If you saw Allen Robinson’s 2015 breakout season coming, you’re either a fantasy football expert or a soothsayer.
The Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver’s improbable leap to the top of a 2014 standout wide receiver class – or at least, to a share of top billing with Odell Beckham Jr. – isn’t just a surprise considering his competition for the honors. That draft class was full of impact receivers, from top-10 picks Sammy Watkins (Buffalo) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans to New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks and Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews. Even the oft-injured Kelvin Benjamin (Carolina) and Paul Richardson (Seattle) were more likely than Robinson to excel.
As Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles matured, Robinson emerged from a wide receiver depth chart that included Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns. Both Lee – a superstar at USC and a second-round pick in 2014 – and Hurns – who went undrafted in 2014, only to rack up 100 yards in his first game and finish as Jacksonville’s leading receiver as a rookie – seemed bettered positioned to take on the lead receiver role.
But it was Robinson who fed off of and contributed most to Bortles’ emergence with 80 receptions for 1,400 yards and 2 touchdowns. He burst onto the scene in Week 2 with a 6-catch, 155-yard, 2-score performance in a 23-20 victory against Miami. He would go on to have five more games of 100 or more receiving yards for the season.
Now he’s a top-20 fantasy football pick and on everyone’s must-watch list.
Who could become the next sophomore sensation? Here are a few candidates:
Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers
Playing across a similarly strong target in Kelvin Benjamin – and with the talented Greg Olsen lining up at the tight end position – Funchess won’t get as many looks as some of the others on this list. But when quarterback Cam Newton does target him, watch out. Benjamin tore an ACL last season, but that only gave Funchess, a 2015 second-round pick, the chance to catch up.
Or maybe it’s the other way around, as Carolina wide receiver coach Ricky Proehl told reporters Aug. 22.
“To be honest with you, where Devin is right now and where Kelvin needs to get to, I think Devin is pushing Kelvin,” Proehl said. “He’s realizing, ‘I’ve got to get back, I’ve got to push, because this guy (Funchess) is pretty dang good.’”
Funchess had 31 catches for 473 yards and 5 touchdowns as a rookie, but having a year in coordinator Mike Shula’s system should pay dividends.
“You’re seeing what he’s going to add to the offense,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera told reporters. “We saw that at the end of the year last year. Everybody was waiting for him, and then, in midseason, he kind of came into his own and made some things happen. By the end of the season, he got better and stronger, and that’s what he’s doing right now, getting stronger, learning the plays. He’s learning how to use that big body, like Kelvin does.”
Phillip Dorsett, Indianapolis Colts
After quarterback Andrew Luck’s injury-plagued 2015 season, the Colts passing game can go nowhere but up. And if Luck returns to his previous form, it could be formidable. Dorsett is part of a crowded crop of receivers, including the dependable T.Y. Hilton and the improving Donte Moncrief, but he’s the speedster of the three. Expectations are high for Dorsett, the Colts’ first-round selection in 2015 (pick 29), as the Indianapolis Star’s Stephen Holder named him as the most improved player of Indy’s camp.
Dorsett had just 18 catches for 225 yards and a score last year, with most of his yards coming in the first three games of the season.
DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins
If healthy, the second-year Louisville product could be the most prolific of this group.
That’s a big if.
Hampered by injuries throughout his brief career – up to and including Miami’s training camp this season – Parker nonetheless tantalized with his brief debut last year. After starting the year hobbled by a lingering foot injury, Parker finished the season with five 60-yard games in his final six, including a 106-yard season finale and a 93-yard penultimate performance against Indianapolis.
Parker, Miami’s 2015 first-round pick at No. 14, flashed plenty of talent, and with the Dolphins limited in the receiving corps (Jarvis Landry is a solid player, but doesn’t get the volume to monopolize attention), he could be the one who emerges.
Chris Conley, Kansas City Chiefs
Conley’s quarterback, Alex Smith, may be the weakest on the list in terms of passing yardage, but the 2015 third-rounder from Georgia appears to be carving out a major role with the Chiefs.
Despite Smith’s career-year last season, Conley had just 17 catches on 31 targets for 199 yards as a rookie. In an Andy Reid-led offense that should be even better this season with the return of running back Jamaal Charles, it appears Conley has seized the No. 2 spot opposite Jeremy Maclin.