It's an annual rite of passage. The swallows come back to Capistrano. The reviews of a Drew Barrymore movie are unfavorable. And I go deep.
As we near the start of the NFL regular season each year, I'm asked to come up with a list of 10 "names to know." These aren't just any sleepers. I mean, yes, Donald Brown is a sleeper this year. Jacoby Jones is a sleeper this year. But they're the kind of sleeper that should be drafted in all leagues. Hopefully with my list of 10 high-value players and with the many other columns I've written this summer, I've prepped you with a list of those names. This piece is something different.
Here, I'm reaching way down into the player pool, and pulling up unpolished potential gems. For the most part, these guys shouldn't get drafted in 10-team leagues (though some of them should go in 14- or 16-teamers). What I'm trying to do here is tune your ears to certain guys, so that if you start to hear or read that they're making noise with their NFL team, you'll be ready to pounce.
A look at this list the past two times I've written it reveals just how "deep" (and difficult to predict) these deep sleepers really are. In 2008, these are the guys I picked: Anthony Alridge, David Clowney, Will Franklin, Roy Hall, Tim Hightower, Jason Hill, Jalen Parmele, Antonio Pittman, Marcus Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker. Hightower was the star of that group, Sims-Walker (then known as Mike Walker) flashed a bit then got hurt but was a year away from being a No. 1 receiver, and really that was about it. Last year, my list was sharper: Andre Caldwell, Austin Collie, James Davis, Jermichael Finley, Arian Foster, Mike Goodson, Rashad Jennings, Marko Mitchell, Bernard Scott and Danny Ware. Collie, Finley and Foster were all every-week fantasy contributors by the end of '09, and Scott and Jennings are now key handcuffs in high-value situations.
But clearly, these lists are never going to be close to 100 percent, so please don't go adding everyone I mention right away. Also, while the names below are interesting for keeper leagues, I'm trying not to pick pure developmental players; guys like Victor Cruz or Eric Decker (and plenty more) are intriguing a year or two down the road, but I'm trying to mention players who I think have a chance to contribute in '10. Let's get to it:
Andre Brown, RB, Denver Broncos. I've been talking up Brown for more than a year; he was a good prospect out of North Carolina State who got drafted by a team with tough competition at his position, and then he tore an Achilles tendon last summer. Normally, you wouldn't expect a running back to be able to come back from such a devastating injury, and the jury's still out on Brown, but if you watched him in the Giants' second preseason game, you came away impressed: 13 carries for 61 yards, albeit against the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive scrubs. Brown was cut by the Giants on roster cutdown day but was quickly signed by Denver, where he might be in line for plenty of opportunities. Broncos starter Knowshon Moreno is battling a hamstring injury, and his backup, Correll Buckhalter, has a rather extensive injury past. Brown has plenty of upside. He's a big kid (230 pounds or so) who before his injury ran a 4.6-ish 40.
Deon Butler, WR, Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks are a mess at wideout, and I don't think I've drafted a single player on their depth chart in a single league I'm in this year. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is being severely overdrafted (in the ninth round of standard ESPN.com drafts, 30th among receivers), considering the immortal Mike Williams is making so much noise in the preseason (eight catches for 150 yards). Rookie Golden Tate has admitted that the NFL game has proved too fast for him at this point, but he'll likely be a factor eventually. Deion Branch is somehow still hanging around. But Butler is an exciting player who has a chance to be the team's slot receiver right away. He's smallish (5-foot-10, 182 pounds) but is a total burner (4.38 40) who's looked good on occasion this camp playing on the outside. I think the Seahawks will continue to be something of a disaster area on offense (rookie left tackle Russell Okung sounds fairly unlikely to play Week 1), and Pete Carroll seems committed to a platoon-heavy system at his skill positions. Nevertheless, if the team parts with Branch, Butler is an intriguing prospect.
Kareem Huggins, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Huggins might be an exception to this list's criteria, because he suddenly finds himself on just about every regular "sleeper" list in existence. The undrafted second-year player out of Hofstra has been the star of Bucs camp, which has corresponded with highly paid Derrick Ward falling out of favor. With the Bucs releasing Ward on Tuesday, Huggins is poised for the No. 2 job behind Cadillac Williams, and that could be a precursor to Huggins getting a good share of touches during the regular season. Listen, Caddy's a nice story, but we all know his injury history, which has resulted in less explosiveness in recent seasons. (This is a player who hasn't averaged 4 yards per carry since '05.) I won't go so far as to say the Buccaneers' running back gig is ready to be a plum one, considering the offensive line's recent deterioration, but if an exciting, hungry young kid suddenly is getting a whiff of a No. 1 NFL running back job, he probably is worth a flier in all leagues. That makes him a more "roster-ready" player than most guys in this column, but I wanted to list him anyway, to ensure his name gets on fantasy owners' radar screens tout de suite.
Chris Ivory, RB, New Orleans Saints. Personally, I don't think the Saints will pull Pierre Thomas in short-yardage situations this year as much as they did in '09, but I wouldn't feel comfortable betting my mortgage on that proposition. Mike Bell is gone from the Big Easy and Lynell Hamilton is out for the year, so if Sean Payton is going back to his arrangement from last year (Bell and Hamilton combined for 15 carries inside an opponent's 5 last year, while Thomas had six and Reggie Bush had two), Ivory just might be the guy. I've been dubious that Ladell Betts could fill that role after being signed by the Saints a few weeks ago, while Ivory made a huge play Friday catching a short pass and taking it 76 yards through the entire San Diego Chargers defense for a touchdown. That's not bad for a 225-pound bruiser. Remember that Betts is coming off a major knee injury; I think he'll probably make the Saints' roster, but his skills seem rather redundant with those of Thomas and Bush. Ivory should make the team, too, and I give him the best chance of duplicating Bell's season from last year (654 yards, five touchdowns) if Payton chooses to assign a "short-yardage" title to someone in his backfield.
