Fantasy Football 2012: Alex Smith Heads the Cast of Breakout Players

Jim DayFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2012

Fantasy Football 2012: Alex Smith Heads the Cast of Breakout Players

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    This time of year, every player is a future star and anything is possible, especially if the coaches are to be believed.

    While it might prove true for some, we know that most were never worthy of the preseason hype. It is just a simple fact. Most players look great in T-shirts and shorts, but they'll soon find out that the real thing is a totally different animal.

    It is also the time of year that fantasy owners are looking for the next big player. Everyone wants the newest toy, which makes sleepers and breakout players all the rage in fantasy football talk.

    But even the most talented players need an opportunity to perform.

    All of the following players should get the opportunity to step up and improve on their past performances. In some cases, the improvement will be huge, but for others it will merely be a natural progression in learning the game.

    Enough talk, let’s get to the players.

Alex Smith, QB, SF

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    It is hard to count how many times Alex Smith has been left for dead, but he came within several plays of going to the Super Bowl last year. In fact, the Giants needed a sudden-death overtime to beat the 49ers and advance to the Super Bowl.

    If not for 49er Kyle Williams' punt-return fumble in OT, we may have looked at Smith in a whole new light this year. One of the things that definitely stood out last year was the lack of mistakes from the much-maligned No. 1 overall pick.

    Smith only threw five interceptions in 16 starts, and in his two playoffs games, threw for five touchdowns against no interceptions. And last regular season, Smith threw for over 3,100 yards on over 61 percent of his passes, both career highs.

    To really see how far the Niners QB has come, just look at the playoff game against the Saints when he out-dueled superstar Drew Brees. Smith threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, and to add fuel to the fire, he even ran for one score.

    To get the win, he hit Vernon Davis, who was in very tight coverage, with the game-winning score with nine seconds left on the clock. Ron Jaworski of ESPN had this to say about Smith in that game:

    I was really impressed with Smith in the playoff win against the Saints. He read the blitz, he was decisive and accurate. He pulled the trigger on the tight-window throws. The winning touchdown showed his development as a quarterback. Davis was in the tight slot. Smith's throw had to beat the deep safety to that side. You have to throw it early with great anticipation.

    The team has added new weapons, most notably Randy Moss. This may seem like much ado about nothing, especially after Moss’ failure to hold with three different teams in 2011, but the one thing Moss has been adamant about is his desire to win a Super Bowl.

    His current team absolutely gives him the best chance to do that since leaving the Patriots, and Moss has shown in offseason workouts that he is not finished yet.

    Jim Harbaugh's team will still be more run-oriented than most, and Smith may never crack the top 12 in positional rankings, but expect him to take another step forward in 2012. He could easily throw for 3,500 yards and 20-plus touchdowns, which places him as a very competent No. 2 quarterback for fantasy purposes.

Donald Brown, RB, IND

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    Brown is coming into his fourth season and his stats have increased each year. In 2011, he averaged 4.8 yards a carry, good for 13th among all rushers with at least 100 carries. Still, Brown was good for only a 134 carries.

    He had a massive game against Tennessee in Week 14, which certainly helped to inflate those numbers, but he did show an explosiveness that the team will need in 2012. Brown is in line to be the main ball-carrier in 2012 with Joseph Addai now in New England, and head coach Chuck Pagano considers him an every-down back.

    Pagano also says that Brown has had an excellent offseason and understands his job as far as protecting his quarterback is concerned. Learning to protect his QB is probably the biggest obstacle for young running backs.

    Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus recently released an article on running back elusiveness over the course of the last three years, and Brown comes in at a very healthy No. 18, ahead of such notables as LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte and even Arian Foster. This is not to say he is on par as said players, just that he is very good with the ball in his hands and adept at making tacklers miss.

    With Andrew Luck under center, teams won’t be able to tee off on Indy's running backs as they did last year against Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter. Look for Brown to take another step forward and quite possibly be one of the big surprises in 2012.

James Starks, RB, GB

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    The Packers were an offensive machine in 2011, but most of that was in the air. In fact, they gained 77 percent of their offense through the air and ranked No. 27 in rushing.

