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Fantasy Football: Undervalued second-year breakout players

Nov 22, 2020; Landover, Maryland, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) prepares to pass the ball during warmups prior to the Bengals' game against the Washington Football Team at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 NFL draft class lived up to the hype and produced some of the best fantasy football seasons by rookies in recent memory.

Justin Herbert won offensive rookie of the year and finished with the No. 9 fantasy ranking among all quarterbacks. Justin Jefferson ranked sixth among all wide receivers in PPR fantasy points. Jonathan Taylor ranked sixth among all running backs, while James Robinson ranked seventh. Antonio Gibson, D’Andre Swift, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and J.K. Dobbins all tallied RB2 production, while Chase Claypool, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins and Brandon Aiyuk all landed in the WR2-WR3 range.

Many of the aforementioned 2020 rookies are now entrenched fantasy football studs and will rightfully cost a pretty penny on draft day for the 2021 season. Additionally, excitement is ablaze about the incoming 2021 rookie class, and their ADPs are likely to creep out of control as the fantasy industry chases the next Herbert and Jefferson.

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However, not every player achieves success the moment they step onto a football field. It often takes one or even several years for players to adjust to life in the NFL and fulfill their superstar potential.

Davante Adams had a combined 929 receiving yards in his first two seasons before breaking out in Year 3. DeAndre Hopkins amassed an 802-2 receiving line as a rookie and then erupted with a 1,210-6 line in his second season. Josh Allen was up and down in his first two seasons until going absolutely nuclear in Year 3 to finish as the overall QB1.

The following are four players who disappointed fantasy managers as rookies but have immense breakout potential in 2021. These players will be significantly undervalued in fantasy football drafts and possess league-winning upside.

QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals  

Last season’s No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft demonstrated real growing pains even before his injury. Burrow failed to display the consistency that made Herbert a weekly QB1 and is buoying the former Oregon Duck's average draft position (ADP) into the fifth/sixth round in current best ball fantasy drafts. Burrow can be had several rounds later in the ninth/10th-round range.

In his nine games prior to getting hurt, Burrow was a rollercoaster QB2 who averaged 17.4 fantasy points per game, topping 20 fantasy points just three times with one eruption performance of 33.6 fantasy points.

By comparison, Herbert scored more than 20 fantasy points in 10 of his 15 games, two of which hit for more than 30 fantasy points. While the ADP discrepancy between the second-year quarterbacks is warranted, Burrow is a significantly better value when accounting for his breakout upside.

Burrow is an unabashed gunslinger by trade and aggressively attacks downfield — his 8.9-yard average depth of target was 10th-highest among all quarterbacks. Through Week 11 (when Burrow suffered his injury), he had 48 deep passes 20-plus yards downfield (seventh-most). Yet, he was wholly unsuccessful on these deep balls, completing a measly nine of them. Only Mitchell Trubisky had a lower completion rate than Burrow on deep passes.

Flash back to his 2019 season at LSU when Burrow led the entire nation in every deep ball category with 47 completions, 1,711 yards and 26 touchdowns. Burrow’s arm talent is not a question. Look at this absolute seed to Tee Higgins:

Simple variance was the largest contributing factor to Burrow’s disappointing rookie season, and he should experience positive regression in 2021. No quarterback averaged more fantasy points below expectation than Burrow last season.

Rushing quarterbacks are all the rage in fantasy football, and Burrow has the athleticism to rack up fantasy points on the ground. Burrow had 21 designed runs (seventh-most through Week 11) and 16 scrambles (12th) for 142 yards (13th) and three touchdowns (fifth). Additionally, the Bengals featured Burrow at the goal line — his six carries inside the 5-yard line were sixth-most among all quarterbacks.

The biggest concern with Burrow ahead of the 2021 NFL season is a weak supporting cast and shaky offensive line. But the Bengals are almost certainly going to devote significant resources to adding offensive firepower and fortifying the offensive line. PFF’s Anthony Treash identified the Bengals as the perfect landing spot for Ja’Marr Chase. Chase is PFF’s WR1 in the 2021 NFL Draft class, and his draft profile oozes future superstardom. Treash’s recent two-round mock draft had the Bengals landing Chase in Round 1 and offensive tackle Teven Jenkins in Round 2.

Help for Burrow is on the way, and his situation is going to drastically improve as the offseason marches on. Now is the perfect time to acquire last year’s No. 1 overall pick at a steep discount.

WR Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos 

Jeudy’s performance left a sour taste in the mouths of both NFL fans and fantasy managers — his 12 drops were the second-most in the NFL behind Diontae Johnson. Widely considered to be the top wide receiver prospect in last year’s NFL Draft, Jeudy stumbled in his rookie season, recording a 65.2 PFF grade (10th among all rookie wide receivers). Jeudy averaged a meager 9.8 PPR fantasy points per game en route to the WR45 fantasy finish.

Jeudy is already one of the best pure route runners in the entire league, and he generates consistent separation against opposing cornerbacks. Defensive backs in single coverage do not stand a chance.

Jeudy’s rookie season reminds me of a former Alabama wide receiver by the name of Amari Cooper, who also struggled with drops in his rookie season back in 2015 (18 drops, most in the NFL). Cooper blossomed in his second season to record a WR14 fantasy finish with only four drops.

I could foresee a similar sophomore improvement and top-15 fantasy finish for Jeudy if he's able to clean up the drops and earn the trust of whomever is under center for the Broncos.

The other concern for Jeudy in 2021 is Denver’s questionable quarterback situation. As things currently stand, Drew Lock would probably be under center in Week 1 — this would be perfectly fine for Jeudy’s fantasy managers. Lock is the league’s premier deep bomber; nobody targeted receivers beyond 20 yards downfield last season more than Lock at his 16% clip.

