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12/9/2016
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Fantasy Football Strategy - Breakout Receivers 2012


Breakout Receivers
An Extra Wideout Can Turn Your Season Around


by Joe Levit

With your competition so well informed these days, finding those few players who make a great leap forward each year is of dire importance. Over time, my strongest Fantasy teams have all had one thing in common -- an extra star receiver. It doesn’t matter how you acquire this receiver. You can select him high in the draft, take him with one of your last picks, trade for him or snatch him off the waiver wire. But it is essential to find him.

Now what do I mean by an extra star receiver? I’m talking about a player who is not the guy you drafted to be your No. 1 Fantasy wide receiver, and in many cases not your No. 2 receiver. This player is someone who suddenly and surprisingly starts producing in an unbelievable fashion. In an instant they become a second No. 1 receiver, pushing the guy you had manning the No. 2 spot to No. 3 or flex. Owning one legitimate No. 1 Fantasy receiver makes your team competitive on a weekly basis, but if you have two of them your team becomes truly dangerous.

Here is an example of the type of player we’re looking for. In 2009, Miles Austin broke out big-time. Nobody I know had him on a roster before the explosion. That year, the Dallas Cowboys had former Lions receiver Roy Williams as their main threat, and Patrick Crayton as the sidekick. But even in Week 1 of that year, there was an inkling that something else may be up.

In the first game, against the Buccaneers, Tony Romo completed a third-quarter 66-yard touchdown to Williams, and a fourth-quarter 80-yarder to Crayton. But, before that he tossed a 42-yard touchdown to Austin in the second quarter. Now, did I jump on Austin at this point? I wish I could say I was that prescient. But I’m sure I dismissed that as one long breakaway play by a third receiver.

Five weeks later, Austin reels in a 59-yard touchdown pass. But he isn’t done. He later catches a 60-yard touchdown pass in overtime to secure a win for the Cowboys. On the day, he finished with 250 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches. Okay, that got my attention. I bid a lot for him from my waiver budget (which, by the way, I think is the only fair way to do waivers), won the bid and went on to beat 59 other Fantasy Football experts by winning the FSWA Industry Insider’s League title. Now, obviously I had a good team even without Austin. But, there is no doubt that his unexpected year-end total of 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns was what put me over the top that year.

Let’s take a look at the last three years to see three receivers who had breakout seasons in each one.

Year BeforeYear ofProQB in
PlayerBreakoutRecsYdsTD’sBrkoutRecsYdsTD’sSeasonBrkout Year
Jordy Nelson20104558222011681,263154th Aaron Rodgers
Victor Cruz20100002011821,53692nd Eli Manning
Laurent Robinson2010343442201154858115th Tony Romo
Brandon Lloyd2009811702010771,448118thKyle Orton
Steve Johnson200921002010821,073103rdRyan Fitzpatrick
Mike Wallace20093975662010601,257102ndBen Roethlisberger
Miles Austin20081327832009811,320114th Tony Romo
Sidney Rice20081514142009831,31283rd Brett Favre
Steve Smith200857574120091071,22073rdEli Manning


So what does this information tell us -- what are the trends here? Well, to begin with, none of the players broke out during their rookie season. Sure, a Randy Moss (69 catch, 1,313 yard, 17 TD) comes along every couple decades, but under normal circumstances there isn’t enough production to buy a breakout from a rookie. Rookies that do perform in a spectacular way, such as A.J. Green in 2011, can’t be counted as a breakout candidate since you’ll have to draft the player as a No. 1 receiver the next season. The second thing to notice is that only 1/3 of the players broke out in their third year. I think that further debunks the Third-Year WR Theory. You should look for breakout candidates anywhere from a player’s second to fifth seasons (Brandon Lloyd is a true exception).

One commonality is opportunity. Often the team is missing a No. 1 receiver. Lloyd, Steve Johnson, Mike Wallace, Sidney Rice and even former Giant Steve Smith would fit that category. Another is strong quarterback play. With the exception of Kyle Orton (that connection really was an anomaly), I would argue that all of the quarterbacks on this list are very good to elite. In fact, you can see that both Tony Romo and Eli Manning have helped create two breakout receivers. If you count Antonio Brown and Greg Jennings a few years back as breakout receivers, you can add Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre to the list of quarterbacks who have helped usher in multiple breakout receivers.

Another thing to notice is that there are varying levels of breakout. Some, like Jordy Nelson, Wallace and Smith, left clues for owners to notice. They all (Wallace at 39) had 40 or more receptions the year before their breakout. Two other players, Miles Austin and Sidney Rice, had an inordinate number of touchdowns for the number of receptions they hauled in the year before their breakout. Rice had four touchdowns on only 15 receptions, and Austin had three touchdowns on only 13 receptions. So this is clearly an indicator to pay attention to. Two players, Cruz and Johnson, absolutely came out of nowhere. These players would seem very hard to forecast and are clearly the type you pick up on the waiver wire during the season. I acquired Cruz in two of my three leagues last year, and he helped me a great deal in both of them.

