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Run 'N' Shoot: Finding the Next Breakout Star

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa has been sharing his fantasy insights for Rotowire since 2007. Mark is the 2010 and 2012 Staff Picks champion (eat your heart out, Chris Liss) and won Rotowire's 14-team Staff League II in consecutive seasons. He roots for the Bills and has season tickets on the second row, press level to the Rays.

Alshon Jeffery. Keenan Allen. Justin Blackmon. We all want to roster the most recent breakout star. When you wait until after the breakout has already happened, though, you're elbowing 11 other owners on your way to the waiver wire, hoping to land him but likely to miss out. The strategy here is obvious - how can we roster players like this *before* they break out?

For all of these guys, the clues were there. Jeffrey is big, fast, a second-round draft pick now in his second year, and unlike most teams (who spread the ball to numerous targets), the Bears basically throw to just four guys - Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and Martellus Bennett (h/t Scott Pianowski). Keenan Allen has a top-10 QB, bottom-five defense, and a terrific schedule. Allen didn't get a chance until Malcom Floyd got hurt, but he's bigger than the other Chargers wideouts and probably would have been a first round pick if not for a foot injury. Justin Blackmon is on the lowly Jaguars, but he's a first-round talent on a team that will constantly be throwing in garbage time.

See any themes there? I do. Draft pedigree. Backups who are an injury away from playing. Good offenses. Players on teams with bad defenses. Waiting behind injury-prone starters (in Allen's case, starting out behind Danario Alexander and Floyd). With these three themes in mind, here are several guys I'd try to stash on my bench during the bye weeks, hoping to get the next breakout fantasy star before he emerges.

Montee Ball, RB, Broncos: Yes, he's buried right now in Denver - third in the pecking order, in fact. But with the Broncos playing at a historic pace, it's rare you'll ever have a chance to acquire someone with this much upside for virtually nothing. Ronnie Hillman is merely a change of pace back, and I'm convinced that's all he'd be even if Knowshon Moreno were to get hurt. And make no mistake, Moreno always gets hurt - he's played 8 games or fewer each of the past three seasons. Sure, Ball might rot on your bench all year if you stash him, but there aren't many other waiver guys with the potential to win your fantasy league.

Roy Helu, RB, Redskins: Draft pedigree, check. Clear-cut feature back if the starter got hurt, check. Upside, check. Playing in the NFC East with a terrible Redskins defense, Helu would be a beast if Morris were to go down (as he did in Week 3 with bruised ribs). Helu can catch, too, so he might even be better than Morris for fantasy purposes, particularly in PPR formats.

Knile Davis, RB, Chiefs: Davis was just a third-round pick, but he's a physical freak who fell only because of injury and fumbling concerns. On a team that's built around ball control, defense, and check-down passes, Davis would be huge if Jamaal Charles got hurt.

Johnathan Franklin, RB, Packers: There's so much I love about the Packers right now. They're past the bye. The defense is falling apart, and Clay Matthews is on the shelf. The offense is terrific, obviously. Even with the recent fumbles, I tend to think Franklin is ahead of James Starks in the pecking order, meaning he's just an Eddie Lacy injury away from being a fixture in fantasy lineups.

Lance Dunbar, RB, Cowboys: DeMarco Murray gets hurt every year. We all know this. I feel like I rehash Dallas' terrific schedule every week in this column. Dunbar isn't far from being a feature back on a high-scoring offense.

Kendall Hunter, RB, 49ers: Hunter's upside is less than it appeared a few weeks ago as the 49ers offense has sputtered and their offensive line has failed to live up to the lofty standards it set in 2012. But Hunter is definitely above LaMichael James on the depth chart and Frank Gore is 30. At this point, we all know what happens to 30 year old backs - see Steven Jackson.

Andre Caldwell, WR, Broncos: Who's to say the only handcuffs have to be running backs? If Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker got hurt, everyone would be rushing to the waiver wire for Caldwell. No, Andre isn't an elite talent by any means, but he'd be a WR3 in fantasy in the Denver setup. Yes, receivers get hurt less than running backs, but unlike the backs listed above, Caldwell only needs one of two guys to get hurt.

Christine Michael, RB, Seahawks: Michael looked great in the preseason but I can't put him any higher than this because Marshawn Lynch is fairly durable and Robert Turbin isn't going away. That said, I see Turbin like Hillman in Denver - as a change of pace guy only, with Michael getting the majority of touches if Lynch went down.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins: Robert Griffin III has made it through the season so far, but with Michael Vick now on the shelf, Griffin is probably the most likely to get hurt among fantasy-relevant starting QBs. Cousins did well when given the chance in 2012 (101.6 QB Rating). With a bad Redskins defense and a terrific schedule (those NFC East teams all do), Cousins is my favorite QB stash among current non-starters by a country mile.

Jarrett Boykin, WR, Packers: Boykin lacks a draft pedigree and is completely unproven, but he's in an ideal situation to emerge in Green Bay if injuries strike to a starting receiver. Randall Cobb isn't a big guy and Jordy Nelson has had some injury issues, so this isn't impossible. If Julio Jones can go down for the year, Cobb, Nelson, or James Jones certainly could.

Michael Bush, RB, Bears: Matt Forte is another guy who seems to get hurt every year. With few exceptions, we can say that about most backs nowadays. That's the point here, really. Bush isn't young, spry, or sexy, but he'd get all of the goal line carries if Forte gets hurt.

