Earlier in the preseason we covered just how tough it is for rookies to make a fantasy football impact in year one. In particular, this affects the pass catchers: tight ends and wide receivers are slower to adjust to the pro game than their peers and as such we often overpay for them on draft day.
Their under-performance relative to expectations in year one presents a buying opportunity in year two. Some, of course, have already announced themselves as bona fide NFL stars. With that in mind, here are our 2014 Sophomore Ranks with 2014 NFL Sophomore Breakout Candidates highlighted.
- Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay – Lacy, last year’s #6 overall back, projects for as much work as the Packers can give him in a high powered offense.
- Montee Ball, RB, Denver – Plug and play? Ball fared well to close out 2013 and takes over Knowshon Moreno‘s role (arguably with more talent) with Peyton Manning calling the plays.
- Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh – LeGarrette Blount will work as a change of pace back, but Bell averaged nearly 19 carries per game last year and projects as a 300 carry back in 2014.
- Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati – I’m skeptical of calls for Bernard’s increased workload – Jeremy Hill can be more effective than BenJarvus Green Ellis from the jump – but he finished as fantasy’s 16th overall back last year and his game changing ability will be on display again in a ball control offense.
- Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego – Coming off one of the best rookie years by a receiver in league history, Allen projects for a larger role for the Chargers and enters the year as a back-end WR1 for fantasy purposes.
- Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis – Tre Mason has a lot of room to grow as he enters the league, but he is already projecting for 8-10 touches per contest which suggests that Stacy’s obnoxious per game workload from 2013 will come down. Stacy ran very well in his first year for St. Louis, but with no guarantees in terms of workload it may be tough to turn a profit on his current ADP (RB14).
- Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona – On the subject of workload, Andre Ellington is apparently due for a big increase his in 2014. Bruce Arians has waffled since early last season on just how much work Ellington would get, but with Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor the two backs behind him on the depth chart he appears due for the bulk of the early down and receiving game work.Sure, there won’t be a lot of short yardage work in his future but with the ability to splash six from long range Ellington is a threat nonetheless.In line for a significant increase in playing time, Ellington’s 0.3 fantasy points per snap were the 6th most of any back who played more than 400 snaps (he had 414) in 2013. Projecting that over even a 600 snap season suggests an output in the range of 180 fantasy points – borderline RB1 output. While that pace may not be sustainable over the course of the season, his elusiveness will serve him well. In fact, Ellington finished last season as the 5th most elusive back league wide with 31 missed tackles on 157 touches, and his 3.15 yards after contact per attempt were the 2nd most in the NFL – not bad for a back whose 5’9″, 199 pound frame was viewed as an impediment to his ability to run between the tackles.
- Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota – Underused early in his rookie campaign, Patterson was slow to acclimate to life in the NFL but once he found his way onto the field he was a threat with the ball in his hands. As we’ve discussed inside the Locker Room, Patterson grew as a receiver through the season and is evidently progressing in his route running as he projects for a big role in a vertical passing game employed by Norv Turner.The one challenge with this ‘breakout’ candidate is (like Ellington, in many respects) the whole fantasy community is on him, so you’re already paying an expectant price on his production.
- Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas – Williams saw the field a lot for the Cowboys in his first year, participating in 700 snaps. He drew 72 targets, making 44 receptions and averaging 16.7 per catch, on the strength of 4.9 yards after the catch per reception. With Miles Austin no longer in the picture (yes, he missed time in 2013 anyhow) Williams is firmly entrenched as the 2nd receiver on Dallas’ depth chart in what projects to be a pass heavy offense.From our review of NFC Coaching Changes, we’ve noted that Linehan’s offenses tend pass heavy: “Linehan has been a Head Coach or Offensive Coordinator for four different teams across 12 seasons in the NFL and his teams have finished in the top half of the league in pass attempts in each of them. Over the last five seasons as OC in Detroit the numbers are even more stark, with his teams finishing in the top six every season and twice leading the league.”While Dallas may look to DeMarco Murray in an effort to play ball control and keep their defense off the field, that leaky defense should lead to plenty of shootouts again meaning lots of passes headed in Williams’ direction opposite Dez Bryant.If he can improve on his catch rate (61.1%) and nudge his targets into the 90-100 range we could be looking at a 65 reception, 950-1000 yard campaign.
- Aaron Dobson, WR, New England – Like Williams, Dobson is projected to start as Tom Brady‘s X receiver after a season that had its ups and downs. Late in the year, it was looking like it was much more on the upswing until a foot injury derailed his campaign. Dobson won’t start camp with the club right away as he is still recovering from offseason surgery but he should be ready to go when the games count, and figures to play a big role in the team’s passing game.The 6’3″ Marshall product averaged nearly six targets per game in his 12 outings and should easily approach 100 or more this season. With an average of 14 yards per catch last year and a reputation for tacky-hands before arriving on the NFL scene, he is due to take a big leap in his second season as long as health issues don’t keep him off the field.
- DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston – Despite all the failings in Houston last year, Hopkins actually had a reasonably productive rookie campaign. According to Pro Football Focus he was one of the most dependable receivers in the league, dropping just one of his 53 catchable targets. Those hands bode well for him as he attempts to build a rapport with a new starting Quarterback (presumably Ryan Fitzpatrick), as does the extra time he’ll have to work with them with Andre Johnson sitting out.All is quiet on the Johnson trade front, and obviously for Nuk’s value the best move is one that takes ‘Dre out of town, but he should be well prepared to take advantage of the defensive attention paid to Johnson across from him. In either case, he is well positioned to exceed his 52 catch output from 2013. He scored just two touchdowns, and projects for a short catch and run contribution in O’Brien’s offense so he may never reach double digits in scores but a solid PPR campaign is in the offing.
- Jordan Reed, TE, Washington – With a 45-499-3 debut in parts of nine games, Reed has already shown the athleticism required to excel at the NFL level and with his concussion issues behind him has been turning heads through the offseason. Count on mid-range TE production this season, as long as he’s healthy.
- Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis – St. Louis stood pat at receiver this offseason suggesting a confidence in their existing corps. Austin figures to be a big part of that group in 2014 after seeing limited time in his first year. He made 40 receptions last year and added 151 yards on the ground. Evidently feeling more comfortable as a pro entering his second season, Austin averaged 13.2 fantasy points per game through his final four outings thanks to damage done a both a rusher and receiver.
- Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia – Here’s what you need to know on Ertz: Brent Celek is projecting for more of an in line role leaving last year’s impressive rookie, Ertz, the opportunity to contribute in the aerial attack. Starting just two games last season and drawing 459 snaps overall, Ertz posted 8th most fantasy points per snap at his position (of those playing more than 100 snaps) on the strength of an impressive 36-469-4 debut. There has been talk through the offseason that the Eagles may operate from a two-TE base given the departure of DeSean Jackson, but even if they work from a more traditional formation the word is that Ertz is in for a major role in the offense.It takes just a 550 yard, six touhdown season to deliver top-12 value at the TE position (roughly), which seems to be a reasonable floor line from Ertz if he indeed takes on extra work for the Eagles.
- Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee – The hype around Justin Hunter in the fantasy community and Titans camp is real. His low ranking is a result of the fact that fantasy relevance requires a major leap in production – both from Hunter and from the Tennessee offense as a whole – but the ceiling is as high as any receiver on the list. At 6’4″ with great leaping ability (check the combine numbers) and plus-speed Hunter is an athletic talent who had a relatively quiet season in his first year.That quiet year is causing many to sleep on Hunter, despite his having the talent and the overall context to succeed.Ken Whisenhunt just coaxed outstanding seasons out of Keenan Allen, Philip Rivers and co. and is generally viewed as a positive for Tennessee’s offense and for Jake Locker‘s development. Kendall Wright, with great hands and run after the catch ability should be the prime beneficiary in an offense predicated on short passes but Hunter will be prepared to do work over the top as well.The in-house hype on Hunter has been a bit over the top this offseason (Exhibit A: he’s a young Randy Moss) and it seems to overlook the fact that Hunter was suspended for Week 15 last season and closed the year with a whimper, playing 54 snaps over the final two weeks but failing to reel in a single pass, leaving him with just 18 receptions on the season. Its what he did with those 18 catches (19.7 YPR) with a 22.2% TD ratio, that has fantasy analysts intrigued.
His team sees a big role as well, noting that his game changing ability can put them over the top, but also acknowledging that Hunter is not a fully refined product as yet. It is reasonable to expect a slow start to the season given that Hunter is learning a new offense for the 2nd time in a two year career, and that his Tennessee teammates are new to the system as well but if he develops as expected as the season moves along Hunter can be the difference in the fantasy playoffs and perhaps in Tennessee’s challenge for a playoff spot as well.[Justin Hunter is also featured in our Locker Room Ultimate Sleepers Bracket. Like what you're reading? Check his matchup, and vote!]
- Kenny Stills, WR, New Orleans – Stills will be New Orleans’ WR2 so there is certainly value there, but in an offense that focuses on passing to TEs and RBs his target ceiling is not all that enticing.
- Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans – The necessary caveats apply to Robinson: he’s third on the New Orleans RB depth chart behind Pierre Thomas and similarly undervalued teammate Mark Ingram but we’ve seen this offense produce multiple useful backs before and Robinson still has the opportunity to carve out significant between the 20s work, and perhaps goal line touches as well.Robinson acknowledges that he wasn’t as familiar with the system as he could have been last season, but that should no longer be an issue heading into year two. With a year under his belt, coach Sean Payton notes a more aware, more confident Robinson and has committed to keeping him involved in the offense.With Darren Sproles moving on there will be a wealth of opportunities available in New Orleans’ backfield that will be distributed in unknown amounts to Thomas, Ingram, and Robinson. A 6’0″ 220-pound bruiser, Robinson averaged 4.1 YPC on 54 totes last year including an impressive playoff performance after PT missed time and Payton worked to get Robinson involved (21-102-TD across two games, including the stalwart Seattle run defense). He’ll look to build on that with a workload in the 150 carry range seeming reasonable, heading into season two.
- Christine Michael, RB, Seattle – I covered Michael/Lynch thoroughly earlier this offseason. The short answer here is that he will absolutely see an increase in work this season as Robert Turbin takes on a reserve role and the team prepares for the days after Marshawn Lynch by getting its second year RB some contact. With that said, it takes a true holdout or an injury to keep Marshawn Lynch off the field. Last year, Lynch picked up 301 carries while adding 36 receptions compared to just 85 touches for Turbin, both in 16 game seasons. The ratio should even out this year, but not to the point that Michael becomes truly relevant. His profile and situation suggest he is a must-own back, but the breakout season may be a year away.
- Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh – we didn’t see a whole lot of Wheaton in his first season (161 snaps, 12 targets and six receptions) but the Steelers seem to have seen all they’ve needed through his first year and the early part of this offseason. Wheaton started camp starting opposite Antonio Brown. Lance Moore will man the slot, with Wheaton’s main competition coming from this year’s rookie Martavius Bryant. Billed as both fast (4.45-40) and quick, Wheaton has the talent to produce at the NFL level though we are asking for a significant leap in production for him to become truly fantasy relevant.Nevertheless, it must be noted that the WR2 role in Pittsburgh has produced significant numbers in recent year, both Brown’s own in prior years and the now departed Emmanuel Sanders‘ 67-740-6 line (WR33) last year.
- Robert Woods, WR, Buffalo – While Sammy Watkins’ presence changes the Buffalo offense considerably, Woods is widely expected to claim the ‘Steve Johnson role’ in Buffalo’s offense. For three straight years heading into last season (Johnson’s 2013 was derailed by injury) that role produced 1000-yard, top-24 WR seasons. Of course, the offense has changed considerably during that time but the point remains the team let plenty of production walk out the door and will need to replace it somewhere. Watkins is the eventual WR1 and is a good bet to be the most productive receiver in Buffalo even in this,his first season, but Woods is ready to take a step forward as well.The 22-year-old receiver put up 14.7 yards per reception on 40 catches last season and closed the year by going over 70 yards in two of his last three games. He didn’t blow anyone away last year, but proved himself competent at the NFL level. He drew 81 targets last year and caught just those 40 balls, so he’ll need to be more consistent but a 65 catch season wouldn’t be a reach.
- Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati – Most expect Eifert to take on a more significant role in Cincinnati’s offense this season and he may exceed Jermaine Gresham in terms of snaps played this year, but with Hue Jackson expected to shave in excess of 100 pass attempts off of Andy Dalton‘s stat line this year it will be hard for Eifert to yield numbers worth drafting. Cincinnati’s offense failed to produce a top 20 TE with Dalton throwing the ball 586 times so a top-12 effort in fewer attempts seems unlikely.
- E.J. Manuel, QB, Buffalo – Manuel has a new toy to work with and was reasonably productive when on the field last season, as noted in our “Ryan Tannehill vs. EJ Manuel” ultimate sleepers bracket, but with just 10 games of NFL experience and an 11:9 TD:INT ratio in those games, he’ll go undrafted in all but the deepest of leagues.
- Geno Smith, QB, New York – Either Smith is benefiting from good mentorship or the plan to bring in Michael Vick to push him worked, as the early camp reports speak of a more mature Smith who appears ready to take hold of the team’s offense. The team added Eric Decker in the offseason and his 366 yards as a rusher help to increase Smith’s fantasy floor but it would take a reverse in his woeful 12:21 TD:INT ratio to make Smith anything more than a spot starter/emergency fantasy QB and I’ll need to see the development before I invest in that.
Others of note: Marcus Lattimore (PUP list stomps all over my 2014 excitement), Gavin Escobar (bigger role but not enough), Marquess Wilson (sneaky play in deep leagues but we’re asking a lot of that offense to yield four usable pass catchers and Forte), Levine Toilolo (Tony G he is not), one of Mike James or Bobby Rainey (one could gain relevance, one could be cut… watch camp), Marlon Brown (nice rookie season, but now appropriately behind Steve Smith for at least one season), Mike Glennon (a name to watch if McCown/the team struggles).