Fantasy football, and really every fantasy sport for that matter, is inherently a value-based game. You’re going to need superstars on your roster to win a title, but they won’t always come off the board in the first or second rounds. The return you get on every investment is absolutely critical to your championship hopes, and quite often the mid-round breakouts provide the highest ROI.
Breakout players can be the difference between fighting for a playoff spot and winning a championship. When we label a player a breakout, we typically mean someone going in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts who ultimately turns into a top-tier player at his position. However, the breakout tag can apply to any player who’s set to make a significant leap this season.
In the case of say, Lamar Miller, that can mean going from a low-end RB1 to one of the best fantasy players in the game. For other players that you’ll read about below, it might simply mean turning into a regular fantasy starter after previously being a depth guy. And, of course, you’ll get more than your fair share of traditional breakouts, the players coming off the board between rounds three and seven whose star turn is right around the corner.
Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals
Floyd has hinted at a breakout in multiple parts of his four-year NFL career. He did it back in 2013, when he caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns, and he did it again during the second half last year, when he shook off a broken hand to go on an impressive nine-game scoring binge. This year there won’t simply be hints. Floyd is set to challenge the WR1 class.
Everything is lined up for Floyd this season, starting with the aforementioned second-half surge last year. He missed one game because of the hand injury, then needed a few weeks to shake off the rust that came from missing most of training camp. From the middle of October through the end of December, he had 38 catches for 729 yards and six scores over the course of nine games, translating to an average of 12.1 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues.
This year, Floyd should be the No. 1 receiver in one of the league’s best offenses. He has a top-12 ceiling and a top-20 floor. While RB David Johnson’s presence as the starter all year could lessen the passing volume in Arizona’s offense, Carson Palmer’s arm remains the engine for Bruce Arians’s attack. Larry Fitzgerald enjoyed a resurgent 2015 season, but he slowed down as the year progressed and will turn 33 at the end of August. John Brown is a fine player in his own right and a worthwhile pick at his ADP, but Floyd is far more dangerous in the red zone.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers
The Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia was a flop, but the running backs who fit his system still thrived. LeSean McCoy had nearly 4,000 yards in two seasons with Kelly, and while DeMarco Murray was a bust, Ryan Mathews ran for 5.08 yards per carry last year. Now in San Francisco, Kelly has a back whose skill set seems ideal for his offense.
After one game in 2015, it seemed Hyde was already on the breakout path. He ran for 168 yards two touchdowns against the Vikings on Monday Night Football, showing the entire fantasy football community what he could do. He ran for just 302 yards and one more score the rest of the season, undone by the ineptitude of the rest of the 49ers’ offense, and limited to seven games because of a foot injury. Hyde’s failings should be easy to overlook, however, given the systematic issues with San Francisco’s offense last year and the coaching change that seems ideally suited to make him a star.
In Hyde and Colin Kaepernick, who’s still in a training camp battle with Blaine Gabbert, Kelly has a running back and quarterback tandem that would seem to fit exactly what he wants to do offensively. The running back and quarterback feed off one another in Kelly’s offense, meaning Hyde can make Kaepernick a more effective runner and vice versa. Not every running back is McCoy, but we know what Kelly’s system can do for a talented running back who can take an edge and hit cutback lanes. That’s exactly what Hyde does when he’s at his best. Hyde could play his way into the top 10 at his position this season.
Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers
Truly elite fantasy receivers combine nearly unlimited upside with a high floor that makes them consistent producers while also being capable of singlehandedly winning weeks for their owners. That’s the player Evans will become this season.—the Texas A&M product is a WR1.
A 2015 Evans owner might tell you he was a bust. Do not listen to that person. Evans scored just three touchdowns but set new career-highs in every other pertinent category, posting 74 catches for 1,206 yards. He averaged 16.3 yards per catch and 8.2 yards per target, and did it all in the same number of games, 15, that he played as a rookie. Outside of the touchdown department, which is famously volatile for receivers, Evans was better last year than he was in 2014, and recall he scored 12 touchdowns and surpasses 1,000 yards that season.
Evans has had an issue with drops, but he has also been among the league leaders in deep targets, classified as passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, in both of his seasons. In fact, he has outpaced his expected catch rate, which accounts for length of target, in both his seasons.
Jameis Winston, who we’ll discuss a bit later, had an impressive rookie season and has the pedigree to keep taking major strides. As he does so, Evans will be right there with him.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints
Cooks was a popular breakout pick last year, but through seven games he had 35 catches for 444 yards and one touchdown, which comes out to just 7.2 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Owners who stuck with Cooks after that rough patch were happy they did.
Cooks turned it on over the next nine games, hauling in 49 passes for 694 yards and eight scores. That was good for 13.04 points per game, which would have made him the No. 7 fantasy receiver had he carried that average all season. Cooks is, without question, the top pass-catcher at Drew Brees’s disposal, and that has always been a lucrative fantasy position. In Brees’s 10 seasons at the helm of the Saints offense, his top receiver (not including Jimmy Graham) has averaged 1,057.4 yards and eight touchdowns per year, an average of 153.74 fantasy points per season. That essentially gives Cooks a mid-level WR2 floor, and doesn’t account for his specific skill set, or the fact that he doesn’t turn 23 until late September. He’s another receiver close to finding the consistency/ceiling combination that is fantasy football’s most valuable currency.
