One of the keys to being a successful fantasy-football player is being able to identify who the breakout players will be for the upcoming season. Anybody can look at L.T.’s 2006 season and come to the determination that he was going to do big things in 2007. Anyone can figure out that barring injury Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will put up big numbers at the QB position.
Conversely, anyone can tell you that Shaun Alexander and Rudi Johnson are in decline. Their skimpy production last season validates that.
What the really good fantasy players are able to do is predict which players are poised for big seasons, and get excellent value from their mid-to-late round selections. We took great pride in correctly predicting that Reggie Wayne would surpass Marvin Harrison in 2007 as the Colts go-to receiver. We also took the heat for trusting unproven rookies when ranking Adrian Peterson as a top-15 RB. Turned out that we didn't rank him high enough!
We also took pride in cautioning people about the dangers of selecting Shaun Alexander high in last year’s draft. Here are 16 players that we expect to breakout in 2008.
RB Michael Turner—Falcons: This guy has the potential to have a monster season in 2008. He is just 26-years old, and has had only 228 rushing attempts in four NFL seasons. He learned the trade while standing on the sidelines, watching the best running back in the NFL, LaDainian Tomlinson. The Falcons’ new coach Mike Smith comes from a Jacksonville system that loves to run the ball.
With Warrick Dunn out of the mix, Turner should see the majority of carries, with a quality backup in Jerious Norwood to spell him. If the Falcons can upgrade their offensive line and bring its level of play back to the 2005 season, when they ranked in the top-five, then I would look for Turner to have at least 1,200 yards and eight to 10 touchdowns in 2008. Not elite numbers, but should account for a very solid season.
QB Jay Cutler—Broncos: Cutler had a pretty nice statistical year in his second season. 297 completions in 467 attempts for 3,497 yards, 20 TDs, and 14 interceptions are not bad in a second-year campaign, which is usually labeled as the “Sophomore Jinx”. He had a solid 88.1 QB Rating to complement his other statistics. If he didn’t jump into superstar status it was because he threw too many inopportune picks, and the team struggled to win games.
Brandon Marshall and Cutler are a dangerous duo, and if they can find a consistent running game as soon as next season, the Broncos’ offense is poised to explode. I would not be surprised to see Cutler throw for 3,700-3,800 yards and 25-plus touchdowns to establish himself as the premier QB in his draft class.
QB Matt Leinart—Cardinals: If the coaching staff will allow Leinart to have the job without looking over his shoulder at Kurt Warner, I believe he will finally realize the potential that made him top-10 pick a couple of seasons ago. He has all the weapons necessary to succeed. Fitzgerald and Boldin are an excellent one-two punch. Leonard Pope has shown flashes of being able to emerge as a go-to tight end.
James still has production left in the tank, although I do believe he is on the downhill slide. Word out of Arizona is that Leinart has made excellent strides from having watched Warner last season. The Cardinals are expecting big things. I would not be surprised with 3,200 to 3,500 yards and 20-25 touchdown passes. Not as good as Cutler's projected numbers, but still a very nice season in the desert.
WR Santonio Holmes—Steelers: Had he been able to play all 16 games last year, he would have been over 1,000 receiving yards with at least 10 touchdowns. In fact, in 13 games he had 52 receptions for 942 yards, 18.1 yards per catch, and scored eight touchdowns. I think if he is able to stay healthy (he missed three games due to injury last season), then we are looking at a 1,300-yard receiver with 12 touchdown receptions. Given his stable quarterback situation, Hines Ward and Willie Parker providing protection, Holmes is probably the number-one bet to explode into the upper tier of NFL receivers in 2008.
WR Greg Jennings—Packers: I would have had him number one had Brett Favre decided to return for an 18th season. The two developed a great chemistry last year, and year three is traditionally a breakout year for wide receivers. I still think this 24-year old is poised to breakout in his third year, even without Favre.
In order to become great, he has to stay healthy. He missed three games last season and half of his rookie season with injuries. He had 53 receptions for 920 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007. I expect his touchdowns to drop with Aaron Rodgers learning on the job, but I do expect 70-80 catches for 1,200 yards and seven to nine touchdowns as the featured receiver in the Packers' offense.
RB Maurice Jones-Drew—Jaguars: In 2006, Jones-Drew rushed the ball 166 times for 941 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added 46 receptions for 436 yards and two touchdowns. Last year, his numbers slipped a little bit. He had 167 attempts for 768 yards and nine rushing touchdowns, 40 receptions for 407 receiving yards and zero receiving touchdowns.
However, in the playoff game against Pittsburgh, he exploded with a great return and two touchdowns. With Fred Taylor 32-years old and Jones-Drew entering his third season, I finally look for Jones-Drew to explode for 1,300-1,500 yards and returning to his 2006 touchdown totals of 12-15. He is a big name to have on the breakout list. However, without a 1,000-yard rushing season, he has yet to officially do that. I think that changes this season.
RB DeAngelo Williams—Panthers: DeShaun Foster has left for San Francisco, and the job is now solely William’s. He isn’t a very big back at 5’8” and 210 lbs. I don’t expect him to breakout for 1,500 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. What I am expecting is a poor man's Brian Westbrook: 1,200 to 1,400 yards rushing/receiving and eight to 10 rushing and receiving touchdowns.
Now that he won’t be splitting any more time with Foster, he should get enough touches to produce the bigger numbers projected above. Jonathan Stewart poses a threat to steal some work from him this year, but Williams should still be the featured back for the Panthers.
