With just over three months until the start of the 2014 NFL season, it’s the perfect time to make some bold predictions for the upcoming year in fantasy football. Which players are poised to break out? Who is vastly overrated and in line for a fantasy freefall?
The following projections represent fantasy outcomes for 2014 that I believe are entirely possible, if not likely, to occur. I would not necessarily wager my mortgage on these results actually coming to pass, but I also would not be surprised in the least if several of them play out.
The purpose of such predictions is to highlight players whose current predraft value is either far too high or far too low, in my opinion. Therefore, the players mentioned below represent many of my fantasy sleeper and bust candidates for 2014.
Note: Average draft position (ADP) and position rankings data based on 1,000-plus FantasyFootballCalculator.com mock drafts for 12-team, non-PPR leagues gathered in the month of May 2014. Parenthetical rankings (e.g. “(RB10)”) and player ADP (e.g. “(20th overall)”) reference this specific data set.
Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller. That is the entire list of NFL running backs to average 6.0 yards per rushing attempt and total at least 1,000 rushing yards in a season over the last 40 years. Spiller is a one-of-a-kind talent (or, based on the aforementioned statistic, a five-of-a-kind talent)—that is, when he’s healthy. The fourth-year back struggled to stay on the field in 2013, dealing with a nagging high-ankle sprain after Week 4. The opportunity for a bounce-back year is there. The Bills led the NFL in rushing attempts in 2013 and Fred Jackson, while still very productive, is 33 years old—ancient in running back years. If Spiller can return to his 2012 form, his ceiling is as high as any player in the league.
2. Ben Tate does not lead the Cleveland Browns in rushing yards or rushing attempts.
Before the NFL draft, it appeared that Tate might have the Browns’ backfield all to himself. Enter: rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. While Tate certainly possesses starting running back talent, West and Crowell are exceedingly intriguing prospects who could quickly earn some touches. The Browns actually traded up to acquire West, whom the team is reported to “absolutely love,” per Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Crowell is a former 5-star recruit whose draft stock fell due to off-field issues following his freshman year—his talent is absolutely not the question. Tate has a history of nagging injuries. If he were to miss any time, he could return to find his starting job in serious jeopardy.
3. Jordy Nelson (WR7) is a top-two fantasy wide receiver.
Nelson looked better than ever in 2013 following preseason surgery to repair nerve damage in his knee, boasting a career-high 1,314 receiving yards. This feat is made all the more impressive considering the parade of backup quarterbacks the Packers trotted out following Aaron Rodgers’ Week 9 injury. Nelson was on pace to be the leading fantasy wide receiver when Rodgers was healthy last year, and there’s no reason to believe that production will diminish in 2014.
4. Andre Ellington totals more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage and finishes top-10 among running backs in fantasy scoring.
Limited backfield competition, a vastly improved offensive line and a head coach who plans to "build the offense around" him—things are looking up for Ellington in 2014. With an ability to make plays anywhere on the field, an increase in touches should result in several huge fantasy performances from the second-year back. Looking more and more like C.J. Spiller 2.0, 1,200 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards are absolutely in play in 2014.
5. Wes Welker finishes fifth in receiving yards among Denver Broncos pass-catchers.
Totaling eight receiving touchdowns in the first six weeks of the 2013 season, it appeared as though the Manning-to-Welker connection was a fantasy jackpot. But over the final 10 weeks of the year, Welker only added another two touchdowns. This precipitous drop in production coincided with two concussions suffered in Weeks 11 and 14, the latter of which caused Welker to miss the final three weeks of the season. To preserve his health on the path to another potential Super Bowl, the Broncos may limit Welker’s regular-season snaps in favor of new offensive addition Emmanuel Sanders. And while it is awfully morbid to predict injuries, another concussion could cause Welker to miss significant time.
6. Julius Thomas (30th overall) finishes ahead of Jimmy Graham (8th overall) as the No. 1 fantasy tight end.
Prior to last season’s 788 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, Thomas totaled one reception for seven yards in his professional career. Talk about a break out. Heading into his third season with Manning behind center, Thomas should move into the No. 2 receiver role with Eric Decker now gone. A season comparable to Decker’s in 2013 (1288 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns) is easily conceivable for Thomas, and a Graham-like ceiling is certainly within reach.
