this year and catch 60+ balls for fun. He’s worth a late-round pick in fantasy drafts.

O.J. Howard, TE Buccaneers

If you don’t like Taylor, can I interest you in one of the league’s most physically-gifted tight ends going as a late-round flier in fantasy drafts?

Howard has top-5 talent and he’s going in the 13th round on average. Granted, when the Buccaneers re-signed Cameron Brate this offseason, Howard’s fantasy value took a slight hit but given his rare athletic ability, it will be difficult to keep the second-year tight end off the field.

Howard only caught 26 passes as a rookie, but they went for 432 yards and six touchdowns. A bigger role in 2018 could push Howard’s totals to around 700 yards and 7-8 touchdowns. Owners would take that production from a fifth-round tight end.

Howard showed he’s a big-play tight end too by averaging 16.6 yards per reception. He’s a stud waiting to happen. I predict it t happens sooner than later.

Get Howard on as many teams as possible. At the end of the year we’ll all look back and laugh that he was going late in fantasy drafts. Just like we did last year with Kamara.

Kerryon Johnson, RB Lions

Johnson is going in the fifth-round of fantasy drafts on average, so he doesn’t fit my definition of a sleeper. However, I wanted to mention him in this article because I’m extremely high on him this year and he’s one of the players I own the most in my leagues.

The Lions were a weak football team under Jim Caldwell, finishing last in rushing offense (76.3 YPG). Based on Matt Patricia’s first draft, it’s obvious he wants the team to be tougher in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Lions do have enough running backs on the roster to employ the Wishbone offense if they choose. However, we know what Theo Riddick brings to the table as a receiver and Ameer Abdullah has been such a disappointment he may not even make the final roster.

That leaves bruisers LeGarrette Blount and Johnson to be the 1-2 punch in the Lions backfield. Blount turns 32 this season. He’s a 10-12 carry a game back at best now. I envision Blount and Johnson sharing the load early but the rookie taking over as the main back at some point this season.

Johnson rushed for 2,286 yards, 29 touchdowns and a 4.9 yards per carry average in his last two college seasons with Auburn. Like I said with Kamara in New Orleans last year, the Lions’ backfield looks crowded on paper, although if you dig a little deeper, there’s one clear option with the most long-term fantasy value. That option is Johnson.

Tre’Quan Smith, WR Saints

I love this guy. My fantasy work starts on Saturdays during college football. Last year I was watching Central Florida early in the season and I wrote down, “Tre’Quan Smith. Love him.”

Some may look at Smith and wonder where his targets will come from. I suppose those people are high on Cameron Meredith. I’m not one of those people.

Meredith is coming off a torn ACL that cost him all of last season. He played sparingly with the Bears, starting just 10 games in his career. If you look back at that 2016 season, Meredith had five big games on a terrible team that was forced to pass a lot. Meredith was also clearly the Bears’ top receiver that year, again, on a team that had to throw so often Brian Hoyer topped 300 yards in four-straight games.

When trying to predict rookie success, it’s important to consider talent and opportunity. Smith has the talent and he’ll get more playing time than some think right from the start. I’ll throw some pizza money down that Smith is the Saints’ second most productive receiver this season behind Thomas. Get on the bandwagon before it’s too late.

About Thomas Casale

Thomas began playing fantasy football back when owners had to mail in their starting lineups and work out trades over the phone. He started writing The Fire Sale in 1998. Since then his articles have appeared on numerous web sites sites including Fantasy Sharks, USA Today and SI.com.