When you write three or four versions of this column throughout the offseason it can be difficult to find new things to say. That's not the case with the 12 players listed below. All 12 have breakout potential that could be league-winning.
Deshaun Watson could be the No. 1 quarterback by a mile and Lamar Jackson could finish in the top three. Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook could threaten the top-four running backs. JuJu Smith-Schuster could challenge the NFL target record.
There's been a lot of hype around all of these guys, but that's for good reason. Even at their cost they could win you your league. Here's how:
CLE Cleveland • #4
Age: 28 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Wait. Deshaun Watson could be even better? Yep. Through the first two years of his career he's been one of the most efficient passers of all time and he's rushed for 820 yards and seven touchdowns in 23 career games. He enters 2019 with the best set of pass-catching weapons he's ever had and no experienced early-down back. I could see three more pass attempts per game for Watson this year. At his career efficiency that would set his expectations at 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns through the air. On the ground he saw a drop-off in efficiency last year but that improved in the second half. It shouldn't be surprising at all if he rushes for 600 yards and six touchdowns. Unless Patrick Mahomes repeats 2018, that type of production almost certainly makes Watson QB1.
BAL Baltimore • #8
Age: 27 • Experience: 6 yrs.
I could understand the argument that Jackson belongs in my sleepers column. He could fit there, too. But I wanted him here so we could talk about just how absurd his upside is. He averaged 7.1 yards per attempts as a rookie, We don't have to go crazy with that number, but let's just bump it up to 7.6. He said he expects to throw 30 passes a game. At 480 attempts, that's just shy of 3,650 yards. If he has a 5% touchdown rate, that's 24 touchdowns. Those are pretty mediocre counting stats. But Jackson was on pace for 1,271 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in games he started. He won't run that much, but 70% of that production makes him a Fantasy star, even in leagues that reward six points for passing touchdowns.
BUF Buffalo • #5
Age: 29 • Experience: 7 yrs.
I've been pretty excited about Fournette for most of the summer, but the excitement is only growing. Initially, the idea of Fournette with a better offensive coordinator (John DeFilippo) and quarterback (Nick Foles) was enough to believe he just has to stay healthy to be a top-12 back. The fact that the Jaguars didn't replace T.J. Yeldon gave me hope Fournette could be used more in the passing game. This preseason Jacksonville has given us every reason to believe that's what will happen. He's a true workhorse back, one of the few in the league. I have him projected for 278 carries. If the offensive line is a little better and he improves his his average to even 4 yards per carry that's 1,114 yards. It seems possible he could catch 50 passes in this system as well, which would add another 420 yards at his career efficiency. Add in 12-plus touchdowns and you have a back who's knocking on the door of the big four.
Dalvin Cook RB
BAL Baltimore • #33
Age: 28 • Experience: 7 yrs.
OK, that first sentence I wrote about Fournette? Yeah, it fits here as well. How could it not after Cook's 85-yard touchdown in Week 3 of the preseason? There's another connection. Fournette's offensive coordinator? He got fired by Cook's team because the Vikings didn't want to throw so much. So yeah, I expect they'll be a little more run heavy this season. I have Cook projected for 250 carries, but 275 seems well within reason, as does 55 catches. The thing that will determine just how much upside Cooks has is how many touchdowns he scores. But there should be no doubt there's 1,700-yard upside here.
Kenyan Drake RB
GB Green Bay • #31
Age: 30 • Experience: 8 yrs.
We've come full circle. Drake was on my initial breakout list, got removed because of an injury, and has returned. He's back at practice and let's be honest, Kalen Ballage didn't exactly impress in his absence. There's not 300-touch upside like there is for Cook and Fournette, but Drake was a top-15 back in PPR with 173 touches last year. A new report suggest Ballage could be the goalline back and take between a third to half of the touches with Drake getting the rest. There should be little doubt Drake is getting most of the receiving work, and the Dolphins will be playing from behind most of the season. Drake has a legitimate path to 200 carries and 50 receptions and he's averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per reception over his career. That's 1,300-yard upside available in the sixth or seventh round of Fantasy drafts. He probably won't score nine touchdowns like last year, but he won't need to at his cost.
NE New England • #7
Age: 27 • Experience: 7 yrs.
