Penrith Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary

After overcoming a heavy injury toll early in the season the Panthers finally appeared bound for another top-four finish before coaching speculation and the eventual sacking of Anthony Griffin dominated the final few months of 2018.

Some new stars emerged along the way though: Viliame Kikau quickly became a must-have Fantasy player, James Maloney proved an inspired signing, and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak ended the year as New Zealand's Test captain.

Meanwhile, the departures of Tyrone Peachey and Corey Harawira-Naerea could create some opportunities for the team's depth back-rowers.

Here are three players to keep an eye on when picking your NRL Fantasy squad:

Nathan Cleary

Already a 50-point player in Fantasy, due to a dream combination of a towering kicking game, reliable run metres, a solid defensive game and a laser-accuracy goal-kicking boot, Cleary could make another leap this season if his scoring trends continue.

His Fantasy performances came in three phases in 2018: from round one to three he was his usual self, scoring a tick under 50 points a game; when he returned from a knee injury he struggled initially, scoring just 36 points a game from round 11 to 16; and then his scoring took off, reaching a sublime 63 points a game from round 17 to 25.

Damien Cook was the only player to average more than 60 across the entire 2018 season so if Cleary can pick up where he left off he'd be among the elite Fantasy options for 2019.

Josh Mansour

One of the first wingers to cash in when NRL Fantasy introduced three-point tackle breaks, Mansour is coming off the quietest season of his career since his eight-game rookie campaign in 2012.

Since 2013 Mansour's season averages read 38, 50, 34, 45 and 43 before last season's 33.8 points a game.

It was the first season of his career that he hadn't made more than 150 run metres per match, or half a dozen line breaks. But he was close to both marks (144m & 5 line breaks) so it shouldn't take a huge leap for him to get back to his best. One to keep an eye on this pre-season.

Jack Hetherington

He may be new to the league but Hetherington is already a familiar face to the NRL's match review committee, having being suspended three times in his rookie season.

So discipline isn't the 22-year-old's strong suit but he is a big talent, having played a part in Penrith's Intrust Super Premiership title in 2017.

He averaged 23 points in 31 minutes a game off the bench last season, so if he can improve his game time (and cut out those suspensions) he has plenty of upside in a forward pack that has lost Trent Merrin.

Panthers player prices & positions

Nathan Cleary $769,000, HLF
Viliame Kikau $682,000, 2RF
Isaah Yeo $656,000, 2RF
James Fisher-Harris $608,000, 2RF
Waqa Blake $593,000, CTR
Caleb Aekins $575,000, WFB
Dylan Edwards $571,000, WFB
James Tamou $563,000, FRF
Josh Mansour $499,000, WFB
Reagan Campbell-Gillard $481,000, FRF
James Maloney $478,000, HLF
Jarome Luai $463,000, HLF
Tyrone May $420,000, HLF, 2RF
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak $415,000, WFB
Dean Whare $408,000, CTR, WFB
Tim Grant $408,000, FRF
Sione Katoa $400,000, HOK
Moses Leota $352,000, FRF
Tyrone Phillips $332,000, WFB
Jack Hetherington $325,000, FRF, 2RF
Malakai Watene-Zelezniak $313,000, WFB
Wayde Egan $289,000, HOK
Kaide Ellis $231,000, 2RF
Hame Sele $228,000, 2RF, FRF
Tyrell Fuimaono $228,000, CTR, 2RF
Jed Cartwright $212,000, 2RF
Liam Martin $212,000, 2RF
Nick Lui-Toso $212,000, FRF
Paea Pua $212,000, FRF