In the NFL, sophomore players routinely exceed their rookie year fantasy production. In fact, it’s common for most players to see the biggest jump in fantasy production take place between year one to year two.
Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson very recently put together fantasy seasons that weren’t just impressive, they were historically great. Mahomes’ 417.1 FP and Jackson’s 415.7 FP seasons are the best and 2nd-best ever, respectively. Both players won league MVP in their sophomore seasons, and were certainly league-winners at ridiculously low ADPs.
The RB position, while void of recent record-breakers, still offers us plenty of players who took a serious leap forward in their second year. Devonta Freeman, Aaron Jones, David Montgomery, Melvin Gordon, Marlon Mack, Christian McCaffrey, and Austin Ekeler all saw at least a 70% increase in their FPG from year one to year two.
With this in mind, 2nd-year players immediately stand out as some of the best breakout candidates imaginable. This is a best ball article, so we will largely be ignoring consistency and focusing primarily on upside as we work through the fantasy-relevant sophomores. You can read more on why here.
I’ll touch on QBs and RBs, with special consideration given to the guys I’m drafting at the highest clip in the “Top Targets” section of each position along with some guys I’m tempted by in the “Potential Value” section.
Prior to his week 11 ACL tear, Joe Burrow was fantasy’s QB14 and led the NFL with 418 dropbacks. He did, however, tie with Philip Rivers in fantasy points per dropback at 0.41 (26th) and struggled throwing deep with a 51.1 passer rating on his throws of 20+ yards. The Bengals’ O-line, receiving corps, and apparently Burrow’s arm strength have all improved, but the likely increase in positive game script (and thus fewer pass attempts) along with Burrow’s sub-par 2020 efficiency make me think the market (ADP: QB9) has him priced close to his sophomore ceiling of a low-end QB1/high-end QB2.
Justin Herbert was fantasy’s QB10 in 15 games last year while finishing t-15th in fantasy points per dropback (0.52). Despite having the lowest aDOT (7.8) among sophomore QBs, Herbert ranked t-9th overall among all QBs with 67 throws of 20+ yards. Austin Ekeler truthers should be thrilled to see that Herbert was also the league’s top check-down QB last year (explaining the low aDOT) with 89 passes targeted at RBs behind the line of scrimmage. Most importantly, the Chargers should finally have an average O-line, which is a huge improvement (Herbert was the 2nd-most pressured QB last year). There is a lot to like here, but it’s more than currently priced in. At QB6 on both Underdog and BestBall10s, I don’t believe he offers value.
Tua Tagovailoa ranked behind Drew Lock with 13.5 FPG, good for 31st overall. His problem? A major aversion to throwing it deep. He recorded a 10% deep ball rate (33rd of 44 qualifiers) and was 26th in aDOT (8.0). Ryan Fitzpatrick stepping in last year to lead late-game comebacks for Miami showed just how uncomfortable Tua was pushing the ball downfield. He’s healthier, in better control of the offense, and has some additional receiving help (especially deep with Waddle and Fuller in the mix), but I don’t see more than a QB2 season being possible unless he can become a top-10 QB in aDOT.
Jordan Love is free in drafts, and with every day Aaron Rodgers doesn’t clock in for work, becomes more likely to be the Week 1 starter for the Packers. With no rookie year playing time, Love’s upside is largely in embracing the unknown. He steps into an extremely well-coached offense that he’s had a full season to learn. He could be awful, but the potential mid-range QB2 upside is essentially risk-free at his current price tag of QB37 on Underdog and QB40 on BestBall10s.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Underdog ADP: QB8 / BestBall10s ADP: QB9
Jalen Hurts has the best chance of any non-top-5 QB (by ADP) to be fantasy’s overall QB1. His rushing upside is as good as anyone not named Lamar Jackson. Scott Barrett noted just how good, saying “Hurts averaged 24.8 fantasy points per four quarters (11.3 rushing). Or 25.9 FPG in games started and finished (9.9 rushing FPG). For perspective, 24.8 FPG would rank eighth-best all-time and 25.9 FPG would rank fifth-best. 11.3 rushing FPG would rank best all-time and 9.9 rushing FPG would rank third-best since 1975.” He offers an elite combination of rushing upside and rushing floor that’s exactly what we look for in best ball.
