In the third version of our breakouts column from last year -- and there will be three versions again this season -- the first player we mentioned was Melvin Gordon. That obviously worked out well since he emerged as a Fantasy star.
We also had Carlos Hyde and Mike Evans in that column, and both had breakout campaigns in 2016. I'd love to forget about calling Coby Fleener and Michael Floyd breakouts, but you have to take the bad with the good, which is part of the prediction business. You just hope to have more right calls than wrong ones.
Otherwise, you guys will let me hear about it.
Our first breakouts column this year is much like Sleepers 1.0. We know a lot will change following the NFL Draft, but we're looking at players now and their potential outlook for this season.
So far, the offseason has been good for guys like Jameis Winston, who got a new weapon in DeSean Jackson, and Isaiah Crowell, who got an upgraded offensive line. Terrelle Pryor goes from junk at quarterback in Cleveland to Kirk Cousins in Washington, and Sammy Watkins hopefully has two good feet to stand on -- for 16 games.
There is some uncertainty at running back because the guys with a ton of potential -- Rob Kelley, Paul Perkins and Ty Montgomery -- could get company in their respective backfields at the NFL Draft. If that happens, we'll adjust accordingly in the next version, but for now these are all players who have the chance to post positive production in a big way in 2017.
Every year there are a few quarterbacks I like to target with either a mid- to late-round pick, depending on the league, and this season Winston is one of those guys. I'm giddy about his potential this season with the addition of DeSean Jackson to go with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate, and Winston should easily have the chance for his best year yet.
He was the No. 10 Fantasy quarterback in 2016 with 4,090 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, and he added 165 rushing yards and one touchdown. He progressed from the No. 14 quarterback as a rookie in 2015, and now he should take the next step with an improved receiving corps. He dealt with a combination of Adam Humphries and Vincent Jackson as the No. 2 receiver opposite Evans last year, but DeSean Jackson is a significant upgrade, especially with his ability to stretch the field. Jackson is 30 and should take a hit with his Fantasy production coming from the Redskins, but he still averaged 17.9 yards per catch last year and will help open up the offense. That will help Winston as well, and he should have a big season in 2017.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Winston finish as a top-five quarterback this year.
Carr had an impressive season in 2016, but he has the chance to be even better this year. We know how last year ended for him was far from ideal after he suffered a broken leg in Week 16 against the Colts. Carr missed Week 17 and the first-round playoff matchup against Houston, and the Raiders were easily eliminated by the Texans. He's expected to be fine for the start of training camp, and he should finish with 4,000 passing yards for the first time in his career.
Carr finished 2016 by completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he ran for 70 yards. He was the No. 11 Fantasy quarterback in standard leagues, but he could have finished higher than that if he played in Week 17. It's the second year in a row Carr has at least 3,900 passing yards and 28 touchdowns, and last season he scored at least 20 Fantasy points in nine of 15 starts.
He still has room to improve, notably his performances against AFC West foes since he only has three games with at least 20 Fantasy points in 11 meetings against the rest of his division, and he's only averaging 15.9 points against the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers. But he has a tremendous receiving corps led by Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and the Raiders have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
The nice thing about Carr, like Winston, is you can wait for him with a mid- to late-round pick, and Carr should finish as a top 10 quarterback in 2017.
Crowell was a big winner in free agency because the Browns significantly upgraded their offensive line with the additions of right guard Kevin Zeitler from Cincinnati and center J.C. Tretter from Green Bay to go with left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Joel Bitonio. Shon Coleman could be the right tackle, but this group should be stellar if everyone stays healthy, which is a big boost for Crowell's Fantasy value. He played well last season with 198 carries for 952 yards (4.81 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns and 40 catches for 319 yards, which made him the No. 15 Fantasy running back in standard leagues, and he has the chance to improve on that production this year.
We still need to see the quarterback in Cleveland, and losing Terrelle Pryor hurts the offense since Kenny Britt is a downgrade as the No. 1 receiver, although Corey Coleman could potentially fill that role. But coach Hue Jackson could easily lean on his ground game behind that offensive line with Crowell. His production was somewhat fluky last year with eight games of double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league and seven games with six points or less, but there should be more consistency in 2017.
Cleveland's offensive line has the chance to help make Crowell a star, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 4 in standard leagues and Round 5 in PPR.
We're not sure if the Redskins are done adding to their backfield, and they hosted free agent Tim Hightower on a visit March 22. If Hightower is signed to join Kelley, Matt Jones and Chris Thompson, that's great news for Kelley because Hightower turns 31 in May and would be more of a backup. If a rookie of significance is brought in to compete with Kelley, that would be bad news for his outlook, and we hope that's not the case for the Redskins this year.
Kelley played well once he was given the starting job in Week 8 last year. He battled a knee injury in the final week of the season, but in his last eight games (taking out Week 17 when he was hurt) he had at least nine Fantasy points in a standard league in five of those outings. He scored six touchdowns over that span, averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in five games and also had at least two receptions in four of those games. Kelley is never going to be known as a great receiver out of the backfield (figure about 25-30 catches), especially with Thompson around, but he should dominate carries and work at the goal line.
Kelley should finish as a potential top-15 running back, and he's worth drafting in Round 4 or 5 in standard leagues and Round 6 in PPR.
I thought Perkins was the best running back on the Giants roster last year after he was selected in the fifth-round of the NFL Draft, but he was forced to sit behind Rashad Jennings. It wasn't until Week 14 when Perkins started to get an extended look with four games in a row with double digits in carries, and he averaged 4.4-yards per carry over that span, including three games with at least 4.5 yards per carry.
Jennings was released in February, and heading into the NFL Draft, Perkins sits atop the depth chart ahead of Shane Vereen, Orleans Darkwa and Shaun Draughn. That bodes well for his outlook, and it would be great if the Giants upgraded their offensive line as well, with only right tackle D.J. Fluker added in free agency. Perkins still has plenty of room to improve (he only averaged 2.2 yards after contact and struggled in pass protection), and he should do more as a receiver out of the backfield after just 16 receptions for 129 yards in his rookie campaign. But if he remains the starter then he should see a huge boost in production for what could be an explosive offense now that Brandon Marshall was added to a receiving corps featuring Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard.
Perkins is well worth a pick in Round 5 in standard leagues and Round 6 in PPR.
It's clear the Packers are going to add a running back at some point in the NFL Draft since their current depth chart features Montgomery, who is a converted receiver, and fullback Aaron Ripkowski as two of the main contributors. Christine Michael was re-signed as a free agent, but he's viewed more as someone for depth. Montgomery will definitely have a significant role, whether it's as the starter or playing on passing downs, and we hope the Packers give him plenty of chances to succeed.
After Eddie Lacy got hurt and James Starks struggled and was injured, Green Bay was forced to rely on Montgomery from Week 6 on, and he finished the season with 77 carries for 457 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns and 44 catches for 348 yards. He led all running backs with at least 70 carries with 5.6 yards after contact (the next closest was Jalen Richard at 3.6), and he had five games with at least 80 total yards or a touchdown in his final 11 games. He only had one game with double digits in carries, but it was a dominant performance in Week 15 at Chicago (16 carries for 162 yards and two touchdowns). He also had two games with 10 catches in Week 6 against Dallas (10 catches for 98 yards) and Week 7 against Chicago (10 catches for 66 yards).
There's a lot of upside for Montgomery, but he has to be given the chance to succeed. If that happens then he's easily worth drafting by Round 5 in standard leagues and Round 4 in PPR.
Pryor looked great in his first season as a receiver with the Browns last year, and he finished as the No. 21 Fantasy receiver with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns. Keep in mind he did that with Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, Robert Griffin III, Charlie Whitehurst and Kevin Hogan as his quarterbacks, but Pryor gets a huge upgrade under center with his move to Washington to play with Kirk Cousins, who we hope remains with the Redskins in 2017.
Washington signed Pryor to a one-year deal for $6 million, which could include another $2 million in incentives, and there's a lot of production available for Pryor with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon gone. That duo combined for 216 catches for 2,046 yards and seven touchdowns, and Pryor, Jamison Crowder (another breakout candidate) and Josh Docton will all be asked to contribute.
Pryor could easily be a top 15 Fantasy receiver this year with the chance to be a top-10 option. Cousins should help Pryor improve his production now that he finally has a capable quarterback to get him the ball. He is worth drafting in Round 4 in all formats.
You know the deal with Watkins by now. The talent is there and the production has been great at times but injuries have plagued him through the first three seasons of his career, especially 2016 when he was limited to eight games because of foot problems. He underwent a second surgery on his left foot in January, and we hope he bounces back from multiple foot surgeries like Bryant and Julian Edelman did to keep playing at a high level.
