George Blanda may have been the original AFC breakout player. Sure, he may have been playing in the AFL, and sure, our benchmarks for quarterback performance may have changed over the last 55 years, but Blanda led the Houston Oilers to the AFL Championship in 1960, the upstart league’s inaugural season. He would go on to be the league MVP the following season and eventually build a Hall of Fame career. It all started in that breakout 1960 campaign after he was left for dead by the NFL two years earlier.
In the spirit of Blanda, let’s now cast our gaze upon the AFC and highlight that conference’s breakout fantasy players for the 2015 season.
The Dolphins offense (Ryan Tannehill, Kenny Stills, Jordan Cameron)
It seems like every year since the turn of the century was supposed to be The Year for the Dolphins. Each season would be the one where, not only would they challenge the Patriots in the AFC East, but they would finally make some noise in the playoffs as well. In most cases, the former didn’t come close to happening, let alone the latter. Well, I’m here to tell you that this season, 2015, really, truly, honestly is The Year for the Miami Dolphins, and it has a lot to do with their offense.
At the center of it all is Tannehill, the fourth-year quarterback out of Texas A&M. Tannehill improved from year one to year two, and then from year two to year three. Now he looks primed to make a big leap. Last season, he set career bests in passing yards (4,045) touchdowns (27), yards per attempt (6.86), completion percentage (66.4%), interceptions (12), passer rating (92.8) and rushing yards (12). Tannehill finished the season as the No. 8 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues, besting Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo. As he heads into the fourth season of his career, he is still getting better individually, and the offense around him has become more dangerous. Lamar Miller emerged last season as a legitimate three-down back, while Jarvis Landry impressed in his rookie year. However, it’s the next two players, both acquired by general manager Dennis Hickey in the offseason, who will really help Tannehill become a rock-solid QB1.
Kenny Stills had a few decent years in New Orleans, but he never seemed to fully catch on under Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Last year, he caught 63 passes for 931 yards and three touchdowns, which was good enough to make him the No. 36 receiver in standard-scoring leagues. The most important number, however, is the 83 targets he received. That was 16 fewer than Marques Colston, and just 14 more than Brandin Cooks, even though the rookie out of Oregon State missed the final six games of the season with a thumb injury. It would be a shock if Stills didn’t get at least 100 targets in this offense. He’s basically a younger, more explosive version of Mike Wallace, who had 115 targets and 10 touchdowns for the Dolphins last year. In his first year in Miami, the current Viking racked up 142 targets. The Dolphins brought in Stills expressly to take over Wallace’s role. He had just 14 targets that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, but he did plenty of damage with his chances, catching nine for 370 yards and two touchdowns. His 26.4 yards per target wasn’t just good. It was elite. DeSean Jackson, who has made a career out of the deep ball, racked up 26.1 yards per target on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season. Stills is just 23 years old, and was never fully unleashed in New Orleans. That will not be the case in Miami.
We’ve already seen what a healthy season from Jordan Cameron looks like. Two years ago with the Browns, the big tight end played 15 games, catching 80 balls for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. You probably don’t remember much about those Browns because they were eminently forgettable. Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden combined for 13 starts. Willis McGahee led the team in rushing—with 377 yards. The only other player worth anything was Josh Gordon, but it’s still safe to say the offensive conditions in Cleveland that year were less than ideal. Now in his first year with the Dolphins, Cameron is in the best overall offensive environment in his career. If he stays healthy, there’s no doubt that he, at the very least, approaches the numbers he posted in Cleveland two years ago. He has top-three upside at the tight end position.
Melvin Gordon, Chargers
Running backs have become so fungible in the NFL, that even teams have received the message. Want proof? No backs were selected in the first round of the draft in 2013 and 2014, the first time in NFL history that happened in back-to-back seasons. Any back who ends up breaking such a drought has to be special.
Now before you start to pick nits, I know that Todd Gurley technically snapped that streak. The former Georgia star went 12th to the Rams, while Wisconsin’s Gordon came off the board three picks later. Still, it’s Gordon who is going to be an immediate fantasy star as a rookie. Gordon is coming off a monster senior season in Madison in which he ran for 2,587 yards, scored 32 touchdowns, and finished second in the Heisman voting behind Marcus Mariota. It’s Gordon, and not Gurley, who enters training camp completely healthy. It’s Gordon, and not Gurley, who has zero competition for carries in the backfield. Danny Woodhead will play a pass-catching role, and Branden Oliver will spell the rookie from time to time, but Gordon is going to dominate the touches out of San Diego’s backfield. He drew comparisons to Jamaal Charles throughout his college career, especially after running roughshod over the Big Ten for more than 4,000 yards in the last two seasons combined. There remain questions about Gordon’s efficacy in the passing game, but no one doubts what he can do once he has the ball in his hands. He’ll be an easy top-15 running back this year, and can realistically break into the top 10 at the position.
