One of the questions I get asked most often during the offseason is “Who is this year’s [enter breakout player for last season]?”
It’s not a simple question to answer because no two scenarios are exactly alike. But there are obviously comparable players in similar situations. And, if the people want comparisons, comparisons they shall have!
The process here was simple: I jotted down each of 2022’s top breakout players and came up with a short list of players who fit a similar makeup as they enter 2023. Below is analysis of each player who best fits the bill, as well as the other players who landed on the short list.
Note that this is not my way of definitively predicting that these players will definitely break out this season. Again, it’s simply the players positioned to do as a product of landing in a similar situation to those players who exploded onto the fantasy scene last season.
Fields appears to be on a very similar trajectory to Hurts. Hurts was super aggressive as a passer (top 5 in aDOT each of his first two seasons) and rusher (led all QBs in carries, rush yards and rush TDs in 2021) before exploding into a fantasy’s top-scoring QB (PPG) with an improved supporting cast in his third season. Very similarly, Fields was second in aDOT during his first two seasons, ranked no lower than second in QB carries, rush yards and rush TDs last season and landed himself a clear No. 1 wide receiver in DJ Moore during the offseason. Fields showed his ceiling with eight consecutive top-7 fantasy outings in 2022 and is well positioned for a big leap in Year 3.
Former first-round pick Lawrence emerged into a QB1 in his second NFL season.
Carson Wentz (2017), Patrick Mahomes (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), Kyler Murray (2020), Joe Burrow (2021) and Lawrence (2022) are recent examples of the many first-round QBs who broke out in their second season. None were as productive as rookies, which is notable here, as Pickett had some struggles (6.2 YPA, 12.8 fantasy PPF during 10 full games) in his first season. The good news is that weak efficiency simply isn’t a concern for first-year QBs, who generally make a big leap in Year 2. Rushing ability is becoming more important for the fantasy relevance of QBs and Pickett delivered in that department as a rookie, ranking sixth in carries and seventh in rush yards during those 10 games. An improved offensive line and upgraded goal line targets (Allen Robinson II, Darnell Washington) should help Pickett to step forward.
Smith came out of nowhere to post his first top-10 fantasy campaign.
This one is a little bit of a stretch, as Howell is only 22 years old and Smith broke out at age 31, but check this out: Howell is entering his potential breakout season with 19 career pass attempts, whereas Smith averaged 16.8 pass attempts per season over a six-year span before starting his ascent with Seattle in 2021. It’s a concern that Howell was a fifth-round pick and unable to overtake Wentz and Taylor Heinicke before Week 18 last season, but it was a concern that Smith had a career 34-to-37 TD-to-INT ratio prior to tossing 30 TDs and 11 INTs in 2022. Smith also made hay with his legs, which is an area Howell has a ton of upside (1,104 yards and 11 TDs in his final season at UNC). Howell’s targets (led by Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel) are pretty good, which adds to his appeal as a sneaky late-round flier, especially in Superflex leagues.
Pollard is entering his fifth NFL season having yet to clear 193 carries or 232 touches in a single season. Of course, both of those career-high marks were set in 2022 and, for the first time since entering the league, he’s Dallas’ clear lead back following the offseason departure of Ezekiel Elliott (even if Elliott returns or another veteran is signed, Pollard’s elite play suggests his role as lead back will not change). As a unit, the 2022 Cowboys RBs led the NFL in carries (462) and touches (524), and Pollard’s current competition for those touches is the likes of Ronald Jones, Malik Davis and sixth-round rookie Deuce Vaughn. Pollard, who ranks third in yards per carry and first in YAC since he was drafted, is unlikely to match Jacobs’ league-high 393 touches, but 300 or so is attainable and would lead to a strong RB1 fantasy campaign.
Walker, Pierce and Hall were early-round rookie running backs who quickly became weekly lineup locks.
Neither Walker nor Hall were first-round picks or handed the keys to the backfield right out of the gate, but both quickly emerged as fantasy starters. Robinson, on the other hand, was the eighth-overall pick of April’s draft and is expected to be immediately handed a feature back role. The sky is the limit, with “top-scoring RB in fantasy” in his realistic range of outcomes. We have precedent for an elite RB1 campaign from a rookie, as all six RBs drafted in the top 10 since 2011 have finished top 10 in fantasy points (Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott were top two). A healthy Robinson will be a strong bet for 250-plus carries and 50-plus receptions in an ascending Atlanta offense with a good line.
Other candidates: Jahmyr Gibbs
Stevenson and Pollard were midround fliers who earned larger roles during a breakout fantasy season.
White is unproven at the NFL level, but he’s well positioned for a larger role in his second season following the offseason departure of Leonard Fournette. Even with Fournette in the fold for most of 2022, White soaked up 129 carries and 50 receptions, the latter of which ranked 11th among running backs. We got one look at the 2022 third-round pick in a feature back role (Week 12) and he delivered 64 yards on 14 carries and caught all nine of his targets for 45 yards. With journeyman Chase Edmonds as his primary competition for work, White is set up for a huge offensive role and a fantasy breakout season.
Pierce, Pacheco and Allgeier were Day 3 rookies who quickly found their way to big roles and, in turn, weekly fantasy lineups.
