Last season, breakout second-year players like Le'Veon Bell carried fantasy owners to championships, while rookies like Odell Beckham catapulted plenty of fantasy teams over the top. Here in 2015, we'll look for the next crop of stars to outperform casual expectations. These potential breakouts can make your fantasy season and might be the reason you win your league. The key will be carefully assessing their situations, and making smart decisions about where to pursue them in drafts. Being aggressive to target the following breakout candidates is advised.
You can also see the rest of the NFL Fantasy teams' breakout candidates at the bottom of this article.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions
The Lions' rookie running back made noise with an explosive preseason debut, validating those who already were infatuated with his game. Ameer Abdullah's primary competition is Joique Bell, who as of August 26th, has yet to practice in the offseason. One of the most athletic running backs in the draft, he earned rave reviews from all observers at training camp. Then brought it to the field in Detroit's preseason opener. This is not some preseason manufactured hype train, but rather a steady drum beat that began as soon as the Lions invested serious draft capital into Abdullah.
At worst, Abdullah will inherit Reggie Bush's departed role in this backfield. Such a designation would make him a strong candidate for RB2 numbers in PPR leagues. The upside for much more is there. If Abdullah dispenses of Bell, or the veteran cannot recover from a litany of injuries, he could be the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Joseph Randle, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Honestly, saying Joseph Randle will break out this season is not even close to a controversial take. The third-year back only had 105 career carries to his name, and therefore, has plenty of room for improvement. Randle showed well in limited looks last year, averaging a beefy 6.7 yards-per-carry. Of course, most of that came against soft fronts late in games. However, Randle can sustain even a sizable regression, given that he should be the leader of the backfield committee replacing DeMarco Murray. The team has not backed any of the other options the way they've done for Randle.
Behind a league-best offensive line, on a good team and with big-time opportunity, Joseph Randle is a clear-cut breakout candidate. All Randle has to do is play at a competent level to return fantasy value, given his situation. He displayed the ability to do that last season.
Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
You didn't actually think Allen Robinson would miss this list, right? The Jaguars second-year receiver has been a personal favorite ever since he went through my wide receiver analytics model in late April. As a rookie, he showed the ability to easily release from press-man coverage and run excellent routes. The reliable nature of his game fit in well with a quarterback who was often under duress. In Weeks 3-10, when the two played together, Blake Bortles threw to Robinson 24 times on third-down, 13 more times than the next most targeted player. This is his guy. When Bortles gets in trouble, which he does frequently, he looks for the big receiver wearing 15.
Volume is the name of the game when scanning the mid-rounds for WR2 candidates. Robinson was already on a 130-target pace before getting injured in Week 10, and he barely played the first two games last year. Now firmly entrenched as the No. 1 receiver, he could push that total even higher. Robinson's floor is safely in the 75-catch, 1,100-yard range, and if Bortles improves ever so slightly, his ceiling will look appealing as well.
Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Yes, Ben Roethlisberger named fellow receiver Markus Wheaton the team's breakout receiver. However, the smarter move is to assume the vastly superior player takes a big leap this year, and that would be Martavis Bryant. Wheaton has more than double the career targets as Bryant, and been in the league a year longer, yet the latter has 19 more standard fantasy points than the former. Many are worried that Bryant will not be able to maintain his fantasy point scoring efficiency -- .34 per snap in 2014 -- and that is likely true. However, his snap share went up in the playoffs last season, and Pittsburgh should play enough three-wide sets for Bryant to get plenty of playing time even if he is the WR3. He could shave a good chunk of his unsustainable efficiency and still meet value.
Bryant's asking price, fifth-round ADP if you are being conservative, is high. But so is his astronomical upside. He's the classic high ceiling, low floor option. The kind of targets he received last year are exactly the variety that fantasy owners crave and plead for teams to send 6'4, 210-plus pound receivers. Bryant averaged 21.1 yards-per-catch and was the third most efficient, among receivers with at least eight targets, at converting red zone looks into fantasy points. What they ask him to do, he does so well, and if any more gets put on his plate then Bryant may have greater upside than we imagine. He's the type of player who could make your fantasy season, and be an unfair weekly advantage, if you structure your roster around him appropriately.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
The moment we've all been waiting for is here. The Tyler Eifert breakout is upon us. The now healthy third-year tight end is running with his opportunity to start, with reports from camp calling him "uncoverable." Given his size and athleticism, that is not surprising. Eifert stands at 6-foot-6 and is a lean 250 pounds. He's the classic move tight end, and even sports the agility (6.92 three-cone drill) to form a lethal combination with his height. In college, teams often had to line their best cornerback across from Eifert to try and stop him, as Alabama famously did with Dee Milliner in their BCS National Championship faceoff.
Having a security blanket in the short to intermediate area of the field will be vital for Andy Dalton. The Bengals quarterback has erratic deep accuracy, and is at his most proficient throwing to the middle and right side of the field. If you are not targeting one of the top few tight ends, you're taking a late-round flier with the intention to stream, but you are hoping he turns into an every week starter. That upside player this year is Tyler Eifert. Take him with confidence, and feel free to reach in order to assure no one outsmarts you for him.
