By the last three or four rounds of fantasy football drafts, many owners are more concerned about getting the last glob of queso dip than they are about selecting a player. Although the pickings may appear to be slim, don’t waste the opportunity to fill out your roster with a player who has sneaky upside. If you land this year’s DeMarco Murray or Cam Newton with one of your final selections, you’ll solidify your reputation as a fantasy savant and bolster your chances at hoisting the league trophy.
Here are a dozen players who have both the upside and opportunity to become Late Round Legends before the season is over (listed by average draft position).
Nate Washington, WR, Titans
Average Draft Position: 142
If you’re going strictly by ADP, Washington might be one of the most underrated players in fantasy. Jake Locker won the starting quarterback gig in Tennessee. He saw significant action in three games last year. Get this: Washington posted 307 yards and four touchdowns in those three outings. That’s not a misprint. Washington averaged over 100 yards and more than one touchdown per game with Locker under center. Kenny Britt is coming off an injury and facing a suspension, so Washington will be the Titans top receiver over the first half of the season. As an eight-year veteran, he might not be the sexiest pickup but Washington will produce like a WR2 for the first half of the 2012 season.
Isaiah Pead, RB, Rams
Average Draft Postion: 148
Steven Jackson has been one of the NFL’s most overworked RBs the past three seasons, averaging 321 touches per year. Although he’s managed to keep himself on the field lately (only missing one during the last two seasons), injury issues have followed Jackson throughout his career. As he approaches 30 years of age, you have to wonder how much he has left in the tank. Smart fantasy owners will grab impressive rookie Isaiah Pead with one of their final picks. He’s been compared to LeSean McCoy and Chris Johnson by some NFL coaches and analysts.
Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers
Average Draft Position: 151
Olsen was targeted 88 times last season, fifteenth most in the NFL among tight ends. His counterpart, Jeremy Shockey was thrown to 62 times. It was the second most targets of any tight-end tandem in the league behind New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. With Shockey out of the picture, the bulk of the Carolina tight end spoils will go to Olsen this year. Expect him to be on the receiving end of over one hundred Cam Newton targets. That should easily be enough to net him over 70 catches and a top 10 fantasy season for his position. If you can’t get one of the elite tight ends, Olsen is a player to set your sights on near the end of your draft.
Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots
Average Draft Position: 158
Bill Belichick did some house cleaning in his offensive backfield this spring, letting BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk walk. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead will jockey for playing time and touches. Ridley is the frontrunner to start the season as the lead running back. However, look for Belichick to spread the workload around as he always does. Make no mistake: The New England RB to own will be the one who gets the goal line work. In 2011, Green-Ellis was a solid RB2 despite rushing for just 667 yards. That’s because he scored 11 rushing touchdowns—tied for fourth-most in the NFL among running backs. Vereen should have the edge for the goal-line work, as ghosts of Ridley’s two late-season fumbles last year (and one this preseason) linger in Belichick’s mind.
Jake Locker, QB, Titans
Average Draft Position: 159
When you’re talking young passers with upside, most of the attention goes to Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. But don’t be surprised if second-year quarterback Jake Locker consistently out-produces them both from a fantasy perspective. Locker played sparingly in 2011 but when he did take the field, he was impressive and added energy to the entire offense. The Titans have implemented a new pass-first offense so don’t let their plodding ground-and-pound ways from previous seasons cloud your judgment. Locker has a ton of talent around him with Chris Johnson, Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright. He’ll take his shots downfield, but it’s Locker’s rushing ability that gives him an edge and will make him a reliable spot starter this season.
