As draft season approaches, fantasy pundits hear a lot of the same questions:
“Who are some late-round sleepers I should target?”
“Do you prefer Player X or Player Y?”
“What is the best strategy to follow?”
“People actually pay you for this?”
Today, I’m going to discuss another one of the most-popular inquiries – one that relates to breakout candidates:
“Who is this year’s version of ?”
Note that I’m not selecting players who would most-likely require an injury to emerge into a fantasy star. For example, Ka’Deem Carey might be a better player than Bishop Sankey, but Carey would require a long-term Matt Forte injury in order to break out this season. Sankey, on the other hand, can earn a feature back job simply by outperforming his competition this offseason.
1. Alshon Jeffery
Breakout headline: Following an underwhelming first season, talented sophomore wide receiver emerges into fantasy stud
Jeffery was selected in the second round of the 2012 draft and immediately slotted in as the favorite to start opposite Brandon Marshall in Chicago. He showed some flashes as a rookie, but missed six games due to injury and finished with only 24 receptions. Last season, however, Jeffery exploded into a fantasy star. He racked up 89 receptions, 1,421 yards, and seven scores en route to finishing No. 9 among wide receivers in fantasy points.
2014 version: Justin Hunter
Hunter is an inch taller and a bit thinner than Jeffery, but was similarly a second-round pick and enters his sophomore season at age-23. Hunter appeared in 14 games and caught 18 balls for 354 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. The 2014 Titans offense isn’t going to be as good as the 2013 Bears’ version, but there should be no shortage of passing with the team expected to trail quite often in the second half. Hunter is already receiving hype from wide receiver coach Shawn Jefferson and has a major opportunity to move past Nate Washington (and possibly Kendall Wright) as the club’s No. 1 wideout. Hunter may start slowly, but remember that Jeffery caught just 13 balls for 104 yards and no scores through three games last season. Hunter is well worth a look in the middle rounds.
Other candidates: Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Hopkins
2. Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron
Breakout headline: High-ceiling tight end prospect emerges into fantasy superstar
Thomas and Cameron were both 2011 fourth-round picks who took a few years to convert their raw abilities into big-time football production. Thomas missed two games last season, but still scored on 12 of his 65 receptions. Cameron caught a ridiculous 80 of his 118 targets and scored seven times. They finished third and fourth, respectively, in fantasy points among tight ends.
2014 version: Ladarius Green
A fourth-round pick in 2012, Green is a massive specimen at 6’6/240 and has 4.4 wheels. He’s only seen 34 career targets while learning the ropes from Antonio Gates, but has shown flashes of his high ceiling when targeted. He put up 376 yards and scored three times on 17 receptions as a sophomore. Gates is still in Green’s way, but he’s 34 and the run-heavy Chargers will be among the league leaders in two-tight end sets. There are roadblocks, but Green’s Top 5 ceiling makes him well-worth a mid-round pick.
Other candidates: Zach Ertz, Tyler Eifert, Adrien Robinson
3. Knowshon Moreno
Breakout headline: Veteran back sheds bust label with RB1 season
Some would argue that Moreno’s breakout 2013 season was solely a product of Denver’s record-setting offense. To an extent, that’s true, but nearly 1,600 yards and 13 scores on 302 touches is nothing to sneeze at. After four injury-plagued and underwhelming seasons, Moreno finished 2013 No. 5 in fantasy points among running backs.
2014 version: C.J. Spiller
There are plenty of similarities between these two backs. For starters, they were born one month apart. Second, same as Moreno did last year, Spiller is entering his fifth season at the NFL level. Next, both were selected in the Top 12 of their respective draft. Finally, despite not quite living up to high expectations, both had/have a history of strong production. Moreno scored 17 times during his first two seasons before all but disappearing from the fantasy radar in 2011 and 2012. Spiller is coming off a letdown season in which he scored only twice on 236 touches, but 2012 saw him score eight times on 250 touches while averaging 6.0 yards per carry. The Bills are the league’s run-heaviest offense and will be among the league leaders in offensive plays. The leader of the Buffalo backfield, Spiller is a logical post-hype superstar candidate.
Other candidates: Mark Ingram, Jonathan Stewart
4. Eddie Lacy, Gio Bernard, Le’Veon Bell, Zac Stacy
Breakout headline: Rookie back rides heavy volume to big fantasy production
Lacy, Bernard, Bell, and Stacy each paced their respective teams in fantasy points at the running back position last season. Lacy, Bell, and Stacy were feature clear feature backs once called upon to start, while Bernard rotated with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. All four rookies finished among the Top 18 running backs in fantasy points.
