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Fantasy: Breakout candidates to target in 2023


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With the NFL draft behind us and most notable free agents signed, it's time to identify this season's fantasy breakout candidates.

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Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars

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There's no denying Lawrence made significant improvement in his sophomore year. A big part of that can be attributed to a head coaching change that brought in much more competent leadership under Doug Pederson.

Jacksonville's front office has also been smart about upgrading the talent around its young franchise quarterback, adding pass-catchers like Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram prior to last season.

The result saw the former No. 1 pick go from 12.7 fantasy points per game (QB34) as a rookie to 17.9 fppg (QB12) in 2022. And the Jaguars weren't done there.

The team rolled the dice by trading for Calvin Ridley, a wideout who posted a 90-catch, 1,374-yard, nine-touchdown campaign three years ago before injuries and a suspension for violating the league's policy on gambling sidelined him for most of the last two seasons. That move already appears to be paying off as Ridley has been reinstated and highlighted by beat writers as a standout player in offseason practices.

Lawrence also provides enough rushing production to get him into the conversation with the top fantasy quarterbacks. The 23-year-old has the eighth-most rushing yards among QBs over the last two seasons combined and has seven rushing touchdowns during that time.

If you think Lawrence is overqualified for a breakout list, just know that this projection has him jumping from a low-end fantasy QB1 to a true difference-maker. Don't be surprised when he's mentioned as an MVP candidate by midseason - he's currently tied for the seventh-best odds to take home that honor.

Other breakout QB candidates:

  • Anthony Richardson, Colts - With fantasy managers getting more accurate predicting breakout quarterbacks in recent seasons, value-chasers are forced to take more risks in hopes of hitting on the next big thing. Richardson is one of the most athletic QBs to enter the league, pairing a massive arm with dangerous rushing skills in a 6-4, 244-pound frame. His accuracy and pocket awareness are also better than advertised. Joining a team coached by Shane Steichen, who was involved in the development of Jalen Hurts, doesn't guarantee success but should ease his transition to the pros. Richardson's numbers on the ground will provide a decent fantasy floor and a massive ceiling while he adapts to the NFL.
  • Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins - Tagovailoa was in the midst of a breakout last season before concussion issues derailed his campaign. If you remove the Week 4 game where he left early, Tua averaged 19.7 fantasy points across 12 contests, which would have made him the QB6 on the year. With arguably the league's best receiver tandem and one of the NFL's most creative play-callers in Mike McDaniel, health is the only question mark for Tua moving forward.
  • Brock Purdy, 49ers - At the moment, all signs are pointing toward Purdy returning from his elbow injury early in the season - possibly by Week 1. And based on comments from several members of the organization, the seventh-rounder appears to be the locked-in starter when he's healthy. He might not be the most gifted quarterback, but Purdy proved he can be the latest passer to execute Kyle Shanahan's offense and produce solid fantasy stats. From Week 13 on, Purdy posted top-12 fantasy QB numbers, and the only thing holding back his hype train is offseason surgery. Fantasy managers should take advantage of the limited-time discount.

Alexander Mattison, Vikings

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Dalvin Cook's release has paved the way for Mattison to finally get his chance as a full-time starter in the Vikings' offense.

In the last five games where he started and Cook was sidelined, Mattison averaged 90.2 rushing yards, 42.4 receiving yards, 4.4 receptions, and one touchdown. His half PPR weekly fantasy finishes in those games were RB3, RB7, RB9, RB5, and RB13.

There are always doubts about whether a backup runner can hold up to a bigger workload over a longer period, but nothing in Mattison's profile suggests he can't handle lead back duties over a full season.

The Vikings are also reportedly high on Ty Chandler and rookie DeWayne McBride as depth pieces, so it seems unlikely they'll dip into the veteran free-agent pool unless an injury occurs over the summer.

That positions Mattison to be the unquestioned top option in Minnesota's backfield, making him a very intriguing fantasy RB2 with legitimate RB1 upside if he can pick up where he left off in his past starts.

Other breakout RB candidates:

  • Bijan Robinson, Falcons - Atlanta's rushing attack was a major bright spot last season behind an offensive line that graded out as a top-five unit by Pro Football Focus. The team finished third in Football Outsiders' offensive rush DVOA behind only the Eagles and Ravens. Now they're upgrading from overachiever Tyler Allgeier to one of the best running back prospects ever in Robinson, who will instantly become a household name as an elite fantasy back.
  • Cam Akers, Rams - One season after being on our bust list, Akers makes a triumphant turnaround to earn a spot as a breakout candidate. At the start of the 2022 campaign, the Rams didn't trust Akers with a full workload, and for good reason since he was still working his way back from injury. However, over the last eight games, he averaged the eighth-most fantasy points at his position and posted four straight outings with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. Entering his fourth season, Akers is ready to reach his fantasy ceiling as a focal point of the Rams' attack.
  • Jahmyr Gibbs, Lions - Gibbs was an exciting prospect with an exceptional pass-catching profile, but the Lions' decision to invest a top-12 pick shows the trust they have in him becoming a dynamic weapon in their offense. Gibbs and David Montgomery will form the new and improved version of what D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams were in Detroit last year. The rookie back has been a star in OTAs, and with few proven receivers outside of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Gibbs has an extremely high PPR fantasy ceiling.

Treylon Burks, Titans

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The Titans used a first-round pick in 2022 to draft Burks as the replacement for A.J. Brown, whom they traded away to the eventual NFC champion Eagles.

