As this series on breakout fantasy players progresses I should point out that I don’t expect all of these players to “break out.” We never know what the season has in store for any individual player, that’s the game. But I do think all of these guys have a chance to break out and be productive fantasy performers. When draft day comes, the trick is to load up on guys in the early round who have the highest probability of carrying your squad, and then to spend the middle and late rounds filling out the roster with as many potential breakout candidates as possible.
They won’t all work out, but some will.
You’ll notice that rookie running backs dominate this list. That’s because year after year the rookie backs remain some of the biggest draft-day bargains. It often takes a few years for players to adjust to the NFL level at other positions, but running the football is a skill that translates well from the college ranks. Just like real football, in fantasy the strategy with RBs is to get ’em while they’re young and run ’em into the ground.
1) Donald Brown, Rookie, Indianapolis Colts: My gut feeling on Brown is that he’ll be one of the biggest fantasy stories of 2009. Rushing 5 times for 58 yards in the preseason opener against the Vikings has only heightened my expectations. The 2008 NCAA leading rusher out of UConn was the best Colt on the field, showing excellent vision and burst. Although this figures to be a strict committee in the early going, I’m about ready to give up on Addai as a runner (just one game over 80 yards rushing in his last 20 contests) and I’m bullish on the rookie’s chances of thriving on artificial turf and in this offense. I think the explosive, shifty Brown is the Colts leading rusher and their primary back by the end of the season.
2) Darren McFadden, Second Year, Oakland Raiders: It’s unfortunate that I know my league-mates will be reading this, because McFadden is one of my favorite picks this season. His carries will be limited in a scenario where he shares the backfield with the significantly more boring Justin Fargas, but he’ll be active in the passing game. I see his total touches being somewhere in the 250 range. McFadden is just as game-breaking as he was a year ago, the toe injury is gone, and the Raiders are more committed to getting him the ball, particularly on what they’re calling their “explosive plays.” Unfortunately, he plays for the Raiders, so …
Six more breakout running back candidates, after the jump…
3) Derrick Ward, Fifth Year, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A year after posting over 1,400 total yards and a 5.6 YPC average sharing duties with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw in New York, Ward is poised to see a much bigger workload in Tampa Bay. He’s a powerful, complete back who will thrive in the passing game and open field. He should find plenty of room to run behind the mauling young line in Tampa and in Jeff Jagodinski’s zone blocking scheme. Ward is being continually disrespected in drafts, but he could easily emerge as a solid RB2 option.
4) Kevin Smith, Second Year, Detroit Lions: I can’t figure out why Kevin Smith is falling so far in drafts. Sure, he plays for the Li0-16ns, but as a rookie last season Smith still managed to put up a useful 1,200+ yards and 8 TDs in 8 2008 starts (keep in mind he didn’t fully take over the starting tailback duties until midseason). The Lions, and Smith, are going to be better this season. The Lions offensive line didn’t improve, but their overall offense should be better with Matthew Stafford under center and Scott Linehan taking over offensive coordinator duties. Smith isn’t a burner, but he’s tough and well-rounded. If he falls into the late 3rd or early 4th round, you may have found your weekly RB2.
5) Chris Wells, Rookie, Arizona Cardinals: Wells’ draft stock has been slipping a bit in recent weeks, and that’s a trend you should take advantage of on draft day. the Cards don’t have much of a power rushing attack, preferring to spread the field, but the attention defenses must pay to Boldin and Fitzgerald on the outside should clear plenty of running lanes. Tim Hightower is still on the roster and remains a threat to steal carries, but Arizona drafted Wells for a reason. His big 6-1, 237-pound frame and 4.4 speed could translate into 900+ yards and 8 TDs. Just pay close attention to those shaky ankles and keep in mind he won’t be very active in the passing game in PPR leagues.
6) Ray Rice, Second Year, Baltimore Ravens: The hype machine on Rice has started to catch up with the second-year back, making him less and less of a sleeper. But if Rice falls into the 6th round, be prepared to pounce. Le’Ron McClain has transitioned to FB and Willis McGahee is donezo. That means Rice should lead the Ravens strong rushing attack, and he could easily become your every-week RB2 or RB3. The fact that he’ll be the most active back in the passing game should also bring consistency, especially in PPR formats.
7) LeSean McCoy, Rookie, Philadelphia Eagles: When healthy, Brian Westbrook is clearly the man in Philadelphia. When healthy. However, there’s little question that Westbrook is entering the downside of his illustrious career. The exciting rookie is ready to pick up the slack if/when the veteran’s seemingly inevitable injury strikes and McCoy has a very Westbrook-like skill set out of the box. The second-round pick out of Pittsburgh showed outstanding home-run ability and solid receiving skills last season, so he should fit in very well in this offense. McCoy is not a great blocker, but what do we care in fantasy? It’s unlikely to keep him off the field with only Lorenzo Booker to beat out after Westbrook.
8 ) Shonn Greene, Rookie, New York Jets: The Jets already had a crowded backfield last year with Thomas Jones and the electric Leon Washington. Still, they felt the need to trade several picks and move up to draft the the iron-headed Shonn Greene. I’ll be frank: I like Greene, and I don’t like Thomas Jones. I think Jones’ performance last year was a fluke, an outlier. I saw too much mediocrity in the preceding eight years to buy in, and now he’s on the wrong side of 30. However, what we did learn from Jones’ career year in 2008 is that the Jets efforts to upgrade their offensive line last offseason were more than successful. And with Rex Ryan’s defense combined with a rookie QB, this team is going to run the ball.
I think Jones is going to either fall to earth or get injured, clearing the way for Greene, who impressed Coach Ryan at minicamp with his brute running style. In any event, Greene should be the goal-line back for the Jets. That makes him pretty attractive when he’s going in the 12th round and beyond.