Before we dive into this one, let’s be clear that Day 3 RBs have a very low hit rate and are extreme long shots for consistent Year 1 fantasy production. We obviously don’t want to get too caught up in this year’s slate of Day 3/UDFA rookie RBs, but we do occasionally see exceptions to the rule. That includes Pacheco and Allgeier late last season, as well as Pierce when he was healthy. There aren’t any Day 3 rookie RBs positioned as well as Pierce was in Houston last season, but a few have a shot at No. 2 duties and Johnson could rise as high as No. 1 in Chicago if he proves the real deal. His primary competition will be career backups/journeymen Khalil Herbert, D’Onta Foreman and Travis Homer. This should be a wide-open battle and Johnson’s size and elite college efficiency make him an intriguing late-round fantasy flier.
Williams was a veteran RB who overcame a limited receiving role with a barrage of TDs en route to a surprise top-15 fantasy season.
Predicting double-digit TD seasons is nearly impossible, but it’s not hard to identify backs in position for a bulk of goal-line work behind a strong offensive line. Perhaps David Montgomery (Williams’ de facto replacement in Detroit) should be the best fit for this category, but I find Pacheco a bit more interesting. The 2022 seventh-round pick scored six rushing TDs on 207 carries as a rookie (including the playoffs) and that was despite a limited role for roughly half the season. Believe it or not the Chiefs finished the regular season with 22 TDs scored by RBs, which tied for third most in the league. Regression lock and 31-year-old Jerick McKinnon scored 10 of those 22 TDs and some of those scores could shift to Pacheco (Kansas City’s biggest and hardest-running back) in 2023.
Cooper, Brown and Kirk were veteran WRs who took their game to a new level after an offseason team change.
We already made the Jalen Hurts/Justin Fields comp, so it stands to reason that a big leap from Fields would bode well for DJ Moore being this year’s version of 2022 A.J. Brown (fantasy’s No. 6-scoring WR). Same as with Brown this time last year, it’s reasonable to worry that Moore might struggle for enough volume in a run-heavy offense to allow a top-10 fantasy campaign, but it’s possible Chicago follows Philly’s lead and balances out the playcalling while making a big leap in scoring. Moore has always seen large target shares (24%-plus each of the past four seasons) but has never been a much of a TD scorer (over four TDs once in his career), the latter of which will need to change if he will get to Brown’s level in 2023.
Smith was a former early-round draft pick who exploded into a fantasy lineup lock in his second season.
There are quite a few great candidates for this, including some sleepers, but I’m rolling with Watson as the favorite because of his strong 2022 showing and his favorable situation as Green Bay’s clear top wide receiver. Watson first played an every-down role in Week 10 last season and was fantasy’s No. 10-scoring WR from that point forward. Watson’s TD rate (eight TDs on 35 touches) is unsustainable, but his target share was strong, as was his efficiency (85th percentile or better in YPT, RAC and YPRR). Even if new QB Jordan Love struggles, Watson will soak up tons of targets (and some carries) with Romeo Doubs and a host of rookies as his top competition for targets.
Engram and Njoku were former early-round draft picks who finally made the leap to must-start territory.
It feels weird to call Pitts a “breakout” candidate after he produced 1,026 yards and was sixth at TE in fantasy points as a 20-year-old rookie in 2021. However, he scored only one TD that season before a disappointing, injury-plagued 2022 in which he was held to two weekly fantasy finishes better than 12th.
Pitts’ best days are clearly still ahead of him and it’s possible he finally produces at a level we’d expect from a player selected fourth overall in the draft. A run-heavy Atlanta offense led by unproven Desmond Ridder is a concern, but if Pitts matches something close to last season’s 27% target share, a top-five fantasy campaign is a near lock.
Other candidates: Irv Smith Jr.
Freiermuth emerged into a TE1 during his second NFL season.
Okonkwo was brought along slowly as a fourth-round rookie out of Maryland last season, but he was impressive when utilized. Okonkwo was limited to 36% of the team’s offensive snaps and 2.6 targets, but flashed with the fifth most receiving yards among tight ends after Week 8. Granted the sample wasn’t large (46 targets), but Okonkwo’s efficiency was terrific; he finished no lower than second among TEs in yards per target and RAC. With Austin Hooper gone, Okonkwo is atop the depth chart in Tennessee and well positioned for a big Year 2 leap.
Dulcich was an immediate factor in the passing game upon his NFL debut and that’s certainly expected to be the case for Kincaid — one of two tight ends selected in the first round of the past four drafts (Pitts was the other). Rookie tight ends are rarely fantasy starter material (Pitts and Evan Engram have produced the only top-12 campaigns by rookie TEs over the past decade), though all eight TEs selected in the first round during the span were, at least, in the weekly TE2 discussion (all eight were 35th or better in fantasy PPG and six of the eight were top 25). Kincaid landed in a very good spot, as he could rise as high as third (perhaps eventually second) in target priority in a pass-heavy, high-volume Buffalo offense led by Josh Allen and without standout receivers behind Stefon Diggs. Dawson Knox‘s presence may limit Kincaid’s early output, but a TE1 campaign is certainly within his range of outcomes.
Fantasy football: Who are the 2023 versions of last year’s breakout players