Since there is a thin difference between “breakout” players and “sleepers,” we’ll focus only on names most gamers know rather than deeper dives who would technically cover both labels.
Breakout players are established names in some sense of the word but haven’t taken their play to the next level for fantasy gamers. They may have flirted with competence or even greatness but have fallen short of consistently achieving the status of being weekly lineup plays in all conventional formats.
These players are on the verge of forcing gamers to start them each and every week.
Jimmy Garoppolo | San Francisco 49ers | ADP: 9:02
Big reward doesn’t typically come without sizeable risk in fantasy sports, and choosing Garoppolo likely won’t be any different. He is going as the ninth quarterback chosen, on average, indicating gamers view him as a starter. The major consideration working against him is whether he can manage to account for north of 25 total touchdowns to enter that low-end QB1 conversation — 30 or more would be wonderful. The 49ers simply may not have the firepower to get him there in ’18, at least without a surprise star or two emerging. His asking price perhaps is a touch on the steep side, yet he could chuck 5,000 yards worth and help offset the expected touchdown deficiency.
Marcus Mariota | Tennessee Titans | ADP: 12:01
On average, he goes as the 17th quarterback chosen, which provides considerable room for profit, if Mariota finally lives up to his potential. Guarded by one of the best lines in football, and armed with a bevy of talented playmakers, Mariota has no excuse for mediocrity in 2018. New playcaller Matt LaFleur’s exciting brand of offense should utilize Mariota’s strengths and put him in the best position to shine each week. As a midrange backup, he is all upside.
Derek Carr | Oakland Raiders | ADP: 12:06
Sooooooo … this one feels like a song stuck on repeat. Carr has all of the world’s talent and is entering a rather alluring situation. That said, downside certainly exists. He is protected by arguably the best interior trio in football but has ample concerns at the bookends, where 35-year-old Donald Penn is returning from a severe injury, and rookie Kolton Miller may be the other starter. Jon Gruden’s return to the sidelines may require time to adjust to the changes of the game, as well. Carr is still on the upward trajectory and has room to grow as a passer. The offense boasts numerous capable weapons and has proven to be quarterback-friendly in the past. As the 18th passer typically chosen, Carr has virtually no risk as a backup.
Jerick McKinnon | San Francisco 49ers | ADP: 2:09
In order for McKinnon to become a true breakout, he’ll need to become markedly more efficient. If he doesn’t, the veteran will either have to shoulder a hefty workload on the ground or find the end zone more than his personal best of five times in a season. San Fran — luckily for McKinnon — has little in the way of proven and even complementary assets in the backfield. Matt Breida is awfully similar to McKinnon, and Joe Williams is fighting to make the roster. The offensive line should be improved with the first-round selection of Mike McGlinchey, whose career figures to begin at right tackle. Four of the five O-line starters were once first-round picks, and the lone exception was a second-rounder. McKinnon should greatly benefit from a breakout by Jimmy Garoppolo, and the former Minnesota Viking is at his best in reception-rewarding scoring formats.
Derrick Henry | Tennessee Titans | ADP: 3:12
While it seems many, if not even most, gamers are flocking to Dion Lewis, Henry could be the smarter addition. Sure, adding both is always an option, too, but if only one is in play, Henry should win out by virtue of his scoring prowess. He’ll be the prime option near the goal line and is also a greater big-play asset than Lewis. Plus, he doesn’t come with the extensive injury history that weighs on Lewis’ worth. We have no concrete reason to believe Lewis can handle more than last year’s 212 touches, and while the same could be said for Henry’s expanding workload, his frame suggests it won’t be an issue. The Titans have a fine offensive line and could make Henry the breakout running back of the year from touchdown production alone.
Tarik Cohen | Chicago Bears | ADP: 6:03
New head coach Matt Nagy will bring a version of the West Coast offense to the Upper Midwest, making Cohen a focal point of the short-area passing game. The electric back will have an opportunity to play the role of a change-of-pace security outlet for developing passer and fellow sophomore Mitchell Trubisky. The primary ground game will run through Jordan Howard, but with a passing game still feeling out its way, Cohen is poised to be a weekly contributor out of the backfield. Think of him primarily in PPR formats, where he goes inside of the top 30 of running backs — a fair placement for a projected flex starter. Cohen reasonably could snare 50 passes or more, generate more than 1,000 yards of offense, and score a half-dozen times overall.
Davante Adams | Green Bay Packers | ADP: 2:07
After scoring 22 touchdowns in the past two years and proving to be quarterback-proof, labeling Adams as a breakout sounds pretty stupid to many owners. What if we told you the best is yet to come? He posted 75 and 74 receptions in 2016 and ’17, respectively, averaging a shade over 12.6 yards per grab. Improve that figure to even his 13.3 from 2016 and tack on 20 receptions in Jordy Nelson’s absence. This brings us to 1,265 yards. Now add even two or three more touchdowns, and we’re looking at DeAndre Hopkins numbers of a season ago. All of this is easily attainable, and he could be even better — 100-plus receptions, 1,400-plus yards, 15 TDs … a career year, but not an insane stat line. Adams is the No. 1 WR in an offense known for its aerial attack, led by arguably the most receiver-friendly quarterback in the game. Green Bay’s defense should be worse, it still has no running game of which to speak, and the rest of the wideouts are just dudes. Adams could be the No. 1 overall receiver in fantasy.
