That was before injuries walloped the San Diego receiving corps, which opened the door for Allen to work his way into the starting lineup, where he finished with 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns en route to becoming one of the biggest breakout performers of 2013.
Opportunity is banging at the door of the following 9 players, who approach this season brimming with potential to become must-start players every Sunday:
1) Montee Ball, RB, Broncos
“Can’t miss” is such a dangerous phrase, yet if one inherits the lead role for the most prolific offense in the game, the chances for failure are slim. With that, Ball earns the top spot here, as the departure of Knowshon Moreno (Bye, Felicia) turned Ball from a change of pace back to one who will be a first-round choice in almost every league.
Ball averaged 4.7 yards per carry while going 120-559-4 in his rookie season. Having played at run-heavy Wisconsin, Ball’s pass-catching skills were a mild surprise, as he hauled in 20-145-0 on 27 targets. At the low end of projections, Ball should be able to produce 1,350 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns, yet with the Broncos showing no signs of falling off from their record-busting offensive display, I see Ball delivering 1,600 yards from scrimmage with 16 TDs. He will justify a pick in the later stages of the first round.
2) Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Vikings
Anyone who saw Patterson’s 7-141-1 coming out performance in the snow at the Ravens last December, has waited all spring and summer to snatch him off draft boards, and with good reason. Patterson is a star waiting to happen, as the Vikings have all but made him the featured receiver in their revamped offense. Thirty of his 75 targets came in the final five weeks of the regular season along with three of his four receiving touchdowns. Both numbers will climb significantly this season.
Patterson will go in the middle rounds of most drafts and projects as a high-end WR2 with massive upside. He’ll also remain a threat as a runner, since he ran for 158 yards and scored three times on just 12 carries. His value will be higher in keeper/dynasty leagues.
3) Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles
The Eagles still have Brent Celek, yet Ertz has the upside to unseat the former Pro Bowler as the second most-targeted player in Chip Kelly’s hyper-drive of an offense. Ertz pulled in 36 passes for 469 yards and four scores in his rookie season, becoming more involved in the game plan as the year went on. Ertz has the size and speed to create nightmarish mismatches against most linebackers and safeties, and while he’s not Jimmy Graham (who is?), Ertz has the potential to be a devastating presence in the red zone while opposing defenses worry themselves sick over LeSean McCoy.
Ertz was targeted 56 times last season, but I see that total approaching 85-90 this season, which could translate into 55-725-8. He’s going to fall into the second tier of TEs, and with the Eagles looking to replace DeSean Jackson’s production, much of that could come in his direction.
4) Justin Hunter, WR, Titans
He’s 6’4”, 203 lbs. and has a vertical jump that rivals most NBA players; add the fact that new head coach Ken Whisenhunt loves to throw the ball, and, well….you get the picture.
Hunter had just 18 receptions last season, yet he averaged a staggering 19.7 yards per catch and scored four touchdowns. Five of his receptions were for at least 40 yards, which is why he was able to record a pair of 100-yard outings in two of the four games in which he was targeted at least six times. Kendall Wright enters the season as the undisputed featured wideout of the Titans attack, but make no mistake: Hunter will be a factor for both the Titans and your Fantasy team. He projects as a WR3/Flex player, but if he taps into his potential, there will be more than enough opportunities for Hunter — who played with Cordarrelle Patterson at the University of Tennessee — to become much, much more.
5) Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers
A broken hand curtailed his rookie season, which is why Wheaton had just six receptions. The departures of Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders didn’t worry the Steelers much, mainly because Wheaton’s ceiling is pretty damn high. He is a polished route runner with the ability to turn a short pass into a long gain, as Wheaton’s open field skills rival teammate and Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.
Wheaton will fly under the breakout radar, as Patterson and Hunter have garnered a lot of attention throughout the offseason. If you can’t get either of the aforementioned, Wheaton will be available in the back end of most drafts. He is a very strong low-risk, high-reward candidate, one who can emerge as a solid WR2 by the end of the season.
6) Andre Ellington, RB, Cardinals
The sudden retirement of Rashad Mendenhall promoted Ellington into a role that should see him arrive as one of the more reliable backs in Fantasy play. While Mendenhall sputtered at 3.2 yards per carry, Ellington exploded with a 5.2 yards per carry clip, including eight runs of at least 20 yards. He also averaged a respectable 9.5 yards per catch with his 39 hauls.
If those numbers translate into “big play potential” to you, then Ellington should be on your list when seeking a RB2. I don’t worry too much about whether his increased workload will affect his 5’9”, 199-pound frame, as his ability to cause havoc in the open field will make Ellington a sure play for 1,250 yards from scrimmage and 8-10 scores. His receiving skills should appeal more to PPR leagues.
7) Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins
Tannehill had a solid second season, yet I think this is the campaign where he becomes known for more than just having an insanely hot wife. While Tannehill threw for 3,913 yards and 24 scores last season, his production was offset by 17 interceptions, an inconsistent running game and the fact that he was sacked 58 times.
The additions of free-agent OT Braden Albert and first-round pick OT Ja’Wauan James will keep Tannehill upright more often, which will allow him to fire downfield to an underrated receiving trio of wideouts Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace and TE/RB Charles Clay, who combined for 379 of the Dolphins’ 594 targets last season. He should approach the 4,000-yard barrier again, but I think there’s 27-30 passing TDs in the offing, which would make him an emerging QB1.
8) Terrance Williams, WR, Cowboys
Miles Austin’s injury propelled Williams into the starting lineup, where he put together a stretch in which he visited the end zone in four straight games before he hit a rookie wall in midseason. Williams caught just 18 passes and one touchdown in his last eight games, but with Austin gone, the second-year wideout from Baylor has the chance to rebound in a big way.
With defenses focused on Dez Bryant and Jason Whitten, Williams and his deep speed will be in favorable matchups almost weekly. If Tony Romo is healthy and in top form, he and Williams are capable of rattling off impressive numbers, especially against an NFC East that lacks a top-tier pass defense. Williams put up 44-736-5 in 2013; I look for him to go 67-1100-8 this season, numbers that would make him a sound WR2.
9) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Andre Johnson is still the go-to man in new head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense, yet Hopkins’ skills and potential are poised for bigger totals than the 52-802-2 he put up in his rookie season. Hopkins got the bulk of the attention as Johnson sat out OTAs and minicamp, and the extra work will only make him more potent in the single-coverage matchups he’ll see most of the year.
New QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has had success in getting the ball downfield, which means Hopkins should at least maintain his 15.4 yards per catch average. With a healthy Arian Foster in the backfield, the tree is ripe for Hopkins to really step up and become at least a sound WR3 with the potential to become a WR2. Keep in mind that the Texans play a last place schedule and against the defensively-challenged NFC East, which is why I see Hopkins becoming a 70-1,050-6 wideout this fall.