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With the NFL season quickly approaching, it’s time to revisit this season’s fantasy breakout candidates.

Trey Lance, QB, 49ers

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Fantasy managers waited patiently for Trey Lance to be handed the starting job in his rookie year, but 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan stuck with veteran Jimmy Garoppolo until the end of the season.

However, we did get a glimpse at what the future holds for San Francisco’s offense and the fantasy quarterback landscape when Lance stepped in for an injured Jimmy G over three extended appearances. During those three contests where Lance played at least 50% of the snaps – two of which were starts – the first-year passer averaged over 18 fantasy points per game while finishing as a top-13 QB in weekly scoring twice.

His numbers were unsurprisingly padded by strong rushing totals, which is one of his best attributes dating back to his last complete college season when he ran for 1,100 yards in 16 games. That was before he sat out most of the 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic and before the 49ers traded up to select him third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.

As disappointed as the fantasy community was by his delayed launch, spending most of last year learning behind Garoppolo might end up being the best thing for a raw prospect like Lance. By all accounts, the 22-year-old has impressed this offseason on the practice field, as a leader, and in interviews as the new face of the franchise.

Even so, his emergence as an NFL starter won’t be without its hiccups. He’s going to make mistakes as he continues to develop his skills. As a prospect, he compares quite favorably to Josh Allen – a big-armed, dual-threat QB who needed to work on his accuracy and the touch on his passes during his first few seasons.

Though he has a long way to go to match Allen’s trajectory, Lance will also have a great organization and offense around him to help him grow. In addition to playing in the Shanahan system – which once led Robert Griffin III to a top-five fantasy finish in his first season as a starter in Washington – Lance will be surrounded by one of the best supporting casts in the league.

Deebo Samuel is the star of the group and just signed a sizeable new contract. Brandon Aiyuk is an overqualified No. 2 receiver. George Kittle is an elite all-around tight end. And the backfield is comprised of game-breaker Elijah Mitchell as well as a deep group of backups.

Entering his sophomore season, it’s clear this is Lance’s team as Garoppolo awaits an inevitable trade.

We’ve seen several young dual-threat quarterbacks break out in recent years, including Allen, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts. If you’re searching for the next name to join that list, look no further than Lance, who’s available in the eighth or ninth round of most 2022 fantasy drafts.

Other breakout QB candidates:

  • Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins – After returning from injury in Week 6, Tua was the QB17 in fantasy points per game while playing most of those contests without DeVante Parker and Will Fuller. Now he’ll have superstar Tyreek Hill playing alongside stud sophomore Jaylen Waddle in what should be a much improved Miami offense under new head coach Mike McDaniel.
  • Justin Fields, Bears – While the Bears’ front office failed to acquire any new impact weapons to aid in Fields’ development, his rushing potential alone is enough to intrigue fantasy managers. Last year’s first-round pick posted at least 35 rushing yards in six of his final seven outings as a rookie.
  • Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars – We’re giving Lawrence a pass after a forgettable rookie year that was undermined by Urban Meyer. The Jags’ new head coach Doug Pederson will be a friendly and professional presence in the organization and should help Lawrence get back on track. The arrival of Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Evan Engram, and Brandon Scherff, combined with the long-awaited debut of Travis Etienne will also provide upgrades to the offense.

Travis Etienne, RB, Jaguars

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It’s easy to look back at the Urban Meyer era in Jacksonville as an utter disaster and question whether the Jags should have used a first-round pick on a running back when undrafted free agent James Robinson had broken out the year before.

Just don’t let that overshadow Etienne’s college resume and what the future could hold for him in real life and fantasy – especially with Robinson working his way back from a torn Achilles suffered in December.

Etienne offers the exact skill set fantasy managers are chasing – top-tier breakaway speed and high-end pass-catching ability.

The former Clemson standout finished his career with the most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in school history. He also ranks 28th on the all-time NCAA rushing leaders list dating back to 1956, as well as seventh in rushing scores.

