2014 sleepers, busts and breakouts

Fantasy owners are always looking for that edge, that one player who could make or break a team. It could be a late-round flyer who finally gets touches and produces or a relatively highly ranked guy who works his way to the top of the rankings. Meanwhile, they try to avoid those superstars who don't come close to living up to expectations.

With that in mind, ESPN Fantasy's writers and editors offer up their picks for sleepers, busts and breakouts for 2014, as well as explaining some of their selections. Here's how we're defining each of these terms for the purpose of this piece:

Sleeper: Player likely not drafted as starting options in ESPN standard leagues, according to the current ESPN Fantasy rankings, but could end up being an every-week starting option and/or star by the end of the season.

Bust: Player considered a sure starting option in ESPN standard leagues, according to ESPN Fantasy rankings, but will not live up to expectations and/or draft-day value.

Breakout player: Player who could finish in the top 5 at his position but isn't currently ranked there, according to ESPN Fantasy rankings. They could be very low-ranked players or even players sitting in the top 10 at their position.

Our panel is comprised of: Matthew Berry, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Ken Daube, Brian Gramling, Christopher Harris, KC Joyner, Eric Karabell, Tim Kavanagh, Keith Lipscomb, Jim McCormick, Matt Williamson and Field Yates.

Our writers listed one sleeper and one bust each at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, and then offered up one overall breakout player at any position. They then offered up a brief write-up for one sleeper, one bust and their breakout player. Write-ups are listed in alphabetical order by player.

Sleepers | Busts | Breakouts


Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears: The Bears offense features two of our top eight ranked receivers, our No. 4 running back and a top-12 tight end. So weapons won't be an issue for Cutler, whose talent can both dazzle and mesmerize at the same time he goes through his decision-making ruts. But count me as a believer that another offseason under head coach Marc Trestman will pay dividends for Cutler, provided he stays healthy. --Field Yates

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Houston Texans: It's no fun picking a sleeper quarterback who is being universally drafted, so Fitzpatrick makes for a deep-sleeper candidate in his first season with the Texans, as he's not even ranked in our top 30 at the position as of this writing. As if having Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins to throw to, not to mention Arian Foster in the backfield, isn't enough, need I remind you that Fitzpatrick actually finished 12th among QBs in fantasy points in 2011 and threw at least 23 touchdown passes three straight seasons (2010-12) with the Bills and Titans? Once you have your starting quarterback, I think it's important to find a backup who has the ability to have a monster week if you need to use him in a pinch or as a bye-week fill-in, rather than one who will simply "not hurt you." While he's certainly prone to interceptions, don't forget that he has 11 games with three or more TD passes over the past four seasons, and that's more than Joe Flacco (9), Jay Cutler (8) and Cam Newton (6 from 2011-13). --Keith Lipscomb

Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers: A 6-foot-6 tight end who possesses 4.53 40 speed, Green has metrics that offensive coordinators dream about. He's a fantasy stud in waiting whose biggest obstacle might only be how often he's called upon to block. If Antonio Gates misses any time, look for Green to grab the reigns and never look back. --Ken Daube

Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans: Though inconsistent during his rookie campaign, Hunter flashed big-play ability in 16- and 17-point games in Weeks 12 and 14, respectively, during which he was targeted six and eight times. With Ken Whisenhunt now in Tennessee, the Titans should attempt to stretch the field vertically more often, with Hunter being a key to that strategy. Remember Keenan Allen's 2013 breakthrough under Whisenhunt? If everything clicks, Hunter's ceiling could fall within that range. --Tristan H. Cockcroft

Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans: This is a make-or-break season for Locker, and aside from switching offenses, the Titans have helped him out the past two offseasons with two first-round picks and multiple free-agent signings on the offensive line. At times he has looked like he could be the real deal (see: Week 7 of last season, when he scored 21 fantasy points). And given his price tag, he's worth a shot. --Tim Kavanagh

Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs: Kelce is a very deep sleeper. He fell a bit on draft day due to off-the-field concerns, not for lack of ability. He is currently sitting out OTAs as he continues to recover from microfracture knee surgery, which cost him his entire rookie season. So there is plenty of risk here that Kelce does very little in the short term. However, his upside is tremendous. He has size, speed, production at the college level, body control, hands and big-play ability, as well as the ability to block inline, which will help get him on the field. Maybe even more attractive than Kelce's abilities is his situation in Kansas City. Dwayne Bowe has been less-than-impressive lately and the Chiefs are short on adequate targets for Alex Smith. This seems extreme, but don't be surprised if Kelce leads Chiefs pass-catchers in receptions and touchdowns. --Matt Williamson

Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers: He was my favorite rookie running back heading into the draft, then he ended up on a team with an established incumbent in Frank Gore and a handful of talented runners already on the roster, thus depressing his current value. Despite the glut of running backs, Hyde has the talent to emerge as the Niners' lead back at some point this season. At the very least, he can be a nice complement to Gore and then break out down the road. --James Quintong

EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills: Manuel has a lot going for him in his second season, such as a huge upgrade at the wide receiver position in rookie Sammy Watkins and veteran Mike Williams. A healthy C.J. Spiller will also turn some short dump-offs into long-gainers, and also consider that Manuel's knee is finally healthy. He also will have a much better grasp of the complicated playbook of head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. --Brian Gramling

Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns: There is a viable path for Manziel to end up as a QB1 fantasy option. He tallied 83 rushing yards per game in college. If Manziel can post about half that per-game total in the NFL, it means he would rack up 660 rushing yards. Now add in a rushing touchdown every four games and throw in a mere 10 points per game through the air. Total them up and that's 250 points, which is at or very close to QB1 territory. --KC Joyner

Tre Mason, RB, St. Louis Rams: Efficiency and elusiveness aren't calling cards for Zac Stacy, who was impressive in his ability to endure a heavy volume of carries for an anemic Rams offense last season. But the team wants more from the position, as indicated by their third-round selection of Mason, a Heisman finalist. Stacy ranked just 24th in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating, forcing a missed tackle on just 10.8 percent of touches, well behind fellow rookies Eddie Lacy (19.1) and Giovani Bernard (19.4). I find Mason to be the more talented back and expect competition for meaningful work to emerge sooner than many expect. --Jim McCormick

Josh McCown, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is this career backup really this good? In brief work, he tossed 13 touchdowns and just one interception and averaged 350 passing yards in one three-game stretch, only to cede the job back to a healthy Jay Cutler. Now the presumed starter in Tampa Bay and with Vincent Jackson/Mike Evans playing the roles Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery did in Chicago (size matters!), it might not matter much if McCown, a career backup, is outstanding. He can just throw the football deep and rack up the fantasy points. --Eric Karabell

Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints: There's speculation among Saints beat reporters that the team may edge toward a more balanced offense, and if that's the case, it could be good news for Robinson. Pierre Thomas will be the receiving back, leaving the between-the-tackles work to Robinson and Mark Ingram. And I'm done with Mark Ingram. Robinson is bigger, runs with more power and decisiveness, and reminds me of Chris Ivory. He's undervalued. --Christopher Harris

David Wilson, RB, New York Giants: I know, I know. I owned him last year too, so I get it if you say "never again." And obviously he needs to be healthy and stay that way. So I get the low ranking here. But we were charged with selecting a guy outside the top 40 at his position who could be top five. Wilson has the talent, and he potentially has the opportunity. Over the past five seasons, Giants running backs have the second-most rushing touchdowns (74) and the 11th-most rushing yards (8,337). Wilson is a big-play guy who doesn't need a ton of touches to be a fantasy stud (five scores on just 75 touches his rookie year), so him splitting with Rashad Jennings is just fine with me. Get healthy, David, and you'll be a fantasy bargain this year. --Matthew Berry


Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: He's the presumed starter in the Steelers' backfield, but Bell's rushing statistics should not instill confidence. His 3.52 yards per carry ranked 42nd among running backs with at least 40 carries and the Steelers have a veteran back in LeGarrette Blount who has displayed the ability to be the smash-mouth runner Pittsburgh has traditionally sought. --Ken Daube

Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots: Fantasy Underground listeners will recall early praise for Edelman coming out of training camp last year, but 105 catches far surpassed even my generous expectations. I've fallen into the trap of putting all my faith in Danny Amendola before, and while I do believe Amendola will be much better this year, it's about all the other Patriots wideouts being better that will offset Edelman's production. Replicating triple-digit catches is far-fetched. --Field Yates

Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Chip Kelly's system might maximize a quarterback's fantasy potential, but Foles cannot possibly repeat a 0.6 percent interception rate -- that's not a typo, it's six-tenths-of-one-percent -- which was second in NFL history among quarterbacks with a minimum of eight starts, behind only Damon Huard (0.4 percent, 2006). Foles is a risk-taker, content to throw into traffic, and his 2013 represented a brilliant convergence of skill and luck. Remember, it took 252 fantasy points to crack the top 10 quarterbacks in 2013, and if Foles' inevitable regression to the mean takes him closer to 25-30 TDs and 8-12 interceptions, he'll be challenged to get there. --Tristan H. Cockcroft

Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks: Perhaps Harvin is indeed finally healthy after a pair of difficult seasons, but this is a guy who has yet to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and he's on a team that last had a 1,000-yard receiver in 2007. Throw in his electric touchdown in the Super Bowl and he's bound to be drafted ahead of more productive options due to name value and perception. --Eric Karabell

DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins: As a Washington fan, I loved the Jackson signing for the team and for the value of Robert Griffin III, Pierre Garcon and especially Jordan Reed ... But frankly, I didn't like it for Jackson himself. He's a big-play guy who takes the top off the defense, but he's not a high-volume guy, so he needs those big plays to be a fantasy star. He had nine touchdowns last year, which was great. But in the three seasons prior to last year, he'd had two, four and six scores, respectively. Prior to last year, he had never had more than 62 receptions in a year, and once Nick Foles took over full-time in Week 9, DeSean had four receptions or fewer in six of his last eight games. He's a great player who will have a few huge weeks this season, but he's not a top-15 guy as our ranks currently have him. --Matthew Berry

Chris Johnson, RB, New York Jets: CJ?K finished 45th out of 47 qualified RBs in average yards after contact last year, and lost much of his decisiveness at the line. He's still fast, but when he doesn't bust a big play, he isn't effective. Chris Ivory is a younger, bigger player, and he'll be a serious TD drain. As a weekly feast-or-famine player, Johnson is a viable flex, but someone in your league will draft him higher than that. Don't be that person. --Christopher Harris

Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks: This is simply a case of workload concerns for me, and I'm going to step away from Beast Mode before it takes a turn for the worse. The production has been tremendous, as he has averaged nearly 1,592 yards from scrimmage and 13 total TDs in his three seasons in Seattle. Now the bad news: He's had at least 285 carries in all three seasons (300-plus the past two years); no other player has more than one such season in that span. Surely the coaching staff is aware of this disturbing workload trend, and I expect we'll see Christine Michael a lot more in 2014. Simply put, I'm going to let someone else draft Lynch in or close to the top five this season. --Keith Lipscomb

Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews was finally able to stay healthy last year and tallied strong numbers, but the offseason pickup of Donald Brown will certainly cut into Mathews' production. Brown was second in the NFL in yards per carry last year (5.3), including 7.2 YPC on the road! Mathews is also the third-best RB receiver on his team behind Brown and Danny Woodhead. It also doesn't help that San Diego has the NFL's fourth-toughest schedule. --Brian Gramling

Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: Newton has been a perennial top-5 fantasy QB during his career despite a less than optimal supporting cast. However, Newton is currently recovering from left ankle surgery, and while he is expected to be OK for the start of the season, I have to think some of his outstanding running skills will be compromised early in the season. Also, Newton is now missing valuable acclimation time with his new set of wide receivers, particularly raw rookie Kelvin Benjamin. With Carolina's great defense and personnel issues at wide receiver and on the offensive line, the Panthers' best formula for generating wins is to play it close to the vest in very low scoring affairs. Low-scoring affairs generally don't help fantasy football owners. --Matt Williamson

Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins: Relying on a durability risk an as every-week starter is a bad idea, and Reed certainly qualifies as one of those. Over the course of his college and pro careers, Reed has suffered three concussions, to go along with injuries to his hamstring, knee, foot, ankle, quadriceps and hip. Reed has fought through many of these ailments, but their frequency and severity are such that fantasy owners should not count on him. --KC Joyner

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings: In an effort to get ahead of the game, sometimes we jump to conclusions that simply don't merit such a leap of faith. Norv Turner is taking over the offensive reins in Minnesota, so the Vikings' primary tight end should have a big season, right? It's possible, but banking on Rudolph to be a definite fantasy starter, improving from the 5.63 average points he scored in his eight healthy games in 2013, is a reach, especially given the Vikes' uncertainty at QB. --Tim Kavanagh

Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams: I was actually a big fan of Stacy heading into last season as a sleeper, and he actually came through, to the point that he's now ranked as a top-10 back heading into this year. However, I wonder if the sophomore jinx will hit, especially given his so-so 3.9 yards per carry in 2013 and little contribution in the passing game. One reason Stacy emerged last season was the lack of talent around him in the Rams backfield, but now he has legitimate competition with rookie Tre Mason on the roster. --James Quintong

Wes Welker, WR, Denver Broncos: A career-best 10 touchdowns in 2013 were offset by a career-low 13 games and seven-year lows in receptions, targets and yardage. Mounting concussion concerns, combined with a throng of competition for attention in the passing game, have me avoiding Welker given the inflation his reputation and working with Peyton Manning produces. --Jim McCormick


Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: Knowshon Moreno finished No. 5 among fantasy RBs last year, and Ball is a more talented player. He appears to have depth-chart stability ahead of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, and he can stay on the field for passing downs. His major question comes down to reliability, both in terms of blocking and fumbling. But if those issues clear up, he's a star in the making. --Christopher Harris

Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: In Peyton Manning's two seasons in Denver, the Broncos have finished in the top half of the league in rushing yards, 9th and 11th in rushing attempts and 7th and 13th in rushing TDs. And they've done so with not-so-speedy types, Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee, leading the way. Moreno finished fifth among backs in fantasy points in 2013, so as long as Ball gains Peyton's trust in blitz pickup -- thus staying on the field -- he could very well do the same in 2014. --Keith Lipscomb

Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: Opportunity is banging on the door for Ball this fall as he takes the reigns of an offense that is second in rushes inside the 5-yard line and third in overall rushing attempts since 2012. For any doubts over Ball's ability to handle the gig, let's remember that Knowshon Moreno just produced a top-five fantasy effort in the Broncos' featured role. --Jim McCormick

Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: It's all about the Denver offense. If Knowshon Moreno can suddenly turn in his best season and soar to top-5 heights, surely the younger, talented Ball can do the same. Ball has all the skills -- except, perhaps, pass blocking -- to be a top-5 fantasy asset as long as defenses are scared to death of Peyton Manning, and he'll score touchdowns, catch the requisite passes and pile on the points. If he can't block, well, just insert the name C.J. Anderson here! --Eric Karabell

