What sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And what big-name running back could ruin your season? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that called Alvin Kamara's huge breakout last season and find out.
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There was a bonus breakout candidate in Dalvin Cook. That gave us 13 breakout candidates to work with, and most of them still have plenty of potential as the offseason has unfolded.in February since I led the story with
Breakouts 1.0 featured the following guys:
- Deshaun Watson
- Jimmy Garoppolo
- Derrick Henry
- Joe Mixon
- Jamaal Williams
- Chris Carson
- Josh Gordon
- Corey Davis
- Cooper Kupp
- Will Fuller
- Adam Shaheen
- O.J. Howard
Including Cook, my favorite players from this list are Watson, Garoppolo, Henry, Mixon, Gordon, Davis, Kupp and Fuller. All of them are players to invest heavily in heading into 2018.
Williams could still build off his rookie campaign, but his outlook is slightly lower based on reports of Ty Montgomery remaining a significant part of the offense, as well as Aaron Jones. And Carson loses plenty of value with the addition of rookie Rashaad Penny.
Shaheen is also a loser because the Bears added Trey Burton in free agency, and Tampa Bay kept Cameron Brate, which lowers the ceiling for Howard. He is still worth drafting, but only with a late-round pick now.
For Breakouts 2.0, I'm focusing a lot on the rookie running backs because several of them, including Saquon Barkley (not listed here), landed in tremendous spots. But you can include Barkley as a breakout candidate as well, and we'll consider him our 13th guy for this version.
Hopefully, not much will change for these players between now and Draft Day in the majority of leagues. These are players I expect to be regular starters and potential stars this season.
I'm all in on Mahomes this year, and I continue to move him up in my rankings. He's in a great situation as Alex Smith's replacement because of coach Andy Reid and a tremendous receiving corps, including Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt. Smith just finished as the No. 5 Fantasy quarterback in 2017 with 4,042 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and five interceptions, along with 355 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. No one is expecting Mahomes to replicate that kind of production, but he has a high ceiling given his skill set. In his final two years at Texas Tech, Mahomes passed for 9,705 yards, 77 touchdowns and 25 interceptions, and he ran for 744 yards and 22 touchdowns. He's expected to be drafted with a late-round pick, but he has the potential to be a top-10 Fantasy quarterback this season. You don't have to reach for a quarterback on Draft Day, and you can wait for Mahomes, who can definitely help you win your league.
McKinnon left Minnesota as a free agent this offseason to sign in San Francisco, and he's headed for a big opportunity as the starter for coach Kyle Shanahan. The track record of Shanahan's running backs as an offensive coordinator and head coach is impressive, including the past three seasons with Carlos Hyde (No. 11 running back in non-PPR leagues in 2017) and Devonta Freeman (No. 7 in 2016 and No. 1 in 2015). McKinnon (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) looks like a Freeman (5-foot-8, 206 pounds) clone in size, and hopefully can mirror his production under Shanahan. We've already gotten a glimpse of what McKinnon can do in limited touches. In 2017, with Cook missing 12 games because of a torn ACL, McKinnon had 10 games with at least nine carries in the regular season. He scored double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in five of those outings, and he had six games with at least five catches after Cook got hurt in Week 4. In two playoff games, McKinnon had 18 carries for 74 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and a touchdown and 14 catches for 92 yards. With the 49ers, McKinnon will share touches with Matt Breida -- who should be considered a sleeper in the Tevin Coleman role if you want to keep the Falcons comparison going – but McKinnon will be the lead rusher. He's worth drafting as early as Round 3 in the majority of leagues.
Seattle's selection of Penny at No. 27 overall in the first round of the NFL Draft caught me off guard. Not because of Penny's talent, which was exceptional at San Diego State. But it was a surprise to see the Seahawks invest in a running back in that spot given their other needs at defensive back and offensive line. Running back was a smaller need as well, and Penny will now be given every opportunity to be a featured back. Coach Pete Carroll has said as much that Penny will be a three-down back, and he just has to prove he's better than Carson, Mike Davis, C.J. Prosise and J.D. McKissic once we get to training camp. Penny also must outperform an offensive line that has struggled in recent years, although a full season with left tackle Duane Brown and the addition of guard D.J. Fluker should make this unit better than you think. Penny has the chance for about 1,200 total yards and seven touchdowns, and if he's around 35 receptions, he'll be a star in all leagues. He's worth drafting as early as Round 4 in non-PPR leagues and Round 5 in PPR, and Penny has a great chance to finish as the No. 2 rookie running back this season behind Barkley.
