The NFL is a young man’s game, and fantasy football is no different.
Each year there is a new crop of talented players that become household names. Correctly identifying these breakout players is vital to winning your league championship.
The majority of elite players are part of a high-octane offense. However, even the weakest NFL teams have players you should consider for your fantasy football team. Knowing these prospects will give you an edge in your fantasy football league.
Each player on this list has yet to finish in the top 10 (standard scoring) at his respective position.
Historical fantasy football data courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The Cardinals have one of the weakest offenses in the NFL, but that will not stop Michael Floyd from being a factor as a rookie.
Early camp reports have Floyd fourth on the depth chart behind Andre Roberts and Early Doucet. The first-round pick in 2012 will have no issue passing both players by midseason. Larry Fitzgerald has already taken Floyd under his wing with the hopes that he can be the player to replace the long-departed Anquan Boldin.
With no other significant threats in the passing attack after Fitzgerald, Floyd could finish second on the team in targets.
Honorable Mention: HB Ryan Williams
Julio Jones is one of the best breakout candidates of 2012.
Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez have already established themselves as reliable fantasy options. Jones will outshine them all with his immense potential. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named Jones the MVP of minicamp with his impressive performance.
The 2011 first-round selection nearly cracked 1,000 receiving yards in just 13 games last year and scored six touchdowns over the final four games of the regular season. According to Pro Football Focus (login required), Jones had the third highest yards after catch per reception among wide receivers.
Roddy White has had a monopoly on Matt Ryan’s targets the past few years. Look for that to change in 2012 with Jones ultimately surpassing White there.
Honorable Mention: HB Jacquizz Rodgers
Torrey Smith emerged as one of the top deep threats in the NFL last season. According to Pro Football Focus (login required), 40 percent of Smith’s targets were over 20 yards or more—including five touchdowns outside the red zone.
While Anquan Boldin reaches the latter part of his playing career, Smith is now ascending to take the role as the Ravens’ top passing option outside of Ray Rice. The Baltimore Sun reports that Smith’s “route running is better and he is getting his hips down and accelerating going in and out of breaks.”
Smith has considerable upside if he develops into more than a deep threat.
Honorable Mention: HB Bernard Pierce
C.J. Spiller finally delivered on some of his promise in 2011—though it came at the expense of Fred Jackson due to Jackson's season-ending injury in Week 11. Spiller averaged 106 combined yards and a touchdown per game over the final six games of the season.
Spiller appears headed for the dreaded running back by committee with Jackson entering the 2012. His impressive finish to last year at least put him in position to compete with Jackson for touches each game. We already know what Spiller can do with a full workload. In a split committee, Spiller can be a weekly flex option in PPR leagues.
Even his quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, believes Spiller is ready for a breakout season.
Honorable Mention: WR David Nelson
Jonathan Stewart headlines this team; however, if it were not for the breakout rookie season from Cam Newton, the sophomore quarterback would clearly be the top option here.
Stewart enters his fifth season in the NFL at age 25 without much mileage on his tires. Splitting time with DeAngelo Williams the last four years has kept him relatively fresh.
Pro Football Focus graded Stewart as the most elusive running back of the last three seasons according to its research. Stewart would be in for a mid-career breakout if he saw the majority of the carries for the Panthers.
Honorable Mention: WR Brandon LaFell
Kellen Davis is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Mike Martz leaving town this offseason. Martz rarely featured the tight end position the last few seasons, which stymied an athletic talent like Davis.
Davis did see a significant increase in playing time last year with Greg Olsen leaving for Carolina. His 18 receptions and five touchdowns were career highs after combining for 10 receptions and four touchdowns the previous two years.
After returning to Chicago on a new two-year deal, Davis is hoping to catch 40 to 60 passes this season, according to ESPNChicago.com. Given his success in the red zone in a limited role, Davis figures to be a strong TE2 option this year with the potential for more.
Honorable Mention: WR Alshon Jeffery
Many would agree, including Greg Cosell of NFL Films, that A.J. Green is already one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.
“There’s no question Green has an elite skill set with his combination of size, movement and hands. So it’s no surprise that he’s already in the conversation regarding the league’s top wide receivers," Cosell wrote.
Green had a successful rookie season and likely would have finished inside the top 10 wide receivers if it were not for sitting out in Week 11 at Baltimore.
The Bengals lack any other dynamic options in their receiving corps, so it will be Green getting the majority of the targets from fellow second-year quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton’s arm strength has been in question; however, Green has been there to stick up for his quarterback.
