Once every draft reaches the middle, all the starters have
already been acquired and the two major criteria seem to
be finding players that can fill in for a bye week and avoiding
too many players from one team. However, it is in these middle
to final rounds that many and maybe most fantasy football
champions are made. Realize - only half of those picks you
have made so far are going to meet your expectations. Some
of those picks are going to get injured, adversely impacted
by their team dynamics or, at least for the guys sitting
on either side of you in the draft, some of those picks are
going to be busts.
What you need to keep in mind in the "backups" portion
of the draft are the "upside" players. Guys that
are your drafted as your backup players and yet offer the
combination of age, health, situation or developmental stage
that allows them to very likely deliver far better than their
draft position would suggest. Go ahead - use the term "sleepers" if
you want, but more accurately upside players are players
who are undervalued or not yet a proven starter. It is reasonable
to grab a few strategic backups that are safe bets to get
you a few points each week if you need them. It is unreasonable
to stock your shelves with those players because winning
in fantasy football is all about having better than average
players producing better than average scores. Preferably
monster scores if you can get it.
So let's review some players that are being taken not as
starters in most leagues, but later in the draft they stand
out as players with either the best shot at being a "sleeper" or
1. Tommy Maddox - While Maddox supposedly had Charlie
Batch as some level of competition this summer, it is more
than clear that Maddox is far better suited to running the
Steeler offense and running it well. In their last preseason
game, it was easy to see why Plaxico Burress had a breakout
season last year - the two have developed a very nice chemistry.
The Steelers also promoted Amos Zereoue over Jerome Bettis
as the starting running back which is another sign that the
offense is changing to a more open, heavier passing scheme
that was so successful last year.
2. Jake Plummer - Maybe Jake "the Snake" was
more like a slug in Arizona, but what if it really was the
system and the coaching? There had to be a good reason why
every single veteran receiver packed his bags and left last
year. Plummer has looked sharp so far in Denver and is being
encouraged to run out of the pocket as well. With a great
rushing game and a nice quartet of receivers in Rod Smith,
Ed McCaffrey, Ashley Lelie and Shannon Sharpe and a decent
schedule, maybe all Jake needed all along was a new zip code.
3. Kelly Holcomb - Holcomb's promotion over Tim Couch
was a very nice sign for the Browns and the fantasy world.
It signaled that Cleveland was not going to let money or
the past impact what is best for the current season and more
than that, Holcomb is a far better fantasy quarterback than
Couch has ever proven to be. In the first two weeks of last
season, Holcombe had 524 total yards passing with five touchdowns.
Even against Baltimore in week five, he still managed two
touchdowns thrown during his 180 yards. He later set the
all-time Brown's playoff passing record. Cleveland appears
to have an improved rushing game with William Green and a
very deep set of good receivers.
4. Brad Johnson - Last season the Buccaneers had
the stingiest defense in the league and won the Super Bowl
largely thanks to that incredible defensive unit. But somewhere
lost in all that was a solid effort by Johnson who threw
22 touchdowns against only six interceptions in the 13 games
that he played. This season the World Champion Buccaneers
will be the one team that every opponent will be up to play
and it is highly unlikely that Tampa Bay is able to replicate
all those wins with relying so heavily on their defense.
Johnson is a solid choice for a backup and when needed, could
be a nice surprise as your starter.
Note - before you expect these players to become superstars,
understand that there is almost no one that is worthy of
calling a sleeper runningback in most every season now.
As this is the one position that team owners hunt intensely
for any possible sleeper type, landing a starter in round
14 is just not something that happens anymore. Below are
a three backs that will share but will be undervalued and
a couple of longshots for the end of your draft.
5. Onterrio Smith - The Vikings running back picture
has been muddled, is muddled and will be muddled. But the
reality is that Minnesota has a very nice rushing schedule
and Michael Bennett may miss the entire season. That will
not be officially determined until after you draft. While
Moe Williams will figure in again as the goal line specialist,
Doug Chapman and Smith will battle for carries and Smith
has an upperhand for now. This is a big gamble pick and has
to be made earlier than you'd like, but could turn out to
be a nice pick up after the first two dozen sure thing backs
6. Jerome Bettis - Amos Zereoue has been named as
the starter and while it was appropriate, it does not equate
to Bettis losing all his value. The two will share which
has been stated by HC Bill Cowher and Bettis is the more
likely goal line choice. The move was in part to keep Bettis
healthier deeper into the season but also serves to make
him mad at being demoted for the first time in his career.
As deeply as he can be had, Bettis is a nice fallback that
could turn in some nice games towards the end of the season
for a change.
7. T.J. Duckett - While he was injured for most of
his rookie season, Duckett showed flashes of why he was drafted.
A bruiser that can catch the ball too, Duckett will mix in
with Dunn and should get the majority of goal line carries.
With Michael Vick gone for at least the first month or longer,
Atlanta will rely on him even more.
8. Marcel Shipp - Emmitt decided his career was not
complete until he played for the Cardinals - sort of the
antithesis of the "going out as a winner" but something
about a seven figure salary while burying his record seemed
naturally attractive. Shipp proved last season that he was
a good back and will be used in tandem with Emmitt this season.
