Searching for deep fantasy sleepers is much like the sport of noodling. To the untrained eye it appears that a noodler simply reaches into murky waters and miraculously a big fish appears, devouring his arm, sometimes up to the shoulder. These unique fishermen know exactly where and how to uncover their prey, lurking giant catfish, given their knowledge of the bottom's landscape and conditions on the surface. A fantasy owner in search of a deep sleeper has a similar goal, trying to uncover a big fish from an environment that appears cloudy to most but those who are aware of their surroundings and the signs to look for.
Here are 11 players to watch, none of whom appears to have tremendous value right now but who circumstances could present a great opportunity once the season kicks in. A couple of them could even turn into big fish. Happy noodling.
Featured in my last SI column for never having dropped an NFL pass, I can't stress enough the importance of good hands when playing with Brett Favre. Let me state this again: He has never dropped a pass in the NFL. Anyone who watched Bernard Berrian's half-efforts last year can tell you he's not the answer. Best known to this point for scoring the game-winning touchdown to keep the Dolphins from going winless in 2007, he has a chance to become a major part of Minnesota's attack, even should Sidney Rice somehow return from the PUP List at full strength from his recent hip surgery.
The Rams top return man has become a candidate to replace the injured Donnie Avery, out for the year after tearing his ACL. A possession receiver and certainly less of a deep threat than Avery, the second year man will be the main beneficiary of Sam Bradford's check-downs and quick passes, making him an interesting option in PPR leagues.
Listed as the team's second-string fullback behind the outstanding Lawrence Vickers, Hillis has made lots of noise this preseason in the halfback position. In 2008 Hillis looked like a promising, hard-nosed runner when he gained 5.0 yards per rush and scored six times (5 rushing, 1 receiving) in Mike Shanahan's last Denver season, but he never fit into Josh McDaniels' plans. Jerome Harrison is the starter and rookie Montario Hardesty will receive some looks, but a player like Hillis always seems to find a way to contribute when given a chance. The problem usually lies in figuring out when that chance will come. And don't forget, as a team, the Browns led the NFL in rushing over the last five games of 2009.
A forgotten man last season while battling through hamstring and ankle injuries that limited him to just 14 catches and one score in seven games, Moore was a savior for the Saints in 2008 when he led the team with 79 catches, 928 yards and 10 TDs. Injuries have made Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson vulnerable this season and Moore is looking to rebound in a big way. Following a strong offseason and camp, he will find his way onto fantasy rosters once again. Circumstances revolving the other Saints receivers will dictate when that is.
It's funny that the man I think of most when I see Bess is someone who lined up in the same helmet not long ago for Miami, Wes Welker. Bess is not someone who'll wow you with his skills or speed, he's just someone who gets the job done, catching at least five balls seven times last year in becoming just the second Dolphins receiver to go over the 75-catch plateau since Dan Marino retired and the first since Chris Chambers in 2005. The arrival of Brandon Marshall should only enhance his value as Chad Henne will drop back to pass more and Bess will be his check-down receiver more often than not.
For the second year in a row Chaz Schilens' misfortune has turned into a golden opportunity for Murphy, a second-year receiver from Florida. Close to a quarter (128 yards) of Murphy's output last season came in one game against Pittsburgh which put him on fantasy radars for a short time, but given Oakland's ineptitude behind center last year you can hardly blame him for disappearing. Now with Jason Campbell slinging for the Silver and Black, Murphy's prospects are brighter.
In 2007 Anderson seemed destined for stardom, throwing 29 touchdowns and for 3,787 yards for the Browns but that seems like a long time ago. However like Kurt Warner before him, Anderson has a chance to parlay Matt Leinart's ineptitude into career resurrection. With Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower around him, Anderson certainly has the weapons but a 45.9 completion percentage and three touchdowns compared to 11 picks thrown over his last 10 appearances he's far from someone to count on. Yet.
One of the most disappointing draft busts in recent history, the controversial former Trojan was Detroit's 10th pick in 2005 despite being forced to miss the 2004 season due to court order regarding his ineligibility to declare for the NFL draft. Once he finally reached the league, Williams slogged through three horrific seasons with the Lions, Raiders and Titans and at 270 pounds, appeared to be a far cry from the consensus first-team All America and Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2003 who played for Pete Carroll at USC. He has totaled only 44 catches for 539 yards and two touchdowns in the NFL but now reunited with his college coaching staff, the future appears brighter. With size (6-foot-5 and now 230 pounds) and speed, he's a difficult matchup for defenses especially with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and either Deion Branch or Deon Butler more of the possession pass catchers, along side. If you haven't drafted yet, he's worth a very late round flier.
Over the last decade only two players, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson have mustered back-to-back seasons of 400-or-more touches, something that Chris Johnson (408 last season) could do this year but I think is unlikely with Ringer now securely installed as Johnson's backup. Last year the Titans plan surely wasn't to overwork Johnson, but a horrific start to the year and the total lack of contribution from then-backup LenDale White forced Jeff Fisher's hand to overuse the one thing his offense had going for it. Don't be surprised to see Ringer rack up closer to the 100-125 touches that Fisher's backup runners have traditionally received in the past. Plus, he's just a Johnson sprain, strain or break away from some serious value.
In parts of five seasons as a major league reliever in the late 70's and 80's Cruz posted an 18-23 mark and a 3.09 ERA...wait. You mean it's not thatVictor Cruz ... Well, the Giants' Victor Cruz has taken the NFL preseason by storm, leading the land in receiving yards and touchdown grabs while placing second to Cincinnati's Jordan Shipley with 12 catches. The idea that this rookie from UMass can crack the Giants young receiving corps sounds outlandish to some, but at this time last year, no New York wideout had a defined role. While he'll see most of his early action on special teams, don't be shocked to see Eli Manning ride the hot hand before long.
With Derrick Ward out of the picture, Huggins, a second-year man who averaged 5.1 yards-per-game at Hofstra finds himself in one of the NFL's most promising positions: backup for the injury-plagued Cadillac Williams. However with virtually no NFL experience, Huggins is also in danger of being replaced by the first good running back to hit NFL's cutting room floor this week. He's probably even worth a late-round flier at this point, but don't get too excited ... at least until the dust settles next week.