There was Michael Vick’s stunning return to the top-10 fantasy quarterback ranks in 2010.
Two years later, rookie running back Alfred Morris created a fantasy rush with his out-of-nowhere top-10 run.
The next season, tight end Julius Thomas followed the same path with his big-time breakout 2013 campaign.
And then, seemingly only months ago, we witnessed Odell Beckham Jr. catch fire after an early hamstring issue and storm into the fantasy-WR top 10.
If these players didn’t carry you to a league championship in these particular seasons, there’s more than a good chance they directly prevented you from getting there.
They’re the holy grails of fantasy football: The break-out, break-through top-10 players who come from the depths of drafts – or even the waiver wire – and determine the champions and author the season narratives in legions of leagues.
And if you think the chances are slim of being the first to latch on to one of these surprising fantasy studs, try predicting who they’ll be … in August.
Yet, that’s the task we’re attempting to tackle here over the ensuing paragraphs. But first, let’s look back at the last five seasons of top-10 breakouts, and summarize our fantasy findings.
Combing through The Huddle’s fantasy stats archive, I first singled out the top-10 finishers each year in terms of total (performance) points among quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends from 2010 through last season.
I then accessed the preseason average draft positions (ADPs) at myfantasyleague.com for those four positions over the five-year span – singling out only the re-draft leagues using standard scoring – and then compared the respective lists:
- Out of a possible 200 players, 107 (or 53.5 percent) appeared in both the ADP preseason top 10 and season-ending top 10 at their respective positions
- Due largely to the much-lower number of candidates, the quarterbacks had the highest correlation with 31 of the 50 ADP top-10 QBs taking their places among the 10 highest-scoring signal-callers during their respective seasons
- The tight ends and wide receivers both also had correlation rates of 50 percent or better during the span with 26 at each position appearing on both lists, while the running backs proved to the toughest to gauge as 24 of the 50 matched up
Still, to further single out the true break-out players who crashed the final fantasy top 10s each season, I looked at the true outliers: The top-10 highest-scoring QBs and tight ends with preseason ADPs of 16 or lower and the top-10 running backs and wideouts with ADPs of 21 or lower at their respective positions.
That process yielded 10 quarterbacks, 13 tight ends, 15 running backs and 19 wide receivers. That’s 28.5 percent (57 of 200) of the final top 10 scorers during the five-season span who qualify as our surprise break-out bunch.
We’d like to think that our preseason rankings and analysis and the knowledge and wherewithal of fantasy GMs themselves are getting better as the overall fantasy endeavor keeps growing annually in popularity – just count the number of fantasy-football titles populating your local retail magazine rack – but there’s been roughly the same number of so-called top-10 “surprises” in each of the last seasons with 13 in 2010, 10 in ’11, 10 in ’12, 11 in ’13 and 13 last year.
Obviously, a good number of the break-out performers have been rookies just breaking onto the pro scene. That group includes the aforementioned Morris (who ranked 50th among running backs in preseason ADP before finishing as the fifth-highest scoring back of 2012), tight end Rob Gronkowski (21 ADP to No. 5 TE in 2010) and Beckham (No. 65 to No. 5 WR last season) whose debut seasons turned out much more spectacularly than expected.
Similarly, other top-10 break-out seasons were turned in by young players Arian Foster (No. 24 to No. 1 RB) in 2010 and Julius Thomas (No. 23 to No. 3 TE) in 2013 for whom the light suddenly – and brilliantly – clicked on early in their careers.
Other breakouts featured players such as Darren McFadden (No. 39 to No. 6 RB in 2010) who bounced back big time from injuries the previous season or the likes of Justin Forsett (undrafted to No. 8 RB last season) who took full advantage of a teammates’ injury or misconduct to crack the top 10.
And then there was Vick (No. 34 to No. 5 QB in 2010), Darren Sproles (No. 51 to No. 10 RB in 2011) and Emmanuel Sanders (No. 27 to No. 7 WR) last season) – players who found that a change of scenery brought with it a (dramatic) change in fortune.