Martellus Bennett, TE, Chicago Bears: Marty B is situated as the No. 12 tight end in our rankings, and that's reasonable (he should start in 12-team leagues). But with a healthy Jay Cutler running the Marc Trestman offense, I'm a believer in the upside of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Bennett. --Tim Kavanagh

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears: Here's another guy I believe the ESPN ranks are too low on. I am a huge Marc Trestman believer, and here's some simple math: If you combine the fantasy points of Jay Cutler and Josh McCown last year, those two would have been the third-highest scoring QB last year in ESPN standard scoring. Prior to getting injured in the Week 7 game against Washington, Jay Cutler was tied for sixth in total fantasy points among quarterbacks. With the emergence of Alshon Jeffrey, another year of Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett, Cutler has an offense tailored to him, and as good a group of offensive weapons as there is in the NFL. He's a top-10 quarterback with top-five potential being drafted well outside the top 10. --Matthew Berry

Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals: Ellington led all running backs last year in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that gauges production on rush plays with good blocking (very roughly defined as when the offense doesn't allow the defense to disrupt a rush attempt). Bruce Arians wants to lean on him as a workhorse, and if Ellington is capable of handing the additional carries, he could end up as one of the best fantasy running backs in 2014. --KC Joyner

Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals: Offseason reports have been extremely favorable, which is not surprising considering he had a successful career at Notre Dame and an up-and-down sophomore season in Arizona in which he still amassed more than 1,000 receiving yards and averaged 16 yards per reception. Floyd has benefited quite a bit on and off the field from the tutoring of Larry Fitzgerald. But I think the best is yet to come. Physically, everything is there for Floyd, and Arizona's offense could be poised for a breakout overall. Adding Jared Veldheer and Jonathan Cooper to the offensive line and upgrading at tight end should pay off for the Cardinals in both the run and pass game. Carson Palmer isn't Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, but he is a more-than-serviceable starting NFL quarterback who is capable of getting Floyd the ball plenty at all levels of the field, often one-on-one as Fitzgerald still warrants a great deal of attention from every coverage scheme Arizona faces. A top-5 finish might be tough considering how many outstanding wide receivers there are, but I believe Floyd will far exceed his ADP in 2014. --Matt Williamson

Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Maclin is fully healthy, and his versatility makes him a perfect fit for the Eagles' complicated offense. Maclin averaged 68.4 receiving yards per game with quarterback Nick Foles in 2012, compared to 57.2 YPG from other quarterbacks, and that was before the creative Chip Kelly took over. --Brian Gramling

Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings: It seems like in recent seasons, second-year (not third-year) wideouts are the ones primed for a breakout campaign. Take a look at Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery, for instance. Patterson might be the next second-year player to take a huge leap. He's definitely a speed burner, and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will know how to use him. Plus, Patterson could be in a great situation if Teddy Bridgewater takes the helm at quarterback, as he's probably a better option than the Vikings' signal-callers last season. --James Quintong

Trent Richardson, RB, Indianapolis Colts: Richardson was hardly the first player to struggle mightily for his new team following a midseason trade; the list is expansive and illustrates the difficulty of picking up a new offense, regardless of the similarities to the old one. He has now had a winter (and spring) to learn the playbook, and he's on a team lacking in viable alternatives. Opportunities abound for Richardson, whom I cautioned at the time of his trade might not fully adapt to life in Indianapolis until 2014. Um, now it's 2014. --Tristan H. Cockcroft

Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons: The easiest way to plummet down draft boards is to play through an injury that limits your production (like White's 2013 high ankle sprain). When White regained his health at the end of last season, he returned to his traditional studly ways. Don't think twice about stealing White on draft day. --Ken Daube

Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Is it possible for a former superstar wideout to be considered a breakout? Well, coming off a season in which he failed to reach 1,000 yards for the first time since 2006, we'd make the case that the answer is yes. White is healthy and in a contract year, while the Falcons have retooled their offense this offseason. Watch out. --Field Yates