Kendall Hunter, RB, 49ers
Average Draft Position: 167
Oddly enough, Hunter’s ADP this year is roughly the same as it was this time last year (171). Sure the 49ers beefed up their backfield during the offseason by adding Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James. However, Hunter remains the top backup to 29-year-old Frank Gore. Hunter looked like an absolute stud at times during his rookie campaign. If Gore’s shoddy knees and hips don’t hold up, Hunter could become a legitimate RB1. He’s worth drafting and stashing on your bench for at least a few weeks.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Giants
Average Draft Position: 201
Bennett dubbed himself the “Black Unicorn” during Giants training camp, claiming he’s in the best shape of his career. If the funny nickname didn’t catch your attention, the fact that his name sits atop the Giants depth chart should. Look for the fifth-year pro to horn his way into fantasy relevance this season. Eli Manning has made tight ends Kevin Boss and Jake Ballard useful for fantasy in recent seasons. Bennett has better skills when it comes to speed, catching passes and running routes than both of them. Eight hundred fifty yards and seven touchdowns aren’t out of the question for Bennett.
Steve Smith, WR, Rams
Average Draft Position: 211
In the barren wasteland that is the St. Louis receiving corps, it’s not difficult to stand out. That said, veteran wideout Steve Smith has been the most buzz-worthy wideout in the Rams training camp. Two years removed from microfracture knee surgery, Smith reportedly has his speed back. He’s running crisp routes and is in line to be the team’s top pass catcher. For a guy you can probably get in the last round of your draft, the upside is intriguing. If QB Sam Bradford can have a bounce-back year, Smith will be a serviceable WR3 or better.
Bernard Scott, RB, Bengals
Average Draft Position: 218
Scott barely cracks the top 200 draft picks for fantasy. Considering offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has dubbed the situation a “backfield by committee,” it’s a little puzzling that Scott isn’t getting more mindshare. Perhaps fantasy owners have a been-there-done-that-attitude about Scott since he has been a popular sleeper in past years only to flounder on the sideline. Be careful not to judge him based on previous shortcomings; Scott appears destined to earn more touches this season than he has in his pro career to date. The fourth-year RB has shown more explosiveness than starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Don’t be surprised if the tables tilt in Scott’s favor by Week 5. Give him one last chance.
Vick Ballard, RB, Colts
Average Draft Position: 283
With the departure of Joseph Addai, Indianapolis has turned to the perennially disappointing Donald Brown as their lead running back. Sure Brown had his best season last year, but don’t forget this is a guy who has had a list of injuries as long as your arm. He also only has two career 100-yard games. Mississippi State rookie Vick Ballard is a player to watch. He’s a powerful back who runs with a forward lean and can move the chains. Ballard has also has been surprisingly effective in pass protection keeping QB Andrew Luck upright during the preseason. Take a flier on him in deep leagues.
Jason Snelling, RB, Falcons
Average Draft Position: 303
Atlanta second-year RB Jaquizz Rodgers has been getting lots of love in fantasy circles. This is perhaps a case where owners would be wise to zig when others zag. Although Rodgers shown some pop and could make hay as a change-of-pace sparkplug, he’ll never get a shot to be the feature back should Michael Turner get hurt. That role would likely go to trusty veteran Jason Snelling. Don’t be surprised if Turner’s career makes a Rudi Johnson style downturn starting this season. Should Turner break down, the versatile Snelling could easily vault into the top 20 RBs.
Cole Beasley, WR, Cowboys
Average Draft Position: N/A
One of fantasy football’s biggest out-of-nowhere surprises last season was Cowboys free agent signee Laurent Robinson. While Miles Austin and Dez Bryant battled various injuries all season, it was Robinson who was Mr. Reliable for QB Tony Romo, racking up 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. Robinson parlayed his fine play into a fat contract with the Jaguars. His departure combined with a scary spleen injury to Jason Witten has left the Dallas offense dangerously thin for trustworthy pass catchers. Enter undrafted rookie Cole Beasley. Beasley has been making waves as the starter in the slot during the preseason. If he makes the team—and that’s a big if—you don’t have to stretch your imagination far to envision Beasley becoming a chain-moving possession receiver in this offense—especially with Austin and Bryant continuing to deal with leg injuries. Think of him as a late-round lottery ticket in deep PPR leagues.