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 2015?
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.
Frank Alexander, Carolina Panthers
Career to date statistics
Games played: 29
Snaps played (2014): 24
Why he could break out: Opportunity knocks in Carolina for Frank Alexander after a series of unfortunate events cost him all but a handful of snaps in the 2014 season. The third year is typically the season young defensive ends ‘get it’ and really come into their own as football players; Alexander, after serving two suspensions covering four and 10 games, regressed. Alexander has vowed to rebound and reward the team’s faith with a strong 2015 performance. Head coach Ron Rivera knows that of all the positions the Panthers need to find bodies – talented bodies, at that – it is defensive end. Greg Hardy’s departure has left a gaping hole opposite stalwart Charles Johnson and, while the team remains optimistic about second-year player Kony Ealy taking the next step, Alexander is the player they know is the most talented.
Potential stumbling blocks: The emergence of the aforementioned Ealy or improved play from one of Mario Addison or Wes Horton – combined with a struggle to get back to football shape in the scorching conditions in Spartanburg – could see Alexander struggle to get his feet under him. He has played very little meaningful football in the past year.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Alexander has spoken about giving up the marijuana habit that was his downfall and insists he has grown as a man after watching his mother battle breast cancer. The coaching staff named Alexander an MVP of organized team activities, another vote of confidence in his comeback story.
Outlook: It is easy to forget that Alexander was on the cusp of a breakout season last year if training camp reports were anything to go by. The 270-pounder was making waves and could easily have gone on to have his best pro season. One year later, the path is clearer to that goal with Greg Hardy no longer in the picture. In a contract year, Alexander should have no lack of motivation to prove to the Panthers brass that he is back in a big way.
Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
Career to date statistics
Games played: 7
Snaps played (2014): 277
Why he could break out: It is fair to say Demarcus Lawrence’s rookie year did not work out the way he had planned it. A foot injury robbed him of the first half of the season and a steep learning curve ensured he didn’t get his feet under him until the tail end of the season. Two splash plays in the playoffs against Detroit when he showed excellent technique and motor will stand out in everyone’s minds. The addition of Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory has bolstered the Cowboys’ options at defensive end, and that depth could work in Lawrence’s favour. Even in a rotational role, Lawrence’s speed around the edge and high motor could yield a top-25 season among defensive linemen. The talent is there; will the Cowboys give him more opportunity?
Potential stumbling blocks: The added depth could be both a blessing and a curse for Lawrence. Randy Gregory, who has good raw tools but has a lot to learn yet about playing defensive end in the NFL, may be brought along slowly. Greg Hardy, meanwhile, is a veteran presence and will be a starter at right defensive end after serving his suspension. But Lawrence has a window of opportunity to leave his mark on the field in early weeks and become the consistent pass rushing threat the Cowboys drafted in the second round.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: The word out of Dallas is that Lawrence will be moved to left defensive end. The knock on him in college was that he often struggled against more powerful offensive linemen and was blown off the ball, but Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli believes he will fit right in on the left side:
“He goes either way, but I really like him on the left because he’s so explosive out of his stance, so fast. You know, sometimes that’s a bigger, thicker offensive tackle over there. You might be able to take advantage of him with your speed and quickness.”
Lawrence has also bulked up to 260 pounds this offseason and the player himself sees no reason why he won’t thrive at his new position:
“I feel like I can hold my own,” Lawrence said. “I’m way more comfortable on the left. I’m right-handed and it’s just more natural to put my right hand into the ground and get off.”
Outlook: One of the more intriguing stories from an IDP perspective for the 2015 season, second-year player Lawrence has every chance to be a top-25 defensive lineman if things fall the right way. The perfect script for Lawrence would be that he makes a smooth transition to left end, showing he can be a solid force against the run and supplementing that with solid pass rush numbers while Greg Hardy is out. The coaching staff clearly has a lot of faith in him; it appears the sky is the limit for Lawrence.
