Ahead of last season, Emmanuel Sanders and Le’Veon Bell earned average draft positions of 29th and 44th, respectively. Sanders went on to set career highs across the board, catching 101 passes for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns, and finished as the No. 7 receiver in standard-scoring leagues. Bell, meanwhile, ran for 1,361 yards, tallied 83 receptions for another 854 yards, and found the end zone 11 times. Those breakout performances helped carry many of their owners to championship seasons.
Every season features its share of players who become real-life and fantasy stars. Landing one or two of them in your draft can give you that extra headliner who joins your early-round picks in lifting your team above the rest of the league. Let's start the process of mining for those breakout players with a look at five prime candidates in the NFC.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings
Bridgewater turned in a strong rookie season, making 12 starts and throwing for 2,919 yards, 7.26 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The Vikings went 6–6 in his starts and did so without the services of Adrian Peterson, which only made Bridgewater’s job that much more difficult. He played some of his best football in the final month of the season, getting at least 7.68 YPA in each of the Vikings’ last four games. That’s exactly the sort of growth you want to see from a player in his first year.
Everything about Minnesota this season is lined up for Bridgewater to ascend to the next level. Peterson's absence wasn't the only hit to Bridgewater’s arsenal. The team’s leading receiver was 31-year-old Greg Jennings, who had 59 catches for 742 yards, while tight end Kyle Rudolph was limited to eight games due to injury. The Vikings have Peterson back in the fold this season, and they also put some other weapons around Bridgewater. Charles Johnson emerged as a potential go-to target in the final six games of the 2014 season, and he’ll be the team’s starting X receiver. The Vikings traded for Mike Wallace, who hauled in 67 passes for 862 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Dolphins last year and remains one of the league’s better deep threats.
It cannot be overstated how much pressure Peterson will take off Bridgewater. Now that opposing defenses again have to account for one of the best running backs in the league, Bridgewater is going to have much more room to operate, with one more explosive player at his disposal. We will one day remember the 2014 NFL draft as the one in which the Vikings somehow stole Bridgewater with the 32nd pick. He’ll take the next step in that journey this year.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles
In Chip Kelly’s two seasons running the show, the Eagles' top receiver has been among the league leaders in fantasy points. It didn’t really matter if it was DeSean Jackson in 2013 or Jeremy Maclin in '14, any fantasy owner who invested in the Philadelphia passing game came away happy. The No. 1 option in the Eagles' aerial attack has averaged 83.5 receptions for 1,325 yards and 9.5 touchdowns under Kelly, and the numbers for Kelly's top option over those two years were eerily similar: Jackson had 82 grabs for 1,332 yards and nine scores, while Maclin pulled down 85 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 trips to the end zone. Jackson and Maclin finished 10th and ninth at the wide receiver position, respectively, in their final seasons in Philadelphia.
Jordan Matthews steps into that role this year after a successful rookie season of his own. Matthews turned heads by catching 67 balls for 872 yards and eight touchdowns but was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin. He, too, improved as the season wore on, posting three games with at least 100 yards and a touchdown in the final eight weeks. Kelly has turned the Eagles into one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL over the last two years, doing so with Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez at quarterback. He can do the same with Sam Bradford, but a lot of that depends on Matthews capably filling the Jackson/Maclin spot. Matthews has the size—he’s 6’3”, 212 pounds—and speed to be a No. 1 receiver. He’ll get the chance to prove he is one this season.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers
Unlike Bridgewater and Matthews, Hyde didn’t get a ton of playing time last year as a rookie out of Ohio State. He carried the ball just 83 times as Frank Gore’s backup, running for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Gore did what he always does, staying healthy for 16 games and churning out another 1,100-yard season, but he signed with the Colts, leaving the backfield in Hyde's hands.
Gore piled up at least 255 carries in each of the last four seasons in San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman might be gone, but new head coach Jim Tomsula was on the staff all of those years, and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst coached the quarterbacks last season. This offense is still likely to be built around the running game, with Hyde and Colin Kaepernick dominating the touches. Reggie Bush will be on the field on obvious passing downs, but don’t expect the 49ers to send Hyde to the sidelines on every third down. In fact, given the athleticism in the backfield and the way this team has played on offense over the last few years, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hyde and Bush on the field together regularly.
Hyde may have had just 83 carries last year, but Tomsula and Chryst had to have liked what they saw. He got 2.82 yards per carry after contact, which compared favorably with Arian Foster (2.83) and Eddie Lacy (2.82). Pro Football Focus uses a stat called elusive rating, which essentially measures what a back does independently of his blocking. Hyde’s rating of 74.2, while in a much smaller sample, was better than that of Lacy (71.6), C.J. Anderson (70.4) and Jamaal Charles (55.8). With no other 49ers back posing a threat to take away too many carries, Hyde could push up toward 300 touches this season. He’ll be a surefire RB2 with a top-10 ceiling at the position.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions
Training camp isn’t just the month of the year in which every team sets its game plan for the upcoming season; it’s also the high point of preseason hype and hyperbole among coaching staffs as they publicly assess their rosters. With that said, take the following quotes on Abdullah for what they’re worth. Head coach Jim Caldwell stated the rookie has a “special ability.” After a recent practice, running backs coach Curtis Modkins chose a different adjective, citing Abdullah’s “unique ability.” Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was more descriptive, saying trying to tackle Abdullah is “like grasping at air.”
The Lions like Abdullah. We already knew this. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have used a second-round pick on him. They should like Abdullah. He has a unique skill set that makes him a dangerous dual threat out of the backfield. In his senior season at Nebraska, he ran for 1,690 yards and 19 touchdowns, and also had 22 catches for 269 yards and three scores. It was the third straight season in which he had at least 20 receptions for the Cornhuskers. Joique Bell isn’t going anywhere, but he is still on the mend from knee and Achilles injuries, and has yet to participate in practice. Abdullah will have a sizable role in the offense that could grow with each practice Bell misses. There’s no doubt that Abdullah brings an explosiveness to the table that Bell simply does not.
Abdullah could give the Lions a menacing trio of playmakers, joining Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. He wasn’t the first running back off the board in the draft, but you could argue he provides a better chance for profit than either Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley in fantasy leagues this season. If all breaks his way, Abdullah could be a top-20 running back as a rookie.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Buccaneers
In today’s NFL, every offense wants a big tight end who can be a receiver first and a blocker second. The Buccaneers went after just such a guy last season, grabbing Seferian-Jenkins out of Washington with the 38th pick in the 2014 draft. He missed seven games due to injury, and spent the other nine toiling aside the regrettable Josh McCown-Mike Glennon duo under center. In other words, don’t blame Seferian-Jenkins for the fact that he had just 21 catches for 221 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
New Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter revved up the hyperbole engine in camp, comparing Seferian-Jenkins to Tony Gonzalez. Comparing any second-year tight end, let alone one with 21 receptions in his career, to the greatest tight end of all-time is a bit of a stretch. It would be akin to comparing a freshman physics major to Einstein. Still, Seferian-Jenkins fits the prototypical tight end mold for the modern game. At 6’5” and 260 pounds, he can be an absolute terror for opposing defensive backs or linebackers to cover. He’s a huge target in the red zone, and that’s something on which a rookie quarterback like Jameis Winston will typically rely. With Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson occupying so much attention out wide, Seferian-Jenkins will have a ton of room to work in the middle of the field. The Buccaneers also may lack a great pass-catching back, depending on how far Doug Martin rebounds this season and how Charles Sims develops in his second year. Seferian-Jenkins is not my favorite breakout tight end (we’ll get to those in the AFC version of this column later this week), but he has the tools to turn into a top-10 player at the position this season.