Fred Jackson was a draft day steal in 2011? Who will follow his footsteps and breakout in 2012?
Nothing is more valuable to a fantasy football owner than a good sleeper. Anyone can pick a good player in the first few rounds of the draft, but what separates the average fantasy owners from the great ones is the ability to find sleepers in the middle to late rounds of the draft.
A sleeper does not always have to be a guy that comes out of nowhere to produce big numbers, a la Victor Cruz last season.
It can be a player that has had put up solid numbers over the course his career, yet has never had that breakout season that makes him an upper echelon fantasy player.
A perfect example of a breakout player last season was Fred Jackson (before he got hurt). Jackson had been a solid fantasy player for a few seasons, but he was truly elite in 2011 and provided owners who selected him in the middle rounds of the draft with tremendous value.
Those kinds of picks are what separates the men from the boys in fantasy football.
So to assist owners in identifying potential sleepers to target, here is a list of five breakout candidates for the 2012 NFL season.
Even before injuries ended Jay Cutler's 2011 season after just 10 games, he was on his way to yet another good, but not great fantasy season.
In the ten games he did play, Cutler averaged 13 fantasy points per game (standard scoring), far below the five elite level quarterbacks; Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Tom Brady and Matt Stafford, who all averaged at least 20 points per game.
That does not mean Cutler was a terrible fantasy quarterback in 2011, he was not. He was a solid QB2, even in some cases a low-end QB1, but he was not a guy you wanted to trot out as your starter every week if you could help it.
In the four years previous to last season, Cutler missed just one game and averaged 23.75 touchdown passes a year. Not bad numbers, not elite either.
Part of the reason for Cutler's mediocrity in Chicago has been the lack of a competent receiving core, as he has not had anything close to a true No.1 receiver.
Earlier this offseason, the Bears traded away two third-rounders to acquire Brandon Marshall and used a second round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on Alshon Jeffrey of South Carolina. Thus, giving Cutler two big, talented receivers that will transform the Bears' receivers from a weakness to a strength.
Since Cutler and Marshall used to be teammates in Denver, the transition should go smoothly, which should provide a boost in Cutler's overall fantasy value. In their last season together in 2008, Cutler had by far his best season as a pro throwing for 4,526 yards to go along with 27 total touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
The Bears also added talented running back Michael Bush and also return Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, so Cutler should have more than enough weapons to become a Top 10 fantasy quarterback in 2012.
Back in 2010, Matt Cassel had a terrific season. Nearly everything went according to plan. He took the Chiefs to the AFC West title and became a relevant fantasy option as he threw for 3,116 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
Rewind to the start of last season and Cassel was getting some love from fantasy owners only to fall short of the high expectations set out for him. He managed to play in just nine games and averaged only 10.25 fantasy points after throwing for 1,713 yards to go with 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.
Despite Cassel's poor play in 2011, he is a candidate to breakout in 2012 in large part due to the offensive weapons Kansas City has assembled around him.
The Chiefs may not be known for their offensive firepower but looking past their offensive talent would be a mistake. The receiving core alone consists of Dwayne Bowe, 2011 first-rounder Jonathan Baldwin, Steve Breaston and Dexter McCluster—four solid options.
Kansas City is also set at running back after signing free-agent Peyton Hillis from Cleveland to tandem with the electrifying Jamal Charles who returns from a season-ending knee injury. The team also has two solid tight ends in Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss as well.
Make no mistake, with the talent around him, 2012 is make-or-break in terms of Cassel's career with the Chiefs. If he fails to deliver, he may just find himself unemployed next offseason.
So if Cassel was ever going to have a breakout year, this would be it. That does not mean you should spend a high draft pick on him, but if you are looking for value at the quarterback position, Cassel is your guy.
It is hard to call someone a sleeper when they have been poised to breakout for the past few seasons, but that is exactly the case with new San Diego Chargers receiver Robert Meachem.
After being selected in the first round of the 2007 draft by the Saints, Meachem has been a bit of a disappointment. In his first two years in the NFL, he played in just 14 games and caught just 12 passes.
Since then his production has improved and over the last three seasons, he has averaged 43 receptions for 660 yards and caught a total of 20 touchdowns passes. Solid numbers, but certainly not spectacular and not good enough for fantasy stardom.
On the surface, it appears Meachem has not produced as expected. However, digging a little deeper into his numbers reveals why; he has never been a featured receiver in the Saints high-powered offense. The fact is, Meachem has been held back by a lack of opportunities.
