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Fantasy football 2023: Which '22 breakouts will prove to be for real? 

Every year, a handful of players rocket into weekly fantasy football conversations on the merits of a big breakout season. Anyone remember that Davante Adams was an afterthought for two seasons in Green Bay, or that Derrick Henry had to wait for DeMarco Murray to retire before becoming the household name he is today?

Last year, we had a rushing champion drafted in the middle rounds, a Super-Bowl-bound receiver shipped off by his own organization, a former backup QB named Comeback Player of the Year, and much more. The big question for 2023: Which of these players will travel "back to the breakout" ... and which will prove to be one-hit wonders?

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · RB

Josh Jacobs was a productive running back over his first three pro seasons, logging an average fantasy finish of RB14 -- justifying his RB23 ADP heading into last year. But surely no one expected his first campaign under Josh McDaniels to produce an NFL-high 2,053 scrimmage yards on a monstrous 393 touches. Unfortunately, 2023 brings a handful of concerns. Primary among them is Jacobs' ongoing contract dispute after being franchise-tagged, which could lead to a significant absence from Jacobs (like what happened with Le'Veon Bell in 2018 after Bell shouldered 406 touches in 2017).

Even if Jacobs plays, history is not friendly to backs used at his level. Along with Bell, only three other RBs in the last 10 years have hit Jacobs' 2022 touch total in a given season: DeMarco Murray in 2014 (449 touches), Christian McCaffrey (403) in 2019 and Derrick Henry (397) in 2020. In 2018, Bell sat out; in 2015, Murray joined a running back committee in Philly and lost 212 touches; in 2020, McCaffrey missed 13 games amid a host of injuries; and in 2021, Henry fractured his foot halfway through the season. Simply put, it is not easy to maintain health and productivity at these extreme workloads ... even when you are under contract.

VERDICT: One-hit wonder (huge risk without a contract; dicey early-round pick if he signs)

A.J. Brown
Philadelphia Eagles · WR

Much like Jacobs, A.J. Brown had some decent highs over his first three pro seasons, including a finish as the WR12 in 2020, though he was inconsistent in 2021. Then the Titans traded him to the Eagles, and outlooks were mixed. Could Jalen Hurts keep AJB productive? Would DeVonta Smith steal targets? 2022 ended up being a season of best-case scenarios for Brown, who set career highs with 88 receptions, 1,496 yards and 299.6 fantasy points (good for WR6 overall). He established himself as an elite fantasy option in one of the league's best offenses, led by one of its most rapidly ascending quarterbacks. In fact, Hurts' potential for growth as a passer (he ranked 10th in passing yards and 14th in touchdowns last year) could very well mean the ceiling is yet unreached for Brown. Don't be surprised if he finishes 2023 in the conversation with the Cooper Kupps and Davante Adamses of the world.

VERDICT: Back to the breakout (with potential for an even better season in 2023)

T.J. Hockenson
Minnesota Vikings · TE

Not only did T.J. Hockenson not miss a beat after his mid-season trade from Detroit to Minnesota last year, he actually got more consistent with the Vikings, logging more catches (60) from Week 9 on than any tight end in that span besides Travis Kelce (who had a league-high 63). All in all, Hockenson finished as the TE2 (behind Kelce alone), setting himself up for a 2023 ADP in the early fourth round. High expectations, meet Hock Smash!

For the first time in Kirk Cousins' Minnesota career, he will be without Adam Thielen, who was an annual threat for 80-plus catches and double-digit touchdowns. While Justin Jefferson will undoubtedly dominate Cousins' first looks, Hockenson figures to take up the roles of secondary safety-blanket and red-zone threat. As far as I'm concerned, only Kelce is a lock to outperform Hockenson in 2023 ... and even that might be closer than you think.

VERDICT: Back to the breakout (while picking up a ton of Adam Thielen's missing production)

Christian Kirk
Jacksonville Jaguars · WR

When Christian Kirk signed a four-year, $72 million contract last March, many criticized the Jaguars for a vast overpay ... until he set career highs with 84 catches, 1,108 yards and eight TDs, helping Trevor Lawrence find his groove as the future of Jacksonville. Kirk finished as the WR12, returning enormous value on his eighth-round draft price. Now, his 2023 price has dipped back down to WR28, thanks to one factor: the return to the field of a motivated Calvin Ridley, acquired via trade with Atlanta in November. Ridley was an absolute stud for the Falcons before taking time off in 2021 to focus on his mental health, then serving a suspension from March 2022 to March 2023 for violating the NFL's gambling policy. The last time we saw him play a full season, in 2020, Ridley garnered 143 targets (while playing alongside Julio Jones). Barring something unforeseen, Ridley will make it difficult for Kirk to garner 130-plus targets again in 2023, which means Kirk would need a spike in efficiency to maintain borderline-WR1 fantasy production.

VERDICT: One-hit wonder (still worth drafting, but not as a WR1 -- and likely a few rounds after Calvin Ridley)

Justin Fields
Chicago Bears · QB

From Year 1 to Year 2, Justin Fields improved marginally as a passer but skyrocketed from fantasy irrelevance to QB6 overall. How? With his legs. Fields rushed 160 times for 1,143 yards (just a bit short of the single-season record Lamar Jackson set for quarterbacks in 2019) and eight scores (more than Jackson had in that MVP season). For context, Fields had more rushing yards in 2022 than Tom Brady had in his entire 23-year career. Now, is that sustainable? Our only real point of comparison is Jackson, whose rushing numbers have steadily dwindled over the past three seasons. However, there is also plenty of room for Fields to grow as a passer, especially with the addition of DJ Moore (who figures to be his most reliable target to date) this offseason. As Adam Rank pointed out when ranking Fields in his second tier of QBs, the arrival of DJM could do for Fields what Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown did for Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts, respectively: turn him into an actual dual threat by fueling significant improvements in his air game.

VERDICT: Back to the breakout (improved air game offsets diminished rushing output)

Evan Engram
Jacksonville Jaguars · TE

It's somewhat amusing to consider Evan Engram's output in 2022 as a "breakout" year for him, given that his rookie season with the Giants was the best pro debut by a tight end in roughly three decades. But after Engram's TE5 finish that year, he had four straight disappointing follow-up attempts in New York, causing many (myself included) to lose faith. Then, Engram made the move to Jacksonville, Trevor Lawrence and renewed promise. Last season, Engram posted a career-high 74.5% catch rate and a career-low 3.8% Pro Football Focus drop rate, conquering previous pain points to vastly improve his efficiency. As a result, Engram finished as the TE5 again, despite seeing only 98 targets and scoring only four touchdowns. Unlike Christian Kirk, Engram's usage is not likely to be reduced by the presence of Calvin Ridley; the recently extended Engram could even see an uptick in touchdowns as part of the ever-improving offense down in Duval.

VERDICT: Back to the breakout (room for more scores on top of improved efficiency as a receiver)

Tony Pollard
Dallas Cowboys · RB

After playing distant second fiddle to Ezekiel Elliott for three years in Dallas, Tony Pollard saw a massive bump across every relevant stat last season. Pollard logged a 37% increase in touches, a 30% increase in total yards and a 140% increase in total touchdowns over his previous career highs. Somehow, he maintained elite efficiency despite the jump in workload (a rare occurrence, even for breakouts) and was both a big-play and red-zone menace. Now, Elliott is a free agent, leaving Pollard (playing on the franchise tag this season) with first, second and third crack at Elliott's 248 missing touches. With the leg injuries he suffered in Dallas' playoff loss apparently behind him, and with the other backs on the roster fighting for a backup spot, honestly, it's hard to project Pollard for any less than 300 touches. If he continues to turn in above average (let alone elite) yards-per-carry and yards-per-reception marks in this high-powered Cowboys offense, Pollard's more likely to finish as the RB1 in 2023 than he is to fall below his 2022 placement (RB8).

VERDICT: Back to the breakout (with a legitimate threat at a re-breakout with Elliott gone)

Jamaal Williams
New Orleans Saints · RB

Of all the names in this article, Jamaal Williams may have turned in the most shocking breakout of the 2022 season. Despite sharing the workload with D'Andre Swift in Detroit, Williams rushed for a career-high 1,066 yards and led the NFL with 17 rushing touchdowns. Those 17 scores were more than Williams compiled in the previous four seasons combined (15 total TDs). If Williams is to maintain his frequent-flyer status in the end zone, he'll have to do it from a new airport -- in New Orleans. That prospect will be made much more difficult by his role as RB2 behind Alvin Kamara. Even taking into account Kamara's three-game suspension for violations of the league's personal-conduct policy, Williams still faces 14 games of essentially change-of-pace duties, with some goal-line work if we're lucky. Williams was due for regression regardless, but with the upcoming reduction in touches, Williams is now relegated back to being "one of fantasy's best handcuffs."

VERDICT: One-hit wonder (simply unsustainable numbers, plus backup duties behind Kamara)

Geno Smith
Seattle Seahawks · QB

Early last season, it became clear that Geno Smith had somehow Space-Jammed Russell Wilson (stole his athletic powers through alien technology) during his takeover in Seattle. Smith proceeded to ride that power all the way to an AP Comeback Player of the Year award and a QB5 finish in fantasy, evolving from a journeyman into one of the league's most accurate passers and deep-ball savants. This offseason, the Seahawks further strengthened their offense by drafting Ohio State wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba 20th overall and adding UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet in the second round to complement Kenneth Walker III. Geno now gets to work with what is arguably the best WR trio in the NFL (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Smith-Njigba), a pair of dynamic backs and an improving offensive line -- and he landed a contract extension, to boot. There's still always a chance he turns back into a pumpkin, but I'd bet against it.

VERDICT: Back to the breakout (improved weaponry builds confidence for a new career arc)

Jerick McKinnon
Kansas City Chiefs · RB

The example set by the Chiefs does not exactly help the cause of top-tier running backs seeking top-tier contracts, given that Kansas City won Super Bowl LVII while featuring seventh-round draft pick Isiah Pacheco and backup-journeyman Jerick McKinnon at the position. (Oh, and while making Clyde Edwards-Helaire, in whom the Chiefs invested a first-round pick in 2020, a healthy scratch.) This offseason, McKinnon signed a contract (one year, $1.3 million) similar to what he played on in 2022, and there's little reason to expect Kansas City to abandon his usage as the primary receiving back -- a role he acquired midway through the year but converted into 56 catches, nine receiving TDs and a finish as the RB20 in PPR formats. While much of his production seems unsustainable on the surface, his quarterback is Patrick Mahomes. When there are 40-plus receiving touchdowns to go around, nothing is unsustainable.

VERDICT: Back to the breakout (even if he's not the RB20, he'll be in the RB2 conversation all year)

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