Offseason Extra: Early breakouts for 2014
The players you target as breakouts are the ones you're not afraid to reach for on Draft Day. After all, you believe they have the chance to be stars.
Don't pay attention to Average Draft Position when it comes to these players. If you want them, draft them a round or two before everyone else because if you're right, it will make it that much more satisfying in the end.
When looking at breakout players I usually identify three things. I'm trying to find someone who has had moderate success on the verge of doing something great, someone great on the verge of a career year or a rookie who can immediately become a star. Those are the kind of players I've highlighted here -- minus the rookies, for now.
We've already taken a look at some early sleepers for 2014, and this breakouts list will also evolve as the offseason goes on. We'll update it when news warrants and following the NFL Draft, but for now here are 12 guys for you to mull over with a long way to go before Draft Day.
, QB, 49ers
I had Kaepernick as a bust last season because I didn't like his weapons with Michael Crabtree out with an Achilles injury. Kaepernick finished as the No. 12 quarterback in standard leagues, but he was taken as the No. 9 quarterback in Round 5 based on ADP. This year, Kaepernick will get a full season with Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin , who is expected back as a free agent. He'll also get more work with second-year receiver Quinton Patton , and this receiving corps is coming together nicely. Kaepernick showed how good he can be with Crabtree healthy since he had five games with at least 19 Fantasy points during the 12 games Crabtree was out. He then closed the season -- including the playoffs -- with seven of eight games with at least 19 Fantasy points when Crabtree was active. In 2012, Kaepernick had at least 20 Fantasy points in six of 10 starts -- all with Crabtree. We'd love to see Kaepernick be more aggressive running the ball since he had at least seven Fantasy points on the ground in four of his final five games, and if that happens consistently this year his value will be incredible. I consider Kaepernick a Top 5 Fantasy quarterback.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 65-70 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Cam Newton , Matt Ryan , Nick Foles
, QB, Bears
Coach Marc Trestman is good for the Bears offense and great for Fantasy owners. He helped produce a Top 3 Fantasy running back in Matt Forte and two Top 10 receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery . He also helped produce the No. 3 Fantasy quarterback, but you have to combine Cutler and Josh McCown stats for that to be true since they totaled 366 Fantasy points in 2013. Cutler missed five games with ankle and groin injuries, but he was solid when healthy with 6 of 10 games (he was hurt early in the Week 7 game at Washington) with at least 20 Fantasy points. He opened the year with 20 or more points in five of six games, and he should continue to thrive this season. His receiving corps is arguably the best in the NFL with Marshall and Jeffery, and Forte and Martellus Bennett at tight end make this an elite unit. Cutler has been a solid Fantasy quarterback in the past -- he has three Top 12 finishes on his resume from 2007-09 -- but this could be the best year of his career. If he stays healthy, which always a big if, he could easily finish in the Top 10.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 125-130 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Philip Rivers , Russell Wilson , Andy Dalton
, RB, Bengals
Bernard had a solid rookie campaign in 2013 with 170 carries for 695 yards and five touchdowns and 56 catches for 514 yards and three touchdowns. He had double digits in Fantasy points in seven games, and he finished as the No. 16 running back in standard leagues. We're expecting a bump in production this year, and hopefully the Bengals give him more of a featured role. He shared playing time last season with BenJarvus Green-Ellis , who had 220 carries for 756 yards and seven touchdowns and four catches for 22 yards. If you give Bernard those extra 50 carries that went to Green-Ellis this season he would run for 895 yards, and those extra 20 Fantasy points make him a Top 10 running back, even without the additional touchdowns. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is expected to install a more run-based system, and you have to assume Bernard will get the majority of work while still being a candidate for 50-plus catches. So far, Jackson is saying all the right things. "He's going to have a lot -- I can promise you," Jackson said to ESPN.com. I consider Bernard a Top 15 Fantasy running back on Draft Day, and I would have no hesitation to draft him in Round 2 in all formats.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 20-25 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Frank Gore , Chris Johnson , C.J. Spiller
, RB, Broncos
Knowshon Moreno is expected to leave the Broncos as a free agent, which opens the door for Ball to start. He played second fiddle to Moreno last season and had 120 carries for 559 yards and four touchdowns and 20 catches for 145 yards. Ball played well when he had touches with at least nine Fantasy points in four of the six games he had double digits in carries. And Moreno was obviously a star with 241 carries for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns and 60 catches for 548 yards and three touchdowns. He had 11 games with double digits in Fantasy points and was the No. 5 Fantasy running back in standard leagues. Now, there's no guarantee Ball would come close to that kind of success, but Peyton Manning helps running backs shine. In 32 games as the starter for the Broncos in the regular season, Manning has helped Denver's running backs reach double digits in Fantasy points 23 times. If Moreno leaves you can expect the Broncos to add another running back to supplement Ball, but he's going to get the majority of work. There's a lot to like about Ball heading into this season, and he should be considered a high-end No. 2 running back. I'd take him in Round 2, but he'll end up being drafted in Round 3 in most formats.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 25-30 overall
