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Breakouts That Will Sustain in 2021 (Fantasy Football)

by Michael Moore | @DLF_Moore | Featured Writer
Jan 16, 2021

Justin Herbert threw for 4,331 yards and 31 touchdowns, the latter of which was a rookie record.

For the players below, they represented tremendous value this past season. None of them were expected to rank where they ultimately did when it came to fantasy scoring and were undoubtedly part of some fantasy championship teams.

And while none of these players should catch anyone by surprise again, what to do about these players in keeper or dynasty leagues? Can you rely on 2020 performance as an indicator for 2021 success? We took a deep dive into the players below, all of whom should be able to repeat their 2020 season.

Can you draft the perfect 2020 team? Try our Perfect Draft Game >>

Justin Herbert (QB – LAC) (Final Fantasy Position Ranking: 9)
Not many would have predicted Justin Herbert to finish as the top rookie quarterback in fantasy leagues, let alone a QB1 in fantasy scoring. Still, here we are after Herbert threw for 4,331 yards and 31 touchdowns, the latter of which was a rookie record. It’s especially welcome news for Chargers fans after moving on from Philip Rivers after so long. Rivers didn’t have the numbers Herbert put up until his third season of starting and only topped the 31 touchdowns four times in his entire 16-year career with the Chargers.

The question for Chargers fans now, and potential Herbert managers next year, is will the good times keep rolling? The numbers Herbert put up were, literally, unprecedented and will be a hard act to follow for anyone. However, Herbert does have history on his side, at least when it comes to a sophomore follow-up. Below are the top five finishes in passing touchdowns among rookies:

On the high end, eventual Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning increased his touchdown total to 33 after originally setting the rookie record that wouldn’t be broken for 20 years, while eventual Hall-of-Famer Russell Wilson matched his rookie total after he tied Manning’s record. Baker Mayfield had a slight decline, dropping down to 22 his sophomore year, but topped his yardage total to take some of the sting off.

The low-end, not surprisingly, is represented by current Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. After having a solid rookie season (by fantasy standards), Jones took a big step back in 2020, throwing just 11 touchdowns.

So how do Herbert’s prospects fare? For starters, he resides in the AFC West, which doesn’t exactly boast elite defenses, at least not in 2020. The highest-ranked defense in the division (by DVOA standards) was Denver at 13th. Kansas City finished 22nd, while Las Vegas was one of the worst at 28th. Defenses can always improve, but none of these teams changed coaches (yet) so look for them to finish in similar standing next year.

And while the poor schedule can help Herbert keep this up, it may also be the reason some point to for why he was so successful. But how did he fare against better competition? He faced two teams that finished in the top-five on defensive DVOA this year, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. In those two games combined, his stat line was: 40 for 59, 554 passing yards, seven (!) touchdowns, and one interception. So not bad!

His supporting cast is expected to look slightly different next year, but Herbert didn’t do badly despite the injuries the Chargers saw this year, especially in the backfield. Studs Austin Ekeler and Keenan Allen are both expected back with Los Angeles, who are sure to fill in the pieces around them.

Nyheim Hines (RB – IND) (Final Fantasy PPR Position Rankings: 15)
There’s no doubt that a lot of things had to go a certain way this year for Nyheim Hines to finish as a top-15 PPR running back. For starters, veteran Marlon Mack tore his Achilles in Week 1, which cleared the path for Hines seeing significant playing time. It was also clear that the Colts weren’t ready to make second-round rookie Jonathan Taylor a workhorse back just yet, with Taylor seeing more than three targets just three times after the Week One injury to Mack. Those two things directly led to Hines to see 76 targets this season, good for third amongst all running backs. But can the former fourth-round pick, who’s never seen more than the 152 touches he saw this year, be able to be as efficient next year?

The most obvious hurdle for Hines to repeat his 2020 success is Taylor. The rookie turned it on down the stretch, scoring seven touchdowns in the Colts’ last six regular-season games and never totaling less than 74 yards on the ground. Yet he still saw fewer targets than Hines in every game but one in that same stretch. Even when Taylor was getting hot on the ground, it didn’t change the Colts’ usage when it came to Hines.

And let’s remember that this season was no fluke for Hines. His 2020 season looked remarkably like his rookie season just two years ago:

The total touches are only four off from his 2018 touches and are about 100 yards difference in total yards. He did see a slight uptick in touchdowns but nothing significant. Hines has one year left on his rookie contract with the Colts, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in the same role he’s had with the Colts his entire career.

Brandin Cooks (WR – HOU) (Final Fantasy PPR Position Ranking: 17)
Brandin Cooks wasn’t a popular pick in fantasy drafts after a disastrous 2019 where he had, literally, the worst fantasy season of his career. He totaled just 42 receptions for 583 yards and a career-low two touchdowns, eventually being phased out of the Rams’ offense and eventually shipped off to Houston, his fourth team.

But Cooks bounced back to his old self in 2020, notching the fifth 1,000-yard season of his career and leading the Texans in several receiving statistical categories. He even managed to see more targets, on average, than veteran Texans receiver Will Fuller who was widely expected to pick up where DeAndre Hopkins left off after he was traded to Arizona.

This being Brandin Cooks, there’s always a possibility he could be traded yet again. It’s certainly possible the Texans, to recoup some draft capital, may move the 27-year-old. It’s also possible the Texans just cut him as none of the three years left on his current contract are guaranteed. Either scenario is on the table for Houston.

But will it matter when it comes to Cooks? He’s had 1,000-yard seasons for four different teams – all with very different offenses, coaches, etc. He’s in his prime and still stretching the field, as proven by his 14.2 yards-per-reception this season, which is exactly in line with his career average. He’s as consistent as it comes to fantasy scoring and has as good of a chance as any receiver of fulfilling his draft position.

Try to nail the perfect draft for the 2020 season with our Perfect Draft Game >>


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Michael Moore is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Michael, check out his archive and follow him @DLF_Moore.

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