Potential second-year breakouts in fantasy football


There's an indescribable energy that accompanies the NFL draft each year -- even when conducted remotely, as was the case in 2020. The simplest reason for it is the promise and hope that arrives when teams make their respective picks. Perhaps someone has landed their own version of Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson.

Fast-forward to the season ahead and another reality emerges: These players are still rookies! It takes time to acclimate to the speed and rigors of the professional game for most first-year players, save some exceptions that leave us in awe. (We're thinking of you, A.J. Brown and Josh Jacobs, among others.) So a quiet start to an NFL career doesn't foretell failure. Rather, that should be our expectation. We also know that many NFL players experience a substantial growth from their rookie year to their second season, even those that experienced some rookie success (see: Jackson, Lamar).

With the idea in mind that a second-year breakout is a semi-regular occurrence, let's explore some of the candidates who seem to be ready to make the leap in Year 2 for fantasy purposes. Note that in addition to Jacobs and Brown, Kyler Murray and Miles Sanders were also excluded from this list for having already performed at a high enough level as rookies.


Daniel Jones, New York Giants: Jones is a trendy breakout candidate in fantasy circles after having a promising start to his fantasy football career in 2019. In Weeks 8-17, Jones was the sixth-best quarterback in fantasy on a per-game basis. That's a large enough sample size to suggest there are some intriguing ingredients here. The Giants trailed on nearly 70% of their offensive snaps last season, an important caveat for fantasy football, as playing from behind typically equates to throwing the football more and piling up those points. Jones also has excellent athletic ability, as was evidenced by his 5.2 yards per carry on 45 attempts. That wasn't enough for him to register among qualifying carriers, but it would have ranked fourth in the entire NFL if it did. Jones also finished with 24 passing touchdowns -- the second-highest total ever by a rookie quarterback -- in just 12 starts. Keep this in mind: The Giants had exactly zero snaps with Jones, Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard on the field together last season.

Drew Lock, Denver Broncos: The sample size for Lock is small, as he started just five games in his rookie season, but the return was solid enough to expect improvement this year. Lock's numbers weren't eye-popping (1,020 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT), but his swagger and confidence were both on display. What is easy to see is that the supporting cast around him looks awesome. Courtland Sutton is a rising star, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler (the team's top two rookies) bring explosive skills, and TE Noah Fant should make a leap -- more on him later. The case for Lock is rooted both in the enticing supporting cast he has around him and that we project him to improve.

Running backs

Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills: We saw the Bills commit to Singletary down the stretch in 2019, as he averaged more than 20 touches per game during the team's final five regular-season games. While Singletary isn't Derrick Henry from a size perspective (just 5-foot-7, 203 pounds), he chews up yards in a hurry. He picked up 10-plus yards on an astonishing 16.6% of his 151 carries last season. That's a stat reflective of power, acceleration and decisiveness. The Bills invested a third-round pick in Zack Moss in this year's draft, which squelches Singletary's outlook some for this season, but there's too much talent to ignore here, even if Moss does carve out a role right away.

Wide receivers

Terry McLaurin, Washington: McLaurin burst onto the scene as a rookie, recording more points in his first three weeks (59.7) than any rookie wide receiver since Anquan Boldin, back in 2007. With speed to burn (ranked 12th in the NFL in YPC last season), McLaurin is a weekly threat to score a touchdown thanks to his big-play propensity. Inconsistent QB play doomed him for a stretch of last season, but an expected leap from Dwayne Haskins Jr. should boost his outlook. I love the player, I love the role and I see no reason he can't climb even further up the wideout depth chart.

DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks: You know his name already, as Metcalf had moments of true dominance as a rookie and immediately earned the trust of Russell Wilson. He was particularly busy in one critically important metric: end zone targets, leading the NFL with 19 of them. That's a stat that will be a hallmark of his game, given his herculean frame and physicality. The Seahawks dug deep to add depth at tight end this offseason, but their WR corps will almost assuredly be led by Metcalf (and Tyler Lockett) once again. That means his 100-target total from 2019 is likely to repeat or rise.

Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens: "Hollywood" had an incredible start to his career last season, posting a 147-yard, two-TD performance in his first NFL game, suggesting immediate stardom. Through Week 5, Brown had a 23.8% target share for the Ravens and at least five targets in each of those five games. From that point on, Brown -- who suffered an ankle injury that slowed his progress -- had just one game with at least five targets. It's an easy bet to expect Brown to make a quantum leap this season with a superstar quarterback and the kind of speed for which no defense has a perfect answer. Volume is the key for this touchdown maker.

Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers: Two factors nearly kept Samuel off this list. Most important, he was really good as a rookie, but an offseason Jones fracture (foot) has the start of Samuel's season in some question as well. We opted to include Samuel, choosing to take the optimist's view, which isn't hard to see. Samuel had an 8.1 YAC last season, more than any other player with at least 55 grabs in the NFL. He's explosive and the volume was already solid, but that should improve this season, particularly if he gets more slot work. In 2019, Samuel caught 87.5% of his 24 slot targets and 64.3% of his out-of-slot targets. The 49ers aren't particularly deep at wide receiver, and Samuel is their best talent, by far. Kyle Shanahan expertly incorporates him as an occasional runner too. He's just a really fun player to watch, and he oozes star potential.

Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers have a long and established track record of developing wide receivers, so Johnson was already generating some buzz as a sleeper going into his rookie season. The raw numbers don't blow you away, but allow me to note that his 680 receiving yards and five touchdowns with some downright poor quarterback play should be a feather in Johnson's cap. We expect a fully healthy Ben Roethlisberger this year, which represents a massive step forward compared to Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph, who were off target on an astounding 22.1% of their throws last season. There's plenty to like about Johnson's skill set, and a steadying force at quarterback should result in plenty of good for him this season.

Preston Williams, Miami Dolphins: We'll look back at 2019 as the DeVante Parker breakout year, but Williams was off to a strong start before tearing his ACL midseason. He was on pace for 64 catches, 856 yards and six touchdowns, with his production coming as Miami's offense was still a massive work in progress. It got much better in the second half of the season. Williams is a vertical threat, as he led all rookies in air yards per game at the time of his injury and is well positioned to be an every-down player again for Miami this season. Ryan Fitzpatrick found magic late last season. The Dolphins are hopeful that will carry over to 2020, but Tua Tagovailoa waits in the wings if he should struggle. Williams is a fun flier.

Darius Slayton, New York Giants: There are undoubtedly some warning signs in expecting too much from Slayton, as he's potentially the No. 5 passing-game option for the Giants. He had more games last season (eight) with three or fewer catches than four-plus grabs (six), but he showed a propensity for finding the end zone, scoring eight touchdowns on just 48 catches, averaging over 15 yards per catch. So let's focus on the latter portion of this dynamic. Slayton is really, really talented, and the Giants were all sorts of banged up at receiver last season. Slayton is an ideal bench lottery ticket whose value may be tied to the health of other pass-catchers on the New York roster. Still, he's too explosive to ignore.

Hunter Renfrow, Las Vegas Raiders: Renfrow and Slayton are not similarly styled players, but they do have comparable situations. The Raiders used their first-round pick on Henry Ruggs III to go along with breakout star Darren Waller and Tyrell Williams as their top passing targets, so Renfrow will not be the top option for Derek Carr. That being said, Renfrow is a good player with excellent reliability. Over the final six games of last season, Renfrow hauled in 31 of 41 targets for 402 yards and three touchdowns. As we have seen time and again of late, it takes rookies some time to adjust early. If Ruggs needs that same acclimation period, Renfrow could be counted on to be a regular in the new-look Vegas offense.

Tight end

Noah Fant, Denver Broncos: Fant is another buzzworthy name in the fantasy community this offseason, as he oozes potential based on his athletic upside alone. He clocked in with a 40 time of 4.50 at the 2019 NFL combine (at 249 pounds) and averaged 14.0 yards per catch as a rookie. In Weeks 11-17, Fant saw 28 total targets, but six of them came in the end zone -- up from the lone end zone target he saw during the first 10 weeks of the season. The skill pieces are in place for Denver to be a really fun offense this season, with Fant as an integral piece at a position in fantasy where more stars are needed.

T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions: A college teammate of Fant, Hockenson burst onto the scene last season with 131 receiving yards in Week 1 -- the most for any rookie tight end in his NFL debut in history. He was targeted on over 21% of his routes as a rookie and spent a large portion of his season with backup quarterbacks filling in for an injured Matthew Stafford. Stafford's return bodes well for all Lions pass-catchers, with Hockenson's star potential being difficult to ignore. His final season at Iowa was one of the most impressive for any college tight end over the past decade, as he averaged 15.6 YPC on 46 grabs and scored six times. Bet on the talent here.