Honorable Mention: TE Jermaine Gresham
Trent Richardson, only a rookie, is a lock to start and carry a significant workload for the Browns, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Richardson’s willingness to pass-protect from his time at Alabama gives him an advantage over most rookies entering the NFL. The third overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft faces no significant competition for every-down work.
While the Browns have struggled on offense lately, it was only in 2010 that Peyton Hillis was the second-best running back in fantasy football (although in a different offensive scheme).
Richardson’s career is not doomed just because Cleveland selected him. The Browns do face the typically strong defenses of the AFC North (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) each year, but that didn't seem to bother Hillis much.
Honorable Mention: WR Greg Little
DeMarco Murray is not the elite talent that Dez Bryant is, but a lack of off-field issues makes him the better Dallas prospect—at least in 2012.
Unfortunately, a fractured ankle cut Murray’s rookie season short after just 13 games. He had earned the trust of the coaching staff with five games with over 20 carries. There is no question that Murray is the feature back for Dallas. In comparison, Felix Jones has only two games in his four-year career with over 20 carries. Jones will remain the change-of-pace back.
Players like Murray become more valuable in fantasy football as fewer teams utilize true feature backs.
Honorable Mention: WR Dez Bryant
Most fantasy owners are going to remember Demaryius Thomas’s 80-yard game-winning touchdown against the Steelers in the first round of the NFL playoffs. What they likely will not remember is who his quarterback was on that play.
Now that Peyton Manning is under center, those plays could become routine for the third-year receiver.
You may think the hype surrounding Thomas is unwarranted. It is true that he only has 54 receptions for 834 yards and six touchdowns in 21 career games. However, that was with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow at quarterback. Did I already mention Peyton Manning is his new quarterback?
Thomas, the 22nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, has always had the talent. Now he has a quarterback who believes in him.
Honorable Mention: HB Ronnie Hillman
Jahvid Best, if healthy, can be one of the most explosive running backs in the league. That is the caveat with Best. Because of his concussion issues he had in college and the concussion that kept him out for the final 10 regular-season games last year, Best is a huge risk to take in the middle rounds of your draft.
Best is not a feature back. However, with the proliferation of the passing game in the NFL, running backs similar to Best can be efficient with a limited number of touches. Darren Sproles will be the example everyone uses until the next Sproles comes around, but Best could excel in a similar role.
Honorable Mention: WR Titus Young
Randall Cobb is ready to join the ranks of the fantasy elite in the crowded and explosive Green Bay offense. Cobb played sparingly as a rookie (290 snaps; login required), although he was used all over the formation, including split out wide, the slot and even in the backfield.
There is a chance that Cobb can unseat veteran Donald Driver for slot duties early in the season and never give the job back. Driver has thrived in the slot for years. Cobb is younger and quicker than the Dancing with the Stars champion and should have no issues earning the trust of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Honorable Mention: HB James Starks
Ben Tate could start for the majority of the teams in the NFL. Unfortunately, he plays behind one of the best running backs in the league.
Most of the starting skill players are on the wrong side of 30 years old, so outside of Arian Foster and Tate, there are not many prospects to target.
Tate offers upside as the top handcuff running back in fantasy football to Arian Foster owners. However, because Houston is likely to remain a running team, Tate is worth targeting as a low-end RB2 or flex option. He would be a weekly top-10 starter in any game Foster missed due to injury.
Honorable Mention: WR Lestar Jean
Andrew Luck will begin his career as the starter in Indianapolis, replacing Peyton Manning, a future Hall of Famer. Expectations are high for the young signal-caller. He is arguably the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect to enter the league since Manning.
The Colts struggled on offense last year, leading to their 2-14 record, although their depth chart has several enticing options in Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Donald Brown and rookie tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.
With these weapons, Luck can be fantasy-relevant as a backup-level quarterback this season. He will be a lock as a perennial top-10 quarterback in the future.
Honorable Mention: TE Coby Fleener
Justin Blackmon has had a whirlwind of an offseason, although he remains an important part of the rebuilding Jaguars. Blackmon drew rave reviews early in OTAs but then was arrested for a DUI on June 3. Combined with a contract dispute, Blackmon’s fantasy stock is sinking fast.
Blackmon will get plenty of opportunities in his rookie season, starting opposite Laurent Robinson. He will be more of a possession receiver than a downfield threat.
Honorable Mention: HB Rashad Jennings
With Dwayne Bowe’s contract issues, Jon Baldwin is a lock to see increased production this year. Baldwin’s rookie season was a disappointment; a thumb injury he suffered in a training-camp fight caused him to miss the preseason and the first five games of the regular season.
