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Fantasy football sleepers, busts, breakouts for 2018

Is this the season when Marcus Mariota and other Tennessee Titans finally hit their strides and pay off in fantasy? Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The difference between winning and losing your league often comes down to a single decision on draft day. It could be taking a player whose production explodes, turning him into one of the elite players in the game. It could be selecting a player whom others slept on during the draft but far exceeded his preseason value. It could also be a player whom you intended to rely on but then flopped miserably.

To assist you in securing the best impact players and draft values -- while avoiding players who will wreck your roster -- the ESPN Fantasy Football staff offers its top sleepers, busts and breakouts as defined here:

Sleeper: a player who will far surpass his average draft position (ADP) in standard ESPN leagues for the 2018 season.
Bust: a player who is expected to be a solid starter in standard ESPN leagues but will fail to live up to those expectations this season.
Breakout: a player who will leap into or close to the upper echelon of players at his position for the first time because of a dramatic increase in production compared with his previous seasons (or a rookie who will burst onto the scene).

Our panel is composed of the following ESPN Fantasy writers and editors: Stephania Bell, Matthew Berry, Matt Bowen, Tom Carpenter, Mike Clay, Tristan H. Cockcroft, KC Joyner, Eric Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, Jim McCormick, Andre Snellings and Field Yates.

Each analyst named a sleeper and a bust for each of the major offensive positions, as well as one breakout candidate. You can find their picks in the charts below, and then analysis and insight on a selection of players they felt most passionate about in each category.


Sleepers

These are the players our panel believes will exceed their 2018 average draft position and provide value for those who take a chance on them.

Rashaad Penny, RB, Seattle Seahawks

Seattle was one of the best rushing teams in the league during the first half of the decade, with Marshawn Lynch as a perennial threat for at least 1,500 total yards and double-digit touchdowns. The Seahawks have struggled on the ground during the past three seasons, but Penny is their most talented running back since Lynch. A first-round pick with both strength and burst, Penny averaged 7.8 yards per carry in college last year. The Seahawks have spoken of using Penny as an every-down back in a heavy-rushing offensive system that lacks playmakers, which gives him big upside. -- Andre Snellings

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

Last season was a disaster for Mariota from a statistical perspective; 23rd in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks, and he had more turnovers than passing touchdowns. Where does the optimism come from? Time traveling to a modern NFL offense surely helps -- especially with an offensive coordinator from the Rams -- as does the fact that he averaged the 15th-most fantasy points at the position in his first two seasons. There is not just a great deal of untapped potential with Mariota's passing production. This gifted collegiate scrambler ranks 19th among QBs in rushing attempts per game since 2015, a rate that could surely rise in a more progressive scheme. -- Jim McCormick

Kalen Ballage, RB, Miami Dolphins

He's a 6-foot-2, 230-pound bruiser who ran a 4.46 40 at the combine and has flashed pass-catching ability (44 receptions in 2016). Already turning heads at training camp -- just google his name -- I wrote about Ballage after interviewing him. And while I think Kenyan Drake is a good football player, I am not convinced the Dolphins see him as a bell-cow running back. Who knows how much Frank Gore has left in the tank, and given Ballage's size, it's very easy to see him starting off as a short-yardage/goal-line back and expanding his role even further as the season goes on. -- Matthew Berry

Alex Smith, QB, Washington Redskins

It wasn't a fluke that Smith finished fourth in quarterback points last season, as he finished tied for fourth in YPA (7.9), first in stretch vertical YPA (21.9 on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield), sixth in quarterback rushing yards (355) and tied for second in my bad decision rate (BDR) metric that measures how often a passer makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team (0.2 percent). Washington ranks tied for second in vertical touchdown passes during the past two seasons (29 scoring throws traveling 11 or more yards downfield), so they didn't bring Smith in to run a dink-and-dunk aerial attack. Add it up and Smith has good odds of being a QB1 again this season.

Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers

Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery to realize his potential, and that is precisely what McKinnon is getting. In his move from Minnesota to San Francisco, he will be putting all of his athletic skills to use, not just to run but also to catch. In fact, coach Kyle Shanahan has already said McKinnon will line up as a wideout at times. Speed and explosiveness combined with the opportunity to snag passes is the stuff of PPR dreams. McKinnon will likely be undervalued in this season's drafts based on his recent stats as a Viking, but the numbers he posts with the 49ers should showcase his first-round worth. -- Stephania Bell

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While Cameron Brate put up the greater fantasy point total last season, Howard's role seemed to expand as the year progressed. One could point to Ryan Fitzpatrick's brief time filling in during Jameis Winston's injuries (three games and portions of two others) for an explanation, but even after Winston's return in Week 13, the pendulum appeared to have shifted in Howard's direction. During the season's second half, Howard played more snaps than Brate (264-259) and had more PPR fantasy points (48.5-45.7), despite playing two fewer games. I think it was a clear sign that Howard's future as the team's primary pass-catcher is close, and he's got enough skill to be a top-10 tight end if those trends continue. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

Rex Burkhead, RB, New England Patriots

Due to injuries and a busy depth chart, Burkhead didn't play more than 10 offensive plays in a game for New England until Week 7 last season. From Week 7 on, however, Burkhead averaged 14.1 fantasy points (PPR) on 21.3 snaps per game. There are valuable unclaimed touches in New England; the Patriots are tied atop the league (Saints) with 75 carries within 5 yards of the goal line by their running backs during the past three seasons. If Burkhead, who proved dangerous in the red zone last season, can claim a healthy share of goal-to-go work, I think there is real profit potential. -- Jim McCormick

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears

The hopeful parallel for Trubisky is Jared Goff, who pivoted his career after a forgettable rookie season to throw 28 touchdowns in Year 2 under the guidance of Sean McVay as his head coach. Trubisky, who managed just seven touchdowns last season in 12 games, now follows the lead of coach Matt Nagy, an exceptionally well-regarded offensive mind. Moreover, the talent level was boosted significantly this offseason with the additions of -- among others -- Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel. -- Field Yates

Trey Burton, TE, Chicago Bears

The former Eagle who tossed a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl should be one of the top targets for second-year quarterback Trubisky, who should emerge now that he has better weapons and coaching. Burton steps into a wonderful situation with new coach Nagy, who came from the Chiefs and made tight end Travis Kelce a focal point of the offense. The athletic Burton should easily top 100 targets and find his way into the end zone at least six or seven times during his first season. -- Eric Karabell

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

In 2016, Ryan completed 373 passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns in his second year under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. In 2017, Ryan's numbers were down across the board, even though his passing attempts were roughly similar. There were growing pains with a new OC, the Falcons led the NFL with 30 drops, and they had a bit of a Super Bowl hangover. However, Ryan's career numbers suggest that he's due for a bounce back, and with first-round wide receiver Calvin Ridley added to the mix, Ryan should be able to play himself back into being a weekly fantasy starter. -- Andre Snellings

Will Fuller V, WR, Houston Texans

You'd be hard-pressed to find a statistical suggestion that Fuller is primed to soar this year, as his productive games last season had outlying traits (seven touchdowns on 13 total catches in a four-game stretch), and he posted an average of 24 yards in his other six games. A peaks-and-valleys player in 2017, Fuller should evolve into a steadier component of an offense that will be led by the wizardry of Deshaun Watson. This is a bet on the talent of Fuller, the blazing-fast 2016 first-round pick. -- Field Yates

Michael Crabtree, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Last season was lost to injury, but Crabtree's draft stock -- he is going 32nd on average among receivers -- bakes in injury risk without much appreciation for his actual production pattern. From 2015 to 2016, Crabtree ranked 16th in fantasy points per game at the position. The opportunity for elite usage in Baltimore is obvious; players who accounted for 59 percent of the team's target share are no longer on the roster, the highest vacated rate in the league. The Ravens also have 71.3 percent of their air yards from last season vacated, per AirYards.com. -- Jim McCormick

Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders

Considering Cooper is currently going as WR22 and I believe he's got top-10 potential, yeah, he qualifies as a sleeper. To succeed in the NFL, you need talent and opportunity. No one questions Cooper's talent. His concentration sometimes, sure, but not his talent. Still just 24, Cooper has more than 2,900 yards and 18 touchdowns and has averaged 14.3 yards per catch in three NFL seasons. Now, with Crabtree and others moving along, there are more than 160 targets available. I'm not a Jordy Nelson believer, so yeah, expect this offense to revolve around Cooper, who has averaged 18 fantasy points per game when he has had eight or more targets. I'm all-in on a big bounce-back season from Amari Cooper. -- Matthew Berry

Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers

In 2016, Graham averaged a career-best 14.2 yards per reception with only six touchdowns. Then he reversed the trends with a career-low 9.1 yards per reception but 10 touchdowns in 2017. Many believe Graham lost a step and became a possession receiver, but Graham never had the chemistry with Russell Wilson that he displayed with Drew Brees. This season, Graham joins Aaron Rodgers in a pass-friendly system, full of motivation to perform with a non-guaranteed contract. Graham has played at least 15 games in eight of his past nine seasons, giving him both a high floor and a high ceiling. -- Andre Snellings

Brandin Cooks, WR, Los Angeles Rams

What does Cooks have to do to get more respect in the fantasy football community? He placed 15th in wide receiver fantasy points last season (221.2) and was only six points away from being in the top 10 in that category. Cooks is now on an offense piloted by Jared Goff, who ranked third in YPA last season (8.0), sixth in stretch vertical YPA (15.2) and 12th in stretch vertical pass percentage (12.7 percent of his aerials traveled 20 or more yards downfield). The downfield receiving role in the Rams offense could move Cooks back to low-tier WR1 status and yet he's still seen as a WR3 in most draft rooms.


Busts

Which players are destined to fall short of their draft-day expectations? Our panel suggests you stay away from these players, who are sure to disappoint.

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

It's hard to pick a bust at quarterback. There are so many similar options that the only real mistake you can make is reaching at the position. That said, Brees is going a pinch earlier than where I have him ranked. Brees finished ninth at the position in fantasy points last season, managing only four top-10 fantasy weeks (18 quarterbacks had more). He ranked ninth or lower in dropbacks, attempts and touchdowns and adds little with his legs. The Saints' defense is even better in 2018, which figures to mean even less on the 39-year-old's shoulders late in games. -- Mike Clay

Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers

While there is little doubt that Graham should fit better within the Packers' offense than that of the Seahawks, it is unclear just how many targets will come his way. The last two Green Bay tight ends (Jared Cook and Martellus Bennett) didn't exactly light the fantasy world on fire. Granted, Graham has proved himself to be a superior pass-catcher, but can he truly still get separation? (Wide receiver Jordy Nelson couldn't, and he was sent to the West Coast.) Can he get up in the air and beat out those around him to catch a classic Rodgers Hail Mary? While his recovery from a ruptured patellar tendon (2015) has been impressive, it's still fair to think this version of Jimmy Graham will not be Saints 2.0. -- Stephania Bell

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Currently going ninth among quarterbacks, Ben is my QB14, so not a huge drop, but given how deep QB is, it's hard to pick a true QB bust. But it's worth noting that he's played all 16 games just three times in a 14-year career, and here's his finish in total fantasy points the past six seasons: 2017: QB10; 2016: QB 18; 2015: QB20; 2014: QB5; 2013: QB12; 2012: QB19. He's been a top-10 QB just twice in the past six years and has beaten his current ADP of QB9 just once (2014). Whether it's a mental thing, a weird coincidence or a game plan to be more conservative on the road, the fact is that Ben is averaging fewer than 14 points per road game the past four seasons. No Todd Haley this year makes me a bit nervous as well. -- Matthew Berry

Saquon Barkley, RB, NY Giants

Let's start by making it clear that this isn't to suggest that Barkley will have a terrible rookie campaign. The issue here is that Barkley's sub-par breakaway numbers seem to be glossed over by the fantasy football community. Last season, Barkley ranked 36th among Power 5 running backs with 100 or more carries against Power 5 opponents in percentage of rushes that gained 10 or more yards (12.4 percent). For those thinking this might be a fluke number, consider that Barkley also placed 54th in percentage of rushes of five or more yards in 2016 (35.3 percent). He is likely to get a strong workload, but if the breakaway carry rate doesn't improve, the Giants may decide to split the workload more than anticipated and thus drive Barkley closer to the border of RB1 and RB2 in fantasy.