DT Amobi Okoye—Texans: We all saw the strides Mario Williams made from 2006 to 2007. He went from 4.5 sacks to 14.0 sacks in one season. Okoye had five-and-a-half sacks his rookie year. I believe he and Williams will form one of the best sack duos in the NFL by next season, possibly the season after.
The sky is the limit for these two. Defensive tackles rarely record over 10 sacks in a season, so I am not looking for a serious jump there. However, I look for Okoye to add a few more sacks reaching the seven to nine range while becoming a bigger force against the run.
TE Vernon Davis—49ers: Vernon Davis improved from the 20 receptions, 265 yards, and three touchdowns in 2006, to 52 receptions for 509 yards and four touchdowns in 2007. He did that despite one of the worst quarterback situations in the league. Shaun Hill and Alex Smith will have to emerge as better passers to take Vernon Davis to the elite level.
However, I still look for Davis to improve his numbers into the 65-75 reception range for 850-950 yards and six to eight touchdowns next season. That type of production could lead to his first “pure” Pro-Bowl nomination.
WR Ben Obomanu—Seattle: Seattle has a mess at wide receiver. Deion Branch is coming off injury. Bobby Engram will be 35-years old. D.J. Hackett signed with the Panthers. Nate Burleson has not demonstrated that he can be an every-down receiver. No tight end emerged last season for Seattle. Someone is going to have to catch balls in this high-powered offense.
Obomanu is a good-sized target at 6”0” and 203 lbs. 2008 will be his second year on the field, but technically he qualifies as a third-year WR since Seattle drafted him originally in 2006. Obomanu was used sporadically last season, to the tune of 12 catches for 180 yards (the majority of those yards, and half of his total catches, came on a two-game October stretch) and a TD.
The turning point, that springs hope forward, was in the playoff loss to the Packers, when he grabbed four balls for 63 yards. Engram was the team's leading receiver in that game with four more yards (67) than Obomanu. The 'Hawks liked what they saw from him last year, even though his above-mentioned numbers don’t scream that. He is going to get a lot more opportunities in a good pass-first offense this year, and he should be able to capitalize on them.
While we’re not expecting Jennings or Holmes-type numbers this year, we think 50-60 catches for 700-800 yards receiving, and five to six touchdowns is a reasonable expectation for a guy that should make a name for himself next season. Burleson and Engram are going to be the most fantasy-drafted Seattle receivers this summer, but with Hackett gone and Branch healing, by Week Three, Ben Obomanu is our 2008 sleeper.
QB Aaron Rodgers—Packers: Yes, he does not have a single, official NFL start under his belt, but he does, however, inherit a very potent offense that includes third-year wide out Greg Jennings and RB Ryan Grant. He played well when he took over for an injured Favre in Week 13 against Dallas last season, throwing for 201 yards, one score and no INTs. The Packers’ solid OL should make Rodgers a solid No. 2 QB with the potential to grow as the season progresses.
QB David Garrard—Jaguars: Everyone talks about the Jags and their running game, but people overlook their passing game. Yes, Garrard hasn’t thrown a career 300-yard game yet, but at the end of the 2007 season, he was trusted to throw the ball for scores. He netted 10 TDs and 1,179 yards in the last five games played. The addition of Ex-Raider Jerry Porter as a receiving target should prove a winner for Garrard’s development. After the elite QBs have been drafted this summer, look at Garrard to provide some solid points on your fantasy roster.
RB Julius Jones—Seahawks: This one is a little risky. As of right now, it is questionable whether or not he will obtain a starting position in Seattle. I do believe, however, that Shaun Alexander will become a cap casualty soon, as there are four RBs in Seattle at the moment. With Alexander out of the way, I think the RB job will be Jones' to lose in Seattle. He can be a great value if you draft him in the third or fourth round.
Jets RB: This race is difficult to project, but we should all pay attention to it. New York has seriously upgraded their running game by addressing blocking this free agency, most notably G Alan Faneca from the Steelers. Ex-Packer TE Bubba Franks joins a Jets team on the rebound to provide some blocking as well, particularly in the ground game. Whoever runs behind that line should fare well next season.
We think Thomas Jones is the dark horse to win the job. If he does, his age (29) could be a factor for injuries. Leon Washington looks like the better bet. He played more at the end of last season, and could be poised for a breakout year.
WR Sydney Rice—Vikings: WRs are difficult to predict, but this second-year receiver should begin to show signs of breaking out at the end of the year. Tarvaris Jackson has shown signs of improving, as his 1,019 yards and seven TDs in his last six games last year will attest. Newly added WR Bernard Berrian will help take some double coverage from Sydney, freeing up some routes. The running game will once again be primarily used in Minnesota’s offense, but Sydney should turn into the receiver the Vikings have been looking for since the trade of Randy Moss after the 2004 season. Look for Rice to develop into a solid second wide-receiver option this season.
TE Marcedes Lewis—Jaguars: The receiving corps has been overhauled in Jacksonville this offseason with the loss of Ernest Wilford to the Dolphins and the addition of Jerry Porter from the Raiders. What Lewis has, that Porter doesn't, is the chemistry of playing with Garrard last year, and that will give him an edge.
Garrard became comfortable with Lewis late last year, feeding him the ball 15 times for 162 yards and a score in his last four games, turning him into Garrard’s safety blanket. This will be Marcedes' third season in the NFL, the perfect time for a receiver to breakout.
Fantasy Dr. X, Derek Lofland, and Chad Samuels are fantasy columists for Fantasy Football Maniaxs.com