Pinpointing ascendant players can prove to be the extra jolt you need to get your team over the top in the grind of a fantasy season. Getting in on the ground floor of a player’s value is the key, but who are some examples of potential breakout candidates in 2016?
Note: ‘Breakout’ doesn’t necessarily mean a player who comes out of nowhere to produce. It can also be a player who has shown flashes of brilliance and finally puts it all together on the field.
* All player totals are sourced from Footballguys.com
Kony Ealy, Carolina Panthers
Career to date statistics
Games played: 31
Snaps played (2015): 649
Why he could break out: The retirement of Jared Allen, combined with a dearth of legitimate starting options among the backups, paves the way for a huge opportunity for Kony Ealy. The 24-year-old defensive end has consistently teased his potential, only to snatch it away at the last moment. There is a feeling that Ron Rivera and his coaching staff didn’t quite trust Ealy to assume a full-time role, with the Allen signing a prime example. However, 2016 represents his third season, traditionally earmarked by analysts and players alike as the breakout season for edge rushers. Ealy’s one-man wrecking crew performance in Super Bowl 50 provided a glimpse into his ceiling; the issue with him will be making sure he doesn’t deviate too far from that level. Rivera has entrusted him with the right end position, so he will be up against the best pass protectors each week. It is hard to argue he lacks the talent to succeed; rather, it will be his ability to consistently integrate his techniques and use all his experience accrued to this point to take the next step.
Potential stumbling blocks: Trust is a fickle thing among the coaching cognoscenti. Often we can read between the lines on what a coach decides, gleaning information that would never leave the coach’s lips but nonetheless has a knock-on effect for the player in question. Ealy has been hot and cold in his first two seasons, prompting Rivera to hold his young stud’s reins back. The Panthers have a strong interior line – perhaps the best in the league with the addition of Vernon Butler – which on paper will provide Ealy more one-on-one opportunities, but promising players wait in the wings. Mario Addison is a fine player in his own right, with a deadly speed rush capable of flummoxing even the best offensive tackles. Ryan Delaire showed some real flashes of potential in limited action last season, and veteran Charles Johnson is not ready to put his feet up on his career just yet. There is an undeniable air of ‘we’ll see’ about this defensive end rotation; Ealy may bear the brunt of that and never quite reach his DL1 potential.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Surprisingly little, but in this case no news is good news for the future of the Panthers at defensive end. In an interview with Sirius XM radio, Ealy waxed lyrical about the camaraderie and leadership ingrained within the Panthers organization, just the type of thing that will be music to Ron Rivera’s ears.
Outlook: My colleague Jene Bramel has placed Ealy firmly in the DL2 conversation, with a high variance label. I would tend to agree with that assessment; Ealy has some more work to do before fantasy owners can truly place their faith in him fully. If the preseason play is good – and we hear good reports from camp about his development as a leader – then DL1 totals are well within his grasp.
Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
Career to date statistics
Games played: 14
Snaps played (2015): 393
Why he could break out: Only 33-year-old veteran Brian Robison stands between uber-talented Danielle Hunter and a starting role on a very talented Vikings defense. In his first season, Hunter impressed many with his play and was 10-3-3.5 in the box score in the final four games. Mike Zimmer has a tendency to get the best out of his defensive line, and Hunter’s development is no surprise as a result. If Hunter can translate his torrid pace down the stretch into the 2016 season, we could see a legitimate breakout and a future top-20 defensive lineman in the making.
Potential stumbling blocks: At 252lbs, many have argued Hunter is too light of frame to be an every-down factor. For players like this, it is crucial to have a Plan B; you must be able to develop counter moves and you must have the technique to stand up to offensive tackles and set the edge. There have been plenty of successful examples of undersized players excelling; Hunter, at six-foot-five, only lacks ideal weight. He can be a devastating speed rusher, and this alone should see him take a step up in his second season. Overall, it is hard to be too negative about his prospects, but his lack of experience may well limit his snap count.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Hunter has added weight to his frame, taking his weight up to 257lbs. He has undertaken this task with the help of Adrian Peterson, who is traditionally as muscle-bound as any player in the league. With additional core strength, Hunter could really excel as a run defender. The buzz has been nothing but positive.
