For most players, fantasy relevance doesn't come instantly. Not everyone can be Saquon or Baker or Chubb or Ridley, breaking out in their first pro seasons. The jump in competition from, say, the ACC to the NFL is no small thing.
This year, like all years, we can expect a bunch of second-year pros to follow the career trajectory that guys like McCaffrey, Mixon, Mahomes, Godwin, Kittle, Mack and others took last season. Today, we're looking for potential sophomore breakouts at bargain prices. All twelve players listed here fall outside the top-100 in terms of average draft position in Yahoo leagues, so these are mid-to-late selections with the potential to help the fantasy community.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Bal (ADP 124.9)
We should be careful not to overreact (or react in any way) to the Jackson training camp hype. Just please know it's out there. He averaged 17 carries and 79 rushing yards in his seven starts for the Ravens last season, which is both ridiculous and unprecedented for a quarterback in the modern NFL. Basically, he was a rock-solid RB2 who also happened to throw 20-24 passes per game. Jackson's passing efficiency wasn't anything special as a rookie, of course; he completed just 58.3 percent of his attempts and delivered only 159.1 passing YPG.
It hardly seems possible for Jackson to run as relentlessly as he did last season, but we can still expect double-digit rush attempts with regularity. If he can simply make modest gains as a passer, he's going to challenge for a top-10 positional finish. He had a clean preseason opener on Thursday (4-for-6, 59 yards, TD).
Sam Darnold, QB, NYJ (124.8)
Darnold played his best football in the closing weeks last season, a promising sign for a QB who was then only 21 years old. He threw six TD passes and only one pick in four December games, averaging 232.8 YPG and producing a passer-rating of 99.1. The Jets have added a few significant weapons — notably Le’Veon Bell, Jamison Crowder, and Ty Montgomery — to an offense that already featured explosive playmaker Robby Anderson. This team has patched its O-line, too. It’s not at all crazy to imagine a Goff/Wentz-style second-year leap for Darnold. He’ll go undrafted in most fantasy leagues of standard size/shape, but there's a decent chance he'll emerge as a priority add.
Darnold led a long TD drive in New York’s preseason opener, connecting with one of his new targets for the score...
Royce Freeman, RB, Den (116.6)
Freeman is a brutally obvious name for this list, with a new coaching staff on the scene in Denver and Phillip Lindsay returning from a late-season injury. If you follow Brad Evans on any social platform, then the very last thing you need in your life is another word of Freeman hype. Just please understand it appears the Broncos backfield is headed to committee:
4. #Broncos are feeling really good about RB Royce Freeman right now. To the point that they are hoping to finally establish the true split-touch situation that they envisioned between Freeman and Phillip Lindsay last season. They feel like that plan is fully on track for 2019.— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) July 31, 2019
There should be plenty of touches in this offense for both of Denver's second-year backs. Theo Riddick was an unwelcome addition to the depth chart, but he's no great threat to anyone's carries.
Rashaad Penny, RB, Sea (102.2)
Let's just get Brad's pet players out of the way right now. And let's also acknowledge the fact that Chris Carson was outstanding last season (1151 rush yards, 4.7 YPC), so he's not giving up his high-volume gig. Carson is a bankable pick. But Penny flashed big-play ability last year as well, averaging 4.9 YPC in a supporting role. Seattle led the NFL in rushing yards last season and ranked second in attempts, so this is certainly a team capable of producing a pair of every-week fantasy RBs. It's not unreasonable to forecast another 1000-yard season for Carson and double-digit weekly touches for Penny.
Kalen Ballage, RB, Mia (127.1)
Ballage isn’t necessarily a wow runner, but it’s become increasingly clear he’s going to share the rushing workload with Kenyan Drake. The team listed the pair as co-starters on the most recent depth chart. You might recall that Ballage made some noise late in 2018, breaking off a 75-yard TD against the Vikings. He scored on a short plunge in Miami’s preseason opener, too. Assuming an even-ish workload split with Drake, we need to think of Ballage as a flex-worthy fantasy option.
Ronald Jones, RB, TB (125.8)
In certain cases, a player's presence on this list may not necessarily imply a full and unqualified endorsement. This would be one of those cases. Some of us were burned by RoJo's face-plant rookie season and, understandably, we may not be lining up for the encore.
