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This Season’s Fantasy Breakout Candidates Feel Awfully Familiar

What’s the key to finding fantasy football value in a post-sleepers world? Draft players in similar situations as the guys who won leagues the year before.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fantasy football draft season is upon us, and right now I’m spending way too much time trying to figure out how I’m going to squeeze every bit of value from my auction dollars — the quickest way to ruin my friends’ lives.

In 2016, the funeral for the idea of the fantasy sleeper is an annual tradition. But even in a world where we know the names of every draftable player, there are still tricks to maximizing the talent on your roster. A sleeper is no longer a player who no one in your league has heard of; it’s a player who drastically outperforms his average draft position (ADP), someone who’s the 15th player taken at his position but ends up fifth in scoring by season’s end.

As part of my fantasy preparation each year, I try to identify those players in a variety of ways. One method is looking at the previous season and trying to figure out which guys are in situations that mirror those of players who had breakout seasons the year before. It’s a hit-or-miss approach, but there are times when it can win you a league. With that in mind, here are my best guesses at the 2016 versions of a few 2015 fantasy stars.

Quarterback

2015 breakout star: Tyrod Taylor, Bills (275 total points, 14th among QBs)

2016 version of him: Taylor

Running quarterbacks regularly seem to turn people into Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes this time of year: No matter how many times fantasy players get hit in the face with them, they still don’t learn their lesson. Tyrod Taylor was an afterthought in both real and imaginary football before last summer, but following his 2015 campaign, I’m not quite sure how the latter remains true.

Though Taylor finished last season with the 14th-most fantasy points at his position, he tied for sixth in points per game among starting QBs (19.6). Yet somehow, he’s been the 16th quarterback being taken in an average 2016 draft. For every argument as to why Taylor won’t match his 2015 totals, there’s a parallel argument regarding the quarterbacks going ahead of him. He’s a one-year wonder bound to regress this fall? Oh, hello Kirk Cousins and Blake Bortles. His style of play makes him an injury risk? What’s up, Tony Romo?

There are valid reasons to be concerned about Taylor — with the Bills’ league-low passing percentage (49.9 percent) at the top of the list — but for all the risk brought on by his tendency to yank the ball down and take off, there’s just as much reward. Taylor ran for 568 yards with four touchdowns last season; in leagues with standard scoring, that amounts to 80.8 total points and 5.8 per game. Without the rushing numbers, Taylor is pretty much 2015 Sam Bradford. With them, he’s 2015 Carson Palmer. And unlike, say, the six rushing touchdowns that Jameis Winston scored last year, Taylor’s added value on the ground doesn’t feel fluky. It’s an ingrained part of the Bills’ offense, and a big reason they finished second in the NFL in rushing DVOA.

Take the points he gets with his feet and combine them with the connection he developed with Sammy Watkins near the end of last season, and there’s no way Taylor is a worse fantasy option than 15 other quarterbacks.

2015 breakout star: Blake Bortles, Jaguars (324 total points, 4th among QBs)

2016 version of him: Jameis Winston, Buccaneers

The Bucs fired coach Lovie Smith in January and replaced him with Dirk Koetter, a move that likely won’t be enough to get Tampa anywhere near Jacksonville’s second-ranked passing percentage (65.0 percent) from a season ago, but should certainly lead to more aerial opportunities than existed in 2015. Beyond that, there are plenty of other factors that seem to be working in Winston’s fantasy favor.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Bucs’ offense started 140 plays in the red zone last year — 13th in the NFL — but failed to adequately take advantage. The area inside the 20-yard line was a dystopic wasteland for Winston, in more ways than one. Tampa threw on only 53.6 percent of those plays, considerably lower than the league’s red zone average of 55.9, and Winston struggled mightily when he put the ball in the air. Among quarterbacks with at least 20 red zone attempts, only four had a worse completion percentage than Winston’s 38.9.

Out from under Smith’s conservative thumb, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bucs pass a lot more often when they get inside the 20 this fall. If receiver Mike Evans (more on him below) can start to look like his old self near the goal line, they’ll have even more reason to air it out. Tampa’s game flow and game plan won’t give Winston the amount of chances that Bortles had when he racked up 35 passing touchdowns last year, but based on his progression and the Bucs’ new man at the helm, if any QB being drafted outside the top 15 can push to finish in the top five, it’s Winston.

