The 2014 NFL fantasy football season always leaves team owners, even those who agonize over advanced statistics before drafts, with a little bit of doubt as to which players to choose. It helps to know about hidden gems in the latter rounds that can save some of the riskier fantasy options at the top.
All of the following offensive standouts are safe fallback choices in the event that some bigger-named stars don't pan out as anticipated. Most of them are young and unproven, yet they are in excellent position to succeed.
Two of the prospective breakout stars hail from the NFC West division—arguably pro football's best collection of teams. The others consist of a bruising, first-year ball-carrier in the AFC and an NFC youngster who may well become the next big-time receiving tight end in the game.
Below are the revelations of this mysterious quartet, along with detailed analysis as to why they're poised to succeed and become fantasy fixtures in 2014.
Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams
Let's face it: 2014 is a make-or-break year for the 2011 No. 1 overall pick, Sam Bradford, who's not entering a contract year but could be deemed expendable if he falls short again.
In the brutal NFC West, St. Louis is counting on a magnificent defense and a hard-nosed, run-oriented offense under play-caller Brian Schottenheimer. It's up to Bradford to deliver the goods his gaudy draft status promised—even though he's coming off a torn ACL from last October.
ESPN's Louis Riddick hinted at this in his analysis:
Roster strength/continuity over next 2 yrs and coaching staff upgrades (Gregg Williams) are good enough. BUT..is Sam Bradford good enough?— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) June 30, 2014
In a recent interview posted on 101Sports.com, Rams Super Bowl-winning signal-caller Kurt Warner suggested Bradford can cut it loose more often after averaging just 6.29 yards per attempt in his career to date.
I think [Bradford] wants to be great. I think he's a smart kid. ... there's a lot of good things that I see. I think the one thing for me when I watch film is I want to see him develop the confidence where he's willing to take some chances with the football.
That he's willing to say, "Guys, follow me." I'm going to carry us a little bit. I'm going to take that shot down the field because I see it and I believe I can make it as opposed to second-guessing himself and throwing the check down.
Full disclosure, yours truly has never been a big Bradford fan in terms of his pure ability to play quarterback. Having said that, this could be the year everything comes together for him.
Former second-round pick Brian Quick may finally make a splash. Free-agent acquisition and All-Pro talent Kenny Britt seems to be getting back on track in reuniting with coach Jeff Fisher, per Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
As for practice, Sam Bradford has thrown better every day. . . .Kenny Britt and Brian Quick had some highlight catches. . . .— Jim Thomas (@jthom1) July 30, 2014
There weren't any true finessed, polished route-runners at Bradford's disposal in 2013, unless you'd count Austin Pettis. Quick wasn't—and may never be—ready for the NFL stage, but second-year slot dynamo Tavon Austin is bound to explode now that he's more comfortable in the offense.
Austin admitted he was in over his head after the Rams traded up in the first round to get him, buthe now knows enough to make a bigger impact, per The Associated Press' R.B. Fallstrom:
I didn't really know what was going on. Everything looked like Spanish and sounded like Spanish to me. ... I understand the plays, the depth, the routes, the splits and everything. I just feel good that I can make some plays. Definitely, the game's slowed down for me.
Chris Givens is a legitimate deep threat, and tight end Jared Cook can stretch the field up the seam with his athleticism. Bear in mind that before Bradford went down last year, he'd already thrown 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Bradford has to be sick of the criticism, not to mention the brilliant quarterback play from other young guns in his own division. If he really is franchise-caliber material, this is the time for him to prove it in the last year of his lucrative rookie contract.
Terrance West, RB, Cleveland Browns
The first thing that stands out about West is that he is absolutely humongous, which will make him all the more able to adapt to life in the NFL from day one.
West can get north-south in a hurry, using his compact 5'9", 225-pound frame to barrel over defenders in Browns coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking rushing attack. The rookie third-round pick could be shades of Alfred Morris, who broke out in his maiden pro season under Shanahan in 2012.
There was some concern at the dawn of training camp when West reportedly failed his conditioning test, but head coach Mike Pettine diffused that quickly, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot:
#browns Pettine on Terrance west failing conditioning test: "he showed up the next morning and crushed it"— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) July 26, 2014
Then West hit the practice field to prove his worth, much to the delight of Browns fans in attendance, according to The News-Herald's Jeff Schudel:
Rookie RB Terrance West made back to back one-handed grabs on deep sideline passes. The crowd is loving it. #Browns— Jeff Schudel (@jsbrownsinsider) July 26, 2014
Pettine was rather blown away by West's versatility, per August Fagerstrom and Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal:
I was a little shocked with Terrance today. I had to double-check my roster card to make sure I was looking at the right number. He did some nice things in the one-on-one period.
That’s always a bonus when you have a [running back] that’s just not one-dimensional, that you can say, "Oh, we don’t need to cover him. We’re defending the run only." I think the more guys you can have like that, the better.
That could cut out the need for Dion Lewis, who missed all of last season with a fractured leg, as a third-down scatback. In the opinion of Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe, West has a great chance to start over free-agent arrival Ben Tate:
Terrance West has a legit chance to start over Ben Tate. Gonna look like Alfred Morris in that zone-blocking scheme.— Adam Lefkoe (@AdamLefkoe) July 27, 2014
Given that West appears to have underrated receiving ability, evident muscle and a chip on his shoulder coming out of an unheralded program in Towson, all indications are he'll at least give Tate a strong challenge.