    Packers coach Mike McCarthy will look for a more balanced offense this upcoming season. Let’s be serious, this doesn’t mean that the rushing game will become the dominant force of the offense. But a more balanced attack may make it even easier for Rodgers to decimate opponents.

    So far the team hasn’t brought back Ryan Grant, and most likely won’t. Grant hasn’t looked like the same player that ran for 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009. He missed all but one game of the 2010 season due to injury, and in 2011 the speed just wasn’t there anymore.

    This leaves the door wide open for James Starks. He was fairly productive early in 2011; in the first 11 weeks, he was the 15th-best scoring back before missing most of the rest of the season to injury.

    That's what fantasy owners have to be concerned with—can he stay on the field? He has dealt with injuries throughout his college and pro careers.

    He will get every chance to prove he can be the main guy in 2012. He is a big back who has good speed and can be explosive, as we saw in the 2010 playoffs when he ran for 123 yards on 23 carries against the Eagles in the Wild Card Round.

    He also caught 29 balls last year, so if he can stay healthy, he may give the Packers the vital three-down back. With Rodgers at QB, it will force defenses to continue to focus on the pass, which should allow the running backs more room to run.

Randall Cobb, WR, GB

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    Randall Cobb is coming off a very good rookie season as a kick and punt returner, placing second and seventh respectively. He is very quick, makes sharp cuts and will make people miss in the open field.

    He seems to be buried on the depth chart behind James Jones and Donald Driver, but looks can be deceiving.

    Jones has the worst drop rate of any active wide receiver over the last three years, and there are rumors that the team is actively trying to trade him. Driver is 37 and coming off his worst statistical season since 2001. The team did re-sign him to a one-year contract this offseason, but his upside is limited.

    Cobb gives this team another major weapon, and this will be the season that weapon is unleashed. He will still have to fight for snaps, but expect his receiving numbers to rise significantly. He should be able to leapfrog both Jones (if Jones stays) and Driver as he continues to learn the nuances of the offense.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, OAK

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    Fantasy owners continue to have blinders on when it comes to  Darrius Heyward-Bey. DHB was a controversial draft pick in 2009, when he was taken at No. 7 by Oakland in what many considered an unforgivable reach.

    As usual, Al Davis was concerned with one thing: speed. DHB had suspect hands and was not very productive at Maryland in college, but he was fast. At the NFL combine in 2009, he ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, the top time of all receivers that year.

    It has taken him a couple of years, but the change was evident in 2011. His routes were much crisper and his hands significantly improved.

    It is no wonder he had his best year as a pro, with 64 receptions, 975 yards and four touchdowns. Three of those touchdowns came in the last five games.

    A full offseason to work with Carson Palmer, and an explosive Denarius Moore playing opposite him should create some nice mismatches for DHB. Expect him to increase his numbers across the board, including bringing home his first 1,000-yard season.

Eric Decker, WR, DEN

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    Most expect Demaryius Thomas to be the major winner of Peyton Manning’s move to Denver, but that won’t be the case.

    One thing we absolutely know about Peyton is that he likes to work with receivers that run precise routes and excel at identifying defensive weaknesses. Eric Decker is easily the more polished of Manning’s two main targets for 2012.

    Both Thomas and Decker entered the league in 2010. Decker was used almost exclusively as a return man as a rookie, but burst onto the scene as a receiver early in 2011. With Kyle Orton under center, Decker averaged 7.8 targets, 4.4 receptions and 53.2 yards per game.

    When Tebow took over the offense, Decker's numbers dipped to 4.7 targets, 2.0 receptions and 31.5 yards a game.

    Still, the former Golden Gopher star managed to lead all Denver receivers last year with 44 receptions, 612 yards and eight touchdowns. With Manning his signal-caller, expect Decker to come close to doubling his receptions, easily break over 1,000 yards and exceed 10 touchdowns.

    Eric Decker is the Broncos receiver to own. Thomas will have success, but he will also be inconsistent.

