This is where we call our shots, where we pick who will crash through the glass ceiling. When you want a sleeper, you'll look to picks later in the draft. But for most of these breakout picks you'll need a selection no later than the middle rounds. Most of these players should be considered building blocks for your roster with the rest excellent candidates to begin the season on your bench but end up starting for you.
Go ahead and use this list as a starting point for creating your own group of breakout candidates. By the time you head into your draft you should have a dozen players of your own targeted for your team. Guys you've heard of but have heightened expectations for. It's always better to be informed and prepared to take players you believe will have good seasons rather than not prepared and just know a bunch of names and where they should be picked based on where they've gone in expert drafts, mock drafts, etc. I consider making these lists as a necessary step in having a successful draft.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens: When you think boring Fantasy quarterbacks, you think Flacco. He's had anywhere from 3,610 to 3,622 passing yards and 20 to 26 total touchdowns over each of the last three years. While fellow fifth-year passer Matt Ryan has reached Top 12 status, Flacco has fallen behind in the eyes of Fantasy owners. But the Ravens should push their aerial game to new levels in 2012 with speed threats Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones going long and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta working underneath. Where Flacco can make significant improvement is in his accuracy, which has suffered since 2009 and has pushed his yards per attempt number down. If he can get back to averaging over 7.0 yards per attempt and complete more passes while attempting the same amount, the results should be good. Entering a contract year only makes the stakes higher for Flacco, who could land a long-term deal now but might risk it to earn even more cash after a big season. He should be focused on proving he's more than a good game manager who can earn playoff berths, which he's done each of the last four seasons. Throwing two touchdowns in five of his final six games last year (including the postseason) is the kind of sign that suggests he's on his way to breaking out.
My projection: 4,031 yards, 24 TDs, 13 INTs; rushing TD
Mid-August ADP: 127th overall
I'd take him: 114th overall
Donald Brown, RB, Colts: With little competition, solid receiving skills and the chance to see a lot of time on the field, Brown should easily post career-high totals in Indy. He saw most of his 2011 production come in his final six games where he averaged 70.8 total yards per with three touchdowns. Adding Andrew Luck as his quarterback should change how defenses handle Indianapolis going forward, not to mention how the Colts use Brown. But the key here is the rest of the running backs on the roster. Delone Carter and Vick Ballard aren't considered speedsters; they could take some goal-line touches from Brown, but ultimately neither should cut into a 15-touch average for Brown from week to week. With another year under his belt and a new offense that will take advantage of Brown's versatility, a 1,000 total-yard season isn't out of the question. Just check out his preseason Week 1 catch-and-go touchdown scamper to see the kind of explosion he has.
My projection: 832 rush yards, five TDs; 189 receiving yards, TD
Mid-August ADP: 81st overall
I'd take him: 71st overall
Mike Goodson, RB, Raiders: The Raiders made a good move when they sent an offensive lineman to the Panthers for Goodson, who was buried on the team's depth chart following the signing of Mike Tolbert. Immediately, Goodson became not only a quality handcuff for stud runner Darren McFadden, but the reality is that he could prove to be more than that. Goodson has proven to have good hands and great speed as evidenced by the 4.6 rushing average and 16 receptions over three games as a starter with the Panthers in 2010. Bringing that kind of ability to the spot behind McFadden on the Raiders depth chart should not only land him some work from week to week, but potentially make him a breakout sensation when (not if) McFadden gets hurt. In three years as the backup behind McFadden, Michael Bush had anywhere from 690 to nearly 1,400 total yards depending on how much playing time he had. While Goodson might not be the between-the-tackles bruiser Bush is, he's certainly faster and just as versatile. When you find yourself late into your draft, Goodson is a perfect pick to just grab and wait on. His mid-August camp injury shouldn't hold him up from being ready for the season as he was back at practice eight days after the incident.
My projection: 502 rush yards, three TDs, 196 receiving yards
Mid-August ADP: 157th overall
I'd take him: 109th overall
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Bengals: It's a tall order to call a running back who once scored 13 touchdowns in a season a breakout candidate, but the bet here is that Green-Ellis will have the opportunity to beat the career-best 1,093 total yards he had in 2010 with a good amount of scores. That's because the Bengals are looking to Green-Ellis as their primary rusher, which could mean as many as 250 carries (Cedric Benson had 273 carries in 15 games last year). It might not be long before he dominates carries as Bernard Scott, the scatback he'll initially split with, hasn't done much in his three NFL seasons and could get pushed on passing downs because Green-Ellis is a good pass blocker and a good enough receiver out of the backfield. A foot injury in the preseason doesn't seem to have the Bengals' coaches too concerned. The best part is that Green-Ellis is falling to Round 5 or 6 in drafts, meaning that a proven stat producer playing in a more conservative offense is ripe for the taking while other running backs have too many questions.
