Aaron Rodgers did not make himself known in the fantasy realm until his fourth season in the league. Michael Turner burst on the scene in his fifth. Matthew Stafford had his breakout last season—his third in the league—largely due to injuries in his first two.
Who is primed for a breakout season in 2012? These are guys who might be getting their first crack at serious playing time, or they might have had one or two great fantasy games with little else in their careers.
Here are 11 veteran names to keep an eye on this year.
The leading receiver in Seattle last season was not named Sidney Rice or Golden Tate. That honor went to Doug Baldwin, an undrafted rookie out of Stanford who quietly paced the Seahawks with 788 yards and four touchdowns.
Much has been made of Seattle's offseason acquisitions of Braylon Edwards and Terrell Owens, and Golden Tate has made waves during camp. Sleeping on Baldwin could enrich one of your leaguemates come draft day. Fantasy Pros puts Baldwin as the 178th-drafted player, according to average draft position (ADP) data across several websites.
With improved quarterback play and a full offseason under his belt, Baldwin has a good chance to top 1,000 yards receiving. Touchdowns are finicky, but he would be a solid WR2 if he scores six or more of them as well.
Raise your hand if you expect Rashard Mendenhall to start on Week 1.
Pittsburgh's starter over the past couple of seasons is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in last year's regular-season finale, and his general manager thinks he will start the season on the reserve/PUP list.
"If he's doesn't open on PUP for the first six weeks, I'd be surprised," general manager Kevin Colbert told "Vinnie & Cook" on KDKA-FM in Pittsburgh.
Translation: Mendenhall will be on the physically unable to perform list.
This is a pretty clear indicator of Redman's fantasy value. He has a career 4.5 yards per attempt, and he caught 90 percent of passes thrown his way last season. Words like "Jonathan Dwyer" and "Chris Rainey" have been uttered as possible reasons to avoid taking Redman, but he is the clear starter and should garner most of the work.
At least until Mendy gets back—Redman may not relinquish that starting job if he plays well enough, however.
Naturally, a hitch has appeared in the plan as Redman aggravated an injury at practice just a day before a scheduled MRI on his groin. Assuming it is not serious, though, he is in a situation to produce good fantasy numbers.
With great weapons comes great responsibility.
After years of being dogged by the "overrated" label, Smith broke through in 2011 playing mistake-free football and leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record and a near miss in the NFC Championship Game.
Is it time for Smith to take the next step and become fantasy relevant?
Aside from dealing with a parade of coaches and offensive coordinators during his tenure in the NFL, Smith has not exactly had much in the way of quality receivers over the years. Michael Crabtree was not the answer when they drafted him in 2009, and I challenge you to name a quality receiver not named Vernon Davis over the years.
The excuses are harder to come by this season, as Smith has seen his arsenal stocked with some new—and, in some cases, old—toys.
Can Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins give Smith what he needs to climb the fantasy ladder at his position?
What more is there to say about Decker than the fact that Peyton Manning is throwing him the ball?
True, Manning's true effectiveness is unpredictable at the moment, but a Peyton Manning at 80 percent or above is better than a Tim Tebow in overdrive, at least from a passing standpoint.
Decker had a rough rookie campaign, but he bounced back with a good sophomore campaign that saw a couple of big fantasy games. Manning brings consistent quality to the passing game for Denver, and Decker could be the biggest fantasy beneficiary.
Many believe Demaryius Thomas will have the breakout season with Manning in town, and that very well could happen. Thomas is being drafted higher than Decker, however, and the latter could be a much bigger PPR factor.
It seems as though Greg Olsen is perpetually on this list. The talented tight end has not lived up to expectations ever since coming into the league out of Miami.
Much of that has been due to bad luck. He landed with the Bears during the Rex Grossman years, then Mike Martz and his disdain for tight ends came to town, and Olsen finally ended up in a timeshare with Jeremy Shockey in his first season with Carolina.
Shockey is gone, making Olsen the man in Charlotte. Can he put up big numbers? His coach, Ron Rivera, seems to think so (via Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer):
I think he can be right in there with [Gronkowski and Graham]. This will be his first real opportunity to step up and be the guy. You watch him catch footballs, you watch him run routes and you see those traits that he can fit right into that group.
That is high praise for a guy who has not lived up to the hype.
Olsen had a career-high 12.0 yards per attempt last season—over 13 percent higher than his previous high—and he scored five touchdowns in split duty with Shockey. He could see a spike in production with an increased role in an offense that actually utilizes the position.
Mikel Leshoure was taken in the 2010 draft, presumably as part of a plan to pair him with Jahvid Best and make Detroit's backfield one of the league's most dynamic.
An Achilles injury short-circuited his rookie season before it even began, however, and Best's sad concussion history might claim his career.
Leshoure is recovered from his injury, however, and his off-field antics during the offseason only cost him two games. If he can stay healthy and keep his head on, he has an excellent chance to become the main man in the Lions' backfield.
