With the fantasy football preseason nearly upon us, our ESPN Fantasy Football experts are here with their top sleepers, busts and breakout players for the 2019 campaign, as defined here:
Sleeper: A player who will far surpass his average draft position (ADP) in standard ESPN leagues for the 2019 season.
Bust: A player who is expected to be a solid starter in standard ESPN leagues but will fail to live up to those expectations this season.
Breakout: A player who will leap into or close to the upper echelon of players at his position for the first time because of a dramatic increase in production compared with his previous seasons (or a rookie who will burst onto the scene).
Each analyst named a sleeper and a bust for each of the major offensive positions, as well as one breakout candidate. You can find their picks in the charts below, and then analysis and insight on a selection of players they felt most passionate about in each category.
These are the players our panel believes will exceed their 2019 average draft position and provide value for those who take a chance on them.
Name the only quarterback other than Patrick Mahomes to score 15 or more fantasy points each of the final seven weeks last season. Here is a hint: The other one did not get there with gaudy passing numbers. Jackson starred as a rookie thanks to his legs, but few seemed to realize it. His rushing floor is so high that he does not need to throw for 250 yards per week. By the way, he can throw a lot better than most realize. The Ravens drafted wide receivers, and Jackson will become a bit more statistically balanced. — Eric Karabell
Henry was well on his way to a bust season in 2018, splitting time ineffectively with Dion Lewis, who saw a lot of the field in passing situations. Through 12 games, Henry was averaging only 10.7 rushing attempts for 39.5 yards (3.7 YPC) and 0.4 touchdowns. That all changed during the last quarter of the season, during which Henry averaged 21.8 attempts for 146.3 yards (6.7 YPC) and 1.8 touchdowns over the last four games. Henry is an old-school, pounding running back who needs bunches of touches to be effective, and the Titans seemed to recognize that down the stretch. Titans coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson have both stated that this season the team plans to get Henry a lot of carries from Day 1, which bodes well for him having a breakout season. — André Snellings
Make no mistake, it’s not always going to be pretty. But even in an ugly year last season, Winston still averaged 4.6 deep completions and 11.1 deep attempts per game. Both would have led the NFL if he qualified, and now he gets head coach Bruce Arians, whose quarterbacks were second in air yards per pass attempt during his time in Arizona (2013-17). Over the past two seasons, Winston has thrown for more than 300 yards in half his games. Half. And all the elements that allowed Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks to average 22.6 PPG (second-most) last season are in place once again this season: a core of talented pass-catchers, a suspect defense, a good offensive playcaller and no established run game. — Matthew Berry
Why is everyone so certain that James Conner is the clearly superior running back in the Steelers’ backfield? Not to take anything away from Conner’s season, but Samuels’ 16.9 PPR fantasy points per game in his three starts in Conner’s stead last season bested Conner’s 16.8 in his own starts, and Samuels was competitive with Conner in yards per carry (4.6 for Samuels, 4.5 for Conner) and yards after contact per rush (1.88-1.89). I expect some sharing of the load and think Samuels would perform just as admirably as Conner did in 2018 if pressed into full-time duty. — Tristan H. Cockcroft
The formula for instant fantasy success at the signal-caller position often demands a healthy inclusion of rushing skills from behind center. From Cam Newton to RGIII to Russell Wilson to Josh Allen and so on, there is a growing legacy of professional freshman quarterbacks thriving as fantasy forces, thanks to what the cool kids call the Konami Code — the ability to run for value. Murray is arguably the most dynamic dual-threat rushing talent we’ve seen at the position since Michael Vick left Virginia Tech, and he should thrive in Arizona’s quick-hitting spread scheme. Don’t be surprised if Murray is a top-eight fantasy quarterback come December. — Jim McCormick
Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens
Yes, Andrews didn’t see monster target volume as a rookie, but I like the pairing here with Lamar Jackson in the Baltimore system. With Jackson as the Ravens’ starter in Weeks 11-17 last season, Andrews caught 13-of-19 targets for 308 yards and one score, good for 23.69 yards per catch (No. 1 among tight ends during that stretch). And the play-action numbers pop even more, with Andrews grabbing 9-of-12 targets for 243 yards (27 yards per catch). Those middle-of-the-field throws give room for Andrews to run in the open field. And the big boy can move. I anticipate a similar script in 2019, but with more volume. That could put Andrews in a position to jump into the lower-tier TE1 mix in deeper leagues. — Matt Bowen
