The Steelers passing game should bounce back in a big way in 2020 with the healthy return of Ben Roethlisberger (elbow). It's a great situation for their two top receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson, and both are top breakout candidates this year. It's why we're talking about them for Breakouts 2.0.
Let's start with Smith-Schuster, who was a breakout candidate last season. He was supposed to have a statistical explosion as the No. 1 receiver for the Steelers with Antonio Brown gone. He was poised to join the elite class of receivers in the NFL, and we were looking at a star coming into his own. And then it happened.
In Week 2 against Seattle, Roethlisberger hurt his elbow and was lost for the season. To make matters worse, Smith-Schuster hurt his knee and missed four games from Weeks 12-15. He went from averaging 18.5 PPR points per game in 2018 to a dismal 9.4 last year. It was a disaster.
But we're going to forget about 2019 for Smith-Schuster. Erase it from your memory. This year will be his best year yet -- his breakout season. He's one of my favorite breakout candidates for 2020.
He actually scored at least 13 PPR points in five of his first seven games last season, including three with at least 17 points. He wasn't as bad as you think. And he said in an interview with CBS Sports this offseason that he's expecting to play like the receiver we saw in 2018 when he had 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns on 166 targets.
"Hopefully next season when Ben comes back, I'm just hoping we have a dominant year," Smith-Schuster said. "I'm hoping we make some noise."
Smith-Schuster should again see 150-plus targets, and he should be fine as the No. 1 receiver for Roethlisberger, especially playing mostly in the slot. Remember, he's only 23. He's the receiver Roethlisberger knows best and trusts most. That matters.
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As for Johnson, he also struggled through his rookie campaign in 2019 while catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. But he started to emerge as a player with a high ceiling, who should benefit with improved quarterback play.
He's a solid route runner, who showed he can separate from coverage, and Roethlisberger should love throwing to him. He also averaged 14.8 PPR points in his final four outings in 2019, and hopefully that momentum carries over to this year.
Now, when it comes to value, Smith-Schuster will be expensive -- but worth it -- with a pick toward the end of Round 2 or beginning of Round 3 in all leagues. And Johnson should be a steal with a mid-round pick. He's more of a No. 3 receiver to start the season, but he should have a breakout performance.
The detractors for Smith-Schuster and Johnson will say Smith-Schuster can't handle being a No. 1 receiver, or that Pittsburgh added Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool this offseason to their receiving corps, which hurts everyone. And some will say Roethlisberger, at 38, might not be a standout quarterback any more.
Ignore all of that. Smith-Schuster is a star. And Johnson will become one. Draft them and reap the rewards.
Carson Wentz QB
WAS Washington • #11
Age: 30 • Experience: 8 yrs.
Despite his receiving corps falling apart in 2019, Wentz still had a standout season. He played 16 games for the first time since his rookie campaign in 2016. And he scored at least 20 Fantasy points in eight games. This year, Wentz will hopefully have a healthy Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, along with Jalen Reagor playing well in his rookie year. And with Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Miles Sanders and Boston Scott, Wentz will hopefully have quality weapons around him. We saw Wentz be a dominant Fantasy quarterback in 2017 before suffering a torn ACL in Week 14, averaging 26.6 Fantasy points per game, which was No. 2 that year behind only Deshaun Watson (29.3). If he gets back to that level, Wentz would be a top-five Fantasy quarterback in 2020. I love waiting for Wentz on Draft Day with a mid-round pick.
Daniel Jones QB
NYG N.Y. Giants • #8
Age: 25 • Experience: 5 yrs.
When Jones was on last year, he was really on, scoring at least 35 Fantasy points in four of 12 starts. But he also had six games with 14 Fantasy points or less, and that ratio has to change if he's going to become a starting option in all leagues. There are two reasons to like Jones this year. The first is the weapons around him with Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate. That's a stellar group with plenty of upside, and his offensive line should improve with the addition of first-round rookie Andrew Thomas. The other reason to like Jones is his rushing ability, which might have gone unnoticed last year. He was on pace for 372 rushing yards over 16 games, which would have been good for fifth among quarterbacks in 2019. If he can increase that total and become a more consistent producer, we could be looking at a steal in Round 10 or later.
Joe Mixon RB
CIN Cincinnati • #28
Age: 26 • Experience: 7 yrs.
