Every offseason, fantasy owners study up in order to determine who may be the next breakout player in fantasy football. These players can make or break a fantasy team, providing owners that edge to reach the fantasy playoffs and beyond. Fantasy breakouts aren’t uncommon; often, players just need an opportunity to bust through.
These breakout players are being drafted in the middle rounds, but will play well enough this season to warrant an early-round draft pick next year. Here are five potential breakouts from the AFC, with a few honorable mentions below. Click here to view our NFC breakouts.
Chris Ivory, RB, New York Jets
Under head coach Rex Ryan, the Jets have been a physical team both offensively and defensively, which makes Chris Johnson's signing one of the weirdest of the offseason; the former Titans RB is an inconsistent player who avoids contact. However, Chris Ivory, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season, is a much more physical back.
Drafting Ivory in the late middle rounds, after round 10, would be a good fantasy gamble on a player that did well in 2013, despite a hamstring injury and a frustrating team.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos
Sanders, who leaves one Hall-of-Fame quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) for another (Peyton Manning), takes over Eric Decker's spot in the Denver offense. But once Manning sees what Sanders’ speed can do for him after the catch, owners can expect a lot of balls to head the 27-year-old’s way.
While Decker was a beast in the red zone, Sanders will work down the sidelines and underneath at times. The Broncos likely won’t bring back aging veteran Wes Welker for next season, which means Sanders could become the slot receiver next year, getting him even more work in Manning’s offense.
Terrance West, RB, Cleveland Browns
While Ben Tate has the starting job locked down with former five-star recruit Isaiah Crowell breathing down his neck, West is a very nice rookie sleeper this season. Without question, the Browns are going to need both Tate and West firing on all cylinders since their passing game will likely be well below average, with either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel under center, and a mish-mash of wide receivers that aren’t suspended (looking at you, Josh Gordon).
If Tate goes down injured again (he broke his ankle in 2010 and his ribs in 2013), West will be in line to take on a bigger role. West essentially has the same body as Tate, only he has the ability to bounce around would-be tacklers, as opposed to running through them.
Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans
Wright hauled in just two touchdown catches last season, which really doesn’t sound possible for a player who was targeted 139 times. While he’s not a great red-zone threat by any means, he’s still the focal point of the Titans passing game. Touchdowns are arbitrary at times, as a missed tackle here and a broken coverage there can be all the difference between a player scoring two touchdowns or six.
New head coach Ken Whisenhunt loves to get his slot receiver involved, and that spells nothing but good things for Wright. Quarterback Jake Locker is in a make-or-break contract season, and Whisenhunt has done wonders with quarterbacks before. He might not have a year like his former teammate Josh Gordon did last season, but he’s going to have more than a handful of touchdown catches in 2014.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Hopkins, who was one of the best NFL-ready players in the 2013 draft, is another second-year player ready to take over for his team. Like Wright, Hopkins caught just two touchdown passes last season, but he can make some acrobatic plays look easy. And unlike teammate Andre Johnson, Hopkins has earned some love from his coaching staff and quarterbacks.
Hopkins caught 800 yards worth of passes on about half (93) the targets that Johnson got in 2013. He scored 18 touchdowns in 2012 at Clemson, so we know he’s a beast. If anything happens to the aging Johnson (he’s already dealing with a sore hamstring), then Hopkins could emerge as a fantasy WR2 this season.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
C.J. Anderson, RB, Denver Broncos -- Two seasons ago, Ronnie Hillman proved to be a speedy running back incapable of protecting Manning, and last season, Knowshon Moreno blew past everyone on the depth chart to become a top-five fantasy running back. Anderson could make that move to No. 1 if Ball falters.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills -- We’ve see rookie receivers break out for big seasons recently (Keenan Allen, A.J. Green) even without established NFL quarterbacks throwing to them. If E.J. Manuel can take even a few steps, this playmaker could make a big fantasy dent.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts -- Reports say that Wayne looks like he never had a knee injury in the first place. The 36-year-old receiver could have other parts break down, but the NFL’s active leader in receiving yards still has a great quarterback and good threats around him to keep defensive attention spread out.
James Jones, WR, Oakland Raiders -- Year after year, Jones proved to be the “sleeper” that never awoke in Green Bay. He would have stellar games, and he had an outlier season in 2012 when he scored 14 touchdowns, but was rarely a reliable fantasy player. If Matt Schaub can show any signs of life in Oakland, Jones could register his first 1,000-yard season.
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs -- Bowe has struggled in his past two seasons, racking up only 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 and 2013, which is half of what he posted in the two previous seasons combined. He reportedly lost over 10 pounds after he hired a nutritionist in the offseason, which may change things.