Offseason Extra: Repeat or regress?

Nothing's better than having a player on your Fantasy Football team who outperforms his draft position.

Well, maybe winning the Powerball while surrounded by swimsuit models at a five-star steakhouse is better, but not by a lot.

Every year, players we draft past the first few rounds end up doing better than players we actually take in the first few rounds -- most of them do it for the first time in their careers. What happens next is always the issue: Can they keep it up or was their one big year a flash in the pan?

For the most part, breakout players struggle to repeat their feats. Some examples from a year ago with standard-scoring league Fantasy points as a measuring stick:

Tight Ends
  2010 2011   2010 2011
Michael Vick 337 268 Marcedes Lewis 118 46
Matt Ryan 295 331 Rob Gronkowski 105 240
Josh Freeman 291 236 Zach Miller 90 23
Running Backs
Wide Receivers
  2010 2011   2010 2011
Arian Foster 309 249 Brandon Lloyd 203 126
Jamaal Charles 222 12 Dwayne Bowe 198 146
Peyton Hillis 217 87 Mike Wallace 178 170
Ray Rice 197 298 Hakeem Nicks 163 161
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 176 147 Steve Johnson 158 142
Mike Tolbert 141 150 Mike Williams 151 91
LeGarrette Blount 122 116 Jeremy Maclin 148 113
      Mario Manningham 139 76

Seventeen of these 21 players, including every single wide receiver, regressed to some degree in 2011 after a grand 2010. A dozen of the 17 players regressed by at least 15 percent, though to be fair five of them had injuries to blame.

Still, this isn't exactly a glowing recommendation to reach for the breakouts of the 2011 season. After all, they're not called "breakouts" for nothing.

We've identified a dozen players who easily outperformed their average draft position in 2011 and look ahead to see whether or not they can be counted on to do it again in 2012.

Antonio Brown , WR, Steelers
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 127th overall, 44th wide receiver taken
What happened? Believe it or not, Brown exceeded our lofty hopes last year with 1,108 yards on 69 catches. He was able to find single coverage often because defenses accounted for Mike Wallace deep speed on nearly every play. Brown himself had great speed and his ability to run after the catch made him a very dangerous component of the Steelers offense. And how's this for clutch: 57 of his 69 receptions were good for first downs or touchdowns, meaning that Ben Roethlisberger learned to lean on him. The only negative in Brown's game was his lack of scores -- he only found the end zone twice during the regular season, the same amount of times he scored vs. the Falcons in a preseason game.
Repeat or regress? Scoring more than two touchdowns should be a slam dunk for Brown, and catching 69 passes is probably attainable too. Whether or not Brown can keep up his 16.1 receiving average is what will puzzle Fantasy owners the most. What helps his case is that the Steelers will likely be more pass-friendly in 2012 given their running back issues and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley looking to stay aggressive. Assuming the Steelers passing offense doesn't change drastically, Brown should still be able to exploit defenses.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 70 pick, roughly the 25th wide receiver taken.

Reggie Bush , RB, Dolphins
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 78th overall, 31st running back taken
What happened? Bush said for years that he could handle the duties of a primary running back, and he did exactly that in 2011. The Dolphins got little from rookie Daniel Thomas (a hamstring injury is to blame) and Bush stepped up. He was perfect for Miami; their passing game was meandering and their offensive identity needed a running back to succeed. Bush played every game until Week 17 when a knee injury kept him out of a meaningless game. Bush set career-highs in rush attempts (216) and rush yards (1,086) while matching a career-best in rushing scores with six. The 1,382 total yards he had was also a personal best.
Repeat or regress? Despite these numbers, and the fact that Bush is entering a contract year, there are some red flags. For one, Bush was given the opportunity to flourish because of Thomas' injury and because coach Tony Sparano wanted to lean on his hot feet in the run game. Thomas will be back but Sparano and his coaching staff won't be. They have been replaced by Joe Philbin and his West Coast Offense principles, which might mean more passing than running; the Dolphins were sixth in rush attempts and 28th in pass attempts last year. But the bigger issue is that Bush's track record of staying healthy isn't good -- he did get hurt at the end of last season, after all. Though he'll enter the season just 27 years old with only 1,077 career touches, there are too many issues at hand that should keep his expectations limited.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 60 pick (Top 50 in PPR), roughly the 20th running back taken.

