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20 Upside Players to Watch
David M. Dorey

Everyone loves a "sleeper", but what does that really mean? Is it drafting Elvis Grbac as the 11th quarterback taken thinking he will be top 5? Is it taking a receiver with one of those final picks that ends up as a top ten in your league? Is it taking a player that starts for your team by midseason when no one else ever heard of him in August?

You can find someone to say "yes" to all of those. Let's take this as a different tact. Let's take a longer look at 20 players that you can get from mid-draft to actual waiver wire that have "upside" to them. They may only produce the value commensurate with where you draft them, but by the same token they could provide you with your sleeper, undervalued player or what ever term you like to use that makes you look like a genius by December.

Now you don't, and likely won't, agree with these all but you are not supposed to nod your head and draft. These are 20 players to give that extra "hmmm" to come draft time and a longer look just might improve their standing in your eyes and maybe, just maybe, eventually on your team.


1. Aaron Brooks (NO) - This was an easy one, but one that I have been touting since the spring. Brooks not only looked poised and productive in his play last season, he has remained in New Orleans during the offseason studying and working out. The Saints have already proven that they are vastly improved from recent years and Brooks could well become the piece that brings it all together in a very nice season. I've gotten Brooks as cheaply as the sixth round before, but by now he has risen to about fourth round status in most leagues. By next year, expect no less than second round.

2. Doug Flutie (SD) - Yes, the little magic man. Flutie was shipped off from Buffalo to allow Rob Johnson a faster route to injury. The Chargers went 1-15 last season. For the want of 3 points in many games, they could have been around .500. With Tomlinson to run and a healthy Graham and Conway, the Chargers will take their easy schedule to the bank far better than last year. The addition of Tim Dwight as the speedster #3 receiver makes this squad far better than people are giving it credit for being.

3. Matt Hasselbeck (SEA) - Grabbed from the Packers by Mike Holmgren, Hasselbeck has looked solid so far. A good running game, Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson will let Hasselbeck be the quarterback that Kitna could not. He is currently going as a backup in most leagues and could very well end up your starter.

4. Chris Weinke (CAR) - You can get this guy very cheaply and yet he was just named as the starter for the Panthers for the final preseason game. Lewis has just not played as well as Weinke and if Carolina settles on a quarterback he will enjoy tutelage by Seifert and company while throwing to Muhsin Muhammad, Donald Hayes and eventually Patrick Jeffers. Also some tight end named Wesley Walls. Weinke is not a lock, but is the best poised for a good season if he starts.

Running Backs

5. Kevan Barlow (SF) - Garrison Hearst has taken the spotlight this summer with surprising play considering that he is coming off a two year rehab and is 30 years old. Barlow has been saddled with an injured quadricep this summer and only last week finally got play in a preseason game. The result? He ran 13 times for 66 yards and one score. He had a long run called back. Though he went against fourth quarter defenders, he looked as good as a back could have looked when he ran. Barlow was highly rated by Shanahan too - someone who has had a bit of good fortune with those deeper drafted rookie rushers. Maybe Hearst lasts the whole season and redeems himself fully. And maybe he is a 30 year old coming off a two year rehab to play in a very physical game that does not take kindly to such feats. The San Fran back is always a good back. Derrick Loville? Charlie Garner? Garrison Hearst? Who will be next? Maybe Garrison again. And maybe not.

6. Jason Brookins (BAL) - In fantasy leagues this season, someone will always be playing the Raven's rusher. The only question is who that person will be? Terry Allen is a known player and a very good one a few years back. But reason also says that he was not at home watching his big screen instead of playing football a few weeks ago. Someone will be the Raven's back and if there will be any nice surprise, it will be Brookins. The others - Allen, potentially Chris Warren, Rhett, etc., will only play a fill-in role in my opinion. The unknown quantity and quality of Brookins is the most intriguing. He will be cheap enough and thus far has been good enough to warrant the Ravens holding off on any other moves.

7. Ben Gay (CLE) - Okay - so this is possibly the deepest sleeper on this page. And likely he will not be drafted since he is not a starter. But Gay was a high school phenom in Texas and grades caused him to miss out on a major college job. About all he has done is continually turn heads in training camp. He is raw - very raw, and rushers have to be blockers as well. He has a long way to go to become an NFL worthy back but he is very talented and if later in the season James Jackson gets hurt or does not pan out, do not be surprised to see people snickering at the player's name they are taking in a waiver wire transaction.

