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8 Potential Breakout Players: One Per NFL Division

Fantasy Breakout Fantasy Players

Each and every season, a handful of offensive players will break out and serve as meaningful contributors for our fantasy football teams. When trying to pinpoint these playmakers before the upcoming NFL campaign kicks off, we oftentimes dub an intriguing middle or late-round option as a “sleeper“, or someone who has the potential to break out and exceed their draft day price tag.  There are obviously several sleepers that can be uncovered throughout our drafts, but specifically, striking gold on a fantasy prospect who carries little to no cost is a risk-averse tactic that could pay huge dividends later in the season.

You have nothing to lose by taking a late-round gamble or investing an early-season waiver claim on a player with significant upside and opportunity.  If the production we optimistically hoped for never comes to fruition, at least we paid a minimal price.  However, if one of our deep sleepers were to break out in a big way, the return on investment could very well result in a league-winning profit.  With this in mind, I’d like to identify eight deep sleepers — players that are being selected in late rounds or even going undrafted — that could return substantial value if given a chance to shine during the season.  One of these X-Factors could be a key ingredient en route to a championship run.

AFC East

Mike Gillislee

Running Back | Buffalo Bills

Mike GillisleeAfter the Bills recently cut ties with Karlos Williams due to weight and off-field issues, they are without a clear-cut No. 2 running back behind LeSean McCoy.

Although Reggie Bush was just signed at the beginning of August, he’ll mainly be serving as a returner and occasional receiving back in Buffalo.

Rookie Jonathan Williams was hit with a DUI this summer, and even though he’s unlikely to face a suspension this season, he’s already proven himself a liability outside of the facility and is being projected as a healthy scratch for Week 1 as the Bills’ No. 4 running back.  So then who are we left with?  None other than second-year speedster Mike Gillislee.  While Bush serves as a change-of-pace option and Williams is buried on the depth chart, the ex-Florida Gator finds himself in a great situation for significant fantasy production at some point in 2016.  If (or when) Shady McCoy goes down with an injury, Gillislee would be the favorite to lead Buffalo’s run-heavy backfield in carries.  Rex Ryan just recently stated that Gillislee is, indeed, the Bills’ No. 2 back “right now”, supporting the notion that he is McCoy’s top backup.  Gillislee showed impressive agility and acceleration in limited action last season, toting the rock 47 times for 267 yards, good for an eye-catching 5.7 YPC mark.  Going undrafted in nearly every fantasy draft, Mike Gillislee is a deep sleeper that could be a significant impact RB in 2016 if given the chance.

AFC West

Clive Walford

Tight End | Oakland Raiders

Clive WalfordA third-round pick in last year’s NFL draft, Clive Walford was both a stellar blocker and dynamic aerial weapon during his time as a Miami Hurricane.  After picking up steam as his rookie season progressed, he enters 2016 with relatively lofty expectations in the Raiders’ ascending offense.  As Oakland’s top pass-catching option at the tight end position, Walford should have plenty of chances to shine in his sophomore campaign.  The Raiders have a pair of formidable wideouts on the outside in Cooper and Crabtree, in addition to what should be an imposing offensive line to help their rushing attack.  This balanced attack sets up nicely for Walford to make a fantasy impact in 2016.

Weighing 250 pounds and standing at 6’4″, Walford should have no problem settling in as a strong red zone threat for Derek Carr.  If you’re still not on board with Clive Walford‘s chances of a potential breakout season, keep in mind that Raiders OC Bill Musgrave was quoted in August saying that he wants Walford “to be a big part of what we do.”  If this Oakland offense continues to grow as many expect, Walford could be a fantasy football difference-maker at some point in 2016.

