- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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You always knew Ryan Grant was going to be a fantasy stud.
When he lost time to Julius Jones and then Darius Walker at Notre Dame, you knew. When he failed to get drafted in 2005 and was an unsigned free agent inked by the Giants, you knew. When he had an '06 "accident" in a nightclub in which he put his hand through several champagne glasses, severing tendons, nerves and an artery in his arm, you knew. When he was traded to the Packers in '07 for a sixth-round draft pick, you knew. And when he was Green Bay's third-string back for six games last year, you most definitely knew.
No you didn't. Liar.
Perhaps more than any other sport, football is a game where talent has to meet opportunity. And in fantasy, you have to be prepared. It doesn't take a lot of brains to take LaDainian Tomlinson. And heck, you'd have been nuts if you'd drafted Grant last year. But if you'd known who he was, you'd at least have been ready for Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn to spit the bit in Green Bay. The same can be said of Derek Anderson, Earnest Graham, Dwayne Bowe, Kenny Watson, Justin Fargas, Kevin Walter, Kenton Keith and Kolby Smith. Each was well nigh undraftable last August, but each was a much-added fantasy entity early in the season.
Now, the following list isn't a group of players you should definitively target in your upcoming draft. That'd be like handing Shia LeBeouf the Oscar for his 2011 star turn in the Isaac Hayes tribute biopic. ("What a transformation!" they'll shout.) No, what I'm aiming for here is awareness. These are some guys you should know in the second week of August, guys who've had good training camps, who have excellent ability, and/or who have team situations that could lend themselves to breakout campaigns. Not all of these guys will wind up being fantasy factors in '08. But I'd bet at least one or two will.
Anthony Alridge, RB, Broncos: This spot would've been reserved for rookie Ryan Torain out of Arizona State, who's been a summer favorite of mine, but Torain broke his elbow last week and is out for at least two or three months. He was the only big halfback in Broncos camp; starter Selvin Young and backup Andre Hall are small, while Michael Pittman had been converted to fullback before Torain's injury (and has never been a short-yardage guy anyway). Like Young and Hall were in '07, Alridge is an undrafted free agent who's made a positive enough impression that he's currently third on the depth chart, and we all know that in Mike Shanahan's world, anything can happen. Alridge is small but lightning-fast and was a productive receiver in the University of Houston's spread offense. (In Denver camp, also keep an eye on rookie receiver Eddie Royal, who for the moment has passed Darrell Jackson on the depth chart and should at least start in Weeks 1 and 2 while Brandon Marshall is out.)
David Clowney, WR, Jets: Hey, did you hear some guy named Brett Favre is a Jet now? And that he likes to go downfield just a little bit? Now, Laveranues Coles is fast, and I think he's got another very good fantasy season in him. But the third-receiver job in New York is up for grabs, and the winner of that gig has the potential to be a touchdown maker. Chansi Stuckey sounds like the current leader for the job, but don't discount Clowney's chances, especially not after his 70- and 71-yard touchdown grabs in the preseason opener against the Browns. He's a track star from Virginia Tech who actually has more experience with Favre than any other receiver on this team: he was drafted by the Packers last season and went through training camp catching Favre passes before getting his release. His suspect hands haven't reared their ugly head yet this summer, and there's no question he can get open deep.
Will Franklin, WR, Chiefs: Missouri fans know what kind of potential Franklin has; he was a tease throughout his college career, but never put together big numbers despite being quite a physical specimen. In Chiefs camp, though, a light switch has reportedly been hit. He's 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, and runs a 4.39, so I can definitely see him supplanting the underwhelming Devard Darling opposite Dwayne Bowe. The larger question is whether any receiver in the Chiefs offense will be worth owning. But hey, teams surprise us every year. If Herm Edwards has suddenly found an offense, Franklin might be a part of it.
Roy Hall, WR, Colts: Marvin Harrison is healthy. The Colts say it, so it must be true, right? Now, Marvin did catch three passes in Indy's first exhibition game, which is good. But what if he goes down again? Sure, Anthony Gonzalez would be the primary beneficiary, but who becomes the third receiver? Hall, like Gonzalez, is an Ohio State product; unlike Gonzalez, he's a physical freak. Hall is 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and runs a 4.35. That makes him David Boston (before Boston got fat), but bigger and faster. Now, Hall never did much in college, missed all of last year with a separated shoulder, and hasn't shown the greatest hands. But remember the name.
