There are dozens of different keys to winning your fantasy draft. But boil them all down to their base components and you're left with essentially the same principle: Acquire the best value possible. That means finding league winners among the laymen. Future weekly starters buried several rounds below their potential.
Or, to put it more succinctly: breakout candidates.
Austin Ekeler, Cooper Kupp and Josh Allen weren't always the kings of fantasy they are today. They had breakout seasons on the merits of shifting situations, burgeoning talent or sometimes both. If we can spot these stars before they're born, we've got a fast track to fantasy championships.
Here are nine breakout candidates for the 2023 fantasy season.
Quick stat dive: On the relatively short list of rookie wide receivers over the last decade to catch 60+ percent of their targets and average 14+ yards per catch, just three did so with more targets than Chris Olave. Those names? Odell Beckham Jr., Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Incidentally, the next few guys on the list are DeVonta Smith, Keenan Allen and Cooper Kupp. Are you seeing a trend here? Importantly, Olave was heavily utilized downfield but had trouble converting that usage to production. Part of the issue was quarterback play. Derek Carr should be a significant upgrade in that department. Another factor was Olave's disappointing catch rate on contested targets, one of the specific areas he is working on this offseason in his pursuit of being "the best." As Olave matures and these barriers continue to fall, he has all the makings of a legitimately elite wideout.
Sometimes, breakouts take a lot of digging and detective work to uncover. Other times, they are Alexander Mattison. The second the Vikings released Dalvin Cook, fantasy pundits everywhere started waving their "Mattison 2023" flags. In his four years with Minnesota, Mattison has made six starts (filling in for Cook) -- and averaged 20 fantasy points per game in those starts. His touches and scrimmage yards per game as the starter both outstrip Cook's own numbers, and his five touchdowns in those games would project to around 14 over a full season. As the clear-cut No. 1 on a high-pace, high-scoring offense, Mattison doesn't even need to hit those rates to pay off for fantasy. He will likely threaten 300+ touches and double-digit touchdowns (as Cook usually did) and could easily return first-round value at a wildly low sixth-round average draft position.
There was quite a bit of hope for Jerry Jeudy to break out last season, especially with the arrival of Russell Wilson. Instead, the Denver offense was anything but DangerRuss, its head coach was promptly fired and Jeudy scraped together a disappointing finish as the WR22. Fortunately for the fourth-year wideout, the arrival of head coach Sean Payton spells bounce-back potential for Wilson, and Jeudy is probably the best route-runner either man has ever had at his disposal. It's a perfectly adjacent storm for a breakout (admittedly requiring an optimistic outlook for the Payton-Wilson era), and I'm confidently projecting Jeudy to log career highs across the board. He was the 15th overall pick in 2020 -- ahead of CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson -- for a reason. That investment finally comes to fruition in 2023.
After a trio of names most of you have probably heard before, Chigoziem Okonkwo might come with a little less recognition. Understandably so: He was a fourth-round pick by the Titans in 2022 and did next to nothing for the first half of the season. However, from Weeks 9 to 18, Okonkwo racked up 398 receiving yards -- good for fifth-most among tight ends over that span -- as the fourth or fifth option on a struggling run-first offense. Tennessee's 2022 target leaders, Robert Woods and Austin Hooper, are both gone, and the majority of Hooper's 60 targets figure to funnel straight to Okonkwo. While I wouldn't expect him to break into the elite tier of tight ends, he only needs to settle in as a mid-range TE1 to return significant value on his dart-throw ADP. Plus, you can name your team "Gettin' Chiggy Wit It," which is a win all its own.
Yes, rookies can be breakouts too -- it's just a very early breakout. And yes, I also believe in Bijan Robinson, but he felt a little too obvious for this article. While Robinson sits squarely in the first-round conversation (as he should), Gibbs is falling to the third or fourth round of fantasy drafts. Time to fix that. Gibbs is an elite-level receiving threat with electric big-play ability -- NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared him to Alvin Kamara -- and a blue-chip draft pedigree (12th overall pick by the Lions). He's the perfect lightning to David Montgomery's thunder in Detroit but is the far more valuable asset as the PPR stud. Try this on for size: In the last two decades, just three backs have had a college season with 150+ carries and 40+ catches before earning a top 12 NFL draft selection. Gibbs is one. The others are Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey. Yes, please! Every few seasons, we end up with multiple rookies as RB1s -- add 2023 to the list.
After the Jets selected Elijah Moore at the very start of Day 2 of the 2021 draft, he has spent two years dealing with the least accurate quarterback room in the NFL. Since 2021, PFF has classified a league-worst 24.2 percent of Jets pass attempts as "uncatchable." Whether Deshaun Watson returns to pre-suspension form in 2023 is yet to be seen, but there's no way he'll be worse than Zach Wilson and Co. By trading for both a re-energized Moore and prototypical WR1 Amari Cooper over the last calendar year, it almost feels like the Browns are looking for a (better) sequel to 2019 Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. tandem. Moore is the perfect small slot to complement Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones downfield. If he and Watson can build an early rapport, Moore could have the target upside of guys like Landry, Julian Edelman or Antonio Brown, who was incidentally Lance Zierlein's NFL comparison for Moore coming out of Ole Miss.
Another sophomore tight end with a hampered start to his rookie season, Greg Dulcich showed a mountain of promise in limited action with the Broncos. After missing the first five games of 2021 with a thigh injury, the lusciously locked UCLA product burst onto the national fantasy radar in Week 6 with a 39-yard touchdown reception on Monday Night Football. Over the following 10 weeks (before the thigh injury shut him down for the final two games), Dulcich led the team with 52 targets and trailed only Jerry Jeudy in receiving yards. He was also top 10 at his position in receiving yards per game. And all this as a rookie tight end -- typically a death knell to fantasy relevance. Now, Dulcich is heading into Year 2 in an offense we've already earmarked for improvement. Oh, and head coach Sean Payton has raved about him in camp, pegging him for the potential "joker" role ... a role he also ascribed to Reggie Bush and Alvin Kamara. Like Okonkwo, Dulcich is a late-round tight end with TE1 upside.
Tua Tagovailoa earned the No. 3 slot on Marcas Grant's top 10 QB values for very good reason. Despite dealing with concussions in 2022, Tagovailoa ranked fifth in passing yards per game and fourth in passing touchdowns per game. The only players to rank ahead of him in both categories are Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. Now, the 25-year-old enters his fourth NFL season with a clean bill of health, a creative offensive mind in sophomore head coach Mike McDaniel, arguably the best WR duo in the league in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and a whole lot to prove, including why he was worth the fifth overall pick back in 2020. The only real roadblock to a breakout season is his ability to stay on the field. If he does, he is one of the few legitimate threats to rack up 5,000+ yards and 40+ touchdowns through the air.
There's been a whole lot of offseason hoopla about free agent running back Dalvin Cook, but not so much about his younger brother, James. A year after selecting Cook in the second round, the Bills watched Devin Singletary depart and signed Damien Harris in his place, leaving Cook feeling confident about his role as the starter. He flashed big-time playmaking and efficiency as both a rusher and receiver in limited opportunities last season, showing why he is potentially the more explosive (if smaller) brother. Whether James can measure up to Dalvin's perennial Pro Bowl status is yet to be determined, but if he gets significant touches in what is guaranteed to be a top-tier Buffalo offense, the fantasy points are sure to follow. Just a couple big-time plays early in the season and the breakout buzz will be unavoidable.