Every season is a weird fantasy season, especially when you stay as close to fantasy football as I do all year. I spend the entire offseason obsessively making lists and deciding why Player X is a better draftee than Player Y, and I daresay that my opinions (which are hopefully backed up by statistical logic and film study) wind up developing ESPN.com's vision of how the NFL season will play out. Then come July and August, my ESPN brethren and I write a ton of articles, go on TV and radio and talk and answer hundreds of questions from friends and fans, all of which tends to make our opinions feel set in stone, as if they carry the proximate whiff of fact.
And then the games start.
That's when Fred Jackson decides he's the second coming of Thurman Thomas, and Chris Johnson decides he's the second coming of LenDale White. It's when Jamaal Charles gets hurt and Ryan Mathews sees the light. It's when Cam Newton gets legit and Michael Vick gets human. The lovely mosaic in which we all believed begins to crumble, and we all have to adjust.
And of course, that's where playing the waiver wire like a harp comes in. You won't usually add a player who instantly becomes a starter on your fantasy squad, especially if you're in a standard 10-team league. But with foresight, you can add the guys who'll contribute mightily come November and December.
Standard ESPN league finds
Nate Washington, WR, Tennessee Titans (owned in 8.6 percent of ESPN.com leagues). Kenny Britt's season-ending knee injury is especially crushing because he had such a fine first two weeks: 14 catches for 271 yards and three TDs. No single player on the Titans' roster is talented enough to make up for everything Britt does, so there's no way to expect Britt-level production from any one guy. But the obvious early favorite to take over as Matt Hasselbeck's lead receiver is Washington. He's been steady through three games, going for at least six catches and 67 yards in each contest. Chris Johnson should eventually stop being bad at football, which should mean a de-emphasizing of the passing game. Plus, I've never really trusted Washington's hands or route-running, and have always felt most comfortable when he was a deep-speed option who could complement a bigger, more complete No. 1 pass-catcher. But the Titans don't have that luxury. Washington has to be the guy, and should be owned in all leagues.
Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers (1.2 percent). Frank Gore was in and out of the 49ers' game against the Bengals on Sunday because of an ankle injury, and Hunter found himself on the field in crunch time. The rookie made the most of the experience, scoring the go-ahead TD late in the fourth quarter. Right after the game, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters he was unsure whether Gore's injury would keep him out for Week 4's contest against the Eagles, but on Monday, Harbaugh said he believes Gore will be able to go. Of course, we're not talking about a particularly durable starter, and it couldn't be clearer that Hunter has passed Anthony Dixon on the depth chart. Hunter made my list of Super-Deep Sleepers for 2011, not because I was certain Gore would get hurt, but because I think his skill set -- which reminds me of Ray Rice -- is special. I'm to the point now where I believe Hunter is worth a speculative add in most leagues.
Montario Hardesty, RB, Cleveland Browns (22.3 percent). Peyton Hillis was an unexpected scratch this week because of strep throat, casting Hardesty into the fire as the Browns' one-week first-stringer. He didn't disappoint. Running with power and lacking finesse, Hardesty looked to me like a mini-Hillis, doling out punishment to Miami Dolphins tacklers. He wound up with 17 touches for 86 yards, particularly rumbling in frightening fashion for a 19-yard carry on an early-third-quarter carry. There's no reason to think Hillis won't be well enough to play Week 4 against the Titans, but those who've scoffed at the idea that Hardesty could be a viable way for the Browns to keep Hillis fresher need to take a step back. Sure, Hardesty and Ben Tate were probably over-hyped last season, as all rookie rushers are, and sure, they subsequently disappointed because of their season-ending injuries. But each guy has shown bruising talent so far in '11. Hardesty is a must-handcuff now for all Hillis owners, and can be added by anyone in search of lottery-ticket RBs.
Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens (0.2 percent). Do I think Smith registers another three-TD quarter for the rest of his NFL career? I do not. Do I think there will be enough deep-ball work for Smith to maintain, say, top-30 fantasy value among wideouts? I do not. But do I think Lee Evans has a pretty good chance of never seeing the Ravens' starting lineup? I do. Smith out-Evansed Evans against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, showing fine hands, terrific body control and as-advertised blazing speed. By far the likeliest scenario here is that Smith has seen his season highlight, and now he'll go into Devery Henderson mode: turning in huge fantasy plays perhaps five times per season, but almost value-less in weeks in which he doesn't catch a deep one. But I suppose it's possible that the Ravens love what they saw both from Smith and from big-armed Joe Flacco, and maybe there's a philosophical change coming in the Baltimore offense. Smith is enough of a big-play guy that I don't mind adding him in standard-sized ESPN leagues, just on the off chance that he's at the onset of a breakout. It probably won't happen. But if you're hunting for upside, Smith has it.