Jacquies Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Career to date statistics
Games played: 6
Snaps played (2014): 470
Why he could break out: Some of you may be asking ‘Jacquies who?’ and I can’t blame you for that. Until last season Jacquies Smith was barely a blip on the NFL radar, but after a decent contribution for the Bucs last year he has vaulted into relevance. Expected to start at right defensive end, the opportunity is before Smith to make the spot his own and become a fixture of this Bucs defense. Not to mention Smith has very little quality competition to speak of.
Potential stumbling blocks: For a player who has played so few meaningful snaps in his pro career, which started back in 2012 as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri, Smith is difficult to put your faith in. After all, Pro Football Focus ranked him as just an average defensive end last season. A position change to right end might help Smith as far as pass rush, but it remains to be seen how well he will adjust to facing more accomplished offensive tackles.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Not much, but actions are speaking louder than words for Smith’s prospects in 2015. He took the first-team reps at defensive end throughout organized team activities and seems poised to be given every chance to make the position his own.
Outlook: Definitely the long shot among my breakout candidates, Jacquies Smith nonetheless has the clearest path to production. He is already taking starting snaps and the coaching staff seems impressed by his development and pass rushing prowess in 2014. Although he is not being talked up very much, Smith could be a decent DL2 candidate for owners.
Devon Kennard, New York Giants
Career to date statistics
Games played: 12
Forced Fumbles: 2
Snaps played (2014): 338
Why he could break out: The Giants coaching staff loved what they saw from Kennard in limited snaps last season, especially from a pass rushing perspective. As per usual the Giants don’t boast the most talented or reliable linebacking corps, so Kennard should get the starting nod. The real question surrounds his ability to play in subpackages. Returning defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo may choose to rely on his front four to generate pressure on obvious passing downs as he did during the Giants’ Super Bowl run in 2007, or he may employ more creative blitz looks to exploit Kennard’s pass rushing prowess. If Kennard’s snap count doubles, we could see him tally 8-10 sacks in addition to bumping up his tackle numbers considerably.
Potential stumbling blocks: If veterans Jameel McClain and Jon Beason get the nod in subpackages over the inexperienced Kennard, then things become murkier. The team is also reportedly high on J.T. Thomas as a coverage linebacker, while pass coverage was not a strength of Kennard’s in his rookie year. Considering the Giants’ lack of quality experience at safety, the team may be more likely to side with a linebacker who can better protect the back end.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Giants linebackers coach Jim Herrmann remarked in organized team activities and minicamps that Kennard ‘can be as good as he wants to be’. Herrmann also commented on Kennard’s ability to shed blocks and execute the fundamentals of his position. There is also speculation from beat writers that Kennard may line up over the tight end in a 4-3 under front to take advantage of his penchant for rushing the passer in certain situations. Teammate Jon Beason has also spoken out about Kennard’s talent, saying he can be a ‘star’ in the Giants new scheme.
Outlook: The buzz around Kennard’s second season has been nothing but positive – but that is to be expected for a player the team will rely on. The true tests will come for Kennard in his second training camp and preseason when his performance in nickel packages will be analysed and the coaching staff will decide how to deploy him. If Kennard can make the ‘Sam’ linebacker position his own and is given the licence to rush the passer often, he could be a sneaky LB3 for fantasy owners.
Anthony Hitchens, Dallas Cowboys
Career to date statistics
Games played: 16
Snaps played (2014): 623
Why he could break out: The suspension of Rolando McClain has opened up a golden opportunity for Anthony Hitchens to shine. It had been speculated in the media that Hitchens, after struggling in pass coverage last season as a rookie, would sit in subpackages. However, McClain’s suspension means Hitchens will have every chance to prove he has improved this aspect of his game. Having returning veteran Sean Lee alongside him will only aid his development. Hitchens performed well against the run last year and seems to have the trust of the coaching staff in this regard. In a division where opposing offenses will try to run the football early and often, Hitchens should see plenty of chances to show his stuff.
Potential stumbling blocks: At this point, only his performance can bring him down. Even if Rolando McClain returns, whether or not Hitchens has performed in subpackages in his absence will determine Hitchens’ role going forward. If, on the flip side, Hitchens struggles with his assignments against the pass, he could see a reduced role upon McClain’s return.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Things have been quiet for Hitchens this offseason as far as coaches’ praise, but that doesn’t mean he won’t play a big part and have plenty to prove in 2015.
