It's not hard to talk yourself into players who are going to have their best Fantasy seasons ever. Draft prep season is inevitably a time of optimism, and it's a lot more fun to be optimistic than it is to argue against players. Call it motivated reasoning, call it whatever you want, it's true: There are always a lot more breakout candidates being touted in July and August than end up on Fantasy rosters in September and October.
This is a column about the players I want to call breakout candidates, but can't quite get there with. I like these players. Some of them I like quite a bit. A few of them are must-start players, even. But, for one reason or another, I just can't quite go all the way with them. I'll explain what I like about them and why I just don't like them quite enough.
D.J. Moore WR
CAR Carolina • #2
Age: 24 • Experience: 4 yrs.
If you squint, the pieces are there for a Stefon Diggs-esque breakout, what with the super-talented young WR who has proven he can be effective in several different roles at the NFL level getting a new QB with a lot of draft pick pedigree and a lot less tangible proof he can be a high-end NFL starter. Sure, Moore didn't change teams like Diggs did, but with Sam Darnold joining the Panthers, he's got a former top-three pick at QB hoping to put it all together. But I'm not sure Moore's role is likely to allow him to be a true alpha like Diggs was -- even though I believe he has the skills -- and I'm even less sure Darnold can make a leap like Allen did. I believe in Moore. It's the situation I can't quite buy.
DET Detroit • #88
Age: 24 • Experience: 3 yrs.
Hockenson should have the role he needs to be a breakout. I'm just not sure he's all that good. Among tight ends with at least 100 targets over their first two seasons since 2006 -- a group that includes 37 players -- Hockenson ranks 21st in yards per reception, 22nd in catch rate, 22nd in yards per target, and 22nd in TD%. And he was doing that with 81% of his targets coming from Matthew Stafford and with the likes of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones taking defensive attention away. Now, he's supposed to be the focal point of the passing game led by Jared Goff? The volume will be there, and it might be enough to make Hockenson a top-five tight end no matter what. But I have real questions that Hockenson has the juice to live up to the loftiest expectations around him.
SF San Francisco • #11
Age: 23 • Experience: Rookie
In the right situation, I think either Aiyuk or Deebo Samuel could be a top-12 WR for Fantasy. I just don't think this is necessarily the right situation. Aiyuk was better than Samuel in 2020, and the assumption should be he's better again this season. However, his 16-game pace in the games he played alongside George Kittle was just 59 catches, 787 yards, and five touchdowns. It's possible this offense is so much better with all three of the top receivers healthy and Trey Lance in at QB that it can sustain breakouts for both Aiyuk or Samuel. Otherwise, it's going to take an injury to happen. If you don't have to draft either as a starter, however, there's considerable potential for both.
JAC Jacksonville • #10
Age: 22 • Experience: 2 yrs.
Shenault is a really talented player who put up big numbers in college, and if he wasn't a star in a rookie class that had a few of them, he flashed more than enough of his impressive skill set to be optimistic about the future. But, I'm worried that the reports of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevel wanting to develop Shenault "as a pure wide receiver" might mean they don't take advantage of the skills that make him so intriguing. Shenault is competing with Marvin Jones and D.J. Chark for his spot in the Jaguars receiving hierarchy, and while he may emerge as the best of the trio this season, the potential for 15-20 rush attempts would be a nice bonus to give him another avenue to become a very good Fantasy option. If they're planning on using him as a more traditional receiver, Shenault still has the chance to become a difference maker, but it's also possible the Jaguars don't have a traditional No. 1 receiver, and it could make this a bit of a mess.
ARI Arizona • #2
Age: 25 • Experience: 4 yrs.
As a general rule, I think Fantasy players should be much more skeptical than we typically are about backup running backs who flash in smaller roles. Edmonds looked like the better of the Cardinals' two running backs when he was working behind Kenyan Drake in 2020, but when he got the chance to start with Drake out in Week 9, Edmonds put up a decidedly Drake-ian 70 yards on 25 carries with 18 yards added on three targets. That's not to say I think Edmonds isn't a good player as much as it is to say that maybe the reason Drake looked so underwhelming as the lead back wasn't because of anything Drake was doing wrong, necessarily. Edmonds has a chance to be a bigger contributor in 2021, and he's priced appropriately as a fringe No. 2 Fantasy RB, but I think he might be best served in a similar role to what he had last season, with James Conner taking on the Drake role.
KC Kansas City • #17
Age: 23 • Experience: 3 yrs.
It's worth remembering that, while Hardman does figure to be the No. 2 WR for the Chiefs, he's actually No. 3 in the passing game at best behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. That doesn't mean he can't be a breakout, but it probably does mean he'll have to be incredibly efficient to do it. He's been that in his career -- 10.7 yards per target, 9.8% touchdown rate -- and if he can keep that up while moving into the 90- to 100-target range, he could be one of the best boom-or-bust bench WR out there.
Irv Smith TE
MIN Minnesota • #84
Age: 23 • Experience: 3 yrs.
With Kyle Rudolph out of the picture, the case for Smith as a breakout seems obvious. He's a 22-year-old recent second-round pick who has flashed in limited opportunities and now figures to take on Rudolph's responsibilities. However, even if you combine what Smith and Rudolph have done over the last two seasons, it still comes out to just 66.5 catches, 688.5 yards, and seven touchdowns per-16 games. That would certainly qualify as a breakout for Smith, but it would also be just 11.1 PPR points per game, which would have been good for sixth at the position in 2020 and 12th in 2019. There's nothing wrong with that, but it isn't exactly exciting. Unless they drastically change how they use their tight ends -- maybe if Adam Thielen takes another step back -- it's hard to see significant upside here even if Smith doesn't have much competition for targets from the other TE on the roster.
BUF Buffalo • #13
Age: 22 • Experience: Rookie
Davis was a big-play threat who found the end zone often in college, and he did the same thing in his rookie season, albeit in a small role in one of the most efficient offenses in the league. Still, the possibility of getting to see Davis take on a bigger role in that offense had him squarely in the "breakout" conversation for much of the offseason. Lately, though, it sounds like Davis might not get the increased role we were hoping for -- Emmanuel Sanders seems more likely to step into the departing John Brown's role. Of course, Davis might just be so good that it doesn't matter, and he takes opportunities from both Sanders and Beasley while remaining a hyper-efficient playmaker. He'll need to be that to be much more than a boom-or-bust low-end WR unless his role increases, though.
Sam Darnold QB
CAR Carolina • #14
Age: 24 • Experience: 4 yrs.
I have a really hard time believing Darnold is going to really turn his career around, but I can't dismiss the possibility entirely. The "leaving Adam Gase" meme is a funny one, but it's more about the situation he finds himself in with the Panthers, in an offense that really has room to grow, with a potential true alpha WR in D.J. Moore and an excellent No. 2 in Robby Anderson -- not to mention all those free yards he gets from Christian McCaffrey as a pass-catcher. Darnold hasn't done much to be worth much faith, but I don't want to write off the possibility entirely.
So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen's huge season, and find out.