Inside The Toolbox: Strong Finishers

Sometimes when players get hot at the end of the season, it is because something has clicked for them. Fantasy football expert Larry Gold leads us INSIDE THE TOOLBOX, a series which covers the history and validity of FFToolbox's world famous tools. He highlights STRONG FINISHERS who may potentially breakout after their excellent last few weeks to the previous season.

Editor's intro: At, we offer many tools which provide our users with interesting and unique points of analysis. In this multiple part series, we want to take a closer look at why these tools are useful and what kind of information each tool offered over the years. Through this exercise, we will re-examine the past to find hidden truths today. To check out the STRONG FINISHERS tool over at FFToolbox, click here.

Looking for hidden value in 2014? Look no further than the guys that finished strong in 2013.

Continuity is an under-appreciated concept when it comes to predicting team and individual performance on the football field. Coaching tenures are short. Body wear and tear on athletes lead to short careers. The demand for winning now is entrenched into the culture of every organization. Complacency is never an option, thus the regular turnstile of players and staff alike.

As training camps open coast-to-coast this week, there are seven new head coaches aspiring to make their brand of football stick; a daunting task that is often a work-in-progress in assembling the proper roster that fits their system. In total, 18 current head coaches have led their respective teams for two or less seasons coming into this year.

Factor in roster dependency on free-agents, and you have multiple moving parts. Even with OTAs, training camp and preseason games, the end result is often less-than-stellar performances out of the gate. Coaches struggle to get rookies, free-agents and returning players on the same page.

Not exactly the perfect mathematical equation for fantasy owners looking to predict statistical output.

A player's in season evolution into a premier role, one that delivers an abundance of fantasy points, comes in many forms. Some players are drafted to be featured immediately. Others come to the NFL with raw physical abilities and are groomed slowly. Some are designated back-ups but are thrown into the spotlight as injury replacements. And others are just a product of a scheme that meshes well with their unique skill-set.

Fortunately, history confirms what the rational side of our brain already knows. Development takes time. In most cases, repetition breeds confidence and peak form generally comes after many trials and tribulations, sometimes late in the season.

In our study, we take a look at today's most relevant fantasy stars, and hone in on late season production that stood out when compared to their cumulative career at that point in time. In each case, finishing up with an exceptionally strong December was a precursor to breaking out the following year.

Drew Brees (2007-2008)

Drew Brees is one of only a few quarterbacks that earn his top-four round status year in year out. Brees' dominance is taken for granted, but if you have been playing fantasy football for over a decade, you surely remember Brees was a fantasy headache during his time with the San Diego Chargers. Brilliance and under-performance blended regularly while Philip Rivers waited to take over the reins.

Six years into his professional career, Brees joined forces with head coach Sean Payton in New Orleans and the tables were set for a breakout; but the explosion took some time as the Saints quarterback acclimated to Payton's system. For Brees' first season and much of his second, the peaks and valleys continued, and the stats mimicked his time with the Chargers. Through his first 28 games as a Saint, Brees averaged 270 yards passing per game; a bump up in yards, but the lack of three-TD performances curtailed his upside.

Then it all clicked in a three-TD Week 14 thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons. In a lost season that began with four losses, Brees closed out the year with 1,247 yards passing over the last 4 weeks. Brees surpassed 300 yards in all but one of his remaining games setting the bar high for the season to come.

What followed the year after was a 5,000 yard passing season, that came up 15 yards short of breaking Dan Marino's 1984 yardage record; a record that Brees would later go on to break in 2011. Brees threw for 300 yards 11 times and tossed 34 TDs en route to his true breakout year

Jamaal Charles (2009-2010)

If you need a reminder that the years are zipping by faster than Jamaal Charles running through a defensive line, just remember Charles and Larry Johnson shared the same backfield in 2008 and 2009.

 As Johnson suffered a speedy decline from a damaging short-term workload, the Kansas City Chiefs were urgently in search of a replacement. Questions arose about Charles' ability to be more than an electrifying change-of-pace back. There was more skepticism than expectation in the minds of experts despite the occasional highlight-reel play as a rookie and second-year understudy. The same critical analysis you regularly hear on most unproven players.

Nonetheless, Charles was given a chance to showcase his talents in the back half of the 2009 campaign. In a year where Charles accumulated a pedestrian 139 rushing yards (291 total yards) through the first half of the season, Charles concluded his year with four stellar games. The collective stat-line for Charles' December dominance was 658 yards on 94 rushes to go along with four TDs. Factor in 13 receptions for 79 yards and you have 111 fantasy points, or nearly 28 fantasy points per game. Those are some talking numbers.

Now boasting credible production at the professional level, Charles became an instant darling in fantasy circles. The following season, the Chiefs new star back truly broke out, leading the league in yards per carry and finished second only to Arian Foster in yards rushing.

Demaryius Thomas (2011-2012)

After having an incredible junior year at Georgia Tech, Demaryius Thomas was one of those rare talents that was expected to be an immediate impact player at the next level. Injuries, however slowed the momentum as the Denver Broncos receiver finished his rookie season with just 22 receptions.

His second year was in danger before it started as the Thomas suffered a torn Achilles' tendon during the offseason. Despite a swift rehab, Thomas broke a finger in practice and missed the early portion of the season. In his first six games back, the hyped receiver totaled just seven catches and was not a factor in the offense.

