Evan Silva

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Fantasy Breakout Candidates

Monday, May 29, 2017


While popular focus this time of year is on rookies and winners and losers from the NFL draft, many young veterans who’ve already flashed big-league chops are in prime position for second-, third-, and fourth-year leaps. This is a rundown of breakout candidates based on talent and opportunity for 2017. All players mentioned here must be under the age of 28. This list is not necessarily all players I think will break out, but rather players I believe have a real chance to break out if things fall in their favor.

Packers RB Ty Montgomery (Week 1 Age: 24)

A 6-foot, 221-pound “Offensive Weapon” coming out of Stanford, Montgomery was hailed as a future running back by much of #DraftTwitter in 2015 and indeed landed there beginning last Week 6. The No. 16-scoring back in PPR leagues from that point forward, Montgomery displayed surprisingly adept and physical inside running ability while finishing the season with elite rushing (5.94 YPC) and receiving (7.91 YPR) efficiency. Over the last two decades, Montgomery is one of just seven running backs to top 5.0 yards per carry (minimum 80 attempts) and 8.0 yards per reception (minimum 50 catches) in their first two NFL seasons, joining Jamaal Charles, Clinton Portis, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Joique Bell.

While Montgomery’s upside is lofty in Green Bay’s high-scoring offense, his floor is basement low. Albeit understandably based on his in-season position switch, Montgomery lost playing time due to pass-protection slipups last year. Clearly unsatisfied with their backfield parts, the Packers selected three running backs in April’s draft. Coach Mike McCarthy did insist afterwards that Montgomery remains the starter. “Absolutely, he’s our starting running back,” said the Packers’ coach. “We’ll acclimate (the rookies), teach them our system. Ty Montgomery can (already) do that, so he will be our starter.”

Redskins WR Jamison Crowder (Week 1 Age: 24)

An argument can be made that Crowder already broke out. He finished as last year’s PPR WR26 and was an every-week fantasy starter most of the season. Crowder still has sizable room for growth in a Redskins offense missing 224 targets from last year’s roster. While bigger-built newcomers Terrelle Pryor and Brian Quick offer varying potential, Crowder’s on-field rapport with Kirk Cousins is well established as a high-percentage weapon Cousins depends on in high-leverage situations. The only two Redskins who out-targeted Crowder last season (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson) left for greener pastures, and even with Garcon and Jackson in the fold, Crowder paced last year’s team in red-zone targets (16), red-zone catches (9), touchdowns (7), and passer rating (105.1) on targets from Cousins.

Despite being neither big (5’8/185) nor fast (4.56), Crowder’s short-area movements are exceptional, and he catches everything. Over the last two seasons, only three NFL wide receivers have topped a 70% catch rate on over 175 targets: Doug Baldwin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Crowder. While I would stop short of predicting Crowder becomes a 100-catch receiver this year, him doing so would not surprise.

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell (Week 1 Age: 24)

Exhibiting playmaking ability as both a rusher and receiver through three NFL seasons, Crowell’s early-career rate stats place him in a group that also includes Jamal Lewis, Adrian Peterson, Edgerrin James, Steven Jackson, Ray Rice, Arian Foster, Le’Veon Bell, Ronnie Brown, and Maurice Jones-Drew in terms of on-the-ground and in-air efficiency. Crowell has averaged over 8.5 yards per reception in his three-year career and set a career high with 4.81 yards per carry last season. Even though Duke Johnson is commonly viewed as Cleveland’s receiving back, Crowell out-targeted Johnson 34 to 27 over last year’s final eight games.

The Browns showed how they value Crowell by slapping him with a second-round restricted tender and bypassing running back additions beyond late seventh-round pick Matt Dayes. Crowell and Johnson return as a one-two punch, and Crowell is the featured component. Cleveland poured resources into its offensive line, landing difference-maker RG Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals and quality-starter C J.C. Tretter from Green Bay. Stud LG Joel Bitonio received a five-year, $51 million extension. Now in his contract year, Crowell is an ascending player in an ascending situation.

Saints WR Willie Snead (Week 1 Age: 24)

A Ball State alum who didn’t check boxes for size (5’11/195), speed (4.62), or draft capital (UDFA) upon entering the pros in 2014, Snead has nevertheless established himself as a consecutive 100-plus target receiver in Drew Brees’ offense with seasonal PPR finishes of WR32 (2015) and WR30 (2016). After trading away Brandin Cooks, the Saints are missing 143 targets from last year’s roster. On offense, their only potential impact additions were third-round RB Alvin Kamara and drop-prone 32-year-old WR Ted Ginn. In MFL10 best-ball leagues, Snead’s Average Draft Position in the month of May is WR32.

