Every year brings a new class of NFL players who establish themselves among the best at their position. As some aging veterans are replaced, new players step up to take their place in the box scores and in the stat lines. Here are some candidates to step up and go for it all this season – and could be complete steals in this year's fantasy football drafts.
Josh Freeman - After getting 10 games in his rookie season to get acquainted with the NFL, Freeman came back in a big way throwing for 3,450 yards and 25 touchdowns while only getting picked off six times. He added another 68 runs for 365 yards on the ground. If the Bucs can get it all together, and if either Michael Spurlock or Sammie Stroughter can find themselves more involved, Freeman could make a good run at 4,000+ yards.
Shonn Greene - As was the case the season before, Greene was not able to outdo his veteran competition for the running back job enough times to be a strong fantasy presence. Both seasons, however, he came up huge for the Jets as he stepped up to make up for Thomas Jones' and LaDanian Tomlinson's declining production. If he can prove that he can do better than last season's 765 yards and 2 TDs, he may be able to start for the Jets all season.
Mark Sanchez - Like Freeman, Sanchez struggled in his introduction to the NFL (despite a late season playoff run) but improved greatly in his second season. His 3,300 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions don't tell the whole story – Sanchez's mental progression was massive. This season, his numbers should catch up but it all depends on what the Jets do on the market. Sanchez's top targets last season, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, are both free agents and the team may not be able to afford both of them.
Julio Jones - Jones is not only a phenom but he could not have come to the Falcons at a better time. Despite owning the best record in the NFC, the Falcons were bounced in the first round of the playoffs – largely due to a lackluster passing game. Jones will instantly be the complement to Roddy White that both Michael Jenkins and Tony Gonzalez failed to be. And if his 1,100+ yards and 7 TDs in his last year at Alabama is any indication of what he can do...
Jimmy Graham - Despite having to split time with Jeremy Shockey, Graham was still able to put up 5 TDs (though only 350 yards) for the Saints. With Shockey gone, Graham will be the huge target with great reliable hands that Shockey never really was for Drew Brees. At 6'6” and 260 pounds, he will be a big target to miss.
Jermichael Finley - If 2011 will be Finley's breakout season, it will be a year too late. Finley was well on his way to improving upon the 675 yards and 5 touchdowns from 2009 last season but went on the injured reserved list after the Packers' fifth game. With his knee healed, Finley will be back as the big target for Aaron Rogers as the Packers look to repeat.
Dez Bryant - Bryant was well on his way to a good rookie season before injuries stopped him in his tracks. Although he played better with Jon Kitna than Tony Romo, it could have been a result of his quick ascent to the big league level. Now healthy, and the Cowboys in better shape overall, Bryant is primed for a big year as the Cowboys' complement to Miles Austin.
Matt Stafford - Like Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez, Stafford struggled in his rookie season and looked like he had grown considerably before he suffered two separate shoulder injuries. If he can keep his shoulder from popping out (and he had surgery to try to do just that in the offseason), the Lions may just have it all come together this season.
Daniel Thomas - With both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams on the free agent block, the Dolphins' second-round pick out of Kansas State appears to be the obvious choice for the starting job. It is not out of the question that Brown returns, something made more likely the longer the lockout draws on as Thomas will not have much time to learn the system. Maybe even Lex Hilliard makes a play for a good deal of carries. Either way, Thomas is going to be groomed to become the man in 2012 which means he will either start all season or command a lot of carries.
Join The Fantasy Alarm Show & SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio for the first mock fantasy football draft of the season! On Monday, June 13th, hear some of the top minds in fantasy football, including Jeff Mans & Ryan Hallam, compete in an expert's fantasy football draft, live from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Summer Conference in San Francisco. We're not letting reality ruin our fantasy! Mark your calendars - Monday, June 13th at 8pm eastern