Everyone wants to avoid bust candidates and sleepers are fun to think about drafting, but breakouts are where Fantasy teams ultimately find success. Finding the players who have done something but have the potential to do more -- and then they actually do more -- are what separates the good Fantasy owners from the great Fantasy owners.
Examples from last year? Andrew Luck, Ryan Mathews, Antonio Brown and Jordan Cameron. Not that all of those guys were my breakout picks. Frankly, I don't want to talk about my breakout list from last season and we'll leave it at that. Point is, finding the guys you've heard of before they become guys your parents have heard about on television is what we're trying to do here.
So let's do it.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers
We're on the verge of seeing Kaepernick turn into one of football's most productive quarterbacks. He'll enter this season armed with his best (and healthiest) receiving corps to date along with a strong offensive line and a coaching staff that seems willing to let him throw it more than the 26.0 times per game he averaged last year. Without that strong receiving corps or pass-friendly system, Kaepernick still posted 10 games with 20-plus Fantasy points in the 18 matchups he started with Michael Crabtree, his No. 1 receiver, over the last two years (including the postseason). Quality veteran receivers like Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and now Steve Johnson will mesh with an improving passer with tremendous athleticism, which typically leads to some amazing numbers. With four of his first five games against questionable secondaries, Kaepernick should get off to a good start. Start getting used to the idea of Kaepernick getting picked in Round 5 or 6 in standard Fantasy drafts.
I'd take him ahead of: Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo
Montee Ball, RB, Broncos
At first blush, this looks like a scary breakout pick, especially considering where Ball will get taken in drafts, but a combination of factors should ease everyone's worries. Ball is a good back, not a great back, but a number of players with limited ability have lined up as Peyton Manning's backfield mate and played well -- Knowshon Moreno is the most recent example. In the last five years he's played, Manning's running backs have combined for at least 12 touchdowns and over 1,800 total yards annually. Ball won't be enough of a hog to get all of those numbers, but the Broncos have made it clear that they're gifting him the starting job and thus making him their primary back. Moreno had 18.8 touches per week last year, an average Ball should be able to get close to. And with the Broncos' passing game considered the best in football, defenses would be flat-out cuckoo to jam the box with defenders and dare Manning to pass. Because they won't, Ball will smash six- and seven-man fronts like other backs before him -- even the tough fronts like the ones in the NFC West. Ball is in the right place with the right coaches backing him up. It's worth following along in camp in case another back breaks out and challenges Ball for his role, but anything short of that puts Ball in Top 10 territory in Fantasy drafts. Now that's a breakout with a big price tag, but his situation merits it.
I'd take him ahead of: Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray, Giovani Bernard, Le'Veon Bell
Toby Gerhart, RB, JaguarsGerhart can do anything and everything except out-run defenders. Of course that's a big negative, but his bevy of positives outweigh it, particularly when you factor in Gerhart's very physical style. Last season he had at least one carry of 10-plus yards in every game he had at least 10 carries in, and it was thanks in part to his strong, bullish style. Gerhart doesn't turn the ball over (he was incorrectly given a fumble lost last season), he can catch the ball with ease and has just 276 carries on his career odometer. Furthermore, the Jaguars have said over and over again that they're committed to leaning on him similarly to how the Seahawks lean on Marshawn Lynch. Last year the Jaguars seemed to shy away from using backs inside the 5 (23 pass plays versus 12 run plays) but did have all of their running back touchdowns come from six yards or closer. With Gerhart, the team will be more willing to run near the goal line, and Gerhart will make them look smart for doing so. We all crave the running back with a big workload, right? Well, Gerhart is one you'll be able to find between the middle of Round 3 and the end of Round 5. He's a no-brainer as a No. 2 Fantasy running back with lots of upside.
I'd take him ahead of: C.J. Spiller, Ray Rice and Chris Johnson
Rashad Jennings, RB, GiantsJennings hasn't always been a great player for Fantasy but has always seemed to be on the cusp. If he plays like he did last year then this will be his breakthrough year. Given a chance to play regularly with the Raiders in 2013, Jennings totaled six rushing touchdowns and 788 total yards over eight games. A deeper look at what he can do revealed his ability to play well in every facet of the game. The Giants recognized this when they signed him -- general manager Jerry Reese called him a "bell cow" back. The team will certainly make use of speedster David Wilson (who was a question mark when they signed Jennings) and rookie Andre Williams could also be a factor, but Jennings is their most versatile and reliable rushing threat. The Giants' offense is fresh for 2014 including several new offensive linemen, which will go a long way in making their whole team better. Jennings should lock up his second consecutive 1,000-total-yard season and could flirt with a career high in total touchdowns. Draft him as a No. 3 rusher with the potential to be a solid No. 2 choice.
