I know, Week 1 of the NFL season is underway (or finished, depending on when this article is published). I truly intended on having this article ready two months ago, but I was happily distracted by some family events, so I’m sharing my most recent Year 2 Breakout Candidates now. Better late than never, right?
Something I greatly enjoy is witnessing the progression and emerging relevance of players into the world of fantasy football. Some pop off right away in their first year in the league, but most make us wait for it - for the right scenario, opportunity, or happenstance to reveal their fantasy football value; proving some of us wrong or proving some of us right. As fantasy football managers/analysts, we particularly place second and third-year players under a microscope, examining data and narrative to call our shots on the potential of upcoming breakout seasons. In this article, we’ll look at second-year breakout candidates and discuss which elements are working for and against their probability of a breakout. To keep us all on the same page, I want to share which point-of-view I am writing this article by explaining my threshold of a year-two breakout:
Obviously, we are only looking at players entering their second season in the NFL. Any 2020 rookie that finished in the top twelve (PPR) of their respective position is not included as a potential candidate, as, and I think we can all agree, they had a breakout season last year. So, we are looking at the second-year players that may have the best chance of finishing as a top-twelve fantasy player at their position for the first time. I realize that is a tight threshold, but we’re not writing a novel here and the bar needs to be set somewhere. I will admit, if we’re at the end of the 2021 season and a second-year player finishes at 15th in their position group, I’ll probably call that a breakout season (except for TEs and QBs). Due to that, I will also be throwing out some honorable mentions at some positions to keep on your radar. For the most part, all these guys are already going to be rostered in dynasty leagues, making them candidates to keep stashed or to go maybe even trade for. If, for some reason, these guys didn’t get drafted in your redraft leagues, be sure to keep a close watch on them. Let’s get to it.
We saw four rookie QBs have significant playing time last year: Justin Herbert (LAC), Joe Burrow (CIN), Tua Tagovailoa (MIA), and Jalen Hurts (PHI). Herbert finished at QB9 in 2020, thus eliminating him from year-two breakout candidate contention since he broke out as a rookie. So, let’s look at the other three:
Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
The Cut Consensus Rank: 11
My Rank: 10
Hurts had some shiny moments at the end of the season after the Eagles handed him the reins. His mobility makes us fantasy football nerds drool a little bit. I have Hurts projected to finish at QB11 this year, largely because of that rushing ability. There may be some uncertainty among the pass-catchers regarding prominence (I lean towards DeVonta Smith), but Hurts doesn’t need a standout, he just needs everyone to be pretty OK. Hurts also has two veterans TEs in Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and a valuable RB in Miles Sanders to offer quality support.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cut Consensus Rank: 12
My Rank: 12
Burrow finished his 2020 rookie season as the QB25, after only playing in 10 games. His 16-game pace would put him as QB13 (16 games at 17.9 PPG). Three things are in question after preseason: Burrow’s repaired ACL, the performance of the Bengals’ O-line, and the dependability of Ja’Marr Chase. While all three could damper Burrow's overall performance, a full season with a healthy Joe Mixon (fingers crossed) and the reliability of Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd makes the likelihood of a top-12 season more realistic. I have Burrow projected to finish as QB12, which I realize is a relatively boring projection.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
(Photo Credit: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)
The Cut Consensus: 19
My Rank: 13
Of the three eligible QBs, Tua may be the least likely to finish in the top-12, but he still has a fair shot. Tua made an appearance in 10 games, starting 9, during his rookie campaign. The Dolphins offense should be, could be, might be very exciting to watch this season. The addition of WRs Jaylen Waddle (rookie) and Will Fuller (free agency) fills the WR room with an abundance of talent. Tua will not have a shortage of quality pass catchers. Hopefully, the addition of Waddle and Fuller helps Tua unlock his deep ball, as he finished 2020 with only 10.3 yards per completion. Remember, Tua does offer some rushing upside.
This is a tough one. Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins were both at least considered for this list but will, unfortunately, miss the 2021 season. However, there are still some excellent candidates that just fell short of the top-12 in their rookie seasons in 2020.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
The Cut Consensus Rank: 16
My Rank: 17
CEH was so close to being a top-12 RB in 2020, despite only scoring 4 touchdowns. CEH missed 3 games and was only 30.6 PPR points out of being RB12, which he would have reached if he played all 16 games (based on his 13.5 PPG in 2020). I’m confident in his projected volume and it’s likely his TD production will increase, making CEH a wonderful candidate as a Year-2 breakout. I project him to finish as RB17, but that’s not due to lack of output, just all RBs increasing production from last year league-wide.
Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
(Photo Credit: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)
The Cut Consensus Rank: 11
My Rank: 15
You read the above criteria correctly. If a rookie finished in the top-12 in their rookie season, they’re not eligible to be a Year-2 breakout candidate. RB13 is definitely not a top-12 RB, which is where Gibson finished in 2020. Depending on who you ask, Gibson is going to explode or disappoint this year. While I have Gibson projected as RB15, finishing in the top-12 is certainly a possibility. Having 4.7 YPC and 11 touchdowns in 14 games in 2020 makes me wonder how productive he’ll be playing a full schedule in 2021. The WFT should have consistent QB play in 2021. At least, the same person consistently playing at the QB position, which should play to Gibson’s advantage.
Others To Watch:
Zack Moss, BUF
AJ Dillon, GB
In case you missed it, the 2020 WR class showed up last season and did not disappoint. Under our parameters, there was only one rookie WR (Justin Jefferson) that broke out in 2020. It feels crazy to say that many of them didn’t breakout last year, but that means there are many candidates (I wanted to write about at least 7 WRs, but I had to get back to work) for 2021:
CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
The Cut Consensus Rank: 14
My Rank: 15
Lamb is everybody’s favorite, right? I believe it’s fair to consider that Lamb could have been a top-12 WR in 2020 if Dak Prescott had been healthy all season. Even being Dak-less for 11 games, Lamb finished as WR22 in his rookie campaign. When I think about players with superior ball skills and athleticism, CeeDee Lamb always pops into my mind. It’s no guarantee, but it won’t be a surprise to see Lamb finish in the top-12 in 2021, even with the high target demand of teammate, Amari Cooper.
Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Cut Consensus Rank: 29
My Rank: 22
Claypool was a rookie touchdown factory (9 receiving and 2 rushing). Those 11 TDs with 62 receptions (109 targets) still only placed him as the WR23 in 2020. It is natural to assume some decreased touchdown production, but it is also natural to assume increased production between the goal lines. QB Ben Roethlisberger is believed to be in a healthier and more competitive physical state than he was a year ago, which is always great news for the fantasy values of wide receivers. However, Claypool will have to emerge ahead of his Pittsburg cohorts to achieve the breakout status, which is plausible.
Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
(Photo Credit: Mile High Sports)
The Cut Consensus Rank: 39
My Rank: 25
Jeudy finished as WR45 after logging a catch percentage of just 46% in 2020. Woof. It’s not all Jeudy’s fault (12 drops, 5 in Wk16 alone). If you’re like me, Teddy Bridgewater (2020 completion percentage of 61.88%) being named the starter, as opposed to Drew Lock (2020 completion percentage of 53.13%), makes you a little excited for Jeudy’s 2021 outlook. Just put the ball in the numbers and let Jeudy seal his own 2021 breakout season fate (maybe).
Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cut Consensus Rank: 34
My Rank: 28
Between Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyler Boyd, there may not be enough opportunity for any individual WR in Cincinnati to be a WR1. Then, I look at Minnesota Vikings WRs (Justin Jefferson WR6, Adam Thielen WR10) in 2020 and think, “It could happen.” Assuming Cincinnati will be playing with a negative game script most of the season, the abundance of passing plays may lack quality, depending on the health of QB Joe Burrow and the efforts of the offensive line. I am willing to say that there is ambiguity associated with Cincinnati’s WR room, and somebody (Tee Higgins) could breakout as the clear first option for the team, potentially leading to an overall top-12 breakout season.
Others To Watch:
Laviska Shenault, JAX
Henry Ruggs, LV
Michael Pittman, IND
Gabriel Davis, BUF
Bryan Edwards, LV
Donovan Peoples-Jones, CLE
Van Jefferson, LAR
Freddie Swain, SEA
Quintez Cephus, DET
This is a pretty shortlist. Those who have either studied fantasy football or absorbed content over the years know that tight ends typically won’t breakout during the early years of their career. Tight ends are like a fine wine...you get it.
Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints
(Photo Credit: Derick Hingle / AP)
The Cut Consensus Rank: 16
My Rank: 12
Trautman may have one of the best opportunities for success in 2021 compared to the rest of the TEs in the league. There is a tremendous number of vacated targets (if you believe in that sort of thing), an injured alpha WR, and Jameis Winston at QB suggests a pass-heavy offense. At least, heavier than if Taysom Hill won the starting QB role. Nevertheless, Trautman’s breakout potential most likely rests on his TD production, which could happen because I’m not sure who will be getting the Saints’ red-zone targets at this point. It sounds like Trautman escaped a serious injury, so we’ll see how it plays out.
Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears
The Cut Consensus Rank: 24
My Rank: 22
Kmet has the ability, but maybe not the opportunity. The Bears depth chart does list Kmet as first string, but old man Jimmy Graham is still there and he received the largest portion of the TE targets in 2020 for Chicago, 22 of them being red-zone targets with 8 touchdowns. If Kmet assumes Graham’s red zone work, we can expect big things from the second-year tight end.
- Jerred Tarrell