Over the past two seasons, there are just two players who have more rushing touchdowns than Howard’s 18: Todd Gurley II and Alvin Kamara. The crown jewel of the Philly backfield right now appears to be Miles Sanders, the exciting second-round pick out of Penn State, but Eagles football czar Howie Roseman knows value when he sees it and swooped in to grab Howard from Chicago. The path to success for Howard doesn’t need to be as a workhorse; if he could earn a backfield share comparable to LeGarrette Blount in 2017 (~12 carries a game as the lead red zone threat), he’ll return value. — Field Yates
Coleman performed well in my good-blocking yards-per-attempt (GBYPA) metric last season, ranking tied for fifth with a 9.5-yard average. He was an RB2 the last time he played in a Kyle Shanahan offense in 2016, so Shanahan is likely to try to get as much workload out of Coleman as possible. Add that the 49ers have the most favorable rush-defense schedule per my schedule strength metrics and it indicates there are many scenarios whereby Coleman should be able to far outperform his RB3/RB4 ADP ranking in ESPN leagues. — KC Joyner
In 2018, Miller quietly posted seven touchdown grabs for the Bears in Matt Nagy’s offense — with five coming from a slot alignment — while catching 33-of-54 targets. And don’t sleep on his big-play ability, as Miller led all Bears receivers on deep-ball receptions, catching nine passes of 15-plus yards. The explosive traits jump on the film, and Nagy loves to set up quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on throws up the seam. In addition to what I see with the wide receiver as a quick-game target underneath, his ability to stretch the defense inside of the numbers — Miller caught a team-high 45% of his deep-ball targets in 2018 — and win matchups in scoring position put him in the discussion as a possible WR3 in 12-team leagues. — Matt Bowen
With Jared Cook moving on, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound former college wide receiver who ran a 4.46 40 at the combine now gets a chance at a starring role in an offense that last year was top-seven in both overall tight end targets and red zone tight end targets. Now sure, with Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams and Josh Jacobs, this offense will look a lot different, but the opportunity should be there for Waller to be a strong TE2 with some upside. Don’t believe me? Will you listen to Antonio Brown? When I interviewed AB a few weeks ago, he said this about Waller: “Big, fast, explosive guy. Catch and run. Can run like a receiver. He’s tall like Calvin Johnson. He’s a freaky guy.” — Matthew Berry
Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
The evidence to support Carr’s case is in large part circumstantial, as no wide receiver group underwent a more significant facelift this offseason than Oakland’s, which now boasts Antonio Brown at the top with key addition Tyrell Williams and likely complementary pieces in Hunter Renfrow, Ryan Grant and J.J. Nelson. Carr had a strong 2016 campaign (28 touchdowns and just six interceptions), with a body of work that shows he can be a capable player when surrounded by the right pieces. They’re there in Oakland. — Field Yates
The issue here is the health of star Todd Gurley. We saw last season how the Rams handled him when they signed an unemployed running back who starred down the stretch while Gurley, with his arthritic knee, occasionally watched. Remember the playoffs? Those with Gurley in dynasty formats do. The Rams could make this a backfield timeshare, so perhaps I am better off naming Gurley a bust, but Henderson was so wonderful at Memphis in all phases, and he was a coveted draft pick. I think he rocks right away. — Eric Karabell
As the second-most coveted fantasy option at his position on his own team heading into the new season, it’s fair to consider Doyle a sleeper of sorts. This isn’t even an indictment of Eric Ebron‘s fantasy profile, but rather an appraisal of Doyle’s that suggests though he might not have the touchdown equity his peer claims, he enjoyed a third more passing routes run per game than Ebron in the six games both were active together last season. Which is to say, Doyle is likely to lead this depth chart in routes run, targets, yards and receptions this season with an expectation this arrangement continues. — Jim McCormick
Christian Kirk, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Though coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense may not exactly mirror that which he ran at Texas Tech, it figures to be a reasonable facsimile thereof, which plays well for Kirk: lots of four wide receiver sets and lots of throwing. Kirk was a rare bright spot for the Cardinals during a largely forgettable 2018 season, but he is solid after the catch (5.3 yards after the catch per reception), explosive and should be further along in overall development as compared to the exciting receivers the Cardinals drafted this season (Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler). Vegas set the over/under for wins at five for Arizona, an encouraging sign for Kirk, as that would mean a lot of games of having to play catch-up on offense. — Field Yates
