Fantasy Football 2016: 2nd-Year Players Primed for Breakout Seasons
The 2016 NFL preseason is barely more than two months away, which of course means that fantasy draft season is right around the corner.
If you're the type of player who has been prepping for your fantasy draft all offseason long—and you know who you are—you've probably been analyzing free-agent additions and draft selections. There are going to be some first-year players with notable fantasy value, and free agency always creates some new and favorable fantasy situations.
The hype that free-agent signings and draft picks generate can raise their fantasy demand, however, and over-drafting them can be a common occurrence. If you're looking for some quality fantasy sleepers, the crop of second-year NFL players is usually a solid alternative resource.
This year, quite a few second-year players can provide great value to your fantasy team. Some of them—such as first-round receivers Kevin White and Breshad Perriman—didn't even get on the field as rookies. Others struggled in their inaugural pro campaigns and will look to rebound. Yet others are in new situations that lend themselves to further success.
We're going to take a look at 10 of these second-year players who are poised to break out in 2016. Since we're looking at players with breakout potential, guys who established themselves as top-tier fantasy options last year—such as Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper and Thomas Rawls—won't qualify.
Kevin White, WR, Chicago Bears
As we already mentioned, Chicago Bears receiver White wasn't on the field last year. A series of shin injuries led to surgery and caused the 2015 seventh overall pick to miss his rookie season.
This year, the former West Virginia standout should be a full go, and that's big for both the Bears and for fantasy owners. White is the ultimate size-speed monstrosity—at 6'3" and 215 pounds, he clocked a 4.35-second 40 at the combine—and he should provide quarterback Jay Cutler with a dangerous downfield weapon in 2016.
According to White, the year of learning on the sideline will make him an even more competent receiver than he would have been as a rookie.
“It’s a lot easier now,” White said, per Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Last year, everything seemed so fast. It was really hard trying to learn the concepts because at West Virginia I stayed on one side and everything was a hand signal.”
Cutler passed for more than 3,600 yards with 21 touchdowns in 2015. Expect those numbers to go up with a healthy White on the field, and expect White to consume a large slice of the fantasy pie.
Clive Walford, TE, Oakland Raiders
Oakland Raiders tight end Clive Walford was little more than a fantasy spot starter in 2015. He produced 329 yards receiving, which ranked 31st among tight ends.
Walford started only two games for Oakland in 2015, though, but his role should change this year. With a year of NFL seasoning now under his belt, Walford should be able to emerge as a more consistent piece of the Raiders passing attack.
If he can manage to earn the starting tight end job before the start of the regular season, expect Walford to emerge as a quality fantasy option. He is a big target at 6'4" and 251 pounds and has the quickness to create mismatches all over the field. He ran an impressive 4.79-second 40 at the combine last year.
Walford has a realistic chance of establishing himself as Derek Carr's third receiving option after Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
Of course, Walford has to get healthy and onto the practice field before he can earn any significant role—he was injured in an offseason ATV accident. Part of the reason why he was slow to emerge last year was that he was injured for much of the offseason.
According to ESPN's Adam Caplan, Walford is expected to be back "well before" training camp this year. He'll be a player to watch leading up to your fantasy draft, and a strong offseason should put Walford in line to be a potential late-round steal.
Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett burst onto the NFL scene as a kick return star in 2015. He returned 33 kicks for 852 yards, 40 punts for 379 yards and scored twice on special teams.
In leagues that award points for return yards, he was an asset. However, Lockett was also an effective downfield receiver. He racked up 664 yards and six touchdowns on 51 receptions. Pro Football Focus rated him 26th overall among all receivers for the 2015 season.
A bigger role should allow him to emerge as a true fantasy star this coming season. In fact, Michael Robinson of NFL.com recently identified Lockett as one of this year's breakout stars.
"With a healthy Jimmy Graham—who will be in the slot with Doug Baldwin—Lockett will more than likely be up against the fourth or fifth defensive back," Robinson wrote. "He's going to eat those guys alive and put up big numbers on the perimeter for Seattle in his second pro season."
Expect Lockett, who finished last season second on the team with 51 receptions, to become an even more important piece of the Seahawks offense this year. It is realistic to believe he will approach 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Naturally, he should be an even bigger target if your league rewards return yardage.
