While plenty of rookies have been productive in fantasy football, many young players take a little longer to get acclimated to the NFL.
Eddie Lacy, Keenan Allen and others had great starts to their careers and will likely be able to continue with strong performances in their second years. However, this does not mean you should forget about the talented athletes who were less than stellar in their first seasons.
These second-year competitors all have a chance to replicate this jump in production in 2014. Do not be afraid to select them a round or two earlier than projected to make sure you stay ahead of the curve.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
Heading into last season, Montee Ball seemed like he could be the top rookie running back in the league. Unfortunately, he was too raw coming into the league, especially when it came to pass-blocking. This led to Knowshon Moreno getting the starting job and becoming the breakout player.
However, Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com points out that Ball has won the team over with his improvements:
He was the most effective runner with the ball in his hands over the last six weeks of the season/postseason. He’s smart and has the requisite work ethic, and the Broncos have seen vast improvements in his work as both a receiver and blocker in the passing game. That gives him the gotta-have-it, every-down potential in their offense.
The former Wisconsin star finished the season with 559 rushing yards at an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Even though the Broncos will keep their pass-first offense behind Peyton Manning, there are a lot of points to go around.
As long as Ball can remain the No. 1 option in Denver, he could be a star in fantasy.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Although Cordarrelle Patterson's overall numbers were not spectacular, the receiver showed off loads of potential throughout last season. He made big plays in the passing game, as a returner and sometimes even out of the backfield.
The young player is still pretty raw when it comes to running routes, but he knows all it takes to succeed:
“I’m going to be a top five playmaker. Just get the ball in my hands, I’m special.”-Vikings’ WR Cordarrelle Patterson pic.twitter.com/MwaOe7DMHt— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) July 9, 2014
No matter who is starting at quarterback for the Vikings, the coaching staff will do its best to get the ball into Patterson's hands. If he gets enough chances, you can be certain he will turn at least a few of them into big touchdowns.
There will be a lot of people in each league rushing to get their hands on the receiver, but the future star is worth reaching for in the first few rounds.
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans
Last year's second-round pick had two big games last season, totaling over 100 yards and a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos. Aside from these, Justin Hunter only managed eight catches and 131 yards for the rest of the year combined.
It did not help that Tennessee had an up-and-down year as a whole, starting with the constant injuries to quarterback Jake Locker. With the young passer healthy, the entire offense should fare much better.
If Hunter does start getting opportunities, he should be able to shine. His teammate Michael Preston already believes the talent is there to be a star:
Titans' Michael Preston calls Justin Hunter the next Randy Moss http://t.co/hGI2lOxSs5— NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) July 16, 2014
At 6'4" with good speed, the receiver knows how to get open. As soon as his quarterback starts finding him, he should become a very productive player.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
The big question with this pick is whether the Eagles will start shifting the targets toward Zach Ertz or keep Brent Celek as the primary tight end.
Ertz finished his rookie year with a solid 469 yards on 36 catches and four touchdowns, numbers which were comparable to those of Celek, who finished with 32 receptions for 502 yards. These numbers have dropped for the veteran in each of the past three years.
Now that Ertz is more comfortable with the offense, it would not be surprising to see him get an even bigger portion of the action in his second year. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network believes the Eagles star could be on the brink of breaking out:
Fantasy tip: Draft Zach Ertz one round higher than you think you should. He'll be worth it.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) June 21, 2014
At the very least, the 6'5" tight end should become a quality red-zone target for Chip Kelly's high-powered offense.
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
EJ Manuel was limited to just 10 games during his rookie season but did show plenty of positives to go with his inconsistency. He made plays with both his arms and his legs despite not having much help around him in the passing game.
That will not be a problem anymore thanks to the addition of receiver Sammy Watkins. ESPN's Chris Mortensen recently discussed the ability of the first-round pick:
EJ Manuel drops dime to Sammy Watkins during Insiders live hit. Still can hear elite NFL evaluator say Watkins was best player in '14 draft.— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) July 21, 2014
With Robert Woods, Mike Williams and tight end Scott Chandler also capable of making plays, Manuel will be able to spread the ball around in a much-improved passing attack.
Even with a deep class of quarterbacks available, Manuel might be worth a late flier in case he makes big strides in his second season.
Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders
This is a pick to make in the late rounds or possibly just keep an eye on for a free-agent pickup.
Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew are expected to be the top running backs on the depth chart in Oakland, while Latavius Murray has never touched the ball in the NFL. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement for a former sixth-round pick.
That being said, both of the veterans ahead of him have struggled to stay on the field in the past. Jones-Drew has put a lot of mileage on his legs and struggled to just 3.4 yards per carry this past season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season and finished last year with a mark of just 3.3 yards per carry.
If these two players do not live up to expectations they could leave an opportunity for Murray to showcase his ability. With his size at 6'3" and great speed, a small chance could be all he needs to prove he can be an elite runner.
At the very least, he has a lot more upside than either McFadden or Jones-Drew.
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