Below the Radar
By Matt Waldman
December 14th, 2011

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Below the Radar

I got my introduction to dumpster diving when I was 20 and living in Miami as a music student. I used to jam with a drummer from a Central American country. I'm going to say the country is Panama and the drummer's name is Jorge, but I'm lying. I don't think he'd care if I shared who he was and where he was from, but I don't know for sure.

Another thing that I was never sure about was if Jorge was even a student. He once worked the night shift as a security guard for the practice rooms at the university and there was word he might have been a former student. It didn't matter to us - he could play and he was often the Latin percussionist for several recital bands throughout the years I was there.

One summer after an afternoon of jamming, we went across the street for a bite at Denny's. Adjacent to the restaurant was a Burger King and after our meal, we walked through the rear parking lot of BK on our way back to the school when Jorge told me to hold up. Next thing I knew, Jorge was climbing into the restaurant's dumpster opening Styrofoam boxes until he came across one filled with a stack of eight cooked patties that the afternoon crew had thrown out when the lunch rush ended.

Watching my friend climb into the trash for his dinner - and apparently a few more meals - was off-putting and embarrassing. But Jorge helped me see and entirely different perspective. He grew up in a society where things weren't so disposable and throwing away perfectly good food was wasteful. There are still some places in the United States where people feel the same. In his eyes the dumpster might be dirty, but the plastic bags filled with nothing but encased containers with fresh food that had just been tossed out minutes before was not.

How did he know it had just been tossed out? Observation. Apparently, Jorge knew BK's schedule and the schedule of quite a few other restaurants around town where good eats were prepared, packaged into containers, and thrown out as trash. Jorge saved a lot of money in those days and ate well.

While I never resorted to dumpster diving in real life, I'm an avid dynasty dumpster diver in fantasy football. And there are plenty of times where I have added players from the waiver wire that engendered reactions that I didn't know what I was doing. Brandon Lloyd, Seattle's Mike Williams, and LeGarrette Blount are three examples during the past three seasons. Laurent Robinson is another player I've added from time to time in dynasty leagues, but I simply lacked the patience to reap the benefits. Successful fantasy dumpster salvage operations require the same qualities that Jorge often exhibited getting his meals: observation, logic, a willingness to keep an open mind, a little bit of risk, and a little bit of patience.

The difference between what you're doing and what Jorge did is that some of your expeditions will require you find the right time to watch and wait and the right time to pull the trigger. As John Norton tells Jene Bramel about the doc's teams, "Sometimes it's hard to know where patience ends and stupidity begins."
And in that vein of thought, many of these players aren't worth adding in even the deepest of leagues. Nor will they even be free agent afterthoughts in most re-draft formats next summer.

However, one of the reasons you read my columns is because I'm willing to do the dirty work. If you tell me "I missed," on one of these players then you've missed the point of the exercise. It would be like marrying a klepto and wondering why she always has a wardrobe with the plastic security tags still attached to every item.

Here are some of the players I recommend observing for the next season or two. None of these players I would pull the trigger to add to your roster unless you have the luxury of a deep roster (30-plus players and a practice squad). Next week I'll supply players you want to be adding to your dynasty rosters that might not have lost their appeal, but patience might be a virtue.

Quarterbacks

Thaddeus Lewis, Cleveland Browns: Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur believes Lewis might have NFL starter potential. "He's a guy that we will try to develop and get him ready to play," said Shurmur. "That's what you do with backup quarterbacks. You try to develop them first into a dependable backup and then hopefully to a guy that can maybe start. He came to St. Louis as an undrafted free agent, and then he actually did a terrific job. I've watched him, I worked with him a year ago, and then I watched him in the preseason. He executed and played well, and I think he's a guy that we want to try and develop."

I watched Lewis at Duke and I liked his accuracy, mobility, and poise in the pocket. The arm strength was a question mark, but it was at least as good as Colt McCoy's. Here was my summary take of my No. 12 QB in this class, whom I labeled an upside prospect in the 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:

Lewis lacks the elite arm strength to be a better prospect, but he throws the ball with good anticipation and accuracy from the short to deep- intermediate zones of the field. He has good mobility; senses pressure, and he climbs the pocket effectively. He also stands tough under pressure to deliver the football. His upside is not as high as prospects ahead of him but if he can build on his positives, he can become a desirable backup with borderline starting potential.

At 6'1", 215, Lewis isn't the ideal size for a starting quarterback but if he's prepared, mobile, and accurate his size will be no different an issue than Drew Brees, Jeff Garcia, or Aaron Rodgers (who is only 6'2"). I find it highly unlikely that Lewis is being groomed to start and it's far more plausible that the Browns draft a top QB prospect in 2012. However, the praise Lewis got from Shurmur and what I saw from his play is enough to think about him.

