Updated: Sept. 3 at 11:13 a.m. EDT
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.
QB Derek Carr | Raiders | ADP: 6:11
Prior to his unfortunate season-ending leg fracture, Carr was on pace to be one of six quarterbacks with at least 4,000 yards and 30 touchdown passes — in just his second season. It was a freak injury. The Raiders have a new offensive coordinator, whose mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” has a great relationship with Carr. Oakland brought Marshawn Lynch out of retirement to stabilize the offense, but he’s not a 300-carry guy these days. The peripheral weapons of Jalen Richard and Jared Cook accent Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper on the outside. Entering his fourth year with extensive experience, Carr, protected by a dominant line, is on the trajectory for elite production. Depending on the casualness of your league, he could be a steal.
QB Marcus Mariota | Titans | ADP: 7:09
Tennessee has surrounded the third-year quarterback with talent all around him. The backfield is stable and has depth in case of injury, propelled by an offensive line nestled among football’s most promising. The cast of receiving options is finally rising to a level in which Mariota’s only excuse for failing to meet expectations is another serious injury. The Titans added rookie receiver Corey Davis, who gives Mariota a fine red zone target. Rookie tight end Jonnu Smith has received heaps of praise. He’ll will compete for scraps behind Delanie Walker. Toss in Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews for what could be among football’s most balanced cast of pass-catchers.
RB Ameer Abdullah | Lions | ADP: 5:02
Entering his third year, Abdullah hasn’t been given a fair shake at establishing himself because of injuries. Left tackle Taylor Decker’s injury is a serious concern, but he is expected to return this season. During the offseason practices, Abdullah jumped out to local-area reporters. DetroitLions.com’s Tim Twentyman called the former Cornhusker “the best two-way back” on the roster. We’ve seen what Theo Riddick can do as a receiving back, but he’s abysmal between the tackles. Dwayne Washington struggled to gain traction, whereas Matt Asiata is an overachiever. The Lions have tabbed Abdullah the starting back, per head coach Jim Caldwell. All he has to do now is stay on the field, and fantasy players should be eager to find out if he can.
RB Rob Kelley | Redskins | ADP: 7:01
Kelley sports a trimmed frame by reinventing his diet and training program over the offseason. He enters a tenuous situation with rookie Samaje Perine breathing down his neck, and it isn’t like Kelley was a highly touted prospect in his own right. Knowing the system and having chemistry with the offensive line is a big plus. Perine is behind the curve, and the coaches are not shying away from acknowledging it is Kelley’s job to lose. A starting running back who showed a nose for the goal line last year, concluding with the 11th-best TD-per-attempt ratio among backs with at least 150 totes.
WR DeVante Parker | Dolphins | ADP: 6:06
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will not play in 2017, leading Miami to coax Jay Cutler out of retirement. Regardless, Parker remains candidate for the breakout label. He has flashed in his first two seasons despite battling injuries. This offseason, Parker is healthy and capable of fully delving into the nuances of the playbook. Cutler’s lively arm should keep Parker on the path of breaking out … in fact, it could improve his chances. Jarvis Landry is the possession receiver of this offense, which leaves room for Parker to continue to develop as an intermediate and big-play asset. Parker has shown a knack for scoring in his short career and will have enough runway going into the season to build a rapport with Cutler.
WR Kelvin Benjamin | Panthers | ADP: 4:08
The massive receiver was the butt of many jokes this spring after news surfaced that he was nearly 270 pounds, up basically 30 from his playing weight. His coach called him out, and KB responded nicely by slimming to a respectable 243 pounds, given his 6-foot-5 height. Benjamin has the luxury of playing in the same system throughout his career and is now two full years removed from ACL reconstruction. For most players not named Adrian Peterson, this is generally when the knee returns to normal. Benjamin is going as the 24th receiver in non-PPR scoring (27th in PPR), which may be the steal of the ADP charts when all is said and done. Healthy, in shape, hungry, and physically dominant, Benjamin has top-10 potential.
WR Jamison Crowder | Redskins | ADP: 6:01 (PPR)
Newcomer Terrelle Pryor may have fantasy footballers fawning over his potential with a quarterback like Kirk Cousins, but it is Crowder who’s poised to shine brighter. The do-all receiver lines up anywhere on the field but excels from the slot. In an offense that underwent so much turnover at wide receiver, he is the most familiar face for Cousins — and he knows the complex system. Heck, Pryor wasn’t even a wideout a few short years ago. Tight end Jordan Reed is already injured, and missing time into the season would create more opportunities for the third-year wideout. Crowder could lead the team in targets and stands a chance to crack the top 15 of PPR receivers despite his WR3 price tag.
TE Jack Doyle | Colts | ADP: 11:07
Wideout Donte Moncrief already injured helps Doyle’s chances. Entering his fifth year, the 27-year-old tight end went from obscurity to at least in the conversation last year. After a 59-584-5 line, just how much more can be squeezed out of Doyle? Considerably more. The Colts often rely on tight ends as an extension of the running game. Can we really expect Robert Turbin to score eight TDs again? Frank Gore isn’t a scoring threat, and Dwayne Allen and his six touchdowns from 2016 are no longer in the picture. Andrew Luck’s shoulder injury is a concern; even still, backup Scott Tolzien could rely heavily on Doyle. With Luck, Doyle could elbow his way into the weekly TE1 conversation, given all of the volatility at the position, simply by stealing a few scores from Turbin and what would have been Allen’s share.
TE Coby Fleener | Saints | ADP: 13:08
Admittedly, this one could go either way … the confidence meter is hovering around “coin flip” for the veteran tight end. Fleener is at least in a better position to succeed this year. He had a full season to learn the complicated Sean Payton system while building chemistry with Drew Brees. There will be more looks to go around with Brandin Cooks out of the picture, as well. Possibly the most important element is what Adrian Peterson could bring to the offense. Bolstering the running game is a fine way to create mismatches in the aerial design, especially for a 6-foot-6 tight end near the goal line when defenses hone in on Peterson. The beauty of the uncertainty with Fleener is the price tag. Gamers won’t be penalized if he picks up where he left off last season. TE2 value with viability as a flex or low-end starter.