Fantasy Football 2012: 5 Quarterback Breakout Candidates
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Last year Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford both emerged as Top Five fantasy QBs—each arriving at fantasy stardom from a unique path.
Newton overcame shortened prep time for the season as a rookie and broke two significant NFL records with the most passing yards by a first-year QB (4,051) and the most rushing TDs by any QB (14). Stafford had endured two injury-plagued seasons while showing glimpses of what would come in a full season. Stafford did not disappoint in 2011, becoming only the fourth QB to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season (5,038).
Here’s a look at five QBs (two veterans, two second-year guys and a rookie) that could have the best fantasy production of their careers and reach new levels of fantasy relevance.
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Smith’s 2011 was considered a breakout by many in the Bay Area, but he did not make a sizable impact in the fantasy game while helping the 49ers to a 13-3 record and a NFC Championship game berth. His best statistical season to date was largely a result of Smith's ability to limit mistakes combined with the player management skills of head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Year 2 with Harbaugh could be even better as the 49ers have added veterans Mario Manningham and Randy Moss and used their first-round draft pick on WR A.J. Jenkins from Illinois. These additions should take some heat off Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis and give Smith (arguably) the best receiving corps he’s had since arriving in San Francisco as the No. 1 overall pick in 2005.
It’s not unreasonable to assume Smith will have a bit more freedom to attack the end zone this year after a better than 3-to-1 TD-to-INT ration in 2011. Combined with the elevated talent in the receiving corps, Smith should go into phase two of this late-career breakout and finish with 25 TDs and (as a bonus) two or three rushing TDs.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Al Bello/Getty Images
While Ryan has put up respectable fantasy numbers, he’s lingered near the bottom of fantasy football’s QB1s, finishing No. 8 the past two seasons. Still, Ryan won’t be the eighth QB selected, so if he does indeed break out, his fantasy owners will also have the benefit of underpaying. Both FFC and ESPN’s projections have him as the No. 11 QB.
But this season could be Ryan’s best yet with veteran receiver Roddy White still producing at an elite level and second-year receiver Julio Jones projecting as a Top 10 receiver in 2012. Ryan has a great chance to eclipse the 30-TD mark for the first time in his career with White, Jones and Tony Gonzalez in a standard Pro Set.
Another notable positive for Ryan is his durability; he has started 62-of-64 possible games since entering the league with Atlanta in 2008.
Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
There is no doubt that Griffin III has tremendous upside as a QB who could potentially throw for 3,000-plus and rush for 700-plus; whether it happens in his rookie season is certainly up for debate though. But if you can’t get Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Newton or Stafford, the player with the next most fantasy potential may be RGIII.
Griffin III joins a Redskins team that added WRs Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan in free agency to go with Santana Moss and TE Fred Davis. The throwing accuracy that RGIII displayed at Baylor will be key in transitioning to the NFL, and perhaps more important to his fantasy success than his running game.
Unfortunately, the Redskins’ offensive line gave up 41 sacks last season and will need to improve for Griffin III to be in an ideal situation for success.
RGIII was the 60th selection overall in the B/R writer’s draft, well ahead of his Athlon Sports Consensus Big Board spot of No. 86 overall.
Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Matt Hasselbeck started all 16 games for the Titans last season; Locker played in five, with a QB rating of 99.4 on 66 pass attempts. Hasselbeck had a rating of 82.4. Locker will likely start the season as the backup once again.
The Titans could go pass-heavy with talented receivers Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright and tight end Jared Cook. Fantasy owners should take a wait-and-see approach with Locker as there is no use wasting a draft pick in a 10- or 12-team league. However, if Hasselbeck struggles early, Locker could be a good pickup to stash on your bench if there’s room.
Locker, who was the second QB taken in the 2011 and eighth pick overall, is certainly the Titans QB of the future; whether the future of the franchise starts in 2012 is yet to be determined.
Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Ponder was handed the reins to the Vikings’ offense in Week 6 and took his lumps as a rookie QB. He showed promise in a few starts but threw 13 INTs on just 291 pass attempts. As Ponder was selected with the 12th overall pick in 2011, the Vikings have bet that he can do better—and that he can be their franchise QB.
A recovering Adrian Peterson isn’t the ideal support for Ponder, but if Peterson isn't ready, then Toby Gerhart is a capable fill-in. Percy Harvin is perhaps the bright spot on the Vikings roster heading into the season as he is one of the most talented receivers in the league.
The 24-year-old Harvin has expressed frustration with the organization in the offseason, but will be a valuable target for Ponder as long as he keeps his head while on the field. Tight end Kyle Rudolph (a second-year player from Notre Dame) could be a breakout performer in 2012 as well, and the addition of veteran TE John Carlson is stabilizing.
One thing Ponder will have to improve on is his decision-making in the pocket. If he can’t, savvy veteran DBs like Charles Woodson will continue to take advantage (Woodson picked off Ponder twice during the third quarter in Week 7).
Ponder is an unlikely draft pick in 10- or 12-team leagues, but he is certainly a player to keep an eye on. He’s likely to start every game, which is unusual for a bottom-third projected QB. He also has some scrambling ability (7.8 YPC), which is a bonus for fantasy owners.