Unfortunately, Burks showed up to OTAs out of shape, and injuries ultimately limited him through his first season as a pro. Brown's immediate impact in Philadelphia also put added pressure on Burks and might have contributed to public perception viewing him an early bust.

However, he appeared to be finding his rhythm in the middle of the season with back-to-back quality starts that featured stat lines of 7-111-0 and 4-70-0. The next week he came out with a beautiful 25-yard touchdown grab between two defenders before suffering a concussion that put him back on the sidelines.

Burks, when healthy, earned targets at an impressive rate for a rookie and showed he can be an impact player. When he did get back on the field late in the season, he had another decent performance with 4-66-0 against the Cowboys.

It's also worth noting that he seemed to learn from his mistakes in Year 1 and showed up to OTAs in excellent condition with newfound confidence, according to beat writers.

The Titans' decision to sign free agent DeAndre Hopkins puts a limit on Burks' outlook for 2023, but it doesn't prevent him from breaking out due to the serious lack of receiving talent behind them. Hopkins will take pressure off his younger teammate and draw defensive attention away, allowing Burks to continue his development against easier coverages.

What we're left with is a highly drafted wideout who flashed as a rookie and is now in line for a notable target share in an offense that'll be a lot more potent with Hopkins. That's still a strong recipe for a fantasy breakout.

Other breakout WR candidates:

  • George Pickens, Steelers - Pickens is a polarizing fantasy asset, with some arguing his hype train got out of control due to highlight-reel catches and others viewing him as the next star receiver to come out of the Steelers' system. Both outlooks can be true. There's no doubt the casual fan can be overly impressed by a one-handed sideline catch, and considering Pickens was hauling in difficult grabs all the way back in OTAs, it's easy to see why his value was inflated early on. We also saw a first-year wideout who missed most of his last year in college with a torn ACL enter the NFL and put up top-40 fantasy numbers on a per-game basis over his last 14 contests with underwhelming quarterback play. If Kenny Pickett can take a step forward in Year 2, Pickens should have no problem improving on last year's 52-801-4 line.
  • Jahan Dotson, Commanders - Dotson missed a lot of time due to injury as a rookie, but in the eight games where he played at least 70% of the snaps, he averaged just under four catches, 57 yards, and nearly a touchdown. That put him on pace for 64 grabs, 963 yards, and 13 scores over a full season. While the red-zone projection is unlikely, it does showcase his skill in that area of the field. Beat writers have also remarked on the growing chemistry Dotson and new starting quarterback Sam Howell have been displaying in OTAs. Dotson's fantasy value is closer to teammate Terry McLaurin than people might realize, and the second-year wideout is going off the board three rounds later.
  • Rashod Bateman, Ravens - Baltimore has made a clear effort to advance its passing attack this season, adding new receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers, as well as a less run-heavy offensive coordinator in Todd Monken. With an increase in pass volume on the way, the Ravens' weapons should entice fantasy managers. Bateman flashed plenty of upside during his two injury-shortened campaigns and totaled over 50 yards and/or a touchdown in nine of the 14 games where he played at least 50% of snaps. If he can stay healthy, this will be the year he puts it all together.

Greg Dulcich, Broncos

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The days of rookie tight ends being fantasy afterthoughts are over. In the last couple seasons, we've seen several first-year players make an impact at the position, including Dulcich who finished as the TE18 in fantasy points per game in 2022.

Despite injuries limiting him to just 10 appearances, the 22-year-old instantly emerged as the Broncos' starter when healthy. He should benefit from the arrival of new coach Sean Payton who helped athletic tight ends like Jimmy Graham, Ben Watson, and Jared Cook to top-10 fantasy finishes during his time in New Orleans.

Offseason reports suggested the team was willing to hear trade offers for Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, bringing into question how much the team is actually committed to them as long-term starters under Payton's regime.

Meanwhile, Dulcich has been drawing rave reviews from his new coach.

"He's got a unique skill set. He's got traits. In the passing game we use the term, 'Joker' where you can get matchups," Payton told Mike Klis of 9News.

"I think his menu (of routes and formation spots) is going to be lengthy in the passing game and there's enough stuff we can do in the run game," Payton added.

There's a lot to still be sorted out in Denver's offense, but Dulcich belongs on everyone's list of late-round fantasy tight ends to target, especially at his current ADP in the 12th round.

Other breakout TE candidates:

  • Dalton Kincaid, Bills - As the lone tight end selected in the first round this year, Kincaid couldn't have asked for a better combination of draft capital and landing spot. He provides Buffalo with a flexible chess piece it can move around the formation and find mismatches with, including working as a big slot receiver. Kincaid could be the next rookie tight end to become fantasy viable right out of the gate, so enjoy the discount while it lasts.
  • Chig Okonkwo, Titans - Okonkwo quietly posted the 10th-most fantasy points among tight ends from Week 9 on as a rookie. While those weren't huge numbers on a per-game basis, it was a good sign for a first-year tight end. As we mentioned in the Burks section above, the Titans bringing in Hopkins puts a cap on Okonkwo's upside, but he still profiles as the No. 3 pass-catcher in their offense.
  • Juwan Johnson, Saints - Johnson continues to impress in practice, which shouldn't surprise fantasy managers. From Week 6 on last year, he averaged the eighth-most fantasy points among tight ends. The 26-year-old is a sneaky candidate to post low-end TE1 fantasy stats again, especially with the arrival of Derek Carr in New Orleans.

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