Deep fantasy football sleepers - Terrace Marshall Jr. among players to watch - ESPN

UniqueThis 85 August 14, 2023
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Aug 14, 2023, 06:20 PM ET

Each preseason, I present my list of fantasy football "deep sleepers," players who by all accounts will not -- and in many cases should not -- be drafted in a standard 10-team ESPN league, but who have decent odds of contributing at some point during the upcoming season. Many can help you round out a roster in deeper league formats.

Tuck these names away and track them throughout the preseason. In the right situation, any of them could become the linchpin to your fantasy team's championship hopes. For example, last year's column might have brought Isiah Pacheco and/or Romeo Doubs to your attention.

Be forewarned, this is a deep sleepers column, rather than a space for more commonly cited sleepers such as Kenny Pickett, Kendre Miller, Kadarius Toney or Chigoziem Okonkwo, as much as I do like all four of those players for 2023. Additionally, this list generally excludes prominent rookies, those selected in the first three rounds of the most recent NFL draft.

This list's purpose is to extend the sleeper-seeking exercise, familiarize you with some names you might (and probably will) want to know, and deliver some possible late-round picks to those of you in deeper leagues.

Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, Carolina Panthers: A 2021 second-rounder who completely flopped during his rookie campaign, Marshall began to show signs of his big-play potential in limited action as a sophomore. He had the game's greatest percentage of his catches going for 20-plus yards (39%, 11 of 28) and caught 64% of his vertical targets in 2022, accentuating his expansive catch radius and upside on plays downfield. With DJ Moore now in Chicago, the Panthers need a big-play target, and while DJ Chark Jr. was signed to assist in that regard, Chark's injury history is checkered, to say the least. Marshall could carve out a significant role in Frank Reich's offense.

Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams: A high school basketballer with both the height and hands to make contested catches, as well as a polished route-runner, Nacua caught the Rams' eye in the fifth round of this year's draft. He'll step into what is a much thinner receiver depth chart than we've become familiar with in LA in recent seasons, granting the rookie a chance to quickly capture a prominent role, especially in three-receiver sets. Additionally, Nacua rushed for 209 yards and five touchdowns for BYU last season, indicating he could contribute for the team on the ground as well. He might quickly move into a complementary role in the Rams' offense.

Kyle Philips, WR, Tennessee Titans: Philips was a stellar slot receiver for UCLA, scoring 10 touchdowns in 11 games as a junior before starring for the Titans in Week 1 last season, catching 6 of 9 targets for 66 yards. Unfortunately, shoulder and hamstring injuries derailed his season and ultimately led to Philips landing on injured reserve in October. Now healthy, he has once again drawn preseason praise for his conditioning and practice performance, consistently winning one-on-one matchups and exhibiting the separation ability that makes him an ideal fit for the slot role between DeAndre Hopkins and Treylon Burks. He brings a good share of PPR upside on a team sure to throw more frequently.

Isaiah Spiller, RB, Los Angeles Chargers: Few sophomores serve as better examples of what a year's NFL experience can do for a running back. Spiller's rookie-year preseason was interrupted by an ankle injury, thwarting his momentum in the fight for touches behind Austin Ekeler, and let's not forget that he was a younger-than-usual prospect. He'll enter this season only five months older than Bijan Robinson. The Chargers failed to add much in the way of competition behind Ekeler during the offseason, setting Spiller up for a compelling battle with Joshua Kelley. I liked Spiller considerably more than Kelley as a prospect then, and my opinion hasn't changed in the year since.

Pierre Strong, RB, New England Patriots: Despite rushing for 4,527 yards and 40 touchdowns during his four years at South Dakota State, Strong was used sparingly as a rookie last season. That was despite his RB-leading 4.37 40-yard time at the 2022 combine. All indications, however, are that the Patriots have been playing the long game with Strong, ticketing him for a larger role as a sophomore, something I'd still expect despite the August addition of Ezekiel Elliott. Strong could be particularly involved in the receiving game, having totaled 62 catches for 581 yards and three scores receiving during his college career. To that end, multiple Patriots reporters have hinted that he could occupy a James White-like role in 2023.

Clayton Tune, QB, Arizona Cardinals: After the productive rookie years by late-round quarterback draftees Gardner Minshew (2019) and Brock Purdy (2022), there's understandably desire to unearth the next such unexpected gem. Tune belongs on the candidates list, after delivering a combined 7,618 yards passing, 698 yards rushing and 77 total touchdowns in his final two seasons for Houston, giving him both pro-readiness as well as the mobility to fit the Cardinals' offensive system. While he has enough arm strength to succeed in the NFL, he'll need to improve his accuracy after throwing 10 interceptions and totaling what Pro Football Focus tracked as 18 turnover-worthy plays last season. Tune should see a good amount of preseason action as the Cardinals evaluate him and Colt McCoy for the roles of temporary fill-in for Kyler Murray and Murray's eventual backup. Murray's recovery from ACL surgery will almost assuredly cost him time at the start of the regular season, and he missed five additional games in 2021-22 before that specific injury. That casts further doubt on his ability to stay healthy, so Tune could play an essential, perhaps Purdy-esque role for the 2023 team.

Cole Turner, TE, Washington Commanders: Tight ends typically need at least a year to get fully acclimated to the NFL level, and for Turner, who converted from wide receiver during his time at Nevada, that's especially valid. A hamstring injury largely contributed to his forgettable rookie campaign, though reports throughout OTAs were positive, indicating his role might greatly expand in 2023. Turner's size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) could make him an ideal goal-line target, as evidenced by his 19 combined touchdowns in his final two college seasons, and he's sure to benefit from new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy's tight end-friendly offense.

Jelani Woods, TE, Indianapolis Colts: Woods did little to catch fantasy managers' eyes as a rookie, only four times playing at least half the Colts' offensive snaps and only once catching more than three passes in a game. Nevertheless, with a year's experience under his belt, the 2022 third-rounder should see an elevated role this season in Shane Steichen's offense. Steichen's two seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator saw Dallas Goedert average 11.3 PPR fantasy points per game. Woods brings good size (6-foot-7, 259 points) and field-stretching ability, making him a potentially sneaky source of touchdown production.