The recipe for a fantasy football championship is one part knowledge, one part skill, and two parts luck.
The luck involved in fantasy is clear. It is lucky to escape a season without serious injuries to top players. It is lucky to avoid facing Peyton Manning's owner when Manning throws seven touchdown passes. It is lucky to have a desperation play like Matt Asiata pay off in a big way.
Identifying and acquiring breakout players is another element of fantasy often attributed to luck, but the reality is locating breakouts has much more to do with skill than anything else. Sure, even the most astute fantasy player whiffs on a player or two, but one that understands what to look for in a “sleeper” will hit a large enough percentage to be a factor in every league every season.
The first and most obvious requirement for a successful breakout player is talent. There are mediocre talents which succeed in fantasy, but the real star fantasy players are almost always the star real football talents. The only running back in the top five for 2013 that would not be considered a top talent was Knowshon Moreno, and he was a first-round NFL draft pick from a huge college program.
The second most important element to look for from a breakout candidate is opportunity, and yet this element is often the one most overlooked. How long have fantasy players dreamed about the what-ifs of Bernard Pierce, Rueben Randle, and Bryce Brown only to see their chances never come? The most talented player in the world will score no fantasy points sitting on the bench.
Who, then, looks to have the talent and opportunity to breakout in 2014?
Mining for breakouts from the quarterback position can be something of a fruitless task. Over the last five seasons, at least seven of the quarterbacks that finished a season in the top-12 remained in the top-12 the next year, and nine of the top-12 in 2013 were repeats from 2012.
The consistency at the top of the fantasy quarterback rankings is even more stunning. Only six players have registered top-three finishes the last five seasons, and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have occupied the top two spots four of the last six.
The lack of turnover at the top of the position makes identifying potential breakouts difficult, but it is not impossible.
Jay Cutler is a prime example. Cutler averaged almost 18 fantasy points a game in the nine games he finished last season, and he and Josh McCown’s stats collectively would have been the fourth best fantasy quarterback in 2013. With Brandon Marshall still in the prime of his career, Alshon Jeffery continuously improving, and second-year player Marquess Wilson poised to take on a bigger role, Cutler and the Bears’ offense should take another step forward in 2014.
Veterans like Cutler can step up, but the best place to look for quarterback breakouts is with younger players.
For the first time in three seasons, no rookie signal callers cracked the top-12 in 2013, but five of the top-12 were in their third year or younger. There is a youth movement in the fantasy quarterback ranks, and there are at least two players in the 2014 draft with a chance to make an early mark.
Teddy Bridgewater is the best quarterback in the draft and should be the first pick. That is the long and the short of it.
If Bridgewater lands in Houston, he will join an offense likely to have a strong running game with a steady No. 1 wide receiver and a talented second-year wideout in DeAndre Hopkins. That combination could lead to an Andrew Luck-esque rookie campaign for Teddy.
If the Texans make a poor decision, Bridgewater could still be a fantasy asset in 2014. The next two quarterback-needy teams in the draft – Jacksonville and Cleveland – have nice weapons as well, and there is absolutely no way he slips past those two teams.
The other prime candidate for an early fantasy impact is Johnny Manziel.
Everyone knows about Manziel’s improvisational ability and athleticism, but people often misconstrue what type of quarterback Manziel actually is.
Manziel will not be the Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, or Colin Kaepernick style of quarterback. Manziel is similar to those guys in that he has the ability to escape the pocket, but those players usually decide to run when given the opportunity.
Manziel is much more like Aaron Rodgers or Tony Romo in that he uses his escapability to extend plays and give his receivers time to get open, but of course still possesses the athletic ability to take it down and damage a defense with his legs. Because of that style, Manziel’s rushing totals will be much more in line with Russell Wilson’s 75-500 than Newton or Griffin’s ceilings, but that does not mean he cannot be a fantasy factor next season, especially if he lands with Josh Gordon and Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland.
The other rookie quarterback likely to go in the first ten picks is Blake Bortles. Bortles could do something if he arrives in a situation that already has weapons like Houston or Cleveland, but he is less NFL ready than Manziel or Bridgewater, and not worthy of being in the same conversation.
Montee Ball has to be atop the running back breakout list. It is extremely unlikely Knowshon Moreno returns to Denver, and Ball is the heir apparent to the lead back role.
Ball’s talent is not spectacular, but he seems to have overcome his early 2013 fumbling issues and became a better pass protector as the season progressed. More importantly, we have already seen what even an average back can do in this Denver offense. Ball has a real shot at a RB1 season if he can hold onto the job.
Andre Ellington also lost snaps last year to a veteran free agent not likely to be back with the team. There is a good chance Rashard Mendenhall has played his last snap in Arizona, and the feeling around the Cardinals is Ellington will become the lead back regardless of Mendenhall’s 2014 status.
Opportunity, then, is not something with which to be terribly concerned when it comes to Ellington. Talent is also a huge check mark. The only thing that could possibly hold Ellington back is offensive line play. Arizona’s offensive line was one of the worst run blocking units in the league in 2013, and it is the unit the Cardinals should focus most their attention this offseason. If the line gets fixed, the sky is the limit for Ellington.
On a deeper level, there are two backs that may not be household fantasy names yet but have a real shot to finish as the talk of 2014.
Khiry Robinson of the New Orleans Saints is the most intriguing option. Robinson is a bigger back that Bill Parcells reportedly compared to Curtis Martin. He has great burst for his size and showed patience and vision in his impressive playoff performances.
The real issue for Robinson will not be talent, though. The backfield situation in New Orleans is as muddled as any in the NFL. But with Pierre Thomas perhaps on his way out, Robinson might have a clearer path to carries than it seems. There is also a chance the revolving door approach at running back in New Orleans stems from a lack of special talent as opposed to a philosophical commitment to using several backs.
