8 fantasy football breakout candidates for 2016
“Breakout” is something of a nebulous term, particularly in fantasy football. A guy who doesn’t get drafted can obviously be a breakout with a big performance. But a bench player one season can be a “breakout” if he becomes a fantasy starter. And a guy who was a good WR2 a year ago can be a breakout if he finishes the season as the No. 1 receiver.
That’s why it’s such a handy term, after all. Really, all it means is “guys getting better.” I can make a breakout list, and unless it includes names that finished the year before as the No. 1 player at their respective positions, “breakout” can still be applicable.
So with that in mind, what follows isn’t a list of breakout candidates. It’s a list of guys who are going to finish 2016 higher at their positions than the finished in 2015. Maybe that’s the same thing? It’s possible. Defining words is so complicated.
1. Tyrod Taylor, QB, Buffalo Bills
Taylor might be the single most “PFF Fantasy” guy out there, as just about every one of our writers has hyped him at some point or another this offseason. But it’s with good reason, as Taylor showed a lot in his first year as a starter after four years as a glorified lawn ornament in Baltimore. Taylor played 14 games in 2015; extend his production over 16 games and he’d have been the No. 7 quarterback. He tied for third among QBs in PFF’s fantasy points per opportunity metric. He led all quarterbacks in rushing yards in the second half, which means he’s always going to have a high floor. His top wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, is one of the league’s best weapons. His No. 1 running back, LeSean McCoy, has drawn rave reviews in training camp.
All in all, Taylor was the No. 15 quarterback last year, and if you assume general health, that looks like his absolute floor this year. His ceiling, considering his rushing ability, is a top-five quarterback. And that’s not a hard ceiling to reach, as it is right there as long as he, Watkins and McCoy stay generally healthy.
[Cris Collinsworth drafted Tyrod Taylor as his starting QB in his Sirius XM Invitational league. Read more here about why he is one of his 10 favorite fantasy picks for 2016.]
2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Cleveland Browns
Of course, Griffin was a breakout as a 2012 rookie. But this is different, as he’s gone from the next big thing to a complete afterthought to, all of a sudden, an intriguing 2016 option on an entirely new team. Griffin enters Cleveland with maybe the best collection of weapons that team has had in years. Josh Gordon (after he serves a four-game suspension) is back, rookie Corey Coleman and Rashad Higgins are in the fold now. Terrelle Pryor is suddenly a hot name. Tight end Gary Barnidge was maybe last season’s biggest breakout. Duke Johnson has the chance to be one of the league’s top pass-catching running backs. Even Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel are still around, pending final roster cuts.
On top of all that, Griffin himself has looked strong. Among quarterbacks slated to be their team’s starters, Griffin has been the sixth-highest-graded this preseason. He’s 11th in fantasy points, with three touchdowns and only one interception. You don’t want to draft Griffin as your fantasy starter, of course, but if you are considering a super-late flyer as a backup, he’s the best candidate.
3. Ryan Mathews, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Mathews has only had more than 222 carries in a season once in his career, in 2013. That year, he played 16 games, ran for 1,249 yards, scored seven total touchdowns and finished 12th among running backs in fantasy points. And now he enters 2016 as the Eagles’ starter.
Of course, a big drawback to Mathews over the years has been his health — that 2013 season was the only one of his six years in which he’s played 16 games. But if you give him health (and he’s running behind our No. 7 offensive line), the rest of Mathews’ game is appealing. He led all running backs in fantasy points per snap last year (minimum 25 percent of team snaps) at 0.48, just ahead of Karlos Williams, Thomas Rawls and Todd Gurley. It was the second time in three years Mathews had led in that number. Wendell Smallwood failed to pop this preseason, Kenjon Barner is entering his third season and has 34 total rushing attempts, and Darren Sproles is going to carry the ball as little as possible. Mathews is going to get his shot this year. And with it, he should outperform his draft stock.