From 2009-2011, Meachem, who signed a free agent contract with the Chargers this offseason, was targeted only 191 times, an average of 63 times a season. Vincent Jackson, the player Meachem is tasked with replacing in San Diego, received 115 just last season.
When targeted, Meachem has been highly effective. In the last three seasons he has caught 67 percent of the passes thrown his way, while also averaging an impressive 10.3 yards per target and scoring a touchdown every 9.55 targets.
Compare that to Jackson, who last season caught just 52 percent of his targets, averaged 9.67 yards per target and caught a touchdown every 13.4 targets and you can see why San Diego passed on re-signing him in favor of Meachem.
Simply put, on a per target basis Meachem has been a better receiver.
Jackson did have better overall numbers with 60 catches for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns compared to the 40 catches for 620 yards and six touchdowns by Meahcem; due mostly to the sheer number of targets.
If we take Meachem's yards per target average and touchdown percentage and project that with 121 targets Jackson received and his numbers look like this: 81 receptions, 1,246 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Those numbers are much better than what Jackson produced with the Chargers in 2011. They are also the stats of a Top 10 fantasy receiver. Meaning if Meachem can simply get the targets in San Diego that he did in New Orleans, he will finally have the breakout season we have all been waiting for in 2012.
Cam Newton burst onto the scene in 2011 and was a godsend for the fantasy owners lucky enough to acquire him. In 2012, we can only expect improvement from not only Newton, but his receivers as well.
One such receiver is second-year pro Brandon LaFell, who was drafted by the Panthers in the third round of the 2010 draft.
As a rookie, LaFell was solid catching 38 passes for 468 yards and one touchdown with Jimmy Clausen under center. Last season, he followed that up with 36 catches for 613 yards and three touchdowns.
While those numbers do not look great, a deeper look shows they are better than they appear to be.
Despite getting targeted 56 times last season compared to 75 times in 2010, his yardage and total touchdowns were better, as were his yards per reception, which jumped from 12.3 to 17.0. Meaning he did more with less in 2011.
When breaking down LaFell's numbers on a per target basis, it gets even better. He caught 36 of the 56 passes thrown to him (64 percent) and averaged 10.9 yards per target, an extremely impressive number.
For context, that number is better than Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace, a fellow deep specialist, who averaged 10.5 yards per target last season.
The numbers show that LaFell, who ranked sixth on the Panthers in targets, needs a bigger role in the Panther's offense after Legedu Naanee, Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Stewart all had more targets than he did in 2011.
LaFell is the clear No.2 wide receiver in Carolina and on most teams, the top two receivers normally each garner around 100 targets over the course of the season. If LaFell can approach that number and keep pace with his play from 2011 he should produce close to 60 catches for 1,000 yards and five touchdowns.
Even if his per target average drops a bit with an increased workload in 2012, WR2 numbers would still be well within his reach and considering he will probably go in the last four rounds of the draft, he will be a great value pick for fantasy owners.
In the NFL, players normally show the most improvement from year one to year two. Often times the improvement is drastic and Kyle Rudolph, a tight end for the Minnesota Vikings, is one such player hoping to make a big leap in production as he enters his second season.
You will not find as many fantasy sleepers at the tight end as you will other positions because there are so few tight ends that make a real impact on fantasy football.
However, Rudolph is the kind of player that has the potential to make an impact as a fantasy player. In his rookie season, he acquitted himself well in limited action, catching 26 passes for 249 yards (9.6 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. Yet, he was limited mainly by a lack of opportunities.
For some reason, the Vikings decided to keep Visanthe Shiancoe as their starting tight end for most of the season, wasting 70 targets on him, which served no purpose other than to limit the development of Rudolph.
The Vikings also decided to sign another veteran tight end this offseason in John Carlson. However, Rudolph, a second round pick of the Vikings in 2011, is more than ready to take the next step in his development.
Last season, Minnesota threw 109 passes to its tight ends but Rudolph received only 39, which is less than three targets per game. Considering he averaged almost seven yards a target, it would behoove the Vikings to target him much more in the passing game this season.
The team is also extremely weak at wide receiver outside of Percy Harvin, so for all intents and purposes, Rudolph is the second best option for second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to throw to, remembering that tight ends are the best friend of a young quarterback.
With the expected improvement of both Rudolph and Ponder, plus the added bonus of a full offseason to work together, there is no reason that Rudolph should not receive around 100 targets this season.
Based off his 2012 numbers, 100 targets should lead to around 60 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns. Solid enough numbers to be a borderline TE1 on any fantasy team, which will provide great value for a guy who should be available past the tenth round.