Duke Johnson, RB, Cleveland Browns
If you played in a points-per-reception (PPR) league last year, you may have become familiar with running back Duke Johnson. Though he produced only 379 yards rushing as a rookie, he finished the year second in receptions among all rookies with 61.
Those receptions yielded 534 yards and two scores. Theo Riddick, Devonta Freeman and Danny Woodhead were the only running backs to log more receptions than Johnson in 2015.
Johnson should be in line for even more production this season. New head coach Hue Jackson is used to operating a split backfield—which is what Johnson will see in Cleveland, along with Isaiah Crowell—after spending the last two years as offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Under Jackson, the Bengals ran a two-back system that involved the downhill running of Jeremy Hill and the shifty, receiving qualities of Giovani Bernard. Johnson is likely to play the Bernard role for Jackson now, which is good news for fantasy owners. Bernard racked up 730 yards rushing, 49 receptions, 472 yards receiving and two touchdowns last season.
These numbers are more likely to resemble the floor for Johnson in 2016, not the ceiling. His ability to move around formations and play in the slot and split wide will be beneficial in the passing game for Cleveland.
Expect to see Johnson's rushing numbers increase this year, and expect him to remain one of the league's top receiving backs. If you're playing in a PPR league this year, value Johnson accordingly.
Breshad Perriman, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Like White, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Perriman was a first-round pick in 2015 who missed his entire rookie season. While White suffered from shin injuries, Perriman's primary injury was to his knee.
Perriman can have an impact this season for the Ravens much like White can have in Chicago. The University of Central Florida product is big, physical and fast. At 6'2" and 212 pounds, Perriman ran a stunning 4.27-second 40 at his pro day.
Now, he finally appears healthy.
“I feel much stronger,” Perriman recently said, per the Ravens' official website. “I feel like I went through a lot last year, and it made me a better player and a better person.”
Partnered with strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco, Perriman should produce plenty of chunk plays in 2016. With Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wallace also on the team, Perriman isn't likely to begin the season as Flacco's top target. However, he should have some early value, especially in leagues that give bonus points for long receptions.
Of course, this doesn't mean Perriman can't finish the season as Baltimore's top receiver. The presence of Smith and Wallace will help ensure opposing defenses can't spend too much of their resources trying to stop him.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota had his fair share of struggles as a rookie in 2015. A lack of offensive weapons hamstrung him, and he missed four games due to injury. Both issues limited his overall on-field and fantasy production.
However, the stage has been set for improvement in 2016. Top wideout Dorial Green-Beckham has a year of experience under his belt, and the Titans took steps to improve the level of talent around Mariota in free agency and the draft.
Tennessee got Mariota weapons such as receiver Rishard Matthews and running back DeMarco Murray in free agency. The Titans also added center Ben Jones in free agency and drafted offensive tackle Jack Conklin and running back Derrick Henry.
As a result of Tennessee's moves, Mariota should be better protected and have less pressure on his shoulders to carry the offense.
In his 12 games last season, Mariota averaged 234.8 yards passing, 21 yards rushing and 1.175 combined touchdowns per game. Expect those numbers to rise significantly in 2016 because of the new weapons around him. Expect his sack and fumble numbers—38 sacks, 10 fumbles with six lost—to go down as a result of improved protection.
Mariota might not be a top-end fantasy starter this year, but he should be worth drafting as a high-end No. 2 or possible starter in the middle rounds.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Green-Beckham showed some flashes as a rookie last season, and those glimpses of his potential suggest he can be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
Green-Beckham entered the NFL after a year away from the playing field. This caused his development to be a bit slow as a rookie and didn't lead to a ton of consistency. However, Green-Beckham still managed to produce 549 yards and four touchdowns on just 31 receptions.
Those numbers could double in 2016.
Just as Mariota will benefit from a more experienced Green-Beckham, his growth can lead to more production from the receiver. The improved protection and new offensive pieces that will benefit Mariota will benefit Green-Beckham as well.
Perhaps more importantly, Green-Beckham seems to be gaining the confidence of his second-year quarterback.