Hurts passing was the exception though, where his 57.5 PFF passing grade (7th-worst), 77.6 passer rating (6th-worst), and league-worst 65.1 adjusted completion% all showcase the efficiency struggles he had in that area. An overdependence on rushing efficiency is far from bad news in fantasy football, but it does carry a real benching risk in the NFL and could certainly make Hurts less viable as an underdog. It’s far from all bad, though, as Hurts’ 10.1 aDOT led the NFL. I seriously doubt he’ll lead the NFL in aDOT next season, but anything close to his 2020 number would make Hurts one of the more aggressive QBs in the league and further increases his fantasy upside. Add in a (hopefully) true #1 WR in DeVonta Smith to a receiving corps that struggled massively last year, and we have a likely league-winner on our hands in Hurts.
Zack Moss out-carried Devin Singletary 11-6 inside the five, and ranked t-18th overall, tied with QB Josh Allen actually, in the statistic. Both RBs severely cap each other’s upside, as neither exceeded 20.1 PPR points in any individual game last year. Even an injury may not unlock a truly valuable bell-cow workload, as the team has ranked bottom-3 in RB fantasy points in each of the last three seasons.
A.J. Dillon saw more than five carries just once last year, but converted that single high-volume outing (21 carries and 1 reception) into 129 yards from scrimmage and 25.9 FP. He was efficient on low volume, as his 5.3 YPC, 84.6 PFF rushing grade, and his 3.57 yards after contact/attempt (YCO/A) all coincidently ranked 8th among RBs with at least 25 rush attempts. Jamaal Williams’ vacated 9.1 FPG and 8.5 carries per game open the door for a consistent rotational role behind Aaron Jones, but with no receiving upside (2 TGTs in 7 games), Dillon will have a tough time exceeding his ADP (RB40 on Underdog & RB31 on BestBall10s) without Jones missing significant time.
James Robinson was fantasy’s overall RB7, an incredible feat for a UDFA. He saw double-digit carries and scored double-digit fantasy points in every single game he played in 2020, despite well-below-average offensive efficiency. Unfortunately, he appears to be a casualty of the Urban Meyer experience. Serious backfield competition from both Carlos Hyde and Travis Etienne will make it difficult for Robinson to pay off his Underdog price tag of RB30 and nearly impossible to provide value on his absurd BestBall10s price of RB19.
Jonathan Taylor was fantasy’s overall RB6, but was the RB2 in FPPG (26.1) from Weeks 13-17. His 2.6 targets per game won’t add much PPR value, but he’ll see a top-10 rushing workload behind an elite o-line. Similar to Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry, Taylor can be a historical outlier and put up a top-5 season at the position without being a significant PPR contributor thanks to elite rushing efficiency. At RB7 on Underdog and RB6 on BestBall10s, the potential of a top-5 season is unfortunately already priced in.
J.K. Dobbins led all RBs last year with 6.01 YPC on his way to being the overall RB27, but was RB11 with 16.3 FPG and 6.43 YPC from weeks 11-17. OC Greg Roman suggested Baltimore would take a committee approach with their RBs, capping Dobbins volume. He should be more involved in the receiving game, as HC John Harbaugh noted getting more targets to the RBs would be a priority, but even a 50% increase for Dobbins would add just 12 targets. Playing in the NFL’s run-heaviest offense makes a significant target increase anywhere beyond that unlikely, and with Gus Edwards in the mix, Dobbins won’t see the touch volume necessary to solidify himself as an RB1. Even so, the numbers from weeks 11-17 (when Dobbins and Edwards were the two primary backs) offer serious hope of a high-end RB2/low-end RB1 season on the back of outstanding efficiency.
The RB16 in xFP but the RB25 in actual FP, Clyde Edwards-Helaire offered the biggest gap between actual and expected production of any top-25 RB outside of Ezekiel Elliott. CEH saw double-digit touches in all but three regular-season games last year, and 20+ touches in four games, but never exceeded 20.9 PPR points in any individual contest. From an efficiency perspective, Edwards-Helaire didn’t particularly stand out as a rusher but was better as a receiver, ranking 11th among RBs with 25+ targets in YAC/REC (8.4), t-8th in Y/REC (8.3), and 8th in missed tackles forced on receptions (13).
Despite having a slightly below-average RB target rate of 19% over the last three years, KC actually ranks 7th in total pass attempts to RBs because of their high-volume passing attack. Darwin Thompson and CEH were both asked to pass block at a team-low rate of roughly 8%, which means CEH will crucially be running a route on nearly every passing snap he plays. Le’Veon Bell’s 20 vacated targets and 153 vacated pass routes will need to go somewhere, and CEH is the most likely recipient.