I'd take him ahead of: C.J. Spiller , Frank Gore , Ray Rice
, RB, Cardinals
There were differing takes on Ellington during the NFL scouting combine. General manager Steve Keim said Ellington won't be the "featured" back as the team plans to use multiple guys, including fellow second-year rusher Stepfan Taylor . But then coach Bruce Arians said about Ellington that the Cardinals want "to build our offense around him." We hope Arians wins this power struggle -- and make no mistake, Ellington will get plenty of work in both scenarios -- because he's a special talent. Despite playing behind Rashard Mendenhall (who retired this offseason), Ellington was the No. 24 Fantasy running back in standard leagues as a rookie in 2013 with 118 carries for 652 yards and three touchdowns and 39 catches for 371 yards and one touchdown. By comparison, Mendenhall had 217 carries for 687 yards and eight touchdowns and 19 catches for 134 yards. If you give Ellington the 99 additional carries that went to Mendenhall he would have run for 1,197 yards. Those additional 55 Fantasy points would have put him at No. 13 in Fantasy points, and that doesn't take into account any additional touchdowns. Those are lofty expectations for Ellington, but the potential is there. He's worth drafting no later than Round 4 as a No. 2 Fantasy running back with plenty of upside.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 40-45 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Steven Jackson , Maurice Jones-Drew , Knowshon Moreno
, RB, Patriots
We had Vereen as a breakout last season, but a broken wrist in Week 1 ruined his campaign. We'll gladly go back to the well this year since Vereen has elite talent and the potential to be a star. He played in just eight games last year and had five games with at least nine Fantasy points. He averaged 10.8 Fantasy points a game, and if you project that over 16 games he would have been the No. 14 running back in standard leagues. That's also taking into account he was at less than 100 percent when he returned from the wrist injury in Week 11. He still managed 47 catches, and again projecting that over 16 games, would give him 94 -- think about that in PPR formats. The Patriots will rotate who gets the ball on rushing downs, but Vereen is a key cog in the passing game with the ability to get plenty of carries as well. He could easily be a Top 20 Fantasy running back in standard leagues if he stays healthy, and he has the chance to be a Top 15 option in PPR leagues. I would draft him in Round 4 in standard leagues and in Round 3 in PPR formats.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 45-50 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Chris Johnson , Steven Jackson , Knowshon Moreno
, WR, Packers
Like Vereen, Cobb was one of my breakout candidates last season, but he also had his season cut short because of a broken leg. He should live up to the hype this year. Cobb was great in 2012 with 80 catches for 954 yards and eight touchdowns and 10 carries for 132 yards. The Packers were expecting 100 catches for Cobb last year, and he was on his way prior to going down in Week 6 at Baltimore. He had 25 catches coming into that game, which put him on pace for exactly 100. And he had three games in his first five with double digits in Fantasy points. The Packers are expected to let James Jones walk as a free agent, which should open the door for Cobb to see even more targets. And he's entering a potential contract year, which should be more motivation to succeed. Don't shy away from Cobb as a No. 1 Fantasy receiver, and the Packers offense should explode in 2014 with Cobb and quarterback Aaron Rodgers healthy for a full season. I would gladly take Cobb as my No. 1 receiver in Round 4 in standard leagues and Round 3 in PPR formats.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 35-40 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Keenan Allen , Andre Johnson , Larry Fitzgerald
, WR, Vikings
Patterson closed last season with flashes of his tremendous playmaking ability. He had double digits in Fantasy points in four games in a row and averaged more than 15 Fantasy points over that span. He had 15 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns in those four games and eight carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns. And that's only scratching the surface of what he's capable of doing, especially now with Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator. Turner has already put in 10 plays for Patterson, according to general manager Rick Spielman, and we hope those are similar to the routes he drew up for Josh Gordon as the offensive coordinator for the Browns last year. Gordon, like Patterson, had no quarterback to speak of with Brian Hoyer , Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden throwing him passes, but Turner still helped him finish as the No. 2 Fantasy receiver in standard leagues behind Demaryius Thomas with 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns. We don't expect Turner to replicate those stats with Patterson regardless of who is under center in Week 1 for the Vikes, but he does have Top 20 potential. He's worth drafting as a No. 2 Fantasy receiver in Round 5.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 55-60 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Torrey Smith , Michael Floyd , T.Y. Hilton