Nate Davis, Kansas City Command (Arena League): The common refrain from the average fan unknowledgeable about the details of Davis' failure to hang onto an NFL roster is that the former Ball State quarterback's learning disability made learning a pro playbook too difficult. This wasn't the issue, but Davis' work ethic did come into question in San Francisco despite the fact that he repeatedly impressed teammates with his arm, improvisational skill, and poise. He bounced from San Francisco to Seattle and then back on the street once the Seahawks hired the 49ers former GM in the winter of 2011. Davis had the briefest stint with Indianapolis but it was rumored he was cut when he didn't show improved knowledge of the playbook. I think Davis has better natural skills as a pocket passer than 60 percent of the starting quarterbacks in the league, but none of that matters if he won't work to learn a system. The hope is Davis plays himself into another NFL camp this spring and works diligently to prove he's matured as a professional.

Dan LeFevour, Jaguars: Blaine Gabbert has an avid film watcher like Greg Cosell say "unequivocally" that the rookie will not make it in the NFL. While I take a more open-minded stance, I wrote last week that Gabbert's pocket presence has deteriorated to a disturbing low that makes believing in him a difficult proposition, at best. Enter Dan LeFevour, a second-year passer frequently compared with Tim Tebow in college, but was actually a much more refined passer from the pocket. LeFevour lacks the elite arm of a franchise prospect, but I talked with a scout two years ago who could envision the former Central Michigan star developing into a starter in the right system. For a cheap pickup as the Jaguars' third-string QB on a team that might be tied to Gabbert for a while, LeFevour might be the best bet to surprise if Jacksonville's current starter continues to falter.

Adam Froman, Spokane Shock: The one segment of football players where the lockout had a severe impact was the rookie free agent market. Without mini camp and an entire summer of work, NFL teams were far less likely to take a chance on players of this type. Froman, a prospect from Louisville by way of junior college has a quick release, good downfield accuracy, and workout athleticism that rivaled Cam Newton. He saw limited action with the Atlanta Falcons and was promptly cut. He's now with the Shock and according to his agent Greg Linton, Froman could also sign with a CFL team. If you think the CFL is a dead end, Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner is fresh of a stint in Canada.

Running Backs

Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers: I was among those that initially felt that Dwyer had significant question marks as a prospect. However, I didn't expect Dwyer's physical conditioning to deteriorate so rapidly. Yet Dwyer still flashed good feet, power, and enough burst to play in the NFL. Running back careers start fast and end faster, Dwyer is worth an end of the roster slot if you can afford it. Keep an eye on his conditioning and willingness to work once he returns from a foot injury that bumped him to the Steelers IR last week.

Chad Spann, Steelers: Dwyer's practice squad replacement is Spann, whom I've written more about as an NFL prospect than anyone. The Steelers are on the short list of teams that understand how to find players below the radar and Spann fits the bill. He's a good in the passing game as a receiver and blocker, he's quick, smart, gets yards after contact, tough, and he plays with a chip on his shoulder. They way practice squads are in the NFL Spann could be a free agent in a couple of weeks due to injuries or other player movement elsewhere that creates a tectonic shift in the personnel landscape, but Spann is a player I'd be willing to pull the trigger if he manages to stick through the season and offseason.

Joique Bell, Saints: Bell was resigned to the Saints practice squad in late September and he's effectively at the kiddie table of a packed RB depth chart. However as I said earlier, RB careers start fast and end faster and Bell demonstrated good things in the preseason. He's a hard runner with good receiving skills who gave the Oakland Raiders fits in the preseason. He reminded me stylistically of Marion Barber as far back as his days at Wayne State and he confirmed those observations at the Senior Bowl.

Cedric Peerman, Bengals: It's almost painful to continue writing about him, but I had this same level of patience with Brandon Lloyd over the years and it eventually paid off. The odds get longer with each passing year and Cincinnati is one of the more frustrating running back situations around so it does offer some backhanded encouragement that Peerman could surprise down the line. Speed, quickness, yards after contact skills, and vision are all positive characteristics of a runner that most analysts had rated as at least a third-round pick when he was with Virginia Tech. The last Virginia Tech player I thought was better than his draft status who sits on a dynasty roster of mine was Kam Chancellor whom the Seahawks took in the fifth round. He looked pretty good on Monday night...

Wide Receivers

Seyi Ajirotutu, Panthers: Ajirotutu has that Laurent Robinson-like athleticism. The former Fresno State receiver flashed potential last year with the Chargers, but found himself out of a job in 2011. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was familiar with Ajirotutu during his tenure with San Diego and added the second-year player to the Carolina roster. Brandon LaFell and David Gettis also have talent, but the difference maker among all three players could very well amount to work ethic. Keep an eye on Ajirotutu.