Following a foot injury last August, the 23-year-old wisely sat out last season after undergoing Lisfranc – giving himself the best chance to return to full health next time he stepped on an NFL field.

So far his approach appears to have worked, as Etienne was a full participant in the offseason program and immediately began flashing the talent and athleticism that made him a coveted asset a year ago. His connection with former college teammate Trevor Lawrence has also been on display in the passing game.

While Robinson avoided the active physically unable to play list to start training camp, the history of ball carriers returning from Achilles tears isn’t promising. Plus, the timeline suggests he might not be anywhere near full strength in 2022.

That could slide a lot of touches Etienne’s way, since the only other competition in the backfield is fifth-rounder Snoop Conner, journeyman Ryquell Armstead, and depth pieces Nathan Cottrell and Mekhi Sargent.

Though you shouldn’t expect Etienne to turn into a workhorse back, he could emerge as an Alvin Kamara-type. The Saints star was elevated by his receiving work and touchdown scoring en route to finishing top-three in fantasy points per game in 2020 despite only surpassing 15 carries in two outings.

He’ll also benefit from the arrival of All-Pro right guard Brandon Scherff, who will help stabilize a young but unproven offensive line that has yet to play up to its potential.

With an ADP at the Rounds 3-4 turn, Etienne should be high on your list of breakout targets this season. If Robinson struggles to regain his form, Etienne could even flirt with RB1 fantasy stats in what should be an improved Jacksonville offense.

Other breakout RB candidates:

  • Breece Hall, Jets – Hall was the gem of this year’s dynasty rookie drafts – he’s a physical bell cow who also provides big-play ability and enough pass-catching skills to be a fantasy star. The 21-year-old will be an instant top-20 option on an ascending offense with the potential to eventually attain RB1 status in all formats.
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs – Time might be running out for CEH to prove he was worth the first-round pick Kansas City spent to get him in 2020. However, if it’s true that last year’s campaign was derailed by an offseason gallbladder surgery that left him at 160 pounds, there’s hope he could excel as a healthy post-hype breakout.
  • Kenneth Walker, Seahawks – Walker was drafted in the second round to be a focal point of Seattle’s rushing attack now that Russell Wilson is gone. It’s only a matter of time before he overtakes Rashaad Penny, whose three and a half years of durability issues far outweigh the small sample size of quality production he delivered over the final month last season. But if Walker is going to be a difference-maker for fantasy, he’ll need to earn snaps on passing downs.

Rashod Bateman, WR, Ravens

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Bateman should have been on your radar as a breakout candidate before the Ravens traded Marquise Brown to the Cardinals in April. But now that Hollywood is out of the picture, the path is clear for last year’s first-round pick to assume the place as Lamar Jackson’s top receiver and rise to fantasy stardom.

The 22-year-old is coming off a bizarre rookie season that saw him start the year on injured reserve. Once he did return to the lineup, Bateman was forced to play without Jackson for the final four weeks of the season.

Even in that less than desirable situation, Bateman flashed No. 1 receiver skills by topping 50 yards in three of his first four outings. The high point of his debut campaign came in Week 14 when he caught seven balls for 103 yards against the division-rival Browns.

Tight end Mark Andrews will continue to serve as the offense’s lead pass-catcher, but it’s a title Bateman could challenge for in the near future. The departures of Brown and Sammy Watkins leave 195 vacated targets in Baltimore. Outside of Andrews and Bateman, the team will look to untested options like James Proche, Devin Duvernay, and Tylan Wallace to fill out the pass-catching corps.

Even if the Ravens get back to an extreme run-heavy approach, we could see a fairly concentrated passing attack with Andrews and Bateman carving out massive target shares.

It’s also worth noting, Brown came in ninth in Pro Football Focus’ expected fantasy points per game a year ago, which bodes well for Bateman’s outlook moving forward.

One of the easiest ways to spot a breakout is to recognize when high-end talent and opportunity meet. Bateman is the epitome of that scenario and should be viewed as a low-end WR2 entering his sophomore season.

