In my last column, titled Not Dead Yet, I discussed a handful of veteran players who people are down on this year, but you may not want to bury just yet. The idea is when it comes time to make those crucial selections in the middle rounds and everyone at your draft is shooting for high upside youngsters, it may be a good idea to take certain veterans who have proven production in the past, are going for historically low costs, and have reasons to be optimistic for the upcoming season.
Today I'm going to start ranking guys who are worth the leap of faith in those middle rounds because evidence suggests this could be their breakout year.
First up is the quarterbacks. These are the toughest guys to label as breakout players, because most of them have some level of success in the past, so they don't fit the typical definition of the term. They aren't players who will come out of nowhere. What a breakout will mean in this context is this is the season it could all come together for the following guys, resulting in better-than-expected numbers that will significantly outperform their price tag.
I have excluded rookies from consideration in this evaluation because without having taken a snap in the NFL, we don't have a baseline to project what would constitute a performance beyond past production.
5. Jake Locker - Tennessee Titans - |STAR|ADP 170
|STAR|average draft position figures referenced from ESPN.com as of 7/30/12
Locker takes the lowest spot on today's list for two reasons. The first, is he doesn't have a starting job yet, and it may be a few weeks into the season for him to ascend to that position, which carries additional risk. The second, is his total production for the year is likely to be less than the guys below. On the bright side, his cost will also be the cheapest on draft day as he is the only nominee here who qualifies as a traditional breakout candidate.
Locker isn't the tallest guy in the league (6-foot-3), but he's solidly built (235 lbs.) and is a versatile athlete. His playmaking ability projects him to be somewhere between Aaron Rodgers and Jeff Garcia with some Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre thrown in. Of course, he has some work to do to earn his way into that conversation, but he'll get to work on that in 2012.
He was solid in relief duty last season, posting 542 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions on just 66 past attempts. In the one game in which he got significant playing time against the Saints, he completed 13-of-29 passes for 282 yards and one touchdown while also scampering for 36 yards and a score on the ground.
When Locker outshines 36-year-old pedestrian veteran Matt Hasselbeck for the lead role in Tennessee, he'll have some explosive weapons at his disposal. These include; running back Chris Johnson and his 48.5 average annual receptions, Jared Cook and his league-leading 15.5 YPR in 2011 among tight ends with at least 45 catches, and wide receivers Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright and Damian Williams. He'll be a great backup quarterback and a solid utility player or QB2 in leagues that allow for it by mid-season.
4. Alex Smith - San Francisco 49ers - |STAR|ADP 120
Smith is starting to gain some steam and respect in fantasy circles in response to the great lengths 49ers management went to in the offseason to surround him with weapons. A strong preseason might push the love too far, but that's unlikely. San Francisco is still a running team and that will keep owners hesitant of drafting the long-ridiculed former No. 1 overall pick.
Smith set career highs in 2011 in passing yards (3,144), yards-per-attempt (7.1), completion percentage (61.3), and QB rating (90.7, 9th-best in NFL). Perhaps even more telling of his development, Smith continued his stellar play under the bright lights of the postseason, drastically increasing his yards-per-game from 196.5 in the regular season to 247.5, throwing five touchdowns to zero interceptions and achieving a rating of 101.0.
This season coach Jim Harbaugh should loosen the rains on Smith a bit in his second year within his offense of system. The fact you have to be able to pass to win the ultimate prize in the NFL is not lost upon 49ers management, a point clearly evident by their moves in the offseason. With Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, A.J. Jenkins, Mario Manningham, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, LaMichael James, and Kendall Hunter at his disposal, there is no reason this offense should not improve through the air and Smith's numbers climb significantly.
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick - Buffalo Bills - |STAR|ADP 141
Early in the drafting season, Fitzpatrick is getting the Dangerfield treatment, "no respect I tell ya, you draft him you think you'd get a free bowl a soup eh". According to ESPN's average draft value, he is the No. 23 quarterback, landing behind each of the top two rookies, Robert Griffin III (13) and Andrew Luck (20), as well as "Mr. Muscles" Tim Tebow (22).
His 2011 season was a tale of two halves, much like the Bills. The first half was solid while playing alongside a healthy Fred Jackson, but after he was lost for the year with a broken leg, things went sour. In his first nine games, Fitzpatrick passed for 231 yards and 1.77 touchdowns per-game ( remarkably this was the same exact touchdown percentage he produced in 2010 with a full season of Jackson). Those numbers extrapolated over a full season add up to 3,696 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. Do you see either rookies or Tebow putting up those numbers? While it's true he threw a lot of interceptions, 12, over that nine-game span, his decision-making should improve with more experience as a starter (only 52 career starts, or equivalent of just over three years). I'm not suggesting he's a fantasy starter, but the upside is surely there and he could provide excellent bench or trade value at this price.
