Ranking the Best Fantasy Football Breakout Seasons of the Past Decade

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 30, 2020

Ranking the Best Fantasy Football Breakout Seasons of the Past Decade

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    Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson
    Patrick Mahomes and Lamar JacksonEd Zurga/Associated Press

    The awesome, frustrating, addicting thing about fantasy football is that no matter how many draft magazines you read or how many depth charts you comb through searching for sleepers, there are always breakout years that no one saw coming.

    Maybe you had an inkling that Patrick Mahomes would be special in his first season as a starter, or that Lamar Jackson would thrive in his second season in the NFL, but you certainly didn't draft them in the first round during their breakout year. On average, neither one even went in the first seven rounds of fantasy drafts the year he won MVP.

    And those are the stars who we reasonably could have seen coming.

    Guys like Peyton Hillis, Gary Barnidge and Victor Cruz?

    No chance.

    But just like those elite quarterbacks, those out-of-nowhere phenoms will forever live in fantasy lore for seasons in which they went from zero to hero.

    If you drafted/picked up any of these guys and ultimately won your league, this should be a fun trip down memory lane. If not, well, our apologies on your poor luck for the past decade.

    One major note before we dive in: With all due respect to Cam Newton, Ezekiel Elliott, Robert Griffin III, Saquon Barkley and the other rookies who immediately flourished in recent years, first-year players were not eligible for this list.

    For argument's sake, all references to fantasy points herein are based on standard, non-PPR scoring, which, thank heavens, Pro Football Reference tracks every year. And all average draft position info is according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com.

Honorable Mentions

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    Michael Vick
    Michael VickTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles, 2010

    I'm not trying to start some silly semantics argument here, but Michael Vick's 2010 season was a bounce back, not a breakout.

    Granted, he bounced back from missing the 2007 and 2008 seasons while in prison and barely seeing the field in 2009, but when he dominated fantasy leagues in 2010, it's not like we hadn't seen him shine before. For that reason, he was omitted from the top 10, even though his Monday night bonanza against the Washington Football Team was probably the most ridiculous performance in fantasy football history.

                

    Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos, 2013

    In his first two seasons in the NFL, Julius Thomas made one reception for five yards. That's because the Broncos had Daniel Fells in Thomas' rookie year, and had both Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen in his second season. In Year 3, Thomas became Peyton Manning's primary tight end, which is the equivalent of printing money. He made 65 receptions for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns.

             

    Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens, 2014

    This was the season that Ray Rice's career effectively ended because of the domestic violence case, but Baltimore's rushing attack carried on just fine without him thanks to Justin Forsett. He made just six carries for 31 yards with the Jacksonville Jaguars the previous season, but he had some success with previous career stops in Seattle and Houston. This was the first year he was the main guy, though, and he racked up more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

          

    Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams, 2017

    Similar to Vick, Todd Gurley's big year was more of a bounce back than a breakout. He ran for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie before a sophomore slump that frankly wasn't even that badit just wasn't anything close to what fantasy owners were expecting.

    However, we would be remiss without mentioning Gurley's 2017 explosion of 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns. And the best part? 25.5 points, 42.0 points and 39.6 points, respectively, in Weeks 14-16 for the fantasy playoffs.

    People who drafted him first or second overall in 2016 almost certainly did not win their leagues. Those who were able to get him late in the second or early in third round in 2017 almost certainly won their leagues.

                 

    Kansas City Chiefs Defense, 2013

    If only to prove that I considered all the elements of fantasy football, let's reflect on this breakout for a moment.

    The Chiefs were atrocious in 2012. They went 2-14, allowing 26.6 points per game with 13 takeaways and 27 sacks. The following year, they brought in Andy Reid and slashed the points allowed to 19.1 while nearly doubling their sack count (47) and nearly tripling their takeaway count (36). They also scored 11 touchdowns on defense/special teams compared to just one such touchdown in 2012.

    Pretty sure the Seattle Seahawks had the No. 1 team defense that year, but Kansas City was a strong runner-up that probably not a single person drafted.

10. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2018): 215 carries, 973 yards, 12 touchdowns; 55 receptions, 497 yards, 1 touchdown; 225 fantasy points

    Previous Year: 32 carries, 144 yards; 14 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: 57th among running backs; 154.9 overall

    When Le'Veon Bell threatened (and ultimately followed through on that threat) to sit out the entire 2018 season in order to get a long-term deal, he probably thought the Steelers would make it one week with a hodgepodge backfield of James Conner, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels before coming crawling back to him with a blank check.

    But Connera mid-round 2017 draft pick from the University of Pittsburgh—foiled that plan with 192 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Cleveland.