Given a reasonable assumption of health, Snead’s floor should be WR32. And his ceiling is much higher. Let’s lock in Michael Thomas as the Saints’ 2017 target leader. Last year’s second-leading New Orleans receiver (Cooks) finished as the PPR WR7, while Pro Football Focus’ Scott Barrett identified Snead with this year’s third-softest strength-of-schedule expectation among NFL wideouts. Snead’s first-three-years rate stats place him in elite company. Among pass catchers with catch rates above 65% and over 60 receiving yards per game in their first three NFL seasons, Snead is joined by only Rob Gronkowski, Jarvis Landry, Keenan Allen, and Cooks. Set for restricted free agency in 2018, Snead is another player on this list who won’t lack 2017 “motivation” with a forthcoming extension on the line.

Colts WR Donte Moncrief (Week 1 Age: 24)

Moncrief’s to-date efficiency stats are poor and an understandable reason to continue to fade him as an underachieving annual breakout pick. Yards per route run is one of Pro Football Focus’ most predictive metrics, and over the past two seasons Moncrief has finished 83rd of 96 qualifiers (2016) and 54th of 85 (2015). ‘Crief did place 34th among 90 wideouts in yards per route run as a 21-year-old rookie and is much younger than the average fourth-year NFL receiver. Over the past 20 years, only 13 NFL wideouts have scored more touchdowns before the age of 24 than Moncrief (16).

Only 60 targets are unaccounted for from last year’s Colts, and Moncrief is allegedly in danger of facing competition for his starting spot from Kamar Aiken. Thus, Moncrief’s Average Draft Position has fallen two-plus rounds from last draft season. I believe Aiken is a bigger threat to Phillip Dorsett’s No. 3 job, however, and Moncrief’s ceiling remains high as a young, big (6’2/221), fast (4.40), proven touchdown-scoring, discounted contract-year receiver attached to Andrew Luck. Coming off an injury-plagued 2016, there are reasons to believe Moncrief is a savvy post-hype buy.

Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill (Week 1 Age: 23)

Nicknamed TyFreak in most circles but TyFluke in others, Hill is sure to be a polarizing 2017 fantasy prospect. From Cordarrelle Patterson to Tavon Austin to De’Anthony Thomas to Dri Archer, WR/RB/ST gadget players have a spotty track record in the pros. Hill’s 12 rookie-year touchdowns despite only 85 offensive touches are primed for regression, while Hill never played more than 68% of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps in any of his 2016 games. When Jeremy Maclin returned from injury in the final month, Hill’s snap rates were 45%, 52%, 36%, and 62% in Weeks 14-17. Hill didn’t so much as catch a pass in Week 15 or 16.

Nevertheless, Hill was the PPR WR7 from Week 7 on, and there are indications his sophomore role will grow. “Growing Tyreek in the offense will be important,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid acknowledged in March. “He is a smart kid. He picked it up so fast, and he was able to play at our level.” Can Hill become a true starting wideout opposite Maclin with less dependency on non-bankable rushing and special teams stats? Hill’s preseason usage with the first-team offense should give us a hint. In best-ball settings, I’m willing to target Hill when he lasts until the sixth or seventh round. In re-draft leagues where floors and week-to-week reliability are far more necessary, I will probably let my competitors roll the TyFreak/TyFluke dice.

Titans RB Derrick Henry (Week 1 Age: 23)

The biggest problem with Henry right now is his ADP. His sixth-round Average Draft Position is egregious in non-PPR and PPR formats alike for a player who won’t come anywhere near returning value on investment barring a severe injury to DeMarco Murray. While Henry’s involvement did increase down the stretch last season, the Titans have been adamant Murray remains their uncontested feature back. The distinction is deserved after Murray registered the second-highest rushing yardage (1,287) and yards from scrimmage (1,664) totals of his career last season. Murray was tagged with an “injury-prone” label early in his career, but he has appeared in 47-of-48 games over the past three years.

