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Joe Mixon among 2018 fantasy football breakout stars

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How valuable are breakout players to winning a fantasy football championship? Just ask anyone who landed Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill or Zach Ertz last season. All exceeded expectations and helped fantasy owners win a league championship. So, what defines a "breakout?" To me, it's a player who could produce top 10-15 totals at his position for the first time in his career ... and I'm counting rookies like I did in this space last season with Leonard Fournette, Hunt, and Christian McCaffrey. So, which NFL players are in the best position to make the leap to fantasy football stardom?

Here's my list of 20 players who could break out in 2018, ranked based on my latest Top 200.

1. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants: What can I say about Barkley that hasn't already been said about him a million times over? He's a surefire three-down running back entering a tremendous situation on a Giants roster that was in need of a featured runner. Behind what should be a better offensive line (Nate Solder, Will Hernandez), Barkley has top-10 runner written all over him.

2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings: Cook was on pace to finish his rookie season as a top fantasy performer, but an injured knee cost him the final 12 games. He's slated to be back at 100 percent in time for training camp, however, and the departure of Jerick McKinnon all but guarantees a featured role for 2018. Cook has the skill set to be a top-10 runner in all fantasy formats.

3. Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers: Speaking of McKinnon, he landed in a great spot to break out next season. The Niners let Carlos Hyde walk as a free agent, leaving McKinnon as the favorite to be featured in coach Kyle Shanahan's offense. Shanahan has had a top-eight PPR back in his last three seasons as a coach or coordinator, so McKinnon has huge statistical upside.

4. Rashaad Penny, RB, Seattle Seahawks: You're going to see a theme in this column ... young running backs with high ceilings. That's the case with Penny, a first-round pick in the NFL Draft who should quickly move to the top of Seattle's depth chart. While their offensive line is a cause for concern, Penny's three-down potential coupled with a ton of open touches makes him intriguing.

5. Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Diggs was on this list last season, and he produced his best fantasy campaign on the strength of his eight touchdowns. However, I still feel like he hasn't hit his ceiling ... and the addition of Kirk Cousins at quarterback could help him reach it in 2018. While his durability is a concern at times, Diggs has top-15 PPR upside at his position this season.

6. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: Mixon wasn't what you would call a fantasy success story as a rookie, but the upside is there for him to produce far better totals as an NFL sophomore. While he will lose some work to Giovani Bernard, Mixon should be guaranteed around 275 touches in Cincinnati's backfield. He has high-end RB2 upside and will come off the board in the top 50 picks.

7. Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns: All right, I know Gordon already broke out ... but that was all the way back in 2013. And since he's barely played much football in the last four years, I'd still consider him a breakout candidate (albeit for the second time). An athletic freak who could be a statistical monster in an offense loaded with talent, Gordon has a shot to regain elite status both on the gridiron and in the fantasy football world.

8. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: Some might say Smith-Schuster broke out last season, but I'd argue his ceiling is still very high. He averaged just four targets in his first seven games as a rookie, but he saw an average of eight in his final seven contests. With Martavis Bryant no longer in the mix and playing alongside Antonio Brown, JuJu has a lot of mojo for 2018.

9. Sony Michel, RB, New England Patriots: The Patriots haven't drafted a back in Round 1 since 2006, so coach Bill Belichick must like what Michel can bring to the table. While I don't see a true featured role with Rex Burkhead in the mix, Michel could still post Dion Lewis-like totals. Based on his current ADP of Round 5, the Georgia product should be considered a potential value pick.

10. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans: While I realize that Henry lost some of his luster when the Titans added Dion Lewis, I still think there will be enough touches in that backfield for him to become a valuable fantasy starter. In fact, 900-1,000 rushing yards and eight touchdowns is within reach. Expect Henry to be the early-down and goal-line stud for coach Mike Vrabel.

11. Derrius Guice, RB, Washington Redskins: Youth, motivation, talent and opportunity. Guice has all of those things heading into his rookie campaign, and I like him to seize the top spot on Washington's depth chart. While Chris Thompson will take targets, Guice has RB2 potential.

12. Ronald Jones II, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: An electric playmaker who has drawn comparisons to Jamaal Charles, Jones should be considered the favorite to start in a Bucs backfield that let Doug Martin walk in the offseason. I see him as a top-50 overall selection in drafts.

13. Royce Freeman, RB, Denver Broncos: Freeman won't be handed the top spot on the Broncos depth chart, but he's the closest thing I see to Kareem Hunt in the 2018 rookie class. He has three-down upside at the next level, and Devontae Booker hasn't exactly impressed as a pro.

14. Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans: Davis didn't do much as a rookie, but he showed flashes late in the season and is now locked into a big role in the Titans pass attack. With Eric Decker no longer in the mix, Davis should see his targets, catches and overall fantasy value increase.

15. Tarik Cohen, RB, Chicago Bears: Cohen went from PPR hero to waiver-wire fodder during hat was an inconsistent rookie season, but you have to like his potential in the offense of new coach Matt Nagy. If he's used all over the field as expected, the speedy runner could have a strong year.

16. DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins: I'm not necessarily in love with Parker, who has burned me in the past. But with Jarvis Landry gone and no clear-cut No. 1 wideout on the roster, this could be the season that Parker finally puts it together. Let's just hope Ryan Tannehill stays healthy.

17. Trey Burton, TE, Chicago Bears: A solid pass catcher who figures to see a massive increase in targets this season, Burton is projected to fill the "Travis Kelce role" in the Bears offense for Nagy. A potential No. 1 fantasy tight end, Burton has upside and is one to target in the late rounds.

18. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers: He might not be the second coming of Tom Brady, but Garoppolo looked pretty damn good in his five starts (all wins) last season. With top-10 potential among fantasy quarterbacks, Jimmy G could be one of this season's biggest bargains.

19. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: Is he a sleeper or a breakout candidate? Well, he's a little bit of both. He's now at the helm of an offense that led Alex Smith to a top-four finish in fantasy points among quarterbacks just a season ago. And that was without Sammy Watkins.

20. Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: I touted Mariota as a breakout candidate last season, and I was left with titanic amounts of egg on my face. But what if I was just one year too soon on that prediction? Mariota could make good under new playcaller Matt LaFleur.


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. Do you want the most up-to-date fantasy news and analysis? You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram!

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