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2012 Fantasy Football: Are 2011's Breakouts This Year's Busts?

Contributed by: Sean Raposa
Last Updated: Aug 02, 2012 10:32 AM



Putting together rankings for the upcoming season is a balancing act. On one side is the evaluation of what happened on the field last year, and on the other, the projections of what to expect in 2012. One of the trickiest tasks is determining which breakout guys are for real and will hold their ground, and those who are destined to come back to earth. There is no magic formula to figure this out, so all these players carry an element of additional risk in drafts. 

If there is one absolute in fantasy football, it's the value of...well...value.

Cam Newton, Darren Sproles, Jordy Nelson, and Victor Cruz were amazing for owners last year and major cogs on many a championship roster. The reason for this however, wasn't solely because of their stellar production, but also their relatively low cost. All those guys who broke out will now be selected among the cream of the crop of proven veterans at their position. Players who have done it year-in and year-out. So the million dollar question is, will they do it again and justify their new, high-profile locales on draft boards?

It's going to get harder, not easier. And not all of them will repeat in 2012. Like rookie pitchers in baseball who blaze out of the gates, teams will see them coming the second time around. There's film to study and they'll game plan to their strengths. It's for these reasons the "sophomore slump" is a well-know term. One of my steadfast rules for drafting in fantasy football is to not end up with last year's team when I step away from the table. I'm not suggesting it's necessary to avoid these guys, but it's smart to monitor how many you draft. 

When compiling today's nominees I excluded rookies. There is only one year of production to evaluate and therefore no reason to believe this isn't who they are. Last year is their benchmark. I also left out Cruz because 2012 was essentially his first year (for the record I'm a believer), as he received zero targets in 2010. 

Following each entry I have included a percentage number for the players chances to repeat. To account for a normal regression to the mean, which wouldn't really constitute a disappointment, I've set the target at 10 percent below last year's totals.  

Without further ado, my "All Last Year's Team". 

QUARTERBACK

Matthew Stafford - Detroit Lions
2011 Stats: 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, 14 interceptions

Of all those listed here, Stafford was likely the most highly drafted guy heading into last season. Many thought he would play well, but his injury history (13 games his first two seasons) kept expectations in check. He was typically selected between the 5th and 7th rounds. Now that he's completed a full 16-game slate and put up video-game numbers in the process, he's being snatched off the board as early as the first round this summer.

Stafford enjoyed what I would consider substantial improvements from his career averages (25% or more) in several statistical categories; touchdowns-per-game (75.3%), yards-per-game (46.1%), and yards-per-attempt (28.8), but that can be reasonable for a quarterback who has adjusted to the pro game and is getting more opportunities (13.7% increase in attempts-per-game).

Stafford has a cannon for an arm, the most talented wide receiver in the game, and several other capable weapons. My concern is Detroit's questionable offensive line and unreliable rushing attack. Defenses will be able to tee off and bring the heat. He stayed upright in 2011, but he isn't knocking on the door of Brett Favre's consecutive game streak quite yet. His durability is still a concern for me, not his ability. 

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 4,534 yards, 37 touchdowns, 15 interceptions
Chances: 75%

RUNNING BACK


Marshawn Lynch - Seattle Seahawks
2011 Stats: 1,204 yards, 12 touchdowns - 28 receptions, 212 yards, 1 touchdown

Lynch first introduced us to "beast mode" when he steam rolled seemingly all 11 Saints defenders en route to one the best runs of all time in the Seahawks shocking playoff victory two seasons ago. He then parlayed his momentum into his first 1,000-yard season since 2008 and set a career-high in touchdowns.

Your first instinct might be to assume he can't repeat his success, but his final numbers from last year are strikingly similar to those he posted his first two seasons in Buffalo. Lynch's most drastic spikes from his career norms were his 107% increase in touchdowns-per-game (which should mean less in 2012) and his 37% improvement in yards-per-game, but that can be almost entirely explained by his corresponding uptick (26.7%) in carries-per-game. His effectiveness with the ball in his hands was actually spot on.

This came as a shock to me, even though I saw him play in person at the Holiday Bowl his final year at Cal and was immensely impressed. There's nothing like the numbers reaffirming a long-forgotten pass-with-flying-colors of the good ol' eye test. Now, Lynch made headlines in the offseason for all the wrong reasons, but the latest news suggests his legal issues are to be delayed and won't affect this season. He's an amazing value right now for teams who draft soon. 