I'd take him ahead of: Ben Tate, Maurice Jones-Drew and Steven Jackson
Khiry Robinson, RB, SaintsThe Saints seem to have a knack for unearthing running backs via free agency. Pierre Thomas came into the league that way and now Robinson seems to be next in line. Over Week 17 and in the playoffs, when the Saints lost Thomas to injury, Robinson led the way in carries with 33 and rumbled for 152 yards (4.6 avg.) and a score. That was enough proof to the coaching staff that Robinson could hack it in the league, especially in important playoff games. Heading into this year, he still has to fight for work with Thomas and Mark Ingram, but from where we sit he's the best pure power running back the Saints have. Coach Sean Payton has touted him this offseason for his confidence and his understanding of playing his position. Meanwhile, Thomas took a pay cut and Ingram wasn't offered the fifth year on his contract. Robinson is the future and in the NFL the future plays sooner than anyone expects. Thomas might go ahead of Robinson on Draft Day, but Robinson is the name we think has the better chance to put up big numbers this season. A suggestion: Invest two picks in the Saints backfield on Draft Day, either an eighth and a ninth in Thomas and Robinson or a ninth and a 12th in Robinson and Travaris Cadet, with Robinson being the guy you hope for a breakout season from.
I'd take him ahead of: Darren Sproles, Devonta Freeman and Stepfan Taylor
Tavon Austin, WR, RamsMaybe part of the reason why there's optimism on Sam Bradford as a sleeper is because Austin's expectations remain high. Yep, last year we thought so much of the rookie that we had him as a Top 40 receiver. And there were weeks where he played like a Top 10 receiver ... and others when he might not have been a Top 100 receiver. Expect some stability as Austin enters his second season in the Rams offense and has the system "down cold" according to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The coaches already expect him to contribute more often by lining up all over the place and causing mismatches. He had five or more targets in eight of his 13 games last year and should come alive for a bit more in 2014, particularly on handoffs. The best news is that Austin can be had much later in 2014 than in 2013, making him a bargain breakout candidate who can begin the year on your bench. He's Round 9 or 10 material, making him a slight risk with plenty of reward.
I'd take him ahead of: Harry Douglas, Anquan Boldin and Cecil Shorts
Doug Baldwin, WR, SeahawksWhen we went into the film review for Golden Tate this spring, the receiver who really stood out was Baldwin. He seemed faster, so when we asked him about it he (sort of) confirmed our belief. Baldwin played a bunch last year because of the injury to Percy Harvin but will settle into the role left behind by Tate this fall. He really improved last year, catching a remarkable 63 of 88 targets (71.6 pct.; includes postseason) while effectively working as the second receiver. Seattle hasn't had a receiver with at least 100 targets since Mike Williams in 2010 but Tate did get 98 last year. If Baldwin could manage 100 targets he could conceivably finish with nearly 70 grabs and over 1,000 yards (he's averaged 15-plus yards per grab in two of his last three years). He'll be around late in drafts.
I'd take him ahead of: James Jones, Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Jennings
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, VikingsThis shouldn't be a surprise entry on the breakout list. Patterson might not be a "complete" receiver but what he lacks in technique he makes up for with natural ability. And now he'll use his strengths with a nice rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and an aggressive offensive coordinator in Norv Turner to hopefully produce some awesome numbers. Under Turner, the Vikings will pass plenty and Patterson should wind up leading the team in targets. Turner's track record is well-known and has worked wonders with premier receivers like Randy Moss and Vincent Jackson and has come through with breakouts in the past like Jerry Porter and Josh Gordon circa 2013. Patterson scored in each of his last five games last season (not all receiving -- some rushing) and has reportedly improved his route running this spring. We think he's worth taking a chance on with a Top 50 pick as a No. 2 Fantasy receiver.
