2016 fantasy football breakout candidates


How valuable are breakout players to winning a fantasy football championship? Just ask anyone who landed Blake Bortles, Devonta Freeman, Doug Baldwin or Gary Barnidge last season. All exceeded expectations in the stat sheets. The 2016 campaign brings a new list of players who could be on the verge of putting up huge numbers for their NFL franchises and fantasy football fans alike. So, who are the best bets to stack up unexpectedly massive point totals this fall?

Here's my list of the 10 players who could breakout in 2016:

1. David Johnson, RB, Cardinals: You can argue that Johnson "broke out" last season, but I think he's on the verge of much bigger things in the stat sheets. After all, he barely touched the ball as a running back until Chris Johnson went down in Week 11. Now entrenched as the No. 1 running back in an offense that figures to put up points, D.J. is going to be a first-round pick in most drafts. When all is said and done, the versatile runner could become a fantasy MVP candidate.

2. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys: I absolutely love Elliott. So much, in fact that I wrote an article about the reasons I see him as a top-10 overall selection. Think about it ... DeMarco Murray was the top back in fantasy land in 2014, and Darren McFadden's career was resurrected behind one of the league's top offensive lines last season. I would argue that Elliott is better than both of those runners, and he's in the perfect position to burst onto the scene during his rookie campaign.

3. Lamar Miller, RB, Texans: Miller has shown flashes of statistical brilliance at times in his NFL career, but he's rushed for more than 1,000 yards just once and has never had more than 216 carries in a single season. That is going to change in Houston, where Miller will be the true featured back in an offense that is built for runners to find success. If you don't believe me, just ask Arian Foster. Miller should see 300-plus touches and will push to be a top-five fantasy back.

4. Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills: Watkins was a fantasy star in the second half of last season, but he still finished 14th in points among wide receivers overall. I expect the Clemson product to push himself into the top 10 and maybe even into the top five, as long as he has no setbacks in his return from an injured foot. Watkins' skillset is unquestioned, and his role as the No. 1 option in the Buffalo pass attack makes him a potential playmaker on the field and in fantasy football.

5. Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers: Hyde has a chance to reach the expectations he came with out of Ohio State in 2014. He's already drawn praise from new coach Chip Kelly, whose offense will lean on the run all season long. And with no real threats to his role as a true featured back, Hyde should be the epitome of a workhorse in San Francisco. Any lingering of his injuries from last year is a cause for concern of course, but Hyde has the sort of upside that could push him into the top 10 among running backs.

6. Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders: Cooper had a nice rookie campaign with 1,070 yards and six touchdowns, but he was inconsistent in the stat sheets for fantasy fans while sharing targets with Michael Crabtree. While Crabs will remain in the mix for Derek Carr and the pass attack, I see Cooper turning into the unquestioned top option when the Raiders throw the football. In fact, a season with 1,300-plus yards and eight-plus touchdowns is well within reach for this athletic Alabama product.

7. Golden Tate, WR, Lions: Tate caught 90 balls last season, but he also put up mediocre yardage and touchdown totals and finished 33rd in fantasy points among wideouts. He should see a significant bump in all three of those categories in 2016, though, as the Golden Domer will be the top option in the pass attack after the retirement of Calvin Johnson. I wouldn't be a bit shocked to see Tate finish with 100 or more receptions in the Lions offense, making him a potential PPR superstar.

8. Coby Fleener, TE, Saints: The Saints like to use their tight ends, and use them a lot. Take a look at the numbers Jimmy Graham put up during his time in the bayou. Heck, even Benjamin Watson was a top-10 fantasy tight end in this offense last season. Enter Fleener, who will come in and replace Watson as one of Drew Brees' favorite targets in the pass attack. With Marques Colston also out of the mix, Fleener could push for 70-plus catches, better than 800 yards and six-plus touchdowns.

9. Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers: Green has long been considered a fantasy sleeper, but he was stuck behind future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates in San Diego. Now in the Steel City, Green figures to make good on his expectations. In fact, Green could be the second option in the pass attack for Ben Roethlisberger with Martavis Bryant suspended for the entire season. Green will be coming off an ankle procedure, but he is expected to be back in time for the start of Pittsburgh's training camp.

10. Jay Ajayi, RB, Dolphins: I wondered about Ajayi earlier this offseason. Why would the Dolphins sign C.J. Anderson to an offer sheet if Ajayi could be a three-down back? Well, the Broncos retained Anderson and the Dolphins drafted Kenyan Drake instead. While the rookie is likely to eat into the team's backfield touches, it looks like Ajayi is the main man for coach Adam Gase. With early-down and goal-line work in his future, the Boise State product is a great position to succeed.

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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com and NFL Network and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!