Outlook: A classic candidate for a breakout season, Hunter has all the hallmarks of a player ready to make the leap. His tackle numbers down the stretch last season, his overall play and the dearth of competition should provide him ample opportunity to see an increased snap count. On the downside, he is still raw and learning at this level – but would you bet against Mike Zimmer? Hunter is a DL2 this season if everything comes together, and dynasty owners should be all over him before it is too late.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa, New York Giants
Career to date statistics
Games played: 4
Snaps played (2015): 127
Why he could break out: You could be forgiven for not remembering Owa Odighizuwa. After all, his name alone is tongue-twisting at the best of times, and his rookie season was a lost one as nagging injuries limited him to only 127 snaps. The Giants could have used him; their pass rush was one of the weakest aspects of their entire team. The heavy investment general manager Jerry Reese made in adding edge rusher Olivier Vernon, as well as the presence of a revitalised Jason Pierre-Paul, might give some owners pause. However, I believe the Giants know what they have in Odighizuwa as a talent. Reports from mini camp indicated the precocious pass rusher had plans to meet with ex-Giant Justin Tuck, as the second-year pro prepares to take on an inside rusher role. This could be excellent news for Odighizuwa’s potential for a bigger role. Vernon and Pierre-Paul will be the starters – this much is clear – but the Giants have always emphasised the so-called ‘hockey line’ system whereby a rotation is part of their success. Beyond all these factors, there is the fact Odighizuwa is a supremely talented player with an array of pass-rushing moves. He was a personal favourite of mine during last year’s draft process.
Potential stumbling blocks: The Giants took a leap of faith this offseason. They didn’t just dip a toe in the free agency pool; they dove like a pre-pubescent teen at a frat party into the inviting waters. The results were largely panned as being panic moves, investing in mediocre players at big prices. It is a significant departure from the team ethos of draft and develop, but desperate times mean a change in strategy. Odighizuwa must earn a role behind Vernon and Pierre-Paul, but that is not beyond him. However, if we are being realistic about the situation – especially considering the sea change in ethos – Odighizuwa will have his work cut out for him. A season with 500-600 snaps in a rotational role with 6-8 sacks would be a success.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Odighizuwa himself had an interesting quote:
"I know from last preseason, there was a lot of buzz and excitement over what I was putting out there on film. I think what people haven't seen is what I can really do. I'm a guy who's built for a 4-3 defensive end. I have the measurables and the skill set," Odighizuwa said. "It's time for me to take that step every day and put it all together. I think that's what I want people to see this year, that I'm going to put it together at practice and out there on game and put out exciting football."
You could dismiss this as typical player motivational drivel, but clearly he has full confidence in his abilities, and with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo such a proponent of defensive line rotation, expect this young pup to be given every chance to succeed.
Outlook: Undoubtedly the long shot among my potential breakout defensive linemen, Odighizuwa may nonetheless be my favourite prospect. His game reminds me so much of former Giant Justin Tuck, who himself endured a slow start to his career. It may not all click in Year 2, but Vernon’s price tag and Pierre-Paul’s hand issue may give Odighizuwa enough of an opening to put himself in the long-term picture as a DL2.
Denzel Perryman, San Diego Chargers
Career to date statistics
Games played: 14
Snaps played (2015): 322
Why he could break out: Denzel Perryman, the Chargers’ second round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, may be one of the best kept secrets in football. The former Miami product was eased into the line-up in mid-season, only to suffer a torn pectoral muscle that kept him out until Week 11. What he did upon his return was show time and time again why the San Diego front office put their faith in him. The release of Donald Butler paves the way for the speedy, sideline-to-sideline Perryman to take over – and there is no reason he can’t dominate. On tape, his ability to read blocking schemes and attack downhill really stands out. Footballguys staff members seem to agree; John Norton has him projected for 90 solo tackles, while Aaron Rudnicki has Perryman racking up 78 solos. All the signs point to a massive season.
Potential stumbling blocks: The dampener on this parade for Perryman lies in the uncertainty surrounding his ability as a pass defender. Most of the good work he displays on tape is based on his ability to corral ball carriers with speed. When asked to backpedal and locate crossing receivers or backs, he does struggle. This can be coached and improved, and the dearth of other options – Manti Te’o and rookie Joshua Perry do not scream ‘every down players’ – will certainly give Perryman every chance.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano lavished Perryman with praise after a disappointing regular season for San Diego.