    The next three weeks were nowhere near as impressive, but Conner followed up that rough patch with three straight games with at least 110 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He clearly liked playing against the Browns, as he had 212 yards from scrimmage against them in the third game of that stretch of dominance.

    After putting up just 14 fantasy points as Bell's backup in 2017, Conner averaged 17.3 points in his 13 games played.

    Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the three games he missed with a leg injury were Weeks 14-16AKA the fantasy playoffs. Given how late he went in drafts, though, he was still one of the biggest steals ever.

9. Gary Barnidge, TE, Cleveland Browns

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    Gary Barnidge
    Gary BarnidgeDon Wright/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2015): 79 receptions, 1,043 yards, 9 touchdowns; 158 fantasy points

    Previous Year: 13 receptions, 156 yards, 0 touchdowns; 16 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: Undrafted

    Most of the players on this list exploded in their second season in the NFL, but Gary Barnidge was a special breed of breakout star who waited until his eighth season to finally flourish.

    During those first seven seasons, he made a grand total of 44 catches for 603 yards and three touchdowns. During the 2014 season, Charles Clay had 605 receiving yards with three touchdowns and he was only the 15th-best tight end in fantasy that year.

    Perhaps you're starting to remember why Barnidge went undrafted in the vast majority of 2015 leagues.

    He was almost certainly still on your waiver wire heading into Week 3, too, as he had just four receptions for 55 yards in his first two games. Then, out of nowhere, he became the No. 1 target in the passing game. For the next six weeks, he averaged 6.0 receptions for 85.3 yards and 1.0 touchdowns. And after those initial two duds, he was targeted 8.5 times per game over the final 14 games.

    Barnidge led the lowly Browns in receptions, yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns and scored more fantasy points than all tight ends not named Rob Gronkowski.

    Barnidge then disappeared almost as mysteriously as he arrived. He had 612 yards and two touchdowns in 2016, and that was the end of his NFL career.

8. Brandon Lloyd, WR, Denver Broncos

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2010): 77 receptions, 1,448 yards, 11 touchdowns; 209 fantasy points 

    Previous Year: 8 receptions, 117 yards; 12 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: Undrafted

    Like Gary Barnidge, Brandon Lloyd's was a late-career breakout. He had a little bit of fantasy value in the mid-2000s while with the San Francisco 49ers, but even at his pre-2010 peak, he was the 36th-most productive fantasy wide receiver in 2005.

    In the years right before his breakout, Lloyd wasn't doing much of anything. He bounced from Washington to Chicago to Denver from 2007-09, compiling just 495 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

    But when the Broncos traded Pro Bowl WR Brandon Marshall to Miami about a week before the 2010 draft, Kyle Orton simply opted to make a different Brandon his favorite target.

    Lloyd led the NFL in receiving yards and was the No. 1 fantasy wide receiver that season, narrowly edging out Dwayne Bowe, who had 15 touchdowns.

    Not bad for a guy who only appeared in two games the previous season and made just seven starts in the previous three years combined.

    Unlike Barnidge, Lloyd remained relatively valuable for two more years after his breakout. He had at least 70 receptions for more than 900 yards in each of the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Not a must-have commodity, but a respectable No. 2 or No. 3 fantasy wide receiver for those two years.

7. Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, TEs

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    Rob Gronkowski
    Rob GronkowskiElise Amendola/Associated Press

    Combined 2011 Statistics: 189 receptions, 2,637 yards, 28 touchdowns; 438 fantasy points

    Combined 2010 Statistics: 73 receptions, 902 yards, 15 touchdowns; 181 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: Graham No. 6 among tight ends, 65.0 overall; Gronkowski 10th among tight ends, 98.1 overall

    It only makes sense to address Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski together, since you probably didn't reach your fantasy league's championship game in 2011 if you didn't have one of these stud tight ends.

    For most of my life, tight ends simply weren't that important in fantasy football. Guys like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates were certainly nice to have, but neither one put up so much as 175 fantasy points in a season, so you could get away with living with whatever the waiver wire had to offer.

    That all changed in 2011 when Graham and Gronk each racked up more than 1,300 receiving yardsthe first tight ends in NFL history to do so.

    There was certainly an inkling that something special was on the horizon for both guys. Graham had four touchdowns in the final three games of his 2010 rookie season, and despite splitting TE reps with Aaron Hernandez, Gronkowski had 10 touchdowns in what was also his rookie year.

    But no one could have guessed they would both accrue at least 90 receptions and double-digit touchdowns while outscoring all but the handful of top fantasy wide receivers.

