One question I get asked all the time is how to define a breakout player. The answer usually comes down to three things.
I'm trying to find someone who has had moderate success in the NFL on the verge of doing something great, someone great on the verge of a career year or a rookie who can immediately become a star. Last year, two breakout candidates I mentioned were Jimmy Graham and Percy Harvin, who finished in the Top 10 at their respective positions.
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This year, we hope to add more players to that list, and hopefully someone like Dez Bryant does something great, Darren McFadden has a career year and Doug Martin becomes a star. With that in mind, here are 12 breakout candidates I'd take a chance on this season.
Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers: Martin has to beat out LeGarrette Blount for the starting job, but he has elite-level talent. He has a skill set similar to Ray Rice, who new head coach Greg Schiano coached at Rutgers. We can see both running backs sharing carries, but Martin has a ton of upside. He projects as a No. 2 Fantasy running back in standard leagues with his value slightly higher in PPR formats. We could see Martin reaching 1,200 total yards, and the key will be how many touchdowns he can score, especially with Blount as a potential vulture. Blount told me he and Martin can work well together. "We can definitely be the best duo in the NFL, with the schemes that we have, with the offensive line that we have, with the blocking and the confidence (Martin) has in me and the confidence I have in him," Blount said. "It's definitely going to be a really good fit. We have the potential to be the best backfield in the league." We'll consider Martin the lead back of this duo, and he has the higher ceiling. Martin had at least 1,350 total yards and 14 touchdowns each of the past two seasons at Boise State.
My projection: 244 carries, 1,176 yards, five TDs; 58 catches, 422 yards, three TDs
Early-August ADP: 43rd overall
I'd take him: 38th overall
Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders: McFadden is five years into his NFL career, and he has yet to play a full 16-game season. He has missed 19 of a possible 60 games, and last year was his worst season of all with only seven games played thanks to a Lisfranc injury in his right foot. But he's back this year at 100 percent, and he should pick up where last season left off. Prior to going down, he had 113 carries for 614 rushing yards and four touchdowns and 19 catches for 154 yards and one touchdown. He was averaging 14.3 Fantasy points per game, which would have made him a Top 10 running back if he kept up that pace. McFadden has been a beast when healthy. He has averaged 88.5 rush yards and 33.0 receiving yards over his last 20 starts with 15 total touchdowns -- all with Michael Bush there. Bush is gone now, and McFadden's touches could actually increase given the lack of quality talent behind him. His best season to date was 2010 when he played 13 games and finished with 223 carries for 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns and 47 catches for 507 yards and three touchdowns. He should eclipse those stats this year.
My projection: 264 carries, 1,211 yards, 12 TDs; 44 catches, 345 yards, four TDs
Early-August ADP: 10th overall
I'd take him: 8th overall
Isaac Redman, RB, Steelers: We all know the Steelers have a great history of running the ball, and they have produced some solid Fantasy options, especially recently. Since 2004, the Steelers have had three primary running backs in Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. In the past eight years, those three running backs have finished as Top 20 Fantasy running backs seven times (2008 was the exception), with Mendenhall cracking the Top 10 in 2010 and Parker the Top 5 in 2006. If we were talking about Mendenhall here, he would easily be considered a Top 10 Fantasy running back coming into the season. But Mendenhall suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 last year, and he might not play this season. At best, we could be looking at Mendenhall returning after spending six weeks on the PUP list, which should allow Redman to start and possibly be the No. 1 rusher all year. Redman looked great in the playoffs last year against Denver with Mendenhall out, rushing for 121 yards on 17 carries with two catches for 21 yards, so he showed he can handle the role. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley wants to run the ball, and he will lean on Redman. Consider him a No. 2 running back coming into the year.
My projection: 257 carries, 1,088 yards, nine TDs; 24 catches, 211 yards, two TDs
Early-August ADP: 55th overall
I'd take him: 50th overall
Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots: Ridley continues to improve his value with an impressive training camp, and he is slated to start in New England for the departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ridley is a more athletic version of Green-Ellis, who combined for 1,675 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns the past two seasons. New England will likely employ a three-back system with Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead, but Ridley has the most upside by far. For starters, he's the most physical of the trio and should help replace Green-Ellis at the goal line (Green-Ellis had 11 rushing touchdowns last year). As a rookie, Ridley averaged 5.1 yards a carry with 87 attempts for 441 yards and one touchdown. If he gets close to 200 carries (Green-Ellis had 181 last year) then he could approach 1,000 rushing yards and at least eight touchdowns. Vereen will likely see most of his playing time on passing downs, but if Ridley can avoid fumble issues (he had two as a rookie) then he could dominate the touches. He has plenty of upside as a No. 3 Fantasy running back and could easily end up as a Top 20 option.
