NFL | Aug 26, 2023

2023 NFL Fantasy Football Breakout Candidates

By Harry Bazley

USATSI 21226612

As we approach Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season, besides placing your bets and freeing up your Sunday nights, there's only one thing left to do... Get prepped for your Fantasy Football draft.

Now, we can all go and check the rankings and auto draft our teams, but what's the fun in that? Not to mention that the one friend who manages to find breakout stars that nobody else predicted, always ends up in the playoffs.

So, we've done all the research we possibly could to find the best breakout candidates for your Fantasy Football team. There'll be a few obvious players just in case they've missed off your draft board, alongside as many dark horses as we can list.

Alexander Mattison: RB, Minnesota

Perhaps the most widely-predicted breakout star is Alexander Mattison. After proving his ability as a solid RB2 for the Minnesota Vikings last season, he'll now take over as the starting running back following the loss of Dalvin Cook this offseason.

The Minnesota offense has historically produced very high running back touch share. Last season, Cook logged the sixth-highest touch percentage from within the five-yard line (60%) and the third-highest touch percentage overall (74%), along with a sizable 56 targets. This wasn't a rare occurrence for the now free agent, as Cook averaged 23.8 touches per game over the last three seasons.

Despite some concerns that Mattison isn't in the same tier as Cook, there are plenty of factors that say otherwise. Firstly, he outperformed Cook in expected points added (EPA) per carry last season and almost doubled Cook's broken tackle rate, from 4.5% to 8.1%. This comes at the hands of Mattison having just 8 fewer broken tackles than Cook over the last two seasons, despite having a whopping 305 fewer carries.

Mattison has a great track record as a starter for Fantasy Football. In his six career starts Mattison logged four games with at least 19.9 half-PPR points. To put this into perspective, the top running back last year - Austin Ekeler - averaged 19.8 points.

So, Mattison has clearly shown he can compete at the top level on the turf and that transfers to some impressive numbers in Fantasy Football. The only worry is that with less experience as a starter, he'll see fewer touches than Cook. On the other hand, the depth chart is nothing to be scared of and head coach Kevin O'Connell will probably look to get Mattison back on the field as quickly as possible, if they ever change things up. Not to mention the fact that Justin Jefferson will draw plenty of attention in the passing game, providing more opportunities in RPO plays.

The floor is high and the ceiling is through the roof for Mattison.

Christian Watson: WR, Green Bay

Watson had a rocky start to his fantasy season last year, battling injuries as well as the trust of his veteran QB Aaron Rodgers. But once he'd found his feet, Watson posted some impressive stats, with 17.2 fantasy points per game and a 27% target share from Week 10 onwards. He started to look like a true WR1 as he logged a 41% share of passing yards in the final 7 games, mostly due to his big play ability which I'm sure we'll see more of this season.

Of course the biggest concern is the loss of Rodgers leaving Jordan love at the helm. There are plenty of question marks surrounding Love's ability, but if Watson can get the same separation he found last year, there's no reason to think Love can't get the ball to him. Green Bay's entire receiver room consists of first and second-year players, so I fully expect the passing game to be centred around Watson as the primary outlet.

Despite being touted as a run-heavy offense, Watson should see a lion's share of the receptions when the ball is put in the air. I'm predicting an improvement in his target count, especially in the end zone.

Anthony Richardson: QB, Indianapolis

It's always great to see someone take a risk with a top pick in the draft and the Colts certainly did that when they selected Anthony Richardson at No.4.

The former-Florida QB has limited experience as a starting quarterback, but there's a chance he has the highest ceiling of any QB in his class. He has already earned comparisons to Cam Newton in his prime - an electric, physical runner with great passing ability to back it up.

Richardson hit headlines across the country after putting up some truly ridiculous numbers at the NFL Combine, with a 4.43 40-yard dash, 40.5″ vertical, and 10’9″ broad jump.

