Once upon a time, way back in 2010, we had Michael Vick, Peyton Hillis and Brandon Lloyd.
Then 2011 brought us Marshawn Lynch, Jordy Nelson and Victor Cruz.
Three seasons later, Justin Forsett, Jeremy Hill and a rookie wideout named Odell Beckham Jr. took the honors.
And, then last season, tight end Cameron Brate, wide receiver Davante Adams and a trio of rookies in quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Jordan Howard and WR Michael Thomas were fantasy’s surprise darlings.
Each season, we have a fresh crop of unexpected fantasy studs who burst onto the scene from the depths of drafts – or even the early-season waiver wire – and go on to rewrite the narratives and determine the fantasy champions in legions of leagues.
They’re the holy grails of the game: The breakout, breakthrough, low-average draft position players who seemingly appear out of nowhere and finish the season ranked among the top-10-highest fantasy point producers at their respective positions.
Hit on a few of these players in the middle or late rounds of your draft while not totally flubbing your first few draft picks, and it’s an instant welcome to league championship contention.
In the meantime, though, with the multitude of magazines, the proliferation of podcasts and a web filled with pigskin-themed URLs, you’d think that we’d all be getting better at this fantasy-football forecasting thing. But the raw numbers say it’s as unpredictable as ever.
- Over the last five seasons, more than 50 percent (103) of the 200 players who finished the year as top-10 point-producers at the four primary positions (QB, RB, WR, TE) did not enter their respective regular seasons with top-10 re-draft league ADPs, going by the data at myfantasyleague.com.
- And an even 30 percent (60) of those 200 top-10 players entered their respective seasons with ADPs of 21 or lower at running back and wide receiver and 16 or lower at quarterback and tight end.
- It’s even been more pronounced the last two campaigns with 47 of the 80 top-10 fantasy high scorers (58.8 percent) at the four major positions owning non-top-10 ADPs, including 26 (32.5 percent) who qualified as true outliers (QB and TE ADPs of 16 or lower and RB and WR ADPs of 21 or lower).
So, yeah, unpredictable as ever. And, we can expect at least another 20-or-so top-10 surprises to emerge again this season – unless you are somehow convinced that 2017 will improbably turn out to be the exception to the perennial rule – with at least half of those players owning preseason (i.e. right now) ADPs of 16 or lower at their respective positions.
And now comes the tricky part of our little exercise: Identifying those breakthrough top-10 fantasy finds in mid-August.
A year ago in the 2016 version of this column, we hit on Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Melvin Gordon and Antonio Gates but whiffed on the likes of Jonathan Stewart, Corey Coleman and Zach Miller among others.
But no hesitation here as we’re ready to gaze into the crystal ball once again. So here now is my annual list of fearless predictions/best guesses for surprise top-10 breakthrough seasons, utilizing the Aug. 18 MFL.com re-draft, standard-scoring ADPs at each of the four primary fantasy positions:
Quarterback (current ADP of 16 or lower)
Eli Manning (ADP 17) – Manning was a top-10 fantasy QB three times between 2011 and 2015 but slipped to 20th last season as he threw for nine fewer touchdowns and 409 fewer yards than he did in 2015 while tossing two more interceptions. The N.Y. offensive line remains a major question mark and more than a few NFL observers believe the youngest Manning is done at age 36, but that’s far from the over the hill in today’s NFL where quarterbacks are still routinely putting up league-leading numbers well into their late 30s. Plus, when your No. 1 target owns the initials OBJ, a top-10 season is never out of reach, and as added insurance, the G-Men have added to Eli’s arsenal by bringing in veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall and using their first-round draft pick on talented tight end Evan Engram.
Andy Dalton (ADP 18) – Yeah, we did just get done discussing the Red Rifle as a player on the upswing, but he definitely deserves another mention here with the glaring multitude of signs pointing up for the Cincy QB. Dalton has been a middling QB2 since finishing third overall at the position in 2013 and is coming off a career-low in touchdown passes a year ago with only 18. But most of the blame belongs with the injuries that sidelined his top two targets – WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert – for a combined 14 games last year and limiting them to nine combined TD catches after they totaled 23 the prior season. Add one of the league’s fastest players in first-round rookie wideout John Ross, and it’s easy to chart a path back into the top 10 for Dalton, who’s currently being drafted as a low-end QB2.
Other candidates: Carson Wentz (ADP 16), Carson Palmer (ADP 22), Deshaun Watson (ADP 23)
Running back (current ADP of 21 or lower)
C.J. Anderson (ADP 22) – He missed the final nine games last season due to a knee issue, but the still-only-26-year-old who has logged only 448 career carries is back atop the Broncos’ RB depth chart. Top 2016 backup and second-year player Devontae Booker is out for the preseason with a broken wrist and free-agent signee Jamaal Charles had yet to play for his new team as of this writing and is far from a lock to make the final roster as he attempts to battle back from a multitude of knee surgeries at age 30. Rookie sixth-round pick De’Angelo Henderson has made a quick impression this summer, but at 5-foot-7 and 200 pounds, he’s best suited for a change-of-pace role. That leaves Anderson in the clear lead position in the Broncos’ stable, and with a full season of health running behind an improved offensive line on a ground-first, defensive-oriented team, Anderson just might be primed for a top-10 breakthrough after back-to-back disappointing seasons.
