Fantasy Football 2014: Five Breakout Sophomores

Justin Hunter Titans

Credit: Brian Hill on Flickr

NoteThis piece was originally written on July 15th by Adam Ganeles and is one of many unique pieces that can be found in our 2014 fantasy football draft guide. None of this information has been updated since it was originally published.

This list is not meant to identify the top-five most productive second year players for 2014. It’s simply a group of players that I expect to burst onto the scene, taking into account their uninspiring rookie campaigns. I’ll leave it for another scribe to write up Cordarrelle Patterson, Giovani Bernard, DeAndre Hopkins, Terrance Williams, etc.

E.J. Manuel, QB Buffalo

A week one starter as a rookie, Manuel ironically produced his top performance of 2013 in the season opener versus New England. It wasn’t an overwhelming statistical effort – 150 yards and two touchdowns – but it would be the only positive PFF grade (1.5) he’d earn all year. He managed a less than stellar pass rating of -17.0 despite missing six games while nursing a knee injury. In those ten healthy starts, Manuel was sacked 28 times. A hesitant QB behind a shaky offensive line is not a winning combination.

Alas, his ability is not a concern… there is plenty of room for optimism entering the new campaign C.J. Spiller claims he’s the healthiest he’s been since 2012, and dynamic runner Bryce Brown has been added to the fold. Their presence should result in more manageable down and distance situations and take pressure off what was an overwhelmed pass blocking unit; not to mention open up opportunities in the play-action game. Manuel thrived when utilizing deception at FSU but finished 29th in PA QB Rating a year ago. He’ll be scanning the field for fellow second-year target Robert Woods (possession) and super rook Sammy Watkins (vertical). Oh yeah, sprinter Marquise Goodwin and veteran Mike Williams can both blow the top off a defense on any given play.

I’ll go out on a limb (or ledge) and project that Manuel will quickly earn QB1 confidence in 12-team leagues. The competency of his O-Line will have a large say in the feasibility of that prediction.

Knile Davis, RB Kansas City

Mostly considered by fantasy owners in premiere “handcuff” terms, don’t sleep on Davis contributing alongside a healthy Jamaal Charles. We don’t want to take coach speak too seriously, but Andy Reid has expressed an interest in utilizing more of a sophomore-mature Davis. Remember: Charles and his 5’11 199 lb. frame had 329 touches in 2013. Don’t be surprised to see more of JC lining up on the outside and more of Davis in the backfield.

Davis takes heat for lacking game-breaking speed in tight quarters, but 89 of his 242 rushing yards last season were achieved on 15+ yard runs (five in total). His 4.37 wheels are capable of providing major rewards when holes open up. With that said… weighing in at 227 pounds, power should be Davis’ meal ticket for the foreseeable future. He’s fully recovered from a fractured leg and participated in OTA’s.

Let’s take a peek at Davis’ production in the final two games of 2013 with Charles either sitting or injured:

Week Attempts Yards TD YCo
17 @ SD 27 81 2 55
WC @ IND 18 67 1 (+Rec TD) 38

Latavius Murray, RB Oakland

Murray first opened eyes in the 2010 Liberty Bowl with 104 yards against Georgia. At 6’3 230 pounds, he quickly assumed the moniker of “measurable freak”. He recorded a 4.38 forty-yard dash time and an explosive 10-4 broad jump at his Pro Day. Nevertheless, those attributes didn’t always translate to gridiron success, and Murray didn’t come off the board until round 6 of the NFL Draft.

His early professional days weren’t smooth sailing. It didn’t take Murray long to find himself in head coach Dennis Allen’s doghouse, and he was ultimately placed on Injured Reserve in August (ankle). A year later, the coaching staff is singing a different tune. Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson gushed when discussing Murray’s outlook for 2014: “We’re looking for big things from Latavius Murray right now, coming off the foot injury. He’s shown, to me, the biggest upside right now in what we’ve seen thus far, if he can stay healthy.”

If he can stay upright, and Run DMC takes his usual weekly hobbled trip to the sidelines, Murray has the physical packaging to make an immediate fantasy dent. An excellent receiver, his skills should play well in PPR formats.

Justin Hunter, WR Tennessee

When granted significant snap share in 2013 – at least 35 snaps – Hunter rewarded the faith only 40% of the time. But when he did leave an imprint, it was massive:

Week 12 at Oakland: six receptions on six targets for 109 yards (long of 54), 37 YAC and a score.

Week 14 at Denver: four receptions on eight targets for 114 yards (long of 57), 32 YAC and a score. *Three dropped passes*

Offensive Coordinator Jason Michael has been quoted as saying “the sky’s the limit” when referring to Hunter, but down in, down out desire and mental acuity have long been concerns. He’s added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, which should make the 6’4 Hunter even more formidable on jump balls. From an athleticism lens, there’s not much he can’t do. He can develop into a dynamic receiver by accident.

If stability is what you’re after, avoid Hunter in re-drafts. If you’re a REWARD over RISK fantasy owner, however, Hunter is a must snag in the early teen rounds. 16 of his 41 targets last season came 20+ yards from the line of scrimmage.

Travis Kelce, TE Kansas City

We go back to the Heart of America for a second helping. Is Kelce more “sleeper” than “security”? Probably so, but he’s getting criminally overlooked. According to data from FantasyPros, Kelce is the 43rd tight end coming off the board, behind names like Brandon Pettigrew and Scott Chandler.  While a knee injury prevented him from making an impact as a rookie — he’s expected to be ready to roll for training camp — it was widely believed that Kelce possessed the talent to develop into a rare playmaker at TE, particularly as a field stretcher. The Chiefs trust Anthony Fasano in the blocking game, but it would be a sin not to use Kelce in two-tight end sets. Fantasy owners in keeper/dynasty formats (heck, even redraft) who ignore Kelce late on draft day will miss the boat. As Teddy KGB once said, “You must be kicking yourself for not drafting Travis Kelce when you could. Bad judgment.”

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