Arian Foster vaulted from an average fantasy running back to the best fantasy player overall last season
As each season of fantasy football passes by, a lot of familiar faces top the season's final rankings. The Peyton Mannings and Adrian Petersons of the world stay steady year in, year out.
But what can make or break your team is drafting the right sleeper. Last year, surprising performances by the likes of Michael Vick, Peyton Hillis, Arian Foster, Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson carried owners to paydirt, both literally and figuratively.
So with another NFL season fast approaching, it's worthwhile to speculate on some potential breakout players this season. The following is a look at one player at each skill position who could take the fantasy world by storm in the 2011-2012 season.
Almost gone are the days of a team using one running back exclusively. Most teams have systems that employ two running backs, and sometimes in virtual timeshares.
That is unlikely going to be the case for Cowboys running back Felix Jones in 2011. Marion Barber will now be taking handoffs from Jay Cutler in Chicago, leaving Jones little to no competition for carries.
It's looking like Jones will be the feature back in one of the most talented offenses in the league. He's looked very strong in both training camp and in two preseason games as well, and everything is looking up for the dynamic runner.
The only issue with Jones might be durability. But if he can stay healthy and handle a heavy workload, he could easily become a Top 10 fantasy running back this season.
Honorable Mention: Beanie Wells, Arizona
After struggling throughout much of the 2010 season, New York Giants wideout Mario Manningham finished the year on fire. Over his last three games, he had at least 100 receiving yards in each game and a combined four touchdowns.
His strong play at the end of last year should bode well for 2011, especially since much of it had to do with the injury to fellow wideout Steve Smith. Smith is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving the starting job opposite Hakeem Nicks all to Manningham.
Manningham should be able to reap the benefits of all the attention placed on Nicks, one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.
Last season the fourth-year pro had nine receiving touchdowns even though he played most of the year as the third wide receiver. A full season as the starter could mean that he could challenge for the most touchdowns by a wideout.
Honorable Mention: Percy Harvin, Minnesota
Brandon Pettigrew of the Detroit Lions finished third among tight ends in 2010 in receptions. His 71 grabs trailed only Jason Witten and Chris Cooley, some great company.
What's most impressive about his 2010 season was that the Lions played much of the year without starting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Sure, Detroit passed more than almost any other team in the NFL last year, but that doesn't take away from what Pettigrew was able to do. He almost doubled his statistics from his rookie year in 2009 and looks to be one of the better young talents at the tight end position.
If Stafford is able to stay healthy, look for Pettigrew to improve even further this year. His biggest increase should come in touchdowns (he only has six in his career) as the Lions should have more red-zone opportunities in 2011.
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans
Matt Ryan's 2010 season certainly puts himself on the cusp of fantasy quarterback superstardom. He threw for 3,705 yards last season with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
A few things should give Ryan a great chance of entering the upper echelon in 2011. All those things result from the drafting of wide receiver Julio Jones, who will immediately step in and start on the opposite side of superstar Roddy White.
Adding Jones this year is as good a timing as ever, as second option tight end Tony Gonzalez, is well past his prime and declining steadily.
Throughout his three seasons in the NFL, Ryan has not had a solid wide receiving option other than White. That will be different in 2011, and the team has already said they are going to open up the passing game.
Not only does Ryan have another weapon to throw to, but the team needs to be leery of handing the ball off too much to Michael Turner. He's had a heavy workload over the last three years, and has not been the same player over the last two seasons that he was in his breakout year in 2008.
Honorable Mention: Sam Bradford, Saint Louis