Then in late 2010, the fantasy world was formally introduced to Thomas. The cumulative December and January (playoffs) output spanning 7 games was 35 receptions, 745 receiving yards and four TDs. Oh yeah, Tim Tebow was throwing the ball.

So when Peyton Manning joined the Broncos the following year, Thomas figured to skyrocket, building off his strong finish. Thomas didn't disappoint, finishing the season in the top-ten in every receiving category.

Antonio Brown (2012-2013)

Antonio Brown is fresher in our minds, but you may of forgotten there was a time where he was buried down in the depth chart behind Emmanuel Sanders and Antwaan Randle-El. Brown waited patiently as Hines Ward finished out his career and Mike Wallace was lead-dog.

Brown stepped into a starting role in his second-year, 2011, and quietly surpassed 1,000 receiving yards, but only found the end zone twice. With an apparent capped statistical output resulting from limited red-zone opportunities, fantasy owners saw Brown as a possession receiver range bound as a WR3.

Brown's third-year was much of the same. Through Week 13, Brown scored only one-touchdown, and while heavily targeted, failed to eclipse 100 yards. However, as it became increasingly more clear that the Steelers were going to part ways with Wallace, the Steelers had to take a closer look at Brown's capabilities.

The result was a Brown touchdown barrage; four in each of the last four games to close out the 2012 season. In fantasy lingo, Brown's 9.2 point-per-game average through Week 13, jumped to 16.5 over the closing stretch. The compelling shift in usage after tallying just three receiving touchdowns in the previous 33 games signaled the Steelers were going to make Brown the focal point of the offense the following year.

The rest, of course, was history. Brown was the fourth most targeted receiver in 2013 en route to blasting through to career highs across the board. The Steelers receiver was second to only Pierre Garcon in receptions and Josh Gordon in yards; firmly placing Brown in the middle of WR1 talk in the minds of drafters.


The beauty of strong finishers is that their breakout starts during the fantasy playoffs. For fantasy owners fortunate enough to have these beasts-to-be in their starting lineup, it can be the ultimate difference maker in winning a league championship. When the following year rolls around, it's easy to draft our new favorite hero ahead of ADP simply because they ran hot down the stretch. While chasing is not a recommended strategy, owning a player during a monster year is, so it's okay to remain loyal.

Here's a few strong finishers that generated December 2013 production that dwarfed their career averages. Also working in their favor is continuity in their role, coaching and supporting cast coming into 2014. It just may be their year.

Running Backs

DeMarco Murray
Although some would argue that Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett didn't feature Murray enough, the Cowboys running back did see an increase in work down the stretch, answering some questions surrounding his durability. The young offensive line also hit its stride late in the year which bodes well for Murray to truly breakout in 2014.

San Diego Chargers RB Ryan Mathews

Ryan Mathews
Are we still thinking broken collarbone with this guy? The San Diego Chargers made a ferocious late season push in 2013, and Mathews was in the center of it. Danny Woodhead will maintain his role, but in year-two of head coach Mike McCoy's program, Mathews will be given the opportunity to prove last year wasn't a fluke. If December 2013 is any indication, Mathews will reward owners who jump on board.

Rush YPG
Murray Career (37 games)
Murray (Weeks 13-17)
Mathews Career (54 games)
Mathews (Weeks 13-17)

Wide Receivers

Alshon Jeffery
With Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte already present as dominating forces in the Chicago Bears offense, most viewed Jeffery as a complimentary receiver at best. Fast forward a year and now Jeffery is a strong start away from being considered among the league's elite. The third-year receiver grew more comfortable and consistent in Marc Trestman's system and finished strong last year fueling talk that there is more to come this year.

Indianapolis Colts WR T.Y. Hilton

T.Y. Hilton
If there was any doubt on Hilton's ability or importance in the offense, it dissipated when Reggie Wayne was lost midseason with a torn ACL. Other than a two-week stretch where Hilton struggled with a nagging shoulder injury, he has developed into Andrew Luck's clear go to guy that can play all the receiving positions. Hilton's breakout was most evident in a spectacular wildcard victory where the third-year receiver was targeted 18 times and had 224 receiving yards.

Rush YPG
Jeffery Career (26 games)
Jeffery (Weeks 13-17)
Hilton Career (31 games)
Hilton (Weeks 15-17 & postseason)

If you are looking for some less prominent players that finished strong in 2013, look no further than last year's playoffs. Ladarius Green was brought along slowly, but was targeted as much as Antonio Gates in January. Philip Rivers will look to get the athletically gifted tight end more involved.

With Golden Tate now a Detroit Lion, there is an opportunity for a receiver to step up in Seattle. While Percy Harvin figures to be featured, Jermaine Kearse was targeted 38 times in 2013, 18 of which occurred in December. Kearse was then targeted 11 times and hauled in two TDs during the playoffs. In fact, Kearse's strongest game was in Super Bowl 48, making it a reasonable assumption the he receives a significantly expanded role in 2014.

Did we miss any other strong finishers from 2013 who are about to blow up in 2014? Let us know at the SCOUT FANTASY PREMIUM message board!

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