By John Evans
Editor’s Note: Originally published at ChiefsSpin.com, republished here with permission.
The fantasy season is wrapping up and it’s a good time to either look forward or back. Let’s do a little bit of both, shall we? In the spirit of this column — which has focused primarily on young players — I thought I would compile a fantasy lineup for the 2014 season that showcases sleepers and breakouts.
Here are the rules: every player must have no more than two years of NFL experience and no one can be in the top 25 at his position (or top 10 for QBs). The scoring is 12-team PPR, 4 points per passing touchdown.
MY ALL-SLEEPER 2014 DREAM TEAM
QB: Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
Tanny is on the verge of shedding “sleeper” status. He’s put up 9 TDs and an average of 288 passing yards over the last four games, good enough to make him the month’s 4th best fantasy QB. Always a threat to scramble, the former Texas A&M receiver (he converted to QB during his junior year) just averaged 34 rushing yards per game over a four-game span. That can really pad a QB’s statline.
Tannehill is still likely to be overlooked entering 2014. Overshadowed entering the league in 2012, he didn’t have the aura of an RG3 or pedigree of a Luck. There are still many higher-profile guys at this deep position but like Nick Foles, Tannehill has quietly improved while learning on the job.
Tannehill has always had a great pocket presence and poise-a-plenty, but he’s made strides as a passer. He’s protecting the ball better, making quicker decisions and improving his accuracy. There are still things to work on. He under-throws Mike Wallace with alarming regularity. But one of Tannehill’s perceived weaknesses is the ability to connect with receivers running out-routes. Against New England, Tannehill and Wallace hooked up on 20-yard sideline pattern that set up the slant. At the end of the half, the Pats played the out-route, Wallace ran an in-cut and the Fins had a 39-yard TD.
There’s no indication that Miami will suddenly become a run-first team in 2014. With the weapons at his disposal, Tannehill should carve up the weak secondaries of the AFC East.
RB1: Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
When it comes to the Clemson rookie’s lack of playing time, nobody’s been more frustrated than me. But Ellington has been electric when given opportunities, leading the NFL in yards-per-carry (5.9) and running downfield routes that many receivers would be envious of. He just rang up 158 total yards in Arizona’s overtime win at Tennessee, leading the team in both rushing and receiving. He lined up all over the formation, even seeing one snap at tight end!
Ellington’s limited usage this year has more to do with his inexperience than an inability to be a lead back. Yes, he’s undersized and a laundry list of minor injuries has given HC Bruce Arians concerns about his durability, but Ellington WILL have a bigger role in 2014. Giovani Bernard is an example of a smallish back who has learned to finish runs with proper pad level, burrowing ahead from a low center of gravity. Ellington can get stronger and run harder. With his talent, he’s sure to earn the touches of a Darren Sproles or even Chris Johnson. But Ellington doesn’t need 20 touches to kill you. PPR STUD!
RB2: Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
The veteran presence of Knowshon Moreno steadies the team, but over the last few weeks a certain ex-Wisconsin Badger has earned a time-share with steady play of his own. Ball has shown surprisingly soft hands while reminding the Broncos that he has a nose for the end zone. The rookie scored four rushing touchdowns in six weeks.
Denver’s offensive line weathered storms all year, but with a little more luck on the health front (or added depth in the offseason), they should field a better run-blocking unit in 2014. At worst Ball should be a supercharged Mike Tolbert, collecting lots of goal-line carries, and at best he could supplant the aging, unspectacular and injury-prone Moreno as the starter on a historically prolific offense. Sign me up.
WR1: Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans
Entering the league in 2012 Wright was expected to be a flashy player, but thus far he’s been a chain-mover who runs a preponderance of short and intermediate routes rather than challenging defenses deep. Playing with Robert Griffin III at Baylor, Wright routinely demonstrated elite separation on downfield routes, but Tennessee hasn’t been able to harness his speed thus far. At 5’10, 196 lbs., he’s not a prototypical red-zone threat, either. Wright has gotten a grand total of one end-zone look (he scored). At the pro level, undersized receivers have trouble out-leaping cornerbacks, either deep or in the end zone. (That’s why we love guys like Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Floyd.)
All that said, Wright is a target sponge and only six receivers have caught more passes this year. Only Wes Welker sees more targets out of the slot. Against Arizona on Sunday, Wright beat Patrick Peterson repeatedly, converting six of seven targets in Peterson’s coverage for 96 yards en route to a 150-yard day (19 total targets!). As Wright continues to increase his savvy and the Titans get smarter about using him, this guy will become the next great “slot machine” and PPR dynamo. And if he can get in sync with a QB on the deep routes he ran in college, look out.
WR2: Kenbrell Thompkins, New England Patriots
I would go Cordarrelle Patterson here but I feel like enough ink has been spilled on his behalf. Meanwhile Thompkins has been forgotten as a hip injury and the return of Rob Gronkowski marginalized the rookie in New England’s offense. But as you may have heard, Gronk Go Bye Bye and Thompkins has returned for Week 16’s matchup with Baltimore.
Thompkins is Antonio Brown’s cousin and has some of the Steelers star’s run-after-the-catch ability, but he lacks Brown’s precise route-running. What sets Thompkins apart is his ability to make adjustments in the air, using strong hands, body control and coordination to reel in high or off-target passes. He demonstrated these abilities in his game-winning TD grab vs. New Orleans in Week 6.
There is a lot of competition for targets in New England, but Thompkins provides Tom Brady with a red-zone option that Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola can’t. Aaron Dobson is a bigger body and a better leaper than Thompkins, but the other rookie has shown less polish, instincts and awareness. Thompkins is by no means a sure thing but if Gronk misses many games next year, this former Cincinnati Bearcat could score 10 touchdowns in 2014.
TE: Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
Jordan Reed comes to mind here, but that seems obvious and Reed’s concussions contribute to an already murky scenario in Washington. So I looked elsewhere.
Ladarius Green is a hands-catcher with the speed to stretch the seam and the leaping ability to win jump balls, downfield or in the end zone. His route-running isn’t especially crisp but that’s something a young player can improve on. Green recently posted nine grabs, 206 yards and two scores in three games, before Eddie Royal’s return bumped the second-year man down in the pecking order.
Let’s face it, Antonio Gates isn’t getting any younger. Chargers’ coach Mike McCoy has the look of a true innovator and San Diego’s offense has been revitalized under his leadership. Philip Rivers no longer seems to be swirling down the drain, so in 2014 we can expect the Chargers’ attack to have even more zap. Green has serious breakout potential.
After writing light-hearted sports columns in college, John Evans covered a variety of sports for The Olympian, a daily newspaper. While chasing Hollywood dreams for most of the last decade, he discovered that the entertainment industry loves fantasy football! For three seasons and counting, John has co-hosted The Xs & Ys Podcast with The Fantasy Football Girl and he now writes for ChiefsSpin.com. Follow him on Twitter @Evansjo5.