Ten super-deep sleepers to watch
I am about to give you 10 names of NFL players who have an outside chance of doing something interesting in 2011.
Do not draft these players.
If you're in a standard 10-team fantasy football league, the term "sleeper" applies to guys like Shonn Greene and Robert Meachem, and rightly so. A maximum of 140 position players (i.e., not defenses or kickers) get drafted in 10-team leagues; considering roughly 1,700 guys will make NFL rosters once final cuts are made in a couple of weeks, you're drafting only the true cream of the crop in standard fantasy leagues. Even for folks in 12-team leagues, it's generally unwise to reach for players who are third, fourth or fifth on their NFL team's depth chart.
But this is pro football. It is violent. Depth charts will get massacred by injuries. Veterans will drop off precipitously. New blood will make itself known in sudden and unexpected ways. That's why it pays to be prepared.
That's the motto of this annual column of mine: Be prepared. (I believe that is also the motto of another American institution.) My mission here isn't to give you draftable players. It's to put a bug in your ear, or rather, to tune your hearing so that when the inevitable surprises begin to ransack NFL box scores come September, you'll have a head start on which potential breakout players might actually be for real. These are, in my parlance, "Super-Deep Sleepers."
This is the fourth year I've written this column. The results of such an enterprise are always going to be variable. Many of the guys I've mentioned didn't do diddely-squat, and heck, some of 'em were even cut before the season began. But some have presaged relatively valuable fantasy careers. Here's the roll call of the players I've selected the past three years:
You may be asking yourself, "Who the heck is Marko Mitchell?" But I'm betting you have heard of Arian Foster and Steve Johnson. Anyway, let's hope there's at least one home run among the players on this list, none of whom currently rank among ESPN.com's top 200. Away we go:
Dezmon Briscoe, WR, Buccaneers
Mike Williams is in the top 20 among receivers in our fantasy rankings, and teammate Arrelious Benn was the 39th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. But Briscoe has had the best camp of any Tampa Bay wideout. He's a big guy and a great leaper, though these talents (plus his lack of ideal speed) make Briscoe somewhat redundant with Williams. If Benn can get healthy from his torn ACL, he offers deep speed that Briscoe doesn't, and that would probably make for a more balanced Bucs pass attack. But Briscoe, a sixth-round pick last year whom the Bengals tried to sneak onto their practice squad only to see the Bucs pluck him away much in the manner they stole LeGarrette Blount from Tennessee, has a shot to be a Week 1 starter and potential single-covered target while opposing defenses try to stop Williams. Even if he doesn't earn that role, however, we're talking about a super-productive collegiate player (a University of Kansas-record 3,240 receiving yards and 31 TDs) with enviable size and hands. There's certainly potential here.
Delone Carter, RB, Colts
It's usually dangerous to draw conclusions from preseason games, so I'll try to avoid doing so. But so far I've seen evidence of a no-nonsense rookie who brings a bit of a heavier load than Joseph Addai, though I'm not positive Carter offers any more longer-speed explosiveness than Addai does (which isn't much at all). Neither Addai nor Donald Brown has gotten extensive preseason work yet, though that might change in Friday night's game against Green Bay, but I wouldn't be surprised if Carter was already ahead of Brown on the depth chart. He's not a Brown-esque spinner/dancer at the line; rather, he's a 5-foot-9, 225-pound jackhammer, a slightly bigger (yet slower) version of Maurice Jones-Drew. If Addai wasn't also a very good short-yardage back, maybe I'd be even more excited about Carter's prospects. But Addai has missed 13 games the past three years combined. If he gets hurt again, Carter would have a good chance of inheriting a valuable fantasy role.
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos
Decker suffered a Lisfranc (foot) fracture his senior year at the University of Minnesota, or he might've been as high as a first-round pick in the 2010 draft. As it was, Decker lasted until the third round and was essentially "redshirted" his rookie season. Now healthy, the 6-3, 220-pounder appears to be a natural flanker, a possession receiver who doesn't have great deep speed but can really jump and has superb hands. Decker also aced the Wonderlic a couple of years back, generating an image as a heady player and a coach's favorite. Brandon Lloyd comes first in Denver's offense, but Decker looks like a strong bet to play in three-receiver sets, with Eddie Royal running out of the slot. Whether new coach John Fox is willing to throw enough to allow more than one Broncos receiver to be a fantasy factor is an open question, but odds are that Decker will finish third or fourth in targets among Denver pass-catchers. If the team is significantly better than many believe, I can see the kid tickling high single digits in touchdowns.
Jamie Harper, RB, Titans
I'm guessing you don't need another ink-stained wretch weighing in on the Chris Johnson contract fiasco; that's a saga unto its own. And Javon Ringer is clearly in the mix as well, though he has been bothered by a hip injury during the preseason. Harper is clearly third on the Tennessee depth chart, and Ringer is the man fantasy owners will want to handcuff to CJ2K. But it wouldn't be a terrible thing to file Harper's name away, too. Harper and fellow rookie Delone Carter (discussed above) share many of the same attributes: They're big, no-nonsense bangers who, in the right situation, could wind up being TD-makers. Harper is the better pass-catcher, and Titans beat reporters have floated his name as the potential third-down back in Tennessee even with Ringer aboard, though Harper needs to prove he's reliable in pass protection before that happens. While Ringer is a nice, consistent player, he's significantly lighter than Harper and no faster. If Johnson's holdout is for the long haul (which I don't believe it will be), Harper just might lead the team in touchdowns.