My projection: 1,049 rush yards, 10 TDs, 95 receiving yards
Mid-August ADP: 51st overall
I'd take him: 43rd overall
Fred Jackson, RB, Bills: It's rare to want a running back on the wrong side of 30 coming off a broken leg, but Jackson is an absolute exception. Jackson was a beast before he got hurt last year, averaging just over 137 total yards per start. That's a huge total for him, one that is probably unattainable in 2012, but it's not like it came out of nowhere, as he had averaged at least 80 total yards per start for the previous two years. It wouldn't be a shock to see him get around 100 total yards per game. He's been running great in camp with no setbacks and just got a big contract extension, which suggests he's still a large part of the Bills' plans. That means he won't give up many carries to C.J. Spiller unless his play declines rather rapidly. With only 817 NFL carries under his belt he has more than enough time on his side to be very effective. I've toyed with the idea of making him a Top 12 running back. I haven't done it yet, but it doesn't mean he won't play like one.
My projection: 1,062 rush yards, seven touchdowns, 292 receiving yards, receiving touchdown
Mid-August ADP: 32nd overall
I'd take him: 23rd overall
Jon Baldwin, WR, Chiefs: Last year was a wash for Baldwin, who messed up his hand in a preseason fight with a teammate and went on to have just one good game. The buzz around Baldwin this offseason was that he had matured and dedicated himself to the Chiefs new offense. It should prove to be a good move: He worked in camp as the De facto No. 1 receiver with Dwayne Bowe holding out and has the opportunity to be a real factor in the passing game. Quarterback Matt Cassel might not have the best arm in the world but he'll recognize Baldwin's 6-foot-4 frame as a mismatch against the league's smaller corners. Once Bowe rejoins the team and gets acclimated, the coverage on Baldwin won't be hard for him to beat. His work in camp should keep him on the field when the season gets going and the price to get him as a bench player on your roster is a bargain.
My projection: 48 catches, 686 yards, five TDs
Mid-August ADP: 145th overall
I'd take him: 129th overall
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos: There's a lot to like about both of the Broncos' big receivers. Demaryius Thomas is the one I'd draft first but I'd chase Decker too. The buzz on Decker started almost right after Peyton Manning signed in Denver as the two met and hit the practice fields quickly. Spending the offseason together paid off as Decker and Manning were already in simpatico when camp kicked off. We suspect Decker could get as many as five catches per game and contend for at least 75 grabs on the year. In five games with Kyle Orton last season Decker averaged 12.1 yards per catch -- he should be able to do better with Peyton. Figure Decker to be a high-volume receiver capable of serving as a borderline No. 2/No. 3 Fantasy option.
My projection: 76 catches, 1,007 yards, six TDs
Mid-August ADP: 73rd overall
I'd take him: 68th overall
Pierre Garcon, WR, Redskins: The team's decision to draft Robert Griffin III forced a change in offensive philosophy from Mike Shanahan's previous years in D.C. Griffin offers mobility and good accuracy along with solid strength to get the ball downfield. Garcon's speed is considered a huge asset by Shanahan and wants him to be that deep-ball threat for Griffin. But Garcon can do more than that as he gained a ton of experience working intermediary routes in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning. If there was any question whether Griffin and Garcon were on the same page it was answered in the Skins' first preseason game. That should only be the beginning for Garcon, who put up career-highs last season in catches (70) and receiving yards (946) with the likes of Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter chucking him the ball. He should do at least slightly better with Griffin.
My projection: 64 catches, 970 yards, six TDs
Mid-August ADP: 93rd overall
I'd take him: 75th overall
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons: There might not be a single Fantasy owner who wouldn't want Jones on their roster. After a rookie season that saw him finish with 959 yards and eight touchdowns over 13 games, Jones has proven in short order that he's not only in good rhythm with quarterback Matt Ryan but also the best receiver on the Falcons. A fresh reminder of Jones' abilities came in their first preseason game when he broke tackles on one catch, came back on the next play and broke a screen pass for a decent gain and then caught a touchdown reaching around the back of a defender -- all on the same drive! And this stat is one of my favorites and speaks to Jones' potential: In the nine games in which Jones had at least three catches he averaged over 100 yards per game with eight touchdowns. If you're nervous about what Larry Fitzgerald might do with the lack of good quarterbacks in the desert, Jones is the receiver to go after behind Calvin Johnson. He's got Megatron-type of potential.