7. Eric Decker (WR33) finishes outside the top-50 fantasy wide receivers.
To say that Decker’s new situation in New York is a downgrade from his role in Denver would be a bit of an understatement. He’s now catching passes from a starting quarterback in Geno Smith who only completed 12 passing touchdowns in 2013. Decker alone caught 11 of Manning’s 55 touchdowns last season. The fifth-year wideout also benefited from being just one of the Broncos’ many dangerous receiving threats. Now his new team’s No. 1 option facing No. 1 defensive backs, Decker’s ceiling is still relatively high for 2014, but his floor is depressingly low.
8. DeMarco Murray (RB11) is a top-five fantasy running back.
New Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan employs a pass-heavy scheme that favors talented pass-catching running backs, such as Murray. As the Lions OC in 2013, both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell finished top-10 among running backs in receiving yards. Linehan reportedly wants to “lean on” Murray in 2014, per 105.3 The Fan [KRLD-FM] (h/t Dallas Morning News). After adding Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin in the first round of the draft, the Cowboys offensive line is among the best in the league—another plus for Murray.
9. Alfred Morris (RB13) is not a top-20 fantasy running back.
Washington is loaded with receiving weapons and new head coach Jay Gruden is as pass-happy as they come. Morris, however, is not one of those weapons. Totaling 20 receptions in two years for a measly 156 yards is not the kind of production Gruden hopes for from his starting running back. Reliable pass-catcher Roy Helu could potentially “swoop in” and steal work from Morris on passing downs, according to NFL.com’s Alex Gelhar.
10. Robert Griffin III finished as a top-five fantasy quarterback in 2012. He does it again in 2014.
Will RG III return to fantasy greatness in 2014?
At this point it may be difficult to remember just how sensational RG III’s rookie year was, especially for fantasy purposes. Before injuring his knee in Week 13, Griffin was the No. 1 overall player in fantasy, and despite a late-season injury, he still finished as fifth-best fantasy quarterback that year. It’s been well-documented that Griffin likely returned too early from his knee injury, never quite looking the same in his sophomore season. But by all accounts, Griffin is finally back to full health, per Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post. Surrounded by talented receiving weapons in Gruden’s West Coast offense, Griffin may run less, per SportsTalk 570's Andy Pollin (h/t Washington Post) in 2014 but may also put up huge passing numbers to compensate for one of 2013’s lowest-ranked defense and special teams combos, per Footballoutsiders.com.
Considered a no-brainer No. 1 fantasy receiver just eight months ago, White did not miss a game in his eight-year career before missing some time in 2013. Once healthy last year, the 10-year veteran averaged 100-plus receiving yards per game over the final five weeks. Meanwhile, Jones has missed 14 games in three pro seasons and had inconsistent, albeit fantastic, fantasy production in his only complete 16-game season in 2012.
12. Le’Veon Bell (RB10) is not a top-20 fantasy running back.
Bell’s 3.5 yards per rushing attempt were good for 39th among running backs in 2013. In 13 starts, he only put together one game with 100-plus yards rushing and just one more with more than one rushing touchdown. LeGarrette Blount was likely brought in to serve as an insurance policy but could earn touches along with change-of-pace rookie Dri Archer.
13. Michael Floyd (WR31) finishes ahead of Larry Fitzgerald (WR16) as a top-20 fantasy wide receiver.
We may see a passing of the torch in Arizona this year for the team’s top receiving threat. Entering his 11th season, future Hall of Famer Fitzgerald has seen a decrease in production over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, across the field from Fitz is a player in Floyd whose career is only beginning to take off. Last year, Floyd led the Cardinals in receiving yards despite hauling in 17 fewer receptions than Fitzgerald. The team’s biggest downfield threat, Floyd may see more opportunities to rip off game-breaking plays in 2014 due to quarterback Carson Palmer’s previously mentioned offensive line upgrades.