The 2019 campaign was a tale of two halves for Mixon. In the first eight games, when the Bengals were likely trying to figure out new coach Zac Taylor and deal with life without A.J. Green (ankle), Mixon struggled, averaging just 9.4 PPR points per game. But after Cincinnati's bye in Week 9, things changed for Mixon. He closed the season averaging 17.4 PPR points per game, and he had at least 136 rushing yards in three of his final four outings. He also had at least three catches in three of his final five games, and I'm expecting that guy to show up every week this year. The Bengals could have some growing pains with a rookie quarterback in Joe Burrow, but Taylor should continue to feature Mixon, who had at least 23 total touches in five of his final eight games. And the healthy return of offensive tackle Jonah Williams (shoulder) should help as well. Mixon is worth drafting in the back end of Round 1 or the early part of Round 2 in all leagues, and he has top-five potential in 2020.
KC Kansas City • #25
Age: 23 • Experience: 4 yrs.
I'm beyond excited about Edwards-Helaire landing in Kansas City, and I can't wait to draft him in Round 2 in all formats. He'll be my guy this year, for better or worse, that I have on all of my Fantasy teams. While he has to prove he's better than Damien Williams, it shouldn't be long before the rookie from LSU is getting significant touches in an explosive backfield. Andy Reid has already said Edwards-Helaire can be better than Brian Westbrook, who was a star for Reid during his tenure in Philadelphia. Reid also has gotten tremendous production from other young running backs before, including LeSean McCoy with the Eagles and Kareem Hunt with the Chiefs. In fact, Hunt led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2017. I doubt we see that from Edwards-Helaire, but he was a star in college in 2019 with 1,867 total yards and 17 total touchdowns, including 55 receptions. Patrick Mahomes is going to love playing with Edwards-Helaire, and Reid will maximize his talent. He should be awesome as a rookie in 2020, and he's someone to covet on Draft Day in all leagues.
IND Indianapolis • #28
Age: 24 • Experience: 4 yrs.
There are some Fantasy managers who might be afraid of Taylor in 2020 because of a crowded backfield in Indianapolis with Marlon Mack and Nyhein Hines. Please don't follow that line of thinking. Taylor is going to prove he's a dominant force behind that awesome offensive line for the Colts, and he will keep Mack in a reserve role this year, with Hines playing on passing downs. Taylor won't be a significant factor in the passing game, which caps his upside, but he has the potential for 1,200 total yards and double digits in touchdowns. At Wisconsin, Taylor averaged 2,058 rushing yards over three seasons, with 55 total touchdowns. And he did catch 26 passes for 252 yards in 2019. I plan to draft Taylor as a No. 2 running back in all leagues in Round 4, but he should be able to outperform that value if he gets the kind of role I expect. Mack will be a roadblock early in the season, but Taylor will be a star by the end of the year.
Cam Akers RB
LAR L.A. Rams • #3
Age: 23 • Experience: 3 yrs.
It's another crowded backfield for a talented rookie, but I still expect Akers to be the best running back for the Rams. While Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown will have a role, Akers should be the one taking the majority of touches vacated by Todd Gurley. Even though Gurley struggled in 2019, he still had 254 total touches and finished as the No. 14 PPR running back. Most of it was based on scoring 14 total touchdowns, but Gurley has scored 54 total touchdowns in three seasons playing for Sean McVay. Now, don't base your drafting of Akers on the chance he's going to score double digits in touchdowns. The Rams offensive line is shaky, and Akers still has to prove he's better than Henderson and Brown, although Henderson is still dealing with the ankle injury he suffered last year. But I was impressed with what Akers did in 2019 on a bad Florida State team with more than 1,300 total yards and 18 total touchdowns, including rushing for 5.0 yards per carry with 30 catches. He's someone I plan to target in Round 5, but I can see him finishing as a top-15 running back this year.
You might not think of Moore as a No. 1 Fantasy receiver, but that's what he is heading into this season. He's a third-year receiver heading into his breakout campaign. Moore was excellent last year with 87 catches for 1,175 yards and four touchdowns on 135 targets, and he did that while catching passes from three quarterbacks in Cam Newton, Kyle Allen and Will Grier. His quarterback situation should be more stable this season with Teddy Bridgewater, and Moore should just soak up targets in new offensive coordinator Joe Brady's system. You might think the Carolina offense is crowded with Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel and Ian Thomas. But Bridgewater should find himself looking for Moore early and often, and the Panthers could find themselves chasing points on a weekly basis. It wouldn't be a shock to see Moore as a top-five PPR receiver by the end of the season. Moore should be drafted in Round 2 in all leagues.
