Every fantasy champion owes a great deal of their success to the breakout players they happened to stumble across that year. In 2014, Odell Beckham brought many an owner to the promise land. In 2015, it was Devonta’ Freeman, who rose from relative obscurity to become the top fantasy running back. Last year, guys like Jordan Howard and Dak Prescott gave strong debut performances that vastly exceeded expectations.
The bottom line: finding these players is the single most important part of winning your fantasy draft. Obviously, not every team can have a breakout fantasy star, but it’s still useful and informative to take a team-by-team look at which players are in the best position to have a breakout season.
For the purposes of this article, I’m including high-profile rookies. I consider the term ‘breakout player’ to be slightly different than ‘sleeper’; while some of these guys might not be considered sleepers, I’m including them as breakout candidates since they have no NFL experience. Anyway, let’s take a look at my breakout candidates from each team in the AFC East and AFC North.
New England Patriots
Mike Gillislee, RB
Gillislee hopped ship from Buffalo to New England to continue a recent trend in free agency. Once the efficient but underused protégée to LeSean McCoy, the fourth-year Florida product appears to have the inside track on the lead backfield gig for what looks destined to be a lethal offensive unit for Josh McDaniels. His 5.7 yards per carry average was the highest mark for any player with at least 100 carries last season, and he was ranked as one of the league’s most efficient running backs by Pro Football Focus. Investors should temper their expectations a bit- New England’s offense seldom features a true workhorse running back- but Gillislee could easily post RB2 numbers in 2017.
Devante Parker, WR
It feels like Parker has been on breakout lists for the past 2 seasons, and it’s easy to see why. At 6’3” with blazing speed and solid ball skills, he looks the part of the next fantasy stud at wide receiver. The per-target production has been there for Parker, who has 82 catches for 1,238 yards and 7 touchdowns on 141 career targets. That looks like a solid WR2 season, but the problem is that those 141 targets have been spread out over two seasons. The presence of Adam Gase had a positive impact on Miami’s offensive efficiency last season, so they will start using Parker eventually as they continue to progress. Draft Parker hoping for a fringe WR1 season, but know that his floor is substantially lower.
Jonathan Williams, RB
Admittedly, there aren’t many intriguing breakout candidates to choose from in Buffalo. Receiver Zay Jones could carve out a favorable niche as a high-volume pass-catcher, but Buffalo doesn’t pass enough to offer any real hope for the rookie. Instead, it makes sense to look at breakout candidates at running back. LeSean McCoy is firmly entrenched as the feature back, but he’s always been injury-prone and will be 29 this season. The aforementioned Gillislee was a viable fantasy asset when McCoy missed time last year, so there’s no reason to believe Jonathan Williams can’t be the same. The second-year player from Arkansas is a hard-nosed, violent runner who fits perfectly in Buffalo’s scheme. Should McCoy miss time (which seems more likely than not), Williams would immediately become a solid RB2/flex play. Especially in leagues with small benches, it’s not ideal to stash a player whose potential value hinges on another player getting injured, but Williams could be worth it, given his situation.
New York Jets
Quincy Enunwa, WR
The Jets are a team so devoid of talent that it might seem there are no fantasy breakout candidates worth your consideration. However, there is one player whose talent and situation I really like: third-year wideout Quincy Enunwa. I’ve always been a fan of his talent and physique; he’s a big, physical receiver in the mold of Dez Bryant (6’2”, 225). Cautious investors might point to the absolute tire fire that is the Jets’ quarterback situation, but remember that this team is going to be playing from behind constantly and will throw more than they run. Furthermore, free agent signee Josh McCown has proven to be a capable starter who can feed a number one target consistently. Factor in Eric Decker’s release, and Enunwa looks like he’s the top receiver in the Jets offense. There’s a lot to like about Enunwa’s situation this season. For a guy who could produce WR2 numbers, Enunwa offers great value and upside.
Jesse James, TE
With Ladarius Green gone, James now has a clear path to the starting tight end gig in Pittsburgh. This carries plenty of appeal; the Steelers are one of the most prolific passing offenses in the entire league and Ben Roethlisberger’s number one tight ends (re: Heath Miller) have been reliable fantasy options in the past. The main thing holding James back at this point is that he’s probably the fourth option behind Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Martavis Bryant in the Steelers’ passing game. In fact, I was going to pick Bryant as my breakout candidate, but the uncertainty surrounding his reinstatement after a year-long suspension kept me at bay. If you’re looking for a potential top-five tight end who can be had cheap, James may not be your guy. His ceiling is more in the 8-10 range, but that’s still great value at his current price and would be his best season by far.
Corey Coleman, WR
I liked what I saw from QB Cody Kessler last year, and the Browns apparently like what they have seen from rookie Deshone Kizer as well. This combination of youth, talent, and competition at quarterback is something Cleveland hasn’t seen in a very long time. This bodes well for the team’s pass-catchers, especially Coleman, a 2016 first-round pick. He flashed brilliance in his debut campaign, but injuries and target-hog Terrelle Pryor prevented him from having a true breakout. Pryor is in Washington now, and while Kenny Britt’s arrival represents some degree of competition, Coleman is still poised to be one of the top targets for whomever is starting at quarterback for the Browns. A 1000-yard season is not outside the realm of possibilities.
Joe Mixon, RB
Character concerns aside, the Bengals drafted Mixon for a reason: he can flat out play. Often compared to Le’Veon Bell throughout the draft process, the Oklahoma product has the look of a true NFL feature back. The Bengals are looking to put years of mediocre play from Jeremy Hill behind them, so Mixon should step in right away and be the primary running back. Giovani Bernard will steal some passing down work, but Mixon can still be a top-10 fantasy running back this season. Concerns about injuries and his character will scare plenty of owners away, but Mixon’s talent is too great to ignore. You’ll probably just feel a little guilty for having him on your team. Just don’t also draft Tyreek Hill.
Yes, I’m fully aware that there is a picture of Kenneth Dixon above. Honestly, Perriman was plan B. I fell in love with Kenneth Dixon’s running style last season and was planning to ride the Kenny train to a second consecutive fantasy football championship in 2017. It broke my heart when it was announced that Dixon would serve a suspension for violating the league’s PED policy. The latest announcement that Dixon would miss the entire season due to injury just twisted the knife. This is turning into more of an “in memoriam” about Dixon, so consider my endorsement of Perriman as a breakout candidate half-hearted at best. He’s fast. He plays for a quarterback who loves to throw deep. He’s also got two receivers (Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace) solidly ahead of him on the depth chart. Draft him with caution, I guess. I don’t really care. I just want Kenny back.
Do you agree with my picks? Which players do you think are headed for breakout seasons? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below! Tune in for the next installment of this series of articles, as I break down potential breakout candidates for every AFC South and AFC West team. And, as always, Roll Armchair.