AFC North

Tyler Boyd

Wide Receiver | Cincinnati Bengals

Rookie wideout Tyler Boyd won’t have any time to be a spectator in Cincinnati.  With the offseason departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals we’re left with a glaring need at the wide receiver position.  While they brought in veteran Brandon LaFell after a disappointing season in New England, Boyd is the fantasy X-Factor to keep an eye on behind No. 1 wideout A.J. Green.  A soft-handed playmaker with smooth route-running abilities, Boyd flashed early-round pedigree during his time at the University of Pittsburgh before being scooped up by Bengals in the second round of this year’s draft.  With plenty of targets for Andy Dalton to distribute, Boyd should be able to surpass LaFell’s 2016 production with relative ease.  A much younger player than LaFell with superior hands, versatility, and athleticism, the rookie has already shown his talents in preseason action with both contested and diving grabs.  With Tyler Eifert out for multiple weeks to begin the season and the always-dominant A.J. drawing attention from opposing defenses, Tyler Boyd has the chance to be a special player as a rookie.  He’s a great late-round pick in all fantasy formats.

AFC South

Phillip Dorsett

Wide Receiver | Indianapolis Colts

With so much hype given to Indianapolis’ primary offensive weapons like Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, and even Donte Moncrief, there hasn’t been any love for the Colts’ No. 3 wideout.  A first-round pick in 2015, Phillip Dorsett was one of the many Colts derailed by injury last season.  Now entering his sophomore year with a healthy Luck at the helm, Dorsett will surely hope to put his blazing speed to use more often in 2016, and I have full confidence that he will.  The Colts have already shown an inclination to design plays specifically for the explosive wideout, and he’s been labeled by some beat writers as the “most improved” player at Colts camp this offseason.  As I mentioned in the opening lines, what makes Dorsett especially worthy of the X-Factor trademark is the opportunity he would be blessed with if something were to happen to one of Indy’s top WRs.  If Moncrief or Hilton were to succumb to injury, Dorsett would immediately step into their position and have an excellent chance of blowing up.  This sort of upside receiver playing in a potent offense like Indianapolis is just what we’re looking for in the later rounds of a fantasy draft.  Even if everyone stays healthy, Dorsett could push for WR3 stats if all goes well.  However, there is a real possibility that Phillip Dorsett develops into a league-winning option if the aforementioned injury-based opportunity were to arise.  That’s precisely the type of risk/reward player fantasy owners should be willing to take.

NFC East

Dorial Green-Beckham

Wide Receiver | Philadelphia Eagles

When I think of players that have the athletic ability to eventually become an elite talent in this league, I can’t help but consider Dorial Green-Beckham.  Coming out of college, which was a problematic and somewhat strange couple of year’s in DGB’s life,  there was no receiver I believed was more physically dominant than Green-Beckham.  A mammoth target at 6’5″, 237 pounds with sub-4.5 wheels in the 40-yard dash, off-field trouble was the only reason DGB wasn’t an early first-rounder in last year’s NFL draft.  However, after spending one season in Tennessee, his lack of mental discipline leaked onto the football field, and Green-Beckham was unable to make the necessary strides in the eyes of the coaching staff.  To the surprise of many, he was traded to Philadelphia in August.  Now playing on a team with perhaps even worse wideouts than in Tennessee, DGB has a great chance to move up the depth chart in a hurry.  Jordan Matthews is locked in as Philly’s No. 1 wideout, but behind him, it’s a wide open competition.  With Nelson Agholor and Reuben Randle both flopping thus far, Green-Beckham might have a slight advantage by default.

In the Eagles’ third preseason game, DGB hauled in two catches for 15 yards and an impressive goal line touchdown that perfectly showcased his massive frame. While it’ll undoubtedly take some time for a boneheaded player like Dorial Green-Beckham to adjust to a new offense, he could emerge as a major red zone threat for an Eagles team that is deprived of big-play WRs.  I’d target DGB in the late rounds of any fantasy draft, as his sky-high upside makes the minimal risk completely worth taking.  He’s the definition of a fantasy football X-Factor.