The Redskins might have gotten a huge steal when Guice fell to the second round of the NFL Draft due to apparent character concerns, which appear to be unwarranted. A first-round talent many considered the second-best running back in this draft class behind Barkley, Guice now has plenty of motivation for his rookie campaign after being the seventh running back selected at No. 59 overall. "I can't wait to be unleashed on the field," Guice told the Redskins official team website. Guice was a star at LSU, and he had 420 carries for 2,638 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and 27 touchdowns, along with 27 catches for 230 yards and three touchdowns over the past two years. For his three-year career, Guice averaged 6.53 yards per carry, which ranks second all-time in SEC history behind Auburn's Bo Jackson (6.62). And Guice is the only player in SEC history to record three 250-yard rushing performances. In Washington, Guice should be the No. 1 running back ahead of Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley. Guice will lose playing time on passing downs to Chris Thompson, but Guice is still a candidate for at least 250 total touches. Washington's offensive line should rebound this year with Trent Williams and Morgan Moses healthy, and Guice could end up as a steal for Fantasy owners if he falls past Round 4 in most leagues. It will be fun to see him "unleashed" in 2018.
There are several rookie running backs stepping into prime opportunities to be the starter and workhorse for their team right away -- Barkley (Giants), Penny (Seahawks), Guice (Redskins), Royce Freeman (Broncos), Kerryon Johnson (Lions) and Sony Michel (Patriots) -- and Jones is part of that group. You can make the argument he's No. 2 on that list behind Barkley, and the Buccaneers will likely give Jones a heavy workload as a rookie. Look at the depth chart in Tampa Bay, where Jones' main competition is Peyton Barber, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers. Jones should dominate touches in an offense that has the chance to be explosive, with plenty of talent at quarterback, receiver and tight end. At USC, Jones was a standout running back the past three years. He finished his career with 591 carries for 3,619 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and 39 touchdowns, along with 32 catches for 302 yards and three touchdowns. He should prove to be a serviceable receiver out of the backfield, and he has drawn comparisons to Alvin Kamara and Jamaal Charles. The Buccaneers and Fantasy owners would love if Jones played like anything close to those two guys, and you should be excited about his upside given his opportunity in Tampa Bay. Like Penny and Guice, Jones should be drafted in Round 4 in most leagues.
Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. So many of these rookie running backs are stepping into tremendous opportunities to be starters and potential workhorses, and Freeman could be the best of the bunch. While I would draft Barkley as the No. 1 rookie running back, Freeman is in the discussion to be the second one off the board if he wins the starting job in Denver as expected. Devontae Booker will pose a threat, and he's still someone to consider with a late-round pick, but Freeman should be No. 1 on the depth chart. And Denver general manager John Elway has already called Freeman a "bellcow type" and "a guy we needed." Freeman replaces C.J. Anderson, who was the No. 16 Fantasy running back in non-PPR leagues in 2017, and Anderson had 273 total touches. The majority of that work should go to Freeman, who had 947 carries for 5,621 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 60 touchdowns, along with 79 catches for 814 yards and four touchdowns in four years at Oregon. He has the opportunity to be a standout Fantasy running back in his rookie campaign, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 5 in the majority of leagues.
Diggs had a good season in 2017, but his performance was likely magnified by some big games, including the miracle playoff victory against New Orleans when he scored the game-winning touchdown. He finished as the No. 18 Fantasy receiver in non-PPR leagues, but he wasn't even the best receiver on his team -- Adam Thielen was No. 14. Diggs only managed five games with double digits in Fantasy points in non-PPR leagues, and he only had one game with more than 100 receiving yards, which was Week 3 against Tampa Bay. Diggs should continue to improve, and he should have the chance for his first 1,000-yard campaign. The addition of Kirk Cousins will help Diggs, and the two have already started to develop a rapport by spending time together in Atlanta in April, along with Thielen. It will help if Diggs can stay healthy since he's yet to play 16 games in any of his first three seasons, but this should be his best year to date. I like Diggs better than Thielen, and he's someone I plan to target as early as Round 3 in all leagues.