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 1,084 yards, 11 touchdowns - 25 receptions, 191 yards, 1 touchdown
Chances: 90% 

Darren Sproles - New Orleans Saints
2011 Stats: 603 yards, 2 touchdowns - 86 receptions, 710 yards, 7 touchdowns

For all those Chargers fans who wondered what Sproles could do if he got more chances to produce certainly found out last year. Unfortunately it was for another team. Defenders couldn't wrap their hands around the "Lightning Bug" in 2011, as Saints head coach Sean Payton did a masterful job engineering plays that utilized Sproles' unique set of skills to their fullest.

And there-in lies the question that will determine whether or not you believe lightning can strike twice. The maestro is no longer in the building. He's banned for promoting violence in a violent sport, spotlighted in a violent world, but that's a topic for another day.

Sproles experienced nearly-exponential growth in several categories (four with increases of at least 146%), but they were all tied to his usage; carries and catches-per-game, yards in both categories per-game, and touchdowns.  His yards-per-carry did climbed 50 percent, possibly explainable by the fact he sees nickel defenses almost exclusively which provide plenty of open turf, but that should normalize somewhat and his bread-and-butter is in the passing game anyhow. To that end, his yards-per-reception actually dipped 13.5 percent in 2011.

So, can Payton's place-holders rekindle the firefly and keep him roaming free? Or will a lack of imagination and gutsy, timely play-calling trap him in a jar? There's a reason coaches work 90-hour weeks and watch as much film as Siskel & Ebert did. I'm not betting on the substitute teachers. Instead I'll wait until next year when his cost comes back down, Payton returns, and then pounce. 

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 543 yards, 2 touchdowns, 77 receptions, 639 yards, 6 touchdowns
Chances: 40%

WIDE RECEIVERS 


Jordy Nelson - Green Bay Packers
2011 Stats: 68 receptions, 1,263 yards, 15 touchdowns

I play in two insanely-competitive leagues. My East Coast league has been in business since I started it up 18 years ago when I was 13. After I transplanted to San Diego, I went bi-coastal. So when Nelson went undrafted on the right coast (I scored him in the waiver auction after Week 1) and my buddy Joe tagged him in the 7th round on the left coast, I had a good chuckle. Well, Mr. Culver certainly had the last laugh, and won the league. He also drafted Sproles and picked up Cruz (must've said his "Hail Mary's"), but all due credit to "Johnny Dakoda's Dubie". 

By far the most impressive quality of Nelson's breakout season was his efficiency. He did more with less than anyone has in a long time. His 13.2 yards-per-target was tops among wide receivers with at least 90 targets over the last 10 years. His usage-related numbers went up significantly as more targets led to more receptions which led to more yards. What worries me, is his 46.5 percent increase over his career yards-per-reception average, and his alarming 623 percent rocket launch in touchdowns-per-game. The pundits say touchdowns are unpredictable. I'm not sure what statistics back that up, but I'd say this will be admissible as evidence. 

Nelson is a nice player and he did great things for me last season, but you have to take the emotion out of it. There's no crying in fantasy. There are some statistics here that look to be outliers, and with Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, James Jones, the ageless dancing wonder Donald Driver, and the trendy Randall Cobb, I'm not anticipating a healthy return on an investment in Nelson in 2012.

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 61 receptions, 1,137 yards, 14 touchdowns
Chances: 25%

Steve Smith - Carolina Panthers
2011 Stats: 79 receptions, 1,394 yards, 7 touchdowns

Smith is the one player on my "All Last Year's" team who has enjoyed superstar status in the past. From 2005-08 he averaged 88 catches, 1,288 yards, and 8 touchdowns and was a perennial top-10 selection at the position. He then entered the football golden age of 30, the quarterback play in Carolina deteriorated dramatically, and Smith's numbers tailed into a corresponding free fall. Newton then came to town and served as his fountain of youth, as Smith posted his third-best yardage total and second-best average-per-reception in 2011.

The chemistry between the pair was impressive out of the gates. Despite limited practice time, the tandem was virtually unstoppable through the first eight weeks. In the second half, defenses made adjustments to the sterling rookie's penchant for launching the deep ball to his speedy little sidekick and the production for each of them slipped. From Week 10 on, Smith posted only one 100-yard game and had only one outing in which he caught a pass of 30 yards or more. 

Are those second-half numbers a sign of things to come? Will Smith return to his pre-Newton, "heading into the twilight of his career" form?

I don't think so, but a repeat of last year is unlikely. His totals in 2012 will probably fall somewhere in between. His receptions and touchdowns-per-game in 2011 were within reasonable ranges of his career averages, and his targets-per-game actually declined from his previous five-year mean. The big plays however, had a significant effect, as his yards-per-reception was up 23.1 percent and his yards-per-game 32.4 percent from his career norms. 

