If you have played a significant number of fantasy leagues (and I know you have), you no doubt have assembled rosters that fall into these three classifications:
Infirmary: A non-competitive roster loaded with waiver-wire prayers resulting from injury casualties. One-by-one, your stars find their way to injured reserve and next season's draft can't come soon enough.
Run-Of-The-Mill: A team that sits mid-pack all year in both record and points but has no splash and your gut knows lacks the firepower to make a run. This roster bores you and you find yourself irritated with not being in the hunt.
Oh-So-Close, What if: The most frustrating of all teams as greatness is just one player away. You have strength at every position but just lack that dominant flex player that would catapult you to a league victory.
Those "Oh-So-Close" teams haunt our offseason, and in extreme cases, multiple calendar years at a time. If pressed to recount your most painful fantasy football experience since you started playing, it would be one of these teams that you should of gambled on more upside in the face of obvious safe picks.
We are in the most competitive fantasy era ever seen. Every in-camp competition and result reaches the fantasy public within hours. Drafters are wiser and aren't making their picks from a magazine list published in April. Fewer mistakes are made. Success with sleepers and breakouts is more crucial than ever. It's not enough to hit on one breakout that outperforms consensus expectations. In order to have a realistic shot at winning a Rotobowl or The Fantasy Football World Championship , you need a solid draft foundation, fade the injury bug, work the waivers efficiently and most importantly, land multiple breakout performers. With a swing for the fences mentality, you can build a truly dominant roster.
Being ahead of a breakout before it happens is fantasy gold and generates the most self-satisfaction that comes with playing this game. Sometimes you luck into a magical year. Alshon Jeffery's 2013 ADP was north of 100, meaning few saw the huge production coming; and as a result, he was a depth selection turned stud. The same cannot be said for more seasoned players like Antonio Brown and Pierre Garcon. Both were drafted as WR2s with lofty expectations and ultimately outperformed their ADP by a wide margin, and truly rocketed to a career-high level.
If you whiffed on last year's hyped breakout candidates like Shane Vereen, David Wilson, Justin Blackmon and Zach Sudfeld, now is the time to permanently erase the horror from your memory and focus on making 2014 your year. Consider these gems in the making that can very well carry you to a championship, and have your competition raving at your impressive foresight.
From left to right: Nick Foles, Montee Ball & Ladarius Green
A year ago, Nick Foles was part of a quarterback competition that he ultimately lost to Michael Vick. Now the third-year quarterback has uncontested control of Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense and is poised to put his name in the hat amongst the league's top quarterbacks..
Drafters need to remember that Foles only started 10 games in 2013. His capped year-end totals put him outside the top-ten in cumulative fantasy rankings. His incredible touchdown to INT ratio of 27/2 in one thing, but the value of Foles is in that he runs an offense where the emphasis is on imposing maximum pressure and speed every play.
Foles leads an offense coming off a year where the team ranked second in yards per game (408), yards per play (6.2), and fifth in 1st downs per game (22). Foles is an extension of Kelly's agenda which will only be pushed harder in year two.
Gone is DeSean Jackson and his 1,332 yards, which is scaring off some fantasy owners from viewing Foles as a clear QB1. It shouldn't. Three of Jackson's top performances came with Vick under center, lending proof that there will be little or no fall-off. Foles will benefit from the return of Jeremy Maclin, further development of Zach Ertz, and new faces in Darren Sproles and rookie Jordan Matthews.
Players on the verge of statistical breakouts come with varying storylines, but rarely would a quarterback heading into his ninth-year fit the criteria. Then there's Jay Cutler, who has arguably the best wide receiver duo at his disposal in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Cutler is coming off a season where he posted a career high passer rating of 89.2 as well as being just fractionally off a career high in completion percentage at 63.1-percent. Those numbers place the Bears quarterback just outside the top-ten, but the tale of Cutler goes beyond his individual numbers.
Ankle and groin injuries forced Cutler to miss five games and leave two others prematurely. Cutler's propensity to get injured is a concern, but according to head-coach Marc Trestman, Cutler has "amped up" his conditioning and training, and is bigger and stronger than a year ago.
Josh McCown filled in admirably during Cutler's absence, resulting in combined Bears quarterback totals of 373 completions on 579 attempts totaling 4,550 yards, 32 TDs and a passer rating near 100, lending validity to the potential cumulative stats Cutler can achieve.
