Early 2012 Sleepers & Breakout Candidates
Heading into the 2012 season, no matter how early it may be, we have our idea of who could be overdrafted, who are the busts in this years fantasy football drafts. Usually we love busts, in this case…no such luck. We talk about some other random NFL news including more Greg “the devil” Williams, the new Nike NFL uniforms, Sacha Grey and other mindless and soulful fantasy football conversation.
Alex Smith (SF) – Smith has never been a real threat in the world of fantasy, but with weapons like Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, tight end Vernon Davis and the Frank Gore/Kendall Hunter combo coming out of the backfield, we might finally see this leopard change his spots.
Andy Dalton (Cin) – You couldn’t have asked for more out of the Bengals rookie QB last season, but Cincinnati will undoubtedly need him to do more this year. If Dalton and the other rookie phenom from 2011—wide receiver A.J. Green—continue to grow their rapport, Dalton should prove to be a pretty decent backup for your fantasy team.
Ben Roethlisberger (Pit) – If Rashard Mendenhall can’t come back to full strength and Pittsburgh ends up having to lean on Isaac Redman as their starting RB, then you can bet your ass the Steelers will jump on Big Ben’s back to take them to the playoffs. With a WR corps of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and free reign to throw whenever necessary, Roethlisberger could easily end up in the top-seven fantasy QBs in 2012.
Carson Palmer (Oak) – Palmer is still pretty shaky out there, but nine starts in 2011 and a full off-season to work with Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford and Louis Murphy could be enough to cement him as a viable fantasy backup this year.
Christian Ponder (Min) – The kid has some real nice athleticism, but there are a lot of “ifs” heading into 2012. If Adrian Peterson comes back at full strength, if the Vikings get a good receiver to pair up with Percy Harvin, and if Kyle Rudolph is utilized well within the offense, then Ponder could surprise this season.
Jake Locker (Ten) – In just 31 total minutes on the field last season (basically one full game), Locker threw for 542 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions while adding another 56 yards and touchdown on the ground. THAT’S JUST RIDICULOUS!!! If the Titans hand him the keys to the car, like they should, his potential is off the charts. With an offensive corps made up of super-stud Kenny Britt, Chris Johnson, Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Jared Cook, Locker has a chance to be one of the sleepers of the year.
Jay Cutler (Chi) – Is the acquisition of WR Brandon Marshall enough to get Jay Cutler into the top 10 fantasy QBs? Probably not, but he should have no problem solidifying himself as a fantasy backup by jumping into the 14-16 range in 2012—especially if the Bears score another nice receiver in the draft.
Josh Freeman (TB) – Freeman had six games under 200 yards passing and just four multi-TD passing games (and none with three), yet his 2011 season was somewhat salvaged by the first four rushing TDs of his career. That being said, he’s still talented as hell and now has Vincent Jackson to throw to. Something still scares me about his fantasy prospects, but on paper, he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on in your draft.
Kevin Kolb (Ari) – Health will of course be an issue, but if he can stay on his feet, Kolb still has a chance to make some fantasy noise. Larry Fitzgerald can make any QB look good while Andre Roberts looks like he might be coming around. With the pressure being off now and a year in the system under his belt, he might turn a few heads this season.
Matt Cassel (KC) – The intriguing thing about Cassel here is not so much the talent around him—which there is plenty of in Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Dwayne Bowe, Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin, Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss—but more that the Chiefs plan on using the same type of offense as the Patriots this upcoming season. Moeaki and Boss aren’t Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but they ain’t bad either. Keep an eye out here.
Matt Flynn (Sea) – Flynn pretty much set himself up for life with that 480-yard, six-TD explosion in Week 17 last season. Is he really that good? Not possible, but he definitely has some fantasy appeal with a WR corps of Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Mike Williams to throw to. Can’t forget about tight end Zach Miller either…
Matt Ryan (Atl) – Ryan is obviously a breakout candidate, as nobody will be sleeping on him come draft day. Roddy White is still a gem, Julio Jones displayed some sick WR1-like talent last season, and it looks like Tony Gonzalez will be returning for his third swan song in 2012. Add in a fading running game (i.e. – Michael Turner) and Ryan could be poised to break into the top six or seven fantasy QBs this season.