2014 version: Bishop Sankey
Sankey’s probable role compares most favorably to that of Gio Bernard in the second half of 2013. Sankey is a 5’9/209 speedster who doesn’t profile as a long-term bellcow at the NFL level. Of course, Sankey’s committee mate is the underwhelming (albeit slightly underrated) Shonn Greene. Greene and Jackie Battle are major threats to Sankey’s workload in short-yardage and goal line situations. Dexter McCluster, meanwhile, will steal plenty of targets on passing downs. That may seem problematic, but the key here is that Sankey is the best talent of this bunch. There’s a fair chance he steals lead back duties, which puts him in the RB2 mix. Sankey’s current ADP makes him a bit of a risky investment, but he’s the rookie with the clearest path to a feature back role.
Other candidates: Andre Williams, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell
5. Josh Gordon
Breakout headline: Wide receiver with elite talent in underwhelming offense emerges into fantasy superstar
Despite missing two games due to suspension, Gordon led all wide receivers in fantasy points last season. He racked up 1,646 yards and scored nine times on 87 receptions. Gordon was selected in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, but off-the-field concerns were the only reason he wasn’t a first-round pick in the actual NFL rookie draft. The masses knew he had the skills to be elite, and he converted those skills into a huge 2013 fantasy season.
2014 version: Cordarrelle Patterson
Let’s clear one thing up very quickly – this has nothing to do with Patterson’s life off-the-field. The comparison is only from a football perspective. A first-round selection in last year’s draft, Patterson is a big play waiting to happen, contributing primarily as a wide receiver, but also as a rusher and returner. Despite playing a situational role as a rookie, Patterson scored nine touchdowns – four receiving, three rushing, and two on returns. He’s still considered to be a bit raw, but he’s now 23 and primed to play near-every-down in the Vikings improving offense. His upside is already showing up in his ADP, but Patterson is worth the investment. He’s one of only a handful of wideouts with Top 5 upside.
Other candidates: Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Kendall Wright
6. Michael Floyd
Breakout headline: Talented sophomore wide receiver converts promotion into WR2 production
Selected with the No. 13 overall pick of the 2012 draft, Floyd caught 45 balls and scored twice as Arizona’s No. 3 receiver during his rookie season. A sophomore-year promotion to a starting gig opposite Larry Fitzgerald translated into 65 receptions, 1,041 yards, five touchdowns, and the 23rd-most fantasy points among wideouts.
2014 version: Terrance Williams
This isn’t as good a comparison as some others because Williams’ raw talent doesn’t quite match up with Floyd’s. That said, he’s still a pretty good, developing wide receiver who, like Floyd, is in prime position to take advantage of a great opportunity. Selected in the third round of last year’s draft, Williams averaged 41 snaps-per-game while rotating between No. 2 and No. 3 duties as a rookie. Now locked in as the starter opposite Dez Bryant, Williams is no worse than third in line for targets in Dallas’ pass-heavy offense. A reasonable projection for Williams’ 2013 stats would be almost exactly in line with what Floyd did in 2013. Williams is a bit expensive in the seventh round of your average draft, but he has a good shot to live up to the selection.
Other candidates: Markus Wheaton, Kenny Stills
7. DeMarco Murray
Breakout headline: Unproven back overcomes injury woes, produces RB1 numbers.
Dallas selected Murray in the third round of the 2011 draft. Injuries continue to pile up, but he’s been an outstanding fantasy producer when active. Despite missing two games last season (his third in the pros), Murray put up 1,474 yards and scored 10 times on 270 touches. He finished No. 8 in fantasy points among backs.
2014 version: Shane Vereen
Vereen was actually picked one round ahead of Murray back in 2011, but his health has been even more of a detriment to a potential fantasy breakout. Through his first two seasons, Vereen had appeared in only 18 games and totaled 85 touches. Following a 2013 Week 1 explosion that saw him rack up 159 yards on 21 touches, that aforementioned breakout seemed like a guarantee. Instead, Vereen missed eight games with a wrist injury and played a situational role upon his return. Heading in 2014, Vereen is easily a candidate to lead the position in targets. A probable lack of carries keeps him out of the RB1 discussion, but 12-15 carries-per-game is far from inconceivable, especially if Stevan Ridley ends up back in Bill Belichick’s doghouse. Vereen’s questionable durability and Belichick’s affection for a committee approach make him risky, but Vereen is a few extra touches away from top-10 production. Target him in the fourth or fifth round.
Other candidates: David Wilson
8. Andy Dalton
Breakout headline: Mediocre talent rides ideal circumstances to big fantasy season
It may seem silly to call a guy who scored 35 total touchdowns last season “mediocre”, but many NFL analysts would actually say I’m being generous. And it’s not hard to understand why. Dalton also tossed 20 interceptions and fumbled four times last year. The Bengals averaged 69 offensive plays and scored 2.8 offensive touchdowns-per-game (both fifth-most in the league). This – not to mention a good defense and supporting cast – helped Dalton to a No. 3 finish in fantasy points among quarterbacks.