Victor Cruz , WR, Giants
2011 Draft Averages: Wasn't drafted
What happened? Cruz stepped into the old Steve Smith role as the slot receiver for the Giants and transformed it into the Victor Cruz role. He was able to blow the top off of Cover-2 scheme-type defenses by taking short- and mid-range passes and going long with them. Once he found playing time starting in Week 3 at Philadelphia he never relinquished his it, leading all Giants receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns. Cruz had a touchdown or 90 yards receiving in 10 of the 14 games he played in starting in Week 3. He also went 10 for his final 14 in games with at least six catches. Twenty-five of his catches went for at least 20 yards. In short, he made the Giants' offense explode -- so much so that the Patriots did their best to double-cover him in the Super Bowl.
Repeat or regress? There might be a little regression here, if only because the Giants' receivers might be easier to cover in 2012. Hakeem Nicks and Cruz are locks to stay in the fold, but Mario Manningham is likely to be on the move. Until the Giants replace him with someone who will threaten defenses, Cruz might continue to see a lot of tight, tough coverage. He is certainly not a flash in the pan, but asking him to again put up over 1,500 yards and match nine touchdowns might be too tall an order.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 35 pick (Top 25 in PPR), roughly the eighth wide receiver taken.

Rob Gronkowski , TE, Patriots
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 106th overall, 10th tight end taken
What happened? Gronkowski became the NFL's single-season yardage leader for a tight end by averaging 82.9 yards and slightly more than one touchdown per game. He was afforded this opportunity by playing almost every down in the Patriots' debilitating pass-first offense. Defenses had no answer for the 6-foot-6 behemoth, who actually had as many two-touchdown games as zero-touchdown games (six). It came to pass that the only thing that could slow Gronk down was a high-ankle sprain, which really limited him in Super Bowl XLVI.
Repeat or regress? Ninety catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns is unheard of for a tight end. Wide receivers barely do that well -- maybe one or two get close to those kinds of numbers every year. It's going to be tough for Gronkowski to do it again. Not only will defenses work to limit him in 2012, but the Patriots' offense is expected to get re-tooled this offseason. A boost to the receiving corps and run game is in store, both of which could take opportunities away from Gronkowski. However, this doesn't mean that he won't do well -- if he finishes with 75 catches, 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, you'll still be happy with him, won't you?
Early 2012 outlook: Top 30 pick, should be the first or second tight end taken in every draft.

Jimmy Graham , TE, Saints
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 84th overall, seventh tight end taken
What happened? Graham fulfilled all of the promise he displayed during the preseason, playing a ton for the Saints and being Drew Brees go-to receiver. He finished second all-time in receiving yards in a season for a tight end with 1,310 (Rob Gronkowski finished first) but finished first in most targets for a tight end with 149. Only four other receivers had more in 2011. He had 80 yards and/or a touchdown in all but four games and finished the regular season on a three-game touchdown streak (five if you count his playoff games).
Repeat or regress? There are only two ways Graham won't be as effective in 2012: If he gets hurt or if he gets figured out by defenses. Without a track record of getting hurt, we can't sweat his health, but if defenses do whatever they can to limit his role for the Saints then he could suffer while other Saints receivers flourish. Other factors like his supporting cast and Drew Brees offensive line will be important, but Graham proved in 2011 that he's a difficult matchup for defenses to account for, and his athleticism combined with his heavy role in the Saints' pass-happy offense make him a very good Fantasy choice.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 35 pick, should be the first or second tight end taken in every draft.

