By Matt Citak
With opening kickoff right around the corner, it’s time to prepare for your upcoming fantasy football draft. Most fantasy rosters consist of a majority of proven veterans, some young upside players with potential, and maybe a rookie or two. Finding and selecting potential breakout players before the rest of your league is one of the best parts about participating in fantasy football. It helps your team become stronger, and normally will come at an affordable price on draft day. Here are some quarterbacks with breakout potential entering the 2017 NFL season.
Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winston is a popular pick to be one of the biggest breakout quarterbacks in fantasy football this season. After a solid start to his career in which he threw for over 4,000 yards in his first two NFL campaigns, Winston is looking to take a big leap in his development in 2017. The Buccaneers made it their mission in the offseason to bring in as many offensive weapons as possible to try to help Winston play up to his true potential. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tight end O.J. Howard, and wide receiver Chris Godwin join a Tampa Bay offense that already includes talented playmakers Mike Evans and Cameron Brate.
In his first two seasons, Winston finished as the QB13 and QB16, respectively. But with the plethora of options he now has, Winston should easily see that ranking skyrocket. Jackson represents one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, as he has led the NFL in yards on deep passes (passes targeted 20 or more yards downfield) in two of the last three seasons. His speed will open up the field for his teammates, and should provide larger windows for Winston to target. Evans is a big, physical receiver who proved last year that he is one of the elite players at his position. Brate snagged eight touchdown receptions last season, while Howard was the top tight end and the 19th overall selection in this year’s draft. The Buccaneers ran the second-most two-TE sets in the league last season, so you can expect to see plenty of plays with both Howard and Brate on the field together. And while Godwin may start the season as the team’s fourth receiver, the rookie third-round pick has shined throughout the summer after catching 11 touchdowns for Penn State last year.
Winston saw an improvement in almost every important statistic last year. His completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, and passer rating all increased from his first to second NFL campaign. With the overhaul of Tampa Bay’s offense this offseason, it’s reasonable to expect a significant leap in Winston’s development in 2017.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton is certainly not a sexy pick, but is one you can make in the later rounds of your fantasy football draft that could end up being a steal. The 6-foot-2 quarterback out of TCU threw for 4,206 yards on a 64.7 completion percentage last season, which were both close to matching the best marks of his career. However Dalton’s downfall came in his touchdowns, as he finished the season with only 18 touchdown passes and a career-low touchdown rate of 3.2 percent. It’s tough to put all of the blame on the veteran quarterback, though. Dalton was missing his number one receiver and fantasy stud A.J. Green for six games, while Tyler Eifert, one of the most effective red zone tight ends, sat out half the season. The Bengals also lost receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu last offseason, leaving Dalton with very few weapons to target.
While Cincinnati may have lacked the skill players on the offensive side of the ball last year, the same cannot be said heading into the 2017 season. Green was on pace for 106 receptions, 1,542 yards and six touchdowns in 2016 (a top five wide receiver finish) before a hamstring tear forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season. The 29-year-old receiver is now healthy and ready to go for the Bengals offense. Even though Eifert has missed 11 games over the last two years, he still leads all tight ends over that span with 18 touchdowns. The tight end has been a little banged up during the preseason, but should be fine for Week 1. The biggest difference in Cincinnati’s offense is the addition of two incredibly talented rookies. With the ninth overall pick, the Bengals selected wide receiver John Ross, who provides Dalton a home run threat with his 4.22 speed. In the second round, Cincinnati snagged running back Joe Mixon. The back’s off-the-field issues caused many teams to avoid him in the draft, but his talent and potential as a “do-it-all” type of player are hard to ignore.
Dalton has proved in the past that he can be a viable fantasy option, as he finished last season as the QB12 despite only throwing 18 touchdown passes. The 29-year-old has also shown the ability to play like a top fantasy quarterback; he ranked as the third-best QB during the 2013 season. With the most talented group of offensive weapons he’s ever had surrounding him in the Cincinnati offense, Dalton looks primed to vastly out perform his ADP in the 12th round, and could end up being a top fantasy quarterback.
Eli Manning, New York Giants
Manning’s reputation as being a bad fantasy quarterback is difficult to understand. The veteran quarterback is coming off his third consecutive season with at least 4,000 yards passing and a completion percentage of 62.6 percent or higher. Since Ben McAdoo joined the Giants in 2014, Manning has ranked as a top 10 fantasy QB in two of three seasons, with last year’s finish as the QB21 serving as an outlier. And looking at New York’s roster from last season, Manning did not have many good options in the passing game behind Odell Beckham Jr. Victor Cruz played on the outside opposite Beckham, but looked like a shell of his former self. Sterling Shepard put together a solid year, but the rookie did experience some growing pains throughout the season. Shane Vereen, the talented pass-catching back, appeared in only five games, while the top tight end option was the undrafted Will Tye.
Similar to the situations in Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, the Giants made a concerted effort to improve the offense this offseason. First of all, Manning has the return of Beckham, who’s play speaks for itself. The young receiver has had one of the most successful starts to a career in NFL history, and will look to continue performing as one of the league’s top three wide receivers. Lining up opposite Beckham will be the newly-acquired, 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall, giving Manning his biggest target since Plaxico Burress (6-foot-5) was a member of Big Blue. Marshall is coming off a down year with the Jets, but is still second in the NFL in receiving touchdowns over the last five years. Shepard returns to his role as the slot receiver and will look to build on his strong rookie campaign. Vereen is fully healthy and will once again be on the field in passing situations. Don’t forget, Vereen caught an impressive 59 passes in his first season in New York. Finally, the Giants used the 23rd overall pick in this year’s draft on Evan Engram, a hybrid tight end/ wide receiver who will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Engram was the fastest tight end in the draft, with his 4.42 40-yard dash beating all tight ends and all but four wide receivers at the combine.
The pieces are there for Manning to have a big bounce-back year. And considering the Giants have been in the top 12 in pass-play percentage and top five in red-zone pass-play percentage over the last three seasons, the veteran quarterback will certainly have his opportunities to produce. Manning is another quarterback being taken towards the end of drafts that could end up turning the tide in your favor this fantasy season.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.