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Fantasy Playbook: The Dark-Horse Breakout Candidates for the NFL’s Second Half

From promising young talents in line for a larger workload to players coming back from injury, here are football’s most likely second-half surprises

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It happens every year: a handful of first-half nobodies suddenly morph into high-volume contributors over their team’s final eight or nine games. At this time last season, Zach Ertz had 15 catches for 150 yards and zero touchdowns—then emerged as Carson Wentz’s favorite target over the second half of the season, catching 63 balls for 666 yards and four scores in his final nine games. In 2015, Kamar Aiken was the surprise midseason fantasy breakout, catching 56 of his 75 passes from Week 8 onward as he filled in for an injured Steve Smith in the Ravens’ passing attack.

Whether it’s because they’ve simply earned more reps or a bigger piece of the target share, or they see the field because the guys in front of them have underwhelmed or gotten injured, a few players are bound to put together surprising second-half performances again this year. Here’s a handful you should keep an eye on.

WR Sterling Shepard, Giants

Odell Beckham Jr. (ankle) and Brandon Marshall (ankle) are done for the year, and the Giants haven’t been able to run the ball with any consistency. That means that someone’s going to have to catch passes from Eli Manning, and while rookie tight end Evan Engram should be the targets leader going forward, Shepard’s going to get plenty of opportunities, too. The second-year pro has caught just 22 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown this year, but will return to the field as the team’s de facto WR1 (ahead of Tavarres King and Roger Lewis) after missing Week 7 with an ankle injury. He’s a playmaker with a nose for the end zone (eight touchdowns last year), and whether he’s running routes out of the slot (where he primarily played before the Beckham and Marshall injuries) or on the outside, Shepard’s production could skyrocket down the stretch.

Oakland Raiders v Washington Redskin Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

WR Jamison Crowder, Redskins

Washington seems intent on developing Josh Doctson as its no. 1 outside threat, but that progression could be slow going—and Terrelle Pryor’s presence (and salary) could cut into Doctson’s opportunities. The second-year pro out of TCU caught one of his three targets (a 1-yard touchdown) in the team’s loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, but I’d trust the more experienced and reliable Crowder to emerge as the team’s go-to guy in the passing attack if Jordan Reed remains sidelined for much time with a hamstring injury. The third-year pass catcher came into last week’s game with just 19 catches for 149 yards, but exploded for nine receptions for 123 yards in a losing effort on Sunday. It wouldn’t be surprising to see quarterback Kirk Cousins rely heavily on the 5-foot-9, 177-pound slot receiver in the team’s final nine games.

RB Marlon Mack, Colts

The Colts are, well, really bad, and a combination of injuries and a lack of talent on defense means that Indy’s offense is likely going to have to go into comeback mode early and often for the rest of the year. That means the team will likely abandon the run game in favor of its passing attack, which benefits Mack, an explosive and versatile rookie out of South Florida. Mack’s out-snapped starter Frank Gore 71 to 58 in the past two games, when he’s rushed 16 times for 53 yards while catching seven passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. The team’s just scratching the surface with what the 5-foot-11, 211-pound back can do in its offense, and he may carve out an even bigger role for the Colts in the second half.

RB Alex Collins, Ravens

Ah, the joy of the Ravens’ backfield rotation: At first it looked like Terrance West would be the team’s starter, and then Buck Allen emerged as the go-to guy—that was fun while it lasted. But Collins, who the team picked up on waivers from the Seahawks in early September, hasn’t given the Ravens any reason to give the ball to anyone else. The Irish-dancing former Razorback rushed 18 times for 113 yards in Thursday’s 40-0 blowout of the Dolphins—displaying quick feet, explosiveness, and vision. He’s already forced 17 missed tackles on just 80 touches, an elusive rating of 62.2 per Pro Football Focus, which ranks sixth in the NFL among all backs with 25 percent of their team’s touches. Baltimore’s sure to continue rotating Allen in on passing downs, but Collins seems to have earned the job as the team’s early-downs runner, and if he can keep eluding would-be tacklers going forward, he could be a big-time points scorer for your team.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titan Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

RB Derrick Henry, Titans

DeMarco Murray remains entrenched as the team’s starter at running back, but a nagging hamstring injury from early in the season has been replaced with a shoulder injury that limited him at practice on Monday. The former Cowboys and Eagles back has carried the ball nearly 1,200 times combined in the past four seasons, and while he’s been remarkably resilient in that stretch, it might behoove the Titans to ease back on the 29-year-old’s workload in the second halves of games the rest of the year. That’s where Henry, who’s averaging over a yard after contact per carry (3.59) more than Murray (2.29), could really shine as the team’s closer: In the team’s Week 6 game against the Colts, he broke off a 72-yard run late in the game to ice the win, and with fresher legs and more explosiveness than the guy in front of him, we could see Henry pick up a bigger role in the offense—and maybe even take over as the team’s starter.

TE Tyler Kroft, Bengals

Kroft can’t match Tyler Eifert in athleticism or in the ability to create mismatches anywhere on the field, but with Eifert out for the rest of the year with a back injury, it’s clear that Kroft’s the next man up—and he’s already earned quarterback Andy Dalton’s trust as a security blanket over the middle. The 25-year-old former Rutgers standout has caught all 11 of his targets for 123 yards on routes out of the slot this year, per Pro Football Focus, both ranked 13th among tight ends, and is the team’s third-most targeted (27) pass catcher thus far. He’s also a red zone threat that Dalton can turn to in Eifert’s stead; he’s caught three out of his four red zone targets, all for touchdowns, and because of his reliable hands and excellent size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), we may see his usage inside the 20-yard line increase going forward.

TE Greg Olsen, Panthers

Olsen’s anything but a nobody, but it’s easy enough to forget about a guy that’s been on the shelf with a broken foot since Week 2. If your league doesn’t have an IR-designated roster spot that allows another team to stash him, it might be a good time to go out and grab Olsen off the waiver wire, as the Panthers’ big playmaking tight end is eligible to come back to practice this week and told reporters he had the team’s Week 12 tilt against the Jets in mind for a comeback date. Olsen’s one of Cam Newton’s favorite targets down the seam, and he caught 80 balls for 1,073 yards and three scores last year in 16 games. He could be the type of late-season producer (at a thin tight end position) that puts your team over the top in the fantasy playoffs.

NFL: International Series-Minnesota Vikings Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

QB Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings

Bridgewater’s the ultimate wild card. Finally back on the field after suffering a gruesome non-contact knee injury just prior to last season, the team’s former franchise quarterback is going to have to compete to regain his starting job. But with Sam Bradford out indefinitely with knee issues of his own, Bridgewater’s only competition looks to be veteran stopgap Case Keenum. Keenum has played solidly if not spectacularly while filling in for Bradford in seven games this year, throwing seven touchdowns and three picks at 6.9 yards per attempt with an 88.0 passer rating. The Vikings (6-2 and in first place in the NFC North) may decide to go the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” route. But Bridgewater’s upside is much higher than Keenum’s, and with a talented cadre of pass catchers like Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph at his disposal, the team may decide that Bridgewater gives it a better chance to run away with the division.

WR Calvin Johnson, Lions

Wait, what? OK, sure, this one’s pretty unlikely, but it might be worth taking a waiver-wire flier on Megatron before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline just in case the rumors, which say the Jaguars and Eagles are interested in trading for Johnson’s rights so he can come out of retirement, end up being true.