While popular focus this time of year is on rookies and winners and losers from the NFL draft, many young veterans who’ve already flashed big-league chops are in prime position for second-, third-, and fourth-year leaps. This is a rundown of breakout candidates based on talent and opportunity for 2017. All players mentioned here must be under the age of 28. This list is not necessarily all players I think will break out, but rather players I believe have a real chance to break out if things fall in their favor.
Packers RB Ty Montgomery (Week 1 Age: 24)
A 6-foot, 221-pound “Offensive Weapon” coming out of Stanford, Montgomery was hailed as a future running back by much of #DraftTwitter in 2015 and indeed landed there beginning last Week 6. The No. 16-scoring back in PPR leagues from that point forward, Montgomery displayed surprisingly adept and physical inside running ability while finishing the season with elite rushing (5.94 YPC) and receiving (7.91 YPR) efficiency. Over the last two decades, Montgomery is one of just seven running backs to top 5.0 yards per carry (minimum 80 attempts) and 8.0 yards per reception (minimum 50 catches) in their first two NFL seasons, joining Jamaal Charles, Clinton Portis, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Joique Bell.
While Montgomery’s upside is lofty in Green Bay’s high-scoring offense, his floor is basement low. Albeit understandably based on his in-season position switch, Montgomery lost playing time due to pass-protection slipups last year. Clearly unsatisfied with their backfield parts, the Packers selected three running backs in April’s draft. Coach Mike McCarthy did insist afterwards that Montgomery remains the starter. “Absolutely, he’s our starting running back,” said the Packers’ coach. “We’ll acclimate (the rookies), teach them our system. Ty Montgomery can (already) do that, so he will be our starter.”
Redskins WR Jamison Crowder (Week 1 Age: 24)
An argument can be made that Crowder already broke out. He finished as last year’s PPR WR26 and was an every-week fantasy starter most of the season. Crowder still has sizable room for growth in a Redskins offense missing 224 targets from last year’s roster. While bigger-built newcomers Terrelle Pryor and Brian Quick offer varying potential, Crowder’s on-field rapport with Kirk Cousins is well established as a high-percentage weapon Cousins depends on in high-leverage situations. The only two Redskins who out-targeted Crowder last season (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson) left for greener pastures, and even with Garcon and Jackson in the fold, Crowder paced last year’s team in red-zone targets (16), red-zone catches (9), touchdowns (7), and passer rating (105.1) on targets from Cousins.
Despite being neither big (5’8/185) nor fast (4.56), Crowder’s short-area movements are exceptional, and he catches everything. Over the last two seasons, only three NFL wide receivers have topped a 70% catch rate on over 175 targets: Doug Baldwin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Crowder. While I would stop short of predicting Crowder becomes a 100-catch receiver this year, him doing so would not surprise.
Browns RB Isaiah Crowell (Week 1 Age: 24)
Exhibiting playmaking ability as both a rusher and receiver through three NFL seasons, Crowell’s early-career rate stats place him in a group that also includes Jamal Lewis, Adrian Peterson, Edgerrin James, Steven Jackson, Ray Rice, Arian Foster, Le’Veon Bell, Ronnie Brown, and Maurice Jones-Drew in terms of on-the-ground and in-air efficiency. Crowell has averaged over 8.5 yards per reception in his three-year career and set a career high with 4.81 yards per carry last season. Even though Duke Johnson is commonly viewed as Cleveland’s receiving back, Crowell out-targeted Johnson 34 to 27 over last year’s final eight games.
The Browns showed how they value Crowell by slapping him with a second-round restricted tender and bypassing running back additions beyond late seventh-round pick Matt Dayes. Crowell and Johnson return as a one-two punch, and Crowell is the featured component. Cleveland poured resources into its offensive line, landing difference-maker RG Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals and quality-starter C J.C. Tretter from Green Bay. Stud LG Joel Bitonio received a five-year, $51 million extension. Now in his contract year, Crowell is an ascending player in an ascending situation.
Saints WR Willie Snead (Week 1 Age: 24)
A Ball State alum who didn’t check boxes for size (5’11/195), speed (4.62), or draft capital (UDFA) upon entering the pros in 2014, Snead has nevertheless established himself as a consecutive 100-plus target receiver in Drew Brees’ offense with seasonal PPR finishes of WR32 (2015) and WR30 (2016). After trading away Brandin Cooks, the Saints are missing 143 targets from last year’s roster. On offense, their only potential impact additions were third-round RB Alvin Kamara and drop-prone 32-year-old WR Ted Ginn. In MFL10 best-ball leagues, Snead’s Average Draft Position in the month of May is WR32.
