Happy Thursday, everyone! Let's take a too-early look at breakouts for 2021.
That's what today's newsletter will be focused on, to match our recent discussion on the Fantasy Football Today podcast about our favorite breakout targets for the upcoming season. Jamey Eisenberg also has his first breakouts column of the offseason ready for you to read right here -- with his sleepers and busts as well -- and I've got some of my favorite breakout picks at the bottom, too.
First, however, it's worth catching up on some news the last few days, because how the offseason shakes out is going to play a big role in which players actually do get an opportunity to break out. With so much roster turnover expected in the coming weeks, player outlooks are going to change quite a bit, and we already saw one potential breakout star benefit from a roster move in Minnesota.
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Here's what you need to know from around the NFL:
- Kyle Rudolph was released by the Vikings -- Rudolph was a mainstay for the Vikings for a decade, catching 453 passes for 4,488 yards and 48 touchdowns in his five seasons, and at 31, he'll likely catch on somewhere without having to wait too long. What this move does is finally frees up Irv Smith to step up. Smith, a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2019, hasn't done much so far in his NFL career, but that'll happen when you're stuck as the 1b tight end on a team that doesn't throw the ball much. He did play four games without Rudolph at the end of 2020 and had 15 catches for 183 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers aren't mind-blowing, but you don't need mind-blowing to stand out at tight end; his 12.9 points per game average in that stretch would have been fourth at the position in 2020. Smith ended up 12th in my initial run of projections post-Rudolph, but I could see him being as high as five in other folks' rankings. I won't argue too hard with them -- the gap between five and 15 in my ranks is just 36 points. Smith has the upside to be in that top five, but if he ends up getting pushed up draft boards any higher than, say, the ninth round or so, I'll probably be out. We'll see.
- David Johnson restructures his contract -- This isn't exactly news, as it was expected, but I do want to spend a little time talking about Johnson's potential value in 2021. Obviously, much in Houston depends on whether the Texans end up trading Deshaun Watson, but Johnson is one player who might not be worse off without Watson. Sure, the offense around him would figure to be dreadful, but Johnson is still a very good pass catcher when used in that role, and that's something Watson just doesn't do much of. If the Texans do move on from Watson and can find someone who isn't a disaster to start for them, Johnson could be a sneaky-good No. 3 RB in PPR.
- James Conner 'unlikely' to return to Steelers? -- That report comes from ESPN, and it isn't much of a shock. We've been expecting the Steelers to let Conner walk as a free agent, so the question is how will they go about replacing him? Benny Snell is a sleeper pick for me, but that could change in a hurry if the Steelers spend a Day 2 pick on a running back or find someone with three-down skills in free agency. This is a better situation than it seemed like in 2021, and whoever ends up starting here could be a must-start Fantasy option.
- The Lions signed Tyrell Williams -- With Marvin Jones expected to walk and Kenny Golladay also a restricted free agent, the Lions need help at WR. Williams gives them a little bit of depth, though he would be over-extended as a No. 1 option. Golladay will probably be franchise-tagged if the Lions don't sign him to an extension, but we'll see if they go looking for another WR in the draft or free agency.
Things are going to continue to change leading up to the start of the new league year in less than two weeks, but you can get your bearings by checking out Heath Cummings' opportunity index column that went up on the site this week. It'll help you figure out what is at stake in free agency. For instance, did you know the Packers have 343 rush attempts and 123 targets just from their running backs heading into free agency. A.J. Dillon could have a huge opportunity ahead of him -- that's why he was one of Dave Richard's favorite sleeper picks.
And now: Breakouts.
Our Favorite Early Breakouts
If you had Josh Allen or Kyler Murray as your QB in 2020, your team was probably pretty good. In CBS Fantasy leagues in 2020, teams with Allen on their roster had a 55.4% winning percentage, while those with Murray won 55.3% of their games. Teams with Jeff Wilson won 58.7% of their games and those with James Robinson won 54.4% of theirs. We saw similar win percentages from Stefon Diggs, Calvin Ridley, Darren Waller and Logan Thomas.
If you snag the right breakout candidates, it's good news for your Fantasy team. Last season, that included a couple of young quarterbacks who took a big step forward, running backs who landed in the right spot and got the right opportunity, and talented young wideouts who thrived in their first chance to be a No. 1 receiver. Those aren't the only kinds of breakout candidates, of course, they're just a small smattering of the guys who helped us win the most in 2020.
