In the Internet era of fantasy football, it’s tougher than ever to get an edge. There’s no shortage of information. Depth charts, injury reports, and press conferences are a click away. Everyone knows who the top sleepers are.
To one-up the competition, fantasy owners must dig a layer deeper than have in previous years.
Rather than focusing on starters and backups, it has become increasingly important to study third- and fourth-string players who have the opportunity and talent to earn playing time.
What follows is a list of 10 players who are dark-horse candidates to see significant action in 2006. Unless you play in a 16-team league or a dynasty league, you aren’t likely to hear many of these players’ names called during your draft. However, by keeping their names in your back pocket, you can get a jump on your league mates later in the season.
1. Mark Bradley, WR, Bears
Bradley burst onto the scene in Chicago as a rookie in 2005, catching 18 passes in his first seven games before injuring his knee. He will compete with Bernard Berrian and Justin Gage for the starting spot opposite Muhsin Muhammad this year. Although Berrian and Gage are better-known in fantasy circles, both are primarily role players. Bradley brings a complete package to the table. If he proves he is fully recovered from his knee surgery during training camp, he will win the competition and offer tremendous upside for fantasy owners.
2. Maurice Drew, RB, Jaguars
When you think of rookie running backs, odds are guys like Joseph Addai and Reggie Bush come to mind. But history proves that the top rookie performers aren’t always first round draft picks. The Jaguars drafted Maurice Drew in the second round of this year’s draft out of UCLA. Considering starter Fred Taylor’s injury history, Drew has a better chance to see significant playing time in 2006 than many RBs drafted ahead of him. He brings more versatility to the table than any other RB on the Jags roster—with the ability to run, catch, and return punts. Look for him to split the workload with bruising RB Greg Jones at some point this season after Taylor makes his annual journey to the IR list.
3. Cecil Sapp, RB, Broncos
Everyone has their favorite sleeper RB in Denver. I’m of the mindset that Ron Dayne will win the starting spot and be spelled by Tatum Bell for a series here and there. It’s important to note that neither player is adept in short-yardage situations. Look for Mike Shanahan to lean heavily on his starting fullback at the goal line. Kyle Johnson and Cecil Sapp will compete for the position. The winner could easily score 10-12 TDs this season. I like Sapp because he brings a better combination of instinct and toughness, but keep your eye on the veteran Johnson, who scored six TDs in 2005.
4. Greg Jennings, WR, Packers
When the Packers traded Javon Walker to the Broncos, it left a huge void at the receiver spot. The team has veterans Robert Ferguson and Rod Gardner, but both players are widely considered busts. Several younger players will be given every opportunity to earn the starting job opposite Donald Driver. Look for rookie Greg Jennings to get the nod at some point this season. The Packers have high hopes for the 5-11 wideout, who they drafted in the second round. The Western Michigan product averaged nearly nine receptions per game as a senior to lead the NCAA.
5. Jason Campbell, QB, Redskins
Washington starting QB Mark Brunell posted his best stats in years in 2005. However, he faded toward the end of the season, particularly in the playoffs. If Brunell falters this year, or more likely gets hurt, head coach Joe Gibbs may turn to rookie Jason Campbell. Gibbs has a bit of a history in getting a lot out of young QBs. Jay Schroeder and Mark Rypien both posted excellent stats early in their careers under Gibbs. Look for Campbell to shine in 2007 if not earlier.
6. Tab Perry, WR, Bengals
Perry may be the most recognizable player on this list. As a rookie in 2005, he was third in the NFL in kick return yardage. With wideout Chris Henry battling legal issues, including four arrests in seven weeks during the offseason, Perry has a legitimate shot to become the #3 WR for the Bengals. It is a role in which Henry caught six touchdown passes last season. Obviously boost Perry up your rankings if your league rewards points for return yardage.
7. Marcedes Lewis, TE, Jaguars
The retirement of Jimmy Smith this offseason stirred up a heated debate among fantasy owners. Who will become Jacksonville’s leading receiver: Matt Jones, Earnest Wilford, or Reggie Williams? Lost in the discussion is TE Marcedes Lewis, who the Jags picked in the first round in April’s draft. Lewis is a pass-catching TE in the mold of Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. If he proves to be an adequate blocker, he could supplant Kyle Brady as the starter at some point this season. Lewis might be just the target Byron Leftwich has been missing and could catch 50+ passes this season.
8. Bruce Perry, RB, Eagles
The Eagles haven’t run the ball much over the past couple seasons. So what value could a third-string RB for Philly possibly have? Considering the state of Andy Reid’s receiving corps, more than you might think. The Eagles will have to run the ball more this season to have any chance of competing with Dallas, Washington, and New York. Starter Brian Westbrook is the team’s best offensive weapon, but Westbrook has proven to be too brittle to carry a full load. Ryan Moats showed flashes of talent last season, but he’s the same type of RB as Westbrook. Although, Bruce Perry is also on the small side, he is built from the same mold as Emmitt Smith and is more capable of taking a pounding. He rushed the ball 15 times for 70 yards in his only start last year against the Redskins.
9. Willie Reid, WR, Steelers
Most fantasy owners consider the competition to replace Antwaan Randle El as Pittsburgh’s #2 wideout a two-way race between veteran Cedrick Wilson and rookie first-round pick Santonio Holmes. But word out of the Steelers camp is that fourth-round pick Willie Reid is impressing the coaching staff and has a legitimate chance to earn playing time. Holmes didn’t do himself any favors by getting arrested twice since May. In contrast, Reid has been applauded for his attitude and work ethic. He will likely be the team’s punt returner, but with his blazing speed and soft hands, he is a sleeper to start opposite Hines Ward. The team also continues to shower second-year wideout Nate Washington with praise.
10. Leon Washington, RB, Jets
With Curtis Martin’s career winding down, the Jets will likely use the second half of the 2006 season to determine whether or not they have an heir apparent on their roster. Backups Cedric Houston and Derrick Blaylock will get more than a few looks during fantasy drafts this summer. But it could be rookie Leon Washington who serves up the best stats this season. Frankly, Washington is probably too small to be New York’s long-term answer. Still, if Martin gets hurt, Washington is a dangerous threat who could provide a spark as a starter for 5-6 games.