Peyton Manning (Den) – Word has it that both Peyton’s arm and his conditioning are a lot farther along at this point than people think. If this is true—and I have no doubt that it is—then Manning has a real chance of re-establishing himself as a top-tier QB as soon as this season. Most experts I’ve seen thus far have him ranked down in the 10-14 range for QBs, but with a strong bunch of receivers to throw to (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Andre Caldwell) along with a trio of nice tight ends (Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme, Julius Thomas), those experts could very well be kicking themselves come mid-season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buf) – Fitzpatrick started out 2011 on fire and actually ended up just outside the fantasy top ten, but the middle of his season was absolutely dreadful. However, it turns out that the Harvard grad was playing with busted ribs during that time period (even worse than Tony Romo’s rib injury) which can easily explain his fall from grace. If he can stay healthy in 2012, Ryan could end up a pretty nice sleeper yet again.
Sam Bradford (StL) – Bradford has all the talent in the world, but he simply has no one to throw the ball to as the Rams employ one of the worst WR corps in the NFL. Danny Amendola’s return from injury will help, but if they can’t come up with some serious receiving talent in the draft this season, don’t expect too much here.
C.J. Spiller (Buf) – He’s not very big and would have trouble making it as an every-down back, but Spiller finally showed Bills fans why they made him a first-round pick a couple of years ago with an explosive finish to the 2011 season. His play-making ability is obvious, but he’ll need another Fred Jackson injury (assuming Buffalo resigns him) in order to become a true sleeper in 2012. Jackson should continue to see more touches when healthy, but being on the wrong side of 30-years-old (turned 31 in February) leaves him more apt to either wear or break down, so make sure you keep C.J. in mind when drafting.
Daniel Thomas (Mia) – People tend to have short memories when it comes to fantasy, so let me remind you that Miami gave up three picks in the 2011 NFL Draft to move up and grab Thomas to be their feature back of the future. With that, I’ll also mention that Thomas was plagued by injuries during the pre-season and never really got a chance to get going. Even so, Thomas combined for 239 total yards (202 rushing) and a touchdown in Weeks 2 and 3 before giving way to yet another injury. One last reminder: Though he was impressive and healthy throughout 2011, Reggie Bush truly is injury-prone. If Daniel can stay healthy and Reggie doesn’t, Thomas has a chance to put up some real nice numbers in 2012.
DeMarco Murray (Dal) – I doubt anyone will forget the monster numbers DeMarco put up for a while there in the middle of last season, so that’s why I have him here as a breakout candidate as opposed to a sleeper. With defenses unable to crowd the line due to the Cowboys aerial attack and Felix Jones losing weight to go back to his third-down role, Murray has a legitimate shot to be a top-10 fantasy RB in 2012.
Donald Brown/Delone Carter (Ind) – Do I believe that either of these guys is really all that good? No, not really, but one thing I DO know is that whenever a team starts a rookie quarterback all season, the position that benefits the most fantasy-wise is running back. Check out what Marshall Faulk did in Peyton Manning’s first year in 1998; or what MJD did last year with Blaine Gabbert; or what Peyton Hillis did with Colt McCoy in 2010; or Thomas Jones with Mark Sanchez in ’09; or Michael Turner with Matt Ryan in ‘08; etc… All I’m saying is to keep an eye on whichever one of these two backs wins the starting gig. You might be surprised.
Jacquizz Rodgers (Atl) – The Atlanta coaches love this kid’s electricity and want to get him more involved in the offense this season. Considering how much punishment Michael Turner’s body has endured the last four years and the fact that he’s now on the wrong side of 30-years-old, Rodgers could be a nice sleeper in 2012—especially during the second half of the season.