My projection: 228 carries, 1,035 yards, nine TDs; 28 catches, 244 yards, one TD
Early-August ADP: 69th overall
I'd take him: 56th overall
Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers: There's a lot to like about Brown this year, and I consider him a potential starter in all leagues. You should be able to draft him as a No. 3 Fantasy receiver, but he can easily be a Top 20 option if he plays to his talent level. Last year, Brown had 69 catches for 1,108 yards and two touchdowns, and all he needs is a few more scores for his Fantasy value to skyrocket. He's entering his third year in the NFL, which is typically a breakout season for receivers, and the Steelers could lean on him more with Hines Ward gone. If Mike Wallace has a lengthy holdout that lasts close to the start of the season because of his contract then Brown's value will rise, and I expect him to build off last year's performance in a breakout campaign. He's a great receiver to draft in Round 5 or 6 after all the big names guys come off the board.
My projection: 68 catches, 1,154 yards, four TDs
Early-August ADP: 71st overall
I'd take him: 70th overall
Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys: Bryant is the type of third-year receiver you target because his career path shows he's headed for a breakout campaign. He had 45 catches for 561 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie and 63 catches for 928 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Based on that progression we could be looking at 81 catches, 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns, which would make him an elite Fantasy option if he reached those stats. We hope that Bryant doesn't get into any more off-field trouble, which could be an issue with him, but he appears poised for a big year. I would still draft him after Miles Austin, but Bryant has the chance for an amazing season. He does have to post more consistent production since he had no games with 100 receiving yards in 2011, but Tony Romo will do a good job spreading the ball around to Austin, Bryant and Jason Witten, with Bryant getting enough targets to warrant being drafted as early as Round 4.
My projection: 68 catches, 967 yards, eight TDs
Early-August ADP: 52nd overall
I'd take him: 51st overall
Brandon LaFell, WR, Panthers: LaFell might be considered more of a sleeper than a breakout, but when we talk about third-year receivers, we always assign them a breakout title. This could be a big year for LaFell. He might not emerge as a starting Fantasy option in the majority of leagues, but he could be a tremendous reserve. The Panthers need a second receiver to step up opposite Steve Smith, and LaFell should be the starter and continue to improve his production. He had 36 catches for 613 yards and three touchdowns last year, but Cam Newton should get him more involved this season since he had just 56 targets. With close to 100 targets we could see LaFell easily surpass 60 catches and 1,000 yards with a handful of touchdowns, making him a steal with a late-round pick. The No. 2 receiver for the Panthers last year was Legedu Naanee, who had 44 catches for 467 yards and one touchdown, and LaFell definitely has more upside than Naanee.
My projection: 58 catches, 788 yards, seven TDs
Early-August ADP: 158th overall
I'd take him: 120th overall
Denarius Moore, WR, Raiders: Moore enters this season as the best Fantasy receiver for the Raiders and a potential starter in all leagues. Moore played well as a rookie in 2011 with 33 catches for 618 yards and five touchdowns and five carries for 61 yards and a touchdown. He only played in 13 games with 10 starts, but he flashed his big-play potential by averaging 18.7-yards per catch and 12.2-yards per carry. Moore needs to stay healthy for a full year, but he has the chance for 1,000 receiving yards and double digits in touchdowns. In 2011, Moore had 10 games with at least five targets, and he had at least seven Fantasy points in those outings, with double digits in points in five. Three of those games came with Carson Palmer under center, and Palmer should rely on Moore quite a bit as his best downfield threat.
My projection: 63 catches, 966 yards, five TDs
Early-August ADP: 105th overall
I'd take him: 84th overall
Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos: Thomas had some highlight-reel moments in 2011, including his game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Steelers in the playoffs, but his stats in the regular season were pedestrian at best. He finished with 32 catches for 551 yards and four touchdowns, but he should explode in his third year. The addition of Peyton Manning is huge for Thomas, and the new passing game in Denver should help make him a star. He has the ability to be an elite Fantasy receiver, and I already view him as a No. 1 option in all leagues. He will likely be drafted in Round 3 or 4 in the majority of leagues, but Thomas should see the biggest jump in production of all the receivers in this third-year draft class. Thomas did well with Tim Tebow as his quarterback, but he will be a beast with Manning.
