When it comes to fantasy football, there are plenty of player busts who can still be very successful in the NFL; they simply don't produce the stats that fantasy owners expected before the start of the season.
While a fantasy sleeper (a late-round pick who outperforms expectations) or a fantasy breakout (a mid-round pick who jumps a level) can help a team reach the fantasy playoffs, a fantasy bust is very difficult to overcome. Obviously, more of the first two and fewer of the last one is the recipe for fantasy success, so step carefully as we try to find some danger zones.
Here are my picks for early-round fantasy busts. These players are overvalued and will underperform at varying degrees in 2014. You can make a case for many players to be busts each season, but these players above all have something that stands out as a possible in-season issue -- proceed with caution.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
There are a few problems with Ball, and not all of them are his fault. The offseason fervor to draft Denver's new starting running back sent his ADP as high as the late first round -- some choosing him after Eddie Lacy. But Ball's preseason ended before it even started due to an emergency appendectomy, which will surely drop the Broncos' RB on draft boards.
Ball is a partially tested second-year running back who looks to be capable in pass protection for Peyton Manning. But this offense is led by head coach John Fox, who famously juggled DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart for years, much to the peril of fantasy owners everywhere. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman will be backing up Ball in the Denver backfield.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans
As excited as I was about Foster’s prospects entering this season, it’s time to admit that drafting him at his early second round ADP is a huge risk. He's coming off of back surgery that ended his 2013 season early, and now he's dealing with a sore hamstring. Owners will have to execute a near-perfect draft after picking him in that slot, which isn’t impossible but improbable.
The Texans' quarterback situation remains up in the air, which has a way of negating a lot of the good their above-average wide receiver corps can do. Defenses will prey on the running game, and Foster specifically.
Houston signed Andre Brown this past offseason to work as Foster’s backup -- and then they promptly released him after the first week of preseason. Rookie Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes, a third-year player out of William & Mary, are competing for the backup spot now.
With Ben Tate now in Cleveland, Foster is a man on an island, and the passing game doesn’t seem like it can rescue him. This is a risky second-round pick in 2014.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
A career backup until now, Gerhart joins one of the worst offenses in the NFL for his first starting gig. There’s no question that he’s going to get a large volume of touches with the Jaguars, and he has proven to be good enough in the passing game to stay in for as many downs as he can take. Gerhart will line up behind one of the youngest offensive lines in the league, which will likely make things more difficult for the running back.
While he’s the uncontested No. 1 running back, he does have a rookie moving up the depth charts behind him, as Storm Johnson looks like the new No. 2 back in front of Jordan Todman. Johnson went to UCF with Blake Bortles, has all-around tools and could be a very nice sleeper handcuff to Gerhart in larger rostered leagues.
GALLERY: FANTASY SLEEPERS
2014 Fantasy Football Sleepers
Knile Davis - RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Davis is about as important a handcuff as you’ll find in the league. Davis would impact fantasy standings if Jamaal Charles goes down at any point. Davis picked up 81 yards and two TDs on 27 carries when Charles was resting Week 17 last season.
Terrance West - RB, Cleveland Browns
The rookie will need to beat out veteran Ben Tate for touches, but his upside is enormous. Browns running back coach Wilbert Montgomery recently told reporters, ''He has that Ricky Watters, Walter Payton, lure-you-to-sleep-on-the-sideline move that I can accelerate or play like I’m going to accelerate and come back inside. Those are traits I haven’t seen in a while.''
Dri Archer - RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s possible that the undersized third-round pick is restricted to kick return duty in his rookie year. It’s also possible that Archer emerges as a dynamic RB/WR who could score anytime he touches the ball.
Lache Seastrunk - RB, Washington Redskins
The Baylor product is behind Alfred Morris and Roy Helu on the depth chart and has developed a reputation for having awful hands. He actually dropped 10 balls and only caught nine during his two years in college. That said, Seastrunk’s running ability would make him a fantasy asset if Morris goes down with an injury.
Ka’Deem Carey - RB, Chicago Bears
Carey is an all-around running back who is capable of stepping in and producing for fantasy owners if Matt Forte gets hurt. He’s the type of rookie who would be a hot commodity if he were drafted by a team without an elite running back.
Devonta Freeman - RB, Atlanta Falcons
There is a legitimate chance that Freeman will eventually start over Steven Jackson; the rookie's average draft position will skyrocket with a dominant preseason. The former FSU back should see the field a lot if he can handle pass protection.
Christine Michael - RB, Seattle Seahawks
Michael is an instant stud if Marshawn Lynch goes down. Either way, the Seahawks have hinted at a committee approach and Lynch’s brief holdout may not have helped matters for the veteran running back. Michael has the skill set to provide RB1 numbers if he receives enough carries.
Carlos Hyde - RB, San Francisco 49ers
Anyone who saw Carlos Hyde at Ohio State knew he wouldn’t get buried in San Francisco, even with a crowded backfield. He’s arguably the most talented rookie RB and is one Frank Gore injury away from fantasy stardom.
Tre Mason - RB, St. Louis Rams
Many fantasy owners are high on Zac Stacy entering the season. But ask anyone who drafted Daryl Richardson in 2013 if Jeff Fisher is afraid to make a change at running back. The dynamic rookie Tre Mason is too talented to ride the pine forever and he’d turn into a nice fantasy option if given carries.
