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NFL Draft Kit: 2014 Breakout Players

Vlad Sedler

Vlad Sedler covers baseball and football for RotoWire. He is a veteran NFBC player and CDM Hall of Famer, winning the Football Super Challenge in 2013. A native Angeleno, Vlad loves the Dodgers and Kings and is quite possibly the world's only Packers/Raiders fan. You can follow him @RotoGut.

Every year certain players break out and vastly out-earn their draft slots. Last season it was Eddie Lacy, Josh Gordon and Julius Thomas, among others. Who might those players be in 2014? Of course, players with new-found opportunities will top the list, but opportunity on its own is not enough to ensure success just ask 2013 owners of Lamar Miller, Vincent Brown and Kenbrell Thompkins. Moreover, opportunity is the easiest part of the equation - and it's usually comprised of public information, i.e., every serious owner in your league is aware of who's rising on each team's depth chart. The more pertinent questions then are which players with current opportunities will make the most of them, and which without opportunities at present are most likely to do so should they get the chance.

To answer those questions we need to define what "making the most of them" means. In our view, there are two kinds of breakouts.

Going from obscurity to usefulness is a Level 1 version. And going from usefulness to stardom is Level 2.

Let's formally define these levels below.


Level 1

Position Minimum 2013 Stats* Rankings Range 2013 Player Examples
QB 3500 Total Yds, 24 TD QB7-QB12 Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Ryan Tannehill, Josh McCown
RB 750 Total Yds, 6 TD RB15-RB24 Rashad Jennings, Donald Brown
WR 45 Rec, 800 Yds, 5 TD WR21-WR36 Riley Cooper, Michael Floyd, Julian Edelman, Marvin Jones, Golden Tate
TE 50 Rec, 500 Yds 4 TD TE9-TE15 Jordan Reed, Delanie Walker, Coby Fleener, Tim Wright
prorated over 16 games (min. 8 games)

Level 2
Position Minimum 2013 Stats* Rankings Range 2013 Player Examples
QB 4500 Pass Yds, 30 TD QB3-QB6 Nick Foles
RB 1200 Total Yds, 8 TD RB5-RB14 Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, Zac Stacy, Giovani Bernard
WR 70 Rec, 1000 Yds, 7 TD WR7-WR20 Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffrey, Keenan Allen, Antonio Brown
TE 60 Rec, 750 Yds, 6 TD TE3-TE8 Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, Charles Clay, Greg Olsen
prorated over 16 games (min. 8 games)

Using our defined breakout levels and introducing our variables, we can now group players at each of the four fantasy skill positions to discover the 2014 breakouts.

Variables for Projecting a Breakout
What do we look for besides opportunity? Keep in mind the variables below are not hard and fast rules. Level 2 breakouts should contain at least three of the variables below to qualify each important in their own way, but some more tied to specific positions than others. Age is but a number and perhaps of least importance here and we have an example of a Level 2 potential breakout running back (Toby Gerhart) who is older than 25 but with a low amount of career carries to fit within these guidelines.

Age 25 or younger
Pedigree 1st-3rd round pick, NCAA All-American or award finalist
Physical Tools QB: SATS (size, arm, trust, speed)
RB: < 4.55 40 time, lateral movement, cut ability
WR: < 4.5 40, vertical leap, hands/ball control, separation
TE: speed, size (6-4), "basketball skills", plus blocker
Per-Play Efficiency RB: 4.0+ YPC (yards per carry)
WR: 13.0+ YPR (yards per reception), 8.0 YPT (yards per target)
Team Context QB: new offensive scheme/coordinator, dominant WRs
RB: improved offensive line, diminished competition
WR: < 4.5 40, vertical leap, hands/ball control, separation
WR: accurate passing QB, improved offensive system


So what fuels a QB breakout, and are there any fresh new faces with the potential to step into the elite this year? One recipe for success is when a new coach or offensive coordinator is hired and a new system implemented. We witnessed it last year with Nick Foles' 27-touchdown, 11-start season under Chip Kelly, and Marc Trestman's arrival boosted the per-game production of Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. While Philip Rivers' resurgence wasn't a first-time breakout, it too was fueled by the arrival of Mike McCoy (who presided over both Kyle Orton's and Tim Tebow's best years in Denver). Other examples include Michael Vick's read option success with Andy Reid in 2010 and the breakout of Drew Brees, who went from Level 1 to Level 2 under Sean Payton in their first year together (2006) in New Orleans.

The other element that can boost a QB to new levels is the emergence of a top-flight receiver. Such was the case for Cutler and McCown last year with Alshon Jeffery, Tom Brady when Randy Moss joined the Patriots in 2007 and Donovan McNabb when Terrell Owens joined the Eagles in 2004.

As we look at candidates for 2014, it would not be shocking to see Robert Griffin leap to Level 2 status with Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed and the newly acquired DeSean Jackson as weapons at his disposal. Moreover, he gets a new head coach, former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who presided over Andy Dalton's Level 1 breakout last year.

Cases for a Level 1 to Level 2 jump could also be made for Andrew Luck (Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen added), Colin Kaepernick (Michael Crabtree, Steve Johnson added) and Russell Wilson (Percy Harvin added), all of whom have been successful in their young careers and could easily take the next step. But none of the above would be surprising. Delving into this season's crop of quarterbacks yet to reach Level 1, it appears that there are no Level 2 breakouts on the horizon but a slight case can be made for:

EJ Manuel - Bills
Manuel has age (24), size (6-5, 240), speed (4.59 40), pedigree (first-round pick) and the right pieces in place around him (C.J. Spiller, Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams) to make the leap to breakout star. The jury is still out on head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nate Hackett amidst questionable play-calling and player usage last year. Manuel will have to improve his throwing mechanics, but has the poise and maturity of a team leader and is possibly our next breakout star at the position.