Breakouts happen when talent meets opportunity, and we've still got a whole offseason's worth of roster moves to figure out who is going to get the opportunity they need to break out. However, we're spending this week taking some early swings for the 2021 season on the Fantasy Football Today podcast, offering up some sleeper, breakout, and bust picks, and Jamey's got his full lists up now, so go check them out. Here are a few of his favorite picks, followed by five of mine:
- Cam Akers -- "He should benefit with the addition of Matthew Stafford at quarterback, and the Rams also are expected to lose Malcolm Brown as a free agent. If Akers can increase his role in the passing game -- say anything above 35 receptions -- he could be a top-10 Fantasy running back this season."
- Jalen Hurts -- "He scored 20, 43 and 19 Fantasy points in his first three starts against New Orleans, Arizona and Dallas, and he was on pace for 4,517 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, as well as 1,269 rushing yards and five touchdowns over 16 games. That's likely not realistic, but his rushing potential gives him a huge advantage over most quarterbacks. If he improves as a passer -- and the Eagles enhance their receiving corps -- Hurts has the chance to be special this year."
- J.K. Dobbins -- "Over his final five outings in the regular season, Dobbins averaged 16.2 PPR points per game, and he had three games with at least 13 carries. He also had no game under 13 PPR points over that span. I plan to draft Dobbins in Round 2 in any non-PPR league and early Round 3 in any PPR format."
- Dallas Goedert -- "Zach Ertz is almost certainly gone from Philadelphia, and the Eagles receiving corps is undergoing a makeover with potentially Jalen Reagor and Travis Fulgham as the top two guys. That puts Goedert in the prime position to be the best option in the passing game for Hurts, and that's great for Goedert's Fantasy outlook. With Ertz gone, Goedert has top-five upside in 2021."
My five favorite breakouts:
- D'Andre Swift -- Swift's breakout sort of already happened, as he had 18.4 PPR points in the final five games of his rookie season, but it could have been even better if not for a concussion that sidelined him for three games after his breakout performance in Week 9. Swift showed he can be a playmaker in the passing game, and new Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has a history with Austin Ekeler that makes it really easy to get excited about Swift. He could be one of the best pass-catching backs in the league in 2021, and that alone makes him worth getting excited about.
- Miles Sanders -- Jamey and I agree on both Hurts and Sanders as breakouts for 2021, which you love to see. Sanders is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball, and Hurts' rushing ability should continue to allow him to remain an efficient runner. But where I'm hoping for the breakout is in the passing game. He has shown the ability to make plays down the field as a receiver, but he and Carson Wentz just couldn't connect early on, with the low point coming when Sanders dropped a sure touchdown in Week 6 against the Ravens. Wentz basically stopped looking for Sanders down the field after that. If Sanders can regain that role from his rookie season while serving as the featured back, there is so much upside for him in this offense.
- D.J. Moore -- Moore reminds me so much of Stefon Diggs at this time last year. Like Diggs, he has thrived both as a short- and intermediate-area target who moves the chains and as a deep threat, and he has done so with even worse QB play than Diggs had. It took Diggs moving to a new offense to unlock No. 1 WR upside, but Moore could see a similar leap if the Panthers make an upgrade at QB, something they are rumored to be hotly pursuing. Moore re-emerged as the clear No. 1 option in the offense down the stretch -- at least eight targets in each of his last five games, and he could be a top-five wide receiver in Fantasy if he can follow in Digg's footsteps and put the short-area stuff together with the deep stuff. That's how elite Fantasy WRs are made.
- Diontae Johnson -- I don't know if it was Ben Roethlisberger's fault for forcing the ball to him or Johnson's fault for simply not hanging on to them, but this connection wasn't quite right at times. Johnson had a league-high 13 drops, nearly 10% of all the targets that went his way, an untenable rate moving forward. However, I take solace in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger never really lost faith in him, even when it seemed like the coaching staff might have. Johnson had double-digit targets in three of his final four games after dropping five between Weeks 12 and 13, putting up 30 catches for 346 yards and two touchdowns in that stretch. Johnson gets open constantly, and I'll bet on a guy who might get 150 targets next season.
- Marquise Brown -- Another one where I expect the WR to be more on the same page with his quarterback in 2021. Brown was earning No. 1 WR work early in the season, with a target share over 25% in Baltimore's offense, but he and Lamar Jackson just couldn't get on the same page -- it seemed like every week, there was one big play that the two just missed one. His season hit a low point in Week 11 with no catches on three targets, but he came alive after that, catching 37 passes for 534 yards and six touchdowns over his final eight games, including the playoffs. This connection can work just fine, and I'm willing to bet they get on the right track a lot earlier in 2021.