Outlook: Anthony Hitchens showed well as a rookie, especially as a run defender, but has plenty to improve upon in his second season. The suspension of Rolando McClain is Hitchens’ ticket to a long-term starting gig; it is up to him to seize it. If Hitchens can show the coaches he can be reliable as a coverage linebacker in subpackages, he will likely hold on to the job as a three-down presence for Dallas and never look back. He should comfortably be an LB3 for fantasy owners with a high weekly floor.
Sam Barrington, Green Bay Packers
Career to date statistics
Games played: 14
Snaps played (2014): 485
Why he could break out: A strong on-field finish to the 2014 season has continued off the field this offseason for Sam Barrington. Granted, the Packers invested a draft pick in Jake Ryan, a physical downhill tackler with the ability to play adequate pass coverage, but Barrington has been nominated as the defensive signal caller for 2015. Reports from organized team activities indicate Barrington is ready to take the next step and, having not played every down last season, is poised to take on the every-down role this year.
Potential stumbling blocks: Two fourth-round selections of the Packers, Jake Ryan and Carl Bradford, represent decent competition for Barrington. While both players have their strengths, neither has yet earned the trust of the coaching staff when the bullets are flying like Barrington. Clay Matthews was rotated in at inside linebacker last season to great effect; that may continue, but if Barrington is calling the signals defensively and has the audio headset, he shouldn’t be affected.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: Barrington has been humble in his approach this offseason, and his coaches have been quick to praise his attitude. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said: “You could see him grow every week,” Capers said. “As a signal caller, he’d make his calls with confidence. Once he recognized something, he could go from point A to point B. He’s got some quick twitch to him.”
Outlook: There is very little stopping Sam Barrington from being one of the true breakout stars of the 2015 season at any position. The buzz surrounding him has been good and he figures to see a good bump in snaps entering his third year. Barrington should comfortably put up LB2 numbers, but keep an eye on preseason games to see how he is deployed and if, indeed, he will play every down as most expect.
Bradley McDougald, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Career to date statistics
Games played: 19
Passes Defensed: 7
Snaps played (2014): 455
Why he could break out: A converted receiver, Bradley McDougald was re-signed by the Bucs in March as a priority after a strong finish to his second season as a pro. McDougald was given his opportunity to start and played all but a handful of snaps between Week 13 and 17, racking up 32 solo tackles along the way. He also had his fair share of missed tackles, and therein lies the crux of the issue: can McDougald, who is lacking in experience, be trusted by the coaching staff? This could be a classic case of situation over talent prevailing for IDP production; if McDougald can show Lovie Smith and the coaches he can clean up some of the errors and become more consistent, we could be looking at the breakout safety of 2015. If not, McDougald could be a free agent by next March.
Potential stumbling blocks: The signing of veteran safety D.J. Swearinger Sr should have incumbent starter McDougald looking over his shoulder. Swearinger spent his first two years in the league in Houston, but was allowed to leave in May. A violent hitter but lacking in coverage ability, Swearinger could supplant McDougald if the chips fall the right way.
Offseason buzz – what they’re saying: According to a report earlier in the offseason via Ira Kaufman, the Bucs are very high on what McDougald can bring to the Cover-2 safety position under Lovie Smith. There is no substitute for on-field production, and McDougald showed the Bucs exactly what he could do with his opportunity. With a full offseason to get his feet under him and a second year in the system, he could take a leap forward and reward the Bucs’ faith.
Outlook: With a friendly scheme in which to play and a coaching staff that seems to believe in him, not to mention the lack of quality competition for snaps, Bradley McDougald could very well be the breakout safety of 2015. The Bucs should have plenty of favourable game scripts in which he could thrive, and perhaps a bump in snaps should be expected with a rookie quarterback in Jameis Winston under center. McDougald should be monitored closely in training camp, but don’t hesitate to move on him now; you could bag yourself a DB1 at bargain basement prices.