NFC West

Vance McDonald

Tight End | San Fransisco 49ers

Not many fantasy owners will be targeting Vance McDonald in their leagues this season, but that could turn out to be a sizable mistake. With Colin Kaepernick seemingly taking himself out of the 49ers’ QB competition with pitiful play and questionable decisions, it seems as if Blaine Gabbert will open the 2016 season as the clear-cut starter.  Although that may not inspire confidence in the eyes of 49er fans (hopefully it doesn’t), it does enhance the value of a subpar quarterback’s safety blanket.  I’m speaking of the tight end position, of course, and McDonald is in a prime position to succeed.  In what may be the NFL’s most depleted receiving corps, McDonald has a legitimate chance to be San Fran’s leading fantasy receiver, even ahead of their unappealing stable of wideouts.  With Gabbert under center late last season, McDonald was able to rack up 60+ yards and a touchdown in three of his last six 2015 contests.  After earning rave reviews for the majority of the offseason, Vance ripped off a 43-yard touchdown earlier in the preseason, displaying a carry-over of chemistry with his starting QB.  On a 49ers team that is thirsty for pass-catching weapons, I’m expecting Vance McDonald to be a major factor on offense. PPR owners will be fine with Gabbert’s numerous dump-off passes to his safety valve.  McDonald is an ideal sleeper in fantasy football and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him finish with borderline TE1 numbers.

NFC North

Jerick McKinnon

Running Back | Minnesota Vikings

Jerick McKinnonAP.  Purple Jesus.  All Day.  Whatever you want to call him, he’s a future Hall of Famer.  He’s also a 31-year old running back who played in his first 16-game season in 2015 since his monstrous 2012 campaign. I’m not here to dissuade you against picking Adrian Peterson in the first round of your fantasy draft, but rather to persuade you select his dynamic backup in the late rounds.  A 2014 third-round pick out of Georgia Southern, Jerick McKinnon is one of the most explosive running backs in the entire league, but he just doesn’t have the chance to slide into the Vikings’ No. 1 RB spot with Peterson continuing to churn out workhorse seasons in Minnesota. However, McKinnon’s stellar playmaking ability and an aging veteran ahead of him combine for a perfect X-Factor recipe.  If you have AP on your fantasy team, you’ll be more inclined to select his shifty backfield mate as a handcuff.  Although, even if you don’t have Peterson, McKinnon makes for an ideal late-round stab in every fantasy format.  His floor is change-of-pace role which will see him very active in the passing game, offering standalone PPR value in 2016.  His ceiling would likely include an injury to Peterson, but this is a scenario where McKinnon would explode in his third NFL season. Averaging 5.0 YPC in his first two years, McKinnon would be licking his chops if given the chance to start even a few games this season.  He’s worth a mid-round pick in PPR formats, but still worth a late-round stab in standard leagues.  This kid could be a league-winning fantasy asset in 2016.

NFC South

Cameron Artis-Payne

Running Back | Carolina Panthers

Another running back with a chance to emerge as a major factor in 2016, albeit a less talented one, is Carolina’s Cameron Artis-Payne.  Although I’m not going to try to sell Artis-Payne’s athleticism (it’s mediocre), I am, however, going to try to sell his position to succeed in 2016. Incumbent starter Jonathan Stewart has not only failed to hit the 1000-yard mark since 2009, but he also hasn’t appeared in more than 13 games since the 2011 season.  This lack of dominance and durability is surely concerning for Stewart’s fantasy prospects, but it should be the opposite for Artis-Payne’s.  The odds of CAP making a few starts this season are very high, and on Carolina’s effective, run-heavy offense, that could pay huge weekly dividends for fantasy owners.  Like McKinnon, he’s a backup RB that owners would love to snag at the end of their drafts as insurance, but Artis-Payne is a recommended target even if you don’t have Carolina’s top back.  Like I said at the start of this article, fantasy owners should have their sights set on cheaply priced option who have a chance to shine at some point in the season.  Cameron Artis-Payne, playing behind an aging, injury prone starter in the Panthers’ high-powered rushing offense, has the opportunity to eventually step in and become a vital fantasy X-Factor in 2016.

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