Other breakout WR candidates:

  • Gabriel Davis, Bills – While everyone wants to debate whether Davis is actually ready to assume a full-time role in Buffalo’s offense, we’re more than willing to draft a player who erupted after he was freed from Emmanuel Sanders’ shadow midway through the year. In the six contests Davis played at least 50% of the snaps, he averaged 59 yards per game and notched four touchdowns. And that’s not counting his 201-yard, four-TD performance in the playoffs. Keep an eye on his rising ADP, but there’s a strong WR2 ready to be unlocked here.
  • Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers – Will this be the year Aiyuk puts it together for a full season? During his rookie season, he was the WR15 in fantasy points per game (16.4) from Week 3 on. Then, after starting his sophomore campaign in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse, Aiyuk was the WR22 (13.4) over the final 10 outings. His ADP as the WR42 in the seventh round simply doesn’t reflect his potential.
  • Kadarius Toney, Giants – If Toney can stay out of his own way – avoiding off-field issues and ejections – his ceiling is limitless. It was a small sample size, but the first-rounder hauled in 16 catches and 267 yards over two weeks while displaying an extra gear most players don’t bring to the NFL. The Giants’ new coaching staff needs to prioritize getting the ball in his hands and if they do we’ll be talking about Toney as a league-winning fantasy star.

Cole Kmet, TE, Bears

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If you fail to draft an elite tight end like Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, or even Kyle Pitts, your focus should then shift to a later-round option with a guaranteed target share.

Ideally, you want to find a tight end who’s the de facto No. 1 or No. 2 receiving threat in an offense, which is why Kmet should be intriguing to fantasy managers.

Coming off a year where he caught 60 passes (12th among tight ends) and 612 yards (11th among tight ends), Kmet is set up for another uptick in volume.

Veteran Jimmy Graham is no longer around to be a vulture near the goal line, which contributed to Kmet scoring zero touchdowns last season.

The team also hasn’t adequately replaced receiver Allen Robinson. They’ve instead elected to throw darts at a variety of depth-level talents like Byron Pringle, Dante Pettis, Equanimeous St. Brown, and rookie Velus Jones – none of whom project for a significant target share.

That leaves top wideout Darnell Mooney and Kmet as Justin Fields’ main weapons in the passing game.

Given that Kmet already averaged the 13th-most targets per game (5.5) at his position in 2021, it’s not a stretch to envision him cracking the top 10 this time around.

If Kmet can find more success near the end zone, he’ll easily push for low-end TE1 numbers in fantasy and maybe even more. Had he simply scored five touchdowns last year, a mark hit by mid-level tight ends like Tyler Higbee and C.J. Uzomah, Kmet would have been in the TE1 conversation.

Many tight ends take a couple of years to acclimate to the pros, and at just 23 years old with two seasons already under his belt, Kmet is poised to take his game to the next level as a volume-boosted fantasy starter.

Other breakout TE candidates:

  • David Njoku, Browns – Cleveland committed to making Njoku a bigger part of their offense with a new four-year, $56.8-million extension. However, there are still obstacles that could cap the athletic tight end’s fantasy ceiling – starting with the Deshaun Watson suspension.
  • Albert Okwuegbunam, Broncos – Russell Wilson’s arrival will be a major boon to the entire Denver passing attack, but we’re still sorting out how the targets will be distributed between a loaded receiving corps and a tight end room that features Okwuegbunam and rookie Greg Dulcich. Tim Patrick’s season-ending ACL tear might give a slight bump to everyone’s target share. Even if Albert O sees less overall volume than projected, he could still be a fantasy factor due to his high upside around the goal line.
  • Irv Smith Jr., Vikings – Smith was our main breakout target last season before a meniscus surgery cost him the entire campaign. Now he’s dealing with a thumb injury that’ll sideline him for the preseason. If he can eventually stay healthy and regain his previous form, he’s an explosive athlete who could see his role grow in a Vikings offense that promises to be more pass-heavy.

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