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I scoff at your sleepers. Everyone and their dog knows Chris Brown might steal goal-line looks from Steve Slaton, that Joe Flacco has a better arm than he showed in 2008, and that Michael Crabtree's absence is Josh Morgan's gain. I mean, how much good does it really do you to luck out and draft the No. 27 wide receiver in fantasy, when everyone else in your league believed the guy would be the No. 47 receiver?
No, the true unexpected studs of fantasy football circa 2009 -- the real shockers of the Slaton, Matt Cassel, Tyler Thigpen or Tim Hightower variety -- probably won't be drafted in many leagues this summer. That's because whoever they are, they're buried on an NFL depth chart, silently vibrating with potential energy, waiting for injury and/or opportunity.
So today's exercise isn't about trying to find you the sneaky name everyone else already knows but is maybe undervaluing a scintilla or two. Instead, to mix sports metaphors, I'll try to hit the ball out of the ballpark blindfolded. I'm listing 10 names you might know only vaguely or not at all, players who I think have a chance of being relatively important fantasy players at some point in '09. Now, that's not to say I'd draft any of 'em; in a 10-team league, I highly doubt that I would draft a single one of these souls. But as the season progresses, I believe at least a few of these guys will be worth adding, and you'll remember this article, remember who they are, and add them with confidence and aplomb.
As a preface, this is a bear of an exercise. To give you some context, here are the 10 names I selected for this article last year: Anthony Alridge, David Clowney, Will Franklin, Roy Hall, Hightower, Jason Hill, Jalen Parmele, Antonio Pittman, Marcus Thomas and Mike Walker. Hightower was obviously the superstar of this group, and seeing potential in Walker and Clowney wasn't bad. Hill caught 30 passes and a couple scores. Pittman got a crack at playing time and blew it. Otherwise, though, nothing. And that's to be expected. To be clear, I'm not listing an '09 first-round draft pick like Kenny Britt (whom I like as a more traditional sleeper following Nate Washington's hamstring injury) or, ya know, Shonn Greene. We're going way deeper than that.
So let's look at another 10 long shots, shall we?
Andre Caldwell, WR, Bengals. The Cincinnati staff really likes Caldwell and has done its best to get him on the field during the exhibition season. It hasn't showed in the second-year man's stat line (one catch for three yards), but he has been out there a lot. Of course, he's No. 4 on the Bengals' receiving totem pole, behind Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles and Chris Henry, but Caldwell is also supposedly the team's Wildcat quarterback. If someone on this depth chart gets hurt, Caldwell, who is more talented than older brother Reche, has it in him to be an intriguing contributor.
Austin Collie, WR, Colts. Remember when Anthony Gonzalez was Peyton Manning's slot receiver? With Marvin Harrison gone, that's not the case any longer; Gonzo will play out in Harrison's old flanker role, while Reggie Wayne will stay at split end. There's a vacancy in the slot, then, and Collie, a rookie out of BYU, might be the man. He led Division I with 1,538 receiving yards in 2008, and the Colts took him in the fourth round in April. He has excellent hands and nice quickness, and he measures a full 6-foot-2. If he gains Manning's trust early, the sky is the limit.
James Davis, RB, Browns. Raise your hand if you trust Jamal Lewis. He just turned 30, is coming off a 1,002-yard, four-touchdown season, and doesn't exactly play on an offensive juggernaut any longer. Enter Davis, a rookie out of Clemson who, if he had turned pro after his junior year, might have been a second-round pick. Instead, he stuck around Death Valley and went in the sixth round. In his first two exhibition games (admittedly, not running against first-team defenses), Davis has 121 yards on 14 carries and seems to be proving that while his 40 time didn't blow anyone away (it was 4.6 at the scouting combine in the spring, and 4.45 at Clemson's pro day), he's "game fast." And Davis isn't a water bug like Jerome Harrison; he's three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. There's a chance Davis gets in the mix for carries as early as Week 1.
Jermichael Finley, TE, Packers. The only tight end on this list has great athletic ability, but at the moment, he's really more a reason not to draft Donald Lee than someone you need to worry about owning in September. Be aware, though, that the Green Bay brass loves this kid, a second-year player out of Texas, and thinks he can be an Antonio Gates type of factor in a year or two. He's 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, runs a 4.8 40 and will get a lot of playing time.
Arian Foster, RB, Texans. Foster was supposed to be a superstar at Tennessee; instead, he wound up going undrafted this April. Houston signed him as a free agent and loved what it saw of him in spring practice, so much so that Foster was mentioned as a possible short-yardage accompanist for Steve Slaton. It's been downhill for Foster since those heady days: He pulled a hamstring early in training camp and hasn't really gotten back on the field since, though he's supposed to play in the Texans' third preseason game this weekend. Clearly Slaton is the man in Houston, and Chris Brown seems to have a bead on being the touchdown vulture. But Foster is a big kid (6-foot-1, 226 pounds), has 4.7-ish speed, and could benefit if and when Brown gets hurt. Of course, Foster could also wind up on the practice squad.
|If Jonathan Stewart's Achilles continues to bother him, Mike Goodson (above) could be in an advantageous role.|
Rashad Jennings, RB, Jaguars. Hedge alert: For a while this summer, it really sounded as though Jennings, a rookie out of Liberty, had the inside track to becoming Maurice Jones-Drew's backup. Since then, though, Jennings has limped around a bit with a groin injury, while Greg Jones and Chauncey Washington have made inroads on the backup's job. I love MJD this year, but I also acknowledge the amount of risk that a featured back his size comes with, so whoever wins this backup gig might very well be worth a handcuff. It's a three-horse race right now, and I'm interested in the victor.
Marko Mitchell, WR, Redskins. Mitchell is the deepest of deep flyers, maybe even too deep for this list, because it would be mighty rare to have a seventh-round receiver contribute anything in his rookie year. But Mitchell was the star of Washington's training camp: At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he runs a 4.49 40, is an amazing leaper and showed better-than-expected ball skills right away. He has Redskins beat reporters saying they think he has a chance to start opposite Santana Moss. That sounds pretty far-fetched to me; the team has a lot more invested in second-year men Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly. But this organization has been lacking a No. 2 receiver for going on five years. If Mitchell winds up being that guy, he could be intriguing.
Bernard Scott, RB, Bengals. Like a lot of rookies, Scott went through a honeymoon period early in training camp in which everyone hyped him, and it sounded as though he were the no-brainer choice to be Cedric Benson's backup. Then everyone watched him play a couple of exhibition games and he didn't blow anyone away, so the fantasy hype machine moved on. But Scott remains a more intriguing physical specimen than Brian Leonard, the other guy who could win the No. 2 role in Cincy. Scott's physical gifts have never been his problem; the issue is that he was arrested five times in college. Still, he's fast, he's a great athlete, and he has enough size and shiftiness to become an every-down back someday -- if he can get the mental and emotional side of things down.
Danny Ware, RB, Giants. A former practice-squad player with two career carries in two seasons, Ware has been really good so far during the exhibition season, with 128 total yards from scrimmage. Of course, Ahmad Bradshaw has played spectacularly and has a stranglehold on the No. 2 job behind Brandon Jacobs. But with rookie Andre Brown's season-ending injury, Ware is definitively the No. 3 guy, and that was a role that suited Bradshaw fairly well last season. Plus, Ware would just be a Jacobs injury (not exactly the rarest of birds) away from significant carries behind one of the league's best offensive lines.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can find him at www.facebook.com/writerboy.