This story was originally published on July 3 and has been updated with slight changes on August 6.
When it comes to fantasy football, a breakout can come from anywhere. The player can come out of nowhere or be a household name; he can be a rookie, someone still young in his career, or an established veteran. The one defining quality that a breakout must have is that the player must jump to an entirely new level of performance where he’ll have staying power.
Take, for example, Alvin Kamara and Carson Wentz, who both qualified as breakout players last season. Kamara was a rookie who surpassed expectations (five receiving TDs, eight rushing TDs) and now has an ADP in the first round. After an average rookie season (16 TDs, 14 INTs) Wentz had a passing touchdown every game of his sophomore season until he tore his ACL in Week 14, and he’ll be among the universal starting fantasy QBs this season.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s take our first look at 2018’s top breakout candidates.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Not only did the Chiefs trade up to grab the Texas Tech product with the 10th pick in last year’s draft, but they also shipped Alex Smith out of town after the team’s best offensive season in head coach Andy Reid’s tenure. Reid certainly believes in Mahomes, and there’s good reason fantasy owners should believe as well. He looks the part of a star at quarterback, combining the traits that have always been necessary to succeed at the position with the athleticism that can take an offense to the next level in the modern game. Mahomes looks like a prototypical quarterback to run Reid’s RPO-heavy system, and he has one of the greatest collections of weapons in the league. With Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt, Mahomes will not be hurting for playmakers. Don’t worry about his turnover issues during training camp. As Reid said himself, that’s a natural part of the process of both learning and trusting the offense. If Mahomes proves himself up to the challenge, he’ll be a QB1 with a monster ceiling in his first year as the starter.
Tarik Cohen, RB, Bears
Alex Smith isn’t the only key member of last year’s Chiefs’ offense who left town. Offensive coordinator Matt Nagy is now the head coach in Chicago, and, other than Mitchell Trubisky, Cohen stands to gain more than any other holdover on the Bears' roster. It’s not hard to look at what Nagy did with Tyreek Hill and imagine him getting the same out of Cohen. The back was one of the most electric players in his rookie year, racking up 723 yards from scrimmage on 140 touches, good for 5.17 yards per touch. For sake of comparison, Le’Veon Bell got 4.79 yards per touch last year. The limited imaginations of John Fox and Dowell Loggains held Cohen back as a rookie, but that won’t be the case this season. Even with Jordan Howard rightfully entrenched as the Bears’ primary runner, Cohen is going to have plenty of opportunities as both a back and receiver this season. If he nets 150 touches in an offense designed by Nagy and inspired by the Chiefs, Cohen will be a mainstay of his owner’s starting lineup this season.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Dolphins
Drake enjoyed a mini-breakout in the second half of last year, racking up 619 rushing yards on 123 carries, 232 receiving yards on 29 catches, and four touchdowns in Miami’s final nine games, after Jay Ajayi was traded to Philadelphia. That comes out to 12.12 points per game in standard leagues, and 15.34 points per game in PPR formats, numbers that across 16 games would have had him ranked 10th and eighth, respectively, in fantasy’s two primary formats. Drake should continue that form into this season, assuming Adam Gase stays out of his way. The Dolphins used a fourth-round pick on Kalen Ballage, and Gase seems to be going out of his way to pump up the rookie. Frank Gore is also on the depth chart, giving the Dolphins three backs they could plausibly use every game. The hope here is that they realize what they have. Drake proved last year that he can be the focal point of a successful offense, and he did it in less than ideal conditions—the Dolphins went 2–7 in the nine games in which he starred, regularly putting Drake in negative game scripts. He still found a way to produce useful fantasy performances in all but two of them. If he gets anything close to workhorse treatment, he’ll shine once again.
Rashaad Penny, RB, Seahawks
With many of the rookie running backs—Saquon Barkley, Penny, Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones, Sony Michel and Royce Freeman chief among them—playing in advantageous conditions, at least on paper, one of them is bound to break out. We’re putting our money on Penny. He doesn’t have the highest floor of the bunch. In fact, there’s a legitimate bust case to be made for Penny, as well. Chris Carson proved something before going on IR last year, and he’s going to have a presence, quite possibly a large one, in Seattle’s offense. He could beat Penny out for the job, even if Penny plays well this summer. On top of that, Seattle’s offensive line is still a mess, and Doug Baldwin is dealing with a knee injury that already has his Week 1 status in doubt. All of that could work against Penny.
Why that negative interlude in the middle of a breakouts column? You must go into any process of projecting breakouts understanding that you aren’t going to get all of them right. If you are right more often than you are wrong, though, you will come out ahead. Penny has the highest ceiling of all rookie backs not named Barkley, and hitting the ceiling is what makes a breakout. The Seahawks got nothing out of their backs last year after Carson went on the shelf, and targeted Penny aggressively, using the 27th overall pick in the draft to get him. The San Diego State alum led the country in rushing his senior year, rumbling for 2,248 yards and 25 total touchdowns. If he emerges as the go-to back alongside Russell Wilson, he’ll have a clear path to joining the RB1 class.