And, finally, there simply were the break-out stars such as Peyton Hillis (No. 61 to No. 2 RB in 2010) and WR Brandon Lloyd (undrafted to No. 1 WR in 2010) and Victor Cruz (undrafted to No. 4 WR in 2011) who suddenly and stunningly burst on to the top-10 scene seemingly out of nowhere. Those typically make for best break-out finds of all.
But now it’s time to cut to the chase: Who will be the break-out top-10 fantasy finds of 2015?
Our above research into recent fantasy trends says there are 11.4 such players whose positional preseason ADPs lie outside the current top 15 (for QBs or TEs) or 20 (for RBs and WRs) but will wind up as top-10 studs. That 11.4 average roughly breaks down into two quarterbacks (typically emerging from the 16-25 ADP range), three running backs (21-45 ADP), four receivers (21-45 ADP) and two tight ends (16-30 ADP), so that’s how we’ll allot and hone in our fearless top-10 break-out predictions as we scan the current MFL.com re-draft ADPs (non-PPR) at each position:
Sam Bradford (ADP 21) – Two years ago in Chip Kelly’s first season in Philly, Nick Foles (10 starts) and Michael Vick (six) combined for 416 fantasy points, which would’ve ranked third if they were one QB entity. Then, last season, Foles and Mark Sanchez each started eight games and combined to put up 359 fantasy points, a total which would’ve ranked eighth overall among QBs. So what if Kelly and the Eagles finally have a quarterback who can last a full or near-full season? We realize that’s asking an awful lot from – of all players – Bradford, who’s started more than seven games only once in the last four seasons, but if he does, even the conservative math adds up to a top-10 finish.
Andy Dalton (ADP 24) – Only two seasons ago, Dalton was fantasy’s third-ranked QB, putting up 377 points. The season before that, he finished a solid 12th (327 points). That’s easy to forget in the shadow of the Bengals’ – and Dalton’s – stunning inability to put an end to the franchise’s quarter-century postseason-victory drought. But with some better health fortune from his talented supporting cast – WRs A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, RB Giovanni Bernard and TE Tyler Eifert who missed a combined 37 games a year ago – the Red Rifle could easily find himself back in top-10 territory.
Other candidates: Colin Kaepernick (ADP 18), Jay Cutler (ADP 23), Carson Palmer (ADP 25)
Frank Gore (ADP 21) – In 2014, the 10-year veteran had his fewest touches (266) in a season in which he started at least 12 games as he shared the workload with rookie Carlos Hyde. He now moves to high-powered Indy offense, which features a bounty of passing-game weapons but is in need of a bell-cow back. That’s where Gore fits in, and his carries (255), receptions (a career-low 11 last season) and total TDs (five) should all see increases – yes, even at age 32 – with opposing defenses focusing on Andrew Luck.
Joseph Randle (ADP 26) – You know the situation: A two-year backup getting the opportunity of a career to start and run behind arguably the league’s best offensive line. Randle, a fifth-round pick in 2013, only has started two games and logged 105 rushes in his first two seasons playing behind DeMarco Murray in Big D, but he has showed some definite flashes, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and rushing for five scores. Now, he’s not going to approach Murray’s insane 449 touches of a season ago, but if he can handle the dramatically increased workload, he should get more than enough touches to make a serious run at RB1 territory.
Tevin Coleman (ADP 28) – It was a coin flip choosing between the Falcons’ third-round pick and Lions’ second-rounder Ameer Abdullah, but the former Indiana stud is bigger and has the clearer path to starts and touches, only having to beat out 2014 rookie reserve Devonta Freeman for the starting gig in Atlanta. Kyle Shanahan is the team’s new run-friendly offensive coordinator, and Coleman has shown he can produce when given the opportunity, scorching the Big Ten for 2,177 yards from scrimmage and 15 TDs on 295 touches last season playing for the 4-8 Hoosiers.
