Playing it safe is a strategy that can pay dividends in fantasy football, but identifying and drafting breakout stars is so much more rewarding.
Players can come from out of nowhere and develop into fantasy studs, but there are usually warning signs that suggest an uptick in production is on the horizon. That can be due to a change in the depth chart or simply the natural progression of the player himself.
Whatever the case, there will unquestionably be at least a few players who go from solid in 2013 to spectacular in 2014. Here is a look at three players who could potentially undergo that transformation, along with statistical projections for each.
There wasn't much expected out of Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington last season. He was a rookie sixth-round pick out of Clemson and was firmly behind Rashard Mendenhall as well as others on Arizona's depth chart. Despite that, he put up numbers that made him a feasible flex play, particularly in point-per-reception leagues.
Ellington ended 2013 with over 1,000 total yards, 39 catches and four touchdowns. This was despite the fact that he never officially ascended to the starting position and wasn't given many opportunities within the red zone. All of that figures to change in 2014 now that Mendenhall has retired and is no longer standing in his way.
With Ellington serving as the Cards' primary back, the sky is the limit. Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports is of the same opinion, as he expects an extremely productive year out of the second-year man:
A fantasy prognosticator singing the praises of Ellington is one thing, but his teammates following suit is another. Quarterback Carson Palmer is a wily veteran who has played alongside many excellent players. He knows a good running back when he sees one, and he clearly believes Ellington belongs in that category, per Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:
He's so explosive, he's so quick and then you want to put him in the pass game because he's so good in the pass game. It's so hard to predict, 'He'll have X amount of yards, X amount of catches' because he is so talented in both. Selfishly I want to use him in the pass game but selfishly I want to use him in the run game too.
Ellington should get plenty of touches as a runner and a receiver this season. Palmer isn't afraid to use his checkdowns when he is under pressure, so 60 receptions is within reach for Ellington. The only true concern as it relates to his production is reaching the end zone.
Big back Jonathan Dwyer could conceivably vulture some touchdowns, but that is difficult to predict. Ellington will almost certainly get the bulk of the work between the 20s, and that means he should provide second-round value at the very least.
Statistical Projection for 2014: 1,250 rushing yards, 60 receptions for 525 yards and eight touchdowns
No passing offense in the NFL is more dynamic than that of the Denver Broncos, which is why wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders could be in for a huge season. After spending the first four years of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sanders signed with Denver this offseason and is quarterback Peyton Manning's newest weapon.
Sanders has steadily improved throughout his career and had his best statistical season in 2013 with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns as Pittsburgh's No. 2 pass-catcher. One might think that Sanders' production will go down in Denver, as he'll contend with Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas for targets, but there are enough to go around.
Sanders recently made some controversial statements regarding the leadership of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but those statements also proved that he already has a great synergy with Manning, per Nicki Jhabvala of The Denver Post:
I feel like Peyton is a far better leader, in terms of staying after practice, catching balls, wanting guys to get on the same page with him, things of that sort. This is the first time that I've had a quarterback that every single day after practice — no matter what his accolades, NFL MVP, Super Bowl ring — he keeps guys like me and (rookie receiver Cody) Latimer after practice. ... He's not one of those guys you've got to chase down. He's going to be right in the same spot, ready to work, every single day. I just feel like that's a difference from a mental standpoint.
If Manning and Sanders are truly on the same page already, then the first 1,000-yard season of Sanders' career is very likely on the horizon. He won't approach No. 1 fantasy receiver territory, but expect the SMU product to finally become a reliable weekly starter in 2014.
Statistical Projection for 2014: 82 receptions for 1,050 yards and eight touchdowns
While the tight end position contains some elite talent at the very top, it can be argued that it is lacking in terms of depth. Aside from the top five or six fantasy tight ends heading into the 2014 campaign, there is a great deal of uncertainty. For owners who miss out on the upper tier, Washington Redskins second-year man Jordan Reed is a great target.
The third-round pick out of Florida quickly became one of quarterback Robert Griffin III's favorite targets last season. Reed supplanted Fred Davis as the starting tight end and finished the year with 45 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns in just nine games.
Reed might have approached Pro Bowl-worthy statistics if not for a concussion cutting short his season. Although he is a smallish tight end, that doesn't matter in fantasy circles. He is a great athlete and a pure receiver who creates matchup problems against linebackers who can't run with him.
It seems as though Reed hasn't missed a beat since returning from injury, as he is turning heads at training camp, according to CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora:
Washington's offense figures to be much stronger as a whole in 2014. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon and running back Alfred Morris return, while wideout DeSean Jackson is now in the fold as well. Also, RG3 is even further removed from the knee injury that clearly limited him in 2013.
Reed will have more competition for targets, but he will also draw plenty of single coverage and get open quite often for Griffin. That makes him the top tight end to own outside the elite group that will come off the board early.
Statistical Projection for 2014: 67 receptions for 780 yards and seven touchdowns
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