News & Analysis

Fantasy breakout candidates for 2018

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 11: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs warms up prior to a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers on August 11, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

In my freshman year of college, I partied nearly every night. One of my classes that year had a lecture and a recitation, but only the recitation took attendance. I showed up at the lecture hall for the midterm and turned to my friend and asked, “Who is that really old guy handing out the tests?” He replied, “Dude, that’s the teacher.”

My sophomore year, I moved into a house with my best friends, who were all in their senior year. I partied even harder that year, but when the majority of them left school the following year, I was forced to reevaluate myself and my grades (2.9 GPA). I buckled down, quit partying so hard, and focused my attentions on my schoolwork. I had nearly a 4.0 GPA that year and next. I interned for a congressman and a hedge fund in the summers, and I started getting more involved in extracurriculars. Basically, my junior year was my breakout year. I wonder if anyone saw it coming. I don’t even think I did.

In fantasy football it’s a little more difficult to determine when a breakout year is coming. All too often we’re a year too early on a player. In my case, all it took was laying off the booze. Today, I wanted to look at 2018’s top breakout candidates for fantasy, using a variety of metrics to help make my case.

Quarterbacks

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

In Matt Schaub’s second season under Kyle Shanahan, he led the league in passing yards with 4,770 – a number Peyton Manning has only ever eclipsed once. Under Shanahan, in 2012, Robert Griffin III set rookie records for yards per pass attempt (8.1) and passer rating (102.4), while also recording the second-most fantasy points per game by a rookie quarterback all time. In his second season under Shanahan, Matt Ryan set the all-time yards per pass attempt record (9.3) within a single season. Last season, under Shanahan, C.J. Beathard averaged 17.5 fantasy points per game in the four games he started and finished, which would have been more than Drew Brees (16.9). Last season, Garoppolo went 5-0 in five starts, averaging 17.5 fantasy points per game, and ranking as our second-highest-graded quarterback over this stretch. After a hefty contract extension this offseason, the 49ers and Shanahan appear committed to Garoppolo, and hopefully with it comes the breakout season dynasty owners have long been waiting for.

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Like Garoppolo, we have an extremely small sample to work with when discussing Mahomes. He was our highest-graded quarterback last year during the preseason, and in his lone start and snaps of the regular season (Week 17), he was our fifth-highest-graded passer. In Week 17, he managed 22 completions on 35 attempts for 284 yards, zero scores, and one interception, as well as seven rushing attempts for 10 yards. That’s pretty good and the rushing prolificity is important, but it’s hard to base much off of such a small sample. Chiefs' general manager Brett Veach said of Mahomes earlier this offseason, “He is one of the best players I've ever seen.” Mahomes was very raw coming out of college but has always had incredible upside. He may be more hype than anything else, but a breakout could be coming, especially after the team upgraded their receiving corps (signing Sammy Watkins) in the offseason.

Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

As outlined here, the breakout already came for Winston. It was last year, but you may not have noticed due to a nagging injury.

Lamar Jackson

Only six times since 2000 has a rookie quarterback finished as a fantasy QB1, sure, but let’s not discount the importance of rushing production from a fantasy quarterback, and just how ridiculous Jackson’s rushing production was in college. I made the case for Jackson here.

Running backs

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers

If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a big fan of Kyle Shanahan and his abilities as an offensive play-caller. In 10 years as an offensive play-caller, he has coached a running back to RB1 numbers (in fantasy points per game) six times: Steve Slaton (twice), Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman (twice), and Carlos Hyde. Throughout the rest of their careers, these running backs combine for just one other RB1 season. Shanahan has a strong history of coaxing improved rushing efficiency from his running backs, but perhaps more importantly for McKinnon is improved volume in the passing game. Last season with Shanahan, Hyde drew 88 targets (fifth-most among running backs), yet he saw just 59 in his first three years in the league. McKinnon saw 68 targets last season and pass-catching prowess has always been his greatest strength as a running back. McKinnon was our eighth-highest-graded running back last season, and ranked 14th in fantasy points per game last year after Dalvin Cook’s injury in Week 4, while working in a committee alongside Latavius Murray. In 2018, he appears poised for more of a bell-cow workload, assuming San Francisco doesn’t draft a running back early.

Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots

I can envision a few different scenarios for Burkhead this year. Head coach Bill Belichick could revert back to his typical ways, adopting a frustrating running back by committee approach, pushing multiple running backs into fantasy relevancy but none into fantasy stars. Perhaps Mike Gillislee or Jeremy Hill dominates work near the goal line, and Burkhead draws only a few low-upside carries while sharing passing down work with James White. Or, perhaps, he slides back into the workload he saw toward the tail end of last season, which was excellent for fantasy owners. In the final six games he started and finished, he averaged 13.5 expected fantasy points per game and 16.5 actual fantasy points per game. This would have ranked 12th-best and 10th-best at the position, respectively, if over a full season.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

From both a real-life and fantasy perspective, Mixon was a disaster in his rookie season. Granted, Cincinnati had our fifth-worst-ranking offensive line last year, but even relative to blocking Mixon struggled, ranking bottom-six (of 53 qualifying running backs) in yards after contact per attempt and missed tackles forced per attempt. Still, volume is everything for running backs, and the team has come out and said they plan on using him as a bell cow in 2018. Indeed, though he performed poorly, his teammates weren’t much better, and Mixon was dominant in college. In 2016, among over 100 qualifying Power-5 running backs, he ranked fifth in yards per carry, fifth in yards per route run, first in PFF Grade, and first in PFF pass grade.

Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins

I like Drake for all of the reasons outlined here, as well as the fact that Miami has far greater needs than the running back position, so I don’t see them investing highly in the position during the draft, nor do I view a 35-year-old Frank Gore as a serious threat for touches.

Wide receivers

Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns

This one’s the easiest on the list, if he qualifies. Really, Gordon already had his breakout year, and it was one of the greatest fantasy seasons in recent memory. Gordon averaged 22.4 fantasy points per game in 2013, at only the age of 22. For perspective, 22.4 fantasy points per game still ranks top-20 among wide receivers all-time. This was despite Cleveland averaging just a 75.1 team passer rating, which ranked seventh-worst that season. Gordon was less impressive in the 10 games since (spanning three seasons), but did average 8.9 targets per game, which would have ranked 11th-most last season. He also graded out 11th-best among wide receivers (via the pass) over the final five weeks of last season. With Tyrod Taylor at quarterback (a clear upgrade to anything he’s dealt with throughout his career) or a highly drafted rookie, this could be the year Gordon makes up for all of our wasted draft picks over the past three seasons.

DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins

After three consecutive disappointing seasons, Parker is a strong post-hype sleeper, no matter how gross it feels. Due to a brutal cornerback schedule and multiple injuries, as outlined here, I don’t think we are looking at his 2017 season the right way, and 2018 could be the year he finally breaks out.

Will Fuller, Houston Texans

Before Deshaun Watson‘s season-ending ACL injury, Fuller ranked second among wide receivers in fantasy points per game (21.0). Somehow though, heading into the 2018 season, Watson ranks fourth in positional ADP, while Fuller ranks 44th. If Watson had stayed healthy, perhaps Fuller could have been a league-winner. Of course, his efficiency numbers last season were massively unsustainable, but his ADP should still be a few rounds higher.

Sophomore wide receivers

Rookie wide receivers typically underperform for fantasy, while making a significant leap forward in their sophomore seasons. Corey Davis tops the list of breakout candidates, after averaging 6.2 targets per game last season (including postseason). Let’s also not neglect first-round rookies Mike Williams and John Ross. Not only is it hard to transition to the NFL level, but it's especially hard when missing a good portion of training camp and dealing with injuries. Dede Westbrook was one of my favorite sleepers last season, and though he didn’t “break out” he should be in line for more targets after the team parted ways with Allen Robinson. JuJu Smith-Schuster already had a breakout season, but I’m betting he improves on his rookie year.

Tight ends

Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers

Henry finished seventh in fantasy points per game last season, so maybe the breakout has come, but I’m going to argue he is going to blow so far past his prior-year output that 2017 looks like a bust in comparison. Since entering the league, Henry has hit at least 70 receiving yards or scored a touchdown in 17 of his 25 targeted games (68 percent). For perspective, that’s better than Rob Gronkowski over the same timeframe. He also ranked behind only Gronkowski in PFF grade last season. Over the past two seasons he ranked first in fantasy points per target, second in yards per target, and third in yards per route run. He did this while drawing just 44 percent of the team's tight end targets, to Antonio Gates‘ (currently a free agent) 54 percent.

Second-year tight ends

As I tried to show here, it’s pretty standard to see rookie tight ends underperform only to break out in their sophomore seasons. This seems as good of a year as any, after the 2017 tight end class was considered one of the best in recent memory. Evan Engram totaled the most fantasy points by a rookie tight end since 1990, so he’s disqualified, but all other sophomore tight ends remain in play as breakout candidates. Particularly, I think George Kittle and Gerald Everett are being especially slept on. Kittle ranked 10th in fantasy points across the five games Garoppolo started. Everett, absurdly, forced a missed tackle on over half of his receptions throughout his college career. For perspective, at the NFL level, Travis Kelce led all tight ends in missed tackles forced per reception last season, forcing a missed tackle on just 19 percent of his receptions.

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