Fantasy football breakouts: Charles, Ball, Miller poised for stardom
Fantasy owners spend nearly the entire month of August agonizing over their first few draft picks. Everyone shows up to the draft with secret list of keepers folded neatly in their pockets. Folks rarely think enough about the middle rounds, however. In terms of draft prep, players taken in Rounds 4-10 can get overlooked, but those are the guys who truly have a chance to be breakout players. We're not talking sleepers here (don't worry, we'll get to that next week). Breakout candidates are well-known, established players who most fantasy owners consider mid-tier options at their respective positions. Come December, they'll be the players who wound up on a ton of championship fantasy rosters.
Here are this season's top breakout candidates:
• Jamaal Charles, Chiefs: If I could choose any pick in the draft this year, I'd go with No. 5. That's because I'm confident I could get Charles there, and he's the No. 2 player on my board. And honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if he finished the season as the top player in fantasy. We know that if he's healthy, he will be a yardage beast. He delivered 1,745 yards from scrimmage last year and 1,935 yards in 2010. Over his career, he has averaged 5.8 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per reception. The bottom line is that when Charles gets his hands on the ball, he usually does damage. The reason I'm so bullish on him this season is because of the two new men in his life: Andy Reid and Alex Smith. In Reid, Charles has an offensive-minded head coach who propelled Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy to stardom and who can't wait to get Charles the ball 20-plus times per game. In Smith, Charles has a quarterback who represents a huge upgrade over any QB with whom he has played in the NFL. It's no secret that Charles will be a major part of the passing game, but he's said he's preparing for a career high in receptions. Even if Shaun Draughn steals goal-line carries, I think Charles will have enough touches to get to double-digit touchdowns, as well as 2,000 total yards. He'll be a consensus top-three pick in 2014. So while he's a well-known player and doesn't exactly fall into that Rounds 4-10 category, he's still a breakout candidate.
• Montee Ball, Broncos: In the NFL, environment means a whole lot. Ball may not have been taken until the second round of last April's draft, but he landed in an ideal spot. I mean, Peyton Manning turned Knowshon Moreno into a back who helped swing fantasy championships last year. Given that Ball is a patient runner who can be a weapon as a receiver, he couldn't have found a better city than Denver. Yes, Ronnie Hillman will have a role in the offense, but Ball is the all-time NCAA record holder in touchdowns, and ran for nearly 4,000 yards in his final two years at Wisconsin. Manning is an expert at putting his backs in a position to succeed. He'll get the defense on its toes, check to a run and watch his back rip off seven or eight yards at a time. More often than not, Ball will be the man making those runs.
• Lamar Miller, Dolphins: Miller played sparingly as a rookie in 2012, running the ball 51 times for 250 yards and a touchdown. With Reggie Bush in Detroit, Miller tops the depth chart in Miami and is primed for a huge season. Even with Daniel Thomas still in town, Miller is expected to be a workhorse back, working up and down the field and at the goal line. Just as important, the Dolphins have a certain sleeper quality as a team this year, and it's always a positive for a running back to be part of a winner. The early reports coming out of Dolphins camp concerning Miller are glowing. You'll be able to get him in the fourth or fifth round this season. You won't be able to next year.
• Matthew Stafford, Lions: Stafford threw for 5,038 yards in 2011, and came up just short of 5,000 yards last season. He has the world's best receiver at his disposal. Yet most of us fantasy experts have him ranked barely inside the top 10, if we have him in the top 10 at all. Well, I'm willing to bet we'll all have him comfortably as a top 10 quarterback next year. The Lions went out and got Stafford a playmaking running back in Reggie Bush to go along with Calvin Johnson and prime sleeper candidate Ryan Broyles. The positive impact Bush will have cannot be overstated. Bush will allow Stafford to pick up easy yardage in the screen game and help bring balance to Detroit's attack. Bush's presence should help open up the field for Johnson, Broyles, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew. With all those weapons at Stafford's disposal, I'm expecting another 5,000-yard season along with at least 7.5 yards per attempt and 35 touchdowns.
• Antonio Brown, Steelers: The Steelers let Mike Wallace walk this offseason, setting Brown up to be the No. 1 option in Pittsburgh. Brown has been a capable second banana each of the last two seasons, and has done enough both years to be a solid fantasy contributor. The major knock on Brown is that he doesn't have the size of a prototypical big-time receiver. However, I'm willing to bet that as Ben Roethlisberger's first option, he'll be a safe bet to top 1,000 yards with eight touchdowns. I'm also willing to bet that he'll shine now that he'll truly have a feature role in the offense. The Steelers may look better on paper with Wallace, but his absence will help Brown become a fantasy star this season.