Kevin Smith currently holds that title, but he may or may not have been injured today while bending over to pet a poodle. (Note: Smith did not get injured petting a poodle, but the news would not surprise me.)
Having a starting gig in that high-octane Lions offense would give Leshoure ample opportunity to put up some crooked numbers.
For a guy who cracked 4,000 yards last season with weapons like Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers, Matt Ryan is certainly not getting a ton of love from the fantasy community.
Ryan already had a bit of a breakthrough last season, but he could easily post top-10 quarterback numbers in his fifth season at this rate. His yards per attempt have been on the rise over the past three seasons, and it was nearly one yard per attempt higher in 2011 than the previous year.
The Falcons have hinted at a more pass-heavy offense this offseason, which is a tantalizing proposition for Ryan's future fantasy owners. Even just two or three more pass attempts would have netted Ryan a few hundred more yards and a couple of extra touchdowns last season. If he continues his upward statistical trend, that jump could be significant, putting the pressure on the top five fantasy quarterbacks.
That may seem far-fetched, but how many expected a similar output from Matthew Stafford last season?
This is Brandon LaFell's chance to shine, and the timing could hardly be better.
Cam Newton is coming off a stellar rookie season and looks to "dazzle" in his second season, trying to prove his rookie campaign was no fluke. LaFell will be starting opposite Steve Smith. That is a pretty good position to be in for a potential breakout season.
The third-year wideout no longer has Legedu Naanee to contend with, and the pair topped 1,000 yards last season in split duty. He could have a fine fantasy season with the attention Steve Smith will garner on the other side as well as the running threat the offense poses.
And all he will cost you is a late-round flyer pick.
As long as he stays healthy and his fantasy scores will not be negatively affected by his musical stylings, Jay Cutler is in for a big fantasy season.
It is not as if Cutler has not had good fantasy numbers in the past—I may or may not have mentioned that he threw for over 4,500 yards the last time he had Brandon Marshall to throw to—but this could be the year he finally puts it all together for his fantasy owners.
There is no denying he is a talented quarterback, as Greg Cosell of NFL Films poignantly points out:
You may recall one issue raised in the evaluation process was Cutler’s tendency to force throws into coverage. Those who said that were wrong. Cutler was throwing to wide receivers matched one-on-one on the outside. Here’s the way it works in the passing game: The best you can get is man coverage. When that happens, the quarterback expects his receivers to get open. If your receivers do not win, it’s not the quarterback’s fault. At Vanderbilt, Cutler threw a lot of passes to receivers that could not win against more talented SEC corners. That was viewed erroneously as a troubling indication of poor judgment and decision making.
Don’t lose sight of one other point. The Bears were 7-3 when Cutler got hurt last season. Then they lost five in a row. All the talk had been about Matt Forte, how the offense ran through him, how he was the key. Again, perception suppressing reality.
Cutler, in many ways, is still a work in progress as he begins his fourth season in Chicago. He likely will always make some throws that seem ill-advised at best, and just plain foolish at worst. Those throws can’t be defended. They result from the belief and trust he has in his own ability. But make no mistake: Cutler is a “wow” passer with the ability to carry an offense, and a much better player than he’s perceived to be.
It is pretty clear that Cutler will be a major beneficiary of better receiver play. That means a breakout season is in store.
Cutler's output has been maddeningly inconsistent over the years. If you have ever owned him, you know about the occasional goose egg he has laid on your fantasy team. The good news is that he is not even being drafted as a starter right now according to his ADP, which mitigates the risk you will be taking.
Another guy who has been on the "potential breakout" list more than once is Jared Cook in Tennessee.
Last year's popular tight end sleeper had an abysmal fantasy season until it was too late to help any owner who might have stuck with him through thin and thinner. Cook's 93-yard, one-touchdown performance against Cleveland last season was a mirage until the fantasy playoffs, when he exploded for 17 catches, 272 yards and a touchdown in Weeks 15 and 16 combined.
Was that a harbinger of things to come, or another elaborate plot to fool fantasy owners into drafting him as a sleeper?
This is Cook's time to emerge. With Kenny Britt still coming back from a torn ACL—not to mention a lengthy suspension looming—the Titans need Cook to come through for them in the passing game.
The words, "Dammit, Donald!" have defined Brown's career thus far. He gets a clean slate in a rebuilding year for the Colts.
This year, Brown is free and clear of Joseph Addai, and he seems to have separated himself from Delone Carter and the rest of the pack. He helped Andrew Luck's career get off to an auspicious start with a fantastic 63-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown on Indianapolis' first offensive play from scrimmage of the preseason.
While the Colts do not sport a particularly good offensive line, Brown is the man in the backfield for the foreseeable future. Folks have been sleeping on him, though they seem to have woken up in recent weeks. Get him while he's cheap!