It is never too early to look ahead to next season and wonder who will be the breakout fantasy stars of 2012, especially if your fantasy squad this year has no shot at making the playoffs.
The NFL is loaded with more young talent right now than there is at an American Idol cattle call. The league is filled to the brim with highly-touted skilled players on the verge of stardom who have only scratched the surface of their fantasy values.
There is a special half-dozen I think will emerge as fantasy mainstays in 2012. Here are six young players who should be fantasy studs in 2012.
Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings (QB)
When you watch Ponder play and scan his stats, you have to realize that since he has been anointed the starting quarterback in Minnesota...
(A) He has barely had any help from the ailing Adrian Peterson, so defenses have been focused on stopping him.
(B) He has been throwing to a receiver corps that is a Percy Harvin headache away from being the worst in the NFL. Oh, and did I mention the Vikings are 2-11?
But Ponder has been a bright spot in Vikingsville. He is flat-out fast—possibly the second-fastest QB next to Michael Vick in the league—so he will be one of the leaders in rushing yards among quarterbacks in 2012.
Ponder can also throw the ball pretty well. He has had four multi-TD passing games and torched a Denver Broncos defense that has been shutting down everyone else during their Tim Tebow Tour for 381 yards.
Next season, when Peterson is healthy, the Vikings acquire or draft receiver help and Ponder is more seasoned, this kid should be a fantastic fantasy find.
Roy Helu, Washington Redskins (RB)
Tim Hightower’s demise has led to Helu’s fantasy rise, and now we all have a good idea of what to expect from Helu in 2012.
Helu has foreshadowed his future fantasy worth over the last three weeks since becoming Washington’s top tailback. He has rushed for 100 yards in each of those weeks, scored two touchdowns and added 13 receptions.
Yes, in a world of specialty running backs, Helu can do it all—run, receive and score. The only thing he cannot do is cut down on Rex Grossman’s turnovers.
You know how much Washington head coach Mike Shanahan loves taking little-known running backs and turning them into 1,000-yard fantasy demigods. Add Helu to the laundry list with the likes of Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary.
This wrecking ball on legs will leave an even larger mark on the fantasy football world next year.
2011 has been the Year of the Hamstring for receivers, and Jones has been one of the main targets of the same hamstring bandit who has robbed Houston’s Andre Johnson and Dallas’ Miles Austin of multiple games.
Blessed with more speed than a greyhound on crystal meth, Jones has had some major moments when he has been healthy. Four 100-yard games, two two-TD contests and numerous SportsCenter-worthy catches have made fantasy owners’ mouths water.
Jones' nagging hamstring problems and slippery-fingers syndrome have held him back this season, though. Someone with his physical tools should have more 670 receiving yards and four scores at this juncture. Bank on him being a 1,000-yard, 10-TD pass-catcher next season.
Jonathan Baldwin, Kansas City Chiefs (WR)
The Chiefs might only have one Dwayne Bowe on the field in 2011, but in 2012 it is going to look like they have two. Baldwin is almost the spitting image of Bowe due to his size, strength, leaping ability, hands and above-average speed for a tall man.
Baldwin’s 2011 season was stunted thanks to his own immaturity, as he got into a preseason fight with veteran running back Thomas Jones and broke his wrist, causing him to miss several weeks.
When Baldwin returned, Steve Breaston had a strong hold on the No. 2 receiver slot, forcing Baldwin into part-time duty.
When Baldwin has played and been thrown to by an NFL quarterback (Matt Cassel, not Tyler Palko), he has shown flashes of why he was drafted in the first round. Next season, with Cassel at quarterback and a full training camp under his belt, Baldwin should emerge as a fantasy stud.
Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals (TE)
Gresham hauled in 52 passes for 471 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Now in his sophomore season in the NFL, he already has 40 receptions for 407 yards and five touchdowns, and he still has a month’s worth of games to play. See the progression?
Next year, quarterback Andy Dalton should be even better at getting the ball to Gresham, and No. 1 receiver A.J. Green should be better at drawing more defensive backs his way and clearing room underneath for Gresham to do his dirty work.
The next step for Gresham is making plays downfield. He was a big-play tight end when he was a star at Oklahoma, but he has only averaged 9.5 yards per grab in the NFL.
Look for all of his numbers to improve in 2012 and for him to become one of the top 10 tight ends to own.
Alex Henery, Philadelphia Eagles (K)
Football fans, especially the hate-fueled ones in Philly, might only remember Henery for the two chip-shot field goals he missed that helped the Eagles lose a crucial early-season game against the San Francisco 49ers.
But fantasy owners know that Henery has been super-solid in all of his other contests this season. Take away the San Fran fiasco, and Henery has connected on 15 of his 16 FG tries and has been perfect on his 31 extra-point attempts.
Henery has not had the scoring chances many people thought he would have thanks to Michael Vick being constantly injured and DeSean Jackson constantly disappearing or being benched. But next season, when the Eagles’ high-powered offense gets rolling again, Henery should be a top-five fantasy kicker thanks to the additional field-goal and extra-point opportunities.