Not completely whiffing on your first few fantasy draft picks is vital.
Making (for the most part) the right lineup decisions week in and week out also is important.
And certainly so is having good fortune when it comes to the season-long health of your key players.
But arguably the key to unlocking fantasy football success is being the general manager in your league who drafts the right late-round sleeper and/or uncovers the shiniest gem on the early-season waiver wire.
These sleepers and gems are the holy grails of the game: The unexpected fantasy studs who burst onto the scene from the depths of drafts – or the early-season waiver wire – and go on to rewrite the narratives and determine the fantasy champions in legions of leagues.
They’re the breakout, breakthrough, low-average draft position players who outplay their ADPs and finish the season ranked among the top-10-highest fantasy point producers at their respective positions. Hit on a few of these players in the middle or late rounds of your draft or the September waiver wire while not totally flubbing your first few draft picks, and it’s an instant invitation to league championship contention.
In the meantime, though, with the multitude of magazines, the proliferation of podcasts and a web filled with pigskin-themed URLs, you would think that we’d all be getting better at this fantasy-football forecasting thing in identifying these surprise studs before, well, they actually become surprise studs. But the raw numbers say it’s really as unpredictable as ever.
Some quick facts:
- Over the last five seasons, nearly 50 percent (99) of the 200 players who finished the year as top-10 point-producers at the four primary positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end) did not enter their respective regular seasons with top-10 re-draft league ADPs, going by the data at myfantasyleague.com.
- And a full 26 percent (52) of those 200 top-10 players entered their respective seasons with ADPs of 21 or lower at running back and wide receiver and 16 or lower at quarterback and tight end.
- Last season actually turned out to be the most-true-to-form ADP campaign of the last five and still 15 of the eventual top-10 quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end finishers owned preseason ADPs outside the top 10 and seven of those 15 had ADPs of 16 or lower at quarterback and tight end and 21 or beyond at running back and receiver. That latter group included the likes of Patrick Mahomes (QB16 in ADP to QB1 at season’s end), James Conner (RB54 to RB6), Robert Woods (WR34 to WR10) and Eric Ebron (TE20 to TE 4).
So, going by the recent-season averages, we can expect at least another 20 or so top-10 surprises to emerge again this fall, with roughly half of those 20 players owning preseason (i.e. right now) ADPs of 16 or lower at their respective positions.
But now comes the tricky part of our little exercise: Identifying those breakthrough top-10 fantasy finds in August.
Simply picking those players with ADPs just outside the top 10 doesn’t provide fantasy general managers with much insight, though, so we’ll dig deeper to come up with our potential top-10 breakout candidates, choosing from the players with current ADPs outside of the top 15 at quarterback and tight end and beyond the top 20 at running back and wide receiver.
The players currently being under-drafted with the upside, high ceilings and untapped potential to outplay their current ADPs is precisely what we’re after.
Hit on a few of these in the middle or later rounds of your draft – or scoop them up early off your league’s waiver wire – and you’ll be relishing and reveling in the elite production for a bargain-basement price all the way to the fantasy postseason.
So, without further preamble, here’s my annual list of fearless predictions for the surprise top-10 breakthrough players of 2019, utilizing the Aug. 21 MFL.com re-draft, standard-scoring ADPs at each of the four primary fantasy positions:
Quarterback (current ADP of 16 or lower)
Kirk Cousins (ADP 17) – We don’t have to go to elaborate lengths to imagine Cousins as a top-10 fantasy quarterback. After all, we saw it just last season when he finished ninth overall with 353.2 points (Huddle Performance scoring) and placed ahead of the likes of Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. And that, mind you, was his first season with the Vikings, who changed offensive coordinators and philosophies three quarters of the way through the season. Throwing to a tandem of stud wideouts in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cousins did hit career season highs in attempts (606), completions (425), touchdown passes (30) and completion percentage (70.1). There weren’t enough big plays, though, for the 8-7-1, playoff-less Vikings as Cousins’ average of 7.1 yards per attempt was his lowest mark in five seasons. Still, Cousins looks to be one of those QBs who is better in fantasy than reality. Perhaps, too, fantasy general managers are wary of the fact that Cousins had a much better first half of the season, when he scored 19 or more fantasy points in all eight of his games, compared to only four times in his final eight contests. The Vikings have made no secret that want to continue the run-heavier approach they committed to late last season with the promotion of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and the offseason addition of offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, but the accompanying improved balance and play-action opportunities should actually benefit Cousins’ aerial efficiency. Not only are Diggs, Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph back but running back Dalvin Cook, a capable out-of-the-backfield target, is also due some better health fortune after missing a combined 17 games over his first two seasons and tight end Irv Smith Jr. was added in the second round of the draft. Don’t be surprised in the least if Cousins outplays his current QB2 ADP and finishes among the top-10 fantasy QBs for the second straight season.
