Tony Pollard is going to be everyone's favorite breakout player this year, and rightfully so. When Dallas decided to stick with Pollard and move on from Ezekiel Elliott this offseason, it was the gift Fantasy managers have been waiting for over the past two seasons.
But the NFL Draft might change that opinion if the Cowboys select a running back with a quality pedigree to compete with Pollard this year. It's a realistic problem to consider, and we'll see what happens come April 27-29.
For the sake of being positive, let's hope the Cowboys just draft a running back for depth on the final day to compete with Ronald Jones and Malik Davis to be Pollard's backup. Even better, let's hope the Cowboys and Pollard agree to a contract extension instead of Pollard just playing on the franchise tag.
If the Cowboys commit to Pollard, he could be a star in Fantasy and reality, and we saw that last season, even when Elliott was healthy. Pollard had a breakout 2022 with 193 carries for 1,007 yards and nine touchdowns, along with 39 catches for 371 yards and three touchdowns on 55 targets. He averaged 14.8 PPR points per game, which was good enough to be the No. 9 running back last year. But more could be in store for Pollard this year.
Elliott missed two games in 2022 with a bad knee in Week 8 against Chicago and Week 10 at Green Bay. In those two games, Pollard combined for 54 PPR points with 36 carries for 246 yards and four touchdowns and four catches for 29 yards on seven targets. It was amazing production and actually two of six outings that Pollard had with at least 19 PPR points.
Elliott, despite his struggles last season, was still among the league leaders with 12 rushing touchdowns. And he had 231 carries. While someone will help Pollard in Dallas' backfield, he should have the chance for 250-plus total touches, and hopefully a lot of goal-line opportunities. Elliott scored eight touchdowns from the 2-yard line or closer last year.
Pollard will have to prove he's durable enough to handle being the featured running back, and he suffered a broken ankle in the playoffs last year, although he's expected to be fine for training camp. We just have to wait and see what Dallas does in the NFL Draft, and then it could be a big season coming for Pollard.
Without any significant competition, I'd target Pollard toward the end of Round 1 or beginning of Round 2 in all leagues. And should the Cowboys select a prominent running back in the NFL Draft, we can revisit this topic -- and these breakouts -- if it happens. Now, here are the other players I'm targeting in Breakouts 1.0.
Fields showed the ability to be a star in 2022, and I'm thrilled the Bears committed to him by trading the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft and bypassing a rookie quarterback. Now, Fields can build off his performance from last season, and he finally has a legit weapon in D.J. Moore, who was acquired via trade from Carolina. Chicago's receiving corps is actually decent with Moore, Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet, and Fields should improve as a passer. He only attempted 318 passes in 2022 and had 2,242 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but all of those totals (minus the interceptions) should rise. But we know the allure to Fields is his rushing prowess, and he was amazing in that category last year with 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns. If he can somehow stay above 1,000 rushing yards and surpass 3,000 passing yards or more, he could be in the conversation for the No. 1 Fantasy quarterback in 2023. I'm drafting him as a top-five quarterback, and I love the outlook for Fields this season.
Lawrence lost Urban Meyer and actually looked like a standout NFL quarterback in his sophomore season under Doug Pederson. Now, Lawrence is about to become a star. He had plenty of good moments last season when he scored at least 24 Fantasy points in four of his final eight games, but just watching him you could see there's potential for more. And now he might have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL with Calvin Ridley in Jacksonville along with Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram. The Jaguars should be the best team in the AFC South, and they have a favorable schedule against their own weak division, as well as matchups with the NFC South. I wouldn't be surprised if Jacksonville is among the highest-scoring teams in the NFL, and Lawrence should see his Fantasy production rise from 19.5 points per game in 2022 to over 25.0 points per game this season. He has top-five upside, and I plan to have a lot of shares of Lawrence on my Fantasy teams.
Running Back Breakouts
It's no surprise that Pete Carroll was excited about what Walker did as a rookie and optimistic he'll improve in his second year when I talked to the Seahawks coach at the NFL league meetings in late March. I liked that Carroll, unprompted, said Walker will get more work in the passing game in 2023. "He'll get a lot better," Carroll said. "He'll be more accurate with the opportunities and knowing the situations, maximizing his shots when he gets them. We'll get the ball more throwing it to him. I think he's going to make a really big next step from his rookie year." As a rookie, Walker took over as the lead running back in Seattle in Week 6 against Arizona, and he scored at least 12 PPR points in nine of his 10 remaining healthy games. Over those 10 games, Walker averaged 16.3 PPR points per game, which would have been good for the No. 6 running back in 2022. I expect Walker to be a top-five running back this season, and he's worth drafting in the top 15 overall picks in all leagues.