Other candidates: Jonathan Stewart (ADP 25), Abdullah (ADP 27), Doug Martin (ADP 32)
Keenan Allen (ADP 21) – Largely forgotten after the big numbers the 2014 rookie receiver class put up, Allen’s 2013 debut was a precursor as the third-round pick hauled in 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight scores. His targets (105 to 121) and receptions (77) climbed last season but his yards (783) and TD grabs (four) most definitely didn’t follow suit as opposing defenses appeared to catch up. Now it’s time for the still 23-year-old to show what adjustments he’s made from his sophomore slide, and with TE Antonio Gates suspended the first four games, Allen will have a chance to start fast and build on the momentum as Philip Rivers’ most-probable top target.
Jeremy Maclin (ADP 23) – Don’t look now, but K.C. has developed quite the WR-unfriendly stigma as Maclin’s move to the Midwest has led fantasy nation to believe he’s in for a 14-spot drop after finishing ninth among all WRs with 192 fantasy points a season ago. And, sure, you might’ve heard that a Chiefs’ wideout hasn’t had a scoring reception since 2013, but Maclin is as clear of a No. 1 WR as you’ll find across the league, and his reunion with coach Andy Reid has the potential make up for a lot of lost time and production on both ends.
Andre Johnson (ADP 30) – With Johnson just turning 34 and coming off his worst fantasy full season (112 points) of his career, there is some definite doubt about the Texans’ franchise receiving leader. Still, he’s notched no fewer than five top-12 fantasy seasons over the last seven years and now he’ll be catching passes from by far the best quarterback he’s played with in Andrew Luck. Johnson doesn’t figure to rack up a fifth career 1,400-yard receiving season, but a sixth 100-catch campaign is well within reach and he could actually record double-digit TD receptions for the first time in 13 seasons.
Nelson Agholor (ADP 31) – With Maclin gone, Kelly and the Eagles are looking for a new No. 1 wideout. Second-year Jordan Matthews is strong candidate, but then again so is Philly’s pro-ready first-round pick who makes up for his lack of size (6-1, 190) with strong route running, a deceptive ability to shed defenders (17 forced missed tackles at USC last season), a nose for paydirt (12 TD receptions) and the gift of grab (a sterling 76 percent catch rate). Plug those impressive measurables into Kelly’s offense, and you have the makings of a top-10 fantasy debut season.
Other candidates: Brandon Marshall (ADP 26), Michael Floyd (ADP 32), Mike Wallace (ADP 36)
Owen Daniels (ADP 20) – The No. 1 receiving tight end in a Peyton Manning offense … a 10th straight season playing for the same coach (Gary Kubiak) in a tight end-friendly scheme … two talented wide receivers to draw the defense’s attention. Even with his 33rd birthday only a couple months away and set to play for his third team in as many seasons, Daniels has quite a bit going for him in the Mile High City, which is looking to ease the offseason loss of Julius Thomas. And if Daniels can stay healthy – he hasn’t had fewer than 48 receptions or 527 yards in any season in which he’s started at least 13 games – a fourth top-10 fantasy tight-end showing isn’t out of the question.
Vernon Davis (ADP 25) – First, we fully acknowledge the unmitigated disaster that was Davis’ 2014 season as he hit eight-year lows – his worst his rookie season of 2006 in fact – across the board with all of 26 receptions on 50 targets for 245 yards and two TDs. That established, it’s not like Davis hasn’t ridden this roller-coaster before, following up poor seasons in in 2008 and 2012 with a top-two fantasy TE campaign in each of the ensuing years. The Niners say they’ve realized their mistake in not involving Davis more last season, and a top-10 correction just may be in the offing.
Other candidates: Kyle Rudolph (ADP 19), Ladarius Green (ADP 21), Larry Donnell (ADP 26)