Given a reasonable assumption of health, Snead’s floor should be WR32. And his ceiling is much higher. Let’s lock in Michael Thomas as the Saints’ 2017 target leader. Last year’s second-leading New Orleans receiver (Cooks) finished as the PPR WR7, while Pro Football Focus’ Scott Barrett identified Snead with this year’s third-softest strength-of-schedule expectation among NFL wideouts. Snead’s first-three-years rate stats place him in elite company. Among pass catchers with catch rates above 65% and over 60 receiving yards per game in their first three NFL seasons, Snead is joined by only Rob Gronkowski, Jarvis Landry, Keenan Allen, and Cooks. Set for restricted free agency in 2018, Snead is another player on this list who won’t lack 2017 “motivation” with a forthcoming extension on the line.
Colts WR Donte Moncrief (Week 1 Age: 24)
Moncrief’s to-date efficiency stats are poor and an understandable reason to continue to fade him as an underachieving annual breakout pick. Yards per route run is one of Pro Football Focus’ most predictive metrics, and over the past two seasons Moncrief has finished 83rd of 96 qualifiers (2016) and 54th of 85 (2015). ‘Crief did place 34th among 90 wideouts in yards per route run as a 21-year-old rookie and is much younger than the average fourth-year NFL receiver. Over the past 20 years, only 13 NFL wideouts have scored more touchdowns before the age of 24 than Moncrief (16).
Only 60 targets are unaccounted for from last year’s Colts, and Moncrief is allegedly in danger of facing competition for his starting spot from Kamar Aiken. Thus, Moncrief’s Average Draft Position has fallen two-plus rounds from last draft season. I believe Aiken is a bigger threat to Phillip Dorsett’s No. 3 job, however, and Moncrief’s ceiling remains high as a young, big (6’2/221), fast (4.40), proven touchdown-scoring, discounted contract-year receiver attached to Andrew Luck. Coming off an injury-plagued 2016, there are reasons to believe Moncrief is a savvy post-hype buy.
Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill (Week 1 Age: 23)
Nicknamed TyFreak in most circles but TyFluke in others, Hill is sure to be a polarizing 2017 fantasy prospect. From Cordarrelle Patterson to Tavon Austin to De’Anthony Thomas to Dri Archer, WR/RB/ST gadget players have a spotty track record in the pros. Hill’s 12 rookie-year touchdowns despite only 85 offensive touches are primed for regression, while Hill never played more than 68% of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps in any of his 2016 games. When Jeremy Maclin returned from injury in the final month, Hill’s snap rates were 45%, 52%, 36%, and 62% in Weeks 14-17. Hill didn’t so much as catch a pass in Week 15 or 16.
Nevertheless, Hill was the PPR WR7 from Week 7 on, and there are indications his sophomore role will grow. “Growing Tyreek in the offense will be important,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid acknowledged in March. “He is a smart kid. He picked it up so fast, and he was able to play at our level.” Can Hill become a true starting wideout opposite Maclin with less dependency on non-bankable rushing and special teams stats? Hill’s preseason usage with the first-team offense should give us a hint. In best-ball settings, I’m willing to target Hill when he lasts until the sixth or seventh round. In re-draft leagues where floors and week-to-week reliability are far more necessary, I will probably let my competitors roll the TyFreak/TyFluke dice.
Titans RB Derrick Henry (Week 1 Age: 23)
The biggest problem with Henry right now is his ADP. His sixth-round Average Draft Position is egregious in non-PPR and PPR formats alike for a player who won’t come anywhere near returning value on investment barring a severe injury to DeMarco Murray. While Henry’s involvement did increase down the stretch last season, the Titans have been adamant Murray remains their uncontested feature back. The distinction is deserved after Murray registered the second-highest rushing yardage (1,287) and yards from scrimmage (1,664) totals of his career last season. Murray was tagged with an “injury-prone” label early in his career, but he has appeared in 47-of-48 games over the past three years.
With all that said, Henry’s upside remains undeniable on the off chance he does catch a big opportunity break. It is why Henry should be this year’s first handcuff drafted. Among backs with at least 100 attempts, Football Outsiders credited Henry with the NFL’s fourth-highest rushing DVOA and sixth-highest success rate as a rookie. Henry placed seventh among 53 qualified runners in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating and third among 62 backs in pass-blocking efficiency. Over the past two decades, only eight rookie running backs have topped 4.45 yards per carry (minimum 100 attempts) and 10.0 yards per reception (minimum 15 targets). Along with Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, and Jordan Howard qualified for that select group.