Jeremiah Johnson, RB, Houston Texans. Star-crossed Steve Slaton suffered a turf toe injury Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys, and has been seen in a walking boot in Texans practice. That certainly confirms Arian Foster as a fantasy starter, but it also gives Johnson, an undrafted second-year player out of Oregon, a shot to be a pure No. 2. (Rookie Ben Tate is out for the year with torn ligaments in his ankle and a broken fibula.) Johnson is a Slaton-sized player without Slaton-level quicks, but he's looked like a better player than Slaton through three preseason games, and he apparently easily passed Chris Henry on Houston's depth chart. Slaton says he'll be back for Week 1, so I'm not so bold as to say Johnson is Foster's handcuff; Foster probably doesn't have a pure handcuff right now. But if you ignored the names on the backs of jerseys, you'd say Johnson was the second-best runner the Texans have, and in that offense, that's not a bad thing. If Foster goes down or is ineffective, remember Johnson. And by the way, "Jeremiah Johnson" is a really good Robert Redford movie, too.
Steve Johnson, WR, Buffalo Bills. Johnson, a third-year player and former seventh-rounder out of Kentucky, outplayed former second-rounder James Hardy all summer, and likely earned the starting gig opposite Lee Evans. The fact that he's still almost completely unowned in fantasy leagues is understandable: The Bills' passing game (helmed as it is by the unimpressive Trent Edwards) inspires no confidence. I mean, if Evans hasn't been able to finish among the top 25 fantasy receivers in any of the past three years, what makes us believe his second fiddle will be close to fantasy relevant? I hear that. But there's a danger in painting too dark a picture for any NFL offense before the season starts, especially one that's been taken over by a new head coach. Listen, do I think Chan Gailey and new offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins will suddenly turn these into the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas Bills? Um, no. But it seems to me that Gailey turned Tyler Thigpen into something of a fantasy force a couple years ago, so anything's possible. Johnson is a big possession receiver who could benefit when Evans stretches the field, and could be a decent end zone target, too.
Legedu Naanee, WR, San Diego Chargers. I think it's a mistake to automatically assume that Malcom Floyd is the Chargers' No. 1 wideout for as long as Vincent Jackson's suspension and/or holdout lingers. Yes, Floyd has had more NFL success than Naanee (97 catches and nine TDs for the former, 40 catches and two scores for the latter), and yes, Floyd has a size advantage on Naanee. But we're still talking about two relatively unproven players with relatively similar skill sets. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Naanee runs in the 4.4 to 4.5 range and has very good hands, giving him some big-play upside. Yes, San Diego's No. 1 receiver is really Antonio Gates. Yes, Floyd has been a more consistent player in the team's training camp and preseason games. And yes, if and when Jackson returns, both Floyd and Naanee will see their fantasy values crater. But if after a few weeks, Naanee is the Chargers' leading receiver, I won't be that surprised.
Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers. (Note to self: Wouldn't it be cool if Isaac Redman came out of the tunnel wearing a head-to-toe red bodysuit, like Charlie from "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" in his "green man" costume? Maybe it's just me.) The 230-pound Redman was talked about throughout the Steelers' '09 training camp, but he wound up on the team's practice squad and then was actually waived late in the year. He's back in '10, though, and is once again a big training camp story. While rookie Jonathan Dwyer had mostly struggled until Sunday night's game against the Denver Broncos, Redman has been consistent, plus he's been used in short yardage. Rashard Mendenhall isn't a complete lock to get goal-line carries this year (though he was a respectable 6-for-12 converting carries inside the 5 into scores last season), and if anyone's going to take that role, it would seem Redman is the best bet. Dwyer is probably going to make Pittsburgh's roster after his big second half Sunday, but I still put Redman ahead of him on the depth chart at the moment.
Brian Robiskie, WR, Cleveland Browns. I was way too high on Robiskie last year. I liked his size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), speed (4.49 40) and tremendous performance in the '09 combine. I was ready to buy him as the biggest threat to Braylon Edwards in Cleveland, but as a rookie Robiskie took an immediate backseat to Mohamed Massaquoi, barely played at all until December, and in all racked up a whopping seven receptions in '09. Yikes. That said, Robiskie's a son of a longtime NFL coach, didn't battle injuries (that we know of) last year, and isn't exactly faced with daunting competition on the Browns' depth chart. He's probably the starter opposite Massaquoi, giving him a "do-over" here in '10. Will a Jake Delhomme-led offense be proficient enough to support one fantasy receiver, let alone two? Probably not. By the same token, Jake the Snake has actually looked rather good during the exhibition season, and I don't make it an article of faith that Massaquoi is by far the best fantasy receiver in Cleveland. Robiskie has the pedigree and physical tools, and he's just 22. It's a mistake to doom him to the scrap heap yet.
Keiland Williams, RB, Washington Redskins. Williams, an undrafted rookie out of LSU, isn't a burner at 4.64, but he's 230 pounds and a punishing downhill runner. Obviously, there's a crowd at running back in D.C. that includes Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson, Willie Parker and Ryan Torain, and obviously it's not a great strategy to count on a Mike Shanahan team to use its running backs in a consistent way. But remember that Shanny also has a history of turning unheralded rushers into fantasy stars (Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Selvin Young, Reuben Droughns, Tatum Bell et al). Parker is widely expected to be cut in the coming days, Johnson is mercurial to say the least, Torain is injury prone and Portis has a whole bunch of question marks surrounding him this year. I took Williams in a 16-team draft over the weekend, though he's probably better cast as a guy to leave on your waiver wire and simply watch closely.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.