Josh Vitale

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Five Sleepers to Watch: ACC

Thursday, July 21, 2011

In the NFL, the league's top performers generally stay the same, year after year. We know guys like Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and Andre Johnson will all be near the top of the fantasy rankings, but what we don't know is which guys will come from out of nowhere to help their owners win fantasy championships.

And in the college fantasy ranks, it's even more of a mystery. Graduation of older players and influx of new recruits complicates the depth charts, meaning just about anyone can step up and take over recently vacated roles on their way to fantasy stardom.

With that in mind, here's a look at five guys in the ACC who could take the leap to the top of the fantasy game this season.

Other Conferences: SEC | Top 10 Rankings: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers

E.J. Manuel – QB – Florida State

After spending last season as Christian Ponder's understudy, Manuel is prepared to take over the reins under center for the Seminoles in 2011. Even though he played primarily as an injury replacement over the past two seasons, Manuel has shown flashes of brilliance when he does enter the game. And with Ponder now a member of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, Manuel will have the playing time he needs to develop into a steady fantasy contributor.

In limited action last season, Manuel completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, finishing the season with 861 yards. He only started two games for the Seminoles, but in those games he threw for 210 and 288 yards against Clemson and Virginia Tech, respectively. If he averaged those stats for a full season, Manuel could be expected to throw for almost 3,500 yards. With little experience as a starter, his numbers shouldn't be that lofty, but given his potential and full-time gig, Manuel could turn out to be a solid fantasy quarterback in 2011.

2011 Projection: 3,000 yards, 22 touchdowns, 400 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns

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Danny O'Brien – QB – Maryland

O'Brien nearly made an appearance in the Top 10 Quarterbacks for 2011, and for good reason. Even though O'Brien played in only 11 of the Terps' 13 games and started just 10 in 2011, the redshirt freshman placed himself in a position to excel in his sophomore season, finishing the season with 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns, good for 59th and 30th in the nation, respectively.

Those numbers may not seem overly impressive, but when you take a deeper look at O'Brien's stats, his game-by-game numbers show how much potential he has for fantasy greatness. Though he suffered with bouts of inconsistency at times in his freshman season—he completed less than 15 passes in a game on four separate occasions—he did limit his mistakes, throwing only eight interceptions. And when he was on, O'Brien had the ability to put on stellar performances, throwing for at least 250 yards five times and putting together five games of three or more touchdowns.

O'Brien did lose his top target from last season, Torrey Smith, to the Baltimore Ravens, but even without him, last season's ACC Rookie of the Year should be in line for a huge numbers boost in his sophomore campaign.

2011 Projection: 3,150 yards, 28 touchdowns

David Wilson – RB – Virginia Tech

Last season, the ACC-Champion Hokies took a running back-by-committee approach to their offense, as four players, including quarterback Tyrod Taylor, finished the season with between 110 and 151 carries. None of these players finished with more than 900 yards rushing, meaning the Hokies' rushing attack was mostly a black hole for fantasy purposes.

But that is all set to change this season, and Wilson is the back who is in the position to reap the benefits. Wilson finished third on the team in carries last season—behind running back Darren Evans and Taylor—and carried the ball just three times more than Arizona Cardinals' second-round-pick Ryan Williams. But all three of those players have moved onto the NFL, making 5-11, 200 pound Wilson the presumed feature back for the Hokies in 2011.

Wilson only had 113 carries last season, but he totaled 619 yards, good for 5.5 yards per carry. He never topped 16 carries in a single game, but he rushed for more than 80 yards four times, including a 105-yard effort against Wake Forest. So, even with limited opportunities, Wilson has shown his explosiveness from the backfield, and with the team's QB and top two RBs no longer with the program, Wilson will have much more responsibility for the Hokies and seems poised to shine in his junior season.

2011 Projection: 1,300 yards, 12 touchdowns.

D.J. Adams – RB – Maryland

Touchdowns are the staple of good fantasy production, and Adams is a guy who excels in that department. A young back with a nose for the goal line, Adams has yet to see consistent carries out of the Terps' backfield, but with new head coach Randy Edsall taking over the program and No. 1 running back Da'Rel Scott now with the New York Giants, Adams could be in a position to take a huge leap forward in his sophomore season.

Adams only carried the ball 67 times in his freshman season with the Terps, but with 11 touchdowns, he crossed the goal line on more than 16 percent of his carries. He spent much of the season third on the team's depth chart, but in the four games where he received more than 10 carries, Adams totaled 226 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The Terps haven't been a strong running team in in the past two seasons, but with Edsall taking over the team after 12 seasons at UConn, the Terps rushing attack should see a notable boost in production. In his time with the Huskies, Edsall turned the team into one of the top rushing offenses in the nation, as twice in the past three seasons an UConn back finished in the top three in the nation. Adams still has to compete for carries with last season's leading rusher Davin Meggett, but with Edsall's affinity for bruising backs with a nose for the endzone—like former Huskies Donald Brown and Jordan Todman—Adams could be in line for a big season in 2011.

2011 Projection: 1,000 yards, 18 touchdowns

Conner Vernon – WR – Duke

It's not often than you see Duke players written about for anything other than basketball, but for fantasy purposes, the Blue Devils have the potential to be somewhat useful this season. Quarterback Sean Renfree finished third in the conference in passing yards last season as a sophomore, and with a full season as a starter under his belt, he should be able to play more consistently in his junior season.

One player standing to gain the most benefit out of Renfree's growth is his favorite target, Vernon, a junior wide receiver. Vernon finished third in the ACC in receiving yards in 2010, and is the conference's top returning receiver in 2011. He finished his sophomore campaign with 973 yards and four touchdowns, including four games with more than 120 receiving yards.

Duke struggled to score last season, as Renfree threw for just 14 touchdowns en route to a 3-9 finish, but with more experience as a starter, his touchdown totals should rise, meaning Vernon's numbers will benefit as well. I'm not ready to bank on Renfree as a solid fantasy contributor, but on a team that will play from behind a lot in 2011, you could do much worse than Vernon as a third wide receiver.

2011 Projection: 1,050 yards, 10 touchdowns

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