Al Bello/Getty Images
In 2015, Miami Dolphins rookie running back Jay Ajayi barely saw the field, as he only accrued 56 touches for 277 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.
Expectations were not that high for Ajayi in 2016, especially after Arian Foster took over the starting running back role in the beginning of the season. Ajayi didn’t even travel with the team to Seattle for the season opener.
However, Ajayi eventually took over the starting gig and had a monster year, rushing for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns. He ran for 200-plus yards three times (twice against the Buffalo Bills) and played a significant part in Miami’s run to the playoffs.
This year, there are a few sophomores who are candidates to become big-time fantasy stars, much like Ajayi. The two best can be found below.
A note before beginning: Second-year pros like New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas and Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard don’t count in this category.
Although those two could break out and become even bigger stars, perhaps ranking in the top five of their respective positions next year, they are already on the top echelon of the fantasy landscape. We’re looking at some others who can make a giant leap in year two.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz
Wentz, who was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, could be primed for a big year for three reasons.
First, he’s getting rave reviews for his play in training camp. Here’s the latest via Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ Advance Media:
Second, the Eagles reloaded their offensive skill positions, adding Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith at wide receiver and touchdown machine LeGarrette Blount (18 last season) and rookie Donnel Pumphrey (2,364 yards from scrimmage at San Diego State in 2016) at running back.
Jeffery and Smith had down years last season, but they are just 27 and 28 years old, respectively, and they could have nice comeback years. Both have shown what they are capable of in recent campaigns, with Jeffery posting two straight 1,000-yard-plus seasons in 2013 and 2014 and Smith catching 11 touchdown passes three seasons ago.
Third, the Eagles could be on the rise.
Philadelphia was unlucky in 2016, as it went 7-9 but still managed to outscore opponents, 367-331. The Eagles lost two games by one point and four others by a touchdown or less. They registered wins against four playoff teams (Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys), although, in fairness, Dallas rested some starters in that Week 17 matchup.
The Eagles also played one of the toughest schedules in the league, as they only faced three teams with below .500 records. Somehow, Philadelphia was unlucky enough to play every single NFC playoff team.
Philadelphia was ranked fifth in total DVOA last year, per Football Outsiders, thanks in part to solid defensive and special teams units. The Eagles are due for a rebound, especially with one of the best front sevens in football sticking around and a reloaded offense.
That could mean Wentz is in a great year as the team evolves and improves around him. Expect Wentz to finish no worse than 12th among all quarterbacks in fantasy production.
New York Giants RB Paul Perkins
The former UCLA running back is the Giants’ primary option in the backfield, with last year’s starter, Rashad Jennings, no longer with the team.
Perkins should make the most of his opportunity. He showed flashes of what he can do at the end of last season, gaining 286 yards on 47 attempts (a 4.8-yard average) in his final three regular-season games.
This included a clutch performance against Washington in Week 17, when he ran for 102 yards on 21 carries and helped knock the ‘Skins out of the playoff hunt.
Perkins was a productive back in college, running for 2,915 yards and 28 touchdowns in his final two years. He also showed prowess as a pass-catcher, making 56 receptions and 443 yards during that time frame.
Of course, gaudy college stats don’t always correlate with professional success, but Perkins could be poised for a big year. The Giants’ pass game should be improved with the addition of wideout Brandon Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Engram. With Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard still in the mix, quarterback Eli Manning has all the tools to lead a proficient passing attack.
That means teams won’t stack the box against the Giants and force them to pass, meaning Perkins should find those lanes and attack, giving him a good opportunity for success (in reality and fantasy).
In fairness, Perkins isn’t going to get as many opportunities to carry the rock as, say, Jordan Howard or LeSean McCoy. He should get most of the touches, but he’s part of a committee that includes Orleans Darkwa, Shane Vereen and fourth-round pick Wayne Gallman.
That being said, he’s going to be sitting there in the fifth round and maybe even the sixth. Per Fantasy Football Calculator, Perkins’ ADP is 59.8, so you could grab a starting running back who is getting most of the carries for what should be a winning team.