The workhorse running back is a dying breed, so most fantasy owners target the handcuffs (backups) for at least the top 10 running backs in hopes of stealing a potential starter late in drafts. The same concept applies to wide receivers as many elite passing games will enter 2014 with injury concerns among their penciled-in starters. In this piece, we profile pass catchers that could see their fantasy stock skyrocket if those ahead of them suffer injuries and are kept in street clothes for a prolonged portion of the season.
Atlanta figures to have one of the worst defenses in the league yet again, which should result in weekly pass-happy play-calling for Matt Ryan and crew. Ryan attempted a career-high 651 passes in 2013, a figure he could top this season provided Julio Jones and Roddy White remain on the field. Last season, Jones suffered yet another foot injury that cost him the final 11 games of the season. White battled a high ankle sprain and a hamstring injury and missed first three games of his nine-year career.
Douglas filled in admirably for those two players, leading the team in catches (85) and receiving yards (1,067). He had 132 targets during his breakout 2013 season and is well worth a late-round flier with Jones' injury history and with Roddy celebrating his 33rd birthday in November. Atlanta also needs to replace Tony Gonzalez's 120 targets. They are expected to employ more three-WR sets this season as they failed to upgrade the tight end position during the offseason.
Those who think Peyton Manning can sniff a repeat of his record-setting 2013 season will want to take a flier on as many members of the Broncos' passing game as possible. Denver lost Eric Decker to the Jets but secured another receiver when they selected Latimer with the 56th overall pick in the 2014 draft. He'll likely start the season fourth or fifth on the WR depth chart, but Wes Welker's concussion issues could force him into action sooner than most expect. Denver also added former Steeler Emmanuel Sanders, who enters his fifth NFL season with 11 career touchdowns and has not missed a game in the past two seasons.
Second-year running back Montee Ball is recovering from an appendectomy but is expected to ready for Week 1. If Ball suffers any setbacks, Denver could be forced to employ even more of a pass-happy attack, giving Latimer a chance to get firmly planted on the fantasy radar. The Indiana alum will find it difficult to produce consistent numbers with so many mouths to feed, but his upside is worth a late-round flier that could pay major WR3 dividends in the second half of the season.
The Bengals' first-year offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, is expected to pull in the reins on Andy Dalton after former OC Jay Gruden allowed the “Red Rocket” to fire on all cylinders. Cincinnati boasts a solid defense and will likely rely more on the running back duo of Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill, limiting the upside of pass catchers not named A.J. Green. Marvin Jones had an impressive sophomore season, finishing with 51 catches for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns. However, a broken left foot is expected to keep Jones out of action until October.
Cincinnati Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu
Sanu finished last season with 47 catches for 455 yards and two touchdowns but could see somewhat of an expanded role in his third season as reports suggest Jackson could be looking to use Sanu in a role similar to how the Raiders used Marcel Reece when Jackson was the head coach in Oakland. Such a role would elevate Sanu's PPR value. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Sanu could also see a fair amount of red zone looks while Jones is on the mend.
DeSean Jackson was cut by the Eagles and signed by the Redskins after posting an outstanding season in the first year of Philadelphia's Chip Kelly era. Jeremy Maclin is just 26 years old but is returning from an ACL injury that sidelined him for the entire 2013 season. Riley Cooper finished with top-25 WR numbers last year -- 47 catches, 835 yards, eight touchdowns – but he is now on the bust lists of many who see last season as a career year.
Philadelphia used a second-round pick to secure the Southeastern Conference's all-time leading WR in Matthews. He is well worth considering in the 10th or 11th round as he could have an outside chance at leading the Eagles' up-tempo offense in receiving in his rookie season. In 2013, he had 112 receptions for 1,477 yards with seven touchdowns at Vanderbilt. Matthews has ideal size (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) and speed (4.46 at NFL Combine), which should translate to fantasy success and an expanded role as the season progresses.
The addition of head coach Jay Gruden has many fantasy owners champing at the bit to land quarterback Robert Griffin III, as most are expecting a bounce-back year from him. Under Gruden's tutelage, Andy Dalton finished last season as the fifth-highest scoring fantasy quarterback. Griffin is blessed with an elite cast of receivers albeit a cast with many injury concerns. DeSean Jackson had a monster 2013 season – 82 catches, 1,332 yards, nine touchdowns -- partly because he was able to play a full 16-game season for the first time since his 2008 rookie year. From 2009-2012, Jackson missed nine games and failed to top 65 catches in any season. Pierre Garcon also exploded last season with 113 catches for 1,346 yards and five touchdowns. This came one year after his disappointing first season in Washington due to a foot injury cost him six games and hampered him for basically the entire year. Garcon and Jackson both missed the Redskins' first preseason game with minor ailments but should be all systems go for Week 1.
Regardless, both players have battled the injury bug, which could open the door for Roberts to surprise. Tight end Jordan Reed is also an injury risk after suffering multiple concussions that date back to his college career at Florida. A concussion cost him seven games last year. Roberts spent his first four seasons in Arizona with his best coming in 2012 when he finished with 64 catches for 759 yards and five touchdowns. For now, Roberts is buried on the depth chart but is just one injury away from WR3 status, especially in PPR leagues. Washington's offense is expected to pass early and often as their defense will likely struggle yet again after tying for the second-most points allowed last season.
The third-round pick of the 2010 draft signed a three-year, $9 million contract this offseason with New England. The Pats have a crowded group of pass catchers but most of them are regulars on the training table. Last season marked the first time in his five-year career that Julian Edelman played a full 16 games. He missed 15 games in his first four seasons. Danny Amendola has missed 24 games in the past three years. Aaron Dobson sat out four games last season with foot and hamstring injuries.
LaFell was unable to exceed 50 catches during any of his four seasons with the Panthers as he struggled with drops in a run-focused offense. But reports that he could be given a role similar to Aaron Hernandez in the Patriots' offense make him an intriguing late-round pick that could become a favorite in the red zone, especially if tight end Rob Gronkowski continues to get hurt.
Oakland signed former Packers WR James Jones and Texans QB Matt Schaub this offseason in hopes of jumpstarting a passing offense that ranked 24th last year. Jones and Rod Streater will likely start out wide in Week 1, but this receiving corps is far from set in stone. Holmes enters his fourth NFL season with a chance to emerge as Schaub's go-to receiver after a solid close to his 2013 season in which he topped 55 yards in four of the final five games and averaged 17 yards per catch. He should also emerge as a red zone favorite based on his measurables – 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, 4.45 speed). The odds of such valuable usage are helped by the fact that the Raiders lack a serviceable tight end. Sorry, Mychal Rivera owners.
Percy Harvin has played just 10 games over the past two seasons, and Golden Tate is now in Detroit. Kearse enters his third NFL season with a chance to surprise despite the Seahawks' run-heavy offense. The University of Washington alum finished the 2013 regular season with just 22 catches for 346 yards and four touchdowns. But he reached the end zone in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. He's expected to line up outside with Doug Baldwin in three-WR sets but could see his role expand dramatically with another Harvin injury, which occurs about as frequently as rain in Seattle.