This freakish athleticism points to one huge upside for Richardson - the run game. He undoubtedly has a lot to learn as an accurate and efficient passer of the ball, but if he scrambles like Justin Fields he'll be looking at a lot of trips to the end zone.

The potential downside is the Colts allowing Jonathan Taylor to seek a trade. There's no knowing for sure whether Taylor will end up elsewhere by Week 1, but if they were to lose this dual threat in the backfield, Richardson's ability to rack up yards on the ground could be more limited. Of course, Dalvin Cook is still a free agent which could be a great option to replace Taylor, but Zack Moss and Deion Jackson should provide enough support to keep the RPOs as a viable option in Indy.

Projections are all over the place for Richardson and they'll keep changing as we see what the Colts can produce in the first few weeks of the regular season. If they can put together a scheme that takes advantage of everything Richardson has to offer, I can't see him being a bust for your starting Fantasy Football QB.

Nico Collins: WR, Houston

It's a shock to see Nico Collins so far down the draft board in so many rankings. He's now the top wide receiver in Houston following the loss of Brandin Cooks, with Robert Woods trailing him as the second option.

Collins had a 35.3% end zone target share last season - ranking 13th in league - and earned a target on a quarter of all routes he ran. He also had an overall target share of 20.1% in his nine games, an improvement from 13.4% as a rookie.

Not to mention the biggest factor in Houston right now - the addition of C.J Stroud as the 2nd overall pick in the 2023 draft. The rookie quarterback should be an immediate upgrade on last year's passing game that put the Texans in the bottom eight for passing yards, yards per attempt and completion rate. Stroud should step in as a confident starter with great arm talent, plenty of experience in his collegiate career and a high football IQ to go with it.

So, everything is looking up for Collins. He has the top spot with a talented QB at the helm and with Cooks now in Dallas he should pick up a huge share of the targets.

Chris Olave: WR, New Orleans

It almost goes without saying that Chris Olave is bound to break out any day now.

Although he finished as the WR25 last season with 72 receptions, 1,042 yards and 4 touchdowns, earning him 13.2 PPR fantasy points per game. Now he'll be testing secondaries with Derrick Carr throwing the ball.

Historically, rookies need to cross the 500 receiving yard line to progress in the following season. Clearly Olave did that easily. When you break it down, there have only been 21 wide receivers who reached 900 yards as a rookie. 17 of them went on to post top-15 finishes in fantasy point production.

Plus, if we look at the list of players who logged more yards in their rookie season, it's only 10 names long dating all the way to 2011, and it includes A.J. Brown, Amari Cooper, Justin Jefferson, Michael Thomas, Ja’Marr Chase, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Garrett Wilson, Keenan Allen and A.J. Green. Not bad company...

The only worry for Olave would be Michael Thomas staying healthy and stealing a chunk of the targets, but that's not very likely given how much time he spends in the medical tent. In any case, Thomas is 30 years old and certainly not in his prime.

I fully expect Olave to be WR1 in New Orleans by midseason...

Bijan Robinson: RB, Atlanta

The 8th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft - BIjan Robinson - has earned the top spot in Atlanta's run game, ahead of Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson. That's a stacked backfield if I've ever seen one, and it's built that way for good reason...

Desmond Ridder is taking over as the Falcons' quarterback this season, and unfortunately, this means pass catchers like Drake London and Kyle Pitts will likely go to waste. Ridder has a long way to go before he becomes a top-tier talent in the NFL, so until then, Arthur Smith will be relying on the ground game for any hopes of landing in the win column.

Now, this will mean shared carries between the three backs, who are all more than capable of being three-down players. But so long as Bijan Robinson is the generational talent everybody is predicting him to be, he should be given a huge chunk of the touches despite this being his rookie season.

Bottom line: I'm expecting a solid double-digit fantasy PPG performance from Robinson, as he commands the RB1 spot in a run-first offense.

Have we missed any potential breakout stars from our list?

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(Header Image Credit: Dale Zanine - USA TODAY Sports)