Robinson is not a surefire hit, but he certainly is an interesting player.
Christine Michael is the final and perhaps most scintillating running back on this list. The love for Michael might seem to negate what was written earlier about players with no opportunity for playing time, but his path to carries is clearer than it looks.
Marshawn Lynch has one of the most punishing running styles in the league and has seen 1,074 touches over the last three seasons. That type of workload sends up red flags in normal running backs, but runners like Lynch have a history of flaming out hard and bright. His style and workload point to an extremely elevated injury risk for 2014.
If that happens, Michael has the talent to be a start-him-every-week-no-matter-what RB1. The opportunity is a risk, but the talent is just too big to pass up.
Finding true breakouts at the wide receiver position is difficult because so many players get snaps in this three-wide NFL that we often see good wideouts coming. Still, there are several players who are poised to make a hard push in 2014.
Marvin Jones almost does not deserve to be on this list. He finished as the 25th best fantasy wideout in 2013 despite only playing 555 snaps. His 10 touchdowns are unrepeatable, but there is no way new OC Hue Jackson gives Mohamed Sanu 200 more snaps than Jones again either. So, believe it or not, there is still room for fantasy growth for Jones.
Another surefire breakout option is Terrance Williams. Williams played an even 700 snaps and had a run of five touchdowns in six games in 2013. He lost steam as the year went on, however, and lost snaps to Miles Austin down the stretch.
Wearing thin down the stretch is nothing new for rookie wideouts, and Austin’s almost certain departure gives Williams the inside track on the No. 2 wide receiver role in Dallas, which should be a gold mine in 2014.
Former Lions OC Scott Linehan will be calling the plays in Big D this season. While Linehan was running the offense in Detroit, the Lions finished first in pass attempts twice out of six seasons and never finished lower than sixth. Expect the Cowboys to toss the ball around a lot this season, and Williams is sure to benefit from it.
Rueben Randle is also in line for an expanded role in 2014. Hakeem Nicks will not be back in New York this season unless the Jets panic sign him, so Randle will finally get his shot to be an every-down player.
The bump in snaps would have been enough to put Randle on this list, but the arrival of former Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo in New York pushes Randle’s breakout potential over the top.
McAdoo is a Mike McCarthy protégé and is likely to bring a West Coast offense to New York. Randle has the skill set to attack a defense vertically, but he is best utilized as a catch-and-run receiver. To say it better, Randle is a perfect fit for the WCO.
On the deeper side, second-year wideout Markus Wheaton looks poised for an explosion.
The Steelers are expected to let Emmanuel Sanders walk in free agency partly because of the faith they have in Wheaton, and he is the odds-on favorite to start opposite Antonio Brown. Sanders posted a solid 67-740-6 in that role last season, and it is not inconceivable Wheaton could use his superior playmaking ability to better those numbers.
Justin Hunter also could be in line for a second-year breakout. Nate Washington is always reportedly on the way out of Tennessee, but regardless of Washington’s status, Hunter showed enough to be given an expanded role. At the very least he should be given the lion’s share of Kenny Britt’s useless 300 snaps.
More important than his opportunity, however, is Hunter’s talent and ability to capitalize on the role in which I expect new HC Ken Whisenhunt to use him. Whisenhunt believes in the West Coast offense, but he also believes in stretching the defense vertically. He used Malcom Floyd in that capacity before he was injured last year, and he tried unsuccessfully to use Vincent Brown in the role after Floyd went down.
Hunter is a perfect fit for Whisenhunt’s deep threat role, and he also showed against the Raiders last season – a game in which five of his six catches were third-down conversions – that he had the tools to be a complete receiver. He should be given a big-time role in Tennessee’s new offense, and that should mean solid production from the talented young receiver.
Jordan Reed is the most obvious tight end breakout candidate. He was a draftnik darling last spring, has enough athleticism and playmaking ability that the Redskins used him on an end around last season, and was already well on his way to a breakout in 2013 before a concussion ended his season early.
The only real question surrounding Reed is how he will be used. New Redskins HC Jay Gruden did not force feed his tight ends in Cincinnati by any means, but Jermaine Gresham always finished near the top-10 in tight end receptions, and Reed is a more dangerous weapon than Gresham ever was.
It is also promising that former Redskins TE coach Sean McVay was promoted to offensive coordinator by Gruden. While Gruden will call plays, McVay will have some say in the game planning and surely has some affinity toward Reed.
Signs point to Reed breaking out in a big way in 2014. He should be the fifth tight end off the board next summer.
A couple deeper tight-end names fantasy players should become familiar with are Travis Kelce and Levine Toilolo.
Kelce was highly regarded coming out of last season’s draft and was expected to be an early contributor for the Chiefs. Kelce suffered a knee injury in the preseason, however, and was placed on injured reserve.
Now healthy, Kelce should quickly rise to the top of the Chiefs’ depth chart. No tight end on the roster has Kelce’s playmaking ability, and his blocking skill ensures he can be used all over the formation.
The bottom line is if Sean McGrath and Anthony Fasano can combine for a 50-500-5 season in the Chiefs’ offense, Kelce has the opportunity to put up solid TE1 numbers as the lead tight end in Kansas City.
The Falcons treated Toilolo’s rookie campaign as almost a redshirt season. He was the definition of raw talent when he came out of Stanford, and the presence of Tony Gonzalez meant Toilolo could sit back and learn.
With Gonzo now retired for good – maybe—the Falcons should give Toilolo a shot to show what he has learned. If he can develop at all as a route runner and occasional blocker, his 6’8” size should see him develop into a Kyle Rudolph like red-zone threat. Perhaps he will not be spectacular, but he could be a solid fantasy option.