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Every year a few players emerge from obscurity to win roster spots in the first sign that they can overcome anonymity and lack of pedigree to be relevant fantasy and NFL players. There are so many camp blurbs and preseason performances to wade through. It can be tough to pick out the flashes in the pan from the sparks that ignite a career. I'll run down my favorite names to monitor in each conference to help you sift through the deluge of information coming this summer.
Mack Brown, RB, WAS - Brown was ahead of Matt Jones on the depth chart at Florida in 2013, but he fell behind in 2014. Brown and Jones were reunited in the Washington organization last year when Brown was signed to the team’s practice squad. Now Brown has a shot at the #3 job as the third most experienced back on the roster. If seventh-round pick Keith Marshall can’t stay healthy and Brown outperforms UDFA Rob Kelley, he should make the roster and be in line for significant work if Jones goes down. He was not a notable player at Florida, but like his college teammate Jones, Brown would benefit from a robust offense and could turn touches in fantasy value on that basis alone.
Rob Kelley, RB, WAS - Kelley was signed this spring as an undrafted free agent. He is a big back at 5’10” 226 pounds, with receiving ability, but he is a subpar NFL athlete at the position. Kelley had a terrific spring and stood out in OTAs, so he has momentum heading into training camp. Like Brown, he’ll be in position to benefit if Keith Marshall can’t stay healthy in camp and the preseason, which would put him a Matt Jones injury away from fantasy relevance - assuming the team doesn’t sign a veteran between now and Week 1.
Marshaun Coprich, RB, NYG - Coprich is a compact 5’8” 207 speedster who was very successful at Illinois State. If Andre Williams can’t make the final roster, Coprich might still have to overcome Orleans Darkwa. With a good camp and preseason, the Giants might not feel comfortable leaving him exposed to waivers, and if they do, another team could snap him up. I’m not sold on fifth-round pick Paul Perkins, so perhaps the best fantasy spot for Coprich would be the Giants practice squad, waiting in the wing for a future opportunity after Rashad Jennings is used up.
Roger Lewis, WR, NYG - Lewis is a long receiver with a good deep ball game who fell out of the draft because of character concerns more than a lack of talent. He was one of the most intriguing UDFA wide receivers this year, but that is only part of the equation. The Giants have at least two wide open wide receiver spot, and if Victor Cruz suffers an injury this summer, make it three. Lewis got praise from the offensive coordinator and head coach already, which helps his case.
Darius Powe, WR, NYG - Powe benefits from the same open depth chart at wide receiver as Lewis, but he’s an even more impressive athletic specimen at 6’3” 220, with a 4.49 40, and a very impressive 6.94 three cone time. Powe didn’t come on until the second half of his senior year, but according to all reports, he is a high character player with an affinity for special teams, which is always a plus for a rookie trying to stick on a roster.
Brandon Wegher, RB, CAR - We should always take notice when a team uses a valuable roster spot on a player they stash as a healthy scratch for most of the season. The Panthers did just that with Wegher, a former Iowa back whose path wound through a blue collar job and the NAIA before landing in Carolina. He had an excellent preseason last year, and he could push Cameron Artis-Payne to be the backup to Jonathan Stewart, who has never been known for his durability.
Daniel Lasco, RB, NO - Anyone familiar with the SPARQ metric (a combintion of weight, 40, short shuttle, bench press, vertical), which is the most fashionable number right now to rate a player’s overall athleticism, should stop be stopped in their tracks when they find out that Lasco is the 94th percentage of NFL players. He was banged up in 2015, but his 2014 performance suggest a much better back than a typical seventh round pick. Tim Hightower was a warrior for the Saints last year, but if Lasco can stick on the roster, he could give the Saints a reason to go away from Hightower if Mark Ingram (who has missed 4.5 per season on average in his NFL career) goes down this year.
Cameron Brate, TE, TB - Brate came from humble beginnings of going undrafted out of Harvard in 2014 to score three touchdowns for the Bucs in 2015 and gain trust from rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. Austin Seferian-Jenkins should be the more targeted tight end if he can stay healthy and out of the doghouse, but Brate has shown that he can be more than serviceable if Seferian-Jenkins continues to disappoint. If he carries over his impressive spring to the summer, Brate might not need Seferian-Jenkins missteps to secure a larger role in the Tampa passing game.