• DeMarco Murray, Cowboys: There is absolutely no doubt what Murray can do when he's healthy. In 23 career games, 17 starts, he has rushed for 1,560 yards and six touchdowns on 325 carries. That's good for 4.8 yards per carry. He has added 430 yards on 60 receptions. If you could guarantee me he'd play 16 games, I'd tell you he's a late-first or early-second rounder. Unfortunately, none of us has a crystal ball. A lot of this has to do with faith. As far as value goes, I'm willing to take a shot on a guy who would be an easy top-15 pick on a per game basis. The Cowboys have weapons all over the field, and while that could take a handful of scoring opportunities away from Murray, it will also help keep the pressure off him. That's great for a guy with an unfortunate injury history. Murray will vault into the second round in 2014 drafts.
• Ryan Mathews, Chargers: A lot is being made of coach Mike McCoy's recent statement that he'd be willing to "play the hot hand" between Mathews and Danny Woodhead. If you're honestly worried about Mathews losing touches to Woodhead, it's probably time for you to take up a different hobby. Woodhead will likely be the third-down back, but there's no doubt Mathews will be the feature back. And Mathews, like Murray, can finally fulfill his fantasy potential if he can stay healthy. It was just two years ago that Mathews ran for 1,091 yards, totaled another 455 in the air and hit paydirt six times. He's clearly the most talented offensive player in San Diego, and the offense is being constructed with him as a focal point. The Chargers addressed their offensive line this offseason, adding Max Starks in free agency and D.J. Fluker in the draft. Everything is set up for Mathews to have the best year of his career.
• Pierre Garcon, Redskins: In his first game with Robert Griffin, Garcon caught an 88-yard touchdown pass, seemingly presaging a huge year for the quarterback-receiver tandem. Garcon missed the next two games and four more during the season dealing with a foot injury. The ailment essentially ruined his entire 2012 season, but he's back and reportedly fully healthy this year. If Griffin lacked one thing last season, it was a go-to receiver. He'll have that this year with a healthy Garcon. And a healthy Garcon will rate safely among the top 20 receivers heading into the 2014 season.
• Torrey Smith, Ravens: Here's one stat I found surprising in my draft prep: Smith only had 49 receptions last year. He had 855 yards and eight touchdowns, but I would have bet he had somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 or 70 catches, not fewer than 50. Well with Anquan Boldin in San Francisco and Dennis Pitta out for the season, you can bet that number will skyrocket this season. Smith proved his mettle as a deep threat last season. He'll be asked to be a whole lot more than that this year. That means his targets will surely increase from the 110 he had in 2012. This is simple math. The more targets he gets, the more balls he'll catch, especially since his larger role in the offense will force him to run more intermediate routes than he did a year ago. Touchdowns are always impossible to predict, but his receptions and yardage will spike in 2013.
• Greg Olsen, Panthers: Olsen had a career year in 2012, catching 69 passes for 843 yards and five touchdowns. He clearly enjoys playing with Cam Newton, as they've hooked up 114 times for 1,383 yards and 10 scores in their two years together. The pairing is one year stronger, and while the Panthers didn't really add any significant weapons this offseason, that could work in Olsen's favor. Newton definitely trusts his big tight end, and that should help Olsen earn more targets, especially in the red zone. He's one of my favorite guys to go after at the position in the mid-to-late rounds.
• Jared Cook, Rams: Cook looked like he was heading for a breakout season in 2012, catching 19 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns through the first five weeks of the year. He sputtered when Jake Locker went on the shelf, however, and then missed the final three games of the season with a shoulder injury. He's in St. Louis now and is teamed up with Sam Bradford in what is likely a do-or-die year for the Oklahoma product. He'll come cheap on draft day, but he fits in with the new catch-first mold of tight ends. It's a deep position, so Cook won't break out in the same way other guys in this column will, but he'll play well enough to be a weekly starter.
• Kenny Britt, Titans: Did you know Britt only turns 25 this season? I know, hard to believe. It seems like he has been around forever. As we discussed with Murray and Mathews earlier, this one takes some faith -- not only that Britt can stay healthy, but that he can stay out of trouble. He has a ton of talent, which almost always wins out. He had nine touchdowns in 2010 and three through three games in 2011 before suffering a season-ending injury. If Locker can make just modest progress, Britt should be a weekly starter this season.