Watkins showed his upside in 2015 with 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns, including six games with at least 13 Fantasy points in a standard league in his final nine outings. That coincided with the emergence of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and Watkins and Taylor are reunited this season because Taylor is staying in Buffalo.
Watkins should be a target hog when healthy (he's averaged 7.5 targets a game in his career), and he's still in his prime at 23 (he'll be 24 in June). If he can stay on the field, Watkins is in line for a monster campaign, and he's a great receiver to target in all leagues in Round 4.
Most Fantasy owners would likely be shocked to know that Williams was the No. 13 Fantasy receiver in standard leagues last year, which was better than Amari Cooper, Demaryius Thomas and Larry Fitzgerald, among others. And most Fantasy owners will likely challenge Williams to do it again this season.
His standout year in 2016 came with Keenan Allen missing 15 games with a torn ACL, and Allen should be ready for Week 1. But don't be surprised if Williams is better than Allen this year as well. He's entering his third year in the NFL, and he developed a solid rapport with Philip Rivers last season before a shoulder injury slowed Williams down toward the end of the year. He had 69 catches for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns on 120 targets, and he scored double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league eight times. Allen's return will impact Williams' targets, as well as other quality weapons around him in Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates, but I'm expecting Williams to remain a vital cog in this offense.
Williams is someone you can get with a mid-round pick in all leagues, and he has the potential to deliver in a big way -- maybe even more than he did in 2016.
Michael Floyd is gone, Fitzgerald mulled retirement this offseason and John Brown is trying to prove he's over his problems from last year's sickle cell trait. While Fitzgerald should remain a target hog for the Cardinals and quarterback Carson Palmer, and Brown appears to be healthy (and also one of my favorite sleepers), you should still expect Nelson to improve in his third season in the NFL.
Last year, Nelson was forced into an increased role, and he posted quality production when he had at least seven targets in a game, which happened five times. He had at least 75 receiving yards or a touchdown in all of those outings, and he scored at least seven Fantasy points in a standard league in each of his final five games to close the season. Coach Bruce Arians loves to call passing plays, especially throws downfield, and Nelson should see a healthy amount of targets each week.
Nelson's worth drafting as a No. 4 Fantasy receiver in all formats, but I wouldn't be surprised if he finished as a No. 2 option this year. He's someone I plan to target with a mid-round pick in all leagues.
Brate was a pleasant surprise in 2016 when he finished as the No. 6 Fantasy tight end in standard leagues with 57 catches for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. I'm not sure if that is a fair representation of his production since he was better than injured guys in Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed, but it does show his potential as a top 10 Fantasy option, which he should be again this year.
Brate didn't open the season as the starter because he was behind Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but he took over that role in Week 3 and scored at least seven Fantasy points in a standard league in seven of his final 13 games (he missed Week 17 because of a back injury). He should see plenty of single coverage with the addition of Jackson playing opposite Evans, and Winston loves throwing to his tight ends. In two seasons, Winston has thrown 19 of his 50 touchdown passes to his tight ends, and Brate shouldn't have much competition for playing time at the position this year.
Brate might not be considered one of the elite tight ends like Gronkowski, Reed, Travis Kelce, Jimmy Graham or Greg Olsen, but he's in that next tier with Kyle Rudolph, Zach Ertz, Delanie Walker and Tyler Eifert. And he's a great No. 1 Fantasy tight end to wait for with a late-round pick on Draft Day because of his upside.
The Chargers moved to Los Angeles this year, and they are moving Henry up the depth chart ahead of Gates as well. One report last year suggested Henry will be the featured tight end this season, which should lead to quality production, but also could result in him being overdrafted.
He was great as a rookie in 2016 with 36 catches for 478 yards and eight touchdowns on 54 targets, but Gates could be a detractor to his upside because he's still on the roster. And even though Gates will be 37 and clearly at the end of his career, he's still a trusted option for Rivers. With all that in mind, it's hard to overlook the potential for Henry, who scored at least seven Fantasy points in a standard league in seven of the eight games when he had at least four targets, including four outings with at least 10 points. Gates had at least four targets in 12 games, so hopefully those extra looks go to Henry this season, and we expect him to deliver.
Henry should continue to be a factor in the red zone, and we expect his receptions and yards to increase (Gates had 53 catches for 548 yards and seven touchdowns on 92 targets). Like Brate, Henry is an excellent tight end to wait for on Draft Day in the majority of leagues.