Dexter McCluster, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (40 percent). Thomas Jones was predictably uninspiring as the Chiefs' lead replacement for Jamaal Charles. He had 15 touches for 33 yards, and his longest gain went for 6 yards. For the moment I'm almost certainly going to continue to rank Jones highest among all Chiefs RBs because I think he'll lead the team in touches, but I'm also open to the possibility that McCluster can take a pretty big step forward. I like what I saw out of him running the rock Sunday versus the San Diego Chargers. He didn't shy away from three inside carries I saw him make, including a 16-yard gainer right up the gut midway through the third quarter. Of course, most of his carries are going to be runs to the outside, and he looked OK going left on such totes, too. What McCluster lacked Sunday was big plays as a receiver: He caught five passes but netted only 17 yards and couldn't get into space. That's the part of his game I actually trust most, and I think some big plays are coming for him there. If he's going to get between nine and 12 carries per week and then tack on some Darren Sproles-like production in the receiving game, well, I'm not ready to promote the guy as a fantasy starter just yet. But I wouldn't be shocked if he winds up being more valuable than Jones somewhere down the line in '11.
Jacoby Ford, WR, Oakland Raiders (54.2 percent). My criteria for featuring players in this column is usually that he's owned in fewer than half of ESPN.com leagues. But in Ford's case I'm making an exception, because he's been dropped in an awful lot of leagues. Ford missed the Raiders' past two games because of a hamstring injury, but has reportedly been targeting a Week 4 return all along. Add him. While I'm pleased as can be that Denarius Moore is making waves on the Raiders' depth chart, Ford is the man I think will be featured as Jason Campbell's No. 1 WR when he's healthy. And this week, the Raiders take on what might be the worst pass rush in the NFL, that of the New England Patriots. Campbell has shown a proclivity for the big play this year, and I think we can expect another shootout for the Pats. Ford makes a sneaky flex play in all leagues.
Chad Henne, QB, Miami Dolphins (38.5 percent). I don't love Henne. But I feel compelled to put a quarterback on this list, and Henne is the guy I think is playing best among the under-owned signal-callers. Even if we ignore the inflated Week 1 stats against the Patriots and take Henne to task for the Dolphins being 0-3, I think we have to admit that he looks like a different player so far in '11. He's more decisive, and more willing to take downfield shots, and his chemistry with Brandon Marshall seems way better. I'm not trying to bill him as a special player. He's not. But this is the guy we thought we were getting when everyone hyped Henne before last season. He's not the Dolphins' biggest problem anymore, and if I'm a former Peyton Manning owner who's staggering along trying to get by with an Alex Smith or a Colt McCoy, I think Henne will wind up being an improvement long term.
Tennessee Titans' defense (14.3 percent). We know very little about fantasy defenses before the season starts. We don't even know a ton now. After all, the Pittsburgh Steelers' D is tied for 15th in fantasy points, but I assume nobody is dropping it just yet. But if you were cruising along with, say, the Chiefs or Patriots for your fantasy defense, I give you permission to cut bait. Those units just don't look likely to come close to the top-10 status ascribed to them this summer. And if you're in the mode of mixing-and-matching, the Titans look like a pretty good play for Week 4. They get the 2-1 Browns on the road, which isn't an easy game for the Titans to win, but Cleveland still may have the least-explosive offense east of the Mississippi. I hesitate to say this because fantasy defenses are fickle beasts, but I don't think there's much of a chance that you get totally burned by a 40-point Browns output here.
Jason Hanson, K, Detroit Lions (28.3 percent). After three weeks, it's also fair to assess your kicker situation and cut bait if your guy hasn't done anything yet. Of course, kickers are random, but they're slightly less random once the season starts. Hanson is booting for an elite NFL offense, which is never a bad recipe for fantasy goodness, and he's still got the deep leg to hit long field goals, even after all these years.
Deeper league finds
Steve Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles (3.9 percent). As of this writing, the severity of Jeremy Maclin's hamstring injury was still open to debate. Right after Sunday's game against the New York Giants, beat reporters were writing that they thought it would be a multi-week thing, but Andy Reid said he's not so sure. Clearly, if Maclin is able to play against the 49ers next week, Smith doesn't have much fantasy value. But if Maclin can't go, I'd certainly rather add Smith than I would Jason Avant. Yes, Smith had an ugly drop (actually a ricochet off his hands that resulted in an interception) in Week 3. But he's got appreciably better downfield skills than Avant.
Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants (0.3 percent). Whenever Cruz made a play against the Eagles in Week 3, I turned to people in the ESPN War Room and said, "He played at UMass! He played at UMass!" (I got an MFA in Creative Writing at UMass.) But his alma mater probably isn't the leading reason that Cruz is worth considering in deeper leagues. He scored TDs of 74 and 28 yards Sunday as Mario Manningham sat with a concussion. Surely, for as long as Manningham is healthy, Cruz will be a fantasy afterthought. But it's good to know that he's at least taken a step ahead in securing the No. 3 job.
Laurent Robinson, WR, Dallas Cowboys (0.2 percent). Robinson looked like the Cowboys' second-best wideout Monday night, as Kevin Ogletree made mistake after mistake. With Miles Austin possibly out for a few more games because of his injured hamstring, it wouldn't be a shock to see the well-traveled Robinson start in two-receiver sets as soon as next week against the Detroit Lions. I've been burned by the athletically-freakish-but-fragile Robinson before, so I'm not going whole-hog on him now. But his upside could make him worth a stash.
Jabar Gaffney, WR, Washington Redskins (5.7 percent). In the completely unsexy department, here comes Gaffney. He is what he is. He's a No. 2 receiver through and through, with no escapability and few yards after the catch. But he's usually going to grab about 60 yards' worth of passes per week (he's got 54, 62 and 60 in the season's first three games) and once in a great while he'll accidentally fall into the end zone. I include Gaffney here because I fear my lists tend to lean too heavily toward the "lottery-ticket" style pickups. Gaffney is the opposite of that, but he'll probably give you five-plus fantasy points nearly every week.
Alfonso Smith, RB, Arizona Cardinals (0 percent). Oh, Beanie Wells, why must you vex us? Beanie told anyone who'd listen all week that the hamstring injury he suffered in practice was no big deal, and he'd definitely start against the Seattle Seahawks. Note to self: Do not believe what Beanie Wells says. Anyway, Chester Taylor showed that he's just about cooked by mustering 20 yards on eight carries, while Smith, an undrafted second-year player out of Kentucky, looked marginally shifty and powerful. I'm not going so far as to say Wells owners need to handcuff Smith right away, not in standard-sized leagues. I don't have faith that Smith will dramatically improve on his 17 carries for 54 yards Sunday. But for those of us in deeper leagues, his is a name to be ahead of the curve on.
Damian Williams, WR, Tennessee Titans (0.1 percent). Williams made my list of Super-Deep Sleepers, too, and if it's ever going to happen for him, this might be the time. A third-round pick by the Titans last year, Williams has only 18 career catches and has never found the end zone. But Kenny Britt is out for the year, and someone will need to start in two-receiver sets opposite Nate Washington. Williams isn't particularly big or particularly fast, but he came out of college with a reputation for very good hands and strong route-running. That hasn't translated to the pro game yet, but it could. Williams has Steve Smith (of the Eagles) upside.
Jared Cook, TE, Tennessee Titans (3.5 percent). I touted Cook as a name to know among the "second tier" of tight ends this summer, but that hasn't looked like a good call yet, as he's managed all of five catches for 56 yards in three games. But Britt's injury could benefit Cook, too. The big guy has been used in pass protection quite a bit so far in '11, but that might change if the Titans begin to cast around for respectable targets in Britt's absence. In larger leagues, I haven't given up on this third-year player just yet.
James Casey, TE, Houston Texans (0.1 percent). I'm skeptical that Casey will have as much fantasy value as Cook for the rest of this season, but say this for him: At least he's produced one big game, while Cook has given his owners zero. Casey had five grabs for a whopping 126 yards against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, including a 62-yard catch in the first quarter and a diving 26-yard TD on the first play of the fourth quarter. Owen Daniels should be the big man at this position for Houston, and Casey (actually more of an H-back than a pure tight end) should be left looking at scraps most weeks. Then again, if you're in a 16-team league and are simply looking for guys to stash, why not stash Casey? It's not a question of ability, because the Texans consider him an athletic marvel.
Vince Young, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (1.6 percent). I suppose you could go out and add Curtis Painter, who apparently has a decent shot at replacing Kerry Collins in the Indianapolis Colts' lineup. But I have a hard time envisioning being able to start Painter in a fantasy league in good conscience. But Young? I've seen that guy be effective in the NFL before. Obviously, it would take further injury to Michael Vick for VY to get his big moment, but after we've seen Vick get beaten up for three weeks, are there really people left who doubt another injury to No. 7 is coming? Mike Kafka showed in no uncertain terms Sunday that he's not ready to be the No. 2 QB in Philly right now, so if and when Vick does go down, Young will likely play.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.