Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's one thing to explode onto the fantasy scene with a great season, but it's another to perform when expectations are high.
In 2011, some NFL players below were either rookies who played above their first-year expectations or were players who pushed their games to a much higher level.
The question every fantasy owners is now asking, "Can they play as well or better in 2012?"
The players include:
Ryan Mathews, San Diego (fantasyfootballcalculator.com ADP 6.7) - Based on his current first-round selection in mock drafts, fantasy owners are expecting another huge jump in production from Mathews. The Chargers tailback averaged 110 yards per game from scrimmage in 2011, but what has owners excited is that Mike Tolbert took his touchdown-poaching skills to Carolina (21 touchdowns over the past two seasons). All signs at this time point to Mathews not only repeating last year's totals, but significantly improving on them.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas (ADP 13.4) - From Week 6 to Week 9 last season, Murray was the best running back in football, averaging 150 yards on the ground over the four-game span. He eventually "returned to earth" and his season ended in Week 13 with a broken right ankle. He's expected to be the Cowboys' featured back in 2012 which explains the early second-round selection. However, beware that the Cowboys GM, who in this case is also the owner, Jerry Jones, has always had a "man-crush" on fellow former Arkansas Razorback Felix Jones and will make sure he's a major part of the mix. Murray's overall numbers should improve if he plays all 16 games, but don't expect the second coming of Emmitt Smith.
Rob Gronkowski, New England (ADP 18.2) - Gronkowski went from Tom Brady's favorite weapon in the red zone in 2010 (42-546-10) to his favorite target all over the field in 2011 (90-1,327-17). His numbers last season broke the all- time single season marks for yards and touchdowns by a tight end. While it's unlikely that "Gronk" can repeat those exact record-breaking statistics, his totals should still be among the top three at his position at the very worst.
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans (ADP 18.3) - Like Gronkowski, Graham went from being a red zone target to simply being Drew Brees' favorite receiver (team-leading 149 targets) in 2011. His improved production was remarkable and his 99-1,310-11 season would have had all fantasy owners singing his praises had it not been for Gronkowski's season in New England. While Brees loves to spread his throws around, we feel that Graham and the Saints offense have a better chance to match last year's totals than Gronkowski.
Cam Newton, Carolina (ADP 20.3) - Newton exploded out of the gate with back-to- back 400-yard passing days in his first two games. But the NFL is all about adjusting and defenses did just that to Newton, who averaged just 207 ypg passing in the second half of the season. As for his record 14 rushing touchdowns, the Panthers brought in a red zone specialist in Tolbert, which should reduce Newton's total. Newton won't be a bust in 2012, but both his passing yards and touchdown runs will be reduced.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit (ADP 21.5) - Everything went right for Stafford in 2011, particularly his ability to stay on the field. After totaling just 13 games in his first two seasons, Stafford played all 16 last year. He threw a league-high 663 passes for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. Expect Detroit management to try to establish some kind of running game in 2012 with the return of Jahvid Best and Mikel LeShoure, so Stafford may not see as many attempts and therefore a corresponding drop in production. A healthy Stafford took his team to the playoffs and the Lions' brain trust would like to keep it that way. A drop in his fantasy production is likely.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati (ADP 26.2) - The all-rookie combo of Andy Dalton-to- Green was the Bengals' best weapon in 2011 and should be again in 2012. There are some questions to Dalton's ability to improve on last season, but none about Green who may have as much talent as any wide receiver. Green played injured last year, so added to the experience gained at both ends of this passing combo should allow Green's numbers to improve in 2012.
Julio Jones, Atlanta (ADP 31.1) - The Falcons' rookie receiver started just 13 games and still almost posted as many yards as A.J. Green in a 54-959-8 season. With Atlanta's new emphasis on passing in 2012, we are expecting Jones to drastically improve and in fact take over for Roddy White as the team's most effective receiver. If defenses continue to focus on White, Jones could put up 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns. Needless to say, we like Jones a lot this year.
Darren Sproles, New Orleans (ADP 31.8) - Sproles was a busy guy in 2011. He ran for 603 yards, caught 86 balls for 710 yards and seven scores and return punts and kickoffs for another 1,383 yards. That's a lot of pounding for a guy just 5-foot-6, 181 pounds. Sproles would like more rushing attempts, but we see fewer attempts in his future with Mark Ingram having a year under his belt and Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory still on the roster. Sproles's totals may take a small hit, but in leagues which value kick returns, he's still a great value.
Victor Cruz, New York Giants (ADP 33.8) - Cruz came out of nowhere to post monster numbers in 2011 - 82 receptions, 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. Of course, defensive coordinators and fantasy owners probably didn't even know who he was until after his Week 3 explosion against the Philadelphia Eagles. Cruz won't be a surprise in 2012, or have a third weapon like Mario Manningham on the field. It will be Cruz and Hakeem Nicks and little else for Eli Manning to target. Cruz may lose a few yards, but he and Nicks should be one of the top tandems in the league.
Jordy Nelson, Green Bay (ADP 38.8) - While defenses doubled Greg Jennings, Nelson ran wild through the secondary, posting career highs in receptions (68), yards (1,263), touchdowns (17) and yards per reception (18.6). The question for 2012 is whether opposing defenses will continue to worry more about Jennings than Nelson. If so, Nelson could repeat his 2011 season. More likely, teams will vary their defensive focus and Nelson will come up short on his yardage and touchdown totals for 2012.
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh (ADP 61.9) - Brown was an unknown when the season began, but by the end of the year he was the Steelers' No. 2 receiver ahead of Emmanuel Sanders and Hines Ward. Brown was even targeted more than No. 1 receiver Mike Wallace (124 vs. 114). With Ward retired, Brown should easily match last season's totals.