Updated: Mar 23
Written by: Dave Hartman
The craziness of the 2021-22 NFL offseason shows no signs of slowing down. Recent developments include Tom Brady’s un-retirement after just 40 days, the long-awaited Deshaun Watson sweepstakes (and the winner is…Cleveland?!?), and the feeding frenzy that always accompanies the start of free agency. Apparently, the term “March Madness” doesn’t just apply to college hoops.
NFL News has been coming at us like a firehose, and most of it has an accompanying fantasy angle. Trades, free agency, the Draft, and roster cuts will clarify what the 32 NFL rosters ultimately will look like, which is of major interest to fantasy players. As we get closer to fantasy draft season and NFL starting lineups come into focus, you’ll hear a lot of “breakout” predictions. I think it’s a little early for that, so I want to focus instead on players who need to have a breakout season this year. These are high profile guys who came into the league with lofty expectations but haven’t yet put it all together - players who've gotten to that dreaded point of a career where they’re officially in danger of never sustaining the level of excellence (or for our purposes, fantasy production) that was expected of them. Some are even in danger of becoming outright busts.
History tells us that late bloomers aren’t all that common in the NFL, and especially at the skill positions. If a player hasn’t shown in his first 4 or 5 seasons that he can produce (and ideally, reproduce) big numbers at the NFL level, that’s not likely to change. Yes, I saw what Cordarrelle Patterson did last year at age 30, in his 9th season and on his 5th team. And I’m aware that Priest Holmes broke out and became the top dog in fantasy at age 28 and that Rich Gannon blossomed into one of the league’s best QBs (and a fantasy stud) after he turned 35. But those are exceptions. The cautionary tales of highly drafted players who were unable to make it big in the NFL are many - and while the focus is often on players taken in the top 5 who completely busted, like Ryan Leaf, Charles Rogers, Trent Richardson, Blake Bortles and others, the cautionary tale extends to many, many players taken later in the first round or early in round 2. Every Draft has a number of notable failures - which typically become painfully clear around 3-5 years after the Draft. Sometimes injuries, off-the-field issues, or team fit are a big factor, and sometimes it turns out that a heralded college player just isn’t that good.
This year is no different than others - we’ve got some players who came into the league as highly touted prospects, and are heading into “prove it” years, not only for their value in fantasy (and especially in dynasty and keeper formats), but for their next contract and their NFL career. These guys need to make "The Leap."
Before we jump into the list, let’s cover a few guidelines. First, what does “breakout” mean? I’m not going to try to put a statistical definition around it. You know it when you see it. Patterson broke out last year, as did Joe Burrow, Jonathan Taylor, Deebo Samuel, Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow, among others. These players are all going to have an average draft position (ADP) in fantasy redraft leagues that’s significantly higher than a year ago. Second, you can only break out if you have the opportunity. Free agency, trades and the Draft could further impact the opportunity of some of the players listed below. And finally, I won’t talk about any players heading into their 2nd season. Yes, a number of skill position players taken in the first 2 rounds of the 2021 draft need to show improvement this year, and especially the QBs, but let’s give the 2021 rookies another year. So, let’s go - here are players who NEED to make a leap this year.
QBs are consistently over drafted, and the reason for that is obvious - finding a franchise QB is hard, and teams are willing to reach in the early portion of the Draft to try to get one. It’s part of why the bust rate for first round QBs is so high - some of them aren’t first round talents. See my recent piece on the current NFL QB landscape for more on this: https://www.sportstimehq.com/post/haves-and-have-nots-an-early-look-at-the-nfl-s-qb-landscape-for-2022. I don’t need to list the first round QBs who never made it as NFL starters. Trust me, it’s long, and sad to look at. From a fantasy standpoint, the good news is that there are plenty of excellent QBs to go around. Other than in 2 QB leagues, or very deep leagues, none of the players discussed below are likely to be drafted as fantasy starters in 2022.
Daniel Jones. The Giants raised eyebrows when they took Jones with the 6th pick of the 2018 Draft - not because he lacked talent - but because they also held the 17th pick and given his prospect profile (which didn’t scream top 10), he might’ve lasted until then. What makes Jones intriguing as a fantasy prospect is his running ability, and we saw flashes of a top 10 fantasy QB in his rookie year, but that’s been less evident since. Big Blue’s offense has been abysmal the last 2 seasons. In Jones’s defense, he’s already had 2 coaching regimes in 3 seasons (and a 3rd starts this year), the O-line has been bad, and the string of injuries that has befallen him, and his WRs, TEs, and Saquon Barkley over the last 2 seasons has been comical. I’ll say more about Barkley later. The Giants have 2 picks in the top 7, and a new coaching staff led by Brian Daboll, who is credited with working wonders with Josh Allen in Buffalo. Hopefully, their top WRs can stay in the lineup this season. So there’s reason for at least some optimism. This is the 4th and final year of Jones’s rookie contract, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the Giants will exercise the 5th year option. This is a huge year for Danny Dimes to prove he can be a starting QB.
