This list is so deep, Bilal Powell is "too big a name" for it.
This is my fifth year of writing a "Super-Deep Sleepers" column, and the point isn't to confirm widely held suspicions, or isolate players who should find themselves on the end of your fantasy bench. In fact, I daresay that none of the 10 players I'm about to mention should be drafted in 10- or 12-team leagues. Yes, I'm intrigued by (for example) Leonard Hankerson,
Kendall Hunter and Jacquizz Rodgers in 2012. But each of those men is in my personal Top 200 and as such are pretty darned draftable right now. They're good lottery tickets to own, but they're too "big" for this list.
The same holds true for a guy like Powell, who's had a strong summer and by many accounts has bypassed Joe McKnight for the New York Jets' backup RB job behind Shonn Greene. Powell barely missed my Top 200, yet including him here would feel like a cheat, because he's potentially the No. 2 man behind a somewhat lightly regarded starter on a team that says it wants to run the ball like crazy. If Powell goes nutso in Week 1, nobody who's been paying attention would be particularly surprised. The same could be said of someone like Jonathan Dwyer playing behind Isaac Redman. Pretty clearly, these guys can be drafted in 12-team leagues.
Those aren't the kind of players I'm trying to find in this column. I'm going deeper. I'm looking for relative obscurity. Guys who are far outside the Top 200. Guys with little chance of being stars in '12. But guys who I believe have talent, and who could -- given the right opportunity -- excel this season. Don't draft these players, but remember their names, and at the first hint of a depth-chart shakeup, prepare to pounce on the waiver wire.
Hey, I'm obviously not going to hit a grand slam on very many of these. Most will likely fade into the NFL background, and some might not even make their respective teams' 53-man rosters come September. But based on past history, I'm guessing a few will become big names in the fantasy game someday soon. Here's a rundown of the players I've picked the past four years:
Let's take a look at this year's list:
Bryce Brown, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: Any discussion of Brown begins with questions about his character. He transferred from Tennessee when Lane Kiffin left, but the circumstances were controversial and the Volunteers wouldn't release Brown from his scholarship. After sitting out a year, he landed at Kansas State and lasted three games before essentially quitting the team. Brown was the nation's premier RB prospect of '09 coming out of high school and has an NFL body: 6 feet and 223 pounds. He's played better than fellow rookie Chris Polk this summer, though neither guy will threaten Dion Lewis as LeSean McCoy's backup right away. But whereas McCoy has regularly suffered nicks and dings and Lewis is undersized (5-foot-8, 195 pounds), I can envision Brown taking on power-back duties this season under the right circumstances. Of course, he's so raw (with 104 total collegiate carries and zero pass-blocking experience) that it also wouldn't be a shock to see him wind up on Philly's practice squad. But as we've all heard a billion times, the NFL position that's easiest to jump directly into is running back. Should he earn playing time, Brown has the raw tools to make standout plays.
Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns: NFL teams are drafting a new breed of tight end these days -- unbelievably big, unbelievably athletic men who don't necessarily have much football experience -- but I was at least a season too early picking Julius Thomas for this list last year. So I won't go near '12 rookies like Adrien Robinson, Ladarius Green or Evan Rodriguez yet, though each of them could be exciting names for the future. Instead, I'll take a swing at Cameron, whom the Browns took in the '11 draft despite the fact that the high school hoops star made all of 16 collegiate catches at USC. But you can't teach a guy to run 4.55 at 6-5 and 245 pounds. Cameron played in only eight games in his rookie year and caught six passes. But he's already submitted highlights this preseason that make him look like Jimmy Graham North. There's clutter ahead of him on Cleveland's roster in the form of Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore, but Cameron's emergence has Browns beat writers speculating that the team may cut ties with either Watson or Moore. Brandon Weeden is a rookie QB and let's just say the Cleveland passing attack hasn't been dynamic the past couple seasons, but Cameron has star potential.