My projection: 80 catches, 1,177 yards, 11 TDs
Mid-August ADP: 28th overall
I'd take him: 20th overall
Greg Little, WR, Browns: The Browns added two receivers worth mentioning: Travis Benjamin in April and Josh Gordon in July. But neither player is considered well-rounded or NFL-ready and thus neither is able to unseat Little as the Browns' top receiving threat. His numbers were modest as a rookie, snaring 61 passes for 709 yards and two scores. But he came on strong toward the end of the year, racking up 30 catches and 414 yards along with both scores in his final eight games. That was with some anemic quarterback play, something hopefully he won't have to deal with again with rookie Brandon Weeden joining the Browns. A huge key for Little is to eliminate drops -- if he can do that he should be able to push his receiving average higher while continuing to get at least four receptions per week along with a jump in touchdowns. That makes him a good breakout candidate and a potential No. 3 receiver to start your season.
My projection: 66 catches, 866 yards, six TDs
Mid-August ADP: 128th overall
I'd take him: 95th overall
Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens: Smith should serve as the Ravens No. 1 receiver, a role Anquan Boldin couldn't quite pick up when he came to town a couple of years ago. Last year was a mixed bag for Smith even though his numbers at the end of the year were very nice. But how he got those seven touchdowns and 841 yards were maddening: He had three touchdowns and 152 yards in a dream breakout game against the Rams, only to tally 174 yards and no touchdowns in the four games following. He had one more huge game against the Bengals (165 yards and a score) and was otherwise fair to middlin' as a hamstring injury kept him somewhat grounded. Smith focused on being a better route-runner and a more complete receiver this offseason, working with Flacco in hopes to develop into the go-to receiver for the Ravens. He's over an ankle injury from earlier this month and seems well on his way to meeting his goal. He might be the best No. 3 Fantasy receiver available on Draft Day.
My projection: 70 catches, 1,006 yards, seven TDs
Mid-August ADP: 82nd overall
I'd take him: 65th overall
Jacob Tamme, TE, Broncos: Last year I was high on Rob Gronkowski because I knew he'd be on the field a lot for the Patriots and would get a lot of targets by default. The sentiment is the same for Tamme in Denver: The Broncos will utilize him in a number of ways and keep him on the field as a mismatch problem for opposing defenses. To put it in terms that Peyton Manning would probably agree with, he's Dallas Clark. In fact, when Tamme filled in for Clark with the Colts in 2010 he averaged over six catches per game. With Decker and Demaryius Thomas demanding their own coverage, it's a cinch that Tamme will have some really good opportunities to be a consistent factor.
My projection: 60 catches, 674 yards, seven TDs
Mid-August ADP: 102nd overall
I'd take him: 96th overall
|Randall Cobb, WR, GB||He's expected to work as a slot receiver and play as a speedy little mismatch type.|
|Jared Cook, TE, TEN||Good player with lots of upside but buried in a deep position in Fantasy.|
|Michael Crabtree, WR, SF||Not the prettiest, but if Manningham and Moss can take coverage from him he should have a good year.|
|Leonard Hankerson, WR, WAS||Really the only big receiver in Washington. He's healed from a bad hip injury.|
|James Jones, WR, GB||If Greg Jennings isn't ready for the season (or gets traded), Jones should have a chance to score big.|
|Dustin Keller, TE, NYJ||Contract-year player who starts hot then has fizzled out. If he doesn't fizzle he'll get paid.|
|Andrew Luck, QB, IND||Love his potential, think he's worth a late pick in standard drafts. No one is sleeping on him.|
|Bilal Powell, RB, NYJ||Might be a quick hook for Greene if he struggles early. If so Powell seems like best candidate to take over.|
|Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, ATL||Goes without saying he should improve on 2011 numbers. Could go bananas if Turner misses playing time.|
|Jerome Simpson, WR, MIN||The good: Vikings love his speed and he should play a lot. The bad: Suspended first three games.|