By James LoPresti
Lead Fantasy Writer
Here are a few players to keep in mind who are headed into their contract years and could be primed for a breakout:
Josh Freeman, QB, Buccaneers: Pulling up last year’s statistics, Freeman’s numbers aren’t too bad. His 27 passing touchdowns were tied for seventh in the league, and his passing yards (4,065) were ninth. Erase an awful three-game stretch to finish the season, (2 TD’s-9 INT’s) and instead of talking about him fighting to keep his job, we could be labeling him a top-10 quarterback. And before you think differently, consider this – this year is the first time in Freeman’s career that he has the same offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for consecutive seasons! It’s hard enough learning to run an offense; even harder when that offense is changing ever-other year. Additionally, he has great talent surrounding him – Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Doug Martin, and now a fully healthy offensive line, with returning All-Pro guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks. I expect him to earn a big payday next offseason, whether it be from Tampa Bay or somewhere else.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints: He’s already fantasy’s best tight end, and as crazy as it sounds, I’m projecting him to be better than all the wide receivers too. Absurd? Not so much, but let’s look at the stats to be sure. In a year in which he battled through ankle and wrist injuries most of the season, and was without offensive guru Sean Payton at the helm, Graham compiled 85 catches, nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns – numbers better than every other fantasy tight end. The fact that his season is being described as disappointing by people is mind-blowing. Well, Graham seems to have read into that, and is ready to prove he is the same player who caught 99 balls for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. (Oh, by the way, only four wide receivers scored more fantasy points than Graham that year). According to NFL Network, he’s fully recovered from offseason wrist surgery, and has been studying game film around the clock. All Graham has said is that he’s “hungrier than ever” to get back onto the field. Expect Drew Brees to find him early and often. He isn’t going to come cheap in fantasy drafts – ESPN projects him a Round 1 or 2 pick – but barring any more health concerns, he’s a lock for a monster season.
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos: Decker seems like he would be the odd man out in the new-look Broncos offense. Wes Welker is going to eat touches, and Demaryius Thomas is a dangerous deep threat. Surely Decker won’t record double-digit touchdowns again. Or will he? My money’s on him. Guess who led all wide receivers last season in red zone targets? Decker led with 25, including 11 from inside the 10-yard line. In fact, 25% of the Broncos total red zone targets went to Decker; he caught more than 70% of those balls, which was top-10 among all wide receivers. Clearly, he has earned the trust of Peyton Manning. And, it doesn’t hurt that the opponent’s third-best cornerback will be covering him all year (with Welker and Thomas drawing most of the underneath and over-the-top coverage). I expect Decker’s yards and catches to slightly digress, but he’s a good bet for another double-digit touchdown year.
Target these players in the later rounds:
Emanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers: Mike Wallace (now in Miami) was targeted 122 times in 2012. Tight end Heath Miller will likely miss most of the year while he recovers from a torn ACL. Someone has to make up for those targets. The popular choice is Antonio Brown, a slippery receiver who finished second on the team in catches. However, my pick is Sanders. While an overall solid contributor, Brown was shut down by opposing cornerbacks too often — six games of four or fewer receptions — and missed three games in 2012 with a high-ankle sprain, an injury that is known to linger. He also struggled holding onto the football down the stretch, losing four fumbles. When Ben Roethlisberger lobbied for Pittsburgh ownership to match the offer to Sanders made by the New England Patriots in the offseason, that showed me that Big Ben saw great potential in this young receiver. Sanders is very quick and shifty, (he ran a 4.41 40 at the 2010 Combine) and will likely play primarily out of the slot. He was targeted 74 times by Roethlisberger last season, and I’d be shocked if that number didn’t double. He is a great mid-to-late round value pick.
Golden Tate, WR, Seahawks: According to the Seattle Times, not only is Tate showing spectacular big-play ability, he has been called the most impressive player in training camp by his coaches! Consider that he is opposed by Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman in practice—two of the league’s best young defenders. Tate led Seattle with 12 catches of more than 20 yards last year and his wide receiver rating finished second among all players who caught at least 35 balls. ‘WR Rating’ calculates the quarterback rating on passes targeted to every wide receiver. Percy Harvin’s injury is a bummer, but his loss could propel Tate into a solid WR3 in most fantasy formats. His current average draft position (ADP) is hovering around the 13th round in standard scoring leagues.