"A guy like that who can find the football and go make plays was big for our defense," Pagano said. "He’s a damn good football player and a great pro. He’s somebody who’s learning and is going to get a lot better."
That sounds like a ringing endorsement to me.
Outlook: Perryman is a player some owners have been slow to pick up on. At times, playing on a team with a poor record can do that to a player’s stock. A rangy playmaker with unlimited potential, Perryman belongs in the conversation for future studs at the position. He has the talent to reach LB1 numbers on a Chargers defense that should see the field often. Perryman also gets a boost from a favourable home stat crew, who last year ranked second in solo tackles per tackle opportunity.
Jordan Hicks, Philadelphia Eagles
Career to date statistics
Games played: 8
Snaps played (2015): 453
Why he could break out: Another player in the promising vanguard of young linebackers storming through the league, Jordan Hicks is a player who, to the casual fan, would have garnered most of his notoriety last season from his pick-six against the Dallas Cowboys in prime time. Reading a pass into the flat from Matt Cassel, Hicks did not hesitate a beat, broke on the football and 67 yards later was in the end zone. These kinds of instincts will serve him well as he transitions to a full-time role in Philadelphia. He missed the final eight games of last year, which may have him off the radar of some fantasy owners, but his skill set suggests an LB1 in waiting. He will call the signals for the Eagles defense and his possession of the audio headset suggests he will play every down.
Potential stumbling blocks: The Eagles’ front seven is a strong unit, with plenty of potential for seizing upon their own tackle opportunities. Fletcher Cox is an elite defensive tackle, while Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham are no stiffs either. As the weak side linebacker, Mychal Kendricks will have a freer path to ball carriers in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s ‘Wide Nine’ scheme, whereby defensive linemen take a wider alignment, funnelling everything inside. Including last season, Hicks has suffered three season-ending injuries dating back to his college days – one to his hip, one to his Achilles and the pectoral tear from last season.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: An article I read about Hicks’ potential summed up his peril and promise as a player in one sentence: His health is what will make or break his season – and even his career. While that is not unique to Hicks – the NFL is fraught with injury risk – his previous injuries would suggest he is unlucky at best. However, he has been given play-calling duties by Jim Schwartz, so the sky is the limit.
Outlook: Hicks is primed for a 100+ tackle season behind a solid Eagles defensive front that should on the one hand offer him plenty of opportunities to scrape and flow to the ball, and on the other may limit his tackle opportunity at times. Regardless of potential pitfalls with situation, the talent is there to turn him from an IDP darling into a household name.
Jake Ryan, Green Bay Packers
Career to date statistics
Games played: 14
Snaps played (2015): 260
Why he could break out: The Packers have always had an aversion to investing premium resources at the inside linebacker position. The shining example of a franchise who ‘does it the right way’ and builds through the draft, the insertion of their best edge rusher, one Clay Matthews, into an inside linebacker role should tell you everything you need to know. The talent simply wasn’t there to hold it down. This season, Jake Ryan will hope to carry forward the momentum he built towards the end of 2015. The up-and-down Sam Barrington will compete with him for snaps in subpackages, but Ryan is the younger of the two and should earn more opportunities to fail.
Potential stumbling blocks: Ryan was a fourth-round selection, and as such did not have the pedigree of linebackers taken earlier in the 2015 NFL Draft. His athleticism was exposed at times as a rookie, and that inability to flex his hips and transition in coverage could be a significant obstacle to his seizing an every-down role. Deficiencies can be hidden by scheme at times, but eventually they get exposed by savvy offensive minds. The presence of rookie linebacker Blake Martinez, who was also selected in the fourth round, will light a fire under Ryan. If the second-year man can’t seize his chance, Martinez will be waiting to take his turn in the Packers linebacker merry-go-round.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: All has been quiet from Packers camp this offseason about Ryan, so in this case no news is good news. The presumed opening day starter, Ryan will have first crack at the job.
Outlook: The least athletic of the three linebackers I have profiled here, Ryan has a grit and determination about him that could see him carve out a useful niche. With the Packers offense a high-flying and high-scoring unit, however, Ryan could be asked to play a lot of coverage – and may struggle to consistently make an impact in that facet of the game. He is a decent LB3 until we are assured of his role in subpackages, an assumption we cannot safely make.
You can follow me on Twitter for more IDP musings @davlar87 and be sure to check back for more content as we approach the big kickoff on September 8.