I'd take him ahead of: Victor Cruz, DeSean Jackson and Roddy White
Rueben Randle, WR, GiantsWhen the offseason started it sounded like Randle was on the outs with the team, but maybe all the negative talk was meant to motivate him. If so, it worked. Now coaches are singing Randle's praises and are optimistic about his future after he took a serious approach to his offseason. As a result, he's looked sharper and appears to be a huge part of the Giants offense as they transition to a West Coast look. So if he tallied 41 catches on 78 targets (a gross 52.6 pct.) for 611 yards and six touchdowns last year, more is in his future, especially with Hakeem Nicks and his 102 targets from last season no longer on the roster. The Giants figure to be a team playing in many close games where they'll need to pass, and Eli Manning should be better than he was last year thanks to an improved offensive line. Randle figures to be the second-best receiver in New York behind Cruz, but if his flashy offseason continues into the preseason, we could see a new lead wideout in NYC. He's in the No. 3 receiver conversation when you get to the middle rounds of your draft.
I'd take him ahead of: Marvin Jones, Hakeem Nicks and Dwayne Bowe
Terrance Williams, WR, CowboysWe've been fans of Williams for a while, so when he got the chance to play regularly last season we were psyched. He performed like a typical rookie full of talent: Played at a high level for a while and then bottomed out when defenses were able to key in on him. He had at least eight Fantasy points in five of his first six games once he got regular playing time and then had a max of eight Fantasy points once in his last six games. But the coaches aren't concerned, moving Williams into the starting lineup in place of Miles Austin this spring. And if defenses play the Cowboys the way we expect them to, then Dez Bryant will open up the field for Williams. That's a very good thing because the Cowboys figure to be playing from behind quite a bit, meaning a lot of passing for this team. It's not a stretch at all to envision Williams falling just short of doubling his rookie stats of 44 catches for 736 yards and five touchdowns. Draft him as a solid No. 3 Fantasy wideout with potential to finish in the Top 20.
I'd take him ahead of: Eric Decker, Kendall Wright and Percy Harvin
Zach Ertz, TE, EaglesIn April, Ertz admitted in a roundabout way that coaches felt they had to take him off the field in certain situations. His goal this offseason was to be in a place where coaches would be confident in him no matter what they wanted to do. So far it sounds like he's accomplished his mission as a number of reports suggest he looks like he's headed toward breakout status. What we noticed is that Eagles coach Chip Kelly is getting into using his tight ends more at the pro level. Last season, 22.9 percent of the Eagles' completions went to tight ends. That percentage is the second-highest for tight ends in Kelly's system since 2006. The rub is that the Eagles have another good tight end in Brent Celek, but he's more of an old-school tight end, whereas Ertz has some "Gronk" potential to him. He's 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and has plenty of athleticism. Final point: He finished last season with 18 grabs for 217 yards and four scores over six games (playoff loss included). If we play the extrapolation game with those numbers over 16 games, he'd have 48 receptions for 579 yards and 10 touchdowns, easily Top 10 numbers for a tight end. For a guy with so much potential you'll be able to get 9 or 10 rounds after Jimmy Graham, you'd be nuts not to consider him.
I'd take him ahead of: Eric Ebron, Martellus Bennett and Heath Miller
Ladarius Green, TE, ChargersThe first time we noticed Green as a potential difference-maker was when the Chargers drafted him in 2012. He had caught 149 passes for 2,201 yards and 22 touchdowns at Louisiana-Lafayette and was built like a small forward (6-foot-6, 240 pounds). The second time Green caught our eyes was when he started making plays last season. But when Mike McCoy said this March that he wished he could have brought Green along earlier and that his offense was still evolving, our enthusiasm went to a new level. Green is a mismatch-type of player, listed as a tight end but could easily line up wide, and he's the kind of player McCoy could really get creative with. It helps that Green has continued to look good throughout the offseason. This is more of a gut call than anything else, but we think Green has a chance to overtake Gates as the better Fantasy tight end in San Diego. He's a no-risk pick in drafts too -- he can be had in the very late rounds, so if he doesn't break through it won't hurt the owners who take the chance.
I'd take him ahead of: Any Colts tight end, Charles Clay, Garrett Graham and Antonio Gates