How to Identify Fantasy Football Breakout Players

by Daniel Johnson
How to Identify Breakout Fantasy Football Players

Welcome to the 2022 edition of F6P's guide on How to Identify Fantasy Football Breakout Players! Let's dig for some gold, shall we?

What we'll do together in this article is try to operationally define and outline:

  1. Where a player's production must total at the end of the season, relative to his ADP and the rest of the pool of fantasy players, in order to be considered having "broken out."
  2. Some key factors that might help determine a breakout year.
  3. What the differences are between sleepers and breakout players.
  4. The list of players I think are most primed for breakout performances in 2022.

Let's get right to it.

How to Identify Fantasy Football Breakout Players

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Identifying Fantasy Football Breakout Players is such a foolhardy endeavor, isn't it? The methodologies vary wildly among different experts and statistical analysts; there are just as many folks who judge breakout potential on film study alone as there are those who predict jumps in production solely based on a player's advanced metrics.

Nominally, it's sort of putting lipstick on a pig. We're essentially engaging in a gambling exercise, not unlike the simple goal of sports betting: beat the oddsmakers. Except, in this case, the lines are set via crowdsourcing. The best baseline we've got for how to judge a player's value relative to the market is his ADP, which is ultimately determined by the entire pool of fantasy managers.

But it's hardly the reality that just because it's foolhardy means it's not worthwhile. In truth, for the entire industry, it's rather imperative. Most fantasy football analysts stake their reputation on making these kinds of correct calls in advance of the season. It can, indeed, be a career-making exercise, if done well and often enough.

More importantly, for the general fantasy-football-playing public, it can be a league-winning exercise. Cooper Kupp's 2021 fantasy season might be one of the greatest examples of that in the last decade.

Aside from all that, it's fun. Sure, it's foolhardy fun—in the same way, a slip n' slide is fun. Take the leap just right, and you'll look like the slickest, coolest customer in the neighborhood during the dog days of summer. But if you tank, you likely are tanking spectacularly in front of your friends and peers, and you must, at least until next season, live with that playground shame.

What It Means to Have "Broken Out"

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Superstar-Level Breakouts

Recency bias aside, there might not be a better poster boy for fantasy football breakouts than the Cooper Kupp of 2021.

Consider this: in PPR leagues last year, fantasy managers consistently drafted Cooper Kupp in the 50-70 overall range—somewhere in the late fourth round to the late sixth round. The industry, on average, ranked him as the WR24 headed into the season.

We all know how that ended: he finished as the best overall player in fantasy last year by a staggering margin.

His case is a bit different, as we should really consider players drafted outside the top-24 at their position as the juiciest candidates for breakouts. That's why we'll consider his a superstar-level breakout.

Good Ol' Garden Variety Breakouts

Consider the case of Michael Pittman last year. Fantasy managers drafted him, on average, 119th overall (well outside the top-24 for WRs) in 2021, but finished as the WR17 in PPR leagues.

Leonard Fournette, too, is a great example of this: he finished as the RB6 at the end of the season, but was, on average, drafted in the ninth round, well outside the top-24 at his position.

It's important to keep in mind both the case of a Cooper Kupp, who folks drafted with relative confidence, but whose breakout season was defined by an intergalactic-superstar-magnitude finish, as well as the cases of Pittman and Fournette, who both blew by their ADPs and finished within the top-24 at their respective positions.

Defining Breakouts

So! For the purposes of this article, we'll say a breakout means the following for each skill position:

  • Running Back: A player who either finished the previous season in scoring and/or is drafted outside the top-24 of the position, who then yields a top-24 finish to the season (garden variety breakout); alternatively, a player who was drafted within the top-24 of the position who yields a top-ten finish to the season (superstar breakout).
  • Wide Receiver: A player who either finished the previous season in scoring and/or is drafted outside the top-24 of the position, who then yields a top-24 finish to the season (garden variety breakout); alternatively, a player who was drafted within the top-24 of the position who yields a top-ten finish to the season (superstar breakout).
  • Tight End: A player who was drafted outside the top-12 of the position who yields a top-12 finish to the season.
  • Quarterback: A player who was drafted outside the top-14 at the position who yields a top-12 finish to the season.

Key Factors to Hone in on When Searching for Breakouts

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Volume will never not be the paramount metric by which fantasy success is determined, right? I'd love to sit here and tell you that talent and athleticism and all the other delicious spectacles to which we bear witness every Sunday correlate with long-term fantasy production. But we know that's just not true.

At a basic box score level, we love to pay attention to stats like snap count, targets, target share. We love especially seeing these stats increase over time during the previous season, even if it didn't necessarily result in scoring production.

We also want to factor in personnel situations that could lead to more volume: did a team seriously upgrade at quarterback, thus making their secondary receiving options more viable for production? Did a receiving option on a team get moved elsewhere, thus leaving behind a vacuum of target share that needs to be gobbled up by secondary options?

Did a running back see his offensive line improve over the offseason? Was he progressively more involved in the passing game toward the end of the previous season?

Basically, are we confident, statistically and situationally, that a team is going to have the ability to not-insignificantly increase its potential to manufacture touches for a given player? If the answer to both is yes, there's breakout potential.

Note that some combination of all of the above apply to our three poster boys for this article: Kupp, Pittman, and Fournette.

It's also important to note that wide receivers and running backs are the skill positions that yield the most breakouts every year. Given that Fantasy Football is, more and more, just about receptions and touchdowns these days, they are the two primary skill positions that benefit most, scoring-wise, from offensive personnel improvements.

Sleepers vs. Breakouts

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Let's return to our three examples, yes? Note how they all had varying degrees of experience in the NFL. Kupp and Fournette are veterans, while Pittman was a second-year wide receiver. All three, also, had at least one year of experience in their current offensive systems before they broke out.

A breakout candidate should be someone with which fantasy managers are familiar in these ways. Not quite household-name familiar, but known enough to us that we've seen a degree of production from them that gives us confidence in a steep improvement.

Sleeper, as a general term in fantasy, has been flattened by overuse since fantasy has gained so much popularity. I think you see too many people conflate potential breakout players as sleepers.

Sleepers should be deep, and somewhat unknown. They exist, after all, deep in slumber, no? They should have barely proven anything to us, statistically and situationally. Sleepers, simply, should be way more off-the-radar than breakout candidates are.

The definition gets a little murkier when we consider rookies. Just because Breece Hall's production potential is unknown to us in the 2022 Jets offense, does that make him a sleeper? His ADP (RB24) would suggest he's more breakout candidate.

My List of 2022 Breakout Players

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We've defined the two different types of breakouts to look for. We know what factors might precipitate a breakout season for a skill player. And, just for the sake of definitional clarity, we've outlined what makes a breakout candidate different than a sleeper.

So, without any context, and operating within the parameters I outlined above, here's my list of breakout players I'm targeting in 2022 Fantasy Football drafts, position-by-position.

Superstar Breakouts

Wide Receiver:

Running Backs:

  • Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars* (he's in that murky category of rookie/not-rookie/sleeper/breakout candidate)
  • Cam Akers, LA Rams
  • Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

Good Ol' Garden-Variety Breakouts

Wide Receiver:

Running Backs:

Tight Ends:


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1 comment

john L golfin August 4, 2022 - 9:17 am

I start playing fantasy football 8 years ago now we have the whole family playing we have 5 league now we starting a league for your young boys to get them ready to play against the big boys this fantasy has change our way interact toward each other we all love fantasy football and can’t wait for football season each years.


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