Every football season teaches new lessons to fantasy football managers. The knowledge that we gain each season builds on the previous year and serves as the foundation of preparation for the upcoming fantasy football season.
Breakout fantasy stars emerge every season, and they often resemble a player and/or situation from the previous year. In fact, a lot of these breakouts seem painfully obvious when looking back in hindsight.
Specifically, consider the circumstances that helped create the middle- and late-round draft-picks-turned-breakout-stars of 2019 — for example, Miles Sanders, Michael Gallup and Courtland Sutton. Their ascent to fantasy stardom was not surprising in the slightest, yet each player had a very reasonable average draft position (ADP) that made him a true fantasy football difference-maker.
Now that last year’s breakout players are all household names and cost premium picks on draft day, fantasy managers who want to win their leagues in 2020 need to be able to identify this year’s version of those players. Analyzing the player stats and team situations behind last year’s breakouts can help us predict this year’s fantasy gems.
The following three players are being overlooked in fantasy drafts but have major sleeper and breakout potential in 2020.
J.K. Dobbins is this year’s Miles Sanders
The parallels between J.K. Dobbins and last year’s Sanders are strikingly similar. They were both rookie running backs drafted in the second round by analytically savvy NFL teams. Like the Eagles last year, the Ravens did not draft Dobbins with the idea of sitting him on the bench.
People forget that Sanders had a real role prior to his true emergence in Week 11 after Jordan Howard’s injury — he averaged 27 snaps and 11 touches per game in Weeks 1-9. Over that nine-game stretch in a committee with Howard, Sanders ranked as the RB27.
RB27 is a realistic outcome for Dobbins working as the second running back on the league’s best rushing offense, where he would be a weekly flex play but hard-pressed to be a true fantasy stud. His current ADP is a reasonable RB33, making Dobbins a decent value at his floor. But it is Dobbins’ ceiling that makes him such an exciting fantasy target in the middle rounds.
Sanders blew up after seizing the Eagles’ starting RB role and ranked as the overall RB3 in Weeks 11-16, averaging 18.8 fantasy points per game and 20 touches per game. If something were to happen to Mark Ingram, a RB3 ceiling is lurking in Dobbins. His 2019 stats at Ohio State were mind-boggling: 1,208 rushing yards after contact (second), 4.01 rushing yards after contact per attempt (second) and 31 runs of 15-plus yards (first).
While Ingram was solid last year (78.7 PFF grade, ninth), he started showing signs of decline toward the end of the year before suffering a calf injury that essentially ended his season. Coincidentally, from Week 9 on (including playoffs), Ingram had only one game with more than 80 rushing yards. If Ingram starts breaking down in the middle of the 2020 season, a fresh Dobbins will be primed to takeover Baltimore’s backfield.
Though it required a Howard injury to spark the Sanders breakout, that is part of the beauty in fading a 30-year-old running back. Ingram turns 31 years old in December — the list of RBs to play well into their 30s grows ever shorter by the year.
Dobbins will be a key cog in the Ravens’ run-centric offense regardless, and playing behind an older back creates an additional path to fantasy stardom. His PFF consensus ranking is RB31, and the Ravens have the seventh-easiest RB strength of schedule in 2020.
Darius Slayton is this year’s Michael Gallup
The eighth through 12th rounds of fantasy drafts are a goldmine for breakout wide receivers year after year, and Michael Gallup was the poster boy from 2019. He had a WR46 ADP in 2019 but smashed his ADP to finish as the WR22.
In hindsight, fantasy managers should have been all over Gallup in drafts last season — if you zoom out, his situation and stats screamed budding star. He had a starting wide receiver role on a potent offense locked up, while having already demonstrated a big-play skillset in his rookie season. He had proven the ability to rack up fantasy points without high target volume, which would be essential playing behind Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott.
Darius Slayton mimics Gallup’s 2019 preseason outlook and is an under-the-radar candidate to develop into a top-24 wide receiver this season. Check out their rookie year stats and you will see the makings of very similar players.
|Michael Gallup (’18)||Darius Slayton (’19)|
|Yards per catch||15.4||15.4|
|Rate of catches for 15-plus yards||36%||38%|
|Deep target rate 20-plus yards downfield||27%||25%|
On an efficiency and usage basis, the duo had nearly identical rookie seasons. But Slayton had much more opportunity to demonstrate his prowess compared to Gallup, and he has already proven to be an impact fantasy asset. Slayton had more monster touchdowns than anyone else in football with six receiving TDs of 20-plus yards (most among all WRs).