Fantasy owners will be quick to write Baldwin off based on his poor statistical showing last year. He has the athleticism and body frame to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL—a role he could fill as soon as the 2013 season if Bowe departs in free agency.
Honorable Mention: TE Tony Moeaki
Daniel Thomas leads the youth movement in Miami. Unfortunately, the Dolphins could have one of the worst offenses in the NFL this year. Reggie Bush is primed to reprise his role as lead back, and Thomas faces competition from rookie Lamar Miller for touches.
However, Bush is returning to a hybrid role this season. The Dolphins plan on using Bush as a receiver in their new up-tempo offense, paving the way for Thomas to see more carries.
Thomas’ 3.5 yards per carry last year were far below the league average, even for a larger power back. He is still a talented player that deserves a chance to prove last year was a fluke.
Honorable Mention: QB Ryan Tannehill
Kyle Rudolph is primed to be the next breakout player at the tight end position. The Vikings already have established stars in Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, and Rudolph is ready to join them.
Rudolph had a slow start to his rookie season because of a hamstring injury. He finished strong with three touchdowns in his final six games. He has the size (6’6”, 259 lbs) to be a matchup nightmare and had several highlight-reel catches to go with his impressive 79 percent catch rate.
More importantly, he lines up the majority of the time as an in-line tight end, increasing his likelihood to be part of the base offense.
According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Rudolph was one of the top receiving options on the first day of training camp. You would be wise to draft Rudolph before your league mates catch up to the hype.
Honorable Mention: QB Christian Ponder
Stevan Ridley is primed to be the lead ball-carrier for the Patriots this season. Ridley has been impressive in training camp thus far, generating buzz with his decisiveness and comfort in his second year.
Trying to determine whom Bill Belichick will feature on a week-to-week basis can be maddening to fantasy owners; however, there are no backs on the current roster with Ridley’s skill set. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are more change-of-pace options who see a boost in PPR leagues.
The lead back for the Patriots has averaged 201 carries in the last three seasons. Ridley is a good bet to meet or exceed those expectations.
Honorable Mention: HB Shane Vereen
Mark Ingram is the perfect example of the post-hype player that most fantasy owners forget about during their drafts. Ingram is still younger at 22 years old than some rookies entering the league this year—and he has a Heisman Trophy to his name.
Ingram struggled with injuries last year. He saw Darren Sproles explode on the scene and saw Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory take touches away from him. He even lost four goal-line touchdowns to fullback Jed Collins.
Ingram did lead the team with 122 rushing attempts in just 10 games. Look for Ingram to regain his early-down duties, and if he gets the goal-line work, he'll be a fantasy bargain with high upside.
Honorable Mention: WR Adrian Arrington
The Giants have a veteran-laden offense entering the 2012 season, though David Wilson, the rookie speedster from Virginia Tech, is primed to play a key role in relief of the oft-injured Ahmad Bradshaw. Wilson was a surprise pick in the first round for a team that has traditionally found its key running backs in the later rounds.
Pass protection will be the only thing that could keep Wilson off the field early in his career.
Honorable Mention: WR Rueben Randle
Rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill leads the way among the young players on the New York offense. The Jets will rely on their veteran cast this year to carry the load, although players like Hill have a chance to make an immediate impact.
Hill has been impressive in training camp with several spectacular plays. He is a near-lock to start opposite Santonio Holmes as a rookie. No matter who his quarterback is, Hill will make several highlight plays for your fantasy team this season.
Honorable Mention: HB Bilal Powell
Denarius Moore is ready to expand on his rookie success and develop into the No. 1 wide receiver for QB Carson Palmer. Moore flashed his big-play ability with five touchdowns, although he can be more productive with only minor improvements. He only caught 45 percent of his 73 targets but led the NFL in average depth of target.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. believes that Moore will be the most talented wide receiver in the AFC West within three years.
The Raiders have talented receivers (Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford and Juron Criner), though Mr. Williamson is correct in his assessment of the second-year receiver from Tennessee. Moore will be a perennial early-round option in fantasy leagues.
Honorable Mention: WR Jacoby Ford
Jeremy Maclin is coming off a rough 2011 season. Maclin missed three games, though he still posted excellent statistics on a per-game basis. His extrapolated totals would have come out to 78 receptions for 1,057 yards and six touchdowns.
Because Maclin came into the league at a young age, he will be just 24 years old entering his fourth season—the beginning of his athletic prime.