JuJu Smith-Schuster just caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards, so it probably seems ridiculous to call him a breakout. But I believe he could legitimately be the No. 1 receiver in Fantasy. With Antonio Brown gone there's a path to 190 targets for Smith-Schuster, who has averaged 9.6 yards per target in his first two years. Think that falls to 8.5 without Brown? That's still a leap in yardage from last year. And there's little doubt the touchdowns are coming up. He scored seven times on 79 targets as a rookie. Matching Brown's total (15) from last year is well within the range of possible outcomes. You shouldn't expect it, but it shouldn't surprise you all that much. Ben Roethlisberger's history tells us he should lean heavily on his No. 1 receiver this year.
Cooper Kupp WR
LAR L.A. Rams • #10
Age: 30 • Experience: 7 yrs.
It's difficult to know who exactly is the Rams best receiver or who will be the best third-year breakout receiver, but Copper Kupp is an underrated answer to both questions. Last year he was on pace for 80-1,132-12 before tearing his ACL. That includes a Week 6 game he left early and accumulated no stats. He scored at least 12 PPR points in every game he started and finished. He's been a full go in the preseason and has the best rapport with Jared Goff. While I wouldn't expect 12 touchdowns again, he could very easily lead the Rams in receiving touchdowns while matching those pace stats from above.
D.J. Moore WR
CHI Chicago • #2
Age: 26 • Experience: 6 yrs.
There's plenty of debate about Moore or Curtis Samuel as the best breakout in Carolina, but I don't have to choose. I just put Samuel in the sleepers column. In all seriousness, I'm not sure you can compare the upside. Moore just averaged 9.6 yards per target as a 21-year-old rookie. The only other receivers to do that on at least 80 targets? Ready Moss and Keenan Allen. You can throw Smith-Schuster in as well is you lower the target threshold. I'm not saying Moore is going to be any of those guys this year, but I do expect him to be the No. 1 receiver in Carolina with a real shot at 1,100 yards. The hidden upside for both Panthers receivers is the work they received in the running game.
GB Green Bay • #12
Age: 30 • Experience: 6 yrs.
I don't want you to think this is all about Westbrook's performance in Week 3 of the preseason. Sure, it didn't hurt to see him command all of the receiver targets from Nick Foles, but it only confirmed something I'd believed since the beginning of the offseason. Westbrook is the No. 1 receiver in Jacksonville, he has a better quarterback, a more creative offensive coordinator, and a legitimate shot to be a top-20 wide receiver. I expect 80-plus catches for more than 1,000 yards and six scores. There's even more upside if Marqise Lee can't return to full speed.
Hunter Henry TE
NE New England • #85
Age: 29 • Experience: 8 yrs.
If the question is "which breakout tight end does Heath want?" the answer is "all of them." Henry in particular possesses an upside that seems to be overlooked. In his short career he's caught 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns on 115 targets. Philip Rivers has historically peppered tight ends with targets until last year when he didn't really have one. In 2017 Henry and Antonio Gates combines for 114 targets. In 2016 Rivers looked their way a combined 146 times, including 93 in 14 games for Gates. I'm not ready to project 110 targets for Henry, but it's well within the range of outcomes and it would likely mean 900-plus yards and 7-8 touchdowns.
Evan Engram TE
JAC Jacksonville • #17
Age: 29 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Engram is the safest of the breakout tight end options. He made great strides as a pass catcher last year, hauling in 70% of his targets and boosting his receiving average to 9.0 yards per target. If not for an injury and some rotten touchdown luck, we may view him as the bottom part of the first tier at tight end. With Golden Tate out the first four games, Engram could get off to blazing fast start and is the only tight end outside of the top three I could reasonably see receiving 120 targets. He's still my No. 4 in PPR and well worth a pick in the late fourth round.
O.J. Howard TE
LV Las Vegas • #88
Age: 29 • Experience: 7 yrs.
If Engram is the safest breakout, O.J. Howard has to be the most exciting. That's because over the last two years Howard has quietly been one of the most efficient players in football. He's averaged 16.6 yards per reception each year and scored once every eight targets. While you should always expect a decrease in efficiency with an increase in volume, it's hard not to get excited about what 100 targets could mean for Howard. Jameis Winston loves his tight ends, and Howard has the talent to match just about anyone in this league. Let's hope this is the year he gets the target share he deserves.
So which breakouts should you target in your draft? And which rookie running back is a must-have RB2? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Football cheat sheets from the model that called Tevin Coleman's breakout season, and find out.