2014 version: Alex Smith
Like Dalton, Smith very much fits the bill of mediocre. He operates a bit differently, however, choosing safer, short throws instead of high-risk attempts and big plays. Of course, similar to Dalton, Smith’s situation makes him a logical late-round sleeper. First of all, the Chiefs’ offense is run by Andy Reid. Kansas City was more reliant on the pass than you probably realize last year, and is a candidate for regression in the win/loss column this season. Next, like Dalton, Smith will snag you additional points with his legs. Last season, Dalton had 61 carries for 183 yards and two scores. Smith managed 75 carries for 432 yards and one score. They ranked sixth and ninth, respectively, in carries among passers. Kansas City finished ninth in the league in offensive touchdowns last season and finished the season red-hot offensively. Smith won’t be No. 3 in fantasy points, but he’s arguably your best bet for a late-round-flier-turned-QB1.
Other candidates: EJ Manuel
9. Robert Griffin III circa 2012 (I’m cheating on this one)
Breakout headline: Highly-touted rookie quarterback produces QB1 numbers
Following a letdown sophomore season, it’s easy to forget that Griffin paced all quarterbacks in fantasy points through Week 14 of his rookie season. Griffin, of course, was the No. 2 overall pick that year and added a significant number of fantasy points with his legs. He ended up fifth among all passers in fantasy points despite racking up only 3,200 yards and 20 scores through the air. He added 815 yards and seven scores on the ground.
2014 version: Johnny Manziel
Similar to Griffin, Manziel is a first-round pick with big-time rushing ability. He’s not a lock to start Week 1, but he’s the favorite for the gig in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Shanahan, of course, was Griffin’s offensive coordinator in 2012. Assuming he does start, there’s plenty of reason to believe Manziel can put up QB1 numbers. Like the 2012 Redskins, the Browns will look to lean on the run, which will lead to plenty of opportunities for Manziel to carry the ball. And even when they pass, Manziel is not going to be afraid to scramble. It’s conceivable that he’d approach 100 carries over 16 games. Many will argue that Manziel doesn’t have enough offensive talent around him, especially with Josh Gordon suspended, but his supporting cast isn’t much worse than what Griffin had to worth with. Josh Morgan led the 2012 Redskins in receptions. Behind him were Pierre Garcon (missed six games), Santana Moss (was 33), Leonard Hankerson, Logan Paulsen, and Fred Davis (missed nine games). Manziel at least has Jordan Cameron and Andrew Hawkins at his disposal. He’s well worth a late-round flier.
Other candidates: None
10. Keenan Allen
Breakout headline: Seemingly-buried rookie wide receiver translates opportunity into big-time production.
The 6’2/211 Allen was selected in the third round of last April’s draft. At first glance, it didn’t seem like he’d have much of an opportunity to play as a rookie. Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander were slotted in as starters on the outside, while Eddie Royal manned the slot and Vincent Brown added depth. Alexander went down with a torn ACL in camp, Floyd suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2, and Allen quickly leapfrogged inferior Royal and Brown to take over as the team’s No. 1 wideout. That quickly, he went from a redshirt campaign to hauling in 71 balls for 1,046 yards, and eight scores at age-21.
2014 version: Jordan Matthews
At first glance, the 2014 Eagles wide receiver corps doesn’t seem quite as deep as San Diego’s was in 2013, but there are a lot of players expected to be rotated into this passing game. Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper are penciled in as the No. 1 and 2 wide receivers. LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Brent Celek, and Zach Ertz will also be in the mix. 6’3/212 Matthews is the favorite for No. 3 duties, which doesn’t figure to mean more than a handful of targets each game out of the gate. He’s the team’s best talent at the position, though. Maclin and Cooper have an experience edge, but Matthews is the superior player. Very close to an every-down role in a high-scoring offense, Matthews is well-worth a flier in the later rounds of your draft. You just may need to wait a few weeks for the payoff.
Other candidates: Cody Latimer, Donte Moncrief
A few others worth noting:
Breakout headline: Veteran in new home emerges into competent fantasy starter
2014 version: Toby Gerhart
Other candidates: Ben Tate
Breakout headline: Rookie tight end surprises with TE1 production
2014 version: Richard Rodgers
Other candidates: Colt Lyerla, Jace Amaro
Breakout headline: Overlooked tight end rides opportunity to breakout TE1 season
2014 version: Levine Toilolo
Other candidates: David Ausberry
Marvin Jones, Eddie Royal, Jerricho Cotchery
Breakout headline: Situational wide receivers ride fluky touchdown totals to fantasy significance
2014 candidates: Cotchery, Donnie Avery, Marlon Brown, Sidney Rice, Martavis Bryant