In the deepest, darkest corners of any fantasy draft a faint candle flickers.
Commoners rarely notice it, but statistical spelunkers with a keen eye not only see it, they understand it’s one gas-can away from exploding into a raging inferno.
These luminations are the virtual game’s true Rip Van Winkles.
Some high-profiled fantasy ‘experts’ would lead you to believe guys like Tyler Lockett and Matt Jones, mostly going in Rounds 5 or 6 of competitive 12-team drafts, are ‘sleepers,’ a ridiculous, poorly applied description. That’s like saying “Hey, there’s this condiment called ‘ketchup,’ if you dip your french fries in it, man, it’s delicious!” Captain. Obvious.
In actuality, those who are viable unknowns are players who typically float in free agent pools until they pop.
For much of last September, Thomas Rawls was one such wader.
Last August, the undrafted product from Central Michigan flew way under the radar. Buried behind Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson on the Seahawks depth chart, the rookie was largely forgotten.
Then the injury imp bit.
Pressed into action Week 3 versus Chicago after ‘Beast Mode’ was felled by a hamstring pull, Rawls proved his mettle. On 16 carries he ripped off 104 yards, displaying thunderous power between the tackles. Following with 48 yards versus Detroit and 169 yards plus a TD at Cincinnati, he was an instant must-have sensation. However, it wasn’t until Lynch was permanently shelved by sports hernia surgery midway through the season did the youngster officially arrive.
At a critical juncture when fantasy owners fought tooth and nail to secure playoff spots (Weeks 11-13), Rawls marched through opponents and scorched earth. Over that three-game stretch he amassed 459 combined yards, four total touchdowns and top-10s in yards after contact (3.4) and evaded tackles (0.23 per attempt). His resulting 24.3 fantasy points per game topped the RB charts.
Though a broken ankle suffered in Week 14 prematurely ended the party, he, like so many previously uncelebrated players before him, was a perfectly timed fantasy hero.
What passed over options could don a cape at some point this year? Here are my elite eight ‘Shocker Specials’ you should stash after pick No. 120 in drafts:
Josh Ferguson, Ind, RB – Soon the Illinois product will join the likes of Arian Foster, Pierre Thomas and Rawls at the round table of notable undrafted RBs. Though diminutive in stature, the rookie is highly elusive in space, possesses plus hands and is polished in his routes. Hyped by Indy beat writers and Jim Irsay alike this offseason, he is a strong candidate to leapfrog Jordan Todman and Robert Turbin on the depth-chart, eventually becoming 33-year-old Frank Gore’s direct backup. Considering the Colts’ ongoing offensive line concerns, Ferguson is the ultimate safety valve for Andrew Luck. He’ll only sporadically carry the rock, but it’s conceivable he’ll be deployed as a gadget back similar to Detroit’s Theo Riddick or New England’s Dion Lewis. If the Colts are again faced with numerous deficits, the youngster sails past 50 receptions in Year 1. Keep preying on the blind at his 185..4 (RB59) ADP. And be thankful his lower extremities were spared from the La Canton tar pit.
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 148 carries, 625 rushing yards, 64 receptions, 509 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns
Sammie Coates, Pit, WR – This time last year, Coates was a wide-eyed rookie who couldn’t catch a toxic virus from Rio water. Lapses in concentration and the pitfalls of a new playbook put him well behind the ball. Consequentially, he was buried on the regular season depth-chart totaling a mere two targets and one reception for 11 yards in extremely limited action. However, with Martavis Bryant on a one-year sabbatical, opportunity knocks for the former Auburn standout. On paper, his workout metrics are stellar. He’s a 6-foot-1, 212-pound blazer (4.43 40-yard) with a condor-like catch radius. If the reported catch improvements this summer transfer to September, he, and not teammate Markus Wheaton, will be the break out Steelers receiver to own. Pittsburgh’s aggressive vertical attack and the attention Antonio Brown draws are indicators someone will benefit greatly. Based on talent alone and reports he has a leg up on the WR2 gig, Coates has the best chance to stir the blood. At this near rock bottom price (123.8, WR55), those who invest may just score a prolific WR2/WR3. Still not convinced? Charles Robinson’s report from Steelers camp is loaded with additional propaganda.
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 66 receptions, 1,082 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns
Devin Funchess, Car, WR – While everyone is enamored with a now healthy Kelvin Benjamin, the wiseguys are loading up on Funchess some 80-90 picks later (KB: 39.2 ADP, DF: 122.2). The second-year option, a near clone of Benjamin, is a long, lumbering drink of water, a wide receiver playing in a tight end’s body. Under the microscope, none of his ancillary contributions suggest he will springboard in 2016. Last season, he was plagued by drops and occasional disappearing acts. The only supplementary measurement he ranked inside the top-50 in was fantasy points per target, and he was No. 48. Why then is he on this list? Funchess made steady improvements over the season’s second half. Though overshadowed by, of all people, Ted Ginn, who should never, ever be trusted moving that antique vase, Funions scraped together a 24-383-5 line from Week 9 on, the 32nd-best WR yield over that stretch. Couple that with the glowing reviews he received in OTAs and thus far in training camp and his stock is undoubtedly on the rise. In what will be a spread-the-wealth offense, Funchess, who will see time not only outside but also in the slot, may just nip at KB’s heels, if not outplay him.
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 64 receptions, 1,013 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns.
