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. We already looked at a few quarterbacks and some running backs that could end up having a big 2017 campaign. Now here are a couple of wide receivers with breakout potential entering the 2017 NFL season.
DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins
It’s hard to imagine a wide receiver’s fantasy stock rising after his team’s starting quarterback is lost for the year, but that is exactly what happened to DeVante Parker in Miami. With Ryan Tannehill under center, Parker was able to collect only 82 receptions for 1,238 yards and seven touchdowns in 29 games. The third-year receiver is largely to blame, as injuries and an apparent lack of motivation affected his play in his first two NFL seasons. But having the game manager Tannehill as his quarterback definitely took its toll on the receiver, as he has only been targeted 141 times thus far in his career. Parker has managed to average 1.18 points per target in standard-scoring leagues, and 1.76 points per target in PPR formats. By comparison, the top 12 fantasy receivers last season averaged 1.26 standard-league points per game, and 1.89 PPR-league points per game. This puts Parker very close to the WR1 group on a points-per-target basis. With Tannehill set to watch this season from the sidelines, and notorious gunslinger Jay Cutler now running the offense for the Dolphins, things are looking up for the former Louisville receiver.
The reason to be optimistic about Parker this season is because of what the young receiver has done throughout the offseason. All reports over the last several months state that Parker is in the best shape of his career, due to an increased level of commitment and attention to detail. The 24-year-old switched his diet, changed his sleeping schedule, and has received nothing but praise from Miami’s coaching staff during training camp. Parker has also started to develop a nice chemistry with Cutler. In Miami’s second preseason game (Cutler’s first), the quarterback targeted Parker on three of his six passes. Parker snagged one pass for 16 yards, and made a nice play on another for a 31-yard gain that was negated due to a holding penalty. In the following game, Parker caught 2 of 3 targets for 78 yards, including a 72-yard catch-and-run that highlights the excitement and hype that surrounded him when he was a first-round pick just a few years ago. It’s clear Cutler and the 6-foot-3 receiver are building a nice rapport, with the quarterback going as far as saying that Parker reminds him of “a faster Alshon” Jeffrey.
Through his first two NFL campaigns, Parker has yet to live up to the potential that made him the 15th overall selection of the 2015 NFL Draft. But heading into the 2017 season, the young receiver has the right mindset and quarterback to have a breakout season. With an ADP in the seventh to eighth round, Parker is exactly the type of late selection that can win you your fantasy football league.
Willie Snead, New Orleans Saints
Snead is another third-year receiver that looks primed for a breakout campaign in 2017. The 5-foot-11 receiver finished last season with 72 receptions for 895 yards and four touchdowns, an impressive feat considering he was the third option in the passing game behind Michael Thomas and Brandin Cooks, who both finished with over 1,100 yards. With Cooks now a member of the Patriots, his 117 targets last year are up for grabs. New Orleans did not add any noteworthy receivers or tight ends during the offseason, meaning Snead looks to be the biggest beneficiary of Cooks’ departure. This is great news for Snead, as his biggest issue over his first two seasons has been volume. The 24-year-old has played at least 70 percent of the snaps 17 times over his first 30 NFL games, averaging 5.8 catches on 8.2 targets for 77 yards and 0.24 touchdowns per contest. If he played at that rate for the entire 2016 season, Snead would have finished as a top 15 wide receiver in all formats.
The emergence of Thomas as one of the league’s top wide receivers should not take away from Snead’s fantasy outlook either, as both the rookie and Cooks were able to finish as top 10 receivers last season. The Saints are one of a few teams with a quarterback capable of having multiple fantasy wide receivers that are worthy of starting. Brees threw the ball 673 times for 5,208 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2016, and remains one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, both this season and in the history of the sport. After receiving 102 and 104 targets in his first two seasons, Snead looks to be in great shape to get 115-130 targets from Brees in 2017, especially after serving as the future Hall of Fame QB’s security-blanket last season. Snead was one of the league’s top receivers out of the slot, making 56 catches (t-7th most) for 707 yards (4th) with a mark of 1.89 yards per route run (4th). His route-running is top-notch, and when you combine that with the precision-passing of Brees, you get yourself a very good fantasy wide receiver.
After serving as the third passing option in the Saints’ offense for the second consecutive year, Snead finished last season as the WR32. With Cooks gone, the former Ball State receiver looks ready to play a larger role for New Orleans in 2017. Snead is currently being drafted in the sixth round, but if he can further his development in his third year, he has the potential to put up WR2 numbers in a very potent Saints offense.
Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers
Despite playing in the NFL for nine years and having six seasons with 105 targets or more, Garcon continues to be one of the most underrated wide receivers in the league. The 31-year-old quietly collected 79 receptions on 116 targets for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns, finishing the season in the top 25 for wide receivers in PPR leagues. Yes, Garcon was targeted 116 times by Kirk Cousins in an offense that also featured Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, DeSean Jackson, and Vernon Davis. Keep in mind, it was only a few years ago that the veteran wide receiver led the NFL in targets (184) and receptions (113) in a record year. Garcon’s play last season was good enough to warrant a five-year, $47.5 million contract from San Francisco, where he will immediately step in as the team’s number one wide receiver.
The best news for Garcon is his reunion with Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan was the Redskins’ offensive coordinator from 2010-2013, with his final season in Washington being Garcon’s monster campaign. He spent the last two seasons as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta, where he transformed the Falcons’ offense to one of the highest-scoring in the league. Now Shanahan gets his shot as a head coach, and one of his first moves was to sign Garcon to a big deal. The wide receiver should see a heavy volume of targets this season, as he has very little competition among his fellow wide receivers. Besides for Garcon, San Francisco has Jeremy Kerley and Marquise Goodwin, neither of which have cracked 65 receptions in a season. Of course, Garcon’s quarterback play takes a big hit going from Cousins to Brian Hoyer. However the latter has not performed as bad as some would think. Hoyer has a 16-15 record as a starter with a 44-26 touchdown-interception ratio. Those are far from jaw-dropping numbers, but it shows that he can be a capable quarterback. In Shanahan’s revamped offensive system, Hoyer will be throwing a ton of quick screen and slant passes. This will benefit both the quarterback and Garcon, and shows why the wide receiver has the potential to be a PPR beast this season.
The 49ers are not expected to be very good this year, meaning they will likely be playing from behind in most games. This, combined with Shanahan calling the plays, means Garcon could be in for a very big season. The receiver is currently being drafted as the WR34 in the seventh round, but has the potential to be a very strong WR2. Snag Garcon in the middle rounds while you still can.
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.