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Early-bird sleepers

You can find more from Michael Salfino at Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia

The multitude of magazines has hit the newsstands and our friends at MockDraftCentral.com have compiled data from hundreds of early drafts. Armed with this data, let's examine players who are being underrated and why they are sleepers. Click here for our companion piece on busts. We'll go in order of the MockDraftCentral ADP – average draft position.

Marion Barber(notes), RB, Cowboys (14th overall): Felix Jones(notes) was set to siphon off carries last year, too. Barber is set as the third-down back due to superior blocking ability and thus should add 40 or 50 catches. There's no tougher runner in football. He's being penalized for the toe injury that made him useless the final third of last season. But he's reportedly healthy and in the best shape of his NFL career.

Brandon Jacobs(notes), RB, Giants (18th overall): The Giants will always be a committee team, but Jacobs will be the committee head and go-to guy on the goal line. He had 15 TDs last year with Derrick Ward(notes) very active and despite missing three games with a knee injury. We always worry about injuries with Jacobs given his height (6-foot-4) and upright running style. But that's counterbalanced by GM Jerry Reese recently telling Yahoo's Jason Cole, "I would think Brandon will get some more carries (in 2009)."

Ryan Grant(notes), RB, Packers (36th overall): Grant only had five TDs last year. But he had 1,203 rushing yards and 312 carries. No, he's not a good goal-line runner (5-for-25 near pay dirt the past two years). But neither is backup Brandon Jackson(notes). You will have to handcuff Grant to Jackson, which is an expense. But the Packers are very likely to score loads of points in 2009.

Joseph Addai(notes), RB, Colts (43rd overall): He was injured and generally ineffective last year. He then missed OTAs (Organized Team Activities) in June off arthroscopic surgery. This is a model pick where the model says take anyone who falls more than three rounds from when they're healthy (as Addai is expect to be) and in the same role (Addai remains on top of the Indy depth chart). Addai typically was the fifth overall pick last year.

Lance Moore(notes), WR, Saints (66th overall): Monitor his shoulder injury but care little about one-trick pony Devery Henderson(notes) being slotted above Moore on the depth chart. Moore, while undersized, is the Saints smartest and most reliable receiver, especially in the red zone where his 25 targets (times thrown to) was fourth best. He's Wes Welker(notes) on a team that throws more, doesn't have Randy Moss(notes) to hog red zone passes and that plays indoors. Yet there Moore sits three rounds after Welker is grabbed.

Cedric Benson(notes), RB, Bengals (76th overall): He had 282 rushing yards (63 carries) the last two games of the Bengals season. And that's without Carson Palmer(notes) at QB. Running back coach Jim Anderson praised Benson's attitude and work ethic last month. Owners are unduly penalizing Benson for past performance. At age 26, Benson is young and talented enough to have a second act. Given that he's built for goal-line action, Benson is a championship-level third running back in deep, 12-team leagues.

Devin Hester(notes), WR, Bears (96th overall): This ranking assumes he's still a gadget player. But Hester made major strides as a receiver in '08 and now gets Jay Cutler's(notes) world-class arm at QB. Hester running under Cutler's rainbows is a match made in fantasy heaven, but Cutler's supreme arm strength also allows him to find tight windows on intermediate routes and to get Hester the ball on shorter patterns before defenses can react.

Rashard Mendenhall(notes), RB, Steelers (101st overall): He was like Scatman Cruthers in "The Shining" last year. We waited the whole movie for him to come in and save the day and Jack Nicholson, in the form of the Ravens defense, killed him in about five seconds. The Steelers want to run first still and Willie Parker(notes) is on his last legs (29 in November). Good teams are very likely to be starting Mendenhall come fantasy playoff time.

Fred Jackson(notes), RB, Bills (110th overall): Maybe most owners don't know that Marshawn Lynch(notes) is suspended for three games. Jackson usually looks better than even the healthy Lynch. He's certainly more versatile.

Ray Rice(notes), RB, Ravens (129th overall): Rice has the freshest, fastest legs in the crowded Ravens backfield. And he's a more talented runner than Willis McGahee(notes). While it seems like yesterday that McGahee was a young stud, NFL backs age more like unrefrigerated milk than fine wine.

Trent Edwards(notes), QB, Bills (141st overall): Terrell Owens(notes) was fine when Tony Romo(notes) played last year. And the Bills have Lee Evans(notes), too. They want to run, but you've always turned a profit simply by taking Terrell Owens' QBs. The 12th round is a small price to pay.

Michael Bush(notes), RB, Raiders (187th overall): Put in a tape of Raiders Week 17 at Tampa Bay (27 carries, 177 yards) and then ask yourself how Darren McFadden(notes) is better. Bush was considered by many to be superior to Adrian Peterson before his gruesome leg break his senior year at Louisville.

Michael Salfino’s work has appeared in USA Today’s Sports Weekly, RotoWire, dozens of newspapers nationwide and most recently throughout Comcast SportsNet and NESN. Michael also covers the Jets and Giants each week for SNY.tv.

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