Running Back

2015 breakout star: David Johnson, Cardinals (173.8 total points, 7th among RBs)

2016 version of him: DeAndre Washington, Raiders

The similarities between Washington’s situation this season with the Raiders and Johnson’s last fall with the Cardinals are everywhere. A year ago, Johnson looked poised to become the Cardinals’ no. 2 running back, with only a former sixth-round pick boasting a limited track record (Andre Ellington) above him on the depth chart. Washington, a fifth-round pick out of Texas Tech, figures to be in a comparable spot, and the good news is that the Raiders don’t have a Chris Johnson-type back to steal his spot if Latavius Murray were to get hurt.

As with Arizona last offseason, Oakland’s 2016 running game has a lot of external factors pointing to marked improvement. The Cardinals ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing DVOA in 2014, but signed offensive guard/human wrecking ball Mike Iupati the following March and got back a healthy Carson Palmer. The Raiders finished 24th in the same metric last year, but their passing game should attract more attention by virtue of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper each being a year older and wiser. The team also tossed a bunch of cash at Kelechi Osemele to secure its own mauling guard capable of grinding defenders into dust.

Washington is a Murray injury (or bout of ineffectiveness) away from the starting job on an offense that has a chance to be pretty damn good overall and vastly better than it was running the ball. But that’s not where his fantasy appeal ends. Oakland ranked 24th in rushing percentage (36.7 percent) in 2015, but a huge portion of those runs went to Murray. The 230-pounder accounted for a whopping 71.9 percent of his team’s rushes last year; no other Raiders back had more than 24 carries for the entire season. That trend held true in the red zone, where no back in football garnered a greater share of his team’s carries inside the 20 than Murray. If Washington supplants Murray and both guys stay healthy, the 2016 offense could see more of a split. The Raiders have shown that if necessary, though, they don’t mind giving one back a clear majority of the work.

One other thought worth considering here: Are we sure that Murray’s good? He had five games last fall in which he averaged 3.0 yards per carry or less, and now enters the final year of his deal. That leaves Washington with fewer barriers to a starting spot than almost any other under-the-radar back in the league — his ADP is 54th among running backs — and the end result could be a ton of carries on an offense that should put up a lot of points.

2015 breakout star: Doug Martin, Buccaneers (199.3 total points, 3rd among RBs)

2016 version of him: DeMarco Murray, Titans

It pains me to say this — because Titans coach Mike Mularkey shouldn’t be rewarded for setting football back a decade — but it isn’t hard to picture a scenario in which Murray has a pretty good year.

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Getty Images

First-round pick Jack Conklin should shore up Tennessee’s offensive line at right tackle, and former Texans center Ben Jones should bolster a spot that’s long been a vortex of blown blocks and ineptitude for the Titans. Even if Mularkey turns young quarterback Marcus Mariota into a handoff machine, a healthy version of him should ensure that Tennessee stays out of the DVOA basement. And having some threat of a passing game helps to open things up on the ground a bit.

The looming threat of Derrick Henry, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who was taken with the no. 45 pick of this spring’s draft, might be troublesome for Murray’s workload. But if this team runs the ball 500 times, even that might not matter for Murray’s fantasy potential. There are so few reliable options at running back this year that finding one who’s lost some luster but should maintain a key role in a run-heavy scheme isn’t a bad way to derive value.

Murray has the exact same ADP among running backs (19) that Martin had in 2015. Martin went on to finish third at the position in total fantasy points.

Wide Receiver

2015 breakout star: Allen Robinson, Jaguars (224 total points, 4th among WRs)

2016 version of him: DeVante Parker, Dolphins

Considering Robinson was the second player ever to put up an 80-catch, 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown campaign within his first two NFL seasons, predicting anyone will be his 2016 equivalent is a little bit unfair. But if you’re looking for a receiver who could outperform his ADP by 20 spots or more — like Robinson did last year — Parker is a prime candidate.

Let’s start with the tale of the tape. Parker was a top-15 pick in last year’s draft who averaged 7.2 catches, 142.5 yards, and nearly a touchdown per game during his final season at Louisville in 2014 (albeit in six games). According to Mockdraftable.com’s similarity scores for a player’s profile, the guy with recent combine numbers that most closely resemble A.J. Green’s is, you guessed it, Parker. He’s a massive target (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) with ridiculously long arms, better-than-average ups, and top-end speed fit for a guy three inches shorter than he is.

A foot injury sabotaged the first half of Parker’s rookie season, but by the end of the year, he looked every bit the death-from-above threat that the Dolphins envisioned when they selected him. Through Week 11, Miami’s supposed downfield receiving options — Kenny Stills and Rishard Matthews — had a combined 18 receptions of 20 yards or more. In Miami’s final six games, Parker had nine. In five of those six games, he averaged at least 20 yards per catch.

