Predicting This Year's Fantasy Football Breakout Stars
Depth, if anything, is what can really separate your fantasy football team from the rest of the league.
And finding those breakout stars for the upcoming season is the catalyst en route to enjoying a dominant fantasy season.
It's easy for anyone to select the top players at any position, but taking a guy like Buffalo's Fred Jackson puts your team ahead of the game. Jackson was in the midst of a breakout season in 2011 before his injury, so he can also be dubbed a risk in 2012.
However, that doesn't mean steering clear of him is the answer. Just like with the rest of the players on this list with Jackson, a breakout season is in the making and each must be strongly considered if a championship run is to occur.
Ryan Mathews: RB, Chargers
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Ryan Mathews is on the verge of becoming one of the NFL's better and more complete running backs.
After a sound rookie campaign in 2010 where he gained 823 total yards and scored eight times, Mathews significantly increased his value to the Chargers in 2011.
Last season Mathews accounted for 1,546 total yards, and averaged almost five yards per carry while also getting over nine yards per reception. Unfortunately, Mathews scored just six touchdowns as fullback Mike Tolbert was the main ball-carrier near the goal-line.
The good news though, is that Tolbert is gone and Mathews has the backfield to himself. Therefore, expect him to earn more carries in 2012 and score much more often. As a dual-threat back, Mathews will also continue to contribute as a receiver and keep San Diego's spread offense moving in the AFC West.
He's beginning to develop as an every-down back, so having Mathews as your No. 1 ball-carrier is not a bad idea for 2012.
Projected Stats: 1,450 rushing yards, 375 receiving yards, 17 total TDs
A.J. Green: WR, Bengals
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A.J. Green had a stellar rookie campaign for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011.
With over 1,000 yards on 65 receptions and seven touchdowns, Green was arguably the league's best rookie and did this well with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton tossing him the pigskin. That said, anticipate Green upping the ante in 2012.
His rookie season was certainly one to build off of and we can only expect more from Green this year. Cincinnati has a more dynamic running game and the addition of rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu will take pressure off Green to produce.
Provided that Dalton avoids a sophomore slump, Green will see many more targets and scoring opportunities, even against double coverage.
Now, the Bengals do face a tough schedule in the entire NFC East and AFC West outside of the division. You then include the AFC North and Cincinnati will be in many barn-burners this year.
Still, Green will outperform himself with the Bengals' improved defense getting the offense more possessions. Green's sheer athletic ability will create early separation against single coverage and his size bodes well when doubled up.
Projected Stats: 73 receptions, 1,200 yards, 14 TDs
Greg Olsen: TE, Panthers
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One of the more underappreciated tight ends in the game, Carolina's Greg Olsen has played consistently well his entire career.
Even as the best receiving target for the Chicago Bears from 2007-2010, Olsen gradually increased production to where he caught 60 passes for 612 yards and score eight times in 2009. After a down year in 2010, Olsen revived himself in 2011 with 540 yards on 45 receptions and five scores in Carolina.
Obviously this renewed Olsen can mostly be attributed to Cam Newton, but that's just it. Newton was a rookie in 2011 and with other standout receiving targets on the outside, Olsen is constantly seeing favorable matchups downfield.
His size, speed, and underrated athleticism will beat any linebacker in single coverage and Olsen possesses the threat to stretch a defense as well. The Panthers are expected to be in the NFC Wild Card hunt this year, and Olsen will simply reap benefits from that situation.
Not to mention Carolina's defense still needing to improve at shutting opposing offenses down, so high-scoring affairs will be the norm. That only means more targets, yards, catches and scores for Olsen who is also a great run-blocker.
So, delayed releases and play-action will be the most effective ways for him to get open all season.
Projected Stats: 70 receptions, 850 yards, 10 TDs
Fred Jackson: RB, Bills
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Through not even 10 full games in 2011, Fred Jackson had compiled 1,376 total yards and averaged 6.5 yards per touch.
It was easily the most dominating performance up to that point, but unfortunately Jackson's stellar season was cut short. So, the man still has to complete his entire breakout season for the Bills and fantasy owners.
Jackson is a red-flag risk as well considering his injury, but the Bills' offense will allow him to get quickly re-acclimated. Ryan Fitzpatrick proved he can be a reliable NFL quarterback and Buffalo's receivers are a threat to bust any game wide open.
Include the new and improved defense and the offense will be getting many more scoring opportunities. Whether it's increased possessions or field position, Jackson will be the go-to man from the start to set up the rest of the offense.
C.J. Spiller will likely take some carries away, but Jackson is a complete back who is worthy of being your No. 2 fantasy back. With health concerns and potentially losing some carries, Jackson still has a good enough year to build on for 2013.
Projected Stats: 1,275 rushing yards, 340 receiving yards, 11 total TDs
Alex Smith: QB, 49ers
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With a consistently unreliable receiving corps in 2011, Alex Smith still put on a solid show for the San Francisco 49ers.
Throwing 17 touchdowns to only five picks, Smith also notched over 3,100 passing yards and had a career-best 61.3 completion percentage. In the postseason, Smith outperformed himself with 495 yards, five touchdowns to zero interceptions and a 101.0 rating.
Although the playoffs aren't fantasy-related, it's mainly just further proof as to how well Smith developed throughout last season. This season, expect much more from Smith as the 49ers have surrounded him with an abundance of talent.
Randy Moss and Mario Manningham come in to take pressure off Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, while Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James enhance the backfield. Frank Gore will only become more dangerous on the ground, making play action even more threatening.
Smith won't be blitzed nearly as often with the upgraded receiving corps and his mobility will buy extra time anyway. Plus, San Francisco doesn't play a defensively intimidating schedule outside of the Bills, Giants, Cardinals and Seahawks.
If anything, 2012 will be a career-year for Smith and worst-case scenario, he will be a No. 2 fantasy quarterback.
Projected Stats: 4,025 yards, 27 TDs, 12 INTs, 64.4 completion percentage
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