Donald Brown, RB, Colts: Ahmad Bradshaw is out for the year and Trent Richardson always seems to have a nagging injury. Brown has never really been a feature guy or stayed healthy himself, but with the Colts playing how they are, he belongs on a list like this.

If you're trying to decide whether to stick one of these guys on your bench, context matters. If you're 0-5 or 1-4, you need to hit the lottery. Keeping Michael Floyd or Greg Jennings on your bench isn't going to turn your team around, but one of these guys might. Make the switch. If you need Floyd or Jennings to start, then that's different - they're probably better starters than the players listed above.

If you're 5-0 or 4-1 and relying on Knowshon Moreno or Alfred Morris, getting that player's handcuff is important. You don't need to hit the lottery - you just have to protect your floor, avoid a catastrophe. Jason Snelling is better than Ball right now (especially with Steven Jackson still out), but I gave him up for Ball as a handcuff to Moreno on my 4-1 team. I'm not starting Snelling, so if he's just sitting on the bench, the Moreno handcuff is more important.

Bernard Pierce is owned in many leagues, but I'd cut him for the first several running backs listed above. The Ravens just can't run-block, and while Ray Rice has been nicked up, he's no more likely to get hurt than most other starters.

One player I'd cut for virtually everyone listed above? Ryan Broyles. He's just not getting enough playing time (just 27 snaps last week even with Calvin Johnson inactive).

Last week, I was ready to see the Broncos and Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Now I want to see Denver head to Indy for the AFC Championship Game. Can you imagine Peyton vs. the Colts in Indy - the media might explode. It could happen, too - they're the two best teams in the AFC right now (though a matchup in Denver certainly seems more plausible). I've vastly underrated the Colts up to this point since they were such a fraud in 2012, but their underlying stats this year are legit (94.4 QB Rating, 68.4 QB Rating against).

Seeing such a disparity between the Colts QB Rating and the rating they allow made me curious about whether other teams have such a wide disparity. Let's look at every NFL team in that context - net QB Rating:

Broncos +43
Saints +30
Seahawks +28
Colts +26
Chiefs +21
Lions +19
49ers +14
Titans +11
Cowboys +9
Patriots +9
Bengals +6
Dolphins +2
Panthers +2
Eagles +1
Bills Even
Packers -2
Bears -2
Chargers -2
Steelers -7
Browns -7
Raiders -8
Falcons -8
Texans -9
Jets -11
Vikings -12
Cardinals -14
Bucs -16
Rams -21
Ravens -24
Redskins -26
Giants -32
Jaguars -48

A few mild surprises, I suppose, but this list correlates highly to team success.

With Julio Jones out for the year and an awful defense, it sure seems like a lost season for the Falcons. What a shame for Tony Gonzalez, who undoubtedly didn't envision this when he agreed to come back for one more year. Gonzalez to the Chiefs (for whom he endured so many losing seasons earlier in his career) for a fourth round pick is a trade that needs to happen - can't we all sign a petition or something?

I get the pink on the uniforms. The cause is great. But somebody's got to say it - the pink flags have to go.

If you're talking trade, you want just a little extra from your opponent, and he has Matt Prater, force him to swap kickers with you as part of the deal.

The only viable comparison for the Giants right now is the Jaguars. Both teams are not only 0-5, they're both 0-5 against the spread. The Jaguars have -112 point differential, while the Giants are -100 despite playing in the worst division in football. Yes, the Giants have had three tough games - Broncos, Chiefs, and at Cowboys, but the Panthers only win was a blowout over the Giants, and the Eagles just lost their starting QB yet still won handily. It doesn't matter that the Giants are only two games out of first if they keep getting blown out against everyone they play.

Jimmy Graham has more fantasy points than any running back, receiver, or tight end ... and more than all but four quarterbacks. In a redraft today, there's no way I'd let him get out of the top five (Adrian Peterson, Peyton Manning, Jimmy Graham, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy).

The 2013 Bengals are like the Texans from 2010-2011 ... perhaps the best roster in the NFL from 1-53, but they're not going to get over the top without better quarterback play. Hopefully Cincy sees the purgatory Matt Schaub has forced the Texans to endure all these years and aims higher than Andy Dalton. Anything else would truly be a shame for a team with so much talent throughout the roster.

Who's been more disappointing, Cam Newton or Carson Palmer? I'll go with Palmer, as there's really no excuse for his struggles with an above-average receiving corps. Steve Smith, meanwhile, looks washed up - helping give Newton at least a plausible excuse. Either way, it's a shame, as the Cardinals and Panthers both boast fantastic defenses - a rarity in the defense-starved NFC.

I don't get Josh Freeman's decision to sign with the Vikings over the Bills. Maybe money had something to do with it, but if you're taking a one-year deal, why not go to Buffalo, where you'd have been guaranteed to start for so long as EJ Manuel is on the shelf (perhaps several weeks), rather than fight for playing time with both Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder? I'm not saying I wanted Freeman in Buffalo - I didn't - I'm just surprised Freeman chose the Vikings.

Keep those start/sit or trade questions coming on Twitter, using #stopalawfirm and following me @MarkStopa. More free Rotowire subscriptions are coming.