Which players are destined to fall short of their draft-day expectations? Our panel suggests you stay away from these players, who are sure to disappoint.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Look, I’m not crazy; Mahomes is still my top-ranked quarterback. The issue is his current ADP, which is 19th overall. There is too much opportunity cost in selecting Mahomes in that range with the likes of Joe Mixon, Keenan Allen, Dalvin Cook, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton and Zach Ertz still available. There hasn’t been a repeat top-scoring fantasy QB since 2004 for a reason: It’s extremely hard to sustain elite production across 32 games. I go into detail in this ESPN+ piece, but in a nutshell, it’s a longshot that Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense will be able to sustain anything close to their historic 2018 pace. Expect another very good season from Mahomes, but not one good enough to warrant a second-round fantasy pick. — Mike Clay
Not that he’s either an aging running back (he enters the 2019 season at 27) or has a lot of wear and tear (he has a manageable 1,542 career touches), but after a year away from the game and a team change, Bell does come with more risk than a typical first-rounder. Jamal Lewis’ 251.9 PPR fantasy points represent the record for a player who missed the previous season, but he was 23 years old and a third-year player at the time. The Jets also do have more competition for carries than Bell’s past Steelers teams. — Tristan H. Cockcroft
Delanie Walker, TE, Tennessee Titans
Walker will be 35 years old at the start of the 2019 NFL season and is coming off of a 2018 campaign that was truncated by a dislocated ankle. He was a mediocre downfield threat even before this injury, ranking 23rd in vertical YPA in the 2017 season (9.7), so this ailment could all but eliminate Walker’s downfield production. Combine those factors with his being in a run-first Titans offense and competing with Jonnu Smith for targets and Walker’s days of being a mid- to low-tier TE1 are likely all but over. — KC Joyner
Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Questions abound about the available weaponry for star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but I simply cannot consider Watkins a reasonable fantasy starter until he proves any semblance of durability, which he has not done. Talent has rarely been an issue, but Watkins has averaged 11 games, 35 catches and 514 receiving yards the past three seasons as he has fought off injuries to his feet, hamstring and hip. Now he will stay healthy because the quarterback is great? I do not see it. Let someone else waste the pick. — Eric Karabell
Eric Ebron, TE, Indianapolis Colts
I’m a big believer in regression to the mean of the receiving touchdown category, and Ebron’s 13 last season, which were two more than he had in the four seasons before it combined, ranks among my top examples I expect to do so. Ebron was targeted a whopping 18 times in the end zone, and his 10 scores on those mark one of only four examples this century of tight ends catching 10 such passes in a single campaign — the previous three tight ends to do so regressed, on average, by seven scores the subsequent year. — Tristan H. Cockcroft
Michel racked up a hefty 280 carries and 12 touchdowns in 16 rookie-season games (including the playoffs), but there are two primary reasons he may disappoint in 2019. The first is his shockingly small role in the passing game. Despite the massive carry total, Michel was on the field for only 36% of New England’s snaps and handled a grand total of 14 targets when active last season. There is little reason to expect that number to increase much (if at all) in 2019 with Damien Harris joining James White and Rex Burkhead in the backfield. The second reason is health. Michel had knee concerns entering last year’s draft, has had knee scopes each of the past two offseasons and was on the injury report often and missed games with knee issues last season. — Mike Clay
The breakout buzz on Henry is based in large part on a combination of his measurable and athletic ability, on quarterback Philip Rivers‘ history of throwing to the tight end with future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, and on the fact that Henry grabbed eight touchdowns in his rookie season. However, Henry’s rookie touchdown rate (eight touchdowns in 36 receptions) was unsustainable, and he came back to earth with only four touchdowns in 45 receptions as a sophomore. Henry is coming off a major injury that forced him to miss the entire 2018 season. Rivers is spreading the ball around these days, and Henry doesn’t seem likely to get a large enough share to differentiate himself from tight ends like Vance McDonald, who is going 45 picks later. — André Snellings
Who will join the ranks of the elite and help you win your league this season? Here are our expert picks for 2019’s breakout stars and how they imagine it will take place.