"The dude is a stud," Mariota recently said of Green-Beckham, per Jim Wyatt of the Titans' official website. "Physically, he is very gifted. He made a couple of plays today that's going to be needed. So hopefully we can find ways to get him the football and let him do his thing."
Green-Beckham may not be a top-tier No. 1 receiver this season, but he should be Tennessee's top wideout. Stacking your team with second-tier No. 1 receivers in the middle rounds of the draft is a great way to ensure depth, so keep Green-Beckham in mind in the coming months.
DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker struggled early as a rookie in 2015, in part because of foot injuries and offseason surgery. However, he came on strong late in the season and finished with 13 receptions, 286 yards and a touchdown over the final three weeks.
Parker should be Miami's clear No. 2 receiver this year—and the team's top outside target when Jarvis Landry is playing in the slot. Landry, by the way, produced 110 receptions, 1,157 yards and four touchdowns. These are numbers Parker can realistically strive for.
“I expect big things out of him. I’m expecting him to be a heck of a football player, a guy that other teams fear, because he can make big plays down the field, inside,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill recently said, per Charles Trainor of the Miami Herald. “He’s a big-bodied guy. He’s a guy we’re going to want to use in the red zone, on third downs and to stretch the field as well.”
The Miami offense is widely expected to see improvements this season under new head coach Adam Gase. Parker should be one of the biggest benefactors. He has proved that he can be a downfield mismatch—he averaged 19 yards per reception—and Gase has more than enough sense to get him the football.
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/nfl/miami-dolphins/article80134197.html#storylink=cpy
Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
After being selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, Wisconsin product Melvin Gordon was expected to be the answer to the San Diego Chargers' rushing woes.
Unfortunately, he disappointed as a rookie. He appeared in 14 games but produced only 641 yards on the ground to go with a subpar 3.5 yards-per-carry average. He also failed to find the end zone.
Part of Gordon's struggles can be attributed to a shaky offensive line that was missing right tackle King Dunlap for most of the season. Continual issues at the center position also hurt the Chargers line. Overall, the team was rated just 31st in run blocking by Pro Football Focus for the 2015 season.
San Diego added center Matt Slauson in free agency and drafted Max Tuerk in the third round to help strengthen the interior of the line. The team also drafted fullback Derek Watt, who was one of Gordon's lead blockers at Wisconsin.
Adjusting to the speed and the spacing of the pro game also seemed to be an issue for Gordon, as it often is with rookie backs. Though the Chargers didn't do him any favors by creating space, he seemed to have trouble maximizing the holes that were there. As he grows more accustomed to the NFL, he should improve in this area.
Being banged up also played a part, and Gordon finished the season on injured reserve with a knee injury. He underwent surgery after the season but appears to be fine. Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com reported that Gordon was a participant in the Chargers' first round of OTAs.
A healthy and more experienced Gordon should be much more productive in 2016. A healthier and improved receiving corps—the Chargers are getting Keenan Allen back from injury and signed Travis Benjamin—should also buy Gordon some running room up front.
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston had a strong rookie campaign in 2015. He wound up in the Pro Bowl, and if you drafted a quarterback like Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, you may well have started Winston for part of the year.
Still, he wasn't a high-end fantasy starter. He finished 11th in the league in yards passing with 4,042 yards and 16th in passing touchdowns with 22. He was also tied for fifth in the NFL with 15 interceptions and had six fumbles.
As a quarterback, Winston should see quite a bit of growth in his second year. The Buccaneers made offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter their head coach after last season, and the move should yield continuity on offense. Expect Winston to become more efficient and to cut down on turnovers as a result.
According to wide receiver Mike Evans, Winston should be in better physical shape this year as well.
"He lost a lot of weight," Evans said of Winston, per Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times. "He slimmed out. I was joking with him the other day. He took his shirt off, and I said, 'Man, what happened to the belly?' He's got a six-pack like me. He's put in a tremendous amount of work, and I think it's going to be a great year for him and this whole team."
A more physically fit Winston could lead to more production on the ground—he had 213 yards rushing and six scores in 2015. A healthier receiving corps should lead to more production through the air. Evans, wideout Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed a combined 16 games in 2015.
Winston should be on your radar if you're a fantasy owner who doesn't target a quarterback in the first couple of rounds.