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