In an ascendant, run-committed offense with plus line play and a dual-threat quarterback to clear additional running lanes, Henry would be a league winner on 18-plus touches per game.
Dolphins WR DeVante Parker (Week 1 Age: 24)
Team captain of this year’s Offseason Puff Piece All-Pro squad, Parker has drawn incessant plaudits from the Dolphins’ coaching staff and local media for his alleged newfound commitment to improved eating habits, timeliness, dedication, and in-practice effort. Whether you buy the feel-good stories or not, it was clear during Parker’s first two NFL seasons that immaturity was a central factor holding him back. This offseason, Parker witnessed lesser-talented bookend Kenny Stills sign for $8 million per season while contract-year teammate Jarvis Landry engaged in even more lucrative extension talks.
Over the past two decades, only 14-of-80 (17.5%) wide receivers drafted in the first round have topped 15.0 yards per reception (minimum 80 catches) in years one and two, and Parker is among them. The “worst” players in the group are Koren Robinson and Braylon Edwards, each of whom posted at least one top-15 fantasy season and combined for five top-30 finishes. My takeaway from Parker landing in that near-bulletproof company is that we should have minimal doubt about Parker’s on-field skill. At 6-foot-3, 209 with long arms (33 1/4”) and 4.45 speed, Parker was born to stretch the field vertically. In a Miami offense whose design will increasingly use the run to set up downfield shots, Parker can absolutely prove a year-three breakout if he buys in mentally.
Patriots RB Mike Gillislee (Week 1 Age: 26)
Last year’s league leader in yards per carry at 5.7 — after he averaged exactly 5.7 the year before, too – Gillislee landed in a great-looking spot for fantasy value as the presumptive early-down and clock-killing runner in the AFC’s premier offense. In Buffalo, Gillislee was potent enough in goal-line situations that the Bills would sometimes insert him there over LeSean McCoy. Not only did LeGarrette Blount lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns (18) in a similar role last season, but the Patriots as a team have scored the league’s most rushing touchdowns over the past six years, averaging 18.0 annually during that span.
While recently-extended James White will maintain passing-down duties and versatile Rex Burkhead is far from a pushover, Gillislee’s sheer scoring potential in New England is as lofty as any running back’s in the game. Gillislee’s downside is that he simply lacks passing-game skills with just 15 receptions through four NFL seasons and one of the worst pass-blocking grades among running backs charted by Pro Football Focus last year. Gillislee caught only 23 passes in four years at Florida. We should keep in mind that these are areas in which backfield competitors White, Burkhead, and Dion Lewis all excel.
Ravens WR Breshad Perriman (Week 1 Age: 24)
Perriman missed his entire rookie season with repeated PCL setbacks and struggled on the field as a sophomore. A player who looked like he was relearning how to play, Perriman left troubling sums of yards on the field in 2016. He managed Pro Football Focus’ No. 90 receiving grade among 119 wideouts, finishing 107th in catch rate (51.6%) and 85th among 96 receivers in PFF’s WR Rating (67.1). In contrast, Joe Flacco posted a far-superior 96.8 passer rating when targeting Mike Wallace and a 91.9 rating when throwing to Steve Smith Sr. Perriman was NumberFire’s No. 77-rated receiver in Net Expected Points, behind the likes of Jermaine Kearse, Victor Cruz, and Dorial Green-Beckham.
Make no mistake: Perriman’s breakout candidacy is opportunity driven. The Ravens are missing 214 targets from last year’s roster and didn’t make a single meaningful addition at wide receiver or tight end. ESPN projections wizard Mike Clay recently projected Perriman at 119 targets, which would have placed 22nd in the league last season. At present, Perriman’s ADPs are WR57 (non-PPR on Fantasy Football Calculator), WR58 (PPR, FFCalc), and WR48 (MFL10s). Other opportunity-based Ravens breakout candidates include injury-riddled slot man Michael Campanaro and 2016 fourth-round pick Chris Moore, who averaged 21.1 yards per reception as a 2015 senior at Cincinnati.
Bears WR Cameron Meredith (Week 1 Age: 24)
Undrafted out of Illinois State in 2015 after switching from quarterback to wide receiver just ahead of his junior season, Meredith stunningly led the Bears in receptions (66) and receiving yards (888) as a second-year NFL player despite riding the bench until Week 5. At nearly 6-foot-4, 207 with 4.49 speed and remarkable results in the vertical (39”), broad jump (10’7”), and three-cone drill (6.71), Meredith is a genuinely special athlete whose NFL production can’t be undersold in spite of his modest background.