Tight Ends

8. Byron Chamberlain (MIN) - The Vikings have never been very big on tight ends (who has really) but Chamberlain is expected to be a much bigger part of the game plan in Minnesota than most assume. Taken from the End-rich Bronco's, Chamberlain gives Culpepper yet another nice target to hit over the middle while Moss takes the secondary for a long stroll and Carter makes the linebackers huff and puff to stay up with him.

9. Desmond Clark (DEN) - Clark was drafted in 1999 in the third round as the heir to Shannon Sharpe. Clark is a receiving tight end, the very best of all kinds of tight ends in fantasy terms. His progression from his rookie year has been good though mostly in training camp and practice. Now that Chamberlain is gone and Carswell is there to block, the door opens for Clark to enter into that tiny room reserved for tight ends that matter.

10. Cameron Cleeland (NO) - Cleeland came from no where in 1999 to post 684 yards and 6 scores as a rookie on a Ditka team devoid of playmakers. Now that the Saints are far better stocked with talent, particularly at the quarterback position. Cleeland missed time from an Achilles Tendon last season and even this year he has already strained a calf, but he is healthy now and in an offense that plans on using him. His background means you get him much cheaper than what he can do when healthy.

Wide Receivers

11. James Thrash (PHI) - He is only 25 years old and was acquired from the Redskins to be the #1 receiver in an offense that made the playoffs without, relatively speaking, any receivers. Thrash has picked up Reid's offense very well and is poised for a good year on a team that plays a harder schedule than last season. If Charles Johnson can score 7 times last season without Staley there, it is not hard to expect Thrash to step up his own game as he comes into his own as a receiver.

12. Johnnie Morton (DET) - The West Coast offense is in town now and the one receiver that has consistently shined in practice and training camp is Morton who has picked up the routes and had flypaper hands. With Crowell banged up - yet again - watch this guy quietly have a nice year.

13. Plaxico Burress (PIT) - The 8th overall pick last season is still 6'6" and 229 pounds. That is some serious size and the Steelers have tabbed him the starter over Troy "but what about my college career" Edwards. Prototypical for the possession role, Burress has the size and talent and opportunity to come into his own this season and next. Last year taught him to drop the ego routine. This year should teach him the ways of catching the ball.

14. Willie Jackson (NO) - Albert Connell was brought in to be the #2 receiver but he has mostly shown an ability to get hurt rather than get open. Jackson already has chemistry with Brooks and is a safe bet to produce far better than the later rounds he is being drafted in.

15. Peerless Price (BUF) - Enters into his magic third year in an offense that suddenly claims to want to throw the ball. Price came off a nice career at Tennessee and has been obscured by the rushing game and play of Moulds. While his play the past two years has been spotty at times, he is in a great position for stepping up and contributing.

16. Jeff Graham (SD) - The Chargers have a wonderful schedule this season and in 13 games last season, Graham had 907 yards while receiving from Ryan Leaf and Jim Harbaugh. The Chargers will improve and so will the veteran Graham's numbers. Flutie has already began to look for this possession receiver and if Tomlinson can give even a credible performance, it will open the passing from the scrambling Flutie even more.

17. Laveranues Coles (NYJ) - Make no mistake - this guy is so fast he should have a drag chute hanging off his belt. Coles has made noticeable improvements in his route running and is now being considered for the #2 spot over Hatchette. The Jets will need to throw and Testeverde has been praising this second year player.

18. Marvin Minnis (KC) - The Chiefs will throw and contrary to some reports, not all the passes are for Gonzalez, Alexander and Holmes. Minnis has shown more ability to get open and catch the ball than journeyman Derrick Mayes this summer. While a bit lighter than what a normal receiver is (170 pounds), Minnis was a playmaker in college and could become Trent Green's favored streak down the sideline while the defense concentrates on the other three receivers I mentioned.

19. Quincy Morgan (CLE) - Yes, we are into rookies here. And Morgan has opened some eyes in Cleveland already. Slated to start opposite Kevin Johnson, Morgan is raw but has impressed in camp. The Browns will not resemble their 2000 version this season with a new coach, new scheme and an again healthy Tim Couch. Morgan may not get drafted, but he will be on a roster at the end of the season guaranteed.

20. Chris Chambers (MIA) - I understand that rookie receivers for the Miami Dolphins is not exactly something that inspires squeals of delight, but Chambers is now challenging for the #2 role opposite Gadsden. He will more likely be a #3, but he has consistently impressed in camp and the Dolphins are stating a greater desire to throw downfield this season. In a deep keeper league, do not pass him by.

And so you have it now - 20 players worthy of watching as the season develops and a set of players to give a second thought to in your own assessments. Upside is the one thing players should have deeper in the draft when you are looking for back-ups because all too often they become your starters before it is all over. Good luck and good drafting!