Roy Helu , RB, Redskins
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 149th overall, 52nd running back taken
What happened? Helu was a trendy preseason Fantasy draft pick that owners got tired of waiting for and dropped. Then when Tim Hightower went down with a torn ACL, interest in Helu picked up again, and he caught fire once head coach Mike Shanahan committed to him. Helu had a four-game stretch where he had at least 23 carries per game and recorded three 100-yard games and two touchdowns. But then he got banged up and wasn't effective in the Redskins' final two games -- when Evan Royster recorded back-to-back 100-yard games.
Repeat or regress? Helu should be afforded an opportunity to be a part of the Redskins' run game, if not be the lead dog. His receiving skills on top of his rushing abilities give them a nice dynamic runner. The issue is that Royster showed plenty of flash last season and could get in the mix, making for a two-headed monster. That could be a headache for Fantasy owners as Mike Shanahan has been known to play games with how he uses at running back from week to week. This could end up being a DeAngelo Williams-Jonathan Stewart type of backfield duo, which is great for Washington but painful for Fantasy owners. Helu has the makings of a No. 2 running back, but a steep price tag on Draft Day might deter some people.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 50 pick, roughly the 20th running back taken.

Marshawn Lynch , RB, Seahawks
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 85th overall, 32nd running back taken
What happened? Lynch's first full year with the Seahawks got off to a slow start, but a combination of the team's offensive line jelling and Lynch understanding the nuances of the zone blocking system while marrying it with his hard-nosed running style made him tough to stop. Everyone knows the rest from there: 11 straight games with a touchdown, seven games with over 100 total yards and nine games with at least 13 Fantasy points. And lots of Skittles. Lynch set career-highs with 285 carries, 1,204 yards and a dozen rushing touchdowns while playing in a contract year.
Repeat or regress? It might be easier to make the argument that he'll regress, but there are some positives here if Lynch stays with Seattle. One, he'd be among the select few running backs with 20-touch potential from week to week. Two, he'd be in a system he's familiar with and on an offense with strong rush principles. Three, he's played well when given the opportunity: In all three of his NFL seasons where he's had at least 200 carries, he's come through with at least a 4.0 rush average, at least 1,000 yards rushing (at least 1,299 total yards) and at least seven touchdowns. Does that mean he's first-round worthy? If his floor is 1,300 total yards and seven touchdowns and his ceiling is what he did last year, then he is worth a look with an early pick.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 20 pick, if not Top 12, roughly the sixth running back taken.

Eli Manning , QB, Giants
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 85th overall, 13th quarterback taken
What happened? Manning made strides in two areas: Yards per pass attempt and turnovers. After throwing 21 interceptions in 2010, Manning was picked 16 times in 2011 but only had three games with multiple picks. But the growth in passing -- nearly a full yard per attempt more with another 50 pass attempts compared to the year prior -- made his numbers sizzle. He finished 67 yards shy of 5,000 yards and set career-highs with 67 completions of 20-plus yards and 18 of 40-plus yards. Victor Cruz was a huge factor in Manning's rise to success.
Repeat or regress? With three straight seasons with over 4,000 yards and at least 27 touchdowns, it's tough to pin Manning as a bust. Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are set to be back with the Giants and the team might take steps to improve at tight end after Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum tore their ACLs in the Super Bowl. His O-line is solid and the run game shouldn't take over as the focal point of the offense. Manning is not only safe, but he'll essentially be a bargain in drafts.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 50 pick, sixth or seventh quarterback taken.

DeMarco Murray , RB, Cowboys
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 151st overall, 53rd running back taken
What happened? A nagging hamstring injury limited Murray in training camp and kept him from being a breakout candidate early in 2011, and Fantasy owners lost interest in him. That is, until he found playing time in Week 7 at the Rams after Felix Jones got hurt. Twenty-five carries, 253 yards and one touchdown later, owners were ready to bet on Murray for the rest of the season. The Cowboys felt the same way, giving him at least 20 carries in four of their next five games, and in those games he totaled 508 yards, 154 receiving yards and a score. A freak ankle injury that included a fracture and ligament damage ended his season early.
Repeat or regress? Murray will begin training camp as the Cowboys' lead back, but there's some uncertainty over whether or not he'll hold down 20 carries per week like he did when he replaced an injured Jones. There's also uncertainty about Murray being able to hold up for 16 weeks -- he's dealt with injuries going back to his college days. It's fine to get excited about Murray heading into 2012, but backing him up with a middle- to late-round pick on Jones is the safe move.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 40 pick, roughly the 16th running back taken.