Royce Freeman, RB, Broncos
Penny may have a higher ceiling than Freeman, but Freeman is more likely to be his team’s Week 1 starter. Training camp is still young, but it would already be a surprise if Freeman didn’t open the season atop the depth chart in Denver. The bottom line is that if Devontae Booker were going to prove himself a worthy starter, he would’ve done it already. He had opportunities in both his first two seasons, particularly his rookie year, and has all of 3.6 yards per carry on 253 rushes to show for it. He can still contribute as a change-of-pace back and in the passing game, but Freeman should lead this backfield, and has a real chance to approach or reach workhorse status. After all, he proved his alpha back bona fides in four years at Oregon, carrying the ball 947 times and catching 79 passes. He ran it 244 times for 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior, and none of those represented career highs. Freeman can do it all, and there’s reason to back the Denver offense with the extreme quarterback upgrade, going to Case Keenum from the pairing of Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Vikings
As great as Adam Thielen was last year, Diggs, who finished as a strong WR2 in 2017, is the Vikings receiver with the huge ceiling. He’s dangerous on the deep ball and has the incisive route-running skills that can make him lethal in the red zone, despite being just six feet tall. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the highest catch rate on contested catches, while NFL.com graded him the most successful receiver in the league on what it calls tight-window catches. Case Keenum was good last year, but Kirk Cousins is an obvious upgrade. He’ll help open up Diggs’s full potential, and it can’t hurt that the Maryland product is in his fourth year in the league. He has top-five potential at the position, and should put together the first WR1 year of his career.
Corey Davis, WR, Titans
Davis’s rookie year was sullied by a hamstring injury originally suffered in training camp—it cost him five games last season, and he spent almost every week on the injury report, seemingly always just shy of full health. His ADP, which places him right around the 30th receiver off the board in a typical draft, does price in some assumed growth, but it still leaves plenty of room for profit. As good as Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews have been in recent years, Davis is the receiver on Tennessee’s roster with the potential to be a true game-changing pass-catcher—and the team will need him to realize it if it’s going to return to the playoffs. Davis has the build of an elite WR1 at 6'3" and 209 pounds, and the skill set to match. Among receivers in his neighborhood of the draft board, he’s the best bet to produce a top-15 season. Remember, he was the fifth overall pick in the draft last year for a reason. When in doubt, bet on talent.
Devin Funchess, WR, Panthers
The Panthers threw a bit of cold water on Funchess’s breakout case by drafting D.J. Moore in the first round, but don’t let that temper your enthusiasm for the fourth-year receiver. Once the team shipped out Kelvin Benjamin last year, he took over as the No. 1 for the first time in his career, catching 30 of 53 targets for 483 yards and five touchdowns in eight games atop the depth chart. Greg Olsen missed three of those games, and while he was likely not quite 100% after his return from a broken bone in his foot, he did siphon away 32 targets in the five games where he and Funchess, as the No. 1 receiver, shared the field. In other words, Funchess did a lot of his damage with Olsen getting more than six targets per game, so his return to full strength isn’t necessarily a reason to knock the receiver. No. 1 receivers haven’t typically thrived in offenses designed by new Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but this one has the inherent difference of being run by Cam Newton. Turner’s principles for offenses helmed by Philip Rivers or Sam Bradford may not be completely transferable here. A big, reliable target, Funchess can be the go-to, gamebreaking receiver Newton hasn’t had since Steve Smith was at or near the height of his powers. Moore does dampen the upside a bit, but Funchess should be on his way to a career year.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Chiefs
The fantasy and real football worlds have been waiting for Watkins to break out since the Bills made him the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft. Injuries and inconsistency have held him back, but everything is set up perfectly in his first season with the Chiefs. With Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt all on the field, defenses won’t have the luxury of loading up to stop him every play, like they did when he was in Buffalo. Unlike his one year with the Rams, Watkins won’t be locked into the X-receiver spot, which regularly forced him to occupy the defense’s top corner and a second defender. It’s no coincidence that while Watkins slogged his way to 39 receptions and 593 yards last year, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp exceeded expectations. Oh, and it should be noted that, despite freeing up the field for his teammates and getting just 70 targets, Watkins scored eight touchdowns. Five of those were in the red zone, and four came from inside the 5-yard line. Watkins has elite red-zone skills that will play well in this offense, Andy Reid is committed to moving Watkins across formations, regularly getting him mismatches in the slot. He should top 100 targets with the Chiefs, and do so in a much better individual environment. This is the year for Watkins to realize his WR1 potential.
George Kittle, TE, 49ers
If Jimmy Garoppolo has the season so many are expecting, one or two of his pass-catchers will have to come along, as well. Kittle will be one of them. Over San Francisco’s final three games, the tight end out of Iowa caught eight of 14 targets for 194 yards and a touchdown. He did that while playing just about half of the team’s snaps, barely outsnapping Garrett Celek. Kittle’s snap rate should skyrocket this season, and with it will come a major increase in targets. Pierre Garcon is a trusted, established reciever, and Marquise Goodwin proved his worth last year with Garcon out for the entire second half of the season. Still, neither of them is the brand of pass-catcher that demands 150-plus targets. There will be plenty of work to go around for all three, and Kittle brings to the table most of everything teams look for in a pass-catching tight end in the modern game. He isn’t just a strong late-round option at the position, but one who has top-five upside.