Second Year Surge: NFL Sophomores Who Could Breakout in 2018 - Roto Street Journal
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Second Year Surge: NFL Sophomores Who Could Breakout in 2018

Last year the fantasy realm was dominated by rookies. Players such as Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Evan Engram and Cooper Kupp wasted little time establishing themselves as must-own fantasy assets. While their early success provided a boost to both NFL teams and fantasy squads alike, not everyone adjusts to the professional game at the same pace.

The 2017 season saw its fair share of second-year players breakout as well. Whether it be from earning more playing time or simply advancing their skills, guys like Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Tyreek Hill, Alex Collins and Kenyan Drake all made sizeable leaps in production from their rookie year. So who’s next? Below I take a glance at ten players who are primed to make a major impact in their sophomore campaign.

Top 10 Breakout Candidates

RB – Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings

Dalvin was cooking to starting the 2017 season. Before tearing his ACL in week four, Cook was averaging over 88 rushing yards per game, which finished second in the NFL behind only Ezekiel Elliot (98.3). The former Seminole also ranked second in broken tackles (18) through the first four weeks, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Cook was on pace to rack up 1,776 yards from scrimmage, 44 receptions and eight touchdowns had he played all 16 games. Those numbers would have made him the seventh-highest scoring ‘back in fantasy (PPR). What’s equally exciting is the addition of quarterback, Kirk Cousins, should lead to more touchdown opportunities for Cook. While Minnesota hasn’t fielded a 4,000 yard passer since Brett Favre in 2009, Cousins has eclipsed that milestone in three consecutive seasons. Jerick McKinnon’s departure leaves the backup duties solely in the hands of Latavius Murray, making him one of the league’s most valuable handcuffs should injury strike Cook twice.

QB – Pat Mahomes – Kansas City Chiefs 

You don’t trade away two first-round picks and a third rounder for a quarterback prospect unless you’re confident in his abilities. You don’t trade away a veteran quarterback who’s led you to three straight playoff appearances unless you’re absolutely positive that prospect is ready. From trading up in the draft, to shipping off Alex Smith, Kansas City seems to be sold on Mahomes, and you should be too. The 22 year-old comes equipped with a bazooka for an arm, plus mobility, and knack for making big plays through improvisation. Though his lone start in week 17 was an eye-catcher, what’s more exciting is the talent that surrounds him. Between his above average offensive line, pass-catchers like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, and an elite rushing attack led by Kareem Hunt, Mahomes may have the best supporting cast in the football. Everything is in place for Andy Reid’s latest pupil to achieve fantasy stardom.

WR – Corey Davis – Tennessee Titans

Although an ankle injury prevented Davis from participating in any pre-draft workouts, the Titans still thought enough of the NCAA’s all-time receiving leader to make him the fifth-overall selection in 2017. Unfortunately, once Davis’ ankle healed, it was hamstring issues that hampered the Western Michigan alumni. He missed most of training camp because of the matter and was forced to sit out five games during the regular season once the injury flared up again. That time missed prevented the 6’3” target from developing much of a connection with quarterback, Marcus Mariota, until late in the season when Davis delivered a six catch, 91 yard performance in week sixteen against the Rams. He turned heads again in the playoffs, hauling in Tennessee’s only two touchdowns versus the Patriots. Now fully healthy, Davis is working with new Offensive Coordinator, Matt LaFleur, who spent his last three seasons with the high-scoring Falcons and Rams. LaFluer should help the 23 year-old unlock his number-one receiver potential.

QB – Mitch Trubisky – Chicago Bears

Many have deemed Trubisky as this season’s Jared Goff, and the similarities are glaring. Goff was drafted first-overall but struggled mightily as a rookie. He then finished his second season as fantasy’s twelfth-highest scoring quarterback thanks to a new coach and an upgraded supporting cast. Trubisky was drafted second-overall, but struggled as a rookie, throwing seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in twelve games under Head Coach, John Fox. Chicago has since replaced Fox with former Chiefs Offensive Coordinator, Matt Nagy, whose offenses averaged over 25 points per game during his two seasons with Kansas City. Nagy and the Bears spent the offseason signing pass-catchers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton, and drafting interior offensive lineman, James Daniels, and receiver, Anthony Miller, in rounds two and three. Trubisky retains a solid offensive line and stud running backs, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Now it’s up to the 23 year-old to master a more advanced offensive scheme and develop chemistry with his new weapons.

TE – David Njoku – Cleveland Browns

Drafted 29th overall in 2017, Njoku was a raw but freakishly athletic prospect who needed time to develop. Despite playing less than half of the offensive snaps (46.8%), Njoku displayed promise as a rookie. The former Hurricane caught four of the Browns’ fifteen TD passes last season, which led the team. The most encouraging factor impacting Njoku’s outlook is the expectation of competent quarterback play. After completing a league-low 54.4% of their pass attempts in 2017, Cleveland used the offseason to acquire veteran quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, and draft gunslinger, Baker Mayfield, first-overall. Taylor has started 43 games in three seasons with the Bills, completing over 61% of his passes each year. Tight ends have been productive under both quarterbacks. Buffalo’s lead tight end, Charles Clay, has led his team in either receptions or receiver yards each of the past two years, and Oklahoma’s starter, Mark Andrews, led the Sooners in catches (58) and touchdown receptions (8) in Mayfield’s final college season.