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 71 receptions, 1,255 yards, 6 touchdowns
Chances: 30%

Laurent Robinson - Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Stats: 54 receptions, 858 yards, 11 touchdowns

This spot was a toss-up between Robinson and Nate Washington. I decided to go with Robinson because I think he'll get more love in drafts (the two are virtually identical in early ADP figures) as we move closer to the season. Washington has more players to share the load with in Tennessee, and while the prospect of Blaine Gabbert being responsible for one of your fantasy wide receiver's production is a scary thought, I could envision owners seeing Robinson's 11 scores from a year ago and projecting a solid year based on an increased role alone.

What's shocking when looking at Robinson's numbers is last year's breakout wasn't a result of increased opportunities on a per-game basis. His targets-per-game only increased 13.7 percent. He just did a whole lot more with those chances. His touchdowns-per-game increased an eye-popping 618.2 percent and his  yards-per-reception (42.0%) and his yards-per-game (133.1%) climbed significantly as well. 

His catch percentage also increased (69.6%), and when combined with the previous statistical improvements, unfortunately for Robinson's sake, my conclusion is his success from 2011 had a lot more to do with Tony Romo than it did his own progression. With Gabbert now the key to his future, the outlook is dim.

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 49 receptions, 772 yards, 10 touchdowns
Chances: 5%

TIGHT END

Jimmy Graham - New Orleans Saints
2012 Stats: 99 receptions, 1,310 yards, 11 touchdowns

Last season, two tight ends took the world by storm and have changed the game, likely forever. Graham and Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots were both second-year players who enjoyed breakout years for the ages, but Gronkowski's 10 touchdowns in his rookie year led me to select New Orleans' alley-oop superstar as the more shocking development. 

His numbers shot up across the board, which I didn't need to do any calculations to confirm, but his yards-per-reception only increased slightly and his touchdown percentage was solid in his rookie year as well. The big change from Year 1 to Year 2 was his usage. Graham developed into the Saints most deadly and consistently targeted weapon. In fact, he finished sixth in the NFL among all players with 149 targets. 

At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, with a 38.5-inch vertical and 4.55 speed, he is essentially impossible to cover. The New Orleans offense might run into some difficulty this season playing without the leadership of Payton, but I don't think any of that spills over to Graham. All Drew Brees has to do is let it fly and the former Miami Hurricane basketballer will go up and get it. 

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 89 receptions, 1,179 yards, 10 touchdowns
Chances: 98%

KICKER

Mike Nugent - Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Stats: 33-of-38 field goals (0 from 50+yards), 33-of-34 extra points 

David Akers of San Francisco might have been the expectation here, but he's been a stellar fantasy kicker for the better part of the last dozen years. 

I'm not going to expend too much energy on a kicker as they fluctuate wildly from year to year, but Nugent's resurgence is worthy of note. It had been five years since Nugent had made more than 15 field goals, and he was coming off tears of his ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his kicking knee before booting a career-high 132 points. 

He doesn't have the strongest leg in the league and he'll play in some inclement weather in Cincinnati and the other locations of the AFC North, but the team's improving offense should provide him ample opportunities to be a reliable fantasy asset again in 2012.

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 30-of-34 field goals, 30-of-31 extra points
Chances: 60%

DEFENSE/SP TEAMS


Houston Texans
2011 Stats: 44 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries, 17 interceptions, 0 safeties, 2 touchdowns

There are several teams who could have qualified for this spot, including the top unit in San Francisco (although they were an elite unit as recently as 2009) or the upstart Lions defense. I went with the Texans because they were dead last in 2010. 

The peripheral numbers didn't improve dramatically, outside of sacks, but the defense turned into a force over night. The unit enjoyed a 58.8 percent increase in sacks from their previous three-year average, but the yards-against figures were staggering. The Texans finished 4th against the run, 3rd against the pass, and 2nd overall.

Changes in personnel were part of the turnaround, as the team added cornerback Johnathan Joseph through free agency and drafted J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed. Connor Barwin developed into a star under the new system as well. That system, installed by Wade Phillips, was the real key to the Texans improvements.

The team lost Mario Williams to free agency, but that didn't seem to affect them when he was out due to injury in 2011. I expect last year's performance to be more the standard than the exception for this unit moving forward. I also expect them to score a couple more touchdowns in 2012.

2012 "Repeat" Targets: 40 sacks, 9 fumble recoveries, 15 interceptions, 0 safeties, 2 touchdowns
Chances: 80%




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