It's worth noting, however, that Peyton Barber was breathtakingly ordinary for the Bucs last year, averaging only 3.8 yards per touch (PER TOUCH!). Jones has made noise in camp with a few highlight plays, though he's had his share of uh-oh moments, too. An uneven camp would actually be a huge step up for Jones because he was overmatched last summer.
As a former second-round pick facing unimpressive competition, Jones is going to have every chance to capture a significant share of his team's backfield touches in 2019. That much seems clear. He was a 1550-yard rusher at USC just two years ago. We can't simply forget about him. A turnaround from Jones wouldn't be the craziest bust-to-boom story we've seen.
With any luck, the Bucs will just trade for Melvin Gordon and we'll never have to discuss this Barber/Jones mess again. Moving on ...
Keke Coutee, WR, Hou (116.3)
The last time we saw Coutee in a meaningful game, he was catching 11 balls for 110 yards with a dive-for-the-pylon touchdown in Houston's playoff loss to Indianapolis. Coutee battled hamstring issues throughout the year, but he was a chain-moving machine when healthy. The summer buzz surrounding Coutee is building ...
... so it seems doubtful you'd actually land him outside the top-75 picks in a hardcore league. If he can remain on the field for a full season, he's definitely going to catch 80-90 balls.
Coutee suffered an ankle injury on Thursday night in exhibition play, but the early reports are encouraging.
Christian Kirk, WR, Ari (100.6)
Kirk barely meets our outside-the-top-100 rule here, and it would hardly be a shock if his ADP climbed 8-10 spots during the preseason. Arizona's passing offense was blindingly bad last season, but that's certain to change in the first year of the Murray-Kingsbury era.
Offseason reports on Kirk have been glowing and he's fully recovered from the foot injury that cost him four games as a rookie. Yes, the Cards have added a zillion receivers via draft and free agency, but Kirk is well ahead of those dudes. This team is going to be pass-heavy (perhaps in the extreme), they'll play with pace and generally keep 3-5 receivers on the field. Also, Kyler Murray is basically a sorcerer. Get a share or two of the Arizona offense.
Anthony Miller, WR, Chi (125.7)
Miller played through a shoulder injury as a rookie but still finished with seven touchdown receptions and plenty of highlight plays. (He also established himself as one of the league's finest post-TD celebration artists, but we do not award fantasy points for that skill ... yet.) He's now healthy and regularly roasting DBs in camp. Miller was an almost unstoppable collegiate receiver, producing consecutive 90-catch, 1400-yard seasons at Memphis. You want him. Even a modest jump in production from Mitchell Trubisky could lead to a huge season from Miller.
Dante Pettis, WR, SF (110.0)
Pettis closed last season with a terrific five-game stretch, producing numbers that would have resulted in a 64-1150-13 season if extended over 16 games. He's a fun watch in isolation, an ankle-breaker, uncommonly gifted at throwing corners off balance. George Kittle is the clear top target for the Niners, but Pettis is the closest thing this team has to a No. 1 wideout. If Jimmy Garoppolo gives us a full season, Pettis has clear 1000-yard potential.
We should also note that Pettis reportedly hasn't had the cleanest camp, so that's a small concern. When folks covering the team are tweeting dropped-pass videos, it's not great. His actual in-season production as a rookie was too great to ignore, however. I'm buying.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, GB (126.7)
If you're going to spend a chunk of your summer running routes with Randy Moss, you definitely have my attention. And my affection. And I am definitely drafting you somewhere. Or everywhere. Valdes-Scantling has a rare combination of size (6-foot-4) and speed (4.37), plus he's coming off a 581-yard first season. We've seen Aaron Rodgers-led offenses produce more than one starting fantasy wideout in prior years, so let's not worry about MVS' spot in the receiving hierarchy. Trust the talent and the team context.
Mark Andrews, TE, Bal (133.1)
Let's bookend this piece with a pair of Ravens. Andrews wasn't even the first tight end selected by Baltimore in last year's draft, as Hayden Hurst was the No. 25 overall selection. But Andrews ultimately finished with 552 yards on 50 targets, stellar numbers for any rookie at a slow-developing position. His passer rating when targeted was an absurd 129.9 according to PFF. Andrews is a well-hyped player these days, a clear challenger for top-10 (8?) tight end status. If his quarterback can consistently have this sort of touch ...
... it's gonna be a profitable fantasy season for Baltimore buyers. This is a team that deserves our full attention throughout the preseason.
Follow Andy on Twitter: @andybehrens