Stevenson had a breakout season in 2022 with 1,461 total yards, six total touchdowns and 69 catches, and he averaged 13.8 PPR points per game. But I think he can be even better in 2023 as long as the Patriots leave their backfield as is heading into the season. With Damien Harris gone and only James Robinson brought in for competition this offseason, Stevenson could be looking at 300 total touches, which could lead to a top-five Fantasy finish in all formats. He proved himself as a receiver out of the backfield in 2022 with 69 catches for 421 yards and a touchdown on 88 targets, and he averaged 5.0 yards per carry. He only scored five rushing touchdowns, and New England had just 10 rushing touchdowns from its backfield in 2022, but in 2021 the Patriots running backs combined for 24 rushing scores. I'm expecting a better offensive performance from New England this season with Bill O'Brien back as the offensive coordinator, and Stevenson should be the team's best offensive player. I plan to draft him toward the end of Round 2 in all leagues.
At the NFL Combine in February, Doug Pederson had nothing but good things to say about Etienne, and Pederson is excited to see what he can do in 2023. "The biggest thing for me was I loved his toughness," Pederson said. "His physicality. He's not a big guy, but he's very physical when he runs. Elusive. He has good speed. He's just going to get better as a runner. When he gets a chance to go back and watch what he did last year in our system, there's gonna be times where he goes, 'I should have hit it here.' That's the growth mentality that he'll have. Just excited for him." Etienne became the featured running back in Jacksonville in Week 8 after Robinson was traded to the Jets. Over his final eight full games (he left Week 12 against Baltimore in the first quarter with a foot injury and played limited snaps in Week 18 against Tennessee), Etienne had five games with at least 12 PPR points, including three with at least 22 PPR points. I like Etienne as a top 10 running back in all leagues, and I'm drafting him in Round 2.
Allgeier closed last season on a tear, and I hope it carries over to this season when he's expected to be the lead running back in Atlanta. In his final four games, Allgeier averaged 16.5 PPR points per game with 79 carries for 431 yards and two touchdowns, and he added six catches for 52 yards on seven targets. He likely won't have a big role as a receiver, but he did have three games with at least three receptions in 2022, so he could be productive in that department if the Falcons give him more targets. I'm expecting Atlanta's offense to improve this season with Desmond Ridder as the full-time starter, and the Falcons could have a nice trio of young stars in Allgeier, Drake London and Kyle Pitts, as long as all three remain healthy. Cordarrelle Patterson could present a problem for Allgeir's workload, but I'm hoping that the younger talent continues to get more work. He's someone I plan to target as a No. 2 running back in all leagues as early as Round 4.
White is another running back who could be impacted by the NFL Draft, but if he emerges as the leader of Tampa Bay's backfield heading into training camp, he should be a breakout candidate. As a rookie in 2022, White had a solid season while splitting touches with Leonard Fournette, who is no longer on the team. White was one of 11 running backs with at least 50 catches (50 for 290 yards and two touchdowns on 58 targets), and he finished the season with 129 carries for 481 yards and one touchdown. He took over as the lead running back in Tampa Bay in Week 10, and he closed the season with at least 12 total touches in six of his final eight games. Over that span, he had five games with at least 10 PPR points and three games with at least 14 PPR points. The Buccaneers offense could be brutal with Baker Mayfield taking over for the retired Tom Brady, but White should still be productive enough to use as a weekly No. 2 running back in all leagues. And there's top-15 upside in PPR if he continues to be heavily involved in the passing game. He's someone to target as early as Round 4 in PPR and likely Round 5 in non- and 0.5-PPR leagues.
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Wide Receiver Breakouts
As we wait for the Jets to trade for Aaron Rodgers ... and wait ... and wait ... and wait ... we can still marvel at how well Garrett Wilson did last season whenever he didn't have Zach Wilson under center. In seven games with Joe Flacco or Mike White, Garrett Wilson averaged 17.6 PPR points per game, including three outings with at least 24 PPR points. At that average, he would have been the No. 7 PPR receiver in 2022. That's the type of upside Wilson has, and hopefully Rodgers can help him play at that level for a full season. He should dominate targets for the Jets ahead of guys like Allen Lazard, Mecole Hardman and Corey Davis, and Wilson has the chance to be a sophomore star. I plan to draft him in Round 2 in all leagues as a top-10 receiver, and hopefully this Rodgers trade is finalized soon so the quarterback and No. 1 option in the passing game can start working on their rapport.