    Gronk's 241-point fantasy season is still easily the greatest by any tight end, and Graham's 197-point season is third-best on that all-time list. Would be second-best if he hadn't put together an even better season in 2013.

6. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2011): 421-663, 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions; 347 fantasy points

    Previous Year: 57-96, 535 yards, 6 touchdowns, 1 interceptions; 53 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: 11th among quarterbacks; 78.1 overall

    It's funny to think about now that he has more than 40,000 career passing yards, but for a little while, it looked like Matthew Stafford might rival JaMarcus Russell for the ignominious title of worst No. 1 pick in NFL history.

    This first selection of the 2009 draft had an atrocious 13-20 TD-INT ratio as a rookie, completing just 53.3 percent of his passes. His ratios were much better in Year No. 2, but he missed most of that season with a shoulder injurythis after sustaining shoulder and knee injuries in his rookie campaign.

    Another mediocre-or-worse showing or injury-filled season from Stafford in 2011 and the Lions probably would've purchased a ticket aboard the "Suck for Luck" bandwagon.

    Instead, he and Calvin Johnson began a beautiful relationship as an unstoppable tandem. Megatron led the NFL in receiving yards in 2011, as Stafford figured out that just throwing it up to No. 81 was a pretty solid Plan B on any passing play.

    (I say that not to diminish his career accomplishments, as he has clearly remained much better than average even without Johnson. However, there's no denying that safety net was a confidence booster that helped Stafford in his ascension to an annual top-10 quarterback.)

    Stafford had at least 4,000 passing yards and at least 20 touchdowns every year from 2011-17, but his career bests in both yards and touchdowns are still the ones he set during this breakout year.

    He was merely the fifth-highest scoring quarterback in 2011, but that catapult from 53 points in 2010 to 347 the following year was the second-largest one-year increase I could findtrailing only Patrick Mahomes skyrocketing from 10 to 417.

5. Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    Peyton Hillis
    Peyton HillisDon Heupel/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2010): 270 carries, 1,177 yards, 11 touchdowns; 61 receptions, 477 yards, 2 touchdowns; 244 fantasy points

    Previous Year: 13 carries, 54 yards, 1 touchdown; 4 receptions, 19 yards; 13 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: 61st among running backs; 160.9 overall

    From 2004-09four of those years in college with the Arkansas Razorbacks and two of them in the NFL with the Denver BroncosPeyton Hillis never rushed for so much as 350 yards in a season. In college, he was actually more of a receiving threat than a rushing threat, although that's largely because he was the third wheel behind Darren McFadden and Felix Jones for three of those years.

    Regardless, the point here is that there didn't appear to be any reason to expect Hillis to become a star when he arrived in Cleveland.

    In fact, most figured if anyone was going to challenge incumbent starter Jerome Harrison for that job, it would be rookie Montario Hardesty, not Hillis. And with Lawrence Vickers still on the roster, it didn't even look like Hillis would be the starting fullback.

    He was a complete afterthought until Hardesty suffered a torn ACL, opening the door for Hillis to challenge Harrison for the starting gig. For the first two weeks of the regular season, it looked like it would be a timeshare in which Harrison held a slight majority of the touches.

    But Harrison missed Week 3 with a thigh injury and Hillis seized the opportunity with 180 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. He was Cleveland's No. 1 guy from that point forward, finishing sixth in the league in total yards from scrimmage.

    Hillis then landed on the cover of Madden NFL 2012 and fell victim to the curse that comes with it. After a phenomenal 244-point fantasy season, Hillis was worth just 193 fantasy points over the next (and final) four seasons of his career.

4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2019): 265-401, 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns, 6 interceptions; 176 carries, 1,206 yards, 7 touchdowns; 416 fantasy points

    Previous Year: 99-170, 1,201 yards, 6 touchdowns, 3 interceptions; 147 carries, 695 yards, 5 touchdowns; 158 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: 10th among quarterbacks; 88.2 overall

    Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco and started the final seven games of the 2018 season, leading the Baltimore Ravens to what was a very unlikely AFC North division title. When he took over, the Steelers were 6-2-1 and the Ravens were 4-5. But he led them to six wins down the stretch while Pittsburgh sputtered its way out of the postseason picture.

    Despite Jackson's heroics during that strong finish, his value as a fantasy quarterback was a big question mark. In those seven starts, he averaged 159 passing yards, 79 rushing yards, 1.5 touchdowns and 1.2 turnovers.

    That's about 19 fantasy points per game, which would be good for something in the Nos. 5-10 range among quarterbacks in most seasons. But throw in the inherent risk of injury with a quarterback who averaged 17 rushing attempts per start and it's little wonder that the eventual league MVP was still available in the eighth round of most 12-team drafts.

