Broadly speaking, players who greatly outproduce their fantasy ADP fall into one of two categories:
- They earn a much bigger role in their team’s offense than expected, either due to injury (like Mike Davis last year) or by simply exceeding expectations (Justin Jefferson) and earning a bigger piece of the pie.
- The player’s role is basically what was expected, but the offense as a whole outperforms expectations, leading to a bigger fantasy pie (Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs in 2020).
The focus of this series of articles is on the second category of players. Our goal is to predict the offenses with the best shot to massively exceed expectations in 2021. If we can do so, league winners can be found.
In the first installment of this series, we profiled the Bengals offense as a breakout candidate. You can read a more in-depth breakdown of the recent history of breakout offenses there, but it is enough to know the following:
- Approximately 10% of NFL teams increase their scoring by at least 33% from the previous season.
- The offenses that make these big year-over-year leaps provide league-winning fantasy upside.
- The most common way they do so is by having a young quarterback who makes a big leap (2020 Josh Allen, 2019 Lamar Jackson, 2018 Patrick Mahomes II, etc.).
Can Justin Herbert be the top fantasy quarterback in 2021?
The overall fantasy QB1, each of the last three years, has been a second- (Patrick Mahomes II and Lamar Jackson) or third-year (Josh Allen) quarterback. Justin Herbert is a prime candidate to make a similar leap. He has the talent to put together a league-winning fantasy season and vastly out-perform his seventh-round ADP.
Unlike the other young quarterbacks who have made a big second-year leap and emerged as fantasy superstars in recent years, Justin Herbert has already performed at an extremely high level. Before Jared Goff had a big second season, he was brutally bad as a rookie. Prior to Patrick Mahomes II having the monster second season, he had started just one game. Lamar Jackson had an adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) under 6.0 as a rookie before his monster second season. Josh Allen’s ANY/A was 4.4 as a rookie and 5.7 in year two before he made the leap to a 7.8 ANY/A last season.
Herbert’s rookie year performance was above and beyond anything we have