1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 & 2002
20 Upside Players
by David M. Dorey
August 25, 2003

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 upside player.


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.

Running Backs

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 are drafted.

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.

Wide Receivers

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 this summer.

Tight Ends

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.