Olave should improve with Derek Carr as the starting quarterback for the Saints after Olave suffered playing with Andy Dalton for the majority of his rookie campaign. While the stats were encouraging -- 72 catches for 1,042 yards and four touchdowns on 119 targets for 12.9 PPR points per game -- Olave left a lot of production on the field. He was sixth in the NFL in air yards among wide receivers (1,686), seventh in targets per route run (targeted on 31.2 percent of his routes) and sixth in yards per route run (2.73). Prior to Week 13, Olave was actually No. 10 among all wide receivers in targets (92) and receiving yards (822) and 15th in receptions (56). At that time, he was on pace for 143 targets, 87 catches and 1,270 yards. He suffered a hamstring injury in Week 15 and was out for Week 16, and he struggled down the stretch. But he should rebound in a big way this season with Carr. Even though Michael Thomas remains in New Orleans, Olave is the top receiver to target for the Saints, and Fantasy managers should plan to draft him as early as Round 3.
The Packers offense will look different this season with Jordan Love taking over for Rodgers, and Watson has the chance to be a star in his sophomore campaign. Matt LaFleur expects Watson to have a big season as the No. 1 receiver in Green Bay. "Obviously, you can see the explosive playmaker that he is and what he's capable of doing," LaFleur said at the NFL league meetings. "I'm just excited to watch him grow and just his understanding of the offense. He is a guy that can handle a lot. I haven't been around too many rookies where you can move their position in game, and he didn't even flinch. He is exceptionally intelligent, bright and knows the plan inside and out, but I think there's a level of detail that will get better with him. We're going to ask him to run more routes than he did a year ago." Watson showed flashes of his potential in 2022 when he had a four-game stretch from Weeks 10-13 with at least 20 PPR points in each outing, and he also had 18 PPR points in Week 18. In each of those games he had at least six targets, and only twice did he fail to score 18 PPR points when he had that much work (one of those games was Week 16 at Miami when he left with a hip injury). If Love isn't a disaster, Watson has the chance to be a top 15 Fantasy receiver in all leagues, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 4.
Desmond Ridder started the final four games of the season for the Falcons, and London's production was much improved. In those four games against New Orleans, Baltimore, Arizona and Tampa Bay, London averaged 13.3 PPR points per game (he averaged 10.1 points per game overall for the season) with 36 targets for 25 catches and 333 yards. He didn't score a touchdown, but nine targets per game was fun to see. Keep in mind that only 10 receivers in 2022 averaged at least nine targets per game -- Ja'Marr Chase (11.3 targets per game), Cooper Kupp (10.9), Justin Jefferson (10.8), Davante Adams (10.6), DeAndre Hopkins (10.7), Tyreek Hill (10.0), Stefon Diggs (9.6), Chris Godwin (9.5), CeeDee Lamb (9.2) and Amon-Ra St. Brown (9.1) -- so that's elite company for London if he can keep that up with Ridder. However, Kyle Pitts (knee) was out for that stretch, and hopefully Ridder and this Atlanta passing game can support two standout receiving options. I'm counting on that to happen, and London is worth drafting as early as Round 5 in the majority of leagues. He has top-15 upside in his sophomore campaign.
Tight End Breakout
I recently caught up with Okonkwo while he was training at XPE Sports in South Florida, and he's been working on improving his game since February. I expect Okonkwo to have a second-year breakout campaign, and he's worth drafting as a No. 1 Fantasy tight end with a late-round pick in all leagues. He fits the bill of what we look for as a starting option with upside because he could be first or second on the Titans in targets. This is an inexperienced receiving corps led by second-year guys in Treylon Burks, Kyle Philips and Okonkwo, and Ryan Tannehill should lean on Okonkwo a lot. As a rookie, he had plenty of positive moments down the stretch with at least 10 PPR points in three of his final six games, including two touchdowns over that span. He averaged 9.5 PPR points during that time, and that actually would have made him the No. 9 tight end in PPR if he did that for a full season. Tannehill also played in just three of those games, and Okonkwo is excited to have his starting quarterback return for 2023. He told me his goal is 100 catches this season, which doesn't seem realistic, but I wouldn't be shocked if he doubled his production from 2022 (32 catches, 450 yards and three touchdowns on 46 targets). He's an elite athlete and primed for a lot of opportunities this season, and he could finish the year as a top 10 Fantasy tight end in all leagues.