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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. Kenyan Drake, RB, Miami Dolphins: Drake saw a mere 57 touches in his first 11 games of last season, but he put up huge totals when thrust into a bigger role in his final five. While the Dolphins did add Frank Gore and Kalen Ballage to the backfield, Drake looks to be Miami's new top runner. He's a good bet to see 250-plus touches in 2018, making him a potential high-end No. 2 back.

5. 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.

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. 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.

8. Alex Collins, RB, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens showed a lot of faith in Collins this offseason, as the team didn't add a running back to compete for touches even after Danny Woodhead announced his retirement. Kenneth Dixon and Javorius Allen remain in the mix and will see some of the workload, but I still see Collins has the main man in this backfield. He's on the RB2 radar.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans: While I realize that Henry lost a lot 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 fantasy starter. Expect Henry to be the early-down and goal-line stud for new coach Mike Vrabel.

12. 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.

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. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans: Watson was the best quarterback in fantasy football during a five-week stretch last season, so it's no surprise to see him among the top breakout candidates of 2018. With the skills to do it all, Watson could be a top-three fantasy quarterback.

15. 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 featured role with Rex Burkhead in the mix, Michel could still post Dion Lewis-like totals.

16. 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.

17. 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.

18. DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins added a bunch of wideouts in the offseason, but the team also traded away targets monster Jarvis Landry. Now the projected No. 1 in the pass attack, it's a do-or-die season for Parker. He has the talent to make a major leap.

19. 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.

20. 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 new coach Matt Nagy. A potential No. 1 fantasy tight end, Burton is one to target in the late rounds.


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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