Like Gallup entering 2019, Slayton has a guaranteed role on what should be a much better New York Giants offense. The Giants were very much feast or famine last year but will be more consistent in 2020 with a healthy Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones a year older. While the Giants do have a crowded receiving corps with Evan Engram, Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard, all of those players plus Slayton will be on the field together plenty — the Giants used 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) on 74% of snaps last season (second most in NFL).
Slayton’s ceiling is not theoretical, as he already displayed top-24 ability last season. Consider that he didn't play 40 snaps in a game until Week 5. From Weeks 5-17, Slayton ranked as the overall WR24. He will likely have a higher-volume role in 2020, which could allow him to maintain a similar fantasy point total while regressing in efficiency, but instead accumulating more counting stats.
Slayton’s ADP has not caught up yet, as fantasy managers may not believe Slayton can carry over last year’s lofty big-play rate into 2020. He is a steal at his WR45 ADP and could easily be a top-24 WR this season. Ian Hartitz's recently released top-300 rankings have Slayton as the 87th-ranked player, ahead of Shepard and Tate.
Preston Williams is this year’s Courtland Sutton
Courtland Sutton demolished his WR50 ADP last season with a second-year breakout and WR19 fantasy finish that, like Gallup, is glaringly obvious in hindsight given his elite talent and skill set. The resemblance between Sutton and Preston Williams feels all too familiar.
The comparison between Williams and Sutton starts at their size. Williams is a burly 6-foot-5 and 218 pounds. Sutton is an equally large human at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds. The pair are physical specimens built to bully smaller cornerbacks on a football field, particularly in the red zone.
Williams was the Dolphins’ premier option in scoring range with 11 red-zone targets (seventh-most in the NFL through Week 9) and eight end-zone targets (fifth). Compare that to Sutton, who has similar rankings for the entire season — 35 red-zone targets (fifth) and 12 end-zone targets (sixth).
Williams only played eight games through Week 9 in 2019 because of his injury, but he was a force straight from the jump. Over that nine-week stretch, Williams ranked as the overall WR36, one spot ahead of his teammate DeVante Parker who was WR37. In fact, Williams was Miami’s No. 1 receiving option over that stretch. Here are his numbers compared to Parker’s through Weeks 1-9:
|Preston Williams||DeVante Parker|
|Yards per route run||1.60||1.32|
Yes, Parker went absolutely nuts after the Williams injury and was the No. 2 fantasy wide receiver in Weeks 10-17. Yes, Parker also recently inked a $40 million, four-year contract extension with the Dolphins. But weird things happen in the NFL all the time — how certain are we really that Parker will just walk right back into the lead role, especially considering that the most recent sample of both sharing the field tilted in favor of Williams. The level of uncertainty in their roles does not reflect the fact that at a WR24 ADP, Parker has double the ADP of Williams at WR53.
Sutton was a value in last year’s drafts because he was viewed as the No. 2 option (behind Emmanuel Sanders) on a poor offense. Sanders miraculously recovered from his Achilles injury and proved to be healthy with an incredible 7-86-1 receiving line in Week 1.
Yet, through Week 7 while Sanders was still on the Broncos, it was Sutton who emerged as the lead option and fantasy difference maker. In those first seven weeks, Sutton ranked as the WR11 while Sanders was the WR28. The torch was passed to Sutton long before the Sanders trade.
Embracing uncertainty is one of the biggest edges in fantasy football. We think that Parker is going to be the Dolphins' top receiving option, but there is a distinct possibility that it is Williams, especially considering he already held that role when healthy in his rookie season. Recency bias is clouding the judgment of fantasy mangers and propping up Parker’s ADP well ahead of Williams.
Understandably, question marks surrounding Williams’ recovery from a torn ACL have also contributed to his depressed ADP. However, Williams has been making waves in Dolphins training camp and appears to be fully healthy heading into this season. If Williams is full-go come Week 1, he is a strong bet to smash his WR53 ADP.
PFF’s projections are high on Williams with a WR40 ranking and 100 targets, 59 catches, 836 yards and 5 TDs. Consensus rankings are similarly high on him at WR41. If Williams sees a similar role in scoring range, he could hit those counting projections while adding on a few extra touchdowns, which could catapult him into the top-20.