With all that said, Henry’s upside remains undeniable on the off chance he does catch a big opportunity break. It is why Henry should be this year’s first handcuff drafted. Among backs with at least 100 attempts, Football Outsiders credited Henry with the NFL’s fourth-highest rushing DVOA and sixth-highest success rate as a rookie. Henry placed seventh among 53 qualified runners in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating and third among 62 backs in pass-blocking efficiency. Over the past two decades, only eight rookie running backs have topped 4.45 yards per carry (minimum 100 attempts) and 10.0 yards per reception (minimum 15 targets). Along with Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, and Jordan Howard qualified for that select group.

In an ascendant, run-committed offense with plus line play and a dual-threat quarterback to clear additional running lanes, Henry would be a league winner on 18-plus touches per game.

Dolphins WR DeVante Parker (Week 1 Age: 24)

Team captain of this year’s Offseason Puff Piece All-Pro squad, Parker has drawn incessant plaudits from the Dolphins’ coaching staff and local media for his alleged newfound commitment to improved eating habits, timeliness, dedication, and in-practice effort. Whether you buy the feel-good stories or not, it was clear during Parker’s first two NFL seasons that immaturity was a central factor holding him back. This offseason, Parker witnessed lesser-talented bookend Kenny Stills sign for $8 million per season while contract-year teammate Jarvis Landry engaged in even more lucrative extension talks.

Over the past two decades, only 14-of-80 (17.5%) wide receivers drafted in the first round have topped 15.0 yards per reception (minimum 80 catches) in years one and two, and Parker is among them. The “worst” players in the group are Koren Robinson and Braylon Edwards, each of whom posted at least one top-15 fantasy season and combined for five top-30 finishes. My takeaway from Parker landing in that near-bulletproof company is that we should have minimal doubt about Parker’s on-field skill. At 6-foot-3, 209 with long arms (33 1/4”) and 4.45 speed, Parker was born to stretch the field vertically. In a Miami offense whose design will increasingly use the run to set up downfield shots, Parker can absolutely prove a year-three breakout if he buys in mentally.

Patriots RB Mike Gillislee (Week 1 Age: 26)

Last year’s league leader in yards per carry at 5.7 -- after he averaged exactly 5.7 the year before, too – Gillislee landed in a great-looking spot for fantasy value as the presumptive early-down and clock-killing runner in the AFC’s premier offense. In Buffalo, Gillislee was potent enough in goal-line situations that the Bills would sometimes insert him there over LeSean McCoy. Not only did LeGarrette Blount lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns (18) in a similar role last season, but the Patriots as a team have scored the league’s most rushing touchdowns over the past six years, averaging 18.0 annually during that span.

While recently-extended James White will maintain passing-down duties and versatile Rex Burkhead is far from a pushover, Gillislee’s sheer scoring potential in New England is as lofty as any running back’s in the game. Gillislee’s downside is that he simply lacks passing-game skills with just 15 receptions through four NFL seasons and one of the worst pass-blocking grades among running backs charted by Pro Football Focus last year. Gillislee caught only 23 passes in four years at Florida. We should keep in mind that these are areas in which backfield competitors White, Burkhead, and Dion Lewis all excel.

Ravens WR Breshad Perriman (Week 1 Age: 24)

Perriman missed his entire rookie season with repeated PCL setbacks and struggled on the field as a sophomore. A player who looked like he was relearning how to play, Perriman left troubling sums of yards on the field in 2016. He managed Pro Football Focus’ No. 90 receiving grade among 119 wideouts, finishing 107th in catch rate (51.6%) and 85th among 96 receivers in PFF’s WR Rating (67.1). In contrast, Joe Flacco posted a far-superior 96.8 passer rating when targeting Mike Wallace and a 91.9 rating when throwing to Steve Smith Sr. Perriman was NumberFire’s No. 77-rated receiver in Net Expected Points, behind the likes of Jermaine Kearse, Victor Cruz, and Dorial Green-Beckham.

Make no mistake: Perriman’s breakout candidacy is opportunity driven. The Ravens are missing 214 targets from last year’s roster and didn’t make a single meaningful addition at wide receiver or tight end. ESPN projections wizard Mike Clay recently projected Perriman at 119 targets, which would have placed 22nd in the league last season. At present, Perriman’s ADPs are WR57 (non-PPR on Fantasy Football Calculator), WR58 (PPR, FFCalc), and WR48 (MFL10s). Other opportunity-based Ravens breakout candidates include injury-riddled slot man Michael Campanaro and 2016 fourth-round pick Chris Moore, who averaged 21.1 yards per reception as a 2015 senior at Cincinnati.


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Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva



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