Fantasy Football 2012: Which Players Are Most Likely to Have a Sophomore Slump?

James Reagan@@James__ReaganCorrespondent IIJuly 8, 2012

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 27:  Running back Roy Helu #29 of the Washington Redskins rushes against K.J. Wright #50 and Clinton McDonald #69 of the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on November 27, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Most fantasy football fans are familiar with the phenomenon known as the sophomore slump. It's a common occurrence in today's NFL, where many athletes face the unusual problem of setting the bar too high with exceptional rookie seasons. 

Especially in the cases where these rookie seasons were unexpected, there's nowhere to go but down. Reality sets in for these players, and they realize that the magic of their rookie season, when they broke records and the press was constantly praising them, can't possibly last forever. Now as sophomores, they face heightened expectations, and they no longer have the excuse of inexperience.

Now to be honest, it can sound a little ridiculous to say that every single player will suck in their second season. Fantasy football owners will argue that some players will play even better as sophomores. They'll also argue that the great players can and will be the exception to the rule. 

All I can say to that line of thinking is, do you want to run that risk? Maybe you're a brave sort or maybe you're convinced your favorite second-year player will still be great. Even so, I would encourage you to look at recent examples of the dreaded sophomore slump.

Sam Bradford was billed by experts as a sleeper quarterback going into 2011, after setting the record for most completions by a rookie quarterback a year earlier. Instead Bradford regressed by throwing six touchdowns and six interceptions. Thanks to a horrific offensive line, he missed six games, making him a complete disappointment for any fantasy owners.

Two receivers were also victims of the sophomore slump in 2011. Dez Bryant owners got blindsided by the emergence of Laurent Robinson, whose breakout was a big reason Bryant failed to reach a 1,000 receiving yards. There was also Mike Williams, whose fantasy ship sunk with Josh Freeman's down season leading to both players being stuck on fantasy benches or screwing over any idiot who started them (myself included.)

There will be instances of sophomore slumps in 2012; that much is guaranteed. What I'm going to do is point out some second-year players that look particularly vulnerable to a slump. That way, unsuspecting fantasy owners can at least begin to consider how one player's potential sophomore slump could prove costly to their fantasy team.

Here are the five players that I think are most likely to slump. All of these players are located within the top 100 rankings of most fantasy sites (I didn't want to include players that underwhelmed their rookie seasons).

5. Denarius Moore, OAK, WR

It's difficult to really trust any Oakland receivers these days. And for once, this is actually a good thing, too, as Oakland's acquisition of Carson Palmer brings the team its best quarterback since Rich Gannon. Yeah it's been a long time with sorry quarterback play in Oakland.

Every week last year, it seemed that one Oakland receiver would go gangbusters and rack up fantasy points. What drove fantasy owners mad was the inconsistency as many weeks it switched between two certain players: Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. 

Heyward-Bey put up start-worthy numbers for four straight weeks in October and was solid for the fantasy playoffs. In between, though, he was mostly non-existent with four games in which he had zero points.

Moore was a little more feast or famine. He went off in Weeks 2 and 10, getting more than 20 points in standard ESPN leagues. For the rest of the season, he was mostly quiet with way too many games with zero or one reception for any fantasy owner's liking. 

Moore's 2011 season wasn't great, but I still think a lot is being expected of him, maybe even too much in 2012. While it's true that Palmer can sling it out, we don't know if he will. After all, if Darren McFadden can stay healthy, the Raiders will take advantage and run the ball more than most other NFL teams, which could cut down on the fantasy values of their receivers. 

Another reason Moore could disappoint is the uncertainty surrounding Oakland's receivers. There's Heyward-Bey, Moore, Jacoby Ford and Louis Murphy. Basically all of those players are known for being incredibly fast and incredibly inconsistent.

I just don't trust Moore to reward fantasy owners on a consistent enough basis to be worth starting.

4. Roy Helu, WASH, RB

Generally speaking, it's a very foolish bet to hitch yourself to any running back in a Mike Shanahan-coached backfield. For whatever reason, Shanahan enjoys switching out running backs on a game-by-game basis. 

Maybe his inability to commit to running backs is a good thing, but I would not be surprised if Shanahan is simply doing this to mess with fantasy owners. That would explain why Roy Helu, Tim Hightower, Evan Royster and Ryan Torrain all had games in which they led the team in rushing yards. What kills fantasy owners is the realization that had Washington had one lead rusher, he could have eclipsed 1,200 rushing yards and would have been one of the top backs in the league.

With 640 rushing yards, Helu must have been Shanahan's favorite in 2011. Helu even had a stretch of three straight 100-yard rushing games, a stretch almost unheard of for a Shanahan-coached team. This led him to finish 33rd in points among running backs and should in theory make him the favorite for starting back in 2012.

Just because Helu led the Redskins in rushing yards in 2011, it doesn't mean he's certain for great things in 2012. In fact, it could be argued that Shanahan is through with him and he'll be moving on to the next attractive young running back that fantasy owners have never heard of. Especially with Royster leading the team in rushing yards for the final two games last season. 

Besides Helu, both Hightower and Royster are returning to the Redskins. Does that really mean anything though? Knowing Shanahan, he could start any of the three returners or he could go with sixth-round pick Alfred Morris or undrafted rookie Lennon Creer.