Adam Humphries, WR, TB - Humphries was buried behind the cavalcade of talented Clemson receivers in college, but he has already started to make a name for himself in the NFL. Jameis Winston loves the “relentless” game of Humphries, and he has an inside track to win the slot receiver job. His return abilities should also ensure a roster spot, and if Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins can’t stay healthy again this year, Humphries could take another step. Slot receivers don’t usually become relevant for fantasy without a robust passing offense, but growth from Winston, #1 receiver Mike Evans, and the offensive line could create fertile soil for Humphries’ fantasy value to grow.
Peyton Barber, RB, TB - Another Matt Waldman favorite, Barber is more like a 3rd/4th round talent, but he had to come out early because his mother is homeless. Barber generated buzz in OTAs from GM Jason Licht, who put him in a battle with Mike James for a roster spot, at least in part based on how combines qualities of a smaller, quicker back with a 5’10” 228 pound frame.
Ben Braunecker, TE, CHI - “Bronk” was one of the most athletic tight ends across the board at the combine, and he was already moving up the depth chart for the Bears this spring. The UDFA has a strong chance to make the team because they failed in their bids for Josh Hill and Jermain Gresham in free agency. Starter Zach Miller has had trouble staying healthy in the past, so Braunecker has a chance for a lot of playing time if he can make the team.
Cameron Meredith, WR, CHI - The long-framed Meredith flashed terrific measureables for a 6’3” 207 receiver at his pro day last year, with a 6.71 three cone, 39” vertical, and 4.49 40, and that in part led to him making the Bears roster and sticking all season. He even caught 11 passes when injuries depleted the Bears wide receiver group. First-round pick Kevin White is back, but top backup Marquess Wilson is out, so it’s not unreasonable to see Meredith an injury away from more playing time in his second year as long as he can continue his surprising rise.
Dwayne Washington, RB, DET - Washington is a raw runner, but a choice cut of athlete, weighing in at 6’2” 226, with a 4.44 40, 37” vertical, and 6.9 three-cone time. The seventh-round pick will have to beat out Stevan Ridley and Zach Zenner to win the Lions “big back” job, which might be asking a lot, but his athletic ceiling and ability to grow a lot as a player makes him someone to watch for early development in the preseason and track if he land on the Lions practice squad or another team’s active roster.
Darren Fells, TE, ARI - When a quarterback says a developing tight end had the "best offseason", we should take notice, even if his team hasn’t yet made use of the tight end position to create fantasy relevance. Fells is a basketball convert who is still relatively new to football, but he flashed wide receiver ball skills last year, and the idea of him coming in 20 pounds lighter this year could up his run after catch prowess. The Cardinals’ offense still revolves around the wide receivers, but that often leaves the middle of the field wide open for a player with Fells’ skillset.
Trevone Boykin, QB, SEA - Super bowl contenders have gone into the season with and undrafted free agent as the backup quarterback before (Brian Hoyer on the 2009 Patriots), so Boykin going into the season Russell Wilson’s backup is not out of the question. Boykin’s running ability presents fantasy intrigue, and if the Seahawks don’t bring back Tarvaris Jackson after his offseason off field trouble or sign a veteran, take it as an endorsement of Boykin’s long-term career trajectory.
Jeff Driskel, QB, SF - Driskel flashed great speed (4.56 40) and explosiveness (10’2” broad jump) for a 6’4” 234 pound quarterback at the combine, and his landing on a Chip Kelly team that is unsettled for the long term at his position is more than enough reason to tune into his series this preseason. It’s not crazy to think that the team will want to take a look at him in live action this season if he can make the team and both Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick fail to click in Kelly’s system.
Malcolm Brown, RB, LA - Brown was a star of the 2015 preseason, and he is back after spending the season the practice squad. Tre Mason had a tumultuous offseason, and with another performance like last summer’s, Brown could situate himself as the player ready to inherit Todd Gurley’s huge workload if he goes down, with Benny Cunningham as the complement.