    Jackson's yardage totals didn't change a ton from what he averaged as a starter in 2018. Passing ticked up from 159 to 209 and rushing barely increased from 79 to 80. The huge difference was the touchdowns-to-turnovers ratio. Jackson led the NFL in passing touchdowns while averaging 2.9 total touchdowns per game. Meanwhile, he only turned the ball over eight times all season.

    And, most importantly, no injury concerns whatsoever. He sat out Baltimore's regular-season finale since the Ravens had already clinched home-field advantage in the AFC, but he was sensational for the first 15 games, averaging nearly 28 fantasy points per contest.

3. Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans

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    Dave Einsel/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2010): 327 carries, 1,616 yards, 16 touchdowns; 66 receptions, 604 yards, 2 touchdowns; 330 fantasy points

    Previous Year: 54 carries, 257 yards, 3 touchdowns; 8 receptions, 93 yards; 53 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: 16th among running backs, 36.3 overall

    During the 2009 season, Houston had one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL. As a team, the Texans averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and a meager 92.2 rushing yards per game. Steve Slaton "led" the way with 437 yards, but they gave at least 50 carries to each of Ryan Moats, Chris Brown and a rookie by the name of Arian Foster in hopes of finding somethinganythingthat worked.

    So if anyone tries to tell you they knew to expect 2010 greatness from Fosterwho most Tennessee Volunteers fans remember more for his fumbles than for his positive playsthey're full of malarkey.

    In fact, I can vividly remember from my auction draft that year the uncertainty about whether Foster would even start, let alone star for the Texans. While guys like CJ2K, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice went for top dollar, I was able to get Foster for about one-sixth the price and dominated the league during the regular season because of it.

    (Like many Foster owners, I didn't win the league, though, thanks to his atrocious 11 carries for 15 yards against Tennessee during the semifinals of the playoffs.)

    He wasted little time in ascending to stardom, rushing for 231 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against Indianapolis. He went on to lead the NFL in both rushing yards and touchdowns and was the most valuable fantasy running back by a country mile.

    His 330 standard-league points dwarfed the next-closest RB that year—Peyton Hillis with 244. And prior to Christian McCaffrey's sensational 2019 season, it was the best fantasy season by a running back in the past decade.

2. Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2011): 82 receptions, 1,536 yards, 9 touchdowns; 208 fantasy points 

    Previous Year: Appeared in three games with no stats; 0 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: Undrafted

    Victor Cruz is single-handedly the reason my league changed from a "standard" waiver-wire to the infinitely better free agent acquisition budget system prior to the 2012 season, because his breakout year kind of broke fantasy football.

    Cruz didn't receive a single touch in his rookie season, and in the first two weeks of his second year, he made just two receptions for 17 yards. Even if you were in some outrageous 24-team fantasy league, that dude was probably still available on waivers heading into Week 3.

    Then he racked up 110 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Eagles, and whoever was in last place in your league at that point was salsa dancing the rest of the year because a golden goose fell into his or her lap.

    Beginning with that Week 3 performance, Cruz averaged over 100 receiving yards per game the rest of the way, including the famous 99-yard Week 16 touchdown that undoubtedly swung a handful of league championships.

    Despite doing diddly squat in the first two weeksand his entire first seasonCruz ended the year as the fourth-best fantasy wide receiver.

1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Patrick Mahomes
    Patrick MahomesChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Breakout Year (2018): 383-580, 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, 12 interceptions; 417 fantasy points

    Previous Year: 22-35, 284 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception; 10 fantasy points

    Average Draft Position: 15th among quarterbacks, 115.8 overall

    The Kansas City Chiefs took a calculated risk in trading away Alex Smith after the 2017 season. He led them to a winning record in each of his five seasons with the franchise, but Andy Reid and Co. knew the future of the franchise was the kid from Texas Tech who they took with the 10th pick in the 2017 draft.

    Patrick Mahomes got little experience as a rookie, starting (and winning) one meaningless game at the end of the regular season against the Denver Broncos. And because he didn't do much in that contest, fantasy owners were unsure what to expect. Even in 12-team leagues, he was supposed to be a fantasy backup, based on his average draft position.

    He certainly didn't spend much time on anyone's bench, though. Mahomes threw for four touchdowns in the season opener against the Chargers and followed that up with a preposterous six-touchdown game on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

    Mahomes led the Chiefs to at least 26 points in all 16 games, throwing for more than 240 yards in each of them. Not only was he named the NFL MVP, but he ended up with 63 more fantasy points than the next-closest player in 2018. That margin was even greater if your league somehow managed to factor in no-look or off-hand passes.

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