Below is a list of 12 players I believe fit along this breakout wideout spectrum. Some will be obvious. They are name players and their breakout potential is a sure thing, but you’ll have to pay a high pick for them. Others are the risk/reward type. There are factors both for and against these players breaking out. Taking chances on these guys with mid-draft picks is one thing that separates average owners from championship ones. Finally, there are dark horse candidates. These players have a rather small chance of breaking out, but they have a great quarterback throwing to them, and can be had for chump change in your draft. Obviously, after the season starts you’ll need to go beyond this list by keeping a close eye out for players to pick up on the waiver wire. Good luck!

Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones -- Jones is an obvious pick to break out this season. In his rookie year, he scored eight times, and only three receivers in the league last year (All-time greats Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, plus 2011 breakout Victor Cruz) posted more plays of 40-plus yards. You can make the argument that he has already broken onto the scene, but he has a lot of room for growth. He finished with 54 receptions for 959 yards. It is simple to see him adding another third to his catches total. At a realistic 75 catches, figuring in a similar 17.8 yards per catch, Jones could hit 1,335 yards receiving, and easily surpass 10 touchdowns. In his favor is a very good, and fairly consistent quarterback who has not yet realized his own potential. Should Matt Ryan shift his focus a little less on Roddy White this year, Jones will match opportunity with his natural ability to produce a top-10 Fantasy season.

Breakout Potential: Sure Thing


Baltimore Ravens
Torrey Smith -- Joe Flacco is never going to move from the category of “good” to “great” quarterback until he can take a receiver along with him for the ride. Smith will give him that chance. The rookie rang up a very respectable 50 catches for 841 yards and seven scores last year. His star is rising just as teammate Anquan Boldin’s is beginning to fall. Boldin gained between 800-900 yards for the second straight season, but scored only thrice in 2011. And Lee Evans, though a hard-working veteran, is almost finished as a Fantasy receiver. Flacco will lean on Smith even more this season, and if he can throw the ball far enough (Smith had to slow up on a few long passes last year), Smith has a chance to top 1,000 yards and 10 scores.

Breakout Potential: Risk/Reward


Buffalo Bills
Donald Jones -- Ryan Fitzgerald has already shown he can elevate the game of a young wide receiver. He and Steve Johnson got on a roll in 2010 that lasted the whole season. Jones could have made strides last season, but two things transpired to stand in his way. First, his quarterback appears to have played for about half the season with cracked and healing ribs. Seeing the way his Fantasy statistics went out the window about halfway through the campaign, I’d say it’s a likelihood that happened. Second, Jones suffered two high ankle sprains, the second of which shelved him for the season.

Jones is a feisty, high-energy receiver who is not afraid to go over the middle of the field to make a big play. If a second receiver steps up this season, it will be Jones, not slot receiver David Nelson, who is a good role receiver but not a game-breaker. You can target Jones at the very end of your draft, somewhere before you select a kicker.

Breakout Potential: Dark Horse


Carolina Panthers
Brandon LaFell -- Despite catching two fewer passes in 2011 than he grabbed the previous year, LaFell gained 145 more yards and tripled his touchdown production. He made a big leap in yards per catch, increasing that statistic to an average catch of 17 yards, up from 12.3 as a rookie.

Last year, LaFell ranked sixth on his own team in receptions behind two receivers, a running back and two tight ends! Expect Cam Newton to eschew the run more often in his second season, using his athleticism to buy time for big plays across the middle and down the field. Since Steve Smith is the primary target, teams will roll coverage his way, leaving LaFell in a number of one-on-one situations. When Newton works through his progressions, he’ll pass on some of those dump-offs to Jonathan Stewart to look further mid-range for LaFell and find an open and large (6-2, 2ll-pound) target waiting there.

Also gone this year is Legedu Naanee, taking his 44 receptions and 467 yards down to Miami. The team drafted WR Joe Adams from Arkansas in the fourth round, but he won’t pose a threat to LaFell in his first year, likely contributing only as a special teamer. You can get LaFell late and stash on your bench until you find out whether Newton has grown enough to make him a breakout receiver.

Breakout Potential: Dark Horse


Chicago Bears
Earl Bennett -- Bennett’s catches decreased each of the last two seasons when he was an afterthought in a Mike Martz offense. Without Martz calling plays it is quite possible that Bennett enjoys a revival. The opportunity is there. Johnny Knox was folded in half (the wrong way) last year while diving for a loose ball. The gruesome injury will keep him out of any meaningful action this season. Devin Hester has proven he is an awesome return man but a below-average receiver. Rookie Alshon Jeffrey is a true talent, but he’ll be working hard to make the leap to the next level of play. Brandon Marshall will be a real threat, so you can count on defenses rolling their coverage to his side of the field. That leaves Bennett with one-on-one opportunities. And when Cutler (comfortable with Bennett because they were college Commodores together at Vanderbilt) gives Bennett time to separate himself from his man by rolling out, there will be a lot of successful toss and catch between them.