Tyler Lockett remains the No. 1 receiver for the Seahawks this year, but Metcalf isn't far behind. He's headed for great things in 2020, and Metcalf is worth drafting as early as Round 4. He showed breakout potential as a rookie in 2019 when he scored at least 12 PPR points in seven games. And in the 10 games where he had at least six targets, Metcalf averaged 12.9 PPR points per game. Russell Wilson is practically begging the Seahawks to take a more aggressive approach in the passing game, which would be great for Lockett and Metcalf. We'd love to see that happen, which is why Metcalf is on this list. Seattle's offense is lacking weapons in the passing game behind Lockett and Metcalf, with Greg Olsen and Phillip Dorsett the only players of significance added this offseason, so Metcalf will hopefully get six-plus targets on a consistent basis. He should be drafted as a top-20 Fantasy receiver, but he has top-15 upside in his sophomore campaign.
D.J. Chark WR
DET Detroit • #4
Age: 26 • Experience: 6 yrs.
You could argue that Chark had his breakout season last year, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was even better in 2020. He's entering his third season, and he's poised to be more consistent. When Chark was on in 2019, he was special, scoring at least 16 PPR points in seven games. But he also had 10 PPR points or less in eight games, and I'm hopeful he's not just a boom-or-bust receiver. Chark told me at the Pro Bowl that he's confident with Gardner Minshew as his quarterback, which is good. "When he came in, it was bombs away with him," Chark said. While Lavishka Shenault, Chris Thompson and Tyler Eifert will help this receiving corps, they could take away production from Chark. But I expect Chark to see a slight rise from the 7.9 targets per game he had in 2019, and he has the chance to be a top tier Fantasy receiver in 2020. He's someone to draft in all leagues as early as Round 4.
ARI Arizona • #2
Age: 25 • Experience: 5 yrs.
The last time we saw Brown play was the divisional-round playoff loss to the Titans, and he put on a show. Brown had seven catches for 126 yards on 11 targets, and he gave us a glimpse of how good he can be if he was heavily targeted on a consistent basis. Now, as we know, the Ravens don't want any of their receivers getting double digits in targets on a consistent basis because that doesn't fit their offense. Baltimore was chasing points against Tennessee, and Lamar Jackson was forced to throw, which helped Brown. But hopefully Brown will be fully healthy this year after playing through a foot injury in 2019. He should continue to improve in his second season, and he's got the potential to become a starting Fantasy receiver in all leagues. The Ravens added rookie receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche, but Brown should still be second on the team in targets behind Mark Andrews. I'm excited to draft Brown with a mid-round pick in all leagues.
Hayden Hurst TE
CAR Carolina • #88
Age: 29 • Experience: 6 yrs.
Hurst is stepping into a big role with the Falcons now that Austin Hooper is gone, and hopefully this is the season Hurst takes off. Atlanta paid a pretty price to get Hurst from Baltimore, giving up a second-round pick and a fifth-round pick, while also getting a fourth-round pick in return. For the past two seasons, Hooper averaged 93 targets, 73 catches, 724 yards and five touchdowns for the Falcons. That's the role Hurst is inheriting now as the starter in Atlanta. Hurst has struggled to produce in two seasons with the Ravens, mostly due to injuries in 2018 and playing behind Andrews and Nick Boyle. He'll be behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley when it comes to targets, but this is his time to shine. Matt Ryan will hopefully find that Hurst is a quality weapon, and he has the chance to be a No. 1 Fantasy tight end this year. The best thing is you can wait on Hurst on Draft Day with a mid- to late-round pick, and he has top-10 upside. He's capable of big things in Atlanta this year.
