Jordy Nelson, a 2011 breakout player
Fantasy football’s draft season is in full swing, and owners everywhere are looking for every edge they can get in their league.
One of the best ways to do this is to find diamonds in the rough during the middle and late rounds. Here are six under-the-radar players poised to have breakout years in fantasy.
Once regarded as the likely first overall pick, Locker regressed during his final year at Washington to the point that some analysts had him pegged as a second-round prospect before the 2011 NFL draft. The Titans evidently kept the faith in Locker and nabbed him with the eighth overall pick.
Locker spent most of his rookie year learning behind veteran starter Matt Hasselbeck but did look promising in his limited playing time. Hasselbeck hasn’t gone anywhere, so Tennessee may not be handing the reins to Locker just yet.
However, if the strong-armed Locker does force his way into the lineup, he could be a fantasy gem. He has a plethora of weapons to work with.
Kendall Wright is a downfield playmaker, as is Kenny Britt when he actually suits up. Tight ends Taylor Thompson and Jared Cook are athletic freaks of nature. Chris Johnson, meanwhile, is a constant threat to take a screen or swing pass to the house.
Locker is himself a powerful and agile runner who could serve as an auxiliary goal-line back, as Cam Newton does for the Panthers. The Titans have all the makings of an explosive offense if Locker takes the helm—be ready to snap him up.
All of Denver’s receivers have had their fantasy value boosted by the arrival of Peyton Manning. Most of the attention has been focused on Demaryius Thomas, which is understandable given his status as a former first-round pick and athletic specimen.
However, the less-heralded Decker may provide better draft value. Manning has reportedly been a fan of the Colorado product ever since doing a little impromptu scouting on him in the run-up to the 2010 NFL draft. Since signing with the Broncos, the decorated quarterback has been working closely with Decker in practise—and their off-field rapport seems to be developing nicely too.
Earning the trust of Peyton Manning is a sure ticket to a high volume of targets, as Austin Collie can attest. The threat of Thomas on the other side of the field will frequently leave Decker in single coverage, and he’ll have one of the greatest QBs of all time feeding him the ball—expect big things.
While AJ Green and Julio Jones deservedly grabbed headlines with their spectacular showings as rookies, Torrey Smith’s strong performance went comparatively unnoticed.
After a slow start, an explosive three-touchdown performance against the Rams heralded his arrival as an NFL receiver. He finished the year with 841 yards and seven touchdowns.
Anquan Boldin is a declining force and will probably be more of a complementary piece in the Ravens’ offense this year. Smith is thus the heir apparent as Baltimore’s top wideout. Smith ran a 4.43 40 at the combine and plays even faster than that on the field, displaying an impressive second gear to catch up to overthrown balls.
Ray Rice singlehandedly forces defenders to respect the run, opening up the field for Smith. Joe Flacco, meanwhile, has the live arm to hit any spot on the field.
With a season’s experience under his belt, Smith will be a fantasy WR1 that you can get for the price of a WR2.
To some degree, Darrius Heyward-Bey has already broken out. Last year, the former top-10 pick recorded 64 receptions for 975 yards and four touchdowns. But since Heyward-Bey has been dogged with the bust label since entering the league, it is worth reiterating that he has arrived as a legitimate NFL receiver.
Coming out of Maryland, he was regarded as more of a raw athlete than a football player. To his immense credit, Heyward-Bey persevered through his early struggles and has worked hard to iron out the flaws in his game.
As a result, his hands and route-running skills have improved noticeably. At 6’2” with a blistering 4.30 40-yard dash, his potential as a deep threat has always been obvious. This speed also gives him the ability to turn a slant or hitch into a massive gain in the blink of an eye.
Carson Palmer should improve in his first full season as a Raider, while the presence of Denarius Moore on the other side of the field will keep defences honest. 2012 should be the season that the new and improved Heyward-Bey cracks the 1,000-yard mark.
The NFL has entered the era of the tight end. The league is littered with dominant receivers at the position like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis. Another Davis—Kellen—may be the next to join that group.
He certainly has the physical characteristics to do so. Running a 4.60 40 at 6’6” and 259lbs, his measurables are almost identical to Jimmy Graham’s.
It’s true that Chicago has been something of a fantasy graveyard for tight ends over the last few years. However, this was largely down to the eccentricities of Mike Martz’s unique offensive scheme. Martz has moved on, and his replacement Brian Tice will not be so hesitant to use tight ends in the passing game.
Davis should also benefit from the talent around him. Jay Cutler is a physically gifted quarterback who has shown he can orchestrate a high-octane air attack. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are both big receivers who can bully defensive backs, while Matt Forte is one of the best all-round tailbacks in the game.
With so many other threats for opposing defenses to account for, Davis should frequently find himself in favourable matchups. He will be on the board at the end of most fantasy drafts. If you decide to wait on tight ends, take Davis as a lottery ticket and hope for the jackpot.
Like former teammate Kellen Davis, Greg Olsen is another example of the new breed of hyper-athletic tight ends.
Another victim of the Matz offense, Olsen never quite lived up to his first-round billing in Chicago. He had a decent year in his first season in Carolina, notching 540 yards and five touchdowns. These numbers should climb in his second year with the Panthers.
In Rob Chudzinski’s tight end-friendly scheme, Olsen and Jeremy Shockey combined for just under 1,000 yards in 2011. With Shockey’s departure, Olsen will no longer have to share snaps and targets at tight end. Olsen has the speed and fluidity to get downfield, and Cam Newton has one of the best deep balls in the NFL.
And for all Steve Smith’s admirable qualities as a receiver, he is not a big target in the redzone. At 6’5”, Olsen should get a lot of looks around the goal-line. He’ll come off the board in the middle rounds, but when all is said and done, Olsen could well be a top-five fantasy TE.