RB – Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers

The lead ‘back in Aaron Rodgers’ high-octane offense is good work if you can get it. The problem is we haven’t seen a Packer take more than 43% of the team’s carries since Eddie Lacy in 2014. However, with the return of Offensive Coordinator (OC), Joe Philbin, comes the expectation that one running back will command the majority of carries. In Philbin’s nine years as an OC and Head Coach, one rusher has averaged over 62% of the team’s running back carries per season. That bodes well for Jones, who must improve in the passing game, but is certainly Green Bay’s most effective runner. Jones’ 5.5 Yards Per Carry (YPC) average ranked second in the NFL amongst running backs with 50 or more carries, and drastically out-paced backfield mates Jamaal Williams (3.6 YPC) and Ty Montgomery (3.8 YPC). Of all the standout rookie ‘backs, Jones broke the second-most carries for 20+ yards (6). The 23 year-old has reportedly added weight in preparation for an increased workload.

RB – Tarik Cohen – Chicago Bears

Chicago’s biggest plays of 2017 often came from their smallest player. Cohen, or Darren Sproles 2.0 as I prefer to call him, had the highest percentage of his rushing total come off runs that went for 15+ yards (50.3%) last season, according to PFF. The homerun hitter demonstrated his versatility by scoring touchdowns as a rusher, receiver, returner and passer during his rookie campaign. New Head Coach, Matt Nagy, has expressed his intentions to capitalize on that versatility by increasing Cohen’s role in the passing game. Despite playing just 36.4% of the offensive snaps last year, Cohen finished second on the team with 53 catches. That receiving prowess should lead to more playing time over bell-cow ‘back, Jordan Howard, who received over 63% of the Bears’ backfield touches last year. No running back has dropped more passes than Howard over the past two seasons, which raises questions regarding his fit in Nagy’s offense. Cohen figures to be a major PPR asset.

WR – Mike Williams – Los Angeles Chargers

A back injury prevented Williams from playing up to the potential Los Angeles saw in him when they drafted the receiver seventh-overall last spring. The Clemson product missed the entirety of his team’s offseason programs and the first five games of his rookie season. Once on the field, his impact was minimal. Without time to develop a rapport with quarterback, Phillip Rivers, Williams tallied just eleven catches for 95 yards in ten games. Now the 23 year-old is fully healthy and has displayed a heightened attention to detail throughout offseason workouts. Williams will look to establish a connection with the fantasy friendly Rivers, who has finished top five in passing yards each of the past three seasons, averaging 30 TD passes per year over that time. The departure of Antonio Gates and injury to Hunter Henry has freed up some redzone opportunities, where Williams’ 6’4”, 220 lb. frame will give him a huge advantage. Williams is a late-round high-upside prospect.

TE – George Kittle – San Francisco 49ers

In 2017 three tight ends were drafted in the first round for the first time since 2002. Kittle was not one of them. Despite an impressive combine performance, a lack of production in Iowa’s run-heavy scheme caused the Hawkeye to slide to the fifth round. There were eight tight ends chosen before Kittle last spring, but only Evan Engram finished his rookie season with more receptions and yards. Kittle battled through a slew of injuries his first year, but missed just one game, accumulating 43 receptions for 515 yards. Those numbers broke 49ers rookie franchise records. Kittle’s most impressive stretch came over the last three weeks of the season, when things seemed to click with newly acquired quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. The 24 year-old’s yards per reception average jumped from 10.3 through his first twelve games, to 17.4 during his last three. Kittle accumulated eleven catches for 192 yards over time period, and is in line for a breakout 2018 season should he pick up where he left off.

Honorable Mentions

RB – D’Onta Foreman – Houston Texans

Foreman is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, which is arguably the most difficult injury to recover from in sports. Though unremarkable, Lamar Miller has been a steady producer as Houston’s starter.

WR – Kenny Golladay – Detroit Lions

There are a lot of mouths to feed in Detroit. Last year’s preseason darling will likely be the fourth receiving option behind Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Theo Riddick.

TE – Gerald Everett – Los Angeles Rams

Everett first must beat out 2016 fourth-round pick, Tyler Higbee, for the starting role. If he does, it won’t be easy stealing targets from the likes of Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.

WR – Chris Godwin  – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Godwin possesses oodles of ability but with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate all lobbying for targets, it’s hard to envision a path towards consistent usage.

RB – Marlon Mack – Indianapolis Colts

Though Mack flashed big-play potential as a rookie, the Colts will take a committee approach to the run-game in 2018, limiting his opportunities.

WR – John Ross  – Cincinnati Bengals

Ross is made of glass.