Maclin has a 10-touchdown season under his belt (2010) and appears primed for a further breakout in 2012. His teammate DeSean Jackson already has a top-10 fantasy season and a Pro Bowl berth, two things that Maclin will achieve this year as well.
Honorable Mention: HB Dion Lewis
You may have heard that Antonio Brown just signed a five-year, $42.5 million extension. That is a great payday for a player that started just three games in 2011 but participated in his first Pro Bowl with his excellent season.
Brown was ticketed for a larger role in 2012 before his contract extension. Now with the Mike Wallace holdout taking a turn for the worse, Brown is the unquestioned top receiving option for Ben Roethlisberger.
Remember that Brown scored just two touchdowns on 69 receptions last year (2.9 percent touchdown rate). He is a lock to double or triple that touchdown total in 2012.
Honorable Mention: WR Emmanuel Sanders
Vincent Brown remains one of the best prospects on the Chargers despite the offseason additions of Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. Brown flashed playmaking ability in a limited role last year. According to U-T San Diego, he was one of the offseason standouts.
Vincent Brown is a smaller receiver in the mold of a Derrick Mason. His role this season hinges on seeing significant snaps outside or learning to play the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown played in the slot on 37 of his 324 snaps last season (11 percent).
However, if Malcom Floyd misses time to injury (a good bet), Brown becomes a weekly WR3 option for your fantasy team.
Honorable Mention: TE Ladarius Green
Kendall Hunter is a player that lacks any buzz this offseason. Hunter ran tough last season as a smaller running back, averaging 2.5 rushing yards after contact and scoring two touchdowns on 17 attempts inside the 20-yard line (according to Pro Football Focus; login required).
On the surface, his short-term value took a hit with the additions of Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James. Jacobs is better suited to a short-yardage role, and James could be the 49ers’ version of Darren Sproles.
Hunter would be the player to see the majority of the carries if Frank Gore missed any time.
Honorable Mention: HB LaMichael James
Golden Tate is ready to capitalize on his late-season success from last year. He entered the starting lineup in Week 13 and had 19 receptions for 209 yards and a touchdown in the season's final five games.
Tate is generating a buzz in training camp with his performance and, in the words of The News Tribune, is “starting to toy” with the Seattle defenders.
Most importantly, Tate is entering the all-important year three for a wide receiver, oftentimes when players hit the prime of their career. It would not be surprising to see Tate as the Seahawks’ top receiving threat this year if Sidney Rice struggles with injuries.
Honorable Mention: HB Robert Turbin
Isaiah Pead enters this season as Steven Jackson’s primary backup, but history suggests the rookie could see a larger role. Although Jackson reported to camp in great shape, there is worry for any running back holding up as he approaches age 30. Pead was a pre-draft favorite among scouts, and Greg Cosell of NFL Films likened Pead to Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs.
Pead makes an excellent handcuff option; he would be a strong RB2 starter if Jackson missed time.
The future is bright for Pead, and there is an opportunity for him sooner than later to make an impact for your fantasy team.
Honorable Mention: WR Brian Quick
While fellow rookie Trent Richardson is likely to steal most of the headlines, Doug Martin could easily be the top rookie running back this season. Martin has drawn heaps of praise so far in training camp, drawing comparisons to Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Greg Schiano, who coached Rice at Rutgers, is installing a new culture and a new offense that will heavily feature Martin.
Martin will be a stud, so draft him accordingly this year.
Honorable Mention: HB LeGarrette Blount
Jake Locker scored more fantasy points per snap than both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees last season. Of course, that was a small sample size, but just another reason to get excited about Locker’s fantasy prospects. He flashed plenty of ability in his five appearances in relief of Matt Hasselbeck.
Unfortunately, Locker is still in a battle with Hasselbeck for the starting job. When he does eventually see the field, he offers considerable upside because of his scrambling ability and ability to throw on the run.
The Titans offense is improved with the addition of Kendall Wright and with Chris Johnson returning to form. All Locker needs is a chance to start to be a top-10 quarterback.
Honorable Mention: WR Kendall Wright
Robert Griffin III will forever be linked to Andrew Luck. Like Luck, Griffin is primed to be an immediate fantasy contributor.
Mike Shanahan has worked magic with far less talented players, and his offensive system is perfect for a player like Griffin who excels at throwing on the run and on quarterback bootlegs.
Griffin's offensive supporting cast is more impressive than most rookie quarterbacks get to work with. Recent trends indicate that rookie quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton) can be viable fantasy options; however, like Newton, Griffin will be the exception and not the rule.
Honorable Mention: HB Roy Helu