Marshawn Lynch, RB, Oakland Raiders

He's now 32 years old with more than 2,350 career carries on his legs and is coming off what was a disappointing return from retirement in 2017 (relative to what he cost in fantasy drafts at the time). The Raiders planned accordingly, bringing in Doug Martin for depth while retaining both DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, each of whom tallied at least 56 carries for a team that played a significant portion of its offensive snaps from behind. Lynch should still contribute to fantasy teams, thanks in large part to his likelihood of goal-line carries, but a timeshare is a possibility, and his statistical ceiling is probably the lowest it has been at any point in his career. I can't make the case that he belongs in the sixth round, preferring to take a chance on a higher-upside running back that early. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

The longstanding fantasy admonition against overvaluing the previous season's outlier performances immediately comes to mind when I see that Hill is on the borderline of WR1/WR2 value. Last season, he racked up six receptions that gained 50 or more yards. Only five other players have done that during the past ten seasons, and only one of those players repeated the feat in consecutive seasons (DeSean Jackson in 2009 and 2010). Hill also benefited from defensive errors, as he scored 24.5 fantasy points on coverage mistakes that occurred on throws 30 or more yards downfield, a total that was the third highest in that category. Combine these with Hill having the fifth toughest matchup points total among wide receivers and adjusting to a first-time full-time starting quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, and Hill should be considered more of a WR2/WR3 prospect in 2018.

Jarvis Landry, WR, Cleveland Browns

A great point was raised at the ESPN Fantasy Football Summit. As a group, we've ranked a pair of Browns wide receivers (Josh Gordon being the other) generously, yet when we look at the team as a whole, there's not enough offensive strength for both players to earn a season-ending fantasy point total that'll back it up. On raw talent, both Landry and Gordon warrant those valuations, but Landry's move to Cleveland worries me most because of the extreme volume fueling his fantasy numbers during his days in Miami. He's not a big red zone threat, struggling to fill the touchdown column, and Tyrod Taylor is really no better a quarterback for Landry's skill set than any he worked with in Miami. There's a downside here, and I fear it could be perhaps a drop-off of 25 catches (or more). -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

Jay Ajayi, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

The former Dolphins star averaged 5.8 yards per rush for the Eagles after his midseason acquisition, but the Super Bowl champs boast depth at this position and will not be afraid to use it. Ajayi broke out in 2016 with more than 1,200 rushing yards, but half of them came in three explosive games. The rest of the time, fantasy managers were frustrated. With chronic knee problems and constant backfield competition, Ajayi will struggle to hold RB2 status all season. -- Eric Karabell

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

You can read Tristan H. Cockcroft's take on why Brady is overrated in fantasy this season right here.

Carlos Hyde, RB, Cleveland Browns

Hyde is one of my favorite players in the league to watch, but he simply should not be coming off the board in the single-digit rounds of fantasy drafts. Hyde was well-positioned for high-end fantasy production as the leadman in Shanahan's offense last season, but he's in a much worse situation in Cleveland. Even if Hyde holds off second-round rookie Nick Chubb for early-down/goal-line duties (not a given), he will defer change-of-pace touches and certainly most passing-down work to Duke Johnson Jr. Hyde is coming off his least efficient pro season and is looking at no more than committee duties in 2018. -- Mike Clay


Breakouts

Who will join the ranks of the elite and help you win your league this season? Here are our expert picks for 2018's breakout stars.

Rashaad Penny, RB, Seattle Seahawks

From 2012 to 2017, eight running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Six of those backs finished as top-10 fantasy backs as rookies. Plain and simple: When teams select a running back early, they plan to use him a ton. The Seahawks have made it clear they're moving back to a run-first offense, and 27th overall pick Penny is a strong bet to lead the backfield during most of the 2018 season. Looming Chris Carson shouldn't steal much work from the elusive Penny, who paced the nation in rushing while averaging 7.8 YPC at San Diego State last season. -- Mike Clay

