Targeting high-floor players early in drafts is a good way to build a consistent foundation for a fantasy squad, but owners also need to be ahead of the curve on the less obvious breakout and bust players if they're going to go for the gold.
The list below identifies five players who should outdo their expectations in 2011, and five more who are good bets to fall short.
Sam Bradford, QB, STL
Bradford has rare accuracy as a passer, and it's impressive that he completed 60 percent of his passes and threw more touchdowns than interceptions in his first NFL season. While it lacks star power, he has an underrated and very deep group of wideouts to throw to, and the arrival of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is another clear reason to like Bradford this season. McDaniels got a lot out of a Denver offense that most figured had no talent, so perhaps he can do the same with St. Louis.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, PHI
This might seem like a bit of a copout given that Maclin actually had a very nice season last year, but watch him get even better this year. DeSean Jackson gets a lot of attention, and people marginalize Maclin's accomplishments as a result, but he was a clearly superior prospect coming out of college and is only 23. It wouldn't be shocking if Maclin posted double-digit touchdowns again in 2011, but it would be surprising if he failed to surpass 1,000 yards.
Mario Manningham, WR, NYG
Microfracture surgery is a bad thing regardless of the timing, so the fact that Steve Smith just underwent the procedure on his left knee in December means there's a definite possibility that Manningham will serve as the Giants' No. 2 receiver this year. With Smith out of the way, Manningham caught fire at the end of last year, totaling 346 yards and four touchdowns on 16 catches in the last three weeks. It wouldn't be shocking if the former Michigan star turned out to be as much as a WR2 this year.
Ryan Mathews, RB, SD
It's true that Mathews fell far short of expectations last year, but it's still true that Norv Turner running backs are likely to put up good numbers, and the Chargers didn't trade up to the 12th pick of the 2010 draft so Mathews could split carries with Mike Tolbert. Simply stated, if it weren't for his ankle troubles, Mathews would have breezed past 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last year. Tolbert could remain a nuisance at the goal line, but Mathews should still be a good RB2 in 2011.
Jerome Simpson, WR, CIN
Given that he might be playing with a rookie quarterback in 2011, Simpson isn't worth drafting early. But he should be one of the top targets as a sleeper pick. It's a small sample size for sure, but Simpson totaled 18 catches for 247 yards and three touchdowns in two starts against San Diego and Baltimore last year -- two of the league's five best pass defenses. Simpson's short resume means he's too risky of an investment early in drafts, but it will be interesting to see what he's capable of as a starter.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, TB
Blount definitely put on a good show last year, but the undrafted Oregon runner might not look as sharp if he has to carry the load for a full season. It's easy to forget that Julius Jones looked unstoppable at times after showing up in Week 11 of his rookie season with fresh legs, and Blount perhaps benefited from a similar dynamic when he took over in Week 8 with just 21 carries on the year. Many will buy into the Blount hype, so it'll take a high pick to get him in most leagues. Those early picks are best reserved for more proven players.
Matt Cassel, QB, KC
It's doubtful that anyone will mistake Cassel as a worldbeater after his 27-touchdown, seven-interception season last year, but it'd be a mistake to even consider him better than average. He still failed to complete 60 percent of his passes last year, and his average of 6.9 yards per attempt was not impressive. Furthermore, 17 of those touchdowns came in just five games, meaning Cassel's owners had to subsist on just 10 passing touchdowns over his other 10 games. Cassel's 2010 showing looks like a fluke.
James Starks, RB, GB
Just like with Blount, Starks is a player getting too much hype from a small late-season sample of work. And unlike Blount, Starks' numbers weren't even overly impressive -- he failed to average four yards per carry in either the regular or postseason. Starks definitely had his moments at a few points, but it seems like a stretch to expect him to overtake Ryan Grant after a rather unremarkable NFL debut. Third-round pick Alex Green has a better chance of displacing Grant than Starks does.
Michael Turner, RB, ATL
Turner is no longer the Burner, as his days of playing the workhorse for Northern Illinois and Atlanta have seemed to wear him down a bit. The bruising runner has taken a big workload the past three years in Atlanta, and last year's average of 4.1 yards per carry was the lowest of his career to this point. He's also missed time the last two years due to groin and ankle troubles. Turner should have some fantasy value in 2011 just because Atlanta likes to feed him the ball, but his efficiency appears to be slipping.
Roddy White, WR, ATL
White admittedly isn't much of a "bust" selection -- he actually has a very high floor and is one of the most dependable fantasy receivers in the game. The problem is that too many people are identifying him as the top fantasy receiver, something he simply isn't likely to be. Last year's 1,389-yard, 10-touchdown season is probably somewhat of a best-case scenario for White, who has yet to surpass 1,400 yards in any season of his six-year career. Players like Andre Johnson, Miles Austin and Calvin Johnson can match White's floor while providing more upside at the same time.