Breakout Potential: Risk/Reward


Dallas Cowboys
Dez Bryant -- Romo has already helped two other receivers break out in the last three years. This time, it is Bryant’s turn. Clearly Bryant was right on the cusp of superstardom last year when he hauled in 63 passes for 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Because the Giants won the Super Bowl last year, and the Redskins will be celebrating the addition of Robert Griffin III, the Cowboys are under little pressure this year. Romo will come out slinging the ball around, and Bryant is going to fly well beyond 1,000 yards and 10 scores. He will be one of the top No. 2 receivers taken, though, so be prepared to spend for his potential.

Breakout Potential: Sure Thing


Denver Broncos
Demaryius Thomas -- Thomas broke onto the national scene with his heroic overtime catch-and-run touchdown to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers last year in the playoffs. If Peyton Manning is actually healed enough to last through a season and also throw with velocity and precision, then Thomas is set to explode. He is game-fast and very productive after a catch. He practically doubled his production from 2010 to 2011, and that was with Tim Tebow tossing to him. Though the team will run a lot to balance the offense, the defense is good enough to get off the field quickly and often, turning the ball back over to Manning and Thomas. A season of 1,000-plus yards and 10-plus scores is easily within his reach.

Breakout Potential: Risk/Reward, bordering on Sure Thing


Detroit Lions
Titus Young, WR -- There are three reasons that Young should enjoy a breakout season. One, he has an elite quarterback throwing the ball to him. Say what you want about a league-wide increase in the passing game, but the fact remains that Matthew Stafford stayed under the radar while becoming just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. And that while working through a broken bone in his passing hand.

Second, Young has all-world receiver Calvin Johnson on the other side of the field. Johnson legitimately strikes fear into opposing defenders. They will be forced to cover him with two bodies unless they want him to rack up huge numbers against them. This pressure creates a void for Young. Third, Young is a good receiver in his own right. As a rookie, and without an off season of practice, he caught 48 balls for 607 yards and six touchdowns -- four of which came in the Lions’ last four games. A full training camp will work wonders, and the talented rookie the team drafted with their number two pick this year, Ryan Broyles, will push Nate Burleson for playing time in the slot. He won’t steal production from Young.

Breakout Potential: Risk/Reward


New England Patriots
Brandon Lloyd, WR -- Lloyd may be the rare receiver who gets to break out twice in a career. The first time was when he worked with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Kyle Orton to produce a monster season as an eighth-year player. This time would be with Josh McDaniels and much-better quarterback Tom Brady, and in his eleventh year! That age would seem to work against Lloyd, and it very may well. However, the Patriots currently have a bunch of older receivers on the team (Stallworth, Gaffney, Branch, Ochocinco) and none of them is as adept at going deep with precise routes and great hands. The team is probably hoping that Lloyd can produce for one more year, impersonating the Randy Moss of 2007. It’s entirely possible.

Breakout Potential: Risk/Reward


Oakland Raiders
Darrius Heyward-Bey -- Despite many in the media deriding Al Davis for selecting Heyward-Bey above Michael Crabtree in the 2009 draft, in the end it may be the Raiders who sneer with delight. Heyward-Bey has quietly gone about getting better at running routes and securing the catch each year he’s been in the league, despite uncertainty within the coaching staff and many mediocre quarterbacks leading the team.

Last year he ended the season with 64 catches for 975 yards and four scores. Lots of Fantasy owners are more excited about Denarius Moore, but I’m not among them. I think that at this stage of his career, Carson Palmer is going to be more accurate throwing intermediate routes to Heyward-Bey than bombs to Moore. Once Heyward-Bey does get his mitts on a pass, he has the raw speed to advance the ball quickly. The return of Darren McFadden will force opposing defenses to concentrate on stopping the run, helping make Heyward-Bey that much more potent. He has a great shot for 75 catches, 1,150 yards and eight scores.

Breakout Potential: Risk/Reward


San Diego Chargers
Vincent Brown, WR -- The team lost free agent Vincent Jackson during the offseason and though Malcom Floyd is a gamer, he is 30 years old and has never surpassed 1,000 yards receiving, even as the primary receiver when Jackson was injured. As a rookie on an underachieving San Diego squad, Brown grabbed 19 passes for a respectable 329 yards. Antonio Gates is a beast when not injured, and Ryan Mathews is certainly a receiving back, but Philip Rivers will be healthy this year and looking for a new threat in the vertical passing game. Free agent Robert Meachem is a potential problem, but I think Brown and his 17.3 yards-per-catch better fit the bill.

Breakout Potential: Dark Horse


Washington Redskins
Pierre Garcon -- Garcon continued to improve as a player and Fantasy Football option during the Colts’ disastrous 2011 season which included working with ancient Kerry Collins and 3rd-string quality Curtis Painter. Garcon caught 70 passes for 947 yards and six scores. He has the size and speed to separate from defenders on mid-range passes that he can take to the sideline and up the field. After signing a huge contract, the Redskins are clearly expecting him to produce like a No. 1 wideout. Assuming Robert Griffin III can continue to handle all of the scrutiny and pressure in the country’s capitol, Garcon might be that for Fantasy owners this season as well.

Breakout Potential: Risk/Reward


 
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