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Top 16 fantasy football breakout players for 2014
By Tim Heaney
Everyone who plays fantasy football games digs for sleepers, but don't forget the early- and middle-rounders that are primed to take a step forward. The 2014 crop of breakout candidates should be marked in bold on your fantasy football cheat sheet.
In 2013, Pep Hamilton's Stanford playbook connection boosted Luck's efficiency and top-10-quarterback standing. Along with Hakeem Nicks' arrival, healthy returns of Reggie Wayne (knee) and Dwayne Allen (hip); Coby Fleener's development; and any semblance of a running game would push Luck, maybe the most alluring QB keeper, into top-five or better territory.
After climbs in attempts and accuracy, the third-year slinger gains an intriguing mentor in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who helped mold Philadelphia's Nick Foles and will install tenets of Chip Kelly's system. Better pass protection and deep-ball execution of Miami's weapons, chiefly Mike Wallace, would propel this rising backup into every-week consideration.
Lisfranc issues stalled his rookie year, but his yards per carry impressed as he regained lower-body crispness. Bell is happy to see Maurkice Pouncey healthy again and zone-blocking Mike Munchak as offensive line coach. LeGarrette Blount is a spell back, not a usurper. Dri Archer's unique role won't interfere. Drafters are justified in first-round confidence for Bell.
He's this list's biggest boom-or-bust option, but there's plenty of the former. Ball rolled from Week 11 onward, averaging 6.5 yards per tote as his role grew. That's a tiny sample, and he must perfect protection of Peyton Manning, but for a well-rounded back taking nearly full-time hand-offs from No. 18, it's hard not to consider him a better investment than most other late-first-round backs.
Adrian Peterson's former understudy found a clear path is Gus Bradley's Seahawks South. Gerhart's motor, vision and underrated slipperiness for a 6-foot, 231-pounder scream 'feature back'. Jacksonville retooled their line (welcome back, Luke Joeckel) and will revise their run schemes to protect Chad Henne and Blake Bortles. Few, if any, outside the position's top 12 boast Gerhart's combo of expected utilizations and untapped potential.
Durability concerns cloud the 5-foot-9, 199-pounder's future, but Arizona seems committed to letting him shoulder a nearly full per-game load. Hard to blame them, after his 5.5 rushing average and 39 receptions last year. Stepfan Taylor is intriguing but raw, while Jonathan Dwyer isn't a desirable No. 1. Even if he doesn't get every short-yardage call, his playmaking ability makes him an RB2, especially in reception-rewarding games, with a shade of C.J. Spiller explosiveness.
Ray Rice's off-field concerns and his dud of a 2013 effort must have Baltimore thinking about the future. Pierce had talent as a part-timer and may have the situation ready to take the next step. His one-cut style is a fine mold for Gary Kubiak's system, which fueled Arian Foster's rise. Rice's two-game suspension will give Pierce a chance to seize the duties for himself. If so, it's doubtful Baltimore turns away from the 24-year-old.
As he did last year with Cleveland's Josh Gordon, Norv Turner, Minnesota's new OC, will install creative ways to feed Patterson and mask shaky QB play. Many may overvalue Patterson, but he flashed elite form in 2013 and should compile more yardage in this vertical system. Low-end WR2 expectations, more safely high WR3, is a fine baseline for his realistic shot at Gordon-like upside.
Miles Austin's departure further paves the way for Williams to build on his promising rookie campaign. Scott Linehan, the new play-caller, hinted he wants Dallas to take more shots downfield. Tony Romo (back) appears on track for Week 1, and given his penchant for big plays, Williams (16.7 yards per grab last year) has an Alshon Jeffery-like opportunity waiting.
In a run-first Seahawks attack, he showed muted but meaningful progress that will grow louder this year. Matthew Stafford basically has paced the league in passing tries. There'll be an adjustment period with the new offense, which has ample mouths to feed, yet the fast-paced aerial attitude confirms the sure-handed snare has career-best numbers, maybe WR2 steadiness, in his future.
The Louisiana State alum tailed off last season in this faltering passing game, but he found the end zone in five of six games between Weeks 5 and 11. Via Ben McAdoo's Green Bay Packers-like playbook, a revived Eli Manning should make the third-year riser his No. 2 target and a second or third fantasy catcher -- possibly a more reliable incarnation of James Jones.
Though weekly numbers were inconsistent, Stills rapidly entered Drew Brees' circle of trust last year, especially on bombs. The Oklahoma alum is absorbing all three starting wideout spots. Brandin Cooks becoming the new Darren Sproles-Lance Moore won't hurt; this passing game will remain diverse. In any format, mainly non-PPR, Stills could become a WR3 the majority of the year with frequent No. 2 comfort.
Here's a bargain version of Stills, especially in standard scoring. The elephant is whether Jake Locker can maximize his 6-foot-4, 203-pound target, but Ken Whisenhunt's guidance typically improves QB play. While Hunter's hands need work, he proved he's a big-play and jump-ball threat with a 19.7 yards-per-reception average in 2013. Distance-scoring leaguers may not have to wait to make him a set-and-forget player.
Austin's first-year woes stemmed from a mix of learning the game and misguided strategy from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. As the season progressed, Schotty positioned Austin in better spots to use his speed. This time, with an expanded role and acumen, he's in place to accomplish what overzealous supporters expected last year. Luckily, for a WR4 price at most, it's a fine gamble.
Norv Turner digs this position. Rudolph's red (zone) nose already has shined. He should shout out with glee over the targets he'll see from either Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater. Jay Novacek, Antonio Gates, Jordan Cameron ... Rudolph is primed to go down in history as Norv Turner's next deer that reins in passes, and he'll be a Christmas gift with a middle-rounds bow.
Ertz (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) should see the lion's share of tight end work in an offense that embraces the position. DeSean Jackson's departure leaves some downfield calls for the taking. Ertz is a nightmare inside the 20 and can rack up plenty of looks and yardage in this furiously paced scheme. He's one of the best middle-round bets to make the leap.
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