Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2011-12 season saw more players than usual go from being barely a blip on the fantasy radar during the draft to posting elite numbers.
A key factor in successful drafting this season will not just be identifying which sleepers will jump to the top of fantasy football by year's end, but also who among last year's breakout players will fall back a bit under the weight of massive expectations.
In 2010-11, Peyton Hillis, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Lloyd were the big three players who came out of obscurity to become celebrated roto kings.
Hillis was dealt from Denver to Cleveland after rushing for 54 yards and one TD on 13 carries. He wasn't the Browns' clear-cut starter going into the season, either. Hillis had to compete with Jerome Harrison, one of the major surprises of 2009-10 who rushed for 561 yards and five scores on 106 carries in the final three weeks of the season. Hillis overtook Harrison after several weeks and finished with 1,177 yards and 11 TDs on the ground and 61 catches for 477 yards and two air scores.
Undrafted out of Oregon, Blount was infamous for punching a Boise State player after a game in 2009, but the Buccaneers installed the 247-pounder as the starting tailback midway through the season and he rushed for 1,007 yards and six touchdowns.
And all Lloyd did was lead the league with 1,448 yards receiving to go with 11 scores after never accumulating more than 733 yards and six touchdowns in any of his first seven seasons in the league.
The thing is, each of those players underwhelmed last season after they had an expensive price tag attached to them. Even though it seems improbable, one or more of the nine players below will do the same, falling short of the lofty totals they posted last season when they went from unwanted to untouchable.
Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants - We'll start with the player that was more anonymous than anyone else on this list last season, known only for his three- touchdown game against the Jets in the preseason two years ago. Cruz went from never having played an NFL game to salsa dancing his way to 82 catches, 1,536 yards and nine scores. While I still think Cruz will be a prominent member of New York's offense this season, it will be difficult for him to duplicate 2011's yardage total since he accomplished it on the strength of five TD receptions of 68 yards or more, including the 99-yarder he had against the Jets on Christmas Eve. TSN's projections have him at 88 catches, 1,337 yards and nine touchdowns.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots and Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints - Gronk and Graham, which sounds like a great title for a buddy cop film, will forever be joined at the hip after their epic 2011 seasons. The two athletic freaks are changing the way we draft, forcing owners to select tight ends sooner than ever before. Of the two, I think Graham has a better shot at duplicating or exceeding his 2011 totals of 99 catches, 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. Gronkowski will still be a stud, but 90 catches, 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns (17 receiving, 1 rushing) seems farfetched considering all of the other weapons Patriots QB Tom Brady has at his disposal. The team still has Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez and it added Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney in the offseason. TSN projects Gronkowski to catch 73 balls for 1,074 yards and 13 scores.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers - Last season saw Nelson average 0.22 touchdowns and 18.6 yards for reception, numbers that will be difficult to duplicate even if Nelson is just as big a part of Green Bay's offense this season. The wideout will likely catch more passes and average less yards per catch than last season. We have him at 76 catches for 1,178 yards (15.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers - Though Mike Wallace is perceived as Ben Roethlisberger's No. 1 target, Brown had 123 targets last season to Wallace's 113. Even if Wallace ends his holdout in time for the regular season, I like Brown to improve on his 2011 numbers (69 catches, 1,108 yards, two touchdowns). The speedy receiver seems likely to post 80-plus catches, 1,200- plus yards and five-plus receiving touchdowns this season as the team leans even more heavily on the pass with Rashard Mendenhall still out and Todd Haley taking over offensive playcalling duties.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions - We knew Stafford had talent, but the concern was always whether he could stay healthy after playing in 13 of a possible 32 games his first two NFL seasons. Not only did he stay upright in 2011, he put up one of the best passing seasons in NFL history, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. While Stafford may have cast aside the injury- prone tag, I think fantasy owners need to temper their expectations just a bit going into this season. Stafford was fantastic from Week 1-12 last season, but he wasn't even close to a 5,000-yard pace, throwing for 283.5 yards per game. Stafford then threw for 1,919 yards and 15 touchdowns over the final five games to reach the 5,000-yard and 40-TD plateaus. TSN projects Stafford to reach 4,726 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2012.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers - Newton's value in his rookie season was tied to his passing yardage and rushing touchdown totals (4,051 and 14, respectively). We think free agent signee Mike Tolbert will vulture some TDs from Newton this season as the team tries to protect its investment from taking too many big hits. A natural increase in passing touchdowns should follow in Newton's second season. We project Newton to throw for 3,920 yards and 25 passing touchdowns while rushing for 672 and nine scores.
Beanie Wells, RB, Arizona Cardinals - To me, Wells just screams "bust" after rushing for 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He had knee surgery in the offseason and will have to compete with Ryan Williams, who missed all of 2011 with a torn patellar tendon. Plus, Wells did most of his damage in two games, rushing for 138 yards and three touchdowns in Week 4 against New York and 228 yards and a touchdown in Week 12 versus St. Louis. He didn't have a 100-yard rushing game outside of those two outings. There isn't anything particularly special about Wells' skill set, and a few injuries here and there could cause him to fall out of favor with Arizona's coaching staff. I foresee him falling short of 1,000 yards and 10 scores this season as Williams cuts into his workload.
Reggie Bush, RB, Miami Dolphins - Bush is another running back I won't touch in drafts. The Dolphins back improbably stayed healthy for 15 games and exceeded 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career and I don't think it will happen again in 2012. Second-year back Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller will likely vie for carries as Miami attempts to keep Bush fresh and healthy since he is one of its only true offensive weapons. Plus, Bush is a near-lock to miss a game or two with various ailments, as he hasn't suited up for 16 games since his rookie year in 2006.