All this in year-one of a new offensive program brought in by Trestman In fact, the two QBs had two or more touchdowns and QB rating over 100 in five of the last six games of the season, demonstrating increased comfort in Trestman's prolific system that should carry over to this season. The Bears don't have their traditional shut-down defense which almost ensures four shoot-outs vs. Aaron Rodgers' Packers and Matthew Stafford's Lions. Cutler is our fifth ranked fantasy quarterback heading into 2014.
With the departure of Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball has been gift-wrapped fantasy stardom. All Ball has to do is avoid the fumbling problems that cost him playing time early in his rookie campaign.
Ball should flourish in an offense led by Peyton Manning. As an understudy, Ball witnessed Moreno score 13 touchdowns and generate nearly 1,600 total yards on 301 touches in the starting role. As defenses game-plan to slow down Manning and his multi-receiver sets, the underneath room for running-backs, create opportunities for gimme yards and receptions.
Workload will not be a problem for the former Wisconsin Badger as he rushed the ball a collective 663 times his junior and senior year and added 34 receptions, showing his versatility and durability that will be utilized in Denver's high-powered offense.
Ball's rookie statistics lend credence to the notion that he needs touches to excel. In the six games where Ball rushed ten or more times, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, a half-yard greater than his season 4.7 YPC.
When you think New Orleans Saints, you think dynamic passing game led by Drew Brees, dominant tight-end Jimmy Graham, skilled receivers and running backs that are pass catching machines. Khiry Robinson? Probably not so much.
But here's the thing. Darren Sproles and his 124 rushes and receptions have left for Philadelphia. Pierre Thomas hit the wall late in 2013, generating only 63 rushing yards on 30 carries spanning his last five games. The Saints figure to continue pushing the edge of using Thomas as a receiving weapon, thus will likely scale back his carries given he will turn the dreaded 30 years of age during the season. Thus if even half of Thomas' 147 rushes get redirected, that's 200 additional touches to be had and only Mark Ingram and Robinson to fill the role.
Ingram improved in his third-year, but has failed to live up to expectations and struggles with injuries. In steps Robinson who has been compared to Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin by the guru-of-talent himself, Bill Parcells.
It seems Sean Payton started listening to his mentor's words, allowing the undrafted free-agent out of West Texas A&M to carry the ball 21 times for 102 yards in two playoff games, including a touchdown against the Seahawks in the Divisional Playoffs.
At 6 foot - 220 pounds, Robinson is an opposing force, that is decisive in his runs and powers downhill, thus the comparisons to Martin. If last year's playoffs are any indication, Robinson has gained the trust of the Saints, and is in line for a dramatically increased role.
If not for a guy named Marshawn Lynch, the hype surrounding Christine Michael would be off the charts. As is, in a league where all the rage is receivers, Michael is an electrifying running back talent bursting-at-the-seams for an opportunity.
Pete Carroll said his second-year running back is "a million miles ahead" of where he was last season. This bodes well for Michael to suit up in every game in 2014; he was a healthy scratch in all but four of the Seahawks games in 2014, as he progressed slowly with pass progression and route running. Explosiveness has never been a question as evidenced by some breathtaking clips on film.
Rave reviews from personnel aside, the main obstacle remains Lynch. Working in Michael's favor is that Lynch has 988 touches over the last three years (1,100 if you factor in the playoffs), an enormous work load for even 'beast-mode' himself. The Seahawks may also intentionally look to reduce Lynch's workload early on and see what they really have in Michael. Lynch is an impending $9 million cap hit come 2015; an unrealistic expense given the upcoming necessity to award Super Bowl MVP Russell Wilson a new contract.
Despite the playing-time concerns, preseason noise may push Michael up the draft-boards a bit, but the hype is real here and you should have the former Aggie on your short list of legitimate breakout candidates for 2014.
Through two-years, Michael Floyd has been everything the Cardinals had thought he would be when he was selected as the 13th pick of the 2012 NFL draft. Heading into year-three, expectations are sky-high.
Although Larry Fitzgerald suited up for all 16 games in 2013, he was slowed by a nagging hamstring injury for half the year, which allowed Floyd to assume a more prominent role and increase his receptions by 20 and targets by 26 vs. his rookie campaign. Additionally, his catch-rate improved from 52% to 58%.
Even with Fitzgerald at full strength, Carson Palmer targeted Floyd 10 or more times in three games over the second-half of the season; which speaks to growing confidence in the Fighting Irish alum.