There is some concern that West's amount of touches in college may hamper him, but for his rookie NFL season, he should be a big factor. Whether it's Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel starting under center, the Browns will need all the help they can get from the ground game.
Although Tate may start off No. 1 on the depth chart, don't be surprised if West takes over and becomes the go-to guy as the season wears on.
Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle Seahawks
General manager John Schneider seems to have made yet another brilliant draft pick in Richardson, this year's No. 45 overall choice in the second round.
Richardson is an absolute speedster with the quickness to beat even the Legion of Boom Seahawks cornerbacks enough off the line of scrimmage to make a big impression early in training camp.
This analysis came from MMQB.com's Robert Klemko, who made quite the comparison:
Big takeaway from SEA today: WR Percy Harvin looks like a star again, and rookie Paul Richardson looks like his clone.— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) July 25, 2014
Seattle has leaned heavily on the run in recent years, leading to tremendous success. However, with feature back Marshawn Lynch holding out, QB Russell Wilson will be able to air it out more. Wilson's ability to escape the pocket and extend plays with his feet only makes Richardson that much more dangerous.
Concerns loomed about Richardson's size and how it'd translate to the pros. The Colorado product has promptly answered those concerns in the weight room, in an interview with the Bob and Groz Show (via Brady Henderson of 710 ESPN Seattle):
In college I was anywhere from 159-162 – they had me listed heavier than I was. But I've gained 20 pounds and I'm still playing fast and I think that I'm getting stronger.
I feel more explosive actually. I feel more explosive with the weight. I think that my lower body is getting stronger. I'm not taking my upper body off, but I think it's better to have a stronger foundation and work my way up, and that's what I've been doing.
Mike Meltser of 610SportsRadio noted how Richardson succeeded in his final collegiate season amid adverse circumstances—and in a power conference in the Pac-12 to boot:
Random note in light of Sidney Rice retiring: I love Paul Richardson. Dude put up 83/1343/10 on a 4-8 Colorado team— Mike Meltser (@MikeMeltser) July 24, 2014
The offseason departure of last year's leading receiver, Golden Tate, opens up plenty of opportunities for Richardson to see the ball come his way.
Although Percy Harvin returns to the fold from injury, he has played a full 16 games just once in his five NFL seasons. A strong 2013 campaign at Colorado helped dispel concerns about Richardson and his durability moving forward after he tore his ACL in 2012.
All things considered, Richardson may only need to beat out the likes of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and fellow rookie Kevin Norwood for targets in the receiving corps.
The reigning Super Bowl champions are definitely getting more explosive, but in terms of fantasy upside, no Seahawks wideout other than the oft-hurt Harvin has the upside Richardson boasts.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins
But the biggest beneficiary of new head coach Jay Gruden's new offensive system is Reed. The West Coast offense will consist of shallow crosses and opportunities for Reed to get in space and create mismatches with linebackers.
MMQB.com founder Peter King left Washington's camp with strong words regarding Reed's performance:
RICHMOND, Va.-Wash camp thoughts: RG3 lithe, fast. Looks+talks happier than last July ... TE Jordan Reed hugely impressive. Power athlete...— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) July 25, 2014
Tight end Niles Paul believes Reed has all the tools to go to Hawaii at season's end, presuming Washington isn't gearing up for a trip to the Super Bowl, per The Washington Post's Jason Reid:
"That’s a Pro Bowl tight end right there. Mark my words: He will be a Pro Bowler." Reed worked out like a beast in the offseason "and I know he did because I was right there working with him.
"I tell him I love the way he works. For a guy to be so talented and work so hard, you have to respect that. I work hard. I’m just not as gifted as him."
That report mentions how Reed's rookie campaign was cut short by concussions, yet he still managed 45 receptions in just nine games. His rapport with Griffin was evident, even as the dynamic QB was hobbled by health problems of his own coming off a knee injury.
Griffin has the goods to deliver the ball downfield to Reed and can hit him in the red zone, where Jackson is too diminutive to be as much of a difference-maker. Reed was targeted just 59 times, showing that he can be proficient when the ball flies his way even as a first-year pro.
The testimony Paul provided regarding Reed's work ethic was bold, but he likely wouldn't have said what he did without serious substance and truth behind it. This should have fans in the nation's capital extremely excited.
At just 6'2", Reed is shorter than some of the premier tight ends (Jimmy Graham is 6'7", Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten are 6'6", Jordan Cameron is 6'5" and so on). To make up for that, he has a muscular frame, excellent hands and the athleticism to compensate, resulting in a massive catch radius.
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The pass-happy Gruden should thus continue promoting an aerial assault as he did in Cincinnati, where he had Bengals QB Andy Dalton attempt 586 passes last season. Reed stands to benefit from that as much as anyone, based on his established connection with RG3.
It's easy to get caught up in some of the minutiae that training camp tends to project in the beginning phase. Anticipation is high for the preseason games so close on the horizon, and now that pads are going on, big predictions are being made. But this is also around the time when fantasy decisions have to be made, so some long-ranging projection is necessary to nail down breakout candidates.
All four of these players have something to prove. Bradford has to prove his worth as "the man" in St. Louis, while West has a determined veteran in Tate trying to beat him out for the Browns' starting running back job. Richardson is a burner, but he has to prove he can hold up to the battering he'll endure at the NFL level.
In Reed's case, everyone in Washington has motivation to bounce back from a huge decline in 2013 after winning the NFC East the prior year. That should lead to all four of these players having exceptional 2014 campaigns, proving to be worthy, latter-round investments in fantasy football drafts.