Fantasy Football 2012: Projecting This Year's Fantasy Breakout Stars

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 31, 2012

Fantasy Football 2012: Projecting This Year's Fantasy Breakout Stars

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    Each year in fantasy football, enthusiasts of the hobby and "experts" alike pore over stats, news reports, tea leaves and chicken bones in an often futile attempt to determine who that year's "breakout" stars will be.

    These players, much like tight end Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots a season ago, are the types of picks that win fantasy football leagues.

    The unexpectedly gaudy stats they put up relative to their draft position are just the sort of edge that can make the difference between contender and champion.

    I like chicken as much as the next guy, and I like winning fantasy leagues even more, so here's a look at a handful of NFL stars who could be set to blow up in 2012.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been a solid NFL performer for years, winning a pair of Super Bowls and being named to two Pro Bowls over the course of his eight-year NFL career.

    However, Roethlisberger has never been much of a fantasy force, as the 30-year-old has only cracked the top-10 fantasy performers at his position twice, with the last time coming in 2009.

    That could be set to change in 2012.

    New offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn't afraid to spread the field. Assuming that disgruntled wide receiver Mike Wallace eventually caves and signs his restricted free-agent tender (which he has little choice but to do unless he wants to sit out the first 10 weeks of the season), the Steelers will have a very solid wideout corps with Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.

    Add in a running game that has as many questions as answers with Rashard Mendenhall likely to start the year on the PUP list, and it's very possible that Roethlisberger could flirt with the second top-five fantasy finish of his career.

Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson has been the first rookie running back off draft boards this summer, but when the dust settles, it's not going to be the third overall pick who is the top newcomer at his position in fantasy football.

    That honor will belong to Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    According to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, Martin is already drawing rave reviews in training camp, and Davin Joseph, one of the former Boise State star's new teammates, made some lofty comparisons when talking about the 5'9", 223-pounder.

    He made some explosive runs (Sunday) where you really see why they drafted him so high. He reminds you of a Ray Rice or Maurice Jones-Drew. He's very crafty and he really understands the run game.

    New Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano loves to run the football, and a top-10 fantasy season in Martin's inaugural campaign wouldn't be surprising at all.

Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers

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    With Mike Tolbert now in Carolina, the job of unquestioned lead tailback for the San Diego Chargers has fallen to third-year pro Ryan Mathews, making him a top-10 pick in most fantasy drafts and everyone's favorite pick for breakout running back of the year.

    There's ample reason for this confidence. Mathews eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for San Diego last year, averaging a very robust 4.9 yards a carry.

    Durability is something of a question mark after Mathews missed time in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, but if the former Fresno State star can hold up to a feature back workload, we could be looking at the next stud fantasy ball-carrier.

Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos

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    Just as Victor Cruz did a year ago with the New York Giants, every season a few wide receivers shock the fantasy world by coming out of nowhere to post huge numbers.

    With quarterback Peyton Manning now in Denver, much of the fantasy attention where the Broncos wideouts are concerned has centered around Demaryius Thomas.

    It may well be his batterymate who ends up being the more pleasant surprise this season.

    It wouldn't exactly be fair to say that the third-year pro would come from nowhere after posting fantasy WR3 numbers a season ago for Denver.

    However, at least one prominent scribe is expecting a heck of a lot more than that from Decker in 2012, with Peter King of Sports Illustrated going so far as to say that Decker is "sure to be among the league leaders in receptions if healthy for 16 games."

    In leagues that award a point for receptions, that would be the recipe for a breakout season and then some.

Fred Davis, TE, Washington Redskins

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    Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis wasn't exactly a schmuck in 2011, reeling in 59 catches for 796 yards and finishing the season as fantasy football's 12th-ranked tight end.

    With that said, Davis should improve on those numbers significantly this season.

    Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin is going to need a safety blanket of sorts as he acclimates to the National Football League, which should mean plenty of check-down targets for Davis.

    Davis also has plenty to prove this season, as not only will the fifth-year pro be playing for a contract this year, but he will also be trying to redeem himself in the eyes of the organization after he was suspended for the final four games of the 2011 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

    Motivated players are productive players, and that motivation will lead to a big 2012 season for Davis.