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.
DeAndre Carter, WR, NE - Carter was ultraproductive as a small school wideout, and his 4.44 40, 38.5 vert, 3.8 short shuttle, and 6.64 three-cone showed an NFL quality athlete at his pro day last year. He failed to stick on the Ravens roster last year, and he’s a longshot to make the Patriots 53. Still, if he shows out well in camp and the preseason, he could fulfill long-time beat writer Mike Reiss’s prediction that he will make a surprise run at a roster spot.
Dezmin Lewis, WR, BUF - The Bills third wide receiver spot isn’t exactly a vein of gold for fantasy football, but the job is wide open, and Lewis seems to have the lead heading into training camp. He was also very productive, even dominant at times against small school competition, and he is very fluid for a 6’4” 214 wideout. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Lewis is “making huge year one to year two strides” on and off of the field.
Thomas Duarte, TE, MIA - The seventh-round pick is in the Jordan Reed/Aaron Hernandez mold - a pure receiving tight end who plays more like an oversized wide receiver. He was late to start with the Dolphins because of graduation rules in the NFL. If he can do enough to convince the team to carry him on the 53, it will be a great sign that he has a future in a role that Jordan Cameron is likely to vacate if he doesn’t turn it around this year.
James Wilder Jr, RB, BUF - Wilder is a classic power back at 6’2” 228, a job that the Bills need filled now that an out of shape Karlos Williams will also miss the first four games with a suspension. Wilder was depressed while he languished on the Bengals practice squad the last two years, but he sounds renewed with a surprise opportunity in Buffalo. Mike Gillislee was impressive late last year with Buffalo, but Wilder could push him for the initial backup job with a good summer.
Erik Swoope, TE, IND - Swoope has been in the practice squad incubator for two years, which is not a surprise since he was a basketball-to-football convert from Miami-Florida. It was a good sign that head coach Chuck Pagano said Swoope doesn’t look new to the football field any more this spring. Coby Fleener has left in free agency, so there’s a spot for him to win on the final roster, and at this point in his development he should be able to win it. With injury-prone Dwayne Allen ahead of him, it’s not hard to see Swoope catching some passes this year as long as he follows through with a strong summer.
Josh Ferguson, RB, IND - Ferguson wasn’t drafted this spring, but he still landed in one of the best fantasy situations for a running back. The Colts have no proven backup to Frank Gore, leaving Ferguson as a viable option in a position battle that includes journeyman Jordan Todman, a recently arrested Robert Turbin, a dynamic, but small Trey Williams, and Tyler Varga, a RB/FB tweener who had problems with concussions last year. Pagano liked what he saw from Ferguson this spring, and his observations matched Ferguson’s reputation of being a good receiver and sudden in small spaces.
Trey Williams, RB, IND - That Colts running back situation will require a lot of watching, and Williams is fun to watch. He’s only 5’7” 200, but he is fast and quick and an ankle breaker in the open field. He bounced off and on a lot of practice squads last year, but if he can stick with the Colts, he’ll be a Frank Gore injury away from fantasy relevance. Williams is a Matt Waldman favorite, which is reason enough to monitor him on its own.
Jake Kumerow, WR, CIN - The Bengals had to let Marvin Jones Jr and Mohamed Sanu walk in free agency, and the vacuum on the depth chart was only filled by Brandon LaFell and second-round pick Tyler Boyd. The fourth and fifth spots are up for grabs, and 2015 UDFA Jake Kumerow has been catching everything this spring, so he might catch one of those spots too. He is long at 6’5” 205, and the team likes the way he gets off the line and runs routes.
Terrell Watson, RB, CLE - Watson is a massive back at 6’2” 240 with better than expected athleticism. New Browns head coach Hue Jackson knows Watson from the back’s days on the Bengals practice squad last year, and he could easily win the Browns #3 running back with a good camp. Watson is worth watching if only because he broke Christian Okoye’s records at Azusa Pacific.
Eli Rogers, WR, PIT - Rogers is a slot receiver/returner, and the team liked him enough to stash him on injured reserve last year after he hurt a foot that had bothered him since high school. Rogers had a fan in Ben Roethlisberger last summer, and we should be interested in any wide receiver that can make the Steelers roster, with no standouts after all-world #1 Antonio Brown, who Rogers has been working with this offseason. If Rogers loses out to seventh-round pick Demarcus Ayers, Ayers will be the one to add in deep dynasty.
Xavier Grimble, TE, PIT - Grimble is a big tight end with good hands, but was an underachiever at USC and has failed to catch on in multiple previous stops after spending 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. He has gotten some notice from starting guard Ramon Foster and regular Audible guest Matt Williamson, and Grimble’s practice play has raised eyebrows. Ladarius Green is slated to replace Heath Miller, with 2015 fifth-round pick Jesse James figuring in the mix, but if Grimble can have a good summer, he can make the roster as a backup receiving tight end in a potent offense. The recent release of Matt Spaeth only helps his case.
Trevor Siemian, QB, DEN - Don’t buy the hype about Siemian being in the running to beat out Mark Sanchez to open the season, but do see that hype as a sign that the Broncos aren’t exactly going to ride or die with Siemian. First-round pick Paxton Lynch could zoom past Siemian on the depth chart this summer, but if he doesn’t, it is a likely sign that Siemian is much farther along in learning Gary Kubiak’s offense after a year head start. That means that he could be in line for the first shot to play if the team bails on Sanchez mid-season. Siemian’s preseason and camp will go a long way towards putting him on the doorstep to playing time on a team with two very good wide receivers and what has been a quarterback friendly system in the past.
Demetrius Harris, TE, KC - Like Swoope, Harris has been developing for years as a basketball-to-football convert, but he has actually been spending significant time on the active roster during his three years with team, and they signed him to a three-year extension this offseason. If Travis Kelce goes down, Harris could be in a prime position to show what he has learned during his transition.
Tyrell Williams, WR, SD - Williams was a small school sleeper last year after running 4.43 with a 6’3” 204 frame and posting numbers like a 10’7” broad jump, 39.5” vert, and 6.74 three cone at his pro day. He scored an 80-yard touchdown in Week 17, and carried over the momentum into a great offseason by most reports. He should make the team as the fourth or fifth receiver, and his ceiling is eventual starter with his athleticism and early career growth.