John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
A close look reveals that John Brown, had he played with a competent quarterback all season, would have posted a rookie season nearly identical to the one T.Y. Hilton experienced playing in Bruce Arians' offense. The young Colts receiver came out with a second season of 82 catches, 1,083 yards and five scores. John Brown could well see those numbers in Arizona this season.
Carson Palmer went out of his way to put in extra work with Brown this offseason, and always speaks in glowing fashion about the speedster. With Michael Floyd missing most of training camp with a hand injury, there's opportunity knocking here. Don't rule out Brown finishing as the top scoring receiver in Arizona. We've seen this story play out just a few years ago with the Colts. Get John Brown in your fantasy drafts to be a part of the second chapter.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Last year's second-round pick will theoretically face some push from 2015 first-rounder, Nelson Agholor, but Jordan Matthews' role is safe and secure. Matthews runs primarily short to intermediate routes out of the slot. Chip Kelly's fast-paced and efficient offense gives plenty of chances for a number of players to see valuable fantasy reps. When the offense goes into no-huddle mode, Matthews should absorb plenty of targets tearing through the slot portion of defenses.
He has 100-catch upside given his role, reliability, and the tempo of the offense. However, he won't just be a product of volume, as he'll be a valuable player in the scoring areas. Matthews was the 10th-best receiver in the red zone (among those with at least eight targets there) in terms of fantasy points-per-target.
Drafters universally agree that Jordan Matthews will have a big sophomore season. Most ADP data lists Matthews as a WR2 and a mid-third to fourth-round pick. If you want Matthews on your fantasy team for 2015, you will have to pay up for him. His role in a tempo-based offense and skills as a player illuminates that he has the safe floor, and reception upside to justify the investment.
Charles Johnson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Once a draft-day super sleeper with outstanding athletic measurables, Charles Johnson rose to prominence on his third team last season. After the Vikings claimed him from the Browns' practice squad, Johnson started to make a big impact around the middle of the year. By the end of the season he was a near full-time player and finished with 31 catches for 475 yards. Teddy Bridgewater grew to trust the big athletic receiver, and the two began developing a good chemistry.
Minnesota brought in Mike Wallace to take over one of the starting receiver spots, but Johnson profiles as a true X-receiver. Norv Turner often employs a wideout similar to Johnson, big receivers with 4.4 speed, as the top passing target in his offense. In the preseason, Johnson's rapport with Bridgewater is evident, while the pass attempts to Wallace carry some of the same awkwardness that existed between the former Dolphins receiver and Ryan Tannehill. Frankly, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Johnson is just the superior player at this point in their respective careers.
C.J. Spiller, RB, New Orleans Saints
There are a number of fantasy owners rolling their eyes at the mere mention of his name. Spiller burned countless folks who sunk a first-round pick into him after his 2012 season, in which he averaged 6.0 yards-per-carry. He followed that up with an injury-shortened season in 2014, where he only managed 3.8 yards-per-carry, which saw even his most staunch defenders begin to back away. However, despite two rough seasons that would suggest otherwise, this is the year Spiller returns to form. Over the last two seasons, Spiller has played for a coach who quite clearly did not want to invest in his skills. The Bills coaches took away his chances to make things happen out in space. His receptions-per-game declined in each of the two seasons that Marrone was the head coach in Buffalo.
In New Orleans, Spiller will see his role out of the backfield return, and most likely even grow. In the Brees era (since 2006), the Saints have consistently ranked at the top of the league in terms of receptions by their running backs, never ranking lower than third. Sean Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the NFL, and has displayed that he knows how to maximize a pass-catching threat in the backfield. In New Orleans, Spiller has the upside to reach 88 catches, as Reggie Bush did in 2006, or record a 1,300 yards from scrimmage season, as Darren Sproles did in 2011.
Yes, there is the obvious injury risk, but his ADP fairly prices that in. Paying a late fourth to sixth round price is well worth the adventure in case he reaches his upside.
Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
We all know the downside with Sam Bradford, we've seen it come to pass the last two years as Bradford quickly landed on IR with torn ACLs. What we've yet to witness is Bradford in a fully functional offense, with good weapons that is piloted by a competent coach. Get ready, because it is happening this year.
The Eagles scored the third most points in the NFL last season and ran the most plays per game. DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews topple the Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Peads of the world. Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor have the potential to be one of the best young receiver duos in the league. You never thought the same of the Chris Givenses and Tavon Austins of Bradford's past. Say what you want about Chip Kelly the personnel decision maker, but his two year track record shows he can coach offensive football. Kelly can near "quarterback proof" his offense, and his passers are always fantasy assets. Last season, the Nick Foles/Mark Sanchez combination finished as the 14th best fantasy quarterback. For all his career shortcomings, Bradford is more talented than those players.
If Sam Bradford stays healthy, which of course is a very questionable condition, you can write it in pen that he'll finish as a QB1. Playing in Kelly's offense makes it unavoidable. Your leaguemates will let Bradford slip past the 12th round of your drafts. Make sure you stash him away, in the event he does play a full season.