Chris Polk - RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Even with Darren Sproles in town, Polk would hold a ton of fantasy value if LeSean McCoy were to miss time at any point. Chip Kelly’s offense turns RBs into fantasy stars and Polk is the clear-cut backup to McCoy.
Charles Sims - RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The rookie from West Virginia is expected to be an immediate handcuff to Doug Martin for fantasy purposes. Smith should contribute in passing situations early, but could steal carries from Martin as the season progresses.
Markus Wheaton - WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Wheaton is expected to inherit a starting gig with Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders gone. The sophomore from Oregon State has big-play ability and could easily emerge as a must-start fantasy option on a weekly basis.
Marqise Lee - WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Lee is a candidate to lead the Jaguars in receptions as a rookie, but his competition isn’t exactly elite. He should be able to rack up catches and yards with Jacksonville expected to be playing from behind more often than not.
Kenny Stills - WR, New Orleans Saints
Stills has a ton of breakout potential coming off a rookie season in which he posted 641 yards on 32 catches with five TDs. He’s a big-play threat on ever possession and should easily surpass the 46 targets he received last season. He might only need 50 catches to score double-digit TDs.
Kelvin Benjamin - WR, Carolina Panthers
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound, No. 28 overall pick is a perfect red-zone target and he could help the Panthers win games immediately. For fantasy purposes, he’s merely a WR3 or a WR4 until he proves he can be more than just a TD-dependent gamble on a weekly basis.
Tavon Austin - WR, St. Louis Rams
As a rookie in 2013, Austin only caught 40 passes for 418 yards and never really found a true role. He’s admitted that the adjustment from college to the NFL took a toll on him and he continuously dropped passes early in the season. If things click in his second year, Austin has the skillset to be a star.
Justin Hunter - WR, Tennessee Titans
The second-year receiver showed signs of his high ceiling last season with a few big games down the stretch. Hunter has the tools to develop into a WR1 in his prime and should play a prominent role on young Titans’ offense.
Jordan Matthews - WR, Philadelphia Eagles
DeSean Jackson’s departure opens the door for Matthews to step up. The 2014 season could turn into a perfect storm for Matthews to succeed with Jeremy Maclin coming off a torn ACL and Riley Cooper coming off a career season.
Eric Ebron - TE, Detroit Lions
The Lions turned heads when they selected Ebron No. 10 overall in May’s Draft. It might take a season or two for the UNC product to reach his potential, but Ebron is an elite fantasy TE in the making. He’s been compared to Jimmy Graham and has the skillset to live up to his lofty expectations.
Ladarius Green - TE, San Diego Chargers
The 6-6, 237-pound Green is an obvious red-zone target and has the tools to be an impact fantasy option if he receives ample targets. Antonio Gates, the incumbent TE in San Diego, is 34 and slowed significantly down the stretch in 2013. Green caught 17 passes for 376 yards and three TDs last season, highlighted by a three-game stretch in which he caught nine balls for 206 yards and two scores.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans
Another Texans player? That's right ... It’s tough to see great things coming from Johnson this season, especially after he begrudgingly returned to the team after a short holdout. There's a host of red flags that should scare many owners away from using a fourth-round pick on this wide receiver.
First off, he’s 33 years old. Of the 250 NFL players that have totaled 1,200 receiving yards or more, only 14 of them were 33 years or older, and nearly half of those seasons came from either Jerry Rice or Cris Carter. Teammate DeAndre Hopkins is a younger more athletic version of Johnson who the Texans likely see as their future star on offense.
As we mentioned above, the Texans' quarterback situation remains unsettled. Johnson already asked for a trade, showing his quarterbacks and coaches how little faith he has in them.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
With less than a month left before the start of the NFL season, Gronkowski is still just participating in 7-on-7 drills. He’s coming back from a torn ACL and MCL, and while reports say that he looks good, he’ll likely not play in the preseason.
Owners will have to spend around a third-round draft pick to get the big man, which means passing up the best RB2s in the draft, and even a few WR1s. There will likely be more reliable tight ends still available a few rounds later, and Gronkowski could possibly fill up a valuable spot on the bench if he cannot play in Week 1.
Without a doubt, Gronkowski is the best fantasy tight end in the game when he plays. He averaged an amazing 13.80 fantasy points per game over the past three seasons, compared to first-round pick Jimmy Graham (12.06). But he's been plagued with injuries as of late -- his knee shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but it’s more of a case of “what’s next?” with him.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks -- While Lynch ended his holdout a while back, getting a bump in pay that was much less than he had requested, he’s still a player that saw 685 touches over the past two years. Christine Michael is forcing his way into getting more touches.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills -- There are plenty of reasons to like Spiller, including his game-breaking ability and an offense that loves to run the ball. But the Bills brought in Bryce Brown this offseason, and Spiller is in a make-or-break contract year. If he falters early, the Bills could lean on Brown even more than they expected.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens -- Suspended for the first two games, Rice will return to face the second-toughest fantasy schedule for running backs over the 13-game fantasy regular season.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers -- In that same vein, the Steelers face the third-hardest schedule for fantasy wide receivers over the entire 17-week NFL regular season. Brown loses his second WR-counterpart in two years, and until the new No. 2 emerges, he’ll be keyed on defensively.
Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers -- Allen faces some very tough cornerbacks this season, and he has a new offensive coordinator running the show. Allen’s 2012 was so good, he ranked as one of the 20 best rookie wide receivers in fantasy history, and just 15 percent of that top 20 were able to improve on that number.