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Fantasy Playbook: Which Surprise Out-of-Nowhere Stars Are Here to Stay?

Guys like Phillip Lindsay, Matt Breida, and Kenny Golladay have broken out this season. Will their production last?

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Every year, a handful of relative no-namers explode over the first few weeks, rising up depth charts as potential fantasy football stars. Last season, Bears rookie running back Tarik Cohen—who went into the year as the RB76 in average draft position, 260th overall—was one of the NFL’s first hot waiver-wire pickups after an electric opening-week performance (66 yards rushing, eight receptions, and a touchdown). And not far behind was fellow rookie Alvin Kamara (then RB55, 156th overall), who grabbed 10 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in Week 4 to make him another early waiver-wire favorite.

Of course, that’s where the two players’ seasons diverged: Cohen’s usage and production trailed off precipitously, and Kamara’s skyrocketed. The Bears’ nimble scatback went on to finish the year 30th among running backs in fantasy points (in PPR leagues), while Kamara would finish third, racking up 728 rushing yards, 826 receiving yards, and 14 touchdowns, helping a lot of managers win their leagues.

It’s impossible to predict who this year’s versions of Kamara or Cohen will be, but we’ve already seen a few players surface as must-add waiver-wire targets. Let’s take a look at the numbers and tape of a few of this year’s early breakout players, and whether they’re for real or short-term flashes in the pan.

RB Phillip Lindsay, Broncos

After spending the offseason debating whether the Broncos would turn to rookie Royce Freeman or veteran Devontae Booker, most of us overlooked the team’s third option, an undersized, undrafted rookie out of Colorado. Lindsay quietly played well in preseason, averaging 5.4 yards per carry while catching four passes for 54 yards and a score, earning himself a spot on the roster.

Then, somewhat shockingly, he had a prominent role in the offense when the Broncos opened at home against the Seahawks, carrying the ball 15 times for 71 yards while catching two passes for 31 yards, the highlight this catch-and-run touchdown.

In Week 2, he showcased an intriguing blend of speed, explosiveness, and, especially for a back listed at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, a willingness to punch the ball up into the meat of a defense rather than trying to bounce everything outside.

He rushed 14 times for 107 yards (7.6 yards per carry). He showed off excellent balance through contact on this play, taking a hit, spinning, and managing to stay on his feet to pick up the first down.

And on this play, he displayed incredible elusiveness, setting up defenders with head fakes before exploding past them in the open field.

Lindsay, who came into the season as the RB99 by ADP, 347th overall (basically undrafted in just about every league), is third in the NFL in rushing (178 yards) after two weeks—and is the first undrafted free agent in league history to total 100-plus scrimmage yards in each of his first two games. Freeman remains, at least in name, the team’s starter, but Lindsay leads the Broncos in touches (32) and is second in scrimmage yards (213) behind only Emmanuel Sanders (231), and his 54 snaps played outpaces both Freeman (45) and Booker (41).

The question is whether that time and volume share can hold. For now, head coach Vance Joseph has indicated the plan is to stick with “the hot hand” in the backfield, and for the most part, that’s definitely been Lindsay. It helps too that Lindsay proved he could handle a heavy workload at Colorado, where he rushed 545 times for 2,726 yards and 30 touchdowns over the final two years in school. But as long as Freeman’s healthy, I think the two rookies will split snaps going forward as the Broncos look to avoid undue wear and tear on their diminutive new playmaker. That might cap Lindsay’s upside this year, but he appears to be anything but a flash in the pan.

RB Matt Breida, 49ers

It’s not like Breida came out of nowhere—he got 126 touches in the 49ers’ offense last year and spent most of the offseason as the assumed backup/sidekick to the newly signed Jerick McKinnon. But Breida fell off the radar a bit after a shoulder injury caused him to miss most of the preseason, and when McKinnon got hurt and was replaced by Alfred Morris, that muddled backfield situation (along with GM John Lynch talking Morris up) created plenty of fantasy uncertainty. It was not clear which back was going to get the lion’s share of action in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme—and still isn’t, really—but after two weeks, it’s pretty obvious that Breida has by far the most upside of the two.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound dynamo leads the NFL in rushing yards (184) and yards per attempt (8.4) and has rattled off three 20-plus-yard runs. Not bad for the guy who came into the year as the RB47 by ADP. Against the Lions last Sunday, he showcased his elite athleticism (he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash and 6.85 in the three-cone and jumped 42 inches in the vert and 11-foot-2 in the broad jump at his pro day) in the open field, breaking through arm tacklers and leaving defenders in the dust.