Spencer Ware, KC, RB – Two major knee operations in five years. That’s what Jamaal Charles underwent. The incumbent is entrenched as Andy Reid’s starter, but, at 29, and given his tender lower body, one has to wonder if he’ll return to the 15.9 touch per game workload he had pre-injury in 2014. Arrows point to Ware being a perpetual thorn. Last year, the former sixth-round pick eventually overtook an occasionally ineffective Charcandrick West. A keggerator with feet at 5-foot-10, 230 pounds, Ware is an intimidating, between-the-tackles chain mover with underrated shake. On 78 touches in 2015, he chipped in the highest YAC rate of any eligible RB (3.8), a fantastic 1.06 fantasy points per opportunity (RB12) and ranked top-10 in juke percentage. Showcasing improved hands thus far in camp, he is a viable 8-12 touch per game producer who could morph into one of the game’s most annoying goal-line gremlins, at least to Charles owners. If the domino ahead of him falls, he would likely be a top-15 back at a minimum. Stash him gleefully in the double-digit rounds (186.4 ADP, RB59).
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 183 carries, 824 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 157 receiving yards, 8 total touchdowns
Bilal Powell, NYJ, RB – It’s hard not saying Powell’s name without impersonating venerable newsman Tom Brokaw. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But owners should get used to it. Powell, who is expected to split reps with Matt Forte this season, is going to steal fantasy headlines at some point this season. Whispers are circulating the widely perceived backup will tote upwards of 40-45 percent of the workload. Todd Bowles and Chan Gailey are adamant about giving Forte, who has 2,522 career touches under his belt, routine rest. If that’s the case, it’s entirely plausible Powell averages some 12-13 touches per contest. Recall last year when gifted chances the multidimensional weapon was quite effective. He averaged a terrific 6.0 yards per touch, ranked No. 24 in total juke rate among RBs and netted 1.02 fantasy points per opportunity (No. 15 among RBs). The Jets line is in need of repair, but with Ryan Fitzpatrick back in the fold and given the field-stretching abilities of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, Powell is a terribly undervalued commodity who has serious FLEX appeal even with a healthy Forte.
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 177 carries, 780 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 328 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns
Jameis Winston, TB, QB – Winston will squeeze inside the QB top-12 ranks by the time the regular season expires. Pouring tequila over your Fruit Loops again Evans? Nope. Believe it. Like the majority of rookie quarterbacks before him, the youngster traveled a rocky road. Still, despite the occasional bumps, he managed to put together an eye-opening, though unheralded, campaign. Yes, a sizable chunk of his value was driven by an unpredictable six rushing scores, but his 292.1 total fantasy points in standard Yahoo leagues landed at QB13. When peeking at other critical stats he was even more impressive. His yards per attempt (7.6), air yards per attempt (4.7) and fantasy points per dropback (0.49) all ranked No. 11 or better among signal callers. When including the fact his two top weapons, Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, combined for an unsightly six touchdowns, what Winston achieved was rather remarkable. Leaner, meaner and expected to take on more responsibilities, he’s about to crash the QB1 class, especially if Tampa’s D is again overly inviting (26.1 pts/gm allowed in ’15) and Evans plays up to his abilities. At his very affordable 134.3 ADP (QB14), he should be a primary target for the wait-on-a-QB crowd.
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 4,328 passing yards, 27 passing touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 225 rushing yards, 5 rushing touchdowns
Rishard Matthews, Ten, WR – Overlooked in Miami’s despicable 2015 was Matthews’ ascension. His eruption was relatively minor, but before being felled by a rib injury, he was on pace for a 62-963-6 campaign, a line similar to what Travis Benjamin, quietly the 28th-most valuable WR, accomplished with Cleveland. The frontrunner for the starting ‘Z’ position in Mike Mularkey’s offense, he is quite possibly the Titans’ most reliable weapon outside Delanie Walker. Sporting ‘Flipper’ on his helmet last fall, he ranked No. 1 in yards per target (10.9), No. 11 in catch rate (70.5 percent), No. 5 in fantasy points per target (2.19) and, most outstandingly, No. 14 in contested catch rate (61.5 percent). Looking at those numbers, it’s hard to deny Matthews’ versatility. With many talking heads and fanalysts, me included, predicting a Marcus Mariota boom in 2016, it’s certainly within reason to believe Matthews will emerge as Tennessee’s most valuable WR. Let knuckleheads reach for Dorial Green-Beckham several rounds earlier.
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 73 receptions, 1,055 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns
Bruce Ellington, SF, WR – Though warts are rampant in San Francisco, here’s what we know about Chip Kelly’s offense: it will be played at an exhaustive pace and feature many three- and four-wide sets. Throw in a permeable offensive line and suspect defense and advantage Ellington. The slot man, who’s drawn rave reviews throughout OTAs and training camp, may wind up being the most valuable Niners receiver. Despite his undersized build (5-foot-9, 179 pounds), he’s quick, elusive and runs clean routes. When the pocket collapses around Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick, Ellington will surely be the safety read. Don’t bank on pace-setting yardage or TD numbers, but it’s no reach to think the wideout snags 70 or more passes. Mine that gold in PPR leagues.
Fearless Forecast (16-game ceiling): 80 receptions, 989 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns
Others to watch: Jordan Howard, Chi, RB, Brice Butler, Dal, WR, Jerrick McKinnon, Min, RB, Jeff Janis, GB, WR, Dwayne Allen, Ind, TE, Cameron Brate, TB, TE, Terrance West, Bal, RB, Jordan Taylor, Den, WR
Bull rush Brad. Follow him on Twitter @YahooNoise.