James Starks/Alex Green (GB) – Sometimes Starks looks like a stud-in-the-making, other times he looks plain lost. If Starks doesn’t show some consistency real soon, he could lose a share of the playing time to Alex Green this season. With Starks also being a bit injury-prone, its possible Green could sneak into a major role within this high-flying Packers offense. Alex, however, is coming off of a torn ACL himself, so nothing is certain in this backfield just yet. Keep an eye on how things develop during the offseason.
Michael Bush (Chi) – I’m putting Bush in the sleeper category simply in case of a Matt Forte hold-out. If Forte signs a deal or says he’ll play under his current franchise tag contract, Bush will have no more value than he had as a Raider. In fact, it will probably be even less due to the fact that Forte is more durable than Darren McFadden was/is.
Peyton Hillis (KC) – With Jamaal Charles coming off of ACL surgery, Peyton Hillis will undoubtedly be the Chiefs goal-line back and could see as much as a third of the carries this upcoming season. There’s no guarantee Charles comes back at full strength or makes it through the entire season, either, so keep an eye on the hefty Hillis on draft day—especially if you already drafted Jamaal.
Roy Helu (Was) – When Helu got the call in the middle of 2011, the rookie did more than impress—he dominated. Four 100-yard games (three rushing, one receiving) in a span of six weeks is an awesome feat for anybody, much less a rookie, and I expect more of the same in his sophomore season. Helu has pretty good size (5’11”, 219 lbs.), nice speed (4.42 40-yard dash) and great hands, so he can even be an every-down back if needed. What’s not to like? Throw in that Washington could be starting a rookie QB from Day 1 and you have the makings of fantasy gem here.
Ryan Mathews (SD) – Mathews has the potential to be the breakout prospect of the year this season. With Mike Tolbert in Carolina, Ryan won’t have to contend for carries/receptions and with Vincent Jackson gone as well, the Chargers may end up running the ball more. Toss in that Mathews was already a top-10 fantasy back last season in only 14 games (13 starts) and you’re looking at a sure-fire top-5 candidate in 2012—provided he can stay healthy.
Shonn Greene (NYJ) – Greene showed he could take on a full load last season racking up 283 touches on the year, though his final statistics were hardly impressive. That being said, what I like the most for Greene heading into 2012 is that the Jets will more than likely return to a rush-heavy attack after The Sanchize fell flat on his face last season. With Joe McKnight being the only real threat behind him at this point, Shonn should see at least 300 carries and might go into the double-digits in TDs. That’s some serious fantasy potential, folks.
Stevan Ridley/Shane Vereen (NE) – BenJarvus Green-Ellis supposedly had an off-year last season, yet he still managed to garner 11 rushing touchdowns. Believe it or not, the Patriots have been in the top-six in rushing touchdowns each of the last six seasons, a trend I see continuing into 2012. With The Law Firm gone, most of these will likely go to the powerful Ridley next season, but you can’t count out the versatile Shane Vereen as the Patriots actually drafted him a round before Ridley. Watch this battle closely throughout training camp.
Taiwan Jones/Mike Goodson (Oak) – One of these two undersized RBs will be a really nice (and necessary) handcuff to Darren McFadden this season. Jones has incredible play-making ability but may be just as injury-prone as McFadden. Goodson has more experience and showed he can perform at a high NFL level for a five-game stretch back in 2010, so I’m guessing he’ll win the initial backup role. Keep an eye on the training camp battle as this could be one of the more important handcuffs in fantasy drafts this season.
Toby Gerhart (Min) – Gerhart is listed here in case AP can’t make it back in time for the start of the season. Tony did pretty darn well for the Vikings last year after Peterson went down and in fact, he put up five straight games of double-digit fantasy points for his owners. He’s no Purple Jesus, obviously, but not bad as a sleeper if you need him early on in 2012.