Latavius Murray, Raiders
The case for a Murray breakout is based largely upon a five-game sample from the end of last season. To be fair, Murray didn’t get a shot to show what he could do before those five games, and in his first start he ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries before suffering a concussion. We don’t have of tape for Murray, but what we do have suggests he can be a top-15 running back this season, so long as the Raiders offense doesn’t hold him back.
Murray clearly has the natural ability to be, at worst, a strong RB2 in standard fantasy leagues this season. In his final year at Central Florida, he ran for 1,106 yards and 15 touchdowns on just 198 carries. He’s huge for a running back, checking in at 6’3” and 230 pounds, but he displayed his breakaway speed on that 90-yard touchdown run against the Chiefs last season. In fact, Murray had eight runs of at least 15 yards on just 82 carries last year, which translates to 9.8% of his totes. DeMarco Murray, who led the league with 27 such runs, traversed at least 15 yards 6.9% of the time. Justin Forsett, who had the highest percentage of 15-yard runs among running backs who got at least half of their team’s carries, did so 7.7% of the time. The small sample size helped his percentage, but Murray can be a home-run hitter who is also effective in short-yardage situations.
There are two mitigating factors regarding a potential Murray breakout. The first is the Oakland offense itself, which hasn’t produced an above-average fantasy season from any skill player since Darren McFadden in 2010. The Raiders ranked 30th in run blocking last season, though they signed center Rodney Hudson, who was 15th at his position in the stat, according to Pro Football Focus. The addition of Amari Cooper on the outside should also help alleviate some pressure on the backfield. The second is the presence of Roy Helu, who has some serious sleeper potential in his own right. At the very least, Helu will prevent Murray from being a true three-down back, given the veteran’s ability as a receiver. Having said that, he has the right combination of draft-day price and upside to be considered a legitimate breakout pick.
Martavis Bryant, Steelers
Some people in your league will undoubtedly get a little skittish over the idea of drafting Bryant after some of the early developments in Steelers camp this summer. First, it was Ben Roethlisberger flippantly referring to Markus Wheaton as the team’s No. 2 receiver. Then it was the elbow infection that put Bryant in a cast and caused him to miss practice time. If you’re among the people who have soured on Bryant, I have some advice for you. Change your tune. Now.
First of all, let’s quickly dismiss of the Bryant vs. Wheaton debate. The only reason Bryant got into the position he was in last year—you remember, the one in which he scored six touchdowns in his first four games—was because Wheaton failed to take off as expected starting alongside Antonio Brown. In addition to that, Bryant is 6’4” and 211 pounds. Wheaton is 5’11, 182. Do you honestly believe that the Steelers, who could very well ask Ben Roethlisberger to throw the ball 600 times this season, will bury potentially their best red-zone weapon on the depth chart? I sure don’t.
For all of Brown’s virtues, and they are numerous, he’s a small receiver. He has overcome that limitation, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers need some height and physicality in the red zone. Bryant provides not only that, but another weapon who can stretch the field. The second-year player out of Clemson averaged 21.1 yards per catch last season. Fully two-fifths of his targets last year traveled at least 20 yards in the air, and he caught all seven that were catchable for 369 yards and four scores. Bryant slowed down over the back half of the season, but his skill set had become clear to Pittsburgh at that point. Now that he’ll be on the field from day one this season and playing in one of the most potent offenses in the league, he can become a top-15 receiver.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals
When I’m looking for breakout candidates, I typically try to find players with a few specific traits. The first thing I’ll look for is prior success in the league. A taste of success at the highest level is one of the most common precursors to a breakout season. Obviously the player has to be young, and I want him to have a strong draft pedigree, as well. A one-time first-round pick in his second or third season is more likely to break out than someone drafted three rounds later. Finally, I’ll determine whether or not the player has increased opportunity in his team’s offense. All too often, a player underachieves not because of his own performance, but because he just didn’t have the chance to do much more.
Eifert checks two of those three boxes this season, and that’s enough to make him my favorite breakout tight end this year.
We already discussed Eifert’s breakout bona fides in the tight end primer, but they bear repeating here. The soon-to-be 25-year-old was the 21st overall pick in the 2013 draft after a strong college career at Notre Dame. The Bengals eased him in during his rookie season, but had big plans for him last year. Unfortunately, after catching three passes for 37 yards during the team’s first two possessions last season, he suffered a season-ending elbow injury. He’s now fully healthy and in an offense that doesn’t even have an established No. 2 receiver, let alone any realistic competition for him at the tight end position. Eifert is exactly what every team wants in a tight end these days—he’s 6’6”, 250 pounds, and is a receiver before he is a blocker. With Jermaine Gresham now in Arizona, Eifert should be on the field for 80% or more of the Bengals’ snaps this season. A.J. Green tops a barren receiver depth chart that also includes Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Greg Little. Giovani Bernard is an adept receiver out of the backfield, but Eifert is already likely the second-best downfield weapon on the team. Everything is in place for a breakout season, and you can get him at a 13th-round price. There may be no player I have more shares of than Eifert this season.