Fantasy football owners sure didn’t seem too interested in Chargers running back Melvin Gordon last season. Many running backs, five tight ends and even a defense were selected earlier in ESPN ADP, and the reason is because his rookie year (2015) didn’t go well. Gordon starred in college at Wisconsin but entered Year 2 in the NFL with an undeserved reputation that he couldn’t score touchdowns, couldn’t be an effective pass-catcher and couldn’t stay healthy. Then he went and proved everyone wrong -- breaking out into a star -- and now he’s a top-10 running back in ESPN ADP.
Gordon’s story reminds us of several important factors when trying to determine potential breakout players. First, we know that pretty much everyone in the NFL has starred in this sport at some point, so anyone with opportunity can prove they belong and show their upside. Some were first-round selections like Gordon and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, others were later-round choices like Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard -- perhaps a bit forgotten. But Gordon, Elliott and Howard all broke out as stars during the 2017 season. We knew they had skills, but when opportunity knocks, some players step up, even those who have struggled in the past. Others need another year or three.
We covered the quarterback breakouts and now it’s time for running back, a position chock-full of talent, but certainly a tad lacking in reliable options to build fantasy rosters around. Oh, there are certainly 10 or so running backs we know and mostly love, and then a bunch of rookies regarded as RB2 choices and then, well, take your chances. Some will break out, but most will not. Gordon was mentioned prominently in this space a year ago and yeah, that went well! Miami’s Jay Ajayi was also mentioned and that went well, but then again, Washington’s Matt Jones and Seattle’s Thomas Rawls, eh, not so much.
The unwritten rules of these annual breakout blog entries state -- in my mind, at least -- that anyone who hasn’t broken out yet to one of the levels below is technically in play, and there are different standards of statistical prowess.
In addition, we don’t consider rookies here. They get plenty of coverage in other blog entries! I happen to like quite a few of the rookie running backs this season, especially compared with other positions, but rookies have neither succeeded nor failed at this highest level yet, so using the term breakout for them doesn't really apply.
This is all based on value and expectations, and in some cases there are no expectations, which make the breakouts even better.