Often times in fantasy football it's not the early-round draft picks that win championships. Players such as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back Arian Foster of the Houston Texans are supposed to excel for your fantasy team. It's when they don't that you're in trouble.
It's the late-round breakouts that on many occasions propel fantasy squads to championships, the unexpected studs that start out being selected toward the ends of fantasy drafts and work their way into starting lineups by the time the season ends.
These are the players that more often than not turn playoff contenders into fantasy champions.
So, as a service to forward-thinking fantasy owners everywhere, here's a look at a trio of players who are absolutely worth targeting late in drafts as fantasy "breakout" candidates.
It may seem surprising to see a starting running back in the National Football League lasting until the 14th round of fantasy football drafts, but according to MyFantasyLeague.com that's exactly what's happening in the case of Detroit Lions running back Kevin Smith.
The 25-year-old Smith, who averaged nearly five yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns in as many games for the Lions a season ago, has become the de facto starter in Motown due to Mikel Leshoure's Achilles injury and looming two-game suspension and Jahvid Best's uncertain status.
For his part, the fifth-year back recently told The Detroit Free Press that he's ready and willing to shoulder the load.
"My goal is to stay healthy," Smith said. "Starting is not a big deal to me. I've been a starter in this league since my rookie year. Unfortunately, I got hurt. When you get hurt, it's on the next one. It's not a big change to my game whether I'm a starter or not."
Smith has a fairly extensive injury history of his own, but given the minimal investment currently required to acquire his services, Smith is more than worth the risk.
Worst case, fantasy owners of Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles have an early-season insurance policy against a slow start by their bellcow backs. Best case, Smith stays healthy, seizes the starting job and never looks back, and you just got a fantasy RB2 on the cheap.
Brandon LaFell, WR, Carolina Panthers
There's a school of thought in fantasy football that third-year wide receivers often make for very attractive draft targets, as players at the position often have their first big year in their third NFL season.
Scholars of this particular school of thought looking for a late-round gem at the wide receiver position should cast their glances toward the NFC South, where Brandon LaFell of the Carolina Panthers could be primed for just such a breakout campaign and can be had for the paltry price of a 15th-round draft pick.
The 25-year-old LaFell, who hauled in 36 receptions for 613 yards and three scores in 2011, is the leading candidate to become the Panthers No. 2 wideout opposite Steve Smith this year, and the 6'2" LaFell is ready to take the next step as a pro, according to The Augusta Chronicle.
“It’s totally different, this camp is just about fine-tuning things,” LaFell said. “It’s not like last year or my first camp where we had a new coaching staffs and we had to learn the playbook and it took a lot of time to learn things. This year’s about going over those mental reps and getting better at it.”
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings
For fantasy football owners that balk at the idea of spending a first-round pick on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski or for those who simply like to hedge their bets at the position with some quality late-round depth, have no fear, because the last player on this list should be right up your alley.
Second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings is presently the 17th player at his position being selected in fantasy drafts on the heels of a relatively quiet 2011 season in which the former Notre Dame star caught 26 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
Those stats are hardly enough to inspire much confidence in fantasy owners. However, numerous glowing reports have emanated from the Twin Cities that indicate that Rudolph has been the star of Vikings' training camp, including a glowing review by starting quarterback Christian Ponder in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
"He gets open," Ponder said, simply. "And if he's barely open, I'm going to give him the ball. He has such great mismatches and he has such a catching radius it's unbelievable."