2. Andy Dalton - Cincinnati Bengals - |STAR|ADP 122
Lost amid the Cam Newton hysteria last year was the rookie campaign the "Red Rocket" achieved. In just about any other season he would have run away with the Rookie of the Year Award. Excluding Newton's historic display, Dalton's 3,398 passing yards were the fourth-highest (Peyton Manning 1998, Sam Bradford 2010, Matt Ryan 2008) and his 20 touchdowns the highest totals by a rookie since Manning's first season in 1998.
The biggest determining factor for breakouts among quarterbacks is the quality of their supporting cast. Dalton is looking good here. A.J. Green proved last year he is already one of the elite wide receivers in the game. The Bengals added Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers, 3rd round) and Marvin Jones (Cal, 5th round) in April's draft to help replace the departed Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati has a great young tight end in Jermaine Gresham, and promising third-year slot-target Jordan Shipley (52 rec, 600 yards, 3 TDs in '10) should return after missing virtually all last season with an ACL tear.
Cincinnati's tendency to be a heavily run-oriented offense is the only factor keeping Dalton from topping today's list. Even a slight improvement in his numbers, which seems a reasonable expectation, will put him well ahead of his draft day cost, and make him a borderline starter in 12-team and deeper formats.
1. Josh Freeman - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - |STAR|ADP 118
Much like Fitzpatrick and Dalton, it might not be correct to label Freeman as a breakout candidate since he's already thrown for 20-plus touchdowns in a season and essentially "broke out" in 2010. Don't get caught up in the terminology, however, the point is to find guys who will outperform the draft day investment necessary to acquire their services. Just like the stock market, we're searching for arbitrage opportunities, "the easy money" as they say on Wall Street, the inside trading information.
Freeman isn't getting any love coming off is horrendous 2011. He threw 22 interceptions and Tampa's offense was an unmitigated disaster. Do not fear.
(Yoda voice) "Be a repeat of last year the 2012 season will not".
Few teams got more help on the offense of side of the ball this offseason than the Buccaneers. It has become popular practice of late to discuss those things Vincent Jackson is not. What he is, is a proven veteran who is a legitimate deep threat, something this team has slacked since the days of Joey Galloway. The team also added Carl Nicks to beef up the offensive line and drafted Doug Martin, another player who will fill a vacancy as an explosive weapon out of the backfield. Despite being in the twilight of his career, Dallas Clark is a savvy veteran with good hands who can get open in space, move the chains and should help the young signal caller if he can stay on the field.
Lastly, Freeman is a versatile athlete who can hurt you with his arm or his feet. Those can be very valuable fantasy contributions as we've seen with Newton, Michael Vick, Tebow, and to a lesser extent Aaron Rodgers, and it's also why so many owners are stampeding over each other to get to Griffin. In his two full seasons, Freeman has rushed for 604 yards and 4 scores, but he took the initiative to improve himself in this area in the offseason. He lost a significant amount of weight in an effort to be lighter on his feet in order to avoid the rush and utilize his natural ability as a runner.
Ultimately, when searching for breakout guys, the most important factor is maximum upside. That's why Freeman takes the cake. He has the highest ceiling of quarterbacks outside the top-13 (with the possible exception of Griffin who I excluded from this article based on his rookie status). Matt Schaub is limited by his injury history, and that of Andre Johnson, and his team's proficiency (and success with that approach last year, not to be underestimated) running the ball. As long as Ray Lewis is still playing for Baltimore, or merely in that locker room, I think every man in that organization is too terrified of him to allow Joe Flacco to truly air it out. I don't think the players listed above, or the Sam Bradford's, Matt Cassel's, and Carson Palmer's of the world can match Freeman/s supporting cast and array of skills. I think he can finish in the top-8.
Can he throw for 4,000-plus yards? Yes.
Can he toss 30 touchdowns? Yes.
Can he rush for 500-plus yards? Yes.
Can he rush for 5-plus Tds? Yes.
Could he throw 20-plus picks again? Yes.
Could Tampa ride their "Thunder and Lightning" with 35-plus carries a game? Yes.
But these are the risks you take when casting for the trophy fish.
Spit on it, rip it up, tear it apart, call me a wise guru, share your thoughts.
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