There is also the possibility that the Broncos improve their quarterback room this offseason. Deshaun Watson, anyone? PFF’s Sam Monson detailed how acquiring Watson would transform the Broncos into instant Super Bowl contenders. Jeudy would become be a fantasy football beast and his ADP would skyrocket into the top five rounds if the Broncos managed to pull off that blockbuster trade.

PFF’s Kevin Cole highlighted Jeudy as being significantly undervalued in current best ball drafts, especially compared to fellow first-round 2020 rookie wide receivers Jefferson and Lamb. Jeudy was viewed by many pundits as the top wide receiver in that class, and he was the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 5 overall player on PFF’s 2020 NFL Draft Big Board. Jeudy’s depressed draft stock is a massive overreaction. I believe he will launch into the Jefferson and Lamb WR1 tier after a breakout 2021 season.

WR Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears

Mooney flashed in his rookie season as a fifth-round pick out of Tulane — a pleasant surprise to Bears fans and fantasy managers alike. Mooney tallied a respectable 61-631-4 receiving line, but subpar quarterback play greatly hindered his stats and is depressing his 2021 ADP into the 12th round of ongoing best ball drafts.

Mooney has elite speed (he ran a 4.38 at the 2020 NFL Combine) and consistently demonstrated the ability to blow past defensive backs downfield. However, the Bears' quarterbacks had major issues hitting Mooney deep even when he was screamingly wide open. Mooney was targeted 20-plus yards downfield 22 times last season (15th-most among all wide receivers) but managed to haul in only four catches for a pathetic 17% completion rate (sixth-worst among 70 wide receivers with at least 10 targets). A whopping 17 of his deep targets were deemed uncatchable.

Among all the players on this list of second-year breakout players, Mooney stands to gain the most from the uncertainty of the Bears' offseason plans. If the Bears manage to upgrade their quarterback situation, Mooney’s fantasy value could skyrocket. Like Jeudy, Mooney’s draft cost accounts for NVP Mitchell Trubisky returning as the Bears quarterback in 2021. The quarterback play cannot get any worse, and there are a multitude of options in free agency and the draft that would be a sizable upgrade in Chicago.

Mooney’s ability to win after the catch and break tackles is arguably his greatest skill. He forced 17 missed tackles last season, tied for fourth-most with three WRs you may have heard of: A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Tyreek Hill. The only players with more were Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, and Cooper Kupp.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Mooney’s breakout potential is the likely departure of target hog Allen Robinson. Lost within the “Free Allen Robinson” movement is the fact that he has been an unquestioned fantasy football stud despite his perpetual shoddy quarterback play — he finished as the overall WR9 in 2020 and WR8 in 2019 catching passes from a combination of Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky. If Robinson departs in free agency, he will leave behind 150 targets (third-most), of which a sizable chunk will likely filter to Mooney.

The importance of vacated targets when evaluating wide receivers cannot be understated. Hopkins left behind 146 targets in Houston prior to last season, paving the way for the WR7 and WR15 fantasy finishes on a per-game basis for Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks.

The Bears are going to bring in additional wide receivers if Robinson leaves, but Mooney stands to be the first man up as his replacement. Mooney’s breakout potential is through the roof.

WR Van Jefferson, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams offense has serious eruption potential in 2021 with Matthew Stafford replacing Jared Goff under center. Stafford has been a true bomber throughout his career, especially over the last two seasons when his 10.7-yard average depth of target trails only Jameis Winston. By comparison, Goff’s 7.5-yard average depth of target was higher than only Alex Smith, Jimmy Garoppolo, Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater.

Any excitement surrounding the Rams in fantasy will fall on Cam Akers, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp — all of these players will maintain hyped-up ADPs throughout the offseason. However, do not sleep on second-year wide receiver Van Jefferson emerging as an integral piece of this Rams offense.

Jefferson is an immensely talented pass catcher whom the Rams selected with the 57th pick in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He should be given every chance to earn a real role with such substantial draft capital attached to his name. Jefferson performed well in limited action last season, garnering a solid 69.8 PFF grade (seventh among all rookie wide receivers with 30-plus targets). He ended the season on a high note, tallying a 6-46-1 receiving line in the Rams' divisional playoff loss to the Packers.

Jefferson is the favorite to slide into the Rams’ open No. 3 receiving role with Josh Reynolds expected to depart as an unrestricted free agent. Though Jefferson will be a distant third in the target pecking order, he is likely to be on the field for most offensive snaps. The Rams used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on 64% of snaps (13th) last season, and this has been the preferred alignment for much of Sean McVay’s tenure in Los Angeles. Reynolds had a 72% snap rate last season, and that is essentially the role Jefferson would be capturing.

Additionally, should Woods or Kupp suffer an injury and miss any game action, Jefferson would become an instant WR2 as the next man up. Number three wide receivers that also have stand-alone value as near every-down players are extremely underrated when also accounting for handcuff upside.

Back in 2018 with the Lions, Kenny Golladay was a second-year player and entrenched as the No. 3 wide receiver behind Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr., who were both coming off 1,000-yard seasons in 2017. Golladay flashed in limited action in his rookie 2017 season with a 28-477-3 receiving line, but his ADP was a very cheap WR49 in the 2018 fantasy draft season. Of course, Golladay broke out in 2018 with his first 1,000-yard season to finish as the WR21 while playing alongside Stafford.

Perhaps Matthew Stafford guides another second-year wide receiver to stardom. Jefferson is practically free in fantasy drafts and can be grabbed as an upside selection with one of the last picks in your draft.

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