Amari Cooper | Oakland Raiders | ADP: 4:03
Cooper has to reestablish himself as a trusted commodity. His game goes as far as Derek Carr’s maturation and Jon Gruden’s coaching can take a player. Staying healthy is obviously imperative after fighting a nagging ankle injury in 2017. Before that it was a shoulder strain, a quad strain, a concussion, and a foot sprain. Dropping the ball also has been a detrimental element. He caught only 50 percent of his targets (91st) last year, and removing errant throws brings it up to only 67.7 percent (81st). Gruden says Cooper will be the focus of the passing game, and maybe the Alabama product has learned a thing or two this offseason from Jordy Nelson. As a No. 2 fantasy receiver, gamers have a true risk-reward buy whose upside has to outweigh the negatives for at least this upcoming season.
Chris Hogan | New England Patriots | ADP: 5:12
No Julian Edelman for the first month bolsters Hogan’s target count, and there’s always a strong chance of a Rob Gronkowski injury to free up more looks. Year 3 in this offense should help Hogan’s odds of emerging, though he’ll never be a reception hog. His game is built around making big plays, which requires last year’s injury-filled effort to stay in the rearview. There’s also no guarantee a 32-year-old Edelman returns to form after an ACL tear, and the remaining cast of receivers are filled with question marks. As a third receiver, Hogan is a fine addition with a high floor.
Jamison Crowder | Washington Redskins | ADP: 7:07
Washington turning to Alex Smith at quarterback could be the single biggest item of note for Crowder. Fighting injuries a year ago, Crowder managed to maintain his 2016 numbers in receptions and yardage, falling off dramatically in touchdowns scored from seven to three The Redskins will rely on him as a safety blanket for Smith, whose game is built around short and intermediate passing. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Crowder ranked 8th in average separation yardage gained last year — perfect for the risk-averse Smith. Any help from Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson should provide Crowder more room to work. We all know targets will eventually open up when Jordan Reed goes down with a boo-boo. PPR gamers may not luck out and see a Crowder slash that includes seven TDs again, but 85-1,000-5 is reasonable and should be considered as serious of a breakout as he is capable of offering.
Cooper Kupp | Los Angeles Rams | ADP: 8:06
Fresh off a top-25 fantasy season with 62 receptions for 869 yards and five scores, one has to wonder what exactly Kupp needs to do for a true breakout in his second year. The addition of Brandin Cooks actually helps Kupp. The former Saint-turned-Patriot-turned-Ram is a far more dynamic and dangerous weapon than Sammy Watkins was a year ago. Kupp will continue to see single coverage and has the benefit of Robert Woods’ injury history on his side. One has to think the Rams will scale back Todd Gurley’s touches a smidge, which could lead to more Kupp in the intermediate and short-area game. He’s also the best red zone target at 6-foot-2. Catching 90 passes for 1,200 yards and eight scores is actually doable, although it will require external forces to lend a helping hand.
DeVante Parker | Miami Dolphins | ADP: 8:11
For the record, this is a lukewarm endorsement and more of a suggestion of “what if” than something to truly bank on happening. It is now or never for Parker’s breakout campaign. The athletically gifted receiver no longer has Jarvis Landry to hog all of the looks, and Ryan Tannehill returns from injury to command Adam Gase’s offense. Parker has enough time in the system to be comfortable. There are glaring reasons to stay away from Parker, which is understandable, but at 25 years old, as long as he is healthy, this is his best shot at emerging as a quality WR2 for the price of a No. 4.
Mike Williams | Los Angeles Chargers | ADP: 11:09
The Chargers spent a 2017 first-round pick on Williams, which resulted in back and knee injuries costing him valuable practice reps and a total of six games. He finished with a pathetic 11 receptions for 95 yards. This inclusion of Williams — who, in fairness, hasn’t established himself yet — is based on his expectations as a high draft pick entering his second year. Don’t expect this to ultimately be his career year when it is all said and done, but the Chargers need him to step up with the loss of Hunter Henry. Keenan Allen is also an injury liability based on history, which would thrust Williams into the spotlight. In Williams’ case, a breakout is probably something like a 50-650-7 line, making him good for flex utility.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins | Jacksonville Jaguars | ADP: 13:12
Seferian-Jenkins is finally sober a couple of years and in control of his life. The Jaguars give him a stable environment and an offensive system that has produced fantasy-relevant tight ends in the past with the Saints. A strong offensive line should limit the need to keep him in as a blocker, and the 6-foot-5 Seferian-Jenkins is a beast to cover in the red zone. The Jags have a crowded cast of receivers, although none of them are shoo-ins for being fantasy assets. Given his size and the receiving crops’ deficiencies, the former New York Jet and Tampa Bay Buccaneer should thrive in this offense.
Trey Burton | Chicago Bears | ADP: 8:02
As previously mentioned in the Tarik Cohen writeup, the Bears will look to the short-area passing game in the West Coast offense to ease Mitchell Trubisky into the game plan. Burton comes over from Philly as a do-all hybrid and has flashed enormous potential on a number of occasions. The primary receiving chores should be his after what looks like a modest competition with second-year tight end Adam Shaheen. Chicago revamped its offense in a radical way this offseason, making Burton’s position a prominent target along the way. Receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel also enter the offense but come with concerns and are hardly locks to be major contributors. Burton is a midrange investment with substantial upside in an offense that made Travis Kelce a fantasy star.