My projection: 73 catches, 1,165 yards, nine TDs
Early-August ADP: 47th overall
I'd take him: 37th overall
Titus Young, WR, Lions: There is plenty to like about Young this year, especially the way he closed his rookie season in 2011. Young did the majority of his damage from Week 8 on with 33 catches, 398 yards and all six of his touchdowns in his final nine games. The yardage definitely needs to improve, but Young should see more playing time, especially if he starts ahead of Nate Burleson. Young had at least seven targets in three of his final four games, and Matthew Stafford should start to rely on him more this year following a full offseason of work. We consider Young a No. 3 Fantasy receiver in the majority of leagues, but he could turn into a starting option in deeper leagues. He will benefit a lot, just like he did last year, with all the single coverage he will receive lining up opposite Calvin Johnson. It's hard to stop all the weapons in Detroit, which is why Young has the chance for a solid sophomore season.
My projection: 57 catches, 938 yards, seven TDs
Early-August ADP: 100th overall
I'd take him: 85th overall
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Bengals: Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said he wants Gresham to play like Rob Gronkowski. Those are lofty expectations, but Gresham certainly has the talent. We consider Gresham the No. 2 option in the passing game for the Bengals behind A.J. Green, and he has done a nice job scoring touchdowns in his first two years with 10. But we need Gresham to score 10 touchdowns this year if he's going to make the next step in his career. The good thing about Gresham is you can wait on him in your draft. While other owners reach for Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in the first three rounds, you can secure standout running backs and receivers and then take Gresham later. If he plays as expected then he will reward you with your patience. I consider Gresham the tight end who will make the leap similar to what Gronkowski and Graham did last year. He won't be that elite, but he should finish as a Top 10 option, maybe even Top 5.
My projection: 65 catches, 735 yards, six TDs
Early-August ADP: 112th overall overall
I'd take him: 71st overall
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: All we've done all offseason is rave about the weapons in the passing game for the Falcons with Julio Jones and Roddy White and the decline headed for Michael Turner. So where does that leave Ryan? Fantasy owners should consider him a solid Fantasy option and great value on Draft Day. While other owners reach for guys like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Newton or Matthew Stafford in the first two rounds or wait a few rounds later to draft Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo or Philip Rivers, you can sit back and wait for Ryan around Round 5 or 6. He will post similar stats to the latter group, especially with his receiving corps (he passed for a career-high 4,177 yards with 29 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last year). In the 13 games he played with White, Jones and Tony Gonzalez last season he averaged 267 passing yards and two touchdowns per game. Project that over a full season and Ryan will pass for 4,272 yards and 32 touchdowns. Only four quarterbacks had more passing touchdowns last year and six had more passing yards. Needless to say, we anticipate Ryan having a career season in 2012.
My projection: 4,545 passing yards, 35 TDs, 14 INTs
Early-August ADP: 58th overall
I'd take him: 54th overall
|Jon Baldwin, WR, KC||Dwayne Bowe's holdout is allowing Baldwin to be the No. 1 receiver in Kansas City.|
|Donald Brown, RB, IND||Brown finally gets to show what he can do as a featured running back.|
|Jared Cook, TE, TEN||Ended 2011 with 36 Fantasy points in his final three games, and hopefully that production carries over to this year.|
|Eric Decker, WR, DEN||Thomas and Decker will be Manning's new Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.|
|Pierre Garcon, WR, WAS||Garcon will be the featured receiver in a solid passing attack and could become a Top 20 Fantasy receiver.|
|Shonn Greene, RB, NYJ||Tony Sparano will help Greene get career highs in carries, yards and touchdowns.|
|Robert Griffin III, QB, WAS||The rookie should emerge as a Top 12 Fantasy quarterback under coach Mike Shanahan.|
|Andrew Luck, QB, IND||The next Peyton Manning could surprise Fantasy owners as a Top 15 option.|
|Greg Little, WR, CLE||If he can limit the drops then he should develop into a Top 30 Fantasy receiver.|
|Dustin Keller, TE, NYJ||The No. 2 receiving option for the Jets needs to be more consistent throughout the year.|