Running backs, even rookie ones, have the best shot at leaping directly to Level 2 more so than wide receivers. Last year Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le'Veon Bell and Zac Stacy played Level-2 football in their rookie seasons. In 2012, it was Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson and Doug Martin. In prior years, examples include Arian Foster (2010), Matt Forte, Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton (2008) and Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch (2007).

A common theme from our list of Level 2 breakouts whether rookie or not is the running back should ideally be fast (sub 4.55 40), of a high pedigree (top-three-round draft pick) and with a fair amount of opportunity. So who makes the direct leap in 2014?

Bishop Sankey - Titans
The departure of Chris Johnson to the Jets leaves a gaping hole of opportunity for the 21-year-old Sankey, who was the first running back selected in May's draft. Sankey is not a prototypical power back, but more of the new breed, similar to the Bengals' Giovani Bernard excellent vision, subtle quickness, durable, 4.49 40 speed and should contribute right away to the Titans passing game. With the plodding Shonn Greene, who underwent surgery this offseason on the same knee that caused him to miss five games last season, as their other primary option, Sankey has a clear path to significant touches out of the gate.

Toby Gerhart - Jaguars
Toby Gerhart combined for fewer than 300 carries in four seasons behind Adrian Peterson, so while he's old (27) for a potential breakout, his odometer is commensurate with someone far younger. The Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker award winner as college's best RB in 2009, Gerhart will finally have the opportunity for a starting role with Jacksonville. The Jags offensive line is still a work in progress with the impending return of second overall pick Luke Joeckel, but it is a young, athletic group. Gerhart's eye-popping 7.9 average on 39 carries last year is too small a sample to be projectable, but the 4.7 YPC over 276 career carries means something, as does his strength and ability to break tackles. Gerhart's 4.53 40 time at the NFL Combine also meets the threshold.

Level 1 to Level 2: Montee Ball - Broncos

The big direct-to-Level 2 breakout of Alshon Jeffery appeared to have come out of nowhere, but using our variables in addition to new-found opportunities we should be able to identify a few similar candidates for 2014. Looking back on Jeffery's leap into stardom, we see most of our variables were in play: age (23), pedigree (second-round pick, SEC player of the year), per-play efficiency (15.3 YPR in 2012), size, speed and highlight-reel physical ability.

Some of the most dominant WRs of the last few years have taken gradual Level 1 to Level 2 steps Josh Gordon 2013, Demaryius Thomas 2012, Jordy Nelson 2011, Calvin Johnson 2008 while others like Jeffery and Keenan Allen have leapt directly to Level 2. In addition to opportunity, physical tools and team context specifically, the departure of a heavily-targeted teammate are the biggest factors to consider for receivers looking to go to the top level. Who are this year's top candidates?

Markus Wheaton - Steelers
The Steelers expect Wheaton to step into a starting role following the exit of the team's Z-receiver, Emmanuel Sanders. Wheaton was limited to 161 snaps in his rookie season but has many of the key components to be this season's Jeffery mostly due to his uncanny quickness, plus speed (4.45) and flexibility to grab throws at full speed from behind and over his shoulder. The Steelers drafted the towering 6-4 Martavis Bryant and signed role receivers Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey in the offseason, but Wheaton is the player they're hoping will emerge as the next Mike Wallace.

Justin Hunter - Titans
The 22-year-old Hunter fits the mold of the next big breakout WR with his size (6-4), physical tools (4.44 40, 39.5-inch vertical) and pedigree (second-round pick). Hunter also has great burst and soft hands, as we saw in Weeks 11 and 13 last year (10 receptions for 223 yards and 2 TD). Hunter has added 15 pounds to his sub-200 pound frame in the offseason and could be the team's top downfield and red-zone option.

Level 1 to Level 2: Emmanuel Sanders - Broncos; DeAndre Hopkins - Texans

What do last year's Level-2 breakouts Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron have in common with the best TEs of the last decade like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham? They all played Division 1 college basketball. The tight end position is all about hands and positioning (posting up to clear a lane for the point guard is like shielding a defensive back for the QB) all skills learned in basketball. Neither Graham, Thomas nor Cameron were high NFL draft picks Graham was the highest at 95th overall so in looking for breakouts we should be more focused on size, speed and hands over pedigree and college football accolades.

Ladarius Green - Chargers
Despite not playing basketball beyond his high school days, Green plays like a power forward and is the most likely to step through directly to Level 2. Green is big (6-6, 240), fast (4.53 40) and showed glimpses of a breakout in a three-game stretch during Weeks 11-13 (9 catches, 206 yards, 3 TD). Gates is still a big part of the Chargers offense, but Green will be used more often in two-tight end sets this year. Should Gates get hurt, a breakout for Green would be even more likely.

Zach Ertz - Eagles
Rookie tight ends rarely make major impacts, but Ertz came on late in the year with three touchdowns over his final five games and should return in Year 2 as the team's top option at the position. With the emergence of Nick Foles under coach Chip Kelly, this should again be one of the more potent offenses in the league, and Ertz should be in the thick of the action. At 6-5, 250, Ertz certainly has the requisite size, and after a poor showing at the NFL Combine, he ran a 4.57 40 and posted a 35.5-inch vertical at his Stanford Pro Day.

Level 1 to Level 2: Jordan Reed - Redskins

It's never a simple task identifying breakout stars in the NFL, but setting breakout levels and quantifiable variables can be helpful when planning for fantasy drafts and looking beyond the top-50 picks. Evaluating sets of players at each position for their impending opportunity and accounting for factors like team context, physical tools and pedigree will allow us more easily to identify the breakout stars of tomorrow.