The Fun-house: Late Risers

One of the expert leagues that I participated in this past May, the Expert League, has a novel approach to drafting so ridiculously early in the year. The 12 teams in the league drafted 14 rounds, and then the rosters were frozen until, well, this past Monday, when the league participants reconvened and drafted an additional six rounds. It was interesting to shed light on the players that were completely off the radar in May but are now squarely in the late-summer draft mix. I thought it would be worth going over the top 15 picks from this "supplemental" draft just to better capture which players have risen most prominently into the picture over the past couple months:

Mike Bell, Den, RB
This story is well-known in fantasy circles by now. Mike Shanahan elevated the undrafted rookie to the top of the Broncos running back depth chart a couple weeks ago. The move was met with skepticism and raised eyebrows, as if the collective fantasy universe was waiting for a punch line that they slowly realized wasn't coming. I felt at the time that the move was a motivational tactic for veterans Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne. It's looking less like a ploy now, but I'm not sure this is a done deal. Shanahan loves that Mike Bell gets yards after contact – a hard-nosed runner who doesn't stop until he's all-the-way tackled. That's a big issue that Shanahan has with Tatum Bell. Said Shanahan, "Tatum is a guy that, all of a sudden, he's gone. But you don't see that power." Tatum averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season in nearly reaching the 1,000-yard mark (921). His athleticism trumps the other backs on the team. If he sucks it up and shows Shanahan a little toughness, I'd expect him to resurface on top. Until then, Mike Bell should be taken very seriously.

Steve McNair, Bal, QB
Once McNair tucked the ball in from the 6-yard line, dropped his shoulder and bulldozed a couple defenders into the end zone in his first preseason game with Baltimore, his bandwagon was officially back on the road again. McNair has looked sharp in his two exhibition showings, thus far, completing 18-of-23 passes for 193 yards. A reunion with WR Derrick Mason offers a comfort factor in the passing game, and TE Todd Heap gives him a fantastic mid-range option, an area of the field he generally excels in. He's in a situation in Baltimore that offers the upside to make him a quality fantasy backup.

Wali Lundy, Hou, RB
It shows you the confidence that the "experts" have in Domanick Davis' knee when two Houston backup running backs are taken among the top seven picks of this supplemental draft. Like Bell, Lundy has arrived from the other side of left field as a sixth-round pick out of the University of Virginia. He's solidly built, runs hard, but his lack of upper-level speed and inabilities to stay healthy and hold onto the football contributed to his name being called late on the second day of the '06 NFL Draft.

Lundy has had a strong camp, and that has probably landed him in a dead heat with Vernand Morency to be the principal backup to Davis – I can't see Antowain Smith as more than a safety net to all these higher-upside backs. Personally, I like the prospects of Morency a little more, but both Morency and Lundy could see an equitable distribution of the pigskin. "I envision us playing more than one guy," head coach Gary Kubiak said. "We'll play two for sure. We might play three. We'll definitely have a system where we'll rotate so we're not wearing out one guy." And that "one guy" is Davis, who probably won't see much more than 12-15 carries a game to preserve that knee. That will leave a decent chunk of the pie for Morency and Lundy, especially when you hear Kubiak talk about the team's offensive philosophy. "We're committed to the running game," Kubiak said. "The running game is a mindset. We're determined to do it and do it well. You won't see us throwing 30 to 40 times a game. That's just not us."

Kellen Winslow, Cle, TE
Winslow hauled in three passes of 10-plus yards in his second preseason game. When asked if he feels like he can make a strong comeback, Winslow responded: "Yeah … oh yeah. I'm looking to dominate." Apparently confidence is still not an issue for the former first-round pick from the University of Miami (FL) who has missed all but two games in his first two seasons because of injuries. Considering that WR Braylon Edwards is out for at least the first month of the season and that the Browns have issues on the offensive line, a young QB like Charlie Frye is going to find welcome relief in a safety valve TE as talented as Winslow. The team threw to the TE 93 times last season, and that total should jump comfortably above the century mark with a healthy Winslow in tow. I'm considering Winslow between No. 10-12 overall among TEs, and it makes sense that he was an early supplemental pick here.

Jerious Norwood, Atl, RB
Norwood has had a strong camp, but I think there were better picks to be made here. With T.J. Duckett actively being shopped, Norwood can ascend to Warrick Dunn's backup, but that's about it. Despite his diminutive size, Dunn has averaged just a hair more than one DNP per season in his nine-year career. And he's played all 16 games in each of his past two seasons, averaging 273 carries. Also, Dunn fits the Atlanta offense like a glove. So, it would seem, Norwood's opportunity for playing time is small, especially if Duckett is not dealt and returns to handle short-yardage duty. Norwood seems to have a bright future, but his preseason buzz took a hit in his last game when he drew some pointed comments from head coach Jim Mora about his pass protection, or lack thereof. Said Mora, "If he was forced into a larger role, then that would be my No. 1 concern. When he's got the ball in his hands, he's got the ability to make some plays."

Corey Bradford, Det, WR
As former top-10 draft picks Charles Rogers and Mike Williams fight just to make the roster, veteran Corey Bradford has been running with the first-team receiving unit in Detroit. And that's caught the attention of fantasy owners simply for the fact that the aerial attack is now being orchestrated by Mike Martz. Williams seems to be slowly swallowing his ego a bit, and he may ultimately work himself into the starting mix, but as long as Bradford remains with the first unit, he has to be paid attention.

