The fantasy football season is over—except for those diehards in playoff fantasy leagues—so it's time for fantasy owners to look forward to who might help them win titles in 2012.
Fantasy football owners need to find breakout performers if they're going to win their leagues. Everyone and their mothers and fathers know Drew Brees, Calvin Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew will do well.
What separates the owners who win championships from the ones who finish in the middle of the standings is that the former group drafts or picks up players like Victor Cruz, Jimmy Graham and Antonio Brown as they turn into superstars.
Here are four young players you need to target in 2012:
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys (RB)
There are going to be owners in your league who forget about or downgrade Murray because of the fractured ankle he suffered this season. They may push him down a few pegs on their cheat sheets since they are not sure he will be the same player, or they think that Felix Jones will suddenly turn into Tony Dorsett in the offseason.
But fractured ankles do not end careers or slow down speedsters for more than a few months. Murray should be 100 percent by training camp. As for Jones, while he was a thorn in Murray’s fantasy value after Jones returned from the injury that gave Murray the starting tailback job in the first place, Murray proved he was the better runner between the tackles, inside the red zone and overall.
With Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall question marks for the 2012 season due to their respective late-season torn ACLs, Murray is without a doubt a top-15 fantasy RB and arguably a top-10. Forget about his ankle and Jones. Remember the 601 rushing yards he racked up over a four-game stretch during the season.
Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins (RB)
Reggie Bush played in 15 of Miami’s 16 games this season. The chances of him staying healthy enough to pull that off two seasons in a row are equal to the chances of Katy Perry becoming the lead singer of Metallica.
A Bush injury would mean more playing time for Thomas, who suffered through a rough rookie season thanks to nagging injuries that caused him to play catch-up most of the time. Thomas finished with 553 rushing yards and one receiving touchdown in a dozen games.
There could also be an offensive focus shift depending on who Miami’s new head coach turns out to be. Maybe the new head honcho will want to implement more of Thomas—a hard-nosed, straight-ahead runner, into the offense. With an improved Thomas and an injury-free Bush, Miami would have one of the better one-two running backs tandems in the NFL.
Thomas will definitely be more of a factor in 2012 than he was in 2011—if his body does not break down for the second year in a row. Eight0hundred yards and eight touchdowns is not out of the realm of possibility and even more if Bush pulls a hamstring or sprains a knee.
Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals (RB)
This name ring a bell? Williams’ name was on everyone’s tongues before fantasy owners headed into the drafts, but his name was quickly erased from cheat sheets after a season-ending knee injury he suffered during a preseason game.
The former Virginia Tech Hokie was thought of an explosive counterpart to the perpetually gimpy Beanie Wells in Arizona’s rushing attack. Too bad Williams is even more gimpy now and will likely be right up until training camp next year since his knee injury was devastating.
But this is why Williams is someone to watch. He might be available in the late rounds of next year’s fantasy drafts, and if he indeed rehabs himself back to 100 percent, the only RB he has to contend with is Wells. No other Cardinals RB stepped up behind Wells this season after Williams’ injury left a gaping hole on the depth chart.
Williams getting healthy is about as sure of a thing as Rex Ryan keeping quiet, but he is someone to keep an eye on as we get into July and August, because if it happens that he is back to normal and has his game-breaking legs back under him, he could be a late-round steal.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (WR)
Fantasy owners who do not pay close attention and who did not watch Jones in certain contests may think that he was the second-best rookie receiver this year behind Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. While that may be true stats-wise, and while Green is certainly no slouch, Jones was the better receiver when both were at their best.
Jones had 54 receptions for 959 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Great numbers, sure! But remember this: He missed three full games and parts of a couple others due to a nagging hamstring injury. Jones could have easily finished with 1,300 yards and 10-12 touchdowns if he was able to play all of the time.
Jones ended the year with a month-long stint where he was virtually uncoverable. He racked up 393 yards and six scores over Atlanta’s last four games. With Matt Ryan throwing to him and Roddy White preventing him from getting double-covered all the time, Jones is on the verge of being a top-10 fantasy wideout in 2012.
Other young up-and-comers to be on the lookout for during the offseason and training camp include Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker (it's time to kick Matt Hasselbeck to the curb) and tight end Jared Cook (21 catches for 335 yards in the Titans’ last three games), Washington tailback Evan Royster (5.9 yards per carry in limited duty) and Cleveland RB Montario Hardesty (Peyton Hillis probably not returning in 2012).