, WR, Cowboys
Williams played well as a rookie, and now he's expected to take on a larger role as a sophomore in 2014. Miles Austin is out of the picture, which will open the door for Williams to be a full-time starter. He did well in that role in a limited capacity last season when Austin was dealing with hamstring problems. Williams started five of seven games in October and November and had five touchdowns over that span with at least 12 Fantasy points three times. He had six or more targets in a game six times and finished with at least 70 receiving yards or a touchdown four times, so when he gets the volume of work he tends to produce. And that's what should happen this season playing opposite Dez Bryant and Jason Witten . Those two will command the majority of attention from opposing defenses, allowing Williams to shine in man coverage. Tony Romo showed he wasn't afraid to trust Williams as a rookie, and he should continue to improve in his second year. He's a No. 3 Fantasy receiver with upside on Draft Day in the majority of leagues.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 95-100 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Cecil Shorts , Anquan Boldin , Dwayne Bowe
, WR, Giants
Randle has the chance for a big year in 2014 if the Giants make him their No. 2 receiver as expected. Hakeem Nicks is expected to leave as a free agent, meaning Randle should start opposite Victor Cruz . He showed some big-play ability last season with four games with double digits in Fantasy points and six games with at least eight points. He only had five games with six or more targets (he had at least 60 receiving yards or a touchdown in three of those outings) so we'd like to see what he can do with more passes in his direction. The addition of new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo should help all the Giants, especially quarterback Eli Manning , and we hope Randle will benefit as well. This will be his third season in the NFL, so a breakout campaign is a definite possibility, and he should be able to build on last year's success with 41 catches for 611 yards and six touchdowns. I like Randle as a high-end No. 3 Fantasy receiver with the chance to be a Top 20 option if things go his way. Just make sure Nicks is gone and another standout receiver isn't added via free agency or the draft to throw off Randle's upside.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 115-120 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Hakeem Nicks , Brian Hartline , Steve Johnson
, TE, Redskins
When Reed was drafted by the Redskins last season in the third round I expected him to have a minimal impact as a rookie but become a quality Fantasy option in 2014. He was better than I thought in his first year with 45 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games, but he should make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Reed missed the final six games with concussion issues, but he's expected to be fine for offseason workouts. He averaged 7.5 Fantasy points a game when he was healthy last year, and if you project that over 16 games he would have finished as the No. 7 Fantasy tight end in standard leagues with 121 points. We think he's capable of being in that range, and he's a No. 1 Fantasy tight end coming into the season. The Redskins should rebound in their passing game with Robert Griffin III coming back from his knee injury at 100 percent, and a new voice with head coach Jay Gruden and former tight ends coach Sean McVay being promoted to offensive coordinator. McVay obviously knows what Reed is capable of, and Gruden likes to rely on his tight ends. Last year, as the offensive coordinator for the Bengals, Gruden had 126 targets to Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert combined, and they finished with 85 catches for 906 yards and six touchdowns and 110 Fantasy points. Combined they would have been the No. 9 Fantasy tight end, so there's a lot of potential for Reed in this offense.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 80-85 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Jordan Cameron , Kyle Rudolph , Martellus Bennett
, TE, Eagles
Ertz has a lot of work to do to live up to being a breakout candidate. After all, he had just 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie in 2013, and Brent Celek is expected to return next year. But Celek doesn't have the same receiving prowess as Ertz, and the Philadelphia Enquirer expects Ertz to be the "primary receiving tight end next season." Even though Celek played 77 percent of the snaps, he was more of a blocker than receiver, which shouldn't change. And Ertz closed the season with 25 catches for 290 yards and five touchdowns over his final nine games, including the playoff loss to the Saints. If you project that over 16 games he would have finished with 44 catches for 516 yards and nine touchdowns for 115 Fantasy points. That would have made him the No. 9 tight end in standard leagues. We're not sure if Ertz can reach those stats this season, but he's worth the gamble in Chip Kelly's offense. I like Ertz as a low-end No. 1 Fantasy tight end in the majority of leagues.
Will likely be drafted: Pick No. 115-120 overall
I'd take him ahead of: Jordan Cameron , Antonio Gates , Delanie Walker