2014 Non-Factors to Keep in Mind
I just finished my dynasty rankings update—which you can find on our staff rankings page—and it’s clear to me that the breakout stars of 2014 will make and break 2015 teams.
It isn’t all because of Odell Beckham, who I ranked third overall. Fellow rookie receivers Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, and Jordan Matthews joined him in my top 20 wide receivers ahead of established star players like Brandon Marshall and DeSean Jackson.
My top 20 running backs are littered with breakout players both veteran—DeMarco Murray, Lamar Miller, C.J. Anderson, Mark Ingram, and Justin Forsett—and rookie—Jeremy Hill, Carlos Hyde, Tre Mason, and Isaiah Crowell.
As much as those controversial players will rule the early rounds, sustained dynasty success is built on the discovery of breakout players the year before those breakouts happen.
We are all colored by recency, but a handful of players who did not have much success in 2014 stood out to me. Some will benefit from roster and coaching changes. Some I simply think are talented players who have not yet had a chance to show it off. Whatever the case, I believe these 2014 non-factors are worth your consideration in dynasty formats.
Khiry Robinson, RB No. 31
Rookies aside, there may not have been a player who exceeded his expectations more than Mark Ingram this season. Dynasty owners who invested as heavily in Ingram as the Saints seemed to when they traded up to draft him 28th overall in 2011 were left disappointed with three seasons in a time share and often lackluster performances when Ingram did touch the ball.
While the Saints were no doubt pleased to see Ingram thrive when allowed the opportunity to be their primary back for the first time this season, the timing of his breakout performance will make the new free agent much harder to retain, especially since the team dramatically underperformed expectations thanks to myriad other holes on the roster.
If Ingram leaves, the Saints may well return to their committee. However, Khiry Robinson is the back on their roster who is best suited to replicate Ingram’s success. Robinson forced 25 missed tackles on just 84 total touches this season and led all second year players with an 80.7 Elusive Rating. He beat out Eddie Lacy, C.J. Anderson, and Le’Veon Bell in that metric. At 6’0 220 lbs., Robinson is physically built to handle the early-down work that receiving backs Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet cannot.
Theo Riddick, RB No. 40
Perhaps more than any other team, the Lions have mirrored the Saints’ approach to the backfield with players in clear roles and an offensive volume to potentially support all of them in fantasy. It is fitting then that the Lions may have uncovered the next Darren Sproles in Theo Riddick.
Riddick isn’t tiny like Sproles, but at 5’10 201 lbs., he does not seem suited to every-down work. However, Riddick’s 2014 performance suggests he will not need that sort of volume to become a fantasy asset. As a receiver, Riddick led all backs with 2.45 yards per route run.
That was 0.25 yards per route more than the No. 2 receiving back, Roy Helu. It was 0.61 yards per route ahead of the third place finisher. And it was actually the best yards per route run total since 2010. Over a full season with no change in his per-game usage, Riddick could catch 60 balls for 600 yards. And with Reggie Bush a couple months away from this 30th birthday, Riddick could easily see his role expand this season or next.
Montee Ball, RB No. 44, Ronnie Hillman, RB No. 54, and Juwan Thompson, RB No. 55
C.J. Anderson was excellent in 2014, and I have him ranked as the No. 14 back. His breakout coupled with the potential Peyton Manning retirement could lead to a cratering of the value of the other Denver running backs, especially since it is unclear which back would serve as Anderson’s handcuff. In my mind, even if Manning retires, the offseason has dramatically improved the values of Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, and Juwan Thompson.
New head coach Gary Kubiak will implement his zone-blocking scheme in Denver that turned 3rd-rounder Steve Slaton, undrafted Arian Foster, and most recently 7th-rounder and 29-year-old journeyman Justin Forsett into 1,200-yard backs. We have traditionally struggled to identify successful zone-blocking scheme backs with the draft process, and while Anderson earned the right to be called the favorite, every Denver back should be owned until it becomes clear which back will play for Kubiak.
Marlon Brown, WR No. 59
There are a few receivers who will obviously benefit from an increase in usage if other receivers on their team leave in free agency. Jordan Matthews could take over for Jeremy Maclin in Philadelphia. Davante Adams could take over for Randall Cobb in Green Bay. Donte Moncrief could take over for Hakeem Nicks and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. Less obvious is Marlon Brown in Baltimore.
Brown was forced into duty as a rookie in 2013 because of injuries to other Ravens’ receivers, and he responded with a nice 49-524-7 rookie season on 82 targets. In 2014, he saw a major dip in production (24-255-0) as Torrey Smith was joined by veteran Steve Smith in the starting lineup. However, Torrey is an unrestricted free agent and Steve could retire as soon as this offseason. Brown could become a starter, and despite the decline in his counting stats in 2014, he demonstrated nice improvements in his efficiency statistics this season.
Brown ran 70.5 percent of his snaps from the slot this year, and he caught 85.0 percent of his passes there. That was second best among qualified second-year players. He was the only sophomore receiver with 15 or more targets and no dropped passes. In fact, Joe Flacco had a 103.3 QB Rating when he threw the ball to Brown. That trailed only Terrance Williams, Kenny Stills, and Stedman Bailey among second year players. Whenever he gets his chance, expect Brown to perform.
Stedman Bailey, WR No. 61
Stedman Bailey has many similarities to Marlon Brown. He was one of the three second-year receivers whose quarterback had a better rating (108.8) throwing his way than Flacco did on his passes to Brown. Bailey was also the only sophomore receiver who caught more of his passes (85.7 percent) in the slot. You can make the case that Bailey should be the better ranked player.
Despite a parade of receivers, no one has established himself in the Sam Bradford era. Kenny Britt is a free agent, and Bailey has performed (+4.2 overall rating) in his limited opportunities. That means that Bailey has the shorter path to a job as his team’s No. 1 receiver. However, it also means that he is stuck in an offense that is constantly rebuilding itself. When Brown becomes a starter, he will find himself in a more stable situation, but both players have a lot of potential.
Jace Amaro, TE No. 12
Fantasy players are no doubt disappointed if they drafted any of the rookie tight ends expecting immediate production—especially if they bypassed a receiver from this historically great rookie class to do it. Jace Amaro was the most productive of the bunch, and all he managed was 38 catches for 345 yards and two touchdowns. Obviously, those totals are meager for fantasy purposes, but Amaro’s numbers—and those of all rookie tight ends—should be evaluated in context. Tight ends simply have more responsibilities than other skill-position players, and they almost always take multiple seasons to become viable fantasy options because of it.
This year, Amaro saw limited action, but when he was on the field, his 1.41 yards per route run slotted him just between Julius Thomas (1.44) and Dwayne Allen (1.41). Amaro is smaller than Thomas and Allen, two of the biggest touchdown threats at the position, but his rookie production put him on track with some of the best tight ends in fantasy. For example, Jimmy Graham had 31-356-5 as a rookie. Greg Olsen had 31-356-5 as a rookie. Amaro put up similar numbers despite his dysfunctional Jets offense. Expect things to quickly improve for him.
Scott Spratt was named Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He also writes for RotoGraphs and contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt