- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Back in the day, or as recently as last season, when an NFL team sent a player to its injured reserve (IR) list that meant the player's season was officially over, and fantasy owners could move on. No longer! This year, the league allows each team to designate a player for an eventual return from the list. In most cases, the player isn't fantasy relevant, as with Baltimore Ravens Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis or recently with Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook. Then again, there are other players who do matter in the statistical world that we in the fantasy community live in.
Of course, these players aren't exactly the caliber of Adrian Peterson or Wes Welker, but seeing as this is the Friday Sneaky Pickups blog entry, we're not so much concerned with this weekend, but in stashing players for down the line. Perhaps even way down the line. So here are potentially fantasy-relevant options with the new IR status who are readily available and seldom discussed, but hey, would it be shocking if any of them were on an active fantasy playoff roster helping out in Week 16? No, not really.
Cedric Benson, RB, Green Bay Packers: He actually got off to a decent start this season, reaching double digits in fantasy scoring in Weeks 2, 3 and 4, and those first two matchups were against the mighty Chicago Bears and difficult Seattle Seahawks. Current Packers lead runner Alex Green has been plodding away at 2.4 yards per carry the past three weeks, and doing so with more than 20 rushing attempts per week. Benson can do that and more! Of course, he'll need to heal from a Lisfranc foot injury, which is no joke and could eventually require surgery, but Benson is a wise choice to stash away for as soon as Week 13 because the Packers will be contending, and they are running the ball more than most people probably realize.
Beanie Wells, RB, Arizona Cardinals: I'm less enthusiastic about Wells, but his path to relevance seems clearer because his injury isn't as severe, the Cardinals know him and he seems motivated. Word is Wells wasn't pleased with being relegated to any sort of injured list because of turf toe, and is itching to return. It can happen Thanksgiving weekend. The inconsistent Wells has certainly tormented fantasy owners on occasion in the past, but look at what stands in his way. Ryan Williams is not returning this season from shoulder surgery. LaRod Stephens-Howling had a nice Week 7, but the weeks before and after he ran 19 times for 28 yards. Wells finished the 2011 season 15th among running backs in standard scoring, featuring two of the biggest individual performances of the season. The current Cardinals, not exactly an offensive powerhouse, do not finish with a cake schedule (Lions, Bears and 49ers in Weeks 15-17), but at least Wells should be active.
Vincent Brown, WR, San Diego Chargers: The original poster boy for the new-fangled asterisk of an injured list, recent reports on Brown's broken ankle have hardly been positive. In fact, Brown is already eligible to come back for practice, but hasn't been able to do so. A popular preseason sleeper on a team that has seen its passing game disappoint, it's easy to see a healthy Brown becoming a top target for Philip Rivers. After all, through seven games, no Charger has 30 receptions. Rivers has 10 touchdown passes, but only four to wide receivers. Robert Meachem had two in one game but has 12 catches all season. Anyway, if you have room for one player mentioned above, I'd go with Brown's upside and friendly December schedule. Of course, he might not return until 2013.
Other thoughts: Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jordan Norwood could come back in December from his foot injury. The last time we saw Norwood, he caught nine passes for 81 yards in Week 5 against the New York Giants. However, since then Josh Gordon has begun to blossom. ... New England Patriots tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is eligible to return for Week 10, but obviously his competition is tougher than James Starks and Eddie Royal. Then again, Aaron Hernandez missed Week 8. Nah, probably won't matter. ... For those in IDP leagues, I wouldn't wait for Baltimore's Lewis. Plenty of healthy linebackers pile on tackles and the occasional sack.
Moving on from the injured folks, I'm intrigued by how the Detroit Lions use Mike Thomas this week. He was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a draft pick. He's a slot guy and not a touchdown maker, but there's talk he could line up in the backfield and assume the Jahvid Best role of pass-catcher. He should do more than Ryan Broyles, who was mentioned in this space last week. ... Speaking of the Lions, Kevin Smith had a carry last week! This is odd: Smith and actual No. 2 Joique Bell each has 30 carries for 116 yards and one rushing touchdown. But Bell has done it lately. Add him first. ... As much as I like Willis McGahee, and he's playing at a high level, Ronnie Hillman is one injury away from enjoying that nice December schedule. ... Is it more likely Chris Johnson runs for 100 yards against the Bears/Dolphins the next fortnight or Jamie Harper steals a touchdown or two? I think you know what I'm getting at. ... In Houston, Kevin Walter has a pair of 13-point games, just like Andre Johnson, and the same favorable schedule. One of them is out there in 98 percent of leagues.
Have a great weekend and good luck to all in Week 9 and beyond!
Eric Karabell examines some pre-emptive pickups which could pay off beyond Week 9.