Fantasy football’s top breakout candidates for 2020

Which players are on the cusp of something big heading into the 2020 season?

Several of these players could cross over into the realm of being sleepers. For the most part, each name has somewhat established himself as an up-and-coming fantasy football commodity. They’re now on the verge of going big.

(Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports)


Kyler Murray | Arizona Cardinals | ADP: 5:02

A second year in this wide-open passing system that added one of the top receivers in the game can only bode well for the continued development of Murray. He was an inconsistent No. 1 fantasy quarterback as a rookie, so any sense of a breakout will come in the way of being reliable from week to week. He finished the year as QB7 in fantasy points but was only No. 13 in per-game scoring. The top takeaway from watching Murray last year: The game isn’t “too big” for him at the professional level.

Having an improved offensive line will help, as well. Just two quarterbacks hit the dirt more than Murray in 2019. Some of that was his fault for holding the ball too long or trying to make plays with his legs. Don’t expect a massive upgrade from the line, which will mostly require continuity to help, and staying healthy is important, of course. At any rate, Murray has all of the tools to be a top-five fantasy passer in weekly points generated, even if he takes a few lumps along the way.

Drew Lock | Denver Broncos | ADP: 11:03

The second-year quarterback saw general manager John Elway go all in on upgrading the offensive weaponry for Lock. The Broncos spent two early picks on wide receivers in Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, who’ll play out of the slot. Jeudy is among the top NFL-ready rookie receivers in recent years. Quite possibly the most important addition is found in the backfield, where the signing of Melvin Gordon will help create what could prove to be a top-five rushing attack.

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The other important area of improvement: Graham Glasgow was signed in free agency to play guard, but he also can go at center, and is paired with 2019 rookie stud guard Dalton Risner. The Broncos landed a nice value on Lloyd Cushenberry III to start a center as a third-rounder. Lock may not jump into the top tier of fantasy assets among quarterbacks in Year 2, but the weapons are in place for him to rely on his lively arm and make plays. Expect inconsistently strong QB1 production spattered among a few contests of being a No. 2-level game manager when the matchup calls for heavy ground utilization.

Running backs

(Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports)

Miles Sanders | Philadelphia Eagles | ADP: 2:03

Sharing touches as a rookie, Sanders managed to finish as the No. 15 PPR back in 16 games. His per-outing average of 13.7 fantasy points ranked 21st among RBs with at least 10 appearances last year. The Eagles should (heavy emphasis on should) be healthy at receiver entering the year, which will keep the box free of extra defenders more than last year. The Penn State product ran 179 times for only three touchdowns a year ago, ceding six scores to Jordan Howard. Sanders logged 50 receptions and another trio of TDs. Traditionally, receiving scores are volatile year over year, but there’s little reason Sanders cannot score close to 10 rushing touchdowns.

The true breakout aspect here will come via touchdowns and a reasonable increase in handles. Combining his 2019 carries with Howard’s from last year — not an ideal baseline, but the point is to show there’s considerable growth potential in workload — Sanders would tally 298 attempts. It will be somewhat surprising to see him rush that many times, but if it were to happen, it would tie for the third-most carries in 2019 (Nick Chubb). Consider the 250-260 range to be more than reasonable. He’ll see somewhere in the neighborhood of 240 carries as a floor, and that alone pushes him into solid RB1 status.

Devin Singletary | Buffalo Bills | ADP: 3:11

Efficiency is the name of his game. In 2019, the rookie toted the rock 151 times for 775 yards in 12 games, averaging 5.1 per carry. He scored only three times on the ground but added a pair via the passing game on his 29 grabs. Singletary was sluggish to get involved in his first six appearances, receiving more than eight carries in one of those contests. He had no fewer than 13 carries in the last seven games.

Frank Gore is gone, and third-round pick Zack Moss will have to get acclimated as a rookie in an unprecedented offseason. There is obvious concern Singletary could lose considerable work to Moss, particularly around the end zone; gamers should be more worried about QB Josh Allen’s rushing prowess. Durability also could be an issue after Singletary missed three games due to injury (fourth in Week 17 for playoff rest). Every running back comes with pitfall potential, so trust in an improved passing game helping make an already explosive back that much better. He’s a strong RB2 with low-tier No. 1 upside.

Raheem Mostert | San Francisco 49ers | ADP: 4:08

The trade of Matt Breida to the Miami Dolphins opened the door to a much larger share of the touches for Mostert. Running back Tevin Coleman remains in the mix, and there’s probably going to be weeks where gamers are playing the wrong guy. Keep that in mind if weekly consistency is extra important via performance bonuses in your league settings. Mostert showed he belonged last year with 137 carries for 772 yards and eight rushing TDs, averaging a hearty 5.6 yards per attempt in this zone-blocking system. He went on to chip in another two TDs on only 14 receptions, racking up 180 yards along the way. Mostert closed out 2019 scoring 80 percent of his touchdowns in the final nine contests (including playoffs), and he erupted on the Green Bay Packers in the conference championship for 220 yards and four scores.

With Breida out of the picture (Coleman aside), Jeff Wilson Jr., and veteran Jerick McKinnon (remember him?) round out the top of the depth chart. McKinnon still isn’t close to being 100 percent from a knee injury suffered two years ago. San Francisco lives and dies by the ground game, and the stout defense affords this style of play to continue. For as much as Kyle Shanahan likes Coleman, it’s evident Mostert is the more explosive option. The opportunity to touch the ball around 225-250 times is present, and Mostert may actually come at a bargain in more casual leagues.

(Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

Wide receivers

Deebo Samuel | San Francisco 49ers | ADP: 5:07

Just how much confidence can fantasy owners have that first-round rookie Brandon Aiyuk will be able to get up to speed during this offseason? How much confidence can we have in Jalen Hurd taking a massive step forward after effectively redshirting as a rookie in 2019? After George Kittle, there really isn’t a receiving option in this offense anyone should be concerned with cutting into Samuel’s numbers. He ran hot and cold as a rookie, finishing the year without a receiving touchdown in the final seven games (including playoffs). Samuel managed to still be relevant in PPR in all but a pair of those outings thanks to a combination of volume and rushing work (two scores).

Samuel’s game isn’t going to give fantasy owners too many explosive performances in standard scoring by his nature of being more of a glorified possession receiver (think Anquan Boldin). He’s still dynamic enough, though, and even in this pass-heavy offense, his target count of 81 from last year should increase by 50 percent or so. PPR gamers witnessed New York Jets WR Jamison Crowder finish 16th in scoring all while failing to top 833 yards on his 122 looks. The crafty Samuel is a far more versatile player and should be in for a final line that pushes him into the top 10 of his positional mates in reception-rewarding scoring formats.

Darius Slayton | New York Giants | ADP: 8:05

Slayton played in one of the more pass-friendly situations last year. He had a defense that struggled to contain opponents and heled lead to more passing … Saquon Barkley’s injury created a need for an increase in aerial work … Golden Tate’s suspension and injury … Sterling Shepard’s concussion spree … Evan Engram’s inevitable injury … Corey Coleman being lost for the year … Pat Shurmur’s base three-wide designs … All of that helped create a 48-740-8 line for the rookie wideout who entered the year buried on the depth chart.

Looking ahead, despite an offensive system change in an offseason without on-field activities as usually scheduled, the Giants once again offer an intriguing situation for Slayton. Quarterback Daniel Jones stands to mature in his second season, and a healthy Barkley will keep defenses guessing. The reality is Tate enters his age-32 season, and Shepard is one concussion away from possibly having to retire. Engram remains brittle, and Coleman isn’t a threat after the showing from Slayton. Jason Garrett comes over as the play-caller and also brings a three-wide base that has proven capable of sustaining multiple WRs. With Tate in the twilight of his career, and Shepard merely a sidekick, the 4.39-second Slayton easily could be the featured guy and produce Amari Cooper-like numbers. The 2019 WR37 is well-positioned to flirt with No. 2 status in 2020.

Mecole Hardman | Kansas City Chiefs | ADP: 10:07

Despite catching only 26 balls a year ago as a rookie, Hardman managed to find the end zone six times. The Chiefs retained Sammy Watkins and brought back Demarcus Robinson, which should give some pause, but neither player has the makings of being something special, unlike Hardman. Generally speaking, talent wins out more often than not, and this second-year receiver has it in spades. The Chiefs could make it difficult for Hardman to be consistently involved, though, which is a legitimate concern. Get him the ball anywhere in the range of 80-100 targets and we’ll see fireworks.

There are plenty of intriguing WR fliers, and Hardman will draw early attention in deeper leagues or from more competitive circles, so understand he could enter overvalued territory in those situations. While banking on an injury isn’t wise, it obviously is a way to increased playing time. So is simply being better than his competition, which is what is more likely to lead him to an uptick in work. WR3 standing is a reasonable expectation after his WR62 debut season.

(Denny Medley, USA TODAY Sports)
Tight ends

Noah Fant | Denver Broncos | ADP: 11.06

The 2019 first-round pick is likely to be a fantasy darling for many owners who tend to wait on the position. In 2020, there’s a respectable crop of tight ends we can consider to be “safe” bets for starter production. Fant is on the cusp of entering the conversation as a midrange No. 1 even without a marked improvement.

The offense turns to Pat Shurmur, whose system definitely caters to the position. Evan Engram was on a torrid pace before getting hurt in 2020 for the Giants when Shurmur was in charge. Denver will feature second-year quarterback Drew Lock as their starter, and he more than acquitted himself as a rookie last year. While Lock didn’t focus too much on Fant in their five games together, we saw some of Fant’s elite speed mesh with Lock’s stellar arm to create 28-yards-per-catch averages in two of those matchups. Denver drastically infused talent in the offseason to bolster the passing game, and Fant should benefit as a low-volume, high-efficiency weapon.

Blake Jarwin | Dallas Cowboys | ADP: 14:08

In 2019, the Cowboys managed to find 83 targets for Jason Witten and another 41 for Jarwin as his backup in an offense littered with receiving talent. Witten is now a Las Vegas Raider, and WR Randall Cobb is in Houston. A rookie first-rounder in CeeDee Lamb was chosen as arguably the most talented wideout in the draft, but Jarwin is a veteran who already knows the system and is now the starter. Only nine tight ends were targeted more than Witten last season, suggesting if even half of those looks went to Jarwin in 2020, coupled with the 41 he saw as a reserve, we’re right at that 10th-place mark again, in a vacuum, anyway.

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Mike McCarthy may be the new head coach in Dallas, yet the 2019 coordinator, Kellen Moore, returns to call the plays. Being an offensive-minded coach, it’s only natural we’ll see some of McCarthy’s system tendencies bleed into the calls. Nevertheless, it isn’t a bad thing. His Packers didn’t really have a bona fide fantasy tight end, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying; Jermichael Finley appeared destined for stardom before suffering a career-ending spinal cord injury. Jarwin has the chops to get it done, although the major concern will be the consistency of his weekly involvement. He’s probably a better target in best-ball leagues where gamers don’t set a lineup but rather field one based on their week’s top positional performers. That is, unless, you’re supremely confident playing the matchups.