And should Emmitt prove mortal, finally, and act his age
by getting injured, Shipp will be the man.
9. Justin Fargas - This is not a pick to make unless
you have Charlie Garner, or have the room for a player that
may do little or nothing this season. Fargas was very impressive
in training camp and in preseason games, though realistically,
he was facing less than starting defenses (conversely with
less than a starting offensive line). Garner has already
had injury woes in the preseason and at the age of 31, it
would be no shock for him to miss a handful of games this
season. Tyrone Wheatley is there to help backup Garner, but
only Fargas has the look of a possible surprise homerun hit.
In deep leagues, he is worth stowing away for the event Garner
goes out. In a smaller roster league, run to the waiver wire
the moment Garner grabs a hamstring.
10. LaBrandon Toefield - Toefield has an injury history
of his own which made him a curious pick by the Jaguars,
but hardly anyone can match Fred Taylor's standing in the
bandage club. Taylor has already missed most of the preseason
with a bone bruise to his knee. Taylor always performs well
in even-numbered years and gets hurt in odd-numbered years.
Welcome to 2003.
11. Brian Westbrook - Another late pick to consider
is Brian Westbrook though with the apparent return of Duce
Staley, this one is losing a bit of luster. Westbrook is
too small for an everydown role but on a productive offensive
with Duce "doghouse" Staley and Correll Buckhalter
returning from a ACL injury, he makes an interesting longshot
towards the end of a deeper draft.
12. Josh Reed - As the man who would be Peerless
Price this season, Reed was initially held in high esteem
and then later, when everyone remembered he was only a second
year player the expectations were lowered significantly.
Reed is not Price - he does not have the speed but what he
does have is probably a better possession ability than Price
did and playing across from Eric Moulds will be a big benefit.
While he may not have the big year that Price had in 2003,
he will still get plenty of opportunities this season to
display his nice yards-after-the-catch ability.
13. Ashley Lelie - Another second year player, Lelie
has been nothing but impressive in training camp and although
Ed McCaffrey is back, there is ample reasons to expect that
Lelie will emerge this season as perhaps the biggest receiving
threat in Denver outside of the aging Rod Smith. Lelie was
one of the most talented receivers coming out of college
last season and all signs point to a dramatic increase of
production in only his second season.
14. Reggie Wayne - This third year receiver is in
a great spot for a breakout year - great quarterback in Manning,
all the secondary to worry about Harrison and an increasing
presence in the passing game for the Colts. During the final
eight games of last year, Wayne turned in three 100+ yard
efforts. He ended with 716 yards on the season and is a lock
to increase those numbers.
15. Robert Ferguson - Now that he has been officially
named as the starter, Ferguson replaces the departed Terry
Glenn who himself had 817 yards receiving last season across
from Terry Glenn. In Ferguson's only game with significant
use last season, he totaled 105 yards and two touchdowns
against divisional rival Minnesota. Ferguson is entering
his third season and with Favre throwing to him, he is in
a good spot to exceed expectations.
16. Andre Johnson - The second receiver drafted this
season may end up the first ranked rookie by the end of the
season. Johnson was largely considered as one of the most "NFL
ready" rookie receivers in the past many years and he
has done little to change that perception in camp or in preseason
games. The Texans struggled through their inaugural season
with little offense but now with Mack and a year more savvy
Carr, Johnson makes a great selection later in your draft
that could deliver as well as many veteran players taken
well ahead of him.
17. Tai Streets - Due to be a free agent next season,
Streets played well last season and gained 756 yards and
five touchdowns in his first season as a starter. Look for
Streets to get the benefit of pairing with Owens that Stokes
was never able to exploit. The 49ers plan on throwing longer
passes this season and when a safety has to choose between
Owens or Streets, the choice is not hard to make.
18. Brian Finneran - The Michael Vick and Peerless
Price show has been delayed for the first month of the season,
but all along the forgotten man has been Finneran. The primary
receiver last year, he seems to have yielded that role to
the pricey acquisition of Price. The reality is that Martay
Jenkins has not been able to unseat Finneran and Price has
always been more of a longball threat than a possession receiver.
The tall Finneran will again fill that role and make opposing
defenses pay when they focus too much on Price going long.
19. Marc Boerigter - After scoring eight touchdowns
on only 20 catches in his first NFL season, Boerigter is
still not a starter and thus, ends up being drafted anywhere
from the tenth round on including not being drafted. Problem
is that Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison are the starters
again this year but with Morton turning 32 years of age and
Kennison already 30 years old, Boerigter should only become
a larger part of the offense and has already impressed again
20. Desmond Clark - After scoring six touchdowns
and gaining 566 yards for the Broncos, Clark dislocated his
forearm in the summer of 2002 and was waived. After spending
the year with the Dolphins behind Randy McMichael, Clark
was signed as a free agent by the Bears who wanted to feature
a true pass receiving tight end. Clark is already getting
chemistry with Kordell Stewart and looks like the tight end
most likely to surprise this season.