Jordy Nelson , WR, Packers
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 141st overall, 51st wide receiver taken
What happened? Simply put, Nelson was the right man in the right place at the right time. A combination of his great speed and playing with a hot Aaron Rodgers in a pass-happy offense paved the way for Nelson to post some ridiculous stats. And we mean ridiculous -- he scored in every Packers regular-season home game and had a touchdown and/or 100-plus yards receiving in 10 of 16 games. He dwarfed Greg Jennings stats by 314 yards and six touchdowns, and while you might make the argument that Nelson played in three more games than Jennings, he also played less than Jennings over the course of the season according to Jennings took snaps on 713 plays; Nelson on 699.
Repeat or regress? It's hard to believe that Nelson can match the 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns he had in 2011, but it's actually possible he could exceed them. Nelson was targeted 96 times over 16 games, the second-lowest among any receiver with at least 150 Fantasy points (Laurent Robinson had 81). The number is low because he didn't play as much as you might expect -- roughly 60 percent of the time. But he caught 70 percent of the passes thrown at him thanks to his own skills and his quarterback's skills. If the Packers thin out their receiving corps a little bit, Nelson should see more playing time. With more playing time comes more targets, and with more targets come more catches, and with more catches come more stats. Of course, the Packers could ruin it all for him and other receivers by improving their run game and thus giving more of a balanced look to their offense. So long as Nelson remains a key figure in the Packers offense, he'll be worth using as a borderline No. 1/No. 2 Fantasy wide receiver.
Early 2012 outlook: Might get drafted too soon as a Top 25 pick, probably more of a Top 40 pick, roughly the 12th wide receiver taken.

Darren Sproles , RB, Saints
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 133rd overall, 45th running back taken
What happened? Get this: An NFL team found a free agent who fit their scheme and used his strengths successfully! How come this doesn't happen more often? Probably because not many free agents land on teams loaded with offensive talent. Sproles made the most of his 87 carries by carving defenses for 6.9 yards per rush, which is exceptional. But his mark was made as a receiver, catching 86 passes for 710 yards (an 8.3 average, which was actually a four-year low for him!) and seven touchdowns. Sproles was able to take advantage of opponents who would double-team Jimmy Graham and/or Marques Colston by burning them for long gains. His numbers got a little bump toward the end of the year when the Saints lost rookie Mark Ingram to injuries, but he ultimately was among the most efficient players in Fantasy Football.
Repeat or regress? As it pertains to workload, Sproles shouldn't see a drop. He had double-digit carries just three times last season as he split reps with Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram (and Chris Ivory ). Reception totals might not have much room to grow, but his receiving average does. And by simply being a part of the Saints' offense he's a candidate for production every week. If he can do what he did in 2011 -- average 10.6 Fantasy points per game -- owners will be happy to have him as a second rusher.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 50 pick (Top 40 in PPR), roughly the 17th running back taken.

Beanie Wells , RB, Cardinals
2011 Draft Averages: Picked 68th overall, 28th running back taken
What happened? Wells took advantage of his opportunity to be the Cardinals' primary workhorse after the team lost rookie Ryan Williams to a torn patellar tendon in August. He posted career-highs across the board, scoring 10 touchdowns in 14 games with 1,047 yards on 245 carries. A knee injury in Week 7 took his stats down a notch -- he scored six touchdowns in his first four games and averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in three of them, then scored just four times in his final 10 matchups with only one game over 90 yards rushing (a 228-yard thrashing of the Rams in Week 12). He had knee surgery this offseason and is expected to be ready for training camp, but so might Ryan Williams .
Repeat or regress? It's tough to expect Wells to regain his form from early 2010. He might have to share some carries with Williams, and there's no telling how his knee will hold up or if he'll get banged up again (he's dealt with leg injuries throughout his career). The longer you wait to draft, the better of an idea you'll have on Wells' status. For now, he's a guy you might have to settle for as a No. 2 running back.
Early 2012 outlook: Top 70 pick, roughly the 20th running back taken.

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Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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