Lamar Jackson (20) – From Week 11 last season, when the rookie Jackson took over as the Ravens’ starter, through the end of the season, he averaged 22.24 fantasy points per game, which ranked eighth among QBs during that span. For the season, Jackson wound up leading all quarterbacks in rushing with 699 yards on a single-season QB-record 146 attempts. His final passing numbers – 99-of-170, 1,201 yards, six TDs and three interceptions – left a lot to be desired and protecting the ball was an issue with Jackson fumbling 12 times and losing five. But how much second-year improvement do we factor in considering that Jackson has had all offseason to work as the Ravens’ starter, his new offensive coordinator (Greg Roman) has had previous success with similar QBs and the Ravens have a bevy of intriguing new weapons in wideouts Marquise Brown and Myles Gaskin and running backs Mark Ingram and Justice Hill? Also, talented second-year tight end Mark Andrews hasn’t gone anywhere and neither has Jackson’s freakish rushing ability. Perhaps the Chargers laid down the blueprint to beating Jackson when they won a 23-17 wild-card decision in Baltimore, but lost in that loss in which Jackson threw an interception and lost one of his three fumbles, is that he still had a strong fantasy day, throwing for 194 yards (his second-highest single-game total of the season) and two scores while adding 54 more yards on the ground. Call it more or less an average fantasy outing for Jackson at 23.1 points, but that average was good enough – and is good enough – to earn him a spot among the top 10 fantasy QBs of 2019 and that’s not even baking in the expected second-year player bump/jump.
Other candidates – Kyler Murray (18), Jimmy Garoppolo (19), Josh Allen (22), Mitchell Trubisky (23)
Running back (current ADP of 21 or lower)
Devonta Freeman (ADP 21) – Typically we’re looking for younger backs here (see the next two on this list), but with the 27-year Freeman we’re banking on a bounce-back season after he was limited to only two games last season due to knee, foot and groin injuries. In 2015 and ’16, Freeman totaled 3,175 yards from scrimmage and scored 27 touchdowns, finishing as a top-six fantasy back each season. And in those campaigns, Tevin Coleman totaled 238 touches and had 1,347 scrimmage yards and 12 TDs of his own. Coleman has since departed for the 49ers, and the Falcons didn’t add a replacement, showing the trust they have in Freeman rebounding as the Falcons’ clear lead back. Instead, Atlanta spent the offseason adding offensive linemen in the draft and free agency, not only to better protect QB Matt Ryan but to add some juice to a stale running game that ranked 27th in 2018 at 98.3 yards per contest. It’s all set up for Freeman to be the beneficiary, and a return to top 10/RB1 territory most definitely is a possibility.
Sony Michel (22) – With rookie third-round pick Damien Harris joining incumbents Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden, the Patriots’ backfield looks to have fantasy quagmire by committee written all over it. However, it’s appeared just as quagmirish (yeah, I say it’s a word) in recent Augusts, and yet it’s produced RB1-level backs in LeGarrette Blount (seventh among fantasy RBs in 2016), Dion Lewis (13th in 2017) and White (11th last season). And while White was enjoying a surprise career year in 2018, the rookie Michel posted solid regular-season numbers with 981 total yards and six TDs in 13 games. Michel, though, was fully healthy for the playoffs, and racked up 345 total yards, including 336 rushing on 71 carries, and six scores in the Pats’ three-game run to the title. That TD total is what piques our attention here. White tallied 12 touchdowns in his big season a year ago, and Blount led the league with 18 rushing scores in 2016. The Patriots rank seventh in the league in rushing-play percentage (47.5) over the last three seasons and since 2014, they’re tied for third with 80 rushing TDs in the regular season. Michel showed his bellcow potential in last season’s playoffs, and if he can stay healthy and bump up his receiving productiveness after catching 7-of-11 targets for 50 yards as a rookie, he has all the makings of the third New England double-digit TD producer/fantasy RB1 in the last four seasons.
David Montgomery (24) – A rookie running back has finished among the top 10 fantasy backs in seven straight seasons, and a number of those seasons have seen multiple top-10 rookie RBs for a total of 12 in all during that span. With his current ADP of 19, the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs just missed this list, but Montgomery, a third-round pick of the Bears, isn’t too far behind. The Bears have moved on from bellcow back Jordan Howard who ranks fourth in the league with 850 touches over the last three seasons, finishing as a top-20 fantasy back in all three of those campaigns. Sure, Tarik Cohen will still get his touches (average of 155 over his first two seasons) and veteran Mike Davis was brought in from Seattle, but the fawning training-camp reports out of Bourbonnais, Ill., and Montgomery’s own impressive preseason performances as a rusher and receiver have done nothing to diminish the belief that the former Iowa State standout has the talent and opportunity to shine as fantasy’s next top-10 rookie running back.