Derrius Guice, RB, Washington Redskins

Many scouts felt he was the best running back after Saquon Barkley. Guice's rushing rates during his final two collegiate seasons (6.3 yards per carry with 41.9 percent of his carries gaining at least 5 yards) were very much in the Barkley range (5.7 yards per carry with 37 percent of his carries gaining at least 5 yards). Now he lands in Washington, where, despite an injured offensive line last year and a struggling running game, Jay Gruden's Redskins ran the ball 54.7 percent of the time in goal-to-go situations, 10th most in the NFL. In fact, if you combined Rob Kelley's and Samaje Perine's goal-to-go carries from last season, that "player" would rank tied for third in goal-to-go carries with 21. While Chris Thompson will handle a lot of third downs, they want to limit his touches, so expect Guice to be more involved in passing work than you think. -- Matthew Berry

Royce Freeman, RB, Denver Broncos

The third-round pick from Oregon might not be the pass-catcher incumbent starter Devontae Booker has been, but then again, we have seen Booker's act, and it is not special. Freeman is big and fast and should push Booker aside for the early-downs and goal-line work, with the potential for at least 1,000 rushing yards. The offense finally has a decent quarterback, so do not judge it off last season. There are myriad rookie running backs to consider, and Freeman has a good shot to emerge right away. -- Eric Karabell

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

While Jamaal Williams will probably begin the season as the Packers' starter, thanks in large part to his serviceable job in the role in 2017, Jones was the most dynamic talent of the team's three starters last season when given the chance. In his four starts, he averaged more than 11 carries a game, 6.4 yards per carry and 2.75 yards after contact per rush. Assuming he can stay healthy, he should overtake Williams fairly quickly, and given that chance, he could be a top-15 performer at the position. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

It's simple: If Barkley does all the things the Giants believe he can do, he will be the breakout player in 2018. Rookies universally find the going a little bit tougher initially, struggling to adapt their skill set to the NFL ... with the occasional exception of one position: running back. As opposed to rookie wide receivers, who have to improve route running, or rookie quarterbacks, who need to learn to read defenses, rookie running backs are more dependent on a match between their style and that of their new offense, along with opportunities to touch the ball. If you can run, catch and pass-protect, the opportunities go up. Barkley has all of this working in his favor. -- Stephania Bell

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon had a disappointing rookie season but still led all Bengals backs in rushing yards and tied for the lead in touchdowns. This season, the Bengals have Mixon as their feature every-down back. Cincinnati had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season but has upgraded the unit this offseason. The scheme is more wide open this season behind new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, so Mixon should have better scoring opportunities. Now established and ready to display the electric running ability he showed in college, Mixon has a good chance to break out this year. -- Andre Snellings

Jerick McKinnon, RB, San Francisco 49ers

There are a few ways to examine the excitement surrounding McKinnon, but let's start with his ability: He possesses uncommon athletic skills with terrific speed and nifty open-field work. He's got the soft hands to handle a massive passing game load and will spring chunk plays with regularity. Now let's get to the offensive fit, as he takes over a presumptive starting role in a Kyle Shanahan offense that is primed to involve the back as a pass-catcher. In 2017, Carlos Hyde accumulated 59 catches; he had never had a season with more than 33 targets prior to Shanahan's arrival, suggesting to me that 70-catch upside is on the radar for McKinnon. By the way, sometimes following the money can tell you something you need to know, and the 49ers made McKinnon one of the richest backs in football on an $8 million per-season contract. He'll be busy in the Bay Area. -- Field Yates

Will Fuller V, WR, Houston Texans

The Houston fantasy hype train is running at full speed for Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins -- and it should be going nearly as fast for Fuller. Last season, Fuller out-paced Hopkins in vertical YPA (13.5 for Fuller, 9.4 for Hopkins), stretch vertical YPA (Fuller 16.6, Hopkins 11.3) and overall YPA (Fuller 9.8, Hopkins 8.1). The Texans cannot want Hopkins to rack up close to 200 targets again this season, so sending more volume in Fuller's direction also would diversify their offense. Fantasy managers who want to partake in the Houston offense without paying full price to do so should strongly consider taking Fuller a round or two earlier than his current WR4 ADP value.

Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans

My zeal for Davis is in part tied to my appreciation for Mariota's potential as a passer, while also recognizing the increased utility and upside Davis can offer in new coordinator Matt LaFleur's offense. Davis, like his quarterback, is a former elite prospect felled so far by a blend of injuries and a role in an archaic offense. He can be found just after Crabtree in drafts, and pairing the two as a blend of high-floor and high-ceiling investments is a fun idea for managers to consider. -- Jim McCormick