Brandon Lloyd (NE) – The fact that he’ll be playing with Tom Brady alone makes him a top breakout prospect in 2012. I doubt he repeats the numbers he put up in 2010 (77-1,448-11) when he led the league in fantasy points, but if he can dominate as much as he did with Kyle Orton under center, who’s to say he can’t do it with the Stetson Man?
Steve Smith (StL) – Please don’t forget what Smitty did in 2009 when he made the Pro Bowl by catching 107 passes for 1,220 yards and seven TDs for the NY Giants. Injuries undoubtedly slowed him the past couple of seasons, but Smith showed the Rams’ brass that he’s pretty much back to normal now when he worked out for them in late March—hence the signing. If he beats out Danny Amendola for the starting slot role, Sam Bradford could easily make Smitty a PPR giant once again.
Demaryius Thomas (Den) – Demaryius went pretty nuts during the final third of 2011 and into the playoffs with Tim Tebow as his QB, so what do you think he’ll do with Peyton Manning? He’s going to tear it up, that’s what! Don’t forget about Eric Decker or Andre Caldwell either as Manning has a tendency to make EVERY wide receiver on his team a viable fantasy threat.
Denarius Moore (Oak) – Darrius Heyward-Bey may be the one who broke out of his shell last season, but Carson Palmer continues to go on record saying how much he loves Denarius Moore. When beat writers and film gurus say things about a player, listen to it, but take it with a grain of salt. When a QB comes out and says something about a player, you might want to listen a little bit harder. Nobody can question Moore’s insane play-making ability, but if he can add some consistency to the mix during his sophomore season, he’ll have big-time sleeper written all over him.
Golden Tate (Sea) – Tate took a step forward in the latter half of the 2011 season and finally looks ready to take on a more prominent role within the Seahawks offense. If he and the newly-acquired QB Matt Flynn can get on the same page during offseason workouts, Golden could be worth a later-round look as a nice sleeper.
Randall Cobb (GB) – I have no idea if the Packers can fit him into the starting lineup, but Cobb is WAY too talented and athletic not to get his fair share of playing time. If Randall can find a way to climb over Donald Driver and James Jones on the depth chart this offseason—which I believe he can—look for him to become one of those “damn, I coulda had him!” type of guys in fantasy drafts this year.
Julio Jones (Atl) – Jones has as much big-play ability as anyone in the entire league, and with Roddy White still lining up opposite him, defenses have no choice but to leave him in single-coverage. With the expectation Atlanta turns to the pass more often in 2012, Julio has legitimate WR1 upside as a breakout candidate.
Kenny Britt (Ten) – If Kenny Britt can stay healthy and keep his nose clean, I can all but guarantee he ends up a top-5 fantasy receiver this season. He’s just that good. Of course, those are a couple of big “ifs”, but the potential payoff is well worth it in my book.
Reggie Wayne (Ind) – Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III is going to have to throw the ball to somebody, right? Even though he may have lost a step, Reggie Wayne’s name alone should get him the ball a ton from his rookie QB. Regardless, when you consider how bad the Colts quarterback-play was last season, 75 catches for 960 yards and four TDs isn’t so bad when looking at what Wayne did. He may not put up double-digit TDs or have 100 catches, but he’ll be better than you (and everyone else in your fantasy league) expect and could end up in WR2-range.
Robert Meachem (SD) – Robert Meachem may actually be more talented than Marques Colston, even though Colston was the one who got all the pub down in New Orleans. He has good size at 6’2”, 210-pounds and can run like the wind, and now that he’s the top receiver in San Diego, he may actually get treated like the special talent that he is. Look for Meach to break into WR2 territory this upcoming fantasy season.
Titus Young (Det) – Though he was targeted 25 fewer times and caught 25 fewer balls than Nate Burleson, Titus Young put up almost the same exact amount of fantasy points as Nate did in 2011. Clearly proving to be the better playmaker towards the end of the season, Titus should see a larger role in the offense going forth and could end up with WR2 fantasy stats with Megatron demanding double-teams all season.
