This article is the easy part. Everyone has their favorite sleepers, breakouts, and comeback stories, and these are some of mine.
As with the bust candidates, we’re looking for players whose circumstances have shifted — but this time in a positive direction. Players coming off injury-plagued seasons and young players entering a key stage of development also make for intriguing candidates.
So without further ado, here are some 2021 duds who could become 2022 studs.
Ok, I know this is an obvious one, but it’s pretty much impossible to write an article on this topic without mentioning CMC. If you drafted him last year, it likely ruined your season. But all it takes is good health for him to go right back to being a league-winning fantasy monster.
McCaffrey only finished eighth in fantasy points per game (half PPR) among running backs last year, but that is because he left two games early with injuries and was eased into another. He scored over 20 fantasy points in all four games in which he played more than half of the snaps, a per-game level of production that trailed only Derrick Henry at the position.
Yes, injuries also derailed McCaffrey’s 2020 campaign, but he was the overall RB1 by a country mile in 2019 and is still just 26 years old. The list of maladies he’s endured over the last two years is long and varied, and while you could argue he’s just generally “injury-prone”, the good news is that none of the injuries are the kind that typically have long-term ramifications.
Injury risk is inherent in football, especially at the running back position. While it’s fair to say McCaffrey’s injury risk is higher than most, he is one of a small handful of players who could plausibly carry you to a fantasy championship almost single-handedly. In his case, the reward outweighs the risk.
Speaking of injuries, a torn ACL suffered in late August meant that Dobbins’ 2021 season ended before it even had a chance to begin. However, he is reportedly “on schedule” in his recovery and could be in a great spot to have a huge 2022 season. Even before the injury, Dobbins was being undervalued in the fantasy marketplace because of his limited role in the passing game, and that is something that could happen again this year.
By most accounts, the Ravens are set to return to an extremely run-heavy approach in 2022, and Dobbins should be at the heart of it. While he may not catch many passes and will have to share backfield duties with Gus Edwards, Dobbins should get more than enough touches to be an RB1 in an offense that ranks at or near the top of the league in rushing year in and year out. He’s one of the better bets in football for double-digit rushing TDs.
To get a sense of his potential, just look at how he concluded the 2020 season. While Dobbins was lightly utilized to begin that season, he took over down the stretch, averaging 12.8 carries for 82.5 yards and 1.2 touchdowns over the final six games.
It might be a stretch to say Brown’s move from Tennessee to Philadelphia is a boon for his fantasy value, but it’s hardly a massive downgrade, either. Both teams have been notoriously run-heavy, but it’s at least plausible that the Eagles open the offense up a bit after surrendering first- and third-round picks for the right to make Brown one of the highest-paid receivers in the league.
The best argument for Brown, though, is that he doesn’t need massive volume to produce for fantasy managers. He is a uniquely dominant athlete who is equally capable of skying for a jump ball in the end zone or taking a deep crossing route to the house.
Brown missed time with hamstring and chest injuries last year on his way to a WR32 fantasy finish, but he is just one year removed from finishing fifth in fantasy points per game among wideouts, despite seeing far fewer targets than the other top performers. In particular, look for Brown’s touchdown production to improve. He only scored twice on 10 red-zone targets last season after scoring on 12 of his 23 red-zone looks over his first two seasons in the league.
Robinson has been a hot topic in fantasy circles this offseason, but let’s not overcomplicate this. The list of QBs that Robinson has played with over his eight-year NFL career is a who’s who of backups and benchwarmers (plus rookie-year Justin Fields). Suffice it to say that Matthew Stafford will constitute a major upgrade.
But Robinson doesn’t just get Stafford; he also gets Sean McVay’s stat-friendly offensive system. Cooper Kupp is and will remain Stafford’s top target, but if history is any guide, there’s plenty of room for McVay’s second receiver to put up nice fantasy numbers. Robert Woods missed half of the 2021 season, but when healthy, he averaged 12.7 fantasy points per game, good enough for 17th-most among WRs. The previous three seasons, Woods finished as the WR13, WR17, and WR10 with Jared Goff under center.
Robinson will be 29 by Week 1, but that still makes him a year-and-a-half younger than Woods. He’s every bit as talented as Woods, too, if not more so. Even with spotty QB play, Robinson has posted 1,100-plus yards in three of the four seasons in which he’s played a full 16 games and caught at least six touchdowns in all four of those seasons.
His numbers were way down last year, but in addition to the poor offensive environment in Chicago, he may have been mentally checked out as he awaited the opportunity to join a contender like the Rams. Motivation should not be an issue this time around.
Those hoping that Lance would quickly overtake Jimmy Garoppolo last season were sorely disappointed. Garoppolo ended up playing 15 games — and leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship game. Even in the couple of games that Jimmy G missed, Lance didn’t exactly set the world on fire while playing through a finger injury.
But that was last year. The 49ers’ brass has made it abundantly clear that Lance will be the team’s starter in 2022, and we can expect Kyle Shanahan to devise an offensive game plan that plays to his strengths.
First and foremost, that means that Lance will bring a ton of rushing upside to the table. In one of his two starts last season, he rushed 16 times for 89 yards, which is the type of production we could see a lot of this year. It would be no surprise to see Lance join the ranks of Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts as players that finish as top-10 fantasy QBs due in large part to their rushing production.
I know I just got finished telling you how the Bears were an anchor weighing down Allen Robinson’s fantasy value, but hear me out on Kmet. The bar to being a “stud” at the tight end position isn’t very high, and Kmet could easily jump from the TE21 last year to inside the top 12 this year if he just catches some touchdowns.
In 2021, Kmet was tied with Darren Waller for eighth among TEs in targets with 93. His 60 catches and 612 receiving yards were also inside the top 12 at the position. Unfortunately, those numbers came alongside zero touchdowns, even though Kmet led all Bears pass catchers with 13 targets inside the red zone. If he had found the end zone on four of those 13 targets, his overall numbers would have looked a lot like those of Noah Fant, who finished as the TE12.
Then there’s the possibility that the Bears’ offense improves, which could increase both Kmet’s catch rate and number of scoring opportunities. After last year’s struggles, it doesn’t hurt that Chicago has a new coaching staff in place, led by head coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. But the main question is whether Justin Fields can take a significant step forward in his second year. He certainly has the talent to do so.
It’s hard to be overly optimistic about the Bears’ offense given the lack of offseason additions at the skill positions, but that does at least solidify Kmet’s place as a key cog in the passing game.
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