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Sammy Watkins among 2017 fantasy breakout players

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How valuable are breakout players to winning a fantasy football championship? Just ask anyone who landed David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott or Jay Ajayi last season. All exceeded expectations and helped fantasy owners take home a league championship. So, which NFL players are in the best position to make the leap to stardom and emerge into the next generation of fantasy football behemoths?

Here's my list of 20 players who could break out in 2017, ranked based on their positioning in my latest Top 200 list.

1. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: You're going to see several rookie runners on this list, not because they're going to be this season's Ezekiel Elliott but because I like them to emerge as their respective team's featured runner. Fournette, the fourth-overall choice in the NFL draft, should pass Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon on the Jaguars depth chart and push for high RB2 value. Look for the him to be the first rookie selected in most seasonal and dynasty formats.

2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers: A potential future superstar in PPR leagues, McCaffrey figures to lead the Panthers backfield in touches due to his combination of skills as both a runner and receiver. He's not afraid to run between the tackles either, as he did that plenty in college despite also being so good on the edges. The hype is real, so don't be shocked to see him come off the board as soon as the third round in some re-drafts.

3. Isaiah Crowell, RB, Cleveland Browns: Crowell finished 14th in fantasy points among running backs a season ago, and he's now in a position to be even better in 2017. While the quarterback situation is still a question mark, the addition of Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter to an offensive line that also features Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio makes Crowell a better bet to rush for 1,000 yards.

4. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: Mixon has a lot of competition with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard on the roster, but he should grab the top spot on the depth chart. A first-round talent, Mixon fell in the NFL draft due to off-field issues. If he can keep his head on straight, he should lead this trio in touches while adding a new dimension to what should be an explosive Bengals offense.

5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings: Cook has competition with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon in the mix, but the team did trade up to land him in the second round. He's also the most talented back of the trio, so no one would be shocked if he took over the top spot. While he will be a fourth- or fifth-rounder in seasonal formats, Cook will be a top-five pick in dynasty leagues.

6. Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins: You could argue that Pryor broke out last season, finishing 18th in fantasy points among wide receivers. Still, he found the end zone just four times and is now the No. 1 wideout in one of the league's most effective passing offenses. That means there's room for improvement and a chance for Pryor to move near the top 10 players at his position.

7. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: You can argue that Hill broke out last season, and I can see that argument. But with the release of Jeremy Maclin, I can now argue that Hill's ceiling for receiving yardage (he had just 593 in 2016) has increased by leaps and bounds. While he isn't likely to score another nine touchdowns, Hill is still a versatile playmaker with a lot more value in fantasy drafts.

8. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills: Let's face it ... Watkins is one of the biggest risk-reward wide receivers in fantasy football. While he's a serious talent at the position, his proneness to injuries has halted his rise to stardom in the fantasy world. But after the Bills declined his fifth-year option, Watkins is now in a contract year and has more motivation than ever to stay out of the trainer's room.

9. Bilal Powell, RB, New York Jets: Powell was a tremendous option for fantasy fans at the end of last season, posting 73.2 points (18.3 PPG) over the final four games. While he's no lock to be a featured back with Matt Forte still in the mix, Powell is a better back at this stage of their careers and is a virtual lock to see an increase in touches. He could return flex-start value this season.

10. Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Diggs has shown flashes of brilliance, but he's been slowed due to injuries and is still waiting for that true breakout season. That could come in 2017, as he'll enter training camp in great shape and take on the role of being the No. 1 wideout in Minnesota's offense. A potential bargain, Diggs could be had after the fifth or sixth round and return WR2 value.

11. Donte Moncrief, WR, Indianapolis Colts: Moncrief has 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown potential in what figures to be an explosive Colts offense, but he needs to avoid injuries to reach fantasy stardom. In a best-case scenario, he could push for high-end No. 2 wideout value.

12. Paul Perkins, RB, New York Giants: The tape watchers out there will tell you that Perkins didn't perform well as a rookie, but the G-Men showed a lot of confidence in him by not adding a major impact running back in the offseason. He should easily lead this backfield in touches.

13. Mike Gillislee, RB, New England Patriots: How can there be a breakout player in what is a crowded Patriots backfield? Well, I see Gillislee being the early-down and goal-line back for coach Bill Belichick. Eight-plus touchdowns on the ground is a distinct possibility next season.

14. Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: He's back! After a lost 2016 campaign, Bryant projects to start opposite Antonio Brown in what will be an elite pass attack. Before his suspension, Bryant averaged 17.4 yards per catch and scored 14 times in 21 contests. That's impressive.

15. Cameron Meredith, WR, Chicago Bears: The Bears lost Alshon Jeffery as a free agent, leaving Meredith as the projected No. 1 wide receiver in what will be a new-look pass attack. He should see 120-plus targets from Mike Glennon and post career bests across the board.

16. John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals: Brown, who was slowed last season due to sickle cell trait, has drawn rave reviews from coach Bruce Arians in the offseason and looks like the old "Smokey." Now the projected No. 2 behind Larry Fitzgerald, Brown could be a steal late in drafts.

17. Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: Mariota showed flashes of fantasy stardom last season, but a broken leg cost him what would have been a potential top-10 fantasy finish among quarterbacks. If he has no setbacks in his return, Mariota could become a real stud.

18. Jack Doyle, TE, Indianapolis Colts: When the Colts traded Dwayne Allen and gave Doyle a new contract, it should have been a sign to fantasy fans that Doyle was a player on the rise. He's going to be in the TE1 conversation in what will be a strong Colts pass attack.

19. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions: Ebron finished 15th in fantasy points among tight ends last season, but he found the end zone just once and lost targets to Anquan Boldin. Now the third option among Lions pass catchers, he could be on the verge of his biggest season as a pro.

20. Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers added DeSean Jackson and rookie O.J. Howard in the offseason, so Winston will be one of the more popular breakout candidates in fantasy land. Owners will draft him as a No. 2 quarterback, but Winston has major potential.


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!

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