Tua. It isn’t lost on the Dolphins or their fans that the Chargers selected Justin Herbert with the 6th pick of the 2020 Draft, one pick after Miami nabbed Tua. L.A. found its franchise QB, thank you very much. Miami? The jury is out, and it’s asking the judge some tough questions. Miami didn’t bring in Teddy Bridgewater to start, but it’s noteworthy that they brought in a backup with lots of experience as a starter. Tua has looked good at times and overwhelmed at others. He’s small for a QB and has dealt with multiple injuries in both his college career and his first 2 NFL seasons. It hasn’t helped that he’s played behind one of the worst lines in the league, and with a below-average RB group. The bright side - like the Giants, the new coaching regime in Miami should be favorable for the offense. New Head Coach Mike McDaniel is an offense-side coach who comes from the Shanahan tree. Jaylen Waddle is the real deal, Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert should bring an upgrade at RB, and the WR and TE group after Waddle figures to be decent. Hopefully, they’ll upgrade the line as well (talks with OT Terron Armstead continue as of this writing). Tua enters his 3rd year needing to show he can be a franchise QB, full stop. If he fails to show significant improvement, or misses lots of time with another injury, he’s unlikely to go into 2023 as the unquestioned starter in Miami.[POSTSCRIPT: Not only did Miami sign LT Armstead since this article posted, but they also traded for WR Tyreek Hill. Those are HUGE additions].
Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky, Baker Mayfield, and Sam Darnold - I’m listing these 5 players together because a similar story applies to them all. Each was a top 3 overall pick. Each has played at least 4 seasons and is still relatively young (none is older than 28). Each has had opportunities to establish himself as a franchise QB, but hasn't reached that status. In fact, now that Watson is heading to the Browns to replace Mayfield, they’ve all lost at least one starting job. Trubisky is in position to get a 2nd chance as a starter with the Steelers (and could have some sneaky fantasy upside on that offense), but at this juncture it’s hard to say who of the other 4 will have a starting job in the fall, much less for what team. All are good enough to be competent NFL backups, but they weren’t drafted to be backups. Over the next couple of seasons, each QB in this group will be running out of chances to make it as a long-term NFL starter, and to be fantasy relevant. [POSTSCRIPT: In the time since this article posted on March 20, Mariota was signed by Atlanta (after the Falcons traded Matt Ryan to Indianapolis), and Winston was re-signed by New Orleans.]
Rashaad Penny - Penny was taken late in the first round in 2018 and spent most of his first 4 seasons backing up Chris Carson, constantly getting hurt, and frustrating fantasy owners who expected him to run like he did in college. But a funny thing happened at the end of last season. With the Seahawks’ entire backfield banged up, Penny got healthy at the right time and was an absolute beast down the stretch. Over the final 7 weeks of the season, he was the RB1 in half PPR, averaging just over 19 fantasy PPG. So, you could argue that he just had his breakout, and that’s fair. But it was for less than half of a season, and it pretty much came out of nowhere. Penny will have plenty of buzz this summer and this is the year for him to prove he can stay on the field and be an RB1. With Russ gone, it’s hard to know what the Seattle offense will look like. But Pete Carroll loves to run the ball, and that bodes well for Penny, assuming he's the unquestioned lead back. It’s a big year for him.
CEH - Clyde’s failure to emerge as an RB1 in fantasy over his first 2 seasons is hard to explain. He was taken with the last pick of the first round in 2020 (and was the first RB taken that year), going to the team that had just won the Super Bowl. He stepped into a great opportunity to be a 3-down back in an elite and creative offense. In fantasy, he was drafted at the back end of the first round in his rookie year and a little after the 1-2 turn in his 2nd season, but he significantly underperformed ADP both years. He’s had his moments and is impossible to bench when healthy, but the inconsistency and lack of TDs has been maddening (he has just 11 TDs in 2 seasons, on THAT offense). Part of the frustration is how much the Chiefs have rotated backs, which doesn’t bode well for him ever becoming a true bell-cow. In last year’s playoffs, he came back from injury and was the clear #2 behind Jerrick McKinnon. Could this be the year he elevates to RB1 status? History shows that as running backs age, big jumps in production are less likely with each passing year (unless your name is Derrick Henry).