Other candidates – Chris Carson (26), Derrius Guice (28), Tevin Coleman (31), Tony Pollard (50), Darwin Thompson (53)
Wide receiver (current ADP of 21 or lower)
Tyler Boyd (ADP 22) – This wideout enjoyed a third-year breakout in 2018, posting a 76-catch, 1,028-yard, seven-TD stat line as fantasy’s No. 16 wide receiver. Of course, longtime Cincy top target A.J. Green was injured and missed almost half of the season as he sunk to career lows across the board with his 46-694-6 stat line. It’s now 10 months later, and yet Green is sidelined again with a different ankle/foot injury – one that could cause him to miss the first quarter of the regular season or more. And with the rest of Cincy’s pass-catching corps injury prone (John Ross, TE Tyler Eifert) and young and unproven (Alex Erickson, Josh Malone, Stanley Morgan Jr., Damion Willis), Boyd has ample upside in new coach Zac Taylor’s offense. A jump of six or more spots in the fantasy ranks – especially if Green is out longer than expected or is slow returning to form – isn’t out of the question.
Cooper Kupp (24) – Kupp’s 2018 season was cut short by an MCL sprain and a subsequent ACL tear, but in the seven games in which he played at least 40 percent of the Rams’ offensive snaps, he averaged 7.7 targets, 5.7 receptions, 80.9 yards and 13.4 (standard)/19.1 (PPR) fantasy points while scoring six TDs. Over a full season, that standard-league average would’ve placed him sixth overall among fantasy wideouts, falling in between DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans. Kupp’s offseason recovery reportedly has gone well, and he’s expected to be a full-go for Week 1. Kupp is a larger target than some think at 6-foot-2, and he’s shown a nose for the end zone so far in his two seasons with 11 scoring grabs on 149 total targets and 102 receptions over his first two seasons. Sure, there is ample target competition in L.A. with RB Todd Gurley and fellow WRs Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks combining for 328 a season ago, but Kupp and demonstrated a special rapport with QB Jared Goff and a top-10 fantasy season is well within reach if he can stay healthy.
Dede Westbrook (45) – We’re going to take a longer shot here with Westbrook, who’s setting up to be far and away the top target this season for new Jacksonville QB Nick Foles. Westbrook jumped from 27 catches for 339 yard and a TD as a rookie in 2017 to 66-717-5 last season when he led the team in targets (101) and finished as the top receiver for the Blake Bortles-Cody Kessler QB combo. Now enter Foles who comes to a run-heavy team, to be sure, but will be working with a nondescript receiving corps outside of Westbrook. The other potential top targets range from perennially injured wideouts Marqise Lee and Terrelle Pryor to the unproven (rookie tight end Josh Oliver and WRs D.J. Chark and Keelan Cole) to the newcomers and holdovers (WR Chris Conley and TEs Geoff Swaim and James O’Shaughnessy) expected to play only limited roles. That leaves the door wide open for Westbrook, who could see upwards of 125-140 targets and take a third-year leap.
Other candidates – Chris Godwin (21), D.J. Moore (30), Sterling Shepard (32), Dante Pettis (37) Josh Gordon (44)
Tight end (current ADP of 16 or lower)
(ADP 16) – For whatever reason, the preseason fantasy market is down on Burton, who finished as a top-10 fantasy tight end (sixth overall with 93.1 points) only a season ago with 54 receptions for 569 yards and six TDs on 77 targets. Sure, still-improving third-year QB Mitchell Trubisky has a plethora of targets to throw to in WRs Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel, RB Tarik Cohen and TE Adam Shaheen, but all of the above were also present a season ago when Burton finished fourth on the team in targets, catches and yards while finishing behind only the then-rookie Miller (seven) with his six scoring grabs. It’s Burton’s second year with the Bears, and there certainly is no reason to expect any regression and/or a tumble out of the top-10 fantasy tight end ranks.
T.J. Hockenson (17) – We know, we know: The lists of rookie tight ends and fantasy top-10 tight ends typically don’t have much in common. In fact, since 2011, exactly one rookie at the position (the Giants’ Evan Engram in 2017) has produced a top-10 fantasy season. So why will Hockenson, the eighth-overall pick in this spring’s draft, break through when so many other ballyhooed rookie tight ends have fallen short? Let’s start with the ample volume available in the Lions’ passing offense as Theo Riddick, Golden Tate, Bruce Ellington, T.J. Jones and Michael Roberts, among others, have departed the Motor City, taking 250-plus targets with them. Now add a 6-5, 250-pound tight end who can move (4.7 40-yard dash) and has a nose for the end zone (seven TDs in only 50 offensive touches last season at Iowa), and Hockenson has as good of chance of any rookie to rise above the so-so malaise at the fantasy tight end position outside of the elite three (Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle) and crack the top 10.
Other candidates – (A healthy, if at all possible) Jordan Reed (18), Jack Doyle (19), Mark Andrews (20), Darren Waller (24)