Marvin Jones, WR, Lions
Jones is not going to turn into a WR1 in his first year with the Lions. What Jones can do, however, is find a level of production and consistency that eluded him while starting opposite A.J. Green in Cincinnati. He’s not going to carry your team, but he can be the sort of consistent starter he never was with the Bengals.
The Lions are staring at their first season since 2006 without Calvin Johnson. The future Hall of Famer averaged 86.63 catches, 155.5 targets, 1,377.07 yards and 9.84 touchdowns per every 16 games, leaving huge shoes to fill in Detroit. No one player can replace someone like Johnson, but Jones, along with Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin, will have to try. The Lions are likely to remain a pass-heavy team, with Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner and Theo Riddick, who’s more effective as a receiver, comprising the backfield.
In other words, Jones should have plenty of opportunity in the Detroit offense. Remember, before missing the entire 2014 season, he posted a 10-touchdown campaign with the Bengals. While that was undoubtedly more than a little fluky, he came back with a 65-catch, 816-yard, four-touchdown season last year, an impressive showing for a player in an offense with a dominant receiver ahead of him on the depth chart, a tight end who scored 13 red-zone touchdowns, and a running back who had 49 receptions and 66 targets. Jones essentially maxed out his production, relative to his opportunity, last year. As the latter increases in Detroit, so, too, should the former.
Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
Being a rookie quarterback isn’t easy. It’s even harder when your top receiver misses time with a hamstring injury, your No. 2 receiver sits six games due to a knee injury, and your starting tight end is on the shelf for nine games with a shoulder injury. Such was the case for Winston last year. Any evaluation of his rookie season has to begin from that jumping-off point.
Taking the injuries into account, it’s borderline remarkable that Winston threw for 7.56 YPA, 12th-best in the league and ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Blake Bortles and Philip Rivers, among others. Winston was also one of 12 quarterbacks to top 4,000 passing yards, and of the 12 to hit that threshold, only Russell Wilson had fewer attempts.
Despite injuries to his receivers and a 6–10 season, Winston found a level of efficiency that would have been impressive under ideal circumstances. Now with a year under his belt, the No. 1 pick in 2015 stands to take a significant leap. He has the pedigree and a sneakily fun offense with Mike Evans, Doug Martin, Charles Sims, Vincent Jackson, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate at his disposal.
Coby Fleener, TE, Saints
Most of the breakout cases we’ve hit thus far have more to do with the player’s overwhelming talent. In Fleener’s case, it’s more about opportunity.
After four years battling Dwayne Allen for targets in the Colts offense, Fleener left Indianapolis for New Orleans this off-season. The fifth-year tight end out of Stanford had one big season with the Colts, catching 51 passes for 774 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014, but, thanks largely to Allen’s presence, he was never quite able to break out with his first team.
Fleener won’t have that issue with the Saints. While they did like Josh Hill enough to match an offer sheet he signed with the Bears, Fleener has a more secure hold on the top of the depth chart in New Orleans than he ever did in Indianapolis. The opportunity and context for a tight end with the Saints speaks for itself. Jimmy Graham turned into a star catching passes from Drew Brees, and while his production can’t simply be passed on to any old tight end, he turned into a pumpkin at 29 years old in his first year without Brees. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, 34-year-old Ben Watson, who had 88 catches for 863 yards and seven touchdowns from 2012-14, had 74 grabs for 825 yards and six scores in his lone year as Brees’s primary tight end.
Fleener may not have the pure talent of the top-tier tight ends, but he’s in an excellent situation. That should help him become a rock-solid TE1 this year.
Note: The following breakout cases first appeared, in slightly different form, in our position primers.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Bills
Check out the following two stat lines for a pair of quarterbacks. You know one is Taylor since his name is at the head of this section, but which one? And who is the mystery quarterback?
Quarterback A: 63.7% completion percentage, 3,035 yards, 7.99 YPA, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions, 568 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns
Quarterback B: 64.1% completion percentage, 3,118 yards, 7.93 YPA, 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 489 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns.
QB A is Taylor. QB B is Russell Wilson in his rookie year. I’m not saying Taylor is the second coming of Wilson, but the former’s numbers in his first season as a starter should certainly have Bills fans and the fantasy community excited about what’s to come this year. Taylor missed two games due to injury, which pushed him down to QB16, but he was ninth in points per game. Had he maintained that pace over a full season, he would have been QB7, ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. Buffalo plays at a slower pace than the league average, and we may not see Sammy Watkins at all this summer while he rehabs a broken left foot. Those are two factors that could block a Taylor breakout. But Taylor’s running ability helps counteract what he loses due to the Bills’ slow pace, and all reports on Watkins suggest he’ll be fully healthy by the start of the regular season. Taylor waited five years to get his shot at a starting gig. It will only take two for him to go from first-year starter to breakout.