Dante Pettis, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Pettis showcased his upside in Kyle Shanahan’s heavy play-action system during his rookie season, averaging 17.3 yards per grab (fourth in the NFL). And though we are still working with a small sample size on the ultra-slick route runner, the numbers and the game film point to Pettis making a big jump in Year 2. Think about this: In Weeks 12-16 last season, Pettis caught 20-of-31 targets for 359 yards and four scores, with an average of 18.0 yards per catch and 7.49 yards after the catch — and that was while working with quarterback Nick Mullens. Plus, in Weeks 12-14, Pettis checked in as WR6 in fantasy scoring, ahead of both Julio Jones and Antonio Brown. Now, flip that forward to 2019. Pettis will have a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback in a system that creates open windows and run-after-the-catch opportunities. Sign me up. — Matt Bowen
One hundred NFL players accrued at least 485 receiving yards last season. Of those players, Lockett’s 3.1 fantasy points per target (using ESPN’s standard PPR scoring key) marked the best clip by a whopping 22% margin. We’ve all heard about Russell Wilson‘s perfect passer rating targeting Lockett last season, and this ascendant playmaker with a uniquely fun usage profile (17th among the top 100 receivers in air yards per target last year) is set to assume a worthy uptick in target share now that Doug Baldwin is off the roster. — Jim McCormick
Josh Jacobs, RB, Oakland Raiders
From 2012-18, 11 running backs were drafted in the first round. Of those 11, seven finished their rookie season as a top-10 fantasy back. Like many of his successful predecessors, Jacobs is positioned for a massive role in his first season. Doug Martin and Jalen Richard certainly could steal some touches, but Jacobs has the frame (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) to handle the bulk of the carries, including goal-line work, and is a capable receiver and returner. Jacobs could push for 300 touches (a landmark hit by five of the aforementioned first-round backs), which would allow, at least, a strong RB2 campaign. — Mike Clay
I’m the guy talking up Deshaun Watson as 2019’s No. 1 quarterback, and Fuller plays a significant role as to why. Injuries have held the fourth-year wideout back — he has missed 17 of 48 possible games so far in his career — but when I think about true “breakout” bets, I want the high-upside up-and-comer who might not have had much luck in the health department. Fuller’s 12.9 PPR fantasy points per game the past two seasons ranked 25th-best among wide receivers who appeared in at least 16 contests. — Tristan H. Cockcroft
Marlon Mack, RB, Indianapolis Colts
There are multiple reports that indicate the Colts are planning to utilize Mack as a three-down back. Mack has already racked up 200-plus touches in four of his five pro and collegiate seasons, so a workload increase could move him close to or into bell-cow territory. Mack ranked 15th in volume of good-blocking carries last season despite starting only 10 games, so he could vault toward the top of the league in that category if he plays a full schedule. This combination of upside elements gives Mack a very good chance of reaching RB1 status despite his current low-tier RB2 ADP status. — KC Joyner
Moore was the first wide receiver taken in the 2018 NFL draft, and he finished his rookie season with a solid 960 yards on only 68 touches despite the Panthers’ offense struggling through Cam Newton‘s shoulder injury. Moore flashed excellent hands with only one drop on 82 targets and great running ability with an average of 7.7 yards after the catch. This season, Newton should be healthier, former No. 1 wideout Devin Funchess has moved on to the Colts, and Moore is now the top threat on the outside. Moore should also be looked for more in the red zone this season with big-bodied Funchess gone, and the overall expected increase in Moore’s target share as a sophomore should translate to much better numbers. — André Snellings
Damien Williams, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Williams assumed a starting role for Kansas City late last season and ascended as the games mattered most. He scored a total of 10 touchdowns in his final six games (playoffs included), showing a better proficiency as a runner (362 rushing yards over his final five games) than we’ve seen previously, along with his solid passing game acumen (28 catches during that five-game stretch). The Chiefs invested in Carlos Hyde in free agency and Darwin Thompson via the draft, but Williams looks entrenched as the starter now. The Chiefs’ offense may not match last season’s historic campaign, but it’s bound to be close to as electric. In 2018, Kansas City reached the red zone on 41.8% of its drives (second-best) and there are scores to be had. — Field Yates
Don’t forget Mayfield began last season as a backup to Tyrod Taylor. And then Freddie Kitchens took over playcalling and adjusted the offense with Mayfield as the starter. From the time Kitchens took over, Baker was tenth in completion percentage, fifth in air yards per attempt, led the NFL in deep completions per game and was the tenth-best quarterback in fantasy while showing accuracy and decision-making that made it clear he was easily worth the No. 1 overall pick. Now he has a full offseason with Kitchens. Oh, and they added Odell Beckham Jr. Mayfield is a special player in a fantasy-friendly offense with real talent around him. Sky’s the limit. — Matthew Berry