With a little downfield blocking help from Pierre Garçon, he took this 66-yard run to the house, too.

Breida is still being outsnapped by Morris (65 to 56 on the year), but he’s clearly doing more with his touches. His über-efficient production may prove unsustainable, but his big-play potential and versatility as a pass catcher make him the running back to have in the 49ers backfield.

WR Kenny Golladay, Lions

Golladay was everyone’s favorite fantasy sleeper last year, but the big, athletic third-rounder out of Northern Illinois battled injuries early on and ended his rookie year with 28 receptions for 477 yards and three scores. Now healthy, Golladay looks like he’s quickly becoming the team’s new de facto no. 1.

Through two weeks, the 6-foot-4, 213-pound pass catcher has reeled in 13 of his 21 targets for a team-high 203 yards (11th league-wide) and one touchdown. His speed in the open field is what first stands out; in the team’s Week 1 loss to the Jets, Golladay beat Trumaine Johnson on a pair of crossing routes over the middle of the field.

But his incredible catch radius might be what makes him special. Against the Jets, he went up high in traffic to bring down this dart from Matthew Stafford.

Golladay is second in snaps among Detroit receivers (behind only Marvin Jones Jr.), and has already become one of Stafford’s favorite targets. After coming off the board as the WR52 in ADP this year, his 39.3 fantasy PPR points make him the current WR13, just behind Julio Jones and ahead of DeAndre Hopkins. With the Lions’ defense showing few signs of stopping anyone, Detroit could be in for plenty of high-scoring games this year, giving Golladay elite fantasy upside. If you drafted him, buckle up.

TE Will Dissly, Seahawks

FantasyPros’ ADP list for 2018 ranks 486 skill-position players. Will Dissly is not on it. Through two weeks, the rookie is the NFL’s TE3 in PPR, with six catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns.

The former Husky started out college as a defensive lineman before switching to tight end as a junior but mainly made his mark in the team’s offense as a blocker. That was, at least on the surface, the main draw for Seattle, too, which chose him in the fourth round as part of its plan to refocus on the run game this offseason. Dissly’s acquitted himself well as a blocker early on, but it’s his ability in the passing game that’s really opened a lot of eyes. In the Seahawks’ opener, he caught three passes for 105 yards and a score, including this chunk play in which he rumbled and tumbled through a bevy of arm tackles for 66 yards.

This play, though, was actually more impressive. Dropping back on play-action, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson fired a dart down the seam, and Dissly reached up to snatch it from the air. That’s not an easy catch, but the big, still-green tight end made it look easy.

Dissly caught a garbage-time touchdown in Week 2 and looks to have gained some chemistry with Wilson in the team’s passing attack. He’s reeled in six of this 10 targets for a team-high 147 yards and two scores, and saw his snap count jump from 58 percent Week 1 to 71 percent in Week 2.

I’m not to the point yet where I’m willing to bank on Dissly as a consistent producer. Under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, the Seahawks’ offense has no identity, can’t protect Wilson with any consistency, and can’t really run the ball. Through two weeks, they’re 28th in total plays, 25th in yards per play, and 21st in points. Until Seattle gets things figured out, Dissly is likely to be a boom-bust, touchdown-dependent fantasy asset week in and week out. Stash him, but don’t count on him.

RB Austin Ekeler, Chargers

Ekeler spent most of his rookie year in 2017 playing backup to Melvin Gordon, but he made the most of his opportunities, carrying the ball 47 times for 260 yards (5.5 yards per rush) with two touchdowns while adding 27 catches for 279 yards and three scores through the air. This year, he’s still second-fiddle to Gordon—and that’s why he landed as the RB58 in ADP—but he’s proved to be even more efficient with his opportunities than last year. Through two weeks, he’s racked up a team-high 116 yards on the ground (7.3 yards per carry) and caught eight passes for 108 yards and a score, and the Chargers seem to have made it a priority to get him onto the field. He’s even taken a few snaps alongside Gordon in two-running back sets.

Against the Bills in Week 2, deployed as a wing back of sorts, he showed off his decisiveness in the open field, picking up chunk yards on jet sweep and end-around plays.

Against the Chiefs in the opener, the Chargers utilized him as a receiver, too, both out on the wing and from the backfield.

Ekeler has some boom-or-bust potential because of where he sits on the depth chart, and Gordon’s more than doubled his snap count thus far (98 to 46). But he’s still enough of a part of L.A.’s offense to be rostered, and should Gordon get hurt, he’s got that win-you-your-league type upside.