Lamar Miller, RB, Texans
Going back to the intro of this column, you can now see what I meant when I said there would be some non-traditional breakouts included. In a way, Miller has already broken out. He was the No. 9 back in standard-scoring leagues in 2014 and the No. 6 back last season, making him one of two backs to finish in the top 10 both of the last two seasons (the other was Matt Forte). Miller, through no fault of his own, left a little still to be desired during his time with the Dolphins. That’s not going to be the case this season. He has the ceiling to be this season’s No. 1 running back, without question.
Miller was the most woefully underutilized player in the league last season. He had just 194 carries last year, and got 20 carries in a game once. He had fewer than 10 carries six times, which almost makes it seem like the Dolphins were purposely trying to lose games. He fled Miami as soon as he could during the off-season, joining up with a Houston team that will make him the feature back he always should have been.
The offensive environment in Houston is perfect for a complete back like Miller. He steps into the role vacated by Arian Foster, and can be the same sort of do-everything back the former No. 1 overall fantasy player was during his time with the Texans. Head coach Bill O’Brien will get Miller the ball as often has he can handle it, making the first-year Texan one of the few true workhorses in the league. Not only will he dominate the touches entirely, but there’s no risk of him being lifted at the goal line, and he has proven his pass-catching chops. Fantasy owners should expect him to comfortably climb north of 300 touches. A player with his explosiveness and efficiency could post monster numbers with that many opportunities.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills
This is the year for Watkins to take his place among the league’s best receivers. He has shown flashes of greatness in his first two seasons, but hasn’t truly broken out, thanks in part to injuries and a Buffalo offense that has left something to be desired, both in terms of efficiency and potency. Everything is set up for Watkins to take the leap this season.
While Watkins has fallen a bit shy of expectations thus far in his career, he still had 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns last season. With Tyrod Taylor behind center, Watkins has a promising young quarterback with whom he has already built a strong rapport. Despite the fact that this will be his third season in the league, Watkins turned just 23 years old in June. Not only is he getting better by way of experience, but he’s also improving organically as he moves toward his physical prime.
Watkins finished last year with a bang, catching 35 passes for 679 yards and six touchdowns over his last six games, putting up 17.32 points in an average contest. He had at least one touchdown or 80 yards in all six games, and topped 100 yards four times, showing the consistency that is the hallmark of an elite receiver. He opened camp on the physically unable to perform list because of a broken bone in his foot that required surgery in the off-season, but his status for Week 1 is not in jeopardy. Watkins is set for a monster season, bringing top-five upside, and a top-20 floor, at a low-end WR2 price.
DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins
In each of the last three seasons, at least one receiver has jumped from the sixth round or later into the top 10 at the position by season’s end. It’s safe to bet on at least one receiver making the leap this season. DeVante Parker has all the tools to be that player.
One of the many failings of the previous regime in Miami was the total disregard for what Parker could do. To be fair, he was coming off foot surgery that slowed him in training camp and early in the season, but he played more than 30% of the team’s snaps twice before Week 12. From that point forward, he played 91% of Miami’s snaps and, to the shock of no one other than perhaps Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell, he was excellent. Parker caught 22 passes for 445 yards and three touchdowns in those six games, averaging 10.42 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Had he maintained that pace all year, he would’ve been the No. 13 receiver, sandwiched between Brandin Cooks and Demaryius Thomas.
Adam Gase won’t make the mistakes of his predecessors in Miami. Parker was the 14th overall pick last year for a reason, and he’s going to be heavily featured in the Dolphins’ offense this season. If Gase can get the same growth out of Ryan Tannehill that he did from Jay Cutler last year, there’s no telling what Parker’s second year in the season could look like. He has an early seventh round ADP, and while that could climb higher over the next few weeks, he’ll almost certainly be, at best, a late-fifth rounder. There is a strong chance, though, that it ends with him in the top 10 at the position.
Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers
This is Green’s fifth year in the league, which means it’s at least the fourth year that we’ve heard his breakout is on the horizon. Despite a 6’ 6”, 250-pound frame and a skill set that matches up with the modern, prototypical pass-catching tight end, Green was never able to unseat the ageless Antonio Gates. Even when Gates missed four games due to suspension last season, Green failed to takeover and was out-produced by Gates in fewer games.
Green had to leave San Diego to get his first true shot at a starting gig. He couldn’t have picked a better landing spot, joining up with Ben Roethlisberger and company in Pittsburgh. No matter what happens with Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers are going to feature a potent passing attack. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the league. Sammie Coates, one of my favorite targets this year, and Markus Wheaton will provide plenty of firepower down the depth chart. Green could be the seam-splitting tight end that Roethlisberger has never really had at his disposal in his career.
There’s nothing wrong with looking askance at a Green breakout argument. He had four years in San Diego to prove he deserved a meaningful role in the offense, and came up short every time. The difference here, though, is that the Steelers don’t have anyone even one-third as good as Gates for Green to battle. Green’s going to have every opportunity to prove he can be a top-tier pass-catching tight end, and that’s something he didn’t have with the Chargers. He’s well worth a shot at his eighth-round draft-day price.
Photos: Christian Petersen/Getty Images (Floyd), Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images (Hyde), Sean Gardner/Getty Images (Cooks)