We all have them – those players everybody likes, but that we love. When your draft is closing in, you sit down, come up with a personal cheat sheet, and wrap it up by highlighting/circling/making a secondary list of the guys you absolutely can’t miss on in the last couple of rounds.
Some of those guys pan out. Many don’t. On top of that, there is always a short list of breakout players no one saw coming. When we look back, it makes sense. But on draft day, we overlooked Victor Cruz. We didn’t see Miles Austin coming. Stevie Johnson was stuck in a poor offense. Jamaal Charles was stuck behind Larry Johnson. Arian Foster started the year on the practice squad. Fred Davis was rotting behind Chris Cooley. Kurt Warner. Ryan Grant. Danny Woodhead. Brandon Lloyd.
You get the point (and I didn’t even include rookies).
Today, I’ll be focusing on non-rookies like Foster, Austin, and Cruz who we know have plenty of talent, but are still buried on their respective team’s depth chart. These players aren’t guaranteed regular playing time in 2012, but there are a few reasons they could skyrocket to fantasy success. One reason is the reality that the players projected to play ahead of the player in question aren’t overly productive. Another is that the player’s team has a void at the position because of a trade, free agency, injury, or retirement. Both give these guys increased odds of a 2012 breakout.
Jets RB Bilal Powell
Shonn Greene really hasn’t lived up to expectations. His career 4.3 yards-per-carry is slightly above league average, but the Jets ground-and-pound offense needs more production from those 20 carries-per-game. Powell, a fourth-round pick in 2011, fits the profile as a power back and provides more upside than Greene or Joe McKnight. If the Jets don’t add a back in this weekend’s draft, Powell will likely open the 2012 season third on the depth chart. If Greene doesn’t step up his game, however, it won’t be long before Powell moves past him.
Draft Board – Powell is not worth drafting, except in the deepest of leagues. Keep him on your watch list and snatch him up as soon as the ‘changing of the guard’ rumors begin.
Cardinals TE Rob Housler
Stuck behind veterans Todd Heap and Jeff King during his rookie campaign, Housler didn’t quite reach 200 snaps and was targeted just 24 times. Although he was considered to be one of the top receiving—and certainly one of the fastest—tight ends in last year’s draft, he dropped six balls, while catching 12 for 133 yards. Still, Housler was a third-round pick, and was the third tight end off the board, after only highly-regarded Kyle Rudolph and Lance Kendricks (who had drop issues of his own). He will again be stuck behind Heap and King, but Heap struggled with injuries throughout the 2011 season and is 32 years old. King is used primarily as a blocker. Improved all-around play will put Housler in position to take over as an every-down player at some point this season.
Draft Board – Absolutely not draftable in normal-sized leagues, but keep an eye on the Cardinals’ snap totals. If Housler begins to steal reps from Heap, grab him before he explodes onto the scene with one of those 7-95-1 games.
Broncos RB Mario Fannin
Although Willis McGahee enjoyed a resurgence in 2011, he’ll be turning 31 this season and – like most backs – can’t be expected to hold up for an entire season like he did in 2011. Knowshon Moreno is in the picture, but could end up traded, cut, or demoted to third string behind Lance Ball. Denver management doesn’t seem to have much affection for Moreno, but Ball, while not an overly impressive back, is a capable No. 2.
Enter Fannin, who offers the most upside of the group. Despite going undrafted, the 5’11, 235-pound Fannin was arguably the best back in Broncos’ camp a season ago, but ended up on injured reserve with an ankle injury. He’ll bring his 4.37 40-yard-dash speed back to camp this year and will push for touches as the season progresses.
Draft Board – Don’t bother with him on draft day except in the deepest of leagues. Monitor the Broncos’ rushing situation throughout the year. If McGahee gets hurt or is struggling, use that last roster spot on Fannin.
Giants WR Jerrel Jernigan
I spoke about Jernigan last week, but he’s a no-brainer for this list. New York’s third-round pick one season ago is one of my favorite breakout candidates of 2012. With Mario Manningham gone via free agency, Jernigan, Domenik Hixon, and Ramses Barden are expected to compete for reps as the No. 3 wide receiver behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Last year, I was high on Manningham, who I expected to step up and replace Steve Smith’s production. A Giants’ wide receiver did break out, but it was Cruz, not Manningham. One of the key reasons for this was the fact that Cruz replaced Smith as Eli Manning’s go-to receiver out of the slot. It may seem hard to believe, but 77 of Victor Cruz’s 103 receptions in 2011 came while lined up in the slot. Jernigan, assuming he does step up and beat out Hixon/Barden, is a better fit on the inside, which would push Cruz outside to Manningham’s old position. Jernigan won’t steal all of Cruz’s targets, but there are plenty to go around, especially with Manning not relying on the running back or tight end much.
Draft Board – In early mocks, Jernigan isn’t even getting drafted. Grab him in the last couple of rounds, just before your defense and kicker.