Torrey Smith (Bal) – Wide receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones were both amazing in their rookie seasons, but Torrey Smith wasn’t too far behind. Smith’s insane speed and ability to separate from his defender gives him a good shot to be the WR1 for the Ravens in 2012 as he already more than doubled Anquan Boldin’s TD-production (7-to-3) last year. If he can turn the corner on his route-running and develop more of a rapport with Joe Flacco (I believe he will do both), then don’t be shocked to see him reach his upside potential of mid-upper tier WR2 fantasy status.
Fred Davis (Was) – Before he was suspended for the final four games of last season, Davis was on pace to finish in the top-five fantasy tight ends with a chance to sneak into the top-three. If Robert Griffin III starts off the year under center (assuming the Redskins draft him), 2012 might be a bit up-and-down for the athletic 26-year-old, but after signing his one-year franchise tender, Davis will undoubtedly be going all out for your fantasy team as he plays for his big payday.
Gary Barnidge (Car) – The Panthers have been really high on Gary ever since they drafted him in the fifth round back in 2008, and even signed him to a one-year contract extension last season after not playing a down due to a broken ankle. Barnidge possesses higher-end speed and hands as far as tight ends go and actually has good blocking abilities as well (unlike Greg Olsen). The Panthers don’t look like they’ll resign Jeremy Shockey either due to their love for this guy. He might be worth a late-round flier in fantasy drafts this summer.
Jared Cook (Ten) – There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of years about the breaking out of one Mr. Jared Cook—and I believe 2012 will finally be the year it happens. We all know his athleticism is off the charts, but towards the end of last season, he finally showed it on the field when in two straight games he combined to catch 17 balls for 272 yards and a touchdown. Being in the final year of his rookie contract, look for Cook to break into the top tier of tight ends this upcoming season.
Joel Dreessen/Jacob Tamme (Den) – The Broncos went out and signed two highly-skilled tight ends for Peyton Manning to play with this season, and for good reason. Manning LOVES utilizing the tight end, as shown by Dallas Clark’s ascension into the top tier over the years. The only question here is not whether one of these two former backups will succeed or not, but WHICH one will? Watch the training camp battle between these two very closely this summer and whichever one ends up on top, go ahead and take a chance on him.
Kellen Davis (Chi) – Mike Tice, the Bears new offensive coordinator, loves to use the tight end in his offense schemes. This is obviously a huge plus for the newly re-signed Kellen Davis, but does Davis really have the skills to flourish here? Well, he may not end up in the top-10 in fantasy, but he IS a 6’7” former basketball player (at Michigan State), and we all know how well former hoops players have done at the tight end position in the NFL (i.e. – Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Davis, Jimmy Graham).
Kyle Rudolph (Min) – I’m interested to see how the Vikings fit the newly-acquired TE John Carlson into the mix, but my bet is still on the superiorly-talented Rudolph to gain the starting gig. If Minnesota doesn’t add another high-level receiver to the mix opposite Percy Harvin, Rudolph will be the second-most targeted guy on the field which will surely land him a hefty amount of receptions.
Martellus Bennett (NYG) – Bennett has all the makings of a big-time sleeper this season. First of all, he’s a former second-round pick for a reason as he has great size (6’6”, 267-pounds) and top-flight speed for a tight end (4.6 40-yard dash). Second, he’ll be playing on a Giants team that takes to the air quite a bit and will likely give him every possible chance to succeed. Third, he’s still just 25-years-old and will be playing for a long-term contract this season (signed for just one-year this offseason).
Tony Moeaki/Kevin Boss (KC) – What interests me the most with this tight end duo is the fact that Kansas City has stated that they will be going with the same type of two-tight-end offense New England uses this season. Of course, Moeaki and Boss aren’t Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but if the Chiefs are serious about involving their tight ends as much as they say they will, either of these two guys could be worth taking a chance on.
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