Matt Stafford, QB, Detroit — Once the Lions installed offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter midway through the 2015 season, Stafford threw for 2,179 yards (and 7.44 yards per attempt), completed 70% of his passes, and threw 19 touchdowns versus only two interceptions over his last eight games. With the loss of Calvin Johnson, Stafford will likely spread the ball around more to targets like Golden Tate, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, and newly acquired wide receivers Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Cleveland — It’s expected that the Cleveland Browns will lean heavily on the running game this year, under new head coach Hue Jackson. It’s also forseeable that Jackson uses Browns’ running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. in a similar manner to how he used Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard when Jackson was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. So, expect Crowell to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 220 carries this season, just like Hill did over the past two seasons in Cincinnati.
C.J. Spiller, RB, New Orleans — Admittedly, many people are going to be extremely wary of getting anywhere near C.J. Spiller this year, given what a colossal bust he ended up being last season. But many people fail to realize that Spiller was hampered by his not-fully-recovered knee that was operated on right before the season. The Saints are thin at running back in general, with only Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower being their only players with real NFL experience. Expect Spiller to get a lot closer to the stats this season, which people projected him to have last season.
Terrance West, RB, Baltimore — In a crowded backfield of Ravens running backs, there was almost no reason to think that Terrance West would be worth a look, in terms of fantasy football. Sure, the third round pick in 2014 was talented, but he was caught up in a numbers game in Baltimore. But so far, West has been one of the biggest stars in Ravens training camp, and ascending up their depth chart. Considering Justin Forsett turns 31 in October and Javorius “Buck” Allen never really took hold of the starting running back job, it wouldn’t be surprising to see West’s role in the Ravens’ offense grow as this season went on.
Kamar Aiken, WR, Baltimore — After catching a grand total of 24 passes in his NFL career prior to 2015, Kamar Aiken finished among the top 35 receivers in receiving yards last season (940) and among the top 25 receivers in targets (127). He could end up being the Ravens top receiver, by default, at the start of the 2016 season. Steve Smith is coming off a torn achilles, and he’s 37 years old. It’s just not realistic to expect him to continue to play at the same level. Second year receiver Breshad Perriman is essentially a rookie, having missed his true rookie season due to injury. It’s very possible that Aiken flirts with a thousand yard season this year.
Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina — Devin Funchess was very much considered a clone of Kevin Benjamin when the former was coming out of the University of Michigan in 2015, so it’s a bit ironic that he ended up getting drafted by the Carolina Panthers. Funchess had a respectable stat line of 31 catches for 473 yards and five touchdowns last season (he ranked third on the team in touchdown receptions), and he very much looks primed to build on those numbers. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Funchess is “light years” ahead of where he was as a rookie, and he could be dangerous weapon next to Benjamin.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans — Though he ended up slipping into the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, many believed that wide receiver Michael Thomas from Ohio State could end up being the best receiver taken in this year’s draft. Being selected by a team like New Orleans — featuring a quarterback like Drew Brees — only helps his cause. He’s looked terrific in training camps so far, and the Saints envision Thomas stepping into the role left by the now departed Marques Colston.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh — With wide receiver Martavis Bryant lost for the 2016 due to suspension, the Steelers will be counting on fourth-year receiver Markus Wheaton to step into Bryant’s role as the team’s #2 receiver opposite of Antonio Brown. Over the final seven games of last season, Wheaton had 28 receptions for 476 yards, including a 201-yard performance at Seattle in Week 12. If Pittsburgh ends up playing Wheaton as an outside receiver, where he’s more comfortable, he could flourish in their high-powered passing attack.
Zach Miller, TE, Chicago — At this point in time last year, we were debating whether Bears tight end Martellus Bennett was one of the best tight ends in football. But as the season went on, and Bennett was dinged up with injuries, Zach Miller really began to emerge within the Bears offense. Over the last eight games of 2015, Miller had 404 yards and five touchdowns receiving, and the Bears were pleased enough with his performance that they were comfortable with trading Bennett away.
Clive Walford, TE, Oakland — Clive Walford might’ve been the most athletically gifted tight end in the 2015 NFL Draft, which is why the Raiders selected him in the third round. After targeting him 51 times last season, Oakland is really looking to better use his gifts this season. With guys like Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree entrenched as targets, Walford could see lots of open space downfield.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison