2020 Fantasy Breakouts: Why Our Experts Like Marquise Brown & More
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images. Pictured: Marquise Brown
Who are prime candidates to breakout in 2020?
Our trio of fantasy football rankers identify their favorite picks to breakout this season, featuring one wide receiver who flashed as a rookie and a pair of young tight ends.
Clicking a player’s name to skip ahead.
- Sean Koerner was FantasyPros’ No. 1 fantasy football draft ranker of 2019, has finished as their top in-season ranker in three of the past five seasons and is Action’s Director of Predictive Analytics.
- Chris Raybon was the fourth-most accurate FantasyPros’ ranker of 2019 and has watched every NFL snap since 2010.
- Matthew Freedman is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs and was the sixth-most accurate FantasyPros ranker in 2017.
Marquise Brown, WR, Ravens
Raybon: Brown is the quintessential breakout candidate: A talented, young wideout entering Year 2 on a team with targets up for grabs.
On average, WRs entering Year 2 have seen huge jumps in their per-game performance in their age-23 season. Here are the year-over-year percent increases in per-game production for all such WRs since 1992 (via Pro Football Reference):
- Targets per game: +17%
- Receptions per game: +19%
- Receiving yards per game: +20%
- TDs per game: +17%
That would put Brown on pace for a solid 4.0/50.1/0.6 line on 6.0 targets, but basing projections on his full-season numbers from last year (5.1/3.3/42/0.5) sells him way short: His averages stood at 8.5/4.5/76/0.5 before injuries wrecked his season.
In Brown’s first NFL game, he caught four passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns. The most impressive thing about that isn’t that he posted a monster line in his first ever game, it’s that he did it on eight routes. Eight!
He followed that up with eight catches for 86 yards on 13 targets in Week 2. Through four weeks, he led the Ravens in share of team targets (24%) and air yards (36%). Most importantly, he played an average of 55.7 snaps in Weeks 2-4, running a route on between 84% and 95% of Baltimore’s dropbacks in each of those weeks.
That’s legit No. 1 receiver production four games into his pro career.
But before he could fully break out, he broke.
An ankle injury in Week 5 forced him out of action for the next two games. And though he came back to gut out five questionable tags and not miss a game the rest of the season, he was never quite right, failing to top 50 snaps or eight targets in a game while seeing his yards per catch drop from 16.9 in Weeks 1-4 to 10.0 from Week 5 through the conclusion of the regular season.
If there’s one positive in all of that, it’s that it’s created a buy-low situation on a WR who has already shown capable of putting up top-20 fantasy numbers when healthy. Baltimore’s exit from the postseason was swift, so it may go overlooked that Brown did finally rebound to prove he’s still got it with a 7/126/0 line on 11 targets while running a season-high 66 pass routes (93%).
Offseason weight gain/loss has become one of the biggest cliches in sports, but if there was ever a guy who needed to make a change, it’s someone who played at just 157 pounds last season. (In case you were wondering, the added pounds haven’t hindered his 4.32 jets — his penchant for explosive plays is getting the full #PuffPieceSeason treatment in camp.)
True breakout candidates are hard to come by these days — with the increase in passing and the spread offense, most receivers end up breaking out in Year 1 or … just aren’t that good.
And hey, it can’t hurt that following up a disappointing rookie year for a run-heavy team with a monster Year 2 breakout might just run in the family.
Hayden Hurst, TE, Falcons
Koerner: Austin Hooper was my highest-owned tight end of 2019 thanks to his role in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s scheme, which has historically produced TE1s. Now I’m bullish on Hurst for the same reason — he should step right into Hooper’s role this season.
Koetter offenses have produced a TE1 in seven of the past 10 seasons. Those TEs included Marcedes Lewis, Tony Gonzalez, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard and Hooper. It’s worth noting that after Koetter left Tampa Bay, both Howard and Brate failed to crack the top 20 for the first time in three seasons.
In addition to playing in Koetter’s offense, I also thought Hooper offered the most value at the position with an average draft position of 114th overall because he was entering Year 4, a popular time for TEs to breakout. Now Hurst will be entering Year 3, but he turns 27 this season, a prime age for a tight end.
Noah Fant, TE, Broncos
Freedman: Fant is highly likely to break out at some point. It might as well be this year.
With his athleticism (4.50-second 40-yard dash) and draft capital (2019 first-round pick), Fant is comparable to Ben Watson, Kellen Winslow, Greg Olsen and Dustin Keller — the only other first-round tight ends of the past 20 years to have 40 times no slower than 4.55 seconds. Each of them has multiple top-10 fantasy finishes in his career.
Physically, the NFL tight end to whom Fant is most comparable is his former college teammate George Kittle.
- Noah Fant: 6-foot-4, 249 pounds, 4.50-second 40
- George Kittle: 6-foot-4, 247 pound,s 4.52-second 40
Given the positional importance of athleticism and also draft capital, Fant looks like a future producer. And he played like one as a rookie. In 2019, while catching passes from three different quarterbacks, Fant averaged a near-elite 8.52 yards on 66 targets.
Since 2000, there have been eight other rookie tight ends to have 7.52-9.52 yards per target and 56-76 targets: Chris Herndon (2018), Kittle (2017), Zach Ertz (2013), Jordan Reed (2013), Dwayne Allen (20112), Rob Gronkowski (2010), Aaron Hernandez (2010) and Tony Moeaki (2010).
Herndon, Reed, Allen and Moeaki each missed five-plus games in their second seasons due to injury, but the other four tight ends collectively dominated as professional sophomores.
- George Kittle (2018): 88-1,377-5 receiving, 136 targets, TE2
- Zach Ertz (2014): 58-702-3 receiving, 89 targets, TE13
- Rob Gronkowski (2011): 90-1,327-17 receiving, 124 targets, TE1
- Aaron Hernandez (2011): 79-910-7 receiving, 113 targets, TE3
If Fant stays healthy, he could crush.