Vernand Morency, Hou, RB
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak has been trying to get Morency to eliminate his jitterbugging, emphasizing the need to commit to his first cut. After he had a talk with Morency, the results were immediate, as Morency rushed for 95 yards and two TDs on 11 carries in his preseason debut at St. Louis on Saturday. Morency was an early third-round draft pick last season, and he closed out his rookie campaign by accruing 129 total yards and a TD at San Francisco on New Year's Day. If he continues to show that he can be a more decisive runner, I expect his talent and NFL experience will be a trump card in his battle with rookie Wali Lundy for backup positioning behind Domanick Davis.

Itula Mili, Sea, TE
With Jeremy Stevens out up to six weeks with a knee injury, Mili figures to play a prominent role in the Seattle offense, especially since there isn't another established tight end on the roster. Mili has solid receiving skills and put together back-to-back seasons with 40-plus receptions in '02 and '03. Until Stevens returns, Mili is worthy of fantasy consideration.

Ladell Betts, Was, RB
With an excellent offensive line, former Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders calling the plays, and solid skill position players in tow, Washington is one of the premier rushing-game properties in football. If you were to consider Clinton Portis the Monopoly game version of Boardwalk, adding Betts as a handcuff pick is like securing Park Place. It (Betts) may not produce as much rent as Boardwalk (Portis), but as long as you have both players, you can build hotels and make a lot of money – Ok, the need to paint this picture using board game imagery may not have been necessary. If Portis' shoulder (separated in first preseason game) causes him to miss games during the regular season, Betts should perform like a decent No. 2 fantasy back. Of course, there are rumors that Washington has come knocking on Atlanta's door, inquiring about T.J. Duckett's availability. The Redskins may not be too comfortable with Betts as the lead guy, but if that becomes the case because the team can't make a deal, Betts will treat fantasy owners just fine.

Troy Williamson, Min, WR
It's anybody's guess as to who will step up and be the No. 1 fantasy wideout in Minnesota now that Koren Robinson likely drank his way into a one-year suspension. Will it be Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor or Williamson? Judging from Robinson's recent comments, Williamson is the guy: "He's getting comfortable with himself at this level," Robinson said. "You definitely see his confidence growing, and he's making plays. Everybody is here to support him. So with the group we have, he can put up 1,400 or 1,500 yards." That's a bit optimistic, probably, but Williamson is a big-time talent that the Vikings drafted with the hopes he could replace the hole left by Randy Moss. Williamson was very raw last season having come out (after his junior season) of a run-oriented system at South Carolina, so this season is more likely to be a split-the-difference season between what he did as a rookie and a true breakout season in his third year.

Maurice Drew, Jac, RB
Fred Taylor has managed to stay healthy in training camp and head coach Jack Del Rio has attempted to eliminate any RB controversy by declaring Taylor the Week 1 starter. As for Greg Jones' efforts in camp, running backs coach Kennedy Pola said, "He's been outstanding." Drew is sitting at least behind those two on the depth chart, and it's unlikely he'll see much time as a rookie. His blazing speed is exciting, but it can't help your fantasy team much from the bench.

Verron Haynes, Pit, RB
Haynes looks like he'll be the Steelers' third-down back, and he's put up some nice numbers in the passing game in the preseason, thus far. But he's a contingency plan for fantasy owners in case there is an injury to Willie Parker or Duce Staley. Parker figures to be the between-the-20s guy again, while Staley may pick up those carries that Jerome Bettis handled last season. But Haynes could very well be the backup for both of those roles, and an injury to Staley or Parker would mean bigger things for Haynes in an offense that churns out big rushing numbers year after year.

Vincent Jackson, SD, WR
This guy is a freakish physical specimen – 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, 4.5 speed. Before suffering a scratched lung this past week, he had made a strong impression in training camp. He's still figures to be ready to play in Week 1, and while he sits behind Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker on the depth chart, expect Jackson to figure prominently in the passing game, especially in the red zone – At Northern Colorado, he scored 32 TDs combined in his junior and senior seasons. Jackson, Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson make for a nightmarish combination for opposing defenses when the Chargers get into scoring range.

Reche Caldwell, NE, WR
Health has kept rookie WR Chad Jackson out of action, Deion Branch's holdout continues – both situations have contributed to boost Caldwell's fantasy value. Caldwell and veteran Troy Brown would likely start the regular season opener if Branch doesn't resolve his situation soon. That said, QB Tom Brady spreads the ball around so much that fantasy owners shouldn't expect super sleeper numbers from Caldwell – TE Ben Watson and RB Kevin Faulk are going to see a lot of attention from Brady, as well. And with a healthy Corey Dillon to go with talented rookie Laurence Maroney, this team figures to run considerably more than last season.

Chris Henry, Cin, WR
Henry wasn't drafted in May because his trouble with the law at the time left his career in Cincinnati in doubt. Amazingly, Henry has been a model teammate during training camp and his offseason legal woes seem to have subsided, although he could be suspended for four games during the season once a DUI charge runs its course and comes to judgment. That said, Henry has been stellar in his summer performances, dominating a recent scrimmage by topping 100 yards and performing well in his preseason debut with six catches for 61 yards and a TD against Washington. Talking about Henry's stellar play in the scrimmage, QB Carson Palmer said, "Very normal for Chris; you can throw the ball high to him. Randy Moss Jr." Henry used his length and leaping ability to haul in six TDs in just 31 catches as a rookie. An expanded role, or an injury to T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Chad Johnson, could make Henry an impact fantasy player.

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