Adrian Peterson (ADP 27) – A 32-year-old running back who essentially has missed two of the previous three seasons – the most recent one due to knee and groin injuries – would typically be no fantasy general manager’s idea of a player ready to make a sleeper run up the fantasy ranks, but we’re talking AD here. And a motivated AD to boot, who is now a part of one of the highest-flying offenses in the league. Incumbent Mark Ingram, a 2016 top-10 fantasy RB, is still atop the depth chart in the Big Easy, but he appears to be anything but the favorite of coach Sean Payton, and if Peterson proves to half as good as all the offseason reports have glowingly proclaimed, he could quickly carve out roles as the lead back on a potent offense and a return top-10 fantasy performer.
Eddie Lacy (ADP 30) – A top-six fantasy back in each of his first two seasons with the Packers, Lacy saw his games played and stats decline – while his weight headed in the opposite direction – in each of his subsequent two seasons on the tundra, leading to a stint on injured reserve to end 2016 and his unceremonious release in the offseason. He’s since landed with the Seahawks, who are hoping to recapture the power-running glory days of Marshawn Lynch. Sure, Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise are also in the Pacific Northwest backfield mix, but Lacy is getting the first crack at becoming Pete Carroll’s new workhorse back. So if Lacy can get a handle on his conditioning and the Seattle offensive front has truly improved, he is a still-in-his-prime 26 and could prove to be exactly what the Seahawks’ offense and fantasy GMs have been looking for.
Other candidates: Mike Gillislee (AP 25), LeGarrette Blount (ADP 29), Frank Gore (ADP 35)
Wide receiver (current ADP of 21 or lower)
Tyreek Hill (ADP 21) – The Swiss Army Knife of wide receivers, the speedy Hill had quite the instant impact as a rookie last season, scoring 12 total touchdowns – including nine on only 85 offensive touches – while ranking fourth in the league in all-purpose yardage (1,836) to finish as fantasy’s 15th-ranked wideout. The Chiefs themselves didn’t seem to actually realize what they had in the fifth-round pick as Hill logged only 16 offensive touches in his first five games, but from Week 6 through the remainder of the season, Hill was fantasy’s eighth-ranked wide receiver, scoring seven of his nine offensive TDs in that span. Since then, the Chiefs have parted ways with their No. 1 wideout in Jeremy Maclin so whatever unsustainability dogs Hill after scoring once every 9.4 touches in 2016, easily could more than be made up by a marked increase in overall opportunities, both as a receiver and a rusher, this coming campaign.
Kelvin Benjamin (ADP 24) – Not many realize that 2017 will only be the third on-field season for Benjamin, who sat out the Panthers’ 2015 Super Bowl run with a knee injury. After a strong rookie campaign in which he caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine TDs, Benjamin slipped to 63-941-7 on 118 targets a year ago as he worked his way back into playing speed, but that still was good enough for a 19th-place finish among wide receivers with 136 fantasy points. And that all came during a decidedly down season for his QB, Cam Newton, who tossed 16 fewer TD passes than he did in his league-MVP season a year earlier. At 6-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin is beastly in the red zone, and if Newton bounces back like he should, Benjamin surely will play a leading role in helping him get there. Only 70 yards and two TDs is all that separated Benjamin from a top-10 fantasy season a year ago – and that’s eminently doable in 2017 another year removed from knee surgery and playing with a talented QB on the rebound.
Jamison Crowder (ADP 28) – As you might’ve heard, 233 additional WR targets are up for grabs on one of the league’s most-aerial-centric offenses (seventh in the league with 37.9 pass attempts per game) following the offseason departures of Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and, to a much-lesser extent, Ryan Grant from Washington. Athletic ex-Brown Terrelle Pryor has been brought in to man one of the WR spots and Washington also is expecting an actual contribution from 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson following his injury-curtailed rookie campaign. But the primary D.C. beneficiary could be Crowder, the third-year wideout who finished second on the team with 67 catches on 99 targets a season ago. Crowder had 243 more yards and five more scoring grabs than he did a rookie in 2015, and similar jumps this season would easily bump Crowder up into the top 10.
Other candidates: Michael Crabtree (ADP 23), Corey Davis (ADP 32), Jeremy Maclin (ADP 38)
Tight end (current ADP of 16 or lower)
Julius Thomas (ADP 18) – After totaling a disappointing nine TD catches in two seasons in Jacksonville, Thomas has headed south to South Beach to reunite with coach Adam Gase. In his previous two seasons with Gase as his offensive coordinator in Denver, Thomas reeled in 24 scoring receptions in 27 games and was a top-10 tight end in both campaigns. Of course, that was with an in-his-prime Peyton Manning feeding him the pill and not an injury-replacement, out-of-retirement Jay Cutler. But if you’re seeking dark horse top-10 candidates, why not take a flier on Thomas? Gase’s Dolphins are in need of a bona fide red-zone target, and if the 6-4, 250-pound Thomas can put aside the nagging injury issues which limited him to 21 games during his two seasons with the Jags, he certainly has the potential to fill that bill.
Coby Fleener (ADP 19) – OK, so Fleener was a disappointment last season, putting up a 50-631-3 receiving line on 81 targets to finish as fantasy’s 13th-ranked tight end after he was the seventh TE to come off the board, on average, in the preseason. But we must remind fantasy GMs that 13 is still closer to 10 than 19 – his current ADP – so a return to the top 10 most definitely is well within reason. All it would take is a two-TD improvement on his four-year low of a season ago, and Fleener is right there in the mix. And in a Drew Brees-led offense which will be adjusting to make up for the loss of WR Brandin Cooks and his 117 targets (second on the team in 2016), don’t be surprised if Fleener does indeed live up to his preseason top-10 TE hype – just a year later than expected.
Other candidates: Cameron Brate (ADP 23), Jared Cook (ADP 24), Antonio Gates (ADP 28)