Commentary

Hail Mary: Look to Rice and Williams

Updated: July 14, 2008, 3:36 PM ET
By Nando Di Fino | Special to ESPN.com

Awesome. They give the token Italian guy here a column called "Hail Mary."

Anyone out there remember the last time you saw an Italian and "Hail Mary" together in popular culture? On a boat? Fishing? Being killed by his own brother? That's right; I've become the Fredo Corleone of ESPN. This is not a good omen for me, on a personal level.

But I will take it anyway.

So welcome to Hail Mary. It's a fun column to add to your weekly reading schedule: a virtual circus of the week's best sleepers, most elaborate reasoning to play these sleepers, and logical proofs as to why they might net you some fantasy points. What does it all boil down to? Basically, this column is your personal panic button. Did you lose your flex player to plantar fasciitis? Need a tight end because yours is on a bye week but only have four guys you've never heard of in your free agent pool to replace him with? Well, friend, this is your column.

Each week, Hail Mary is going to explore some players who the rest of the world has yet to discover as "sleepers;" we're going to dig a wee bit deeper and try to be a little smarter than your average column. You will see no Jerious Norwoods here. In the Hail Mary universe, he is LaDainian Tomlinson. Think smaller. Like Sidney Rice. Or David Boston. In fact, if you finish reading a Hail Mary column and don't think to yourself one of the following thoughts, then Hail Mary (and yes, as an homage to any athlete you can think of, Hail Mary will refer to Hail Mary in the third person) has failed you:

  1. "Who?"
  2. "He still plays?"
  3. "Wasn't he in Sesame Street's 'Follow That Bird'?"
  4. "The guy with the purple contacts?"

So let's dive right in, and start this week off with a few players who encapsulate the spirit of Hail Mary. I give you …

Some Guys You Possibly Can Brag to Your Friends About on Monday Night Over Wings and Possibly Beers (But Only if You Are 21 and Don't Have to Work Early in the Morning, Otherwise You Can Just Brag To Your Wife or Girlfriend) (Who Will Not Listen)

Sidney Rice, WR, Vikings: Fine, NFL. You go ahead and put him wherever you'd like on the depth chart, but you're not going to be able to control where Tarvaris Jackson throws the ball. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at who is ahead of the rookie wide receiver (out of South Carolina) on the Minnesota depth chart:

  1. Troy Williamson: Also, ironically, a product of South Carolina. Williamson has two total touchdowns in two seasons with the Vikings. He has yet to hit 1,000 receiving yards in his career, much less in a season.
  2. Bobby Wade: After five years in the NFL, Wade is on his third team, and is currently being bothered by a sore ankle. He has caught no more than 42 passes in a season, and never had more than 481 yards.
  3. Robert Ferguson: After being released by Green Bay, he passed up a chance to be on Houston's practice squad for Minnesota's greener, carpeted pastures. The injury-plagued wideout -- who has played in all 16 games only once in five seasons -- obviously saw a better chance to compete on the Vikings than anywhere else in the NFL. He is now also bothered by a sore ankle.

    Which brings us to our man, Rice. Second-leading Minnesota receiver in the preseason, with eight catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. He caught 142 passes for 2,233 yards and 23 touchdowns in just two seasons under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. And he's coming into a situation where the quarterback doesn't have any receiver he likes to throw to, since they're all new to him (I am somewhat discounting the four games Jackson saw action in last year).

    So why Rice?

    Why not?

    Mike Williams, WR, Oakland: Mike Williams can blame his lack of success in the NFL on two things: Maurice Clarett and fatty foods. See, back in 2004, when Clarett declared for the NFL draft after his freshman year, Williams thought it was a good idea to forego his last two seasons at USC and followed suit (and, eventually, filed suit). Both eventually were denied entrance to the NFL by a federal judge and basically lost a season of football, waiting to get old enough to be drafted.

    When 2005 rolled around, Williams was selected by the Detroit Lions, who already had drafted Charles Rogers and Roy Williams as No. 1 picks to be their wide receivers. What followed were two seasons of weight issues, as Williams remained inactive and benched for, ostensibly, eating too much and not shedding weight quickly.

    And that brings us to NFL draft day, 2007. The Lions, fed up with Williams, sent both him and Josh McCown to Oakland for a fourth-round pick. Williams was then reunited with Lane Kiffin, the new head coach of the Raiders, who also served as wide receivers coach for Williams at USC.

    So you see where we're going with this, right?

    The best freshman receiver in USC history reunites with the man who helped him achieve those numbers. And then Doug Gabriel, ahead of him on the depth charts in Oakland, is released at the end of August. Currently ahead of Williams are Jerry Porter, who was active for only four games last year because he butted heads with former coach Art Shell, and Ronald Curry, who... well, he's pretty good, actually. But Williams is the solid No. 3, and don't discount the fact that Kiffin knows Williams.

    In other words, if you drafted Kevan Barlow or Gabriel, or the autodraft you set up for the last three rounds (so you could appease an angry girlfriend) stuck you with two defenses or kickers, consider stealing Williams or Rice off the waiver wire, and stashing them on your bench for the first few weeks. You might be happy you did so.

    Which brings us to our favorite part of Hail Mary: The fun kicker fact of the week. We take a stance here that, after the first seven kickers, it's all pretty much a wash. So, in lieu of actual advice, we want you to get to know your kickers on a much more fun, intimate level. Therefore:

    Fun Kicker Fact No. 1

    Matt Bryant, Buccaneers: Drinks a chocolate shake every Saturday night before a game.

    And thus, we are through with the first Hail Mary of 2007. In the future, we're going to be offering you deep sleeper ("comatose"?) picks at the three major positions with the occasional tight end and defense/special teams thrown in for good measure. You don't really need that panic button until after we've seen a full slate of games, so we kept it simple for Week 1.

    Best of luck this week to all your fantasy teams, and if your entire starting lineup ends up limping into Week 2, you know where to come looking.

    Nando Di Fino writes about Fantasy Sports for ESPN.com