Kendall Hunter, RB, 49ers
Hunter was headed for this list even before his 53-yard scoring scamper against the Raiders last week. In fact, my regular readers know I hyped Hunter all the way back to the NFL combine, and wrote him up with great affection after April's draft. Skills-wise, I believe he's akin to Ray Rice, though in his rookie season questions linger about ball security -- he had 10 lost fumbles in 771 career touches at Oklahoma State -- and his pass blocking. For some reason, when folks think of Hunter, I believe they confuse him for a "waterbug" type, but this is a 200-pound player at 5-7, not exactly a banger but an instinctive, elusive open-field runner with the burst to take it the distance. Frank Gore is the man in San Fran for as long as he lasts and Hunter is no guarantee to be his handcuff, considering Anthony Dixon is still around. If Gore does get hurt, I'm betting Hunter would lead the team in carries, but Dixon would get lots of work and perhaps be a favorite for touchdowns. Still, this guy was my favorite value pick among rookie running backs in April's draft, and I like his landing spot. I won't be shocked to find him ownable in all leagues by this December.
Denarius Moore, WR, Raiders
I'm not breaking new ground here. Moore was the cause celebre of Raiders camp, vaulting from a relatively unknown fifth-round pick into the conversation to start for Oakland in Week 1. Moore ran a brisk 4.37 40 at the combine, which made him a natural Raiders draft pick, but unlike a few more-heralded draftees over the past few years, Moore has backed up Al Davis' faith by catching everything in sight in camp and looking elusive as well as straight-ahead fast. There's actually quite a bit of deep-sleeper hype surrounding Moore, which is always a bit dangerous; expecting a rookie receiver to crash through an entire depth chart and become a fantasy factor is almost always folly. But with Louis Murphy and Chaz Schilens both hurt badly enough that they probably won't be ready to play the season opener, at worst Moore looks like Oakland's No. 3 receiver right away, and unreliable Darrius Heyward-Bey is one of the men ahead of him (the more reliable Jacoby Ford is the other). Moore isn't big like DHB, but he runs good routes already, is terrific when called upon in the return game and has prototypical deep speed. Just know the name.
Jordan Norwood, WR, Browns
Norwood kicked around with the Eagles for parts of a couple of seasons, even earning action in three-receiver sets on occasion after being an undrafted rookie back in 2009. Then he spent most of last year on Cleveland's practice squad, before shining during Pat Shurmur's first training camp this summer. Norwood is just about the exact opposite of the kind of wideout I typically try to identify for fantasy purposes. He's listed at 5-11 and 180 pounds and might be even smaller than that, and he lacks long speed. But the Browns have made him their starting slot receiver. Danny Amendola, Shurmur's slot guy in St. Louis last year, caught 85 passes (albeit for "only" 689 yards and three scores), and there's just as much receiving-corps chaos in Cleveland this season as there was for the Rams in '10. (Those of you who believe Mohamed Massaquoi and/or Brian Robiskie are finally ready to break out, raise your hands.) Rookie Greg Little is getting more hype as a midrange sleeper in Cleveland's offense, but I consider him slightly too "big" a name for this list. (In other words, I think Little is draftable in all leagues, even 10-teamers.) Norwood is the unknown guy here who could surprise, especially in a PPR league.
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Julius Thomas, TE, Broncos
Thomas is an inheritor of the redefinition Antonio Gates has given the tight end position. Another former basketball player without tons of football experience, Thomas is part of an ultra-crowded depth chart in Denver, where Daniel Fells, Dante Rosario, Virgil Green and Dan Gronkowski are also around. Fells might be the favorite to start Week 1, but Thomas is more intriguing. When they were drafted this spring, Green was considered the favorite to have an immediate receiving impact while Thomas was more of a project, but those roles have clearly been reversed in training camp. Thomas has been a regular in two-tight-end sets for a couple of weeks, and also got some time in the slot (or, more accurately, in the "wingback" role in Denver's version of single-wing), from which he looked deadly running down the seam. Fells looks like the starter but doesn't feel exciting from a fantasy perspective. If things click for Thomas early, it wouldn't be a shock to see him take over the pass-catching role in John Fox's new Broncos offense.
Johnny White, RB, Bills
In his month-long NFL career, White's biggest headlines have come from a scary scene last week when he banged his head on the turf and had to be carried off the field on a backboard. Fortunately, White escaped relatively unscathed, though he won't see any more action in Buffalo's final two preseason games. A star of Bills camp, White is a converted collegiate cornerback who first became a wideout then finally landed at halfback at North Carolina. He lasted until the fifth round of this April's draft, at least in part because he was (understandably) considered a very raw rushing prospect. But day-to-day observers were consistently impressed by some very instinctive every-down-back skills. Obviously, as long as Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are healthy and on this roster, White has only a distant chance at any sort of playing time. But Jackson is in his age-30 season, and nobody really knows if Spiller's health and toughness are ready to catch up with his insane natural ability. White smells like one of those guys who could come out of nowhere and be a waiver-wire craze come midseason.
Damian Williams, WR, Titans
The best news for Williams would have been the Titans cutting ties with Nate Washington or Justin Gage (or both). But as of this writing, that doesn't appear likely. Williams hasn't had a stellar second training camp -- he was a third-round pick in the 2010 draft -- so the similarities folks have seen between him and another USC receiving product, the Eagles' Steve Smith, haven't been on display. Still, Williams has fine size and can play a physical game when corners press him, plus he regularly displayed good open-field instincts in college. Kenny Britt could begin the regular season on suspension, and if Williams has passed Gage in his new coaches' minds, he could be a Week 1 starter. I don't see true No. 1 wideout potential in Williams, but if his routes stay polished, and if he's as tough on his feet as he has looked in the past, he could be a valuable supplemental playmaker nonetheless.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.
2011 Fantasy Football Draft Kit
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The Talented Mr. Roto
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• Staff sleepers and busts
• Harris: Ten deep sleepers for 2011
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• Why rookies are bad fantasy bets
• Don't go crazy over strength of schedule