4. Rashad Jennings, RB, New York Giants
It feels weird to include someone like Jennings here. He was a starting running back a season ago, and had more than 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the last four games last year. Despite that, he’s the 28th running back off the board right now according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Part of that is that Jennings is a 31-year-old who never played 16 games before last year, and the Giants still have Shane Vereen and Andre Williams floating around, plus 2016 draft pick Paul Perkins. Even with all that, the team has more-or-less committed to entering the season with Jennings as the No. 1. Give him a starting gig, and he’ll be a fantasy starter as well.
5. Lance Dunbar, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Let’s dig deep here. Through three games a year ago, Dunbar was 12th among running backs in PPR fantasy scoring, despite only two carries. He had 21 receptions on 22 targets, three more targets and five more receptions than anyone else at the position. Of course, he tore his ACL in Week 4 and was lost for the year, but if not for that, we might be discussing Dunbar in the same vein as the pass-catching backs like Duke Johnson, Theo Riddick and Charles Sims.
He has been activated from the PUP list now and looks likely to start the season on the Dallas 53-man roster. If Dallas wants to protect Ezekiel Elliott somewhat, the best way to do that is keep the rookie from catching too many passes, which means that job could fall to Dunbar, and with a rookie quarterback passing the ball in Dak Prescott, the short-pass option might be appealing. Dunbar isn’t going to be your fantasy starter, but as a super-late flyer in a PPR league, he’s worth a look, especially considering he has a totally free ADP.
6. Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Moncrief has played only two preseason games so far, and averaged 41.5 receiving yards per game. Only 10 receivers who have played in two or three games have a higher average. Meanwhile, ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells has floated the idea that Moncrief could surpass T.Y. Hilton and lead the Colts in receptions, something he also said in the summer. We’ve been on the Moncrief train for a while around here, and his connection with Andrew Luck (1.31 fantasy points per target over 97 targets) makes him look appealing.
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Moncrief is currently going off the board as the 21st receiver, 44th overall. If Wells (and half of PFF Fantasy, it feels like) is right, then he could be worth taking where Hilton is going, at 31st overall. With Coby Fleener and Andre Johnson gone from Indianapolis, there will be targets looking for homes, and it certainly sounds like Moncrief is a candidate to take them.
7. Mike Wallace, WR, Baltimore Ravens
This one is an especially odd entry, as Wallace has two thousand-yards seasons and two double-digit-TD seasons under his belt. Still, though, Wallace’s draft stock has plummeted, and at this point, even a middling performance is going to look like a breakout. Wallace is entering his eighth season and he has missed all of one game in his career. He had 836 or more yards five years running from 2010 to 2014, before going to Minnesota last year and seeing his numbers nosedive. Of course, that Minnesota team passed fewer times than any team in the NFL.
Wallace is being drafted down around the kickers, defenses and No. 3 quarterbacks right now. Considering the health question marks that surround Ravens wide receivers Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman, plus injuries that have already struck running back Kenneth Dixon and tight end Ben Watson, Wallace could see a big jump in targets this year. He’s not a strong candidate to top 1,000 yards or 10 touchdowns again, but as a fantasy bench stash to monitor, he’s definitely worth a flyer, as he could end up being one of Joe Flacco’s top weapons and will cost you no draft capital at all.
8. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions
At this point, betting on Ebron for Week 1 seems dodgy, as the tight end is dealing with an ankle issue. But considering he’s not even sure to miss that game, he seems likely to be healthier for the rest of the season. And that’s good, as Ebron is a nice candidate to pop from the lower ranks of tight ends. Ebron had 84 fantasy points on 65 targets a year ago, a rate of 1.29 fantasy points per target that was just behind Gary Barnidge (1.33) and Greg Olsen (1.32), and ahead of names like Antonio Gates, Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker. He’s entering his third season, generally considered the sweet spot for tight end value, and the short-passing offense implemented by the Lions in the second half of last year should serve him well.
Obviously, Ebron carries that injury risk. But for those with the patience and roster flexibility to withstand a week or two without him, he has top-five potential at a position where the top five is considered pretty locked in, and as a result, pretty highly drafted. His draft stock has fallen to the mid-teens among tight ends, and if he can get healthy and continue to produce at his 2015 rate, he’s worth well more than that.