- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
It seemed so obvious to me at the time, a pair of innocuous clicks of the mouse really, but I signed free agents Ryan Grant and Vincent Jackson in a keeper league last week. Not to bore you with stories about my teams, but clearly the action was lost on others in my league as well. Each of the 14 teams in the league has to keep six players. I had some bench space; I'm a planner by nature ... welcome to the team, Ryan and Vincent. I didn't see a downside.
While the injured Green Bay Packers running back will not help me this month, and the jury remains out on the troubled -- emotionally and physically, I suppose -- San Diego Chargers wide receiver, these moves will feel a lot smarter next August. And since I realize a good portion of those reading these ESPN Fantasy pages are not playoff bound, it seems wise to starting thinking about the future. Heck, even if you can still qualify for your championship round, part ways with that last guy on your bench and plan ahead.
Frank Gore was not added to the free-agent pool in that league, probably because the team that owns his rights is not in the postseason conversation. Maybe it's because that owner tuned out his team in October. Whatever the case, it's always wise to check out the free-agent pool in your league, not only to see if Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart is still out there. The general point of this weekly Friday blog about sneaky pickups hasn't merely been about the possibility someone like Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Arrelious Benn could emerge in Week 16 ... but in 2012, too. And what better keepers could there be than experienced, veteran fantasy stalwarts like Grant and Jackson?
The following interesting fantasy options -- no kickers, please -- have that annoying asterisk next to their names in ESPN leagues, denoting inactivity to some degree. Here are some, in order of standard season scoring: Gore, Hakeem Nicks, Tony Romo, Vince Young, Dallas Clark, Matthew Stafford, DeAngelo Williams, Mark Clayton, Clinton Portis, Jermichael Finley, Demaryius Thomas and eventually Grant. Some of these players will return this month, most will not. Gore and Williams were top-10 running backs in most 2010 drafts, and while there might be some skepticism in 2011, I can tell you I'd certainly keep them in a 14-team league in which 84 players are protected. Take a look and dump that fifth wide receiver or backup tight end. Next August, you probably won't be considering them as potential keepers.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some of the sleeper 2011 keepers might still emerge in the next few weeks, which is another reason to take that chance. I watched Arian Foster of the Houston Texans continue his dream season Thursday night in a loss in Philadelphia, and I recalled my thoughts on him the week after Thanksgiving a year ago: Why isn't this guy getting an opportunity? Eventually, in Weeks 15-16, he played, then the team's big-time draft pick/future running back (Ben Tate) busted his leg and ... what do ya know, Foster might end up fantasy's top player for the 2010 season.
Here are a few running backs -- it's almost always about that position to me -- to consider not only as the December schedule gets going, but for the future. And it's a bit too obvious to include Gerhart, Anthony Dixon or others in line for playing time this weekend. (I'm telling you, Brian Westbrook is not going to go off for 130-something yards again!) Let's focus on those not being discussed.
Bernard Scott, Cincinnati Bengals: What an awful season for the Bengals, and I'd expect changes in 2011, and not only with the diva wide receivers. Cedric Benson's deal ends, and he's been disappointing. Scott isn't much younger, but I'd think Cincy takes a look at him these next few weeks. Last season he got a few starts and looked good. Maybe he's not next season's Foster, but then again ...
LaRod Stephens-Howling, Arizona Cardinals: The miserable Cards cannot move on from Beanie Wells, but they could get tired of the inconsistency and minor injuries and see what special teams guy Stephens-Howling can do. Plus, let's not assume that Wells is a safe-keeper anymore.
Aaron Brown, Detroit Lions: I'm starting to wonder if hotshot rookie Jahvid Best, he of the Week 2 40-point fantasy game and little else since, is a lost cause the remainder of this season. I realize the Lions want to win, and Maurice Morris has looked capable, but Brown is faster and younger and got some chances on Thanksgiving. If you're in a deep league, do not assume Brown's long-term chances would be blunted by Best. Things usually have a way of working out.
James Starks, Green Bay Packers: I was ready to give up on this guy, who was on the physically-unable-to-perform list for a long time, but then Packers coach Mike McCarthy mentioned he could debut as soon as this week. Fantasy owners give Brandon Jackson too hard a time. He's fantasy's No. 24 running back in season scoring. Still, Starks might get to complement him, and just to circle how this blog began Grant isn't a lock for next year ... but it's worth taking that shot.
Eric Karabell's sneaky pickups of the week focus as much on helping teams this year as for next season.