I’m skeptical he’ll be a true bell cow this season and the Jerick McKinnon signing may subvert a significant target increase, but the locked in goal-line role and potential for a target increase (in the league’s most efficient offense) make him a compelling PPR target with an RB18 price tag on BestBall10s.
1. Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Underdog ADP: RB8 / BestBall10s ADP: RB11
A non-factor for fantasy purposes through the first half of last season, Cam Akers went from the RB39 in FPG (9.7) from Weeks 1-12 to RB13 in FPG (16.6) from Weeks 13-19 (including playoffs). In those final six games, Akers averaged 23.8 touches and 117.0 YFS. For perspective, both of those numbers would’ve ranked top-5 last season. Akers was also 2nd to Derrick Henry during that stretch in rush attempts vs 8-man+ boxes (51), largely due to Jared Goff’s horrific play down the stretch. Matthew Stafford will help HC Sean McVay open up the playbook more so than last year, and that will mean better efficiency for #Cakers as he’ll be running into those stacked fronts less often.
Those are all great reasons to be bullish on Akers, but they are far from the best one: Sean McVay has suggested he’ll see a true bell-cow workload. There is a very real chance we see Akers earn a full-season workload similar to Todd Gurley’s 22.7 touches and 135.3 YFS from 2017-2018. Just like Jalen Hurts, Akers is the guy that I believe has the best chance of being fantasy’s top player at his position who ranks outside the top-5 in ADP.
2. D’Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions
Underdog ADP: RB16 / BestBall10s ADP: RB13
Ranking 9th among RBs in targets/snap at 0.14, D’Andre Swift was one of the most used RBs in the receiving game last year. OC Anthony Lynn’s own comments, Jamaal Williams’ presence, and the potential addition of Todd Gurley (who remains unsigned) kill 150+ carry upside for Swift, but that doesn’t kill his fantasy value, especially in PPR.
Jared Goff’s pitiful 6.7 aDOT, 350+ vacated targets, and an increase in negative game script should mean more pass game involvement for the sophomore rusher, and I’m optimistic Anthony Lynn will treat him similar to Austin Ekeler, who would’ve exceeded 100 targets in back-to-back seasons had it not been for injury. Keep in mind Ekeler’s 18.3 FPG from his last 26 healthy games would’ve been good enough for RB6 last season, and Ekeler never ranked in the top 30 RBs in carries in either 2019 (16 games) or 2020 (10 games).
Swift’s overall receiving efficiency was fairly impressive (and slightly better than primary backfield competition Jamaal Williams), as he finished 6th in YPRR, 16th in broken/missed tackle rate, and 14th in YDS/REC among the 47 RBs with 25+ targets in 2020. Sustaining that above-average receiving efficiency, seeing a similar number of carries as last season (114), and getting close to or exceeding 100 targets would easily make Swift a mid-end RB1 in PPR. He’s a value on most sites, and a screaming one on DraftKings at RB18.
3. Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Football Team
Underdog ADP: RB14 / BestBall10s ADP: RB15
Antonio Gibson’s 16.9 FPG before his toe injury would’ve tied him with Joe Mixon for overall RB11. Among the 47 RBs with at least 100 carries last year, Gibson was 5th in PFF rushing grade (85.3), 12th in missed tackles forced (37), and 16th in YPC (4.7). He never exceeded a 65% snap share in any individual game, and only played more than 50% of Washington’s snaps in 5/14 games. His bell-cow potential hasn’t been unlocked because he wasn’t seeing a bell-cow workload. That could change this season.
A stellar playmaker at WR in college, Gibson excelled in his rookie season despite the change to RB and zero experience at the position. Imagine if the Washington coaching staff actually took advantage of his natural receiving ability and fed him more than the 3.1 targets per game he saw last year. Say, a CMC-esque 6-7 targets per game? While that may seem questionable, don’t forget that both HC Ron Rivera and OC Scott Turner coached McCaffrey, and J.D. McKissic led RBs with 110 targets last year so it’s certainly possible. An increase in targets is likely regardless, but with how impressive he’s already been as a runner, a CMC-level target allotment would make Gibson a legitimate league-winner.
Gibson has shown he’ll perform well if given the touches. His toe injury certainly clouds his outlook, but I can’t help but love the upside here. It’ll be up to the Washington coaching staff to give him a bell-cow workload, but if they do, we have an RB1 on our hands.