Kellen Davis, TE, Chicago Bears: At age 26, Davis is the oldest player on this year's list, and he's already played four NFL seasons. Because tight end has been such a wasteland in Chicago for the past couple of seasons, folks outside the Windy City are neglecting Davis, but he's a 6-7, 267-pound monster who runs 4.58. Free from the yoke of TE-unfriendly ex-coordinator Mike Martz, Davis has a shot at becoming a major Bears red zone weapon. Remember the days when Greg Olsen was a Jay Cutler favorite? I'm not saying Davis yet has Olsen-level hands or route-running ability, but he's even bigger than the very large Olsen. Right now, Brandon Marshall gets all the fantasy pub, and rightly so, but I can't find another wideout on this roster to feel great about (Alshon Jeffery may work out well, but he's a maturity-challenged rookie, and I'm not holding my breath for '12). We've got Davis listed as our No. 32 TE and that's totally understandable, given how deep the position is. But it would be unsurprising to me if Davis winds up a top-10 TE by the end of the season.
Chris Givens, WR, St. Louis Rams: Remember the rookie year Torrey Smith had? Seven TDs (three in one memorable Week 3 game) that went for the following yardage: 74, 41, 18, 26, 38, 8 and 36. Plus, he also tied Calvin Johnson for 10th in average yards at the catch among WRs. In other words: Rookies who run ridiculously fast can sometimes produce, and despite the fact that he was drafted in the fourth round this spring (as opposed to Smith, who was an '11 second-rounder), Givens fits that bill. Anyone who watched the Rams' first preseason game saw them fire it very deep to Givens three times. The kid ran a 4.37 at this winter's combine, and while I don't figure he'll win a starting job right away, I don't consider guys like Brian Quick, Greg Salas, Danario Alexander and the other Steve Smith so great that Givens won't eventually get looks. Is a 1,000-yard season unlikely? You bet. But my guess is that he blows the lid off a few defenses this season with game-changing plays, and if those add up, he could become fantasy-relevant quickly.
Alex Green, RB, Green Bay Packers: Green tore his left ACL in Week 7 last season as a rookie playing special teams, and most of his standard-league luster wore off when the Pack signed Cedric Benson this summer. But I liked Green quite a bit as a size/speed combo guy coming out of Hawaii, and from among him, Benson and James Starks, there's little question who the most enticing athlete is. Listen, Benson is steady and he's missed only one game in the past two years. Starks, meanwhile, already looks shaky to begin the season because of a turf toe injury, while Green has reportedly shown his legs are under him by cutting well in camp. He could easily wind up as the pass-catching back in Aaron Rodgers' high-octane attack, with the possibility for more if he catches fire. Now, I'm definitely wary of RBs the first year back from a torn ACL, and if Green's workload gets heavy, I wouldn't be shocked to see the leg pulls and strains that often accompany such a return. That said, I'll nevertheless be ready to pounce if the stars align in his favor.
Lestar Jean, WR, Houston Texans: First of all, it's pronounced "luh-STAR JEEN." Next of all, if you think you've seen this movie before, it's because you have. A big, rangy, athletic dude taking the preseason by storm and allowing Texans fans to dream of an all-freak starting receiver corps? Certainly that was the story behind Jacoby Jones these past few seasons. And now here comes Jean, another undrafted and raw athlete seeking to replace Kevin Walter opposite Andre Johnson. Your instincts are probably telling you to stay away, and I get that. Heck, rookie Keshawn Martin probably has a legit claim to more Week 1 playing time than Jean, as a third-down option. But it's tough to ignore Jean's upside. He's 6-3 and 205 pounds, and while he's got nothing like AJ's deep speed, he's shown remarkable athleticism through two preseason games, as the Texans have been easing Johnson into action. I'm telling you, squint hard and you'd swear it was AJ out there. Should Johnson get injured yet again, I can't imagine the diminutive Martin playing out wide. It'd probably be Jean, and he'd be worth a look.