I’m ready to declare Kevin White a bust. Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, and Victor Cruz pose uninspiring adversaries. The Bears’ tight ends are injury-riddled 32-year-old Zach Miller, blocker Dion Sims, and Division-2 rookie Adam Shaheen. In Chicago, Meredith’s biggest fantasy concern is quarterback play. The Bears seem destined for musical chairs at signal caller after signing Mike Glennon to a big-money deal, then trading up for one-year college starter Mitchell Trubisky.
Cardinals WR John Brown (Week 1 Age: 27)
After exploding for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns as a 2015 second-year pro, Brown’s third NFL campaign was ruined by chronic leg pain and fatigue resulting from a sickle-cell complication Cardinals doctors now say is fixed. Brown also had a cyst removed from his spine after the season. “I was sleeping too much. I couldn’t eat right,” Brown said in early May. “My body just wasn’t in it. I couldn’t do anything, really. I was just drained out.” Both Carson Palmer and coach Bruce Arians remarked at OTAs that Brown is back to his old self, describing him as “stronger” and “more explosive.” A seventh-round fantasy pick last offseason, Brown’s 2017 ADP has dipped into the double-digit rounds.
The Cardinals are missing 89 targets from last year’s roster, 70 of which were drawn by Michael Floyd in Floyd’s 13 games with the team. Brown has a great chance for upward mobility with an opening in Arizona’s No. 2 receiver role behind Larry Fitzgerald. His primary competition will come from pint-sized J.J. Nelson (5’10/156) and small-school third-rounder Chad Williams. Rotoworld SOS analyst Warren Sharp identified Arizona with the NFL’s softest schedule of opposing pass defenses in the first month of the season – setting up a potentially fast start – while Brown enters the final year of his rookie deal as the favorite for deep targets in Arians’ vertical passing attack.
Lions TE Eric Ebron (Week 1 Age: 24)
Although widely panned as a disappointment – even floated as a draft bust in some circles – Ebron has delivered improving counting and rate stats in each of his first three NFL seasons. As a 2016 third-year pro, Ebron registered career bests in catch rate (71.8%), yards per reception (11.7), and yards per target (8.4). You would have no idea from the way he is perceived that Ebron has posted consecutive top-15 results in fantasy points and finished top ten at his position in both catches (61) and yards (711) last season despite missing three games.
Problem was, Ebron scored one touchdown on 85 targets. It’s a statistic primed for positive regression, especially when you consider Ebron scored five times on just 70 targets the year before, and the Lions let Anquan Boldin walk in free agency. Although Boldin felt like a blip on the 2016 fantasy radar, he dominated red-zone targets (22), catches (14), and touchdowns (6) in Detroit. Should 37-year-old Boldin indeed not return, these are roles Ebron would be first in line to fill.
Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston (Week 1 Age: 23)
The addition of DeSean Jackson can’t be understated as it pertains to Winston’s fantasy outlook. Whereas no offense quarterbacked by Winston has finished better than 18th in points scored through three NFL seasons, three of Jackson’s last four offenses have ranked top 12 with two top-ten finishes. Be it as a threatening decoy or deep-ball-catching lid lifter, Jackson is a true difference maker regardless of whether or not he’s actually receiving the ball.
Jackson ran the majority of his routes at right-side receiver last year, and Kirk Cousins posted a 107.2 passer rating throwing in Jackson’s direction on that side of the field. Winston’s worst 2016 passing quadrant occurred on intermediate and deep passes to the right side, where his rating was 64.0 compared to above-80.0 marks in Mike Evans’ left and deep-middle vicinities. Add in first-rounder O.J. Howard and Winston deserves to be regarded as this year’s top quarterback breakout candidate.
Colts TE Jack Doyle (Week 1 Age: 27)
Doyle is one of the oldest players on this list after going undrafted out of Western Kentucky in 2013, then paying his dues on special teams for years one, two, and three of his career. Doyle didn’t stop covering kicks for the Colts last season, but he did become a more prominent offensive option. Despite sharing time with Dwayne Allen and logging only 68% of Indy’s offensive snaps, Doyle finished fifth among NFL tight ends in red-zone catches (9) and ninth in red-zone scores (4). Sure handed and reliable, Doyle’s 78.7% catch rate led the league at his position among tight ends with at least 70 targets. Doyle has also proven to be an above-average blocker throughout his career.
New GM Chris Ballard performed team tape reviews after getting hired in January and came away impressed enough with Doyle to pay him over $6 million per year. The Colts subsequently traded away Allen and committed to Doyle as their top tight end. Ex-basketball player Erik Swoope is a name to keep in mind for deep Dynasty leaguers, but Doyle is the much preferred re-draft target. Doyle’s snap rate should soar into the 90% range this season, and he is capable of emerging as Andrew Luck‘s top possession target and No. 2 option behind T.Y. Hilton in the Colts’ high-scoring attack.