It's honestly anyone's guess who starts which game in the Redskins backfield. That's a major reason why I think Helu could fail to amass 600 rushing yards even though, talent-wise, he's probably the best back the Skins have.

Like Moore, Helu wasn't exceptional in 2012 yet he's still getting drafted as an flex player in most leagues. I think that's too high for someone in a way too tentative Washington backfield.  

3. Mark Ingram, NO, RB

As a first-round pick in 2011, Mark Ingram had a lot of expectations going into his rookie season. He had a decent year leading the New Orleans Saints in attempts with 122. He also tied Pierre Thomas to lead the team with five rushing touchdowns.

The downside for Ingram was his 474 rushing yards. It's a given these days that New Orleans will be going with a running back-by-committee approach. The approach has actually worked out great for them as the Saints finished sixth in rushing yards in 2011, averaging 132.9 yards a game.

New Orleans is one of the rare teams in which all of the members in their running back committee are worthy fantasy starters. So Ingram should, in theory, be fantasy relevant and perhaps even able to put together a breakout season. Especially since his success last year came with Ingram playing in only 10 games.

I do not agree with that line of reasoning. This is not because of anything against Ingram as I think the former Heisman Trophy winner could become a feature back. It's just likely not going to happen with the Saints.

The hierarchy of the Saints running backs goes like this. Darren Sproles is the most valuable. With more than 80 receptions and more than 80 rushing attempts last season, he's arguably the most dangerous player besides Drew Brees in the Saints offense. He's even better if your league awards points for punt return and kick return touchdowns.

Then there's Pierre Thomas. He has led the team in rushing yards for three of the last four seasons and with the exception of 2010, he doesn't usually miss time because of injury. At 28 years old, Thomas is still a threat to lead the team in rushing yards and touchdowns—he's had five or more during the last four seasons.

This puts Ingram as the third-best running back on his team. That's not even considering Chris Ivory, who's had some productive games when stepping in for injured players over the last two seasons. Therefore Ingram's slump potential is higher than any sophomore running back, except for this next one.

2. DeMarco Murray, DAL, RB

I don't think most people appreciate just how good DeMarco Murray was in 2011. It began with his first start in a game against the St. Louis Rams when he ran for 253 yards, which was the second-most rushing yards by a rookie running back in NFL history. Murray's performance during that game was also the best in franchise history, breaking the former record of 237 yards set by Emmett Smith.

Murray then became unstoppable with a crazy 466 rushing yards in his first three games as a starter. He would have been on pace for a Pro Bowl season, but he suffered a fractured ankle in Week 14 that ultimately ended his season.

Now Murray supposedly has the Dallas Cowboys backfield to himself as he is the unquestioned starter entering the 2012 season. The disappointing Felix Jones is starter no more, which would seem to indicate that Murray is a no-brainer fantasy starter.

I agree that when healthy Murray has tremendous upside. He's a workhorse back who doesn't fear a heavy workload and will even take on contact. What's problematic and could lead to a slump, is Murray's injury history. 

His aggressive play seems to increase the chances of injury. In addition to his three games missed in his NFL career, he had more than a fair share of injuries during his four years at Oklahoma. These injuries include an injured hamstring in 2008 and a knee injury in 2010.

Rated as a top-10 running back by many fantasy experts, Murray is a risky pick. Even without injuries, it might be hard for him to repeat the tear he went on during his first three games starting. Murray amazingly only scored two touchdowns in 2011, so that input will need to increase for him to be a true fantasy star.

1. Cam Newton, CAR, QB

The position of quarterback is arguably fantasy football's most important position. So it would stand to reason that a sophomore slump by a quarterback would be absolutely devastating to fantasy owners. Particularly when talking about a top-five quarterback who will be gone in the first three rounds of nearly every fantasy draft.

Yet that is exactly what I'm saying. Cam Newton is by far the rookie with the most slump potential. Not only is he a top quarterback entering his second season, but most of his 2011 season seems unrepeatable. 

2011 saw Newton win offensive rookie of the year after he had one of the best seasons ever by a rookie quarterback. Not only did he throw for 4,051 passing yards, but he also threw 21 passing touchdowns and set a record for rushing touchdowns by all quarterbacks with 14. 

The season was almost entirely unexpected. Many experts thought Newton would struggle to learn the playbook after a shortened offseason. That proved to be totally false as Newton made fantasy owners look stupid from the get-go, throwing for more than 400 passing yards in Week 1. This performance made fantasy owners scramble for the waiver wire as the previously undrafted Newton went on to finish fourth in overall fantasy points.

Newton will not sneak up on anyone this year and he's a no-brainer fantasy starter. What concerns me most about Newton is the rushing statistics, which are the very thing that put him above most other quarterbacks.

Considering that Newton's 2012 season was the best rushing season ever by a quarterback, it's going to be nearly impossible for him to repeat that. Seriously, 14 rushing touchdowns is just an insane number, and now he's in arguably the NFL's most crowded backfield with Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams. We've seen tremendous rushing seasons before, most recently with Michael Vick in 2010 and his rushing numbers were way off in 2011.

Does Newton have the ability to still have an amazing season in 2012? Yes, he certainly does, and his upside is similar to Vick's in that he could single-handedly win you a fantasy title. The problem is Newton's value is essentially at its peak after a record-breaking 2012 season and sets up the perfect storm for him to burn fantasy owners with a costly sophomore slump. 


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