14. Drew Brees (24th overall) is the No. 1 overall player in fantasy scoring.
Brees finished in the top-two overall fantasy scorers each of the past three years, so this prediction is not really all that bold. However, his ADP suggests a drop in production as a late second/early third-round pick. He’s totaled at least 5,100 passing yards and 42 touchdowns for three straight years and has never missed a game due to injury in 13 seasons. Brees is a steal anywhere outside of the first round.
15. Bishop Sankey (RB20) finishes outside the top-35 running backs in fantasy scoring.
The last two seasons have seen remarkable fantasy production from rookie running backs, including six that finished top-20 in scoring at the position. As a result, there is an expectation for several rookies to break out in 2014; however, history reveals that the past two years are more of an anomaly in terms of rookie running back production. Additionally, Sankey isn’t in the best situation to succeed. The Titans may be one of the worst teams in football this coming season and Shonn Greene could begin the year as the team’s starter. Dexter McCluster could also be a factor on passing downs and Jackie Battle could see some work near the goal line.
16. Marvin Jones (WR54) is a top-30 fantasy wide receiver.
Jones flashed big-play ability in 2013, including a four-touchdown performance in Week 8 that lit the waiver wire on fire. Unfortunately, his role was limited throughout the rest of the season. This should change in 2014, as new Bengals’ offensive coordinator Hue Jackson recently expressed his excitement to the team website for Jones to “knock A.J. [Green] off the pedestal” as the team’s lone stud receiver—in other words, Jones should be in line for a major role expansion in Cincinnati’s offense this season.
17. LeSean McCoy has at least 18 total touchdowns and 2,300 yards from scrimmage.
McCoy hit the 20-touchdown mark in 2011 and led the league last year in yards from scrimmage with 2,146. Year two of the Chip Kelly experiment could be even more explosive for the self-proclaimed best running back in the league. With speedster DeSean Jackson now in Washington, McCoy is Kelly’s most-dynamic playmaker by a wide margin.
18. Andre Williams (currently undrafted) is the top New York Giants running back in fantasy scoring.
Head coach Tom Coughlin tends to favor reliable production over veteran status when it comes to his team’s starting running back. In 2013, the troubled Giants started five different running backs throughout the season, leaving Coughlin longing for the days of Ahmad Bradshaw. Only one rusher currently on the Giants roster has started more than one game for the team (David Wilson has six starts in two years), so Coughlin’s loyalties should be limited. Andre Williams is an all-around talent who led college running backs in rushing yards last year. He could contend for the starting gig in 2014.
A new coaching staff and a significant upgrade in offensive weapons could be enough to vault Stafford into the fantasy stratosphere in 2014. Head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi come into Detroit with a track record of offensive success with the Colts, Ravens and Saints. Adding wide receiver Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron to a skill position corps that already includes Megatron and two of the league’s best pass-catching running backs may just give Stafford the best group of receiving options in the NFL. Stafford’s ADP in 2012 was 12th overall, but two seasons of turmoil in Detroit caused his stock to drop. A regime change might be just the trick to restore Stafford’s full fantasy value.
20. Joique Bell (RB27) finishes ahead of Reggie Bush (RB15) in fantasy scoring.
Bold? Bell almost accomplished this feat last year despite starting 10 fewer games than Bush. Last year was just the second time in Bush’s eight-year career that he exceeded 1,000 yards rushing, and Bell bested him in receiving yards (547 to 506). Bush’s long history of nagging injuries also continues to affect his playing time—he’s only played all 16 games in a season once in his career. Bell has proven to be a durable and reliable back who can handle a hefty workload. Detroit may opt to limit Bush’s touches in 2014 to preserve his health, opening the door for Bell to lead a backfield platoon.
Now it’s your turn—post your bold predictions for the 2014 fantasy football season in the comments section!
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
James Paradis is a fantasy football featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Be sure to check out his entire archive on fantasy strategy and analysis.
Follow @JamesParadisNFL on Twitter