Cooper has been considered a breakout candidate the past two years, but he's yet to have the big season many Fantasy owners have expected. And last year, Cooper was a huge bust, finishing with only four games with double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league. Two of those came in the final two games of the season, and hopefully he can build off that performance heading into this year. And new coach Jon Gruden plans to feature Cooper in the passing game as much as possible, even with the additions of Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant. Gruden said in an interview with CBS Sports at the NFL owners meeting that "we're going to make (Cooper) the main vein of our pass offense. Move him around a lot. We are really excited about him. He's entering the prime of his career." Gruden has compared Cooper to Hall of Famer Tim Brown, and he wants to help Cooper get back to his production from his first two years, when he averaged 78 catches for 1,112 yards and five touchdowns. After last season, Fantasy owners will be thrilled with that kind of production, and I expect Cooper to play at that level – if not better. He's worth drafting in Round 4 in all leagues.
Similar to what was said about Gordon in Breakouts 1.0, Robinson is headed for a second breakout season in 2018. His move to the Bears, along with a return to health from last year's torn ACL, should help Robinson return to prominence this year. In 2015, Robinson was a Fantasy star in Jacksonville with 80 catches for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns on 152 targets. His production tailed off in 2016 with 73 catches for 883 yards and six touchdowns on 151 targets, and then he got hurt in Week 1 last year. Robinson should be healthy for training camp, and he's expected to be the No. 1 target for Mitchell Trubisky and coach Matt Nagy in Chicago. We'll see if he can stay in the 150-target range, but 120 targets is a definite possibility. And he should have the chance for at least 75 catches, 1,000 yards and six touchdowns, although I would expect a higher ceiling. He's someone I plan to target in Round 4 in all leagues, and I would not be surprised if he finished as a top-10 receiver this season.
In full disclosure, I originally listed Smith-Schuster as a bust in the first version of the column in February. I was skeptical of his outlook and expected Average Draft Position following his standout rookie campaign. My argument was Smith-Schuster would struggle for consistent targets since his best games came when Pittsburgh's receiving corps was depleted. But the Steelers helped Smith-Schuster just enough this offseason to alleviate those concerns when they traded Bryant to the Raiders during the NFL Draft. While Bryant was replaced with second-round rookie James Washington from Oklahoma State, I expect Smith-Schuster to see a bump from the 80 targets he received in 2017, which was fourth on the team behind Antonio Brown (162), Le'Veon Bell (107) and Bryant (84). When Bryant was benched in Week 8 at Detroit, Smith-Schuster went off for seven catches for 193 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets. And in the final three games of the regular season when Brown was either hurt or out with a calf injury, Smith-Schuster had 21 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns on 23 targets. This is a dominant offense, and Smith-Schuster should see more than 100 targets as the likely third option behind Brown and Bell. Smith-Schuster becomes a breakout candidate worth drafting as early as Round 4 with Bryant out of the way.
The Patriots receiving corps will look different this season after Brandin Cooks was traded to the Rams and Danny Amendola left for the Dolphins as a free agent. Julian Edelman is back after last year's torn ACL, but he's suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. New England has Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett on the roster, but those guys aren't going to be featured options. While Rob Gronkowski and the running backs will have prominent roles, this should be a big season for Hogan. Edelman will return in Week 5 and continue to be featured in the offense as the primary slot receiver, but Hogan should be the best outside receiver and has a ton of potential. He must stay healthy after missing seven games in 2017 due to injury, but he was on pace for 66 catches for 876 yards and 10 touchdowns before starting to miss time in Week 10. Hogan also showed his upside in Super Bowl LII against the Eagles with six catches for 128 yards and a touchdown after Cooks was hurt early in that game. Hogan has No. 2 Fantasy receiver potential, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 5 in the majority of leagues. Of the nine games he played last year, Hogan scored double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in four of them.
It's always a mixed bag when players switch teams. There's the good like Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles last year, and the bad like Terrelle Pryor to the Redskins. It could be magnified when it's a player going from a backup role to a starter, and the hope here is Burton becomes the next Michael Turner, Wes Welker or Emmanuel Sanders. Burton fits the description of those guys because he was good playing behind Zach Ertz with the Eagles, but he could be a star with the Bears. He's going to be the featured tight end in Nagy's offense, and Nagy was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City last season when he had Kelce in that role. And we've seen flashes of stardom from Burton every time Ertz has missed time due to injury. That happened twice in 2017 when Ertz was out in Week 9 against Denver and Week 14 against the Rams. Against the Broncos, Burton had two catches for 41 yards and a touchdown on four targets. Against the Rams, Burton had five catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns on six targets. And in Week 2 of the 2016 season with Ertz out, Burton had five catches for 49 yards and a touchdown on seven targets against the Bears. Burton's a great tight end to wait for on Draft Day, and he's worth drafting with a mid-round pick. He has the potential to be a top-10 Fantasy tight end in all leagues.