Titus Young, WR, DET

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    Despite missing a week of OTAs because of his Mike Tyson impression (he threw a sucker punch at teammate Louis Delmas), Young has had an outstanding offseason. He apologized to Delmas and the team and, according to all accounts, they have put the incident behind them.

    Young had a very good rookie season, ending the year with 48 receptions, 607 yards and six touchdowns on 85 targets. He also finished strongly, as four of his touchdowns came in the last four games (averaging over seven targets a game those contests).

    Young has the opportunity to learn from both Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson. In fact, even though Burleson knows that Young will most likely take his position, he feels it is his responsibility to teach the youngster.

    Look for Young to continue to grow in his role. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he ends up with over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.

Malcom Floyd, WR, SD

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    Malcom Floyd is no spring chicken. He will be 31 by season's start, and while he has shown flashes over the years, he has never had that one breakout season. This is mostly due to injury; he has missed games in every season except '09, including four in 2011.

    Even in only 12 games last year, however, he had his best year as a pro. He put up 43 receptions, 856 yards and five touchdowns on 70 targets, also leading the league in yards per reception with 19.9. He was second on the Chargers in receiving yards and third in touchdowns.

    In six of his last eight games, Floyd had at least 95 yards and scored four TDs in his last five games. The potential is definitely there.

    The team brought in Robert Meachem from the Saints, who many expect to have a breakout year, but he is another player who has struggled mightily with inconsistency.

    Floyd knows this offense better, and with Antonio Gates and Meachem more likely to deal with more defensive coverage, Floyd should be in line to have his best year yet—if he can stay on the field. The good thing is that Floyd can be chosen over four rounds later than Meachem, according to My Fantasy League’s current ADP (average draft position) rankings.

Greg Olsen, TE, CAR

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    Greg Olsen is going into his second season in Carolina. Last year he had to share duties with Jeremy Shockey, and the duo was very productive. But Shockey is gone now, and Olsen will be the main pass-catching tight end for last year’s rookie phenom, Cam Newton.

    Through the first eight weeks last year, Olsen was ranked sixth for all TEs, averaging over 11 fantasy points a game in PPR leagues. In fact, he was ahead of such notables as Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley, Jermaine Gresham and even Antonio Gates in average points per game.

    The second half of the season was another story. As the Panthers O-line continued to lose players to injury, Olsen was forced to double up on his blocking duties. In the latter eight weeks of the season, he dropped to an average of five fantasy points a game and was the 31st ranked tight end.

    With Shockey gone, Olsen will need to be the guy to step in as the main man. Still just 27 years old, the University of Miami product will most likely be Newton’s second option on pass plays. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski loves to feature his tight end, and Olsen should finish 2012 as a top-12 tight end.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, MIN

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    The NFL is definitely a copycat league. Once a team finds success in something new, it will always drive other teams to attempt the same thing. Tall, strong tight ends are the new toy for most teams today, and Kyle Rudolph certainly fits that role. He is 6’6” and 258 lbs, very fast and has excellent hands.

    He wasn’t a huge part of the Viking offense in his rookie season last year, but he still managed to catch 26 balls for 249 yards and three touchdowns. And he no longer has to share duties with Visanthe Shiancoe.

    Shiancoe has been replaced by John Carlson, former top prospect of the Seahawks. Carlson came into the league in 2009, and caught 106 balls for 1,201 yards and 12 touchdowns over his first two seasons with Seattle.

    In 2010, Carlson was tasked with blocking as the Seahawks' offensive line dealt with injuries and poor play. He missed the entire 2011 season with a shoulder injury.

    There has to be some concern when calling Rudolph a breakout candidate when you consider how good a pass-catcher Carlson is, but Carlson is also a much better blocker than Rudolph (interestingly, both being second-rounders out of Notre Dame). There is a good chance Carlson will be doing more of that than Rudolph.

    The best thing about Rudolph is that he is currently being drafted in the 14th round of a 12-team league as the 16th TE off the board, so there is very little fantasy danger should he fail to live up to the hype.

     

    Follow Jim Day on Twitter @Fantasytaz and visit his website Fantasytaz.com. He also hosts the Twitter Roundtable podcast on BlogTalkRadio each Wednesday night at 8:00pm EST.