Any pessimism about Parker’s ceiling centers on the Dolphins’ deep-throwing woes of years past (Tannehill completed just three of 27 attempts on passes that traveled 30-plus yards in the air in 2014), but after watching some of Tannehill’s throws from 2015, I’m inclined to believe a good chunk of the blame belongs to guys like Stills and Mike Wallace.

Before Parker, Tannehill never had a guy who could regularly make plays like the one above. With the second-year receiver now stepping into a full-time starting role, he’ll have one as a staple of his offense.

Another concern about Parker’s value is volume. Fellow Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry racked up 166 targets last year — the sixth-most in the league — on a team that finished third in passing percentage (64.8 percent). New head coach Adam Gase should bring more balance to Miami’s offense, but a look at the numbers suggests that still isn’t enough to torpedo Parker’s fantasy appeal.

Tannehill threw 586 passes last year. Even if the QB has 50 fewer attempts this fall, Parker could maintain a healthy diet of targets. Just by preserving the market share (about 19 percent) he had toward the end of last season, he’d still finish with 102. Factor in the loss of 97 targets that went to Matthews and Greg Jennings last year, as well as a likely (if small) reduction in Landry’s workload, and Parker hitting 130 targets is easy to imagine.

With a reasonable improvement in catch rate (say, going from 52 to 55 percent) and a slight decline in yards per catch (say, dropping from 19 to 17.5), Parker’s forecast would come out to about 70 catches for 1,200 yards. If he can sniff double-digit touchdowns in his role as the Dolphins’ primary red zone threat, that production would be elite, the sort of fantasy output would’ve put him right around Green and Calvin Johnson at the back end of the top 10 in last season’s wide receiver scoring. With Parker’s current ADP — 33rd among wide receivers, behind players like Jordan Matthews, Emmanuel Sanders, and Donte Moncrief — that’s a risk worth taking.

2015 breakout star: DeAndre Hopkins, Texans (220.1 total points, 6th among WRs)

2016 version of him: Mike Evans, Buccaneers

I touched on why brighter days should be ahead for Evans on Monday, but it’s worth parsing the numbers even further. Since 1992 (the first year the stat was tracked), 195 players have gotten as many targets as the 148 Evans had last fall. Three — count ’em, three — caught fewer touchdowns than the trio of scores Evans had in 2015.

Let’s discount for a second that Evans, at 6-foot-5 and 231 pounds, is built like a next-gen cornerback Terminator. His projected workload and some easy-to-spot touchdown normalization are still enough to make him a good bet to finish as a top-five fantasy receiver in 2016. In only 15 games last year, he ranked 10th in the league in targets, and there’s no discernable reason why his looks should drop off. The Bucs added no receivers of note in the offseason, and get-off-the-bus-running Lovie Smith is no longer in Tampa Bay to ensure that the Bucs finish in the top 10 in league-wide rushing percentage. Touchdown-wise, Evans caught just two of his 15 end zone targets last year after hauling in 10 of 19 from noted superstars Josh McCown and Mike Glennon the season prior.

All that kept Hopkins, whose ADP was 11th among receivers in 2015, from cracking the top five of last year’s receiver scoring was a wanting touchdown total. Targets are typically the surest indicator of where a receiver ends a given season in fantasy production, and even though Evans may not break 200 total targets the way Hopkins did a year ago, a healthy number of chances and a bounce-back touchdown output would make him a threat to outscore every receiver not named Antonio Brown and Julio Jones this fall.

Tight End

2015 breakout star: Tyler Eifert, Bengals (139.5 total points, 6th among TEs)

2016 version of him: Eric Ebron, Lions

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Getty Images

I know, I know. At this point, hitching your wagon to Ebron seems about as smart as hitching a ride in a horror movie. Hear me out, though.

There’s little chance the Lions match their red zone efficiency from a season ago. Detroit scored a touchdown on a staggering, 69 percent of its trips, second in the league, and Matthew Stafford somehow completed more than 75 percent (!) of his passes inside the 10-yard line. But as Danny Kelly pointed out, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was a huge help in maximizing Stafford’s overall efficiency near the goal line.

Danny’s piece focused on the idea that, sans Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate will get a ton more work, including in the red zone. I can absolutely see that happening, as Tate actually led the Lions in red zone targets last year with Megatron on the roster. But Johnson still got 16 looks inside the 20, and Detroit loves throwing the ball when it gets close to paydirt. Enter Ebron, who at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds has the upside to be an end zone force.

There are already concerns about an ankle injury Ebron suffered earlier this month, but if he can get healthy and haul in red zone targets at the rate that he did last year (75 percent), he could rack up a lot of cheap touchdowns — just like Eifert did a year ago. That’s fantasy gold, even if you have to dig pretty deep to find it.