Eron Riley, Jets: Riley, Thaddeus Lewis' deep threat at Duke, was on the Broncos roster for a time before the Jets acquired him. My short summary take on the 6'3" Riley from the 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio was that he was a late-bloomer with excellent speed, quickness, and top-notch leaping ability. He caught the ball well and his size, smarts, and natural skills make him a project that could develop quickly. Plaxico Burress only has another year or two left as a contributor and Jeremy Kerley might be best used in the slot. While I could see the Jets targeting a receiver in the early rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft, Riley has a chance to factor into the equation with a good camp next year.

Andrew Hawkins, Bengals: I was impressed with Hawkins when I saw him perform against the Ravens when A.J. Green missed a week. He reminded me a lot of Lance Moore. Short receivers from small schools have an extraordinarily difficult uphill climb in the NFL, but if Hawkins can maintain his forward momentum, he could make the battle with Jordan Shipley for the slot a little more interesting - at least interesting enough to get an opportunity elsewhere.

Jeremy Ross, Colts: Ross, a former running back recruited to Cal, was a good return specialist and strong offensive utility player during his college career. Here's my write up of Ross from a section of the 2011 RSP:

Ross looks (and runs) like the star high school RB that was converted to a WR. He has a thick lower body and he runs with the power and balance of a halfback in the open field. He flashes a good stiff arm against linebackers and safeties and he runs with a nice pad level to get under contact and uses his powerful legs to run through it.

With his strong open field moves when the ball is in his hands that include an assortment of stutter steps, jukes, spins, and lateral cuts to get an angle on defenders, I wonder if he shouldn't be switched back to running back at the NFL level. The fact he didn't beat out Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen (if given a chance) isn't necessarily a reflection that he can't play the position.

If he remains a receiver, Ross has the raw skills to excel. His acceleration is noticeably good and he has the explosiveness to get airborne and highpoint the football. He makes quick turns out of his breaks and he can adjust to the ball high or low. Ross demonstrates the ability to work back to the quarterback and he understands zone coverage well enough to find openings. His routes against single coverage need more work. He tends to tip off the direction of his breaks and at this point he doesn't set up or make breaks with the precision of a pro receiver.

Ross catches the football with his hands, but he has a tendency to juggle the ball. This becomes more pronounced when he has to catch the ball with his back to the quarterback and in tighter coverage.

Although a dangerous open field runner, Ross tends to rely too much on the hurdle move, which could get him to trouble. He has enough confidence to use this move in areas where there are too many defenders around to get a shot on him before he lands.

Although very athletic, he doesn't have the size advantage over most NFL cornerbacks that make other receivers potential assets on the outside. Yet, Ross' 39-inch vertical leap does compensate for his average height. If he fulfills his potential, he could be a sturdier Steve Smith or Santana Moss.

Ross is second all-time to DeSean Jackson in punt return average at Cal and he has earned five strength and conditioning records. The receiver/runner is an impressive athlete and an intriguing offensive project with a ton of upside. When I see him run, read that he can squat 500 pounds, leap 39 inches, and run a 4.39-40, I see Ross as a halfback. Regardless, he's a player to remember even if his best chance is initially earn a spot is on special teams.

The Patriots signed Ross after the draft, but he didn't make the cut and the Colts signed him to its practice squad.

Tight Ends

Will Yeatman, Dolphins: Yeatman was a highly recruited football and lacrosse star at Notre Dame who had multiple alcohol-related issues and ultimately had to start anew at Maryland. Yeatman is a really good athlete for his size and he has the hands to develop into an NFL starter. The Patriots signed him as a free agent and he had enough impressive moments in camp to last much of the preseason. Anthony Fasano will be in his seventh year in the NFL and Yeatman is a better receiver than Jeron Mastrud.

Jordan Cameron, Browns: The athleticism of Cameron is good enough that the Browns could have a future star. The question is whether the young tight end will put in the work and the Browns develop a capable quarterback. He could probably do some nice things purely as a red zone player at this stage of his career, but Evan Moore has that occasional role. Considering how (little) the Browns use Josh Cribbs, I'm not holding my breath for too long.

Ryan Taylor, Packers: The former Baylor tight end has a nice all-around game. The fact the rookie is seeing time on the field ahead of D.J. Williams and Anthony Quarless in red zone sets should indicate the Packers think so, too. Keep an eye on Taylor, especially if Jermichael Finley splits town in 2012. Williams is the more heralded receiver, but Taylor could surprise.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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