The biggest breakouts in fantasy football this season
It's hard for fantasy owners to win a league in the first few rounds of a draft. Sure, you can lose it if you end up with this year's Trent Richardson or C.J. Spiller, but most everyone gets big-time production from most of the guys they select in the first third of a draft.
An owner can separate from the pack by hitting on picks in the middle and late rounds. That's where the steals are to be made, and every year a handful of players emerges from this crop to lead its owners to the title. Take a minute to go back and look at the teams that had the most success in your leagues this year. Chances are they hit on a few of the undervalued players listed below, the 2013 Return on Investment Kings.
• Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos (ADP: 189.87, RB55, according to MockDraftCentral.com) -- Way back in the summer, the question was not if Montee Ball was the Bronco running back to own. It was if he was the most attractive rookie running back on the market. After all, the Broncos made Ball the third running back off the board in last year's draft, taking him three spots before the Packers selected Alabama's Eddie Lacy. In his illustrious career at Wisconsin, Ball set the NCAA touchdowns record, and now would be entering what figured to be one of the league's most explosive offenses.
And then Moreno ruined his party.
Any offense with Peyton Manning will prize pass protection over all else. The veteran Moreno was already comfortable with Denver's blocking schemes, and proved much better in protection than the rookie Ball. That helped him earn the starting gig coming out of training camp, and any notion Ball owners had of Moreno losing the job disappeared after he ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants Week 2. Moreno was an absolute stud in the first half of the season, totaling 743 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. Ball's role in the offense grew as the season progressed, and Moreno was a bit of a disappointment for his owners in the playoffs, but he was also a huge reason they were there in the first place. All told, he finished the season as the fifth-highest scoring running back, trailing only Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.
• Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns (ADP: 94.58, WR39) -- Thanks to a two-game suspension at the beginning of the season, Gordon's name tumbled down draft boards. Despite a high ceiling, he was regularly getting drafted after guys like Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt and Sidney Rice. He showed everyone what a mistake they made in his first game of the season, hauling in 10 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. Moreover, he received 19 targets in that game, foreshadowing what an integral part of the Cleveland offense he would be. He went on a historic run right at the end of the fantasy regular season, catching 36 passes for 774 yards and five touchdowns in a four-game stretch that cemented him as one of this year's best receivers. He scored fewer than double-digit fantasy points just five times in 14 games, and in one of those he had 97 yards. Selected just inside the top-40 receivers in a typical draft, he ended up as the No. 1 player at the position, just edging Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson.
• Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: 60.11, WR22) -- Brown was this year's poster boy for the unsexy pick that people avoid for all the wrong reasons. There was plenty of evidence that pointed to a breakout for the fourth-year receiver. He put up steady production each of the last two years in a solid-if-not-spectacular offense, combining for 135 receptions, 1,895 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011 and 2012. Mike Wallace's departure pushed him to the top of the depth chart in Pittsburgh, and with no true second option to steal Ben Roethlisberger's attention, Brown was a lock to see the most targets of his career. Still, he found himself going after receivers like Pierre Garcon (RGIII!), Danny Amendola (Welker 2.0!) and Torrey Smith (speed, baby!). Anyone who chose those guys, or any one of a number of peers, over Brown was likely kicking themselves by the end of September.
Brown set career highs across the board, finishing the season with 110 catches for 1,499 yards and eight scores. He was second in the league in receptions and yards, trailing Garcon in the former and Gordon in the latter. He gave his owners at least five receptions and 50 yards every single week, and delivered when it mattered, putting up 16 catches, 309 yards and two touchdowns in Weeks 14 through 16. He was the No. 6 fantasy receiver for 2013, behind Gordon, Thomas, Johnson, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall, and two spots ahead of the next man on our list of this season's best returns on investment.
• Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears (ADP: 112.31, WR45) -- Jay Cutler loves Brandon Marshall. A lot. In their first season together in Chicago, Marshall had 194 targets. That doubled as Jeffery's rookie year, in which he disappointed to the tune of 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns while dealing with injuries for most of the season. There was little doubt entering this season that he had some work to do to break into his mercurial quarterback's circle of trust. Marshall praised his work ethic during training camp, but it wasn't enough to get him into the fantasy community's top-40 wide receivers. By the end of the season, the duo stood as arguably the league's best thanks in large part to the strides Jeffery made in his second year.
Jeffery avoided the injury bug this year, playing all 16 games and ending the season as the No. 8 fantasy receiver. He had 89 catches for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns, finishing with the sixth-most receiving yards in the league. He siphoned off targets from his better-known teammate, getting 150 to Marshall's 163. He also unofficially led the league in highlight catches, seemingly always coming up with a ridiculous touchdown catch against one or two overmatched defensive backs. He set a Bears franchise record with 218 yards against the Saints in Week 5, then promptly broke it with 249 yards against the Vikings two months later. Along with Gordon, he'll make the most meteoric rise up draft boards from 2013 to 2014.
• Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (ADP: 174.36, QB16) -- The previous two seasons had not been kind to Rivers. After establishing himself as one of the NFL's rock-solid fantasy quarterbacks, he came back down to earth in 2011 and 2012. Two years ago he threw a career-high 20 interceptions against 27 touchdowns, his lowest total since 2007. Last year, he failed to reach 4,000 yards for the first time since that same '07 campaign, and had just 26 touchdowns with 15 picks. Given the lackluster seasons and a high degree of pessimism surrounding the Chargers as a whole, Rivers fell out of the top 12 at the quarterback position during the draft season. By the end of September, he vaulted himself back into it, never to fall out during the 2013 season.
Rivers served notice that he was back right off the bat, throwing for 195 yards and four touchdowns in a Week 1 loss to the Texans. He ripped apart the Eagles the following week, racking up 419 yards and three scores in a 33-30 win over the eventual NFC East champions. By time the first month of the season was over, Rivers had 1,199 yards and 11 touchdowns. He finished the season with 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. The yardage and touchdown totals were the second best of his career, and the 11 picks were the fewest he'd thrown since tossing nine in 2009. He had three 400-yard games and six three-touchdown games this season, ending the year as fantasy's No. 6 quarterback. Fifteen signal callers were drafted ahead of him in the average draft this year, including Michael Vick and Eli Manning. That likely won't be the case next season.