Saquon Barkley- What’s that you say? Didn’t Barkley break out in his rookie year, after the Giants made him the 2nd pick in the 2018 draft? Yeah, he did. But that was then, and things haven’t gone well since. His production dropped off some in 2019 (and he missed 3 games with injury), he tore his ACL in Week 2 in 2020, he came back in 2021 not looking like himself, and oh yeah, he suffered through another injury that cost him 5 more games. He was pretty terrible last season, along with the entire offense. He averaged just 3.66 ypc, and only scored 2 rushing TDs. What’s perhaps most alarming is that he made very few explosive plays, which had been his calling card. He wasn’t even the best RB on his team. This is a big year for Barkley, who needs to prove that he is fully healthy this time around, and somewhere close to being the same back that came into the league in 2018 as a generational talent. There’s an excellent chance we’ve already seen Barkley’s peak - sad but true. The good news is you’ll probably be able to get him in the 3rd or maybe even 4th round, if you want to roll the dice on a return to form. And don’t rule out Barkley being traded before the season.
Ronald Jones and Miles Sanders - I’m bunching these 2 together because both were high 2nd round picks - RoJo in 2018 and Sanders in 2019, and they’ve both shown flashes but have struggled to lead their respective backfields, due in part to injuries, inconsistent play, mistakes, and coaching choices. As a result, both have failed to live up to expectations and to their ADPs and have generally been disappointments to fantasy managers who’ve invested decent draft capital in them. RoJo is a free agent as of this writing - Tampa still might bring him back and it could depend on what happens with Fournette who is a free agent is also. It’s hard to know right now what competition each will face in 2022, but both players need to show they can be lead backs who can stay healthy, and consistently produce on Sundays.
Jerry Jeudy - Jeudy was a popular breakout candidate in 2021, and with Russell Wilson coming to Denver, that will again be the case in 2022. As the 2021 season kicked off, I kept hearing people say how excited they were that they had drafted Jeudy. I didn’t see it, and faded him, based on his mediocre rookie year and the overall offensive situation in Denver. I’m not sure I’m on board this season either, although the addition of Wilson is certainly a major plus. It’s hard to overstate just how disappointing Jeudy has been as a pro. He was the 15th pick of the 2020 draft, taken ahead of both CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson. He did miss 6 games last season, but even still, he didn’t score a TD and only has 3 scores in 2 seasons. 3! This is a big year for Jeudy to prove that he has the goods to be a WR1 or a high-end WR2. So far, he hasn’t been serviceable in fantasy.
Christian Kirk - Kirk was taken in the 2nd round in 2018, and while he’s had some big games, he’s been wildly inconsistent and that’s made him a tough start in fantasy. He’s mostly been used as a vertical threat from the slot and has yet to top 80 catches or 1,000 yards in a season. With his rookie contract done, Kirk hit free agency and got a very nice payday from the Jacksonville Drunken Sailors. With D.J. Chark gone and Trevor Lawrence having a full year under his belt, he'll have a second chance to step up, but I’m skeptical that he profiles as a WR1. The Jags can get out of this deal in 2 years, so it’s a big 2 years for Kirk. His new teammate Laviska Shenault, the 42nd overall pick in 2020, is also at a career point where he needs to take a big step forward and show that he can be a reliable and productive WR2. Both are most effective from the slot, as is new TE Evan Engram (more on him below), so I’m not sure what Jacksonville’s plan is, other than spending its available cap money.
Chase Claypool, Jalen Reagor, and Brandon Aiyuk - I’m again lumping several players together. Reagor and Aiyuk were taken in the latter half of the first round in 2020, and Claypool in the middle of Round 2 that same year. All 3 have been inconsistent, and each has settled in as the #2 WR on his team. Claypool has shown the most so far - he scored 11 TDs as a rookie (2 came on the ground, and 4 came in one game), but that dropped down to just 2 last year. Aiyuk was in the doghouse to start last season but came on down the stretch. Reagor has really struggled as a pro and is definitely in danger of being a bust. He’s expected to have the same QB this year, but the other 2 should have a new QB throwing to them. Despite what we saw from Justin Jefferson in 2020 and Ja'marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle last year, it’s still true that WRs usually need a year or two to fully adjust to the speed, physicality, and sophistication of the NFL game, and year 3 still is viewed as the most likely breakout year for WRs. These 3 all need a breakout year and will be looking to move into the high-end WR2 range in terms of consistency and production.
O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku, and Noah Fant - What do these 4 players have in common? Well, all were 1st rounders (the first 3 in 2017, Fant in 2020), and while all were taken in the latter half of the round, none have lived up to expectations, so far. They’ve all had their moments, but to be honest there are only a handful of TEs (if that) who’ve been consistent TE1 performers in fantasy over the last several years. Fant (Seattle), Howard (Buffalo) and Engram (Jacksonville) are each joining a new team. Njoku has gotten the franchise tag, and Austin Hooper was let go, and he’ll have a new QB. So, each player should have a decent opportunity for a fresh start this coming season, and they all have something to prove.
You can’t be serious…
For more NFL and Fantasy Football content from David Hartman, visit his blog: www.thepigskinpapers.com .