Jonnu Smith TE
ATL Atlanta • #81
Age: 27 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Delanie Walker is gone, and now is the time for Smith to be a star. He could be the second-best receiving option for the Titans behind A.J. Brown, and he's worth drafting as a No. 1 Fantasy tight end this year with a late-round pick. Titans coach Mike Vrabel is excited for Smith, saying at the NFL Combine that "we're going to try to feature the players that can help us win, and Jonnu is one of those." Over his final nine games in the regular season in 2019, with Walker out with an ankle injury, Smith scored at least 11 PPR points in four of those outings. He also had at least five targets in four of those games, and the Titans gave him three carries over that span. And Smith scored a touchdown in the divisional-round upset against Baltimore. Smith might not become a top five Fantasy tight end this year, but he could be a top 10 option. He's the perfect tight end to wait for on Draft Day, and you should be thrilled if he ends up on your Fantasy roster.
More Breakouts from the Fantasy Football Today crew
Tyler Higbee TE
LAR L.A. Rams • #89
Age: 30 • Experience: 8 yrs.
Higbee is the Rams' version of George Kittle — big, powerful, quick and very easy to throw to. On the hunch the Rams pass plenty in 2020, Higbee is a matchup nightmare who continues his streak of massive Fantasy stats after he closed the 2019 season averaged 21.0 PPR points in his last five games.
In 2019, Metcalf averaged more non-PPR points per game than T.Y. Hilton and Odell Beckham. It's expected that Metcalf will further develop his game and become more impactful as both a deep-ball threat and a red-zone target for the Seahawks. A top-12 finish can't be ruled out.
MIA Miami • #31
Age: 30 • Experience: 9 yrs.
Mostert scored at least once, averaged at least 4.8 rush yards and notched at least 10 Fantasy points in eight of the 49ers' final nine games of the year including the playoffs. They don't have another back with his explosiveness. Imagine what he'll do with 15-plus touches per game.
Kenyan Drake RB
BAL Baltimore • #17
Age: 29 • Experience: 8 yrs.
I'm pretty sure this is three years in a row for Drake on my breakouts list. It's got to be right eventually. But seriously, Drake has already broken out twice including the second half of 2019. With the Cardinals trading away David Johnson, it's all been put in place for Drake to be a top-10 back over a full season.
Yes, Moore can be even better than he was in 2019. Because Teddy Bridgewater is a lot better than Kyle Allen. At the very least, you should expect some touchdown regression for Moore, who only scored four times on 135 targets last year.
With Austin Hooper and Mohamed Sanu gone, Ridley should be a borderline top-12 wide receiver even if Julio Jones doesn't lose a step at age 31. At some point the switch is going to happen like it did with Jones and Roddy White. When that happens Ridley should be top-five Fantasy option with No. 1 upside.
A.J. Brown WR
PHI Philadelphia • #11
Age: 25 • Experience: 5 yrs.
Brown came on strong late in 2019, but finished with just 84 targets and insane efficiency that has many worried about volume and regression. But Tennessee's offense is likely to throw more — their offense as a whole should regress, leading to more pass attempts — and Brown's competition for targets is limited. Even in a run-first offense, Brown should be the clear No. 1, and while he won't be nearly as efficient per target, he's shown through his impressive college production profile and his huge rookie season that he is a budding superstar.
Ridley's 2019 line looks eerily similar to his 2018, but he did in 13 games, and he improved dramatically after Mohamed Sanu was traded. His per-game numbers of 6.3 targets, 4.1 receptions and 53 receiving yards in seven games before the deal became 8.2 targets, 5.7 receptions and 82 yards in six games after. The Falcons also led the NFL in pass attempts in 2019 as Dirk Koetter took back over as offensive coordinator; Koetter had previously held the position for Atlanta from 2012-2014 and the Falcons finished eighth, third and third in pass attempts in those seasons. Ridley's been productive and is a huge piece of a high-volume and highly-concentrated passing game, setting the stage for a monster year-three breakout.
Mike Gesicki TE
NE New England • #88
Age: 27 • Experience: 6 yrs.
Concerns about Chan Gailey's history with tight ends might be overstated because Gesicki only played 159 inline snaps in 2019, per PFF. That was in stark contrast to the 461 he played in the slot, plus 78 more out wide. A former second-round pick with an elite athletic profile, Gesicki isn't a traditional tight end, and his field-stretching ability was evidenced by him finishing fourth at the position in air yards last year behind only Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and Mark Andrews. Even if he loses some of that volume in a new offense, all Gesicki really needs is a little better efficiency for a year-three breakout.
So what Fantasy football sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which WR1 candidate can you wait on until late? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that was all over Derrick Henry's huge season, and find out.