Jeremy Kerley, WR, New York Jets: I came close to leaving Kerley off this list, and earmarking the Dallas Cowboys' Cole Beasley instead. Whereas Kerley tore a hamstring the first day of training camp and has done very little since, undrafted rookie Beasley has been amazing from jump street and has a legit chance to play in three-WR sets for Dallas. Alas, I'm not sure that job will be worth a ton even if Miles Austin's hamstring problems prove chronic, and Beasley still has to beat out Kevin Ogletree and Andre Holmes, so he's an honorary 11th on this list. As for Kerley, it's a leap of faith to consider him relevant at this point, especially since whatever juice he might've gained last season as the Jets' Wildcat QB went out the door when Tim Tebow walked in. However, other than Santonio Holmes, there's nothing close to a proven wideout in this corps, and I can see Kerley graduating into a Davone Bess kind of role in Tony Sparano's conservative offense. No, the upside isn't exciting, but in a PPR league it's possible Kerley makes a difference later in the season.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Opposite A.J. Green, the Bengals have a mess. Will Brandon Tate win the No. 2 receiving job? Will it be Armon Binns? Will rookie Marvin Jones play a bunch? Or perhaps it'll be Sanu, another rookie, who is almost certainly the slowest person on this year's list. But speed isn't the only thing that matters. Sanu caught an incredible 115 balls in his final season at Rutgers, and is a slightly bigger version of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, another guy who didn't have much speed but made all kinds of plays. Yes, the Bengals would probably prefer to find an outside burner to take pressure off of Green, but I have to believe Sanu is already a tempting security blanket, and he already caught a red zone score in the preseason. As his first year progresses, I expect to see him on the field a bunch. Perhaps he'll be more of a PPR threat than anything else, but anyone who plays across from Green should see an awful lot of singled-up looks.
Michael Smith, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: When LeGarrette Blount took a big hit to his leg in Tampa's second preseason game, Smith almost had to come off this list. I assumed Blount's injury might be catastrophic, which would've boosted rookie Doug Martin into an unquestioned starter role and promoted Smith to the No. 2 spot. Fortunately for Blount, he apparently emerged without serious injury, and the rookie Smith can slink back down to third string. But here's the thing: I kind of believe Smith would've been able to handle to job. I'd be lying if I said I saw tons of film on him (or Robert Turbin) at Utah State, but what I can find online is interesting. Turbin dominated carries (249 carries to 114 last season), but Smith averaged 7.9 yards per carry and scored 11 total TDs, and is no wilting violet at 209 pounds. What's most interesting is that Smith ran a 4.33 40 at his pro day. The Bucs have reportedly been pleased with everything about him except his pass protection; his power/speed combo has allowed him to produce a couple of nice runs late in preseason games, too. In this case, it'll absolutely take an injury (or two), but Smith has the physical package to catch lightning in a bottle.
Rod Streater, WR, Oakland Raiders. I guess I'm going back to the Raiders rookie wideout well. Denarius Moore immediately stood out in last summer's training camp and it carried over into a 618-yard, six-total-TD season. As Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey emerge into legit fantasy threats, there's less and less room for a guy like Streater -- an undrafted rookie out of Temple -- to have an impact. But boy, he's been really good. Oakland beat reporters heaped praise on him throughout camp, and in two preseason games (in which he didn't face only garbage-time defenses), Streater has 13 catches for 109 yards. Meanwhile, Moore hasn't seen the field much because of a lingering hamstring injury and Jacoby Ford, the erstwhile No. 3 WR, is battling an injury in the same foot that sidelined him last season. The depth chart also features more-heralded rookie Juron Criner, but current wisdom has it that Streater has surpassed Criner. Will he be the Raiders' No. 3? Will Moore's injury lead to Streater starting? He's big and fast, like any Oakland WR should be. Don't draft him (don't draft any of these guys!), but remember the name.