Eagles QB Carson Wentz (Week 1 Age: 24)
Wentz started his rookie year fast against one of the NFL’s easiest Weeks 1-6 schedules (CLE, CHI, PIT, DET, WAS), only to fall flat the rest of the way. Experiencing recurring mechanical flaws amid pass-protection breakdowns with an atrocious pass-catcher corps, Wentz was Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded passer from Week 7 on with a dismal 9:13 TD-to-INT ratio and 5.77 yards-per-attempt average over Philadelphia’s final 11 games.
Popular sentiment remains positive on Wentz entering year two, and the Eagles’ pass-catching upgrades further that optimism. Perimeter receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith join middle-field targets Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz to form a multi-dimensional passing game. Draft busts Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham, respectively, played 78% and 57% of the Eagles’ 2016 offensive snaps. Agholor may open the season as a game-day scratch, while DGB’s roster odds are long. After Wentz finished fifth in the NFL in pass attempts (607), an efficiency boost derived from improved weapons would go a long way toward Wentz realizing his breakout potential.
Falcons TE Austin Hooper (Week 1 Age: 22)
Over the past two decades, only 11 rookie tight ends have topped 15 receptions and 13.0 yards per catch. They are Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Zach Ertz, Alge Crumpler, Martellus Bennett, Vernon Davis, Charles Clay, Luke Willson, Tony Scheffler, Hunter Henry, and Hooper. There are a lot of TE1 fantasy seasons in that group.
A 2016 third-round pick out of Stanford, Hooper posted top-three SPARQ results among tight ends drafted in last year’s class and earned a top-ten run-blocking grade among tight ends from Pro Football Focus as a rookie. The Falcons are missing 73 targets from last year’s roster, including 31 from tight end Jacob Tamme. Hooper has the talent, athleticism, and production profile to make a sophomore leap.
Rams WR Robert Woods (Week 1 Age: 25)
The 41st overall pick in the 2013 draft, Woods morphed from a player who averaged 6.6 catches per game during his three-year college career in sunny Southern California to a 3.5 receptions-per-game receiver during four years in the chilly throes of Buffalo. Woods transformed from high-volume featured receiver in U.S.A.’s paradise to low-volume role player on Rex Ryan’s frigid, stone-age-style Bills.
Bringing him back home, the receiver-desperate Rams made Woods a $7 million-per-year wideout before drafting Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds. Kupp is a slow-but-savvy slot prospect, whereas Reynolds can stretch the field. Woods carries the biggest contract with by far the most productive resume. While more floor than ceiling pick, Woods’ 13th/14th-round ADP makes him one of fantasy’s cheapest team-specific WR1s.
Bills RB Jonathan Williams (Week 1 Age: 23)
The Patriots’ robbery of Mike Gillislee catapulted Williams into Buffalo’s No. 2 running back role, duties which Gillislee parlayed into last year’s RB28 finish, even as LeSean McCoy missed only one game. McCoy has battled chronic hamstring injuries over the past two seasons, and there were offseason rumors he could be traded or released under the new Bills regime. McCoy has the highest-priced long-term contract of any running back in football. He turns 29 in July.
With dual-threat quarterback Tyrod Taylor returning, first-year OC Rick Dennison will undoubtedly keep Buffalo’s run-first mentality in place. The Bills have ranked second in the league in rushing attempts in back-to-back seasons, while Dennison hails from the Gary Kubiak–Mike Shanahan coaching tree, which has emphasized the outside-zone game and moved on quickly and resolutely from backs who didn’t fit the scheme. In contrast to shifty playmaker McCoy, Williams is a 6-foot, 220-pound one-cut runner with a realistic opportunity to shine under Dennison, siphon occasional goal-line carries, and perhaps even explode as a fantasy league winner should Shady go down.
More Breakout Candidates: Chargers TE Hunter Henry, Browns WR Corey Coleman, Giants RB Paul Perkins, Panthers WR Devin Funchess, Seahawks RB C.J. Prosise, Texans WR Will Fuller, Redskins WR Josh Doctson, Seahawks WR Paul Richardson, Broncos TE AJ Derby, Rams TE Tyler Higbee, 49ers WRs Aldrick Robinson and Marquise Goodwin, Raiders RBs DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, Bengals WR Tyler Boyd, Steelers TE Jesse James, Broncos RB Devontae Booker, Browns QB Cody Kessler
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