Last year, it was Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery. In 2012, it was Doug Martin. Three years ago, Cam Newton did it for his fantasy owners. Every season, a handful of players break out and swing leagues. Landing one of them in your draft can have you on the right end of that swing this year.
Below are five top breakout candidates in the NFC. Just because a player is well-known, he is not precluded from being a breakout. Rather, think of a breakout player as a guy who will permanently jump up at least one level during the 2014 season.
Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals
Floyd enjoyed a breakout of sorts in 2013, catching 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers were enough for him to rank as the No. 23 overall and No. 28 per-game scorer among receivers in standard-scoring leagues. There’s plenty of reason to believe that, in his third season, the Notre Dame product will rank inside the top 20 at the wide receiver position. In fact, he carries true WR1 potential.
At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Floyd can be a real weapon for Carson Palmer and the Arizona offense in the red zone. But despite his size, he hasn’t really been deployed in that way in his first two years in the league. Last year, Floyd got just 14 of Arizona’s 70 red-zone targets, catching six and taking two for touchdowns; in contrast, Larry Fitzgerald had 24 targets in the red zone. Not only will Floyd undoubtedly get more looks near the goal line as he becomes the No. 1a wide receiver to Fitzgerald, his size and ball skills suggest he will catch more than two touchdowns in the red zone. There’s a lot of organic growth to be had here.
Furthermore, Floyd is a big-play receiver. He had 16 catches for at least 20 yards on just 112 total targets last year. Eighteen receivers had 15 receptions for 20-plus yards, and all of them but Floyd and Rueben Randle had at least 125 targets. On average, the 16 other receivers were targeted 152 times. Floyd turned a whopping 14.3 percent of his targets into gains of at least 20 yards, more than Calvin Johnson (14 percent), Alshon Jeffery (12.7 percent), Demaryius Thomas (12.7 percent) and A.J. Green (9.6 percent).
Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins
There are a lot of weapons at Robert Griffin III’s disposal in Washington, but perhaps none is more intriguing at his draft-day price than Reed. The tight end showed flashes of greatness last year, and ended up with 45 receptions for 499 yards and three touchdowns in just nine games. With Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson flanked out wide, opposing defenses are going to have to pay a lot of attention to the spaces outside the numbers and deep downfield. That should give Reed plenty of room to operate in space for Griffin. He also proved his mettle in the red zone last year, hauling in six passes on seven targets, including all three of his touchdowns.
Prospective fantasy owners should be aware of Reed’s concussion issues, but word out of Washington training camp is that the second-year tight end out of Florida is good to go this season. With Griffin’s knee healthy, new coach Jay Gruden and weapons all over the field, there’s a lot of justifiable excitement about this offense. Reed is a cheap way to get invested, and he has the ceiling to end up as the No. 4 tight end.
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
Even though the Saints have lacked a reliable second receiver alongside Marques Colston for some time now, it didn’t seem a position of need for the team. That’s why it was such a statement when they traded up to grab Cooks with the 20th overall selection in last May’s draft. The 20-year-old Cooks had a huge year in his final season at Oregon State, catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. Kenny Stills is ahead of Cooks on the depth chart, but that doesn’t matter a whole lot for a team that runs as many three-wide sets as do the Saints. And while Jimmy Graham should see somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 targets, there are plenty of passes to go around in a Drew Brees-led offense.
The Saints already have a package of plays designed for Cooks -- expect to see Cooks line up all over the field as the Saints figure out creative ways to get him the ball in space. This is not Tavon Austin 2.0, however. Cooks has more skills as a traditional receiver, and the 2014 Saints offense laps the 2013 Rams offense 10 times over. In a rookie class with a deep crop of receivers, Cooks will be the best for fantasy purposes this year.
Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys
Williams popped into fantasy consciousness in the middle of last season when he went on a four-game touchdown streak from Week 5 through Week 8. In that stretch, he had 14 catches for 320 yards and those four scores. Just as quickly as he showed up, however, he was gone. He scored just once more and had only 18 receptions in the second half of the season. Forget about that disappearing act, though. There’s a ton of breakout potential for the second-year player out of Baylor.
Let’s take a look at his expected volume. Williams got just 74 targets last year, but he was on the field in fewer than 50 percent of Dallas’ snaps in four games and fewer than 70 percent in eight. Now the team’s unquestioned No. 2 receiver behind Dez Bryant, he should be out there for at least three-quarters of the snaps every game. Also, with an elite receiver in Bryant on the opposite side of the field, not to mention DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten, Williams has plenty of teammates helping to take the pressure off of him. Finally, the Cowboys already feature a pass-heavy offense, and with the defense likely to struggle mightily, Tony Romo is going to have to put the ball in the air a lot this season. Williams should push up to or beyond 100 targets this year, and that can lead him to WR2 numbers. At the very least, he should end up as a reliable WR3 this year.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Here we are in the second week of August, and Steven Jackson is already dealing with a hamstring injury. Chances are, the Falcons are going to have to lean on their second running back. During Florida State's run to the national title last year he ran for 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns on 173 carries and caught 22 passes for 278 yards and a score.
There’s little doubt that Freeman has the talent to make an impact -- he should be considered a depth back who owners can start in case of injury or during bye weeks -- in fantasy leagues. His problem could be coming along in pass protection. In a pass-heavy offense like Atlanta’s, Freeman will have to prove himself capable of protecting Matt Ryan to stay on the field on third down. Everything went wrong for the Falcons last year, as they fell to 4-12 after winning two NFC South titles in three years and making the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. Many of the team’s offensive struggles resulted from both Julio Jones and Roddy White being hurt, but with those two healthy, this team can bounce right back. If that’s going to happen, they’ll need Jackson healthy in December, and that could lead to Freeman getting even more touches in September and October.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers -- With Frank Gore clearly on the back nine of his career, the 49ers need a second back to help shoulder the load. Hyde, the rookie out of Ohio State, is perfectly situated to be that back this year.
Khiry Robinson, New Orleans Saints -- Robinson showed the Saints something in the playoffs last year, and he could be the primary run back with Pierre Thomas, the pass catcher, out of the backfield.
Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers -- Someone has to catch passes in the Carolina offense, and the 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin can be a huge weapon for Cam Newton in the red zone. He’s set to make an immediate impact.
Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles -- The rookie Matthews is drawing rave reviews in training camp. After putting up big numbers at Vanderbilt, he was considered one of the most NFL-ready receivers in the draft. In a potent offense like Philadelphia’s, he can be an asset in fantasy leagues right away.
Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles -- Ertz is expected to take on a larger role in the Eagles offense in his second year out of Stanford. Chip Kelly has already said he expects Ertz to fill part of the void created by DeSean Jackson’s departure. Big things could be in store this season.