As is the case with many of our breakout candidates, Floyd will benefit from the consistency of being in a system (Bruce Arian's complex offense) for a second consecutive year. Furthering Floyd's case for increased production is his size. At six-foot, three-inches, Floyd has an ideal frame to be used in the red-zone. On a team void of a imposing tight-end, Floyd should expect an uptick on his 12 red-zone targets in 2013.
No 2014 free-agent upgraded his fantasy value more than Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders replaces Eric Decker's role in the Broncos explosive offense; a position that averaged 130 targets, 86 receptions, 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns the last two seasons.
As a Steelers outside receiver, Sanders career catch rate was 58%, a rate that figures to improve with Peyton Manning under center. In two years as Broncos quarterback, Manning has completed 68.5% of his passes (66% connection rate with Decker).
Sanders will benefit from facing softer coverage resulting from defenses having Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker to deal with---a far cry from roaming the field with only Antonio Brown, in a run-first offense.
"I'm finally entering a season where I'm in an offense that's going to sling it around," Sanders said. While the former Steelers receiver did post career highs in receiving output with 67 receptions and 740 yards in 2013, his new team passed for 1,427 more yards, lending proof that there will now be significantly more opportunities for Sanders to post big stat-lines and lots of fantasy points..
As Alshon Jeffery and Josh Gordon demonstrated last season, the old rule-of-thumb third-year wide receiver breakout rule can be accelerated if the talent is worthy and the offense recognizes the skill-set.
Kenny Stills plays in a pass happy offense that puts max-pressure on defenses with Pro-bowlers Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham. Although he tired down the stretch as a rookie, Stills had a four-week stretch where he was on the receiving end of 12 catches (on 17 targets), 304 yards and four touchdowns from Brees; incredible output for a first-year receiver.
That kind of production surely got the attention of Sean Payton who spoke of Stills during OTAs, saying that the team needs to find ways to get Stills more different looks and touches; implying that he will be used as more than a deep threat.
With the loss of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore to free-agency, there are 108 receptions up for grabs, widely assumed to be picked up by Stills and rookie Brandin Cooks. The anticipated uptick in targets for the former Sooner equates to extreme value as a key piece to one of the premier offenses in the league.
Once a much-maligned position, tight-end proves ever valuable year after year. Over the last five seasons, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas have exploded in their second-year and were arguably fantasy MVP in each of their breakout campaigns. Jordan Reed's rookie year was equally as impressive as his star position-mates, and has an opportunity to breakout in year-two.
Reed's season was cut short with a concussion sustained early in Week 10. In the prior four weeks, Reed hauled in 27 balls on 37 targets from RG3, for 323 yards and 2TDs. In a year where no much went right for the Redskins, RG3 clearly developed a connection with Reed, which should only evolve in year two.
Not too bad for a rookie tight-end that was originally recruited as a quarterback. Reed transitioned to full-time tight-end and even passed on his last year of eligibility, after an increase in production across his entire stat-line as a junior with the Florida Gators.
New head-coach Jay Gruden brings from the Bengals a program that incorporates heavy-utilization of the tight end (Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert were targeted 125 times in 2013). Reed should flourish in this new system as defenses will be forced to focus on gunners Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.
Fantasy owners may be a little gun-shy given the legitimate concussion concerns, but pre-camp ADP more than factors in the injury risk associated with Reed.
Another tight-end looking to make a similar leap as Jordan Reed, albeit in his third-year is San Diego Chargers 6-foot,6-inch, 240 pound Ladarius Green.
What strikes you first about Green is his blazing speed for a big man. He is a match-up nightmare for secondary's as evidenced by his league leading 22.1 yards per reception. With Antonio Gates still relevant as Phillip Rivers favorite target, Green was brought along slowly, capping his opportunities, but both were targeted equally in the playoffs lending some validity to the assumption that a transition to a featured role is near.
Furthering a case for Green is the presence of new offensive coordinator Frank Reich. Indications out of camp are that Reich along with Rivers will look to speed up the offense, with an emphasis on running the no-huddle and passing more. Rivers, who has many years of exploiting tight-end mismatches with Gates, may find himself looking Green's way more given his speed and big-play ability, as defenses struggle to keep up with the fast-paced offense.
Those vying for a role opposite Keenan Allen as a compliment receiver are adequate at best, meaning the Chargers may find themselves employing multi tight-end sets more often than not; allowing Green an opportunity to flourish even with Gates a continued cog in the offense.