When it comes to finding fantasy football’s next big thing, playing time is step one.
So as we look back at the 2013 season and begin to look toward 2014 free agency, it’s already time to start thinking about prospects to monitor throughout the offseason program. We’re on the hunt for guys with a reasonable path to starter’s snaps, guys that have the skills to actually win the job and guys that have the juice to produce for us with that playing time.
Here are 11 players I believe have a chance to become difference-making starters in 2014.
1. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Vikings
Although the Vikings used the No. 29 overall pick on Patterson, he never moved past Jerome Simpson as the Vikings’ X receiver. It’s fair to blame the ineptitude of OC Bill Musgrave, the same guy that couldn’t find a way to get Percy Harvin on the field before the trade to Seattle. Patterson is going to have a ton of things going for him in 2014 as Jerome Simpson is an unrestricted free agent, the new Vikings head coach that replaces Leslie Frazier figures to move on from Musgrave and the Christian Ponder experiment appears to be over. Everyone knows that when Patterson gets the ball in his hands, he does things few humans on the planet can do. He led the NFL in kickoff return average (32.4) and scored six touchdowns from scrimmage in the final five games of the season.
2. Montee Ball, RB, Broncos
The Broncos will have a brutal decision on their hands come March when Knowshon Moreno becomes one of their 16 players to hit unrestricted free agency. On one hand, Moreno has been truly spectacular all season long as a runner, receiver and blocker. On the other hand, he’s a candidate to get overpaid on the open market and the Broncos have a replacement at the ready in Ball. I honestly don’t know what John Elway and company will do. I do know that if Moreno walks and Ball is handed the every-down role, he will absolutely blow up. As a strict backup this year, the second-round pick rushed 120 times for 559 yards (4.65 YPC) with four touchdowns and caught 20 passes for 145 yards. Peyton Manning makes it easy for running backs to produce.
3. Rueben Randle, WR, Giants
The Giants are fully expected to let Hakeem Nicks walk as an unrestricted free agent, opening up an every-down outside receiver role. Therefore, Randle’s 2014 ADP would have been through the roof if he hadn’t disappointed in three 2013 starts. I’ll take those faceplants as a good thing. Randle was battling a knee injury, Eli Manning and the passing game was simply off all year and backup slot man Jerrel Jernigan was playing out of his skull. Next year, expect Randle and Victor Cruz to play in all two-wide sets, and then Cruz will kick outside in three-wide sets to get Jernigan in the slot. Randle has seen just 112 targets through two NFL seasons, but he’s turned that into 60 catches, 909 yards and nine touchdowns. The former LSU stud is a playmaker.
4. Terrance Williams, WR, Cowboys
Anyone that has seen Miles Austin play over the last three seasons know he’s now an average NFL receiver at best. That includes Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, who can save $5 million by making him a post June 1 cut. The decision to dump Austin will be made easier by the play of Williams who was surprisingly effective as a raw rookie. With Austin battling another hamstring pull between Weeks 4 and 8, Williams averaged 4.2 catches for 76.8 yards with four touchdowns. An offseason to polish up and run as the starter opposite Dez Bryant should do wonders.
5. Jordan Todman, RB, Jaguars
I think it would be a monumentally stupid decision for the Jaguars to re-sign unrestricted free agent Maurice Jones-Drew. On a roster with so many holes, spending cash on a 29-year-old (in March) running back with 2,135 career touches that is coming off 2012 Lisfranc fracture and declining production (3.43 YPC in 2013) would make no sense. The Jags appear to agree, as they’ve already said they’ll let the face of their franchise test the market. Todman isn’t a huge name, but he was the 2010 Big East Player of the Year, has 4.4 wheels and plays well in the passing game. In one start this season, he rushed 25 times for 109 yards and caught four passes for 44 yards. Perhaps it was enough for Todman to enter 2014 as the leader of a committee the Jags cobble together.
6. Latavius Murray, RB, Raiders
Here’s a deeper Dynasty sleeper. The Raiders organization has soured on free agent Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings is also a free agent that will turn 29 years old in March. Murray is a 2013 sixth-round pick that spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve, but he possesses the ideal size (6’3/230) and speed (4.38 forty) for a running back. With a big offseason, it’s possible Murray enters 2014 training camp with a bead on the starting gig.
7. Jarrett Boykin, WR, Packers
It will be easy for the Pack to let James Jones walk as an unrestricted free agent thanks to his often mediocre play, age (30 in March) and natural in-house replacement in Jarrett Boykin. The former undrafted rookie out of Virginia Tech unexpectedly got a ton of snaps this season thanks to Randall Cobb’s stint on short-term IR, and took advantage by showing flashes in the middle of the season. Getting used on both WR screens and deep balls, Boykin averaged 5.5 catches for 78.3 yards and scored two touchdowns between Weeks 7 and 12. Next year, he projects as the No. 3 receiver on a team that runs a ton of three-wide sets.
8. Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Colts
We know T.Y. Hilton will be Indy’s No. 1 wideout in 2014 and we know special teamer/unrestricted free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey won’t be in the mix. That leaves Rogers to battle current No. 2 man LaVon Brazill and a 35-year-old Reggie Wayne who is coming off an ACL tear. It’s going to be tough, but Rogers has the natural skill set to win the job. He just has to keep his head on straight and improve throughout the offseason program.
9. Shonn Greene, RB, Titans
It’s rare that a five-year veteran makes his way onto a list like this, but we’re not going to discriminate. Chris Johnson is owed $8 million in 2014, averaged 3.86 YPC on the season, will turn 29 years old in September and said there’s “no way” he’d accept a pay cut. He sees the writing on the wall, admitting that he may have played his last down as a Titan. We know that the front office likes Shonn Greene as they overpaid him to the tune of three years, $10 million a year ago. The power back will face competition and will likely end up in a committee, but that will be determined by who Tennessee brings in.
10. Andre Holmes, WR, Raiders
Yes, Rod Streater and Denarius Moore are both under salary cheaply for 2014. But I saw enough out of Holmes this season to make me think he can beat out Moore for a starting gig. At 6’4/210, Holmes showed no fear at the catch point as he made a fistful of true “wow” plays. Over the final five weeks, he averaged 4.4 catches for 73.2 yards with one touchdown. At the very least Holmes will an explosive third receiver and deep threat.
11. Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs
Kelce’s rookie season was lost due to a preseason knee injury and subsequent microfracture surgery. It’s a major injury, but he’ll return to a big opportunity if he can get to 100 percent. A game manager’s best friend is a big tight end with YAC ability, something Anthony Fasano doesn’t bring to the table. Alex Smith should be pushing for Kelce to win a major role in 2014.
* Andre Ellington, RB, Cardinals – I’ve seen nothing to suggest coach Bruce Arians will use Ellington as a true feature back in 2014, but we can pray.
* Ladarius Green, TE, Chargers – Used far too much as a blocker, Green makes big plays any time the Chargers let him run routes. But Antonio Gates is under contract through 2015 and it’s hard to see San Diego dumping him.
* Trent Richardson, RB, Colts – Donald Brown and Ahmad Bradshaw are both free agents. But can the Colts really hand the reins to T-Rich considering how poorly he performed this year?
* Brandon Bostick, TE, Packers – Andrew Quarless and Jermichael Finley are both free agents. Bostick is a natural pass-catching tight end.
* Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers – We hardly saw any of the talented Wheaton as a rookie, but he could take a leap with Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery ticketed for free agency.