Tim Hightower, RB, Cardinals: When the Cardinals waived Marcel Shipp, the rookie Hightower from Richmond, gained some street cred. Sure, J.J. Arrington is still in Phoenix, but for me that fantasy ship sailed long ago. Edgerrin James is 31 and hasn't averaged four yards a carry since his Indy days. He's also been goal-line challenged of late, and Hightower is 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, and coming off a 1,900-yard senior season. He's not fast or shifty, but he's powerful, and I'm betting he's the Cardinals' goal-line back.
Jason Hill, WR, 49ers: Mike Martz breeds fantasy stars. Who knew Mike Furrey's name before he got thrown into the Martz mix? Or Shaun McDonald's? That's why we should keep track of the Niners depth chart at receiver: Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson figure to start, but neither guy is what you'd call durable. That leaves Arnaz Battle, whom I like this year quite a bit, along with Hill and Ashley Lelie. If you draft Lelie, well, don't say I didn't warn you. But Hill? I thought he was an interesting playmaker at Washington State, though he was always nicked up and spent his rookie year in San Francisco hobbled by groin and hamstring injuries. But healthy, he's got 4.32 speed and spectacular hands. Frankly, he reminds me of a slightly bigger version of the young Bruce.
Jalen Parmele, RB, Dolphins: Remember Bernie Parmalee? He was a running back for the Dolphins in the '90s, a guy who earned his NFL job after working at UPS. Yeah, this guy isn't related to that guy. This Parmele is a rookie out of Toledo who's 6 feet tall and 221 pounds, was a punishing rusher in college and clocks in at a respectable 4.53. He's not elusive and he can't catch very well, so the Fish aren't likely to use him on third downs, but consider the two men he's currently behind on the Miami depth chart: Ronnie Brown is coming off ACL surgery and you can insert your own Ricky Williams "doobage" joke here.
Antonio Pittman, RB, Rams: I've been asked a dozen times over the past week what I think of the Steven Jackson holdout, and in each case, I've remarked that the whole thing smells like an Emmitt. Which is to say that it's evocative of those halcyon days when Emmitt Smith would stay out of camp for all but the final three days, sign a new deal, then come storming in Week 1 (or Week 3 or whatever) and dominate. Still, it's never unwise to have contingencies, and Pittman seems the likely starter if Jackson stays away. Cut by the Saints after last year's draft, he was solid as a backup for St. Louis last year, is a very good pass catcher and has nice elusiveness. The presence of fellow sophomore Brian Leonard would complicate things, but I'd prefer Pittman.
Marcus Thomas, RB, Chargers: When Michael Turner left San Diego for Atlanta, a legion of LT owners wept. After all, Turner was the cleanest and clearest handcuff in fantasy. Now who should all those first-overall drafters pick? The guy I like least is the only remaining incumbent: Darren Sproles. Sproles is a lightning-fast kid but he's tiny and wouldn't last through one big hit from a nose tackle. That leaves two rookies: you've heard of Jacob Hester, but you probably haven't heard of Marcus Thomas. Thomas was a fifth-rounder this spring out of UTEP, a relatively big, very powerful runner with the kind of nice pass-catching hands the Chargers like. He's not fast enough to turn the corner, but then, neither is Hester. Alas, at the moment, Tomlinson simply doesn't have a traditional handcuff any longer, but watch both Hester and Thomas.
Mike Walker, WR, Jaguars: Walker isn't huge and he isn't lightning, but he's a pretty good combination of size and speed: 6-foot-2, 209 pounds with a 4.45 40. He missed his rookie year out of UCF because of a knee injury and lately has battled ankle soreness in camp, but, outside the star-crossed Matt Jones, he's maybe the most physically gifted receiver Jacksonville has. Considering that Reggie Williams has already undergone knee surgery during training camp (he's expected back near the season's start), Jerry Porter will miss all of camp because of hamstring surgery, and Jones has a cocaine-related trial date, Walker could step forward. I have to admit: I just don't put a ton of stake in Dennis Northcutt, and am going to wait and see on Troy Williamson. Walker was a big-time playmaker in college with excellent hands, and is worth watching.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.