NFL information is now so widely disseminated, it's tough to find knowledge that gives you a competitive advantage. Millions upon millions of folks play fantasy football, and I'm wagering a whole big chunk of that group can name you the Houston Texans' running back depth chart, four or five deep. A decade ago, I went into drafts fairly certain that someone was going to take Warrick Dunn in the first round, and then writhed in agony as Dunn predictably lost goal-line touches to Mike Alstott. Now I go into drafts and overhear people speculating on James Starks as a potential third-down threat in Green Bay. (I also go into drafts where people are carrying around our ESPN Fantasy Football magazine -- for which I wrote about 50,000 words this year -- and thus mostly know who I'm going to draft before I sit down. But I'm guessing that's mostly a "me" problem.)
However, if there's an area where the fantasy football market hasn't yet become efficient, a la "Moneyball," it's at wide receiver. More specifically, the "average" owner doesn't appreciate just how many pure-athlete prospects NFL teams are taking a chance on these days. Up and down rosters, you'll find a bevy of potential unpolished gems, guys with tools that you simply can't teach: massive size and ridiculous speed. True, many of them couldn't catch a cold. But developmental wideouts are, I think, a prime source of market inefficiency. For instance, the great majority of fantasy players had never heard of Miles Austin before 2009. That was a mistake.
At no other position in the NFL circa 2010 do teams sign so many huge, fast athletes who aren't particularly skilled yet, and then use patience to mold them into stars. Austin, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Marshall and Mike Sims-Walker were all recent "projects" who've developed into studs. Now, it's very easy to bite a season or two too early on this kind of player: they almost never produce as rookies, and usually need at least two offseasons to adjust to the kind of discipline and consistency it takes to become a great pro receiver, and especially a great deep threat. But if you find them the year they pop, you've got a gold mine, and you almost certainly didn't spend an early-round pick on it.
What should your criteria for Moneyball wideouts be? I'm looking for players who are at least 6-foot-2 and 200 lbs., and who run at least a 4.5 40-yard dash. It should go without saying that not all receivers who meet this physical profile hit it big in the NFL. Just ask Tab Perry, Chase Lyman, Jeff Webb and Todd Watkins. (Who? Exactly.) It goes without saying that it takes far more than just size and speed to excel as an NFL receiver, but it's a nice place to start.
The simple fact is that when such players do hit, they can develop suddenly from "unknowns" into No. 1 receivers, sometimes in the span of a single season. Think about that. Imagine a quarterback you've never heard of suddenly becoming fantasy-worthy. Even the running back position, which has occasionally produces a Samkon Gado out of thin air, doesn't have the kind of track record of unpublicized future stars languishing as reserves and then bursting into the spotlight. This really is something that just doesn't happen at other skill positions.
Here are some underpublicized candidates (i.e., I'm not going to put guys who were taken in the NFL draft's first round on this list) who meet my size/speed criteria, who've been around their NFL teams for at least a couple years and who could come from nowhere to break into the ranks of the Moneyball wideouts, and thus potentially be worth late-round picks in your draft this summer:
Jacoby Jones, Houston Texans (6-foot-2 1/2, 210 lbs., 4.49): Jones looked like a better sleeper before Kevin Walter re-signed in Houston, but this kid has spent three years getting injuries and knuckleheadedness behind him, and has learned from Andre Johnson, a man whose size and speed he nearly mirrors. He flashed playmaking skills in '09 (six receiving scores), which means he probably won't be a total secret in your draft, and he's not a starter yet. But he's intriguing.
Chaz Schilens, Oakland Raiders (6-foot-4, 225 lbs., 4.38): A 2008 seventh-rounder, Schilens looked ready to grab the Raiders' No. 1 receiving job last year but broke a bone in his foot in camp. He's got Jason Campbell under center now, which is obviously an improvement over JaMarcus Russell, though you should note that Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy also both fit my Moneyball criteria. There's potential for some fantasy cannibalism amid this group.
Laurent Robinson, St. Louis Rams (6-foot-2, 200 lbs., 4.38): Robinson was on his way to being the Rams' No. 1 receiver last year, but broke his leg in Week 3. Assuming he's still got that same downfield speed he flashed with both the Falcons and the Rams, he's a major sleeper, especially if Sam Bradford can play. My guess is that Donnie Avery will be the St. Louis receiver most fantasy owners would rather take a chance on, but my money's on Robinson.
Devin Aromashodu, Chicago Bears (6-foot-2, 200 lbs., between 4.38 and 4.48): Aromashodu exploded in last season's final month -- to the tune of 22 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns -- and could benefit from Mike Martz's new offense in Chicago. Don't get carried away, because he's not even guaranteed to start; Johnny Knox is actually my current favorite among the Bears receivers. But "Aroma" has a size/speed combo that none of the other Chicago receivers can match, and as the season wears on, he may splash.
Malcom Floyd, San Diego Chargers (6-foot-5, 225 lbs., 4.50): Floyd's biggest problem is that the Chargers are the best NFL franchise at finding Moneyball receivers. Vincent Jackson and Legedu Naanee also fit the bill, to say nothing of Antonio Gates. But as of this writing, Jackson is staging a pretty serious-sounding contract holdout and could possibly be facing a DUI-related suspension if and when he returns to the team. That could put Floyd in line to be Philip Rivers' top wideout.
Devin Thomas, Washington Redskins (6-foot-2, 215 lbs., 4.40): If it's ever going to happen for Thomas, you'd have to say this is the year. He's been a bust so far after being the 34th overall pick in '08, with just 40 catches in two seasons. But this year, Thomas gets Donovan McNabb throwing him the ball, and McNabb has better downfield accuracy than Jason Campbell (plus he's got Kyle Shanahan -- late of the high-flying Texans -- calling plays). Unfortunately, Thomas has had hamstring troubles already this spring and summer, plus has been called out for a lack of consistency during practice. His stock (once quite high, as befits his second-round draft status) is low enough now that he probably belongs on this list.
James Hardy, Buffalo Bills (6-foot-5 1/2, 220 lbs., 4.47): Hardy missed most of 2009 with a torn ACL and has never proven that he "gets it." But this former second-rounder is entering only his third NFL season, and there isn't much depth in Buffalo. We'll have to see if he retained his speed after the knee injury, but surely the starting spot opposite Lee Evans is within reach, considering that Steve Johnson is the other leading candidate. Now, don't disregard Johnson; he's shown more in his two seasons in Buffalo than Hardy has. But if the switch goes on for Hardy, he could be a touchdown maker.
Brian Robiskie, Cleveland Browns (6-foot-3, 209 lbs., 4.49): I was overly high on Robiskie for his rookie year and he couldn't get on the field; he didn't practice well, despite a reputation for precision and hard work coming out of college. The Browns have been careful to praise him during minicamps, so maybe he'll arrive a year late, but apparently his good combine speed hasn't translated to actually getting open yet. Mohamed Massaquoi, who's a bit smaller and (according to the combine) slower than Robiskie, appears to be the favorite to lead Cleveland in receiving in '10.
Rookies who meet the criteria: Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Marcus Easley, Bills; Carlton Mitchell, Browns; Blair White, Indianapolis Colts; David Gettis, Carolina Panthers; Scott Long, San Francisco 49ers.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.