Fantasy Football: Five wide receivers poised to break out

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By Alex Gelhar, 4for4

Special to Yahoo Sports

Every summer, the fantasy industry thirsts for breakout players like sweaty kids thirst for lemonade on a humid July afternoon. Writers from all across the web are more than happy to satisfy that thirst with punchy lists populated with promising young players poised to pop off on Sundays this fall.

What you’re about to read is my offering of lemonade this summer. Hopefully, I got the recipe just right.

As I did last year, I'll provide a deeper look at some of my top picks, add other names to consider, and highlight a few rookies who have a chance to hit the ground running. Before the list though, I highlight some common traits among past breakouts at the position.

Frequent breakout indicators

  • Strong finish to end the year prior. Oftentimes players who end the year on a high statistical note will carry that success into the upcoming season.

  • Lack of an established No. 1 target. When there is no true alpha on a team, that opens the door for a breakout star to step in and claim the throne. Think Terry McLaurin on the Washington Football Team last season.

  • Vacated or up-for-grabs targets. If a player is on a team with a sudden amount of open opportunities following the departure of a big-name player (i.e. Calvin Ridley after the Falcons traded Julio Jones) their path to a breakout season is much easier.

  • Strong draft/athletic pedigree. The NFL draft is also far from an exact science, but the draft capital a team spends on a player, and that player’s athletic profile, can sometimes indicate future success.

With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at some breakout candidates for the upcoming season.

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

Expectations for Aiyuk were high after the 49ers selected him in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury before the season delayed Aiyuk’s ascent. Over his first five games played he averaged a paltry five targets and 33 yards per game, finding the end zone just once. Over his final six games played he averaged 7.5 targets and just shy of 95 yards per game while hitting paydirt four times (Aiyuk sprained his ankle in the first quarter of Week 16, and then was out in Week 17).

At the end of the year, Aiyuk led the 49ers in targets with 96 (17.3%). Of course, the lengthy absences of George Kittle and Deebo Samuel contributed to Aiyuk’s torrid second half of the season, but the rookie proved he was more than capable of being a big-play option for an offense with serious deficiencies at quarterback (Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard combined for 430 attempts last season).

Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers
Brandon Aiyuk could take things to the next level in 2021. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

In 2021, the 49ers should have more stability at quarterback with either a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo or the exciting rookie Trey Lance commanding Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Even with Samuel and Kittle returning, Aiyuk should still have a role to play. He led the team with 12 targets of 20-plus yards downfield in 2020, which could help cement him as a go-to option on play-action deep shots. Aiyuk isn’t a slam-dunk breakout candidate given that he plays in a loaded, run-first offense, but the pieces are there for a big boost to his stats in Year 2.

Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears

Anthony Miller was a popular breakout candidate last year, but it was rookie Darnell Mooney who swooped in and finished second on the Bears in targets (98, 16.4% share), receptions (61), and receiving yards (631). Mooney did all of this despite starting nine games and catching passes from Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky. While Foles remains in the picture, Andy Dalton is currently pegged as the Week 1 starter. And most of the football world is waiting with bated breath for rookie Justin Fields to take over. Either figures to be an upgrade over Mooney’s situation last year, with Dalton at least providing some stability and some accuracy.

At 5-foot-10, 176 pounds, Mooney doesn’t jump off the page as a prototypical wide receiver, but after only one year, he put together tape that shows he is already a fantastic technician at the position. Another year of experience, polish, and improved quarterback play could result in a stellar fantasy season from last year’s unexpected star — especially after the Bears traded Miller to the Texans.

Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers

You could say that Claypool broke out as a rookie considering he scored 11 total touchdowns, but with just a 63% snap share and 16.7% target share in 2020, there’s clearly room for this electrifying young star to grow. JuJu Smith-Schuster re-signing with the Steelers hurts Claypool’s breakout odds a bit, as does Ben Roethlisberger’s potential noodle arm as the future Hall of Famer enters his age-39 season less than two years removed from unique and serious elbow surgery.

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Nevertheless, Claypool’s mix of rare size and athleticism (6-foot-4, 238 pounds, 4.42 40-yard dash, 40.5-inch vertical leap) alone should be enough to entice fantasy heads. Add in more potential playing time as the Steelers look for more ways to put the ball in Claypool’s hands, and the picture of a Claypool breakout becomes more clear. The Steelers play in a tough division that features two playoff teams from 2020 (Browns, Ravens) and a talented young offense in the Bengals. That schedule could feature more higher-scoring affairs, giving Claypool more chances to post big fantasy totals.

Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos

While many may be haunted by Jeudy’s spell of bad drops late in the season, there is a lot more promise from his rookie season to look back on. Jeudy led the team in targets with 113 and put his clinical route-running on display against NFL coverage. If Jeudy can improve upon his rookie season and benefit from more stable quarterback play from Teddy Bridgewater, he may leap into fantasy stardom.

Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs

Hardman has had the eye of the fantasy community for years, but he has yet to hit it big. With Sammy Watkins out of the picture, could this be Hardman’s year to ascend to the No. 2 wide receiver role behind Tyreek Hill? While Hardman did play 60% or more of the snaps in each of the final two games of the season, when Hill and Travis Kelce were out in Week 17, both DeMarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle both out-snapped Hardman. Hardman played just 45% of the team’s snaps in 2020, so he’ll need a more sizable weekly role if he is to break out in 2021.

This article originally appeared in its full form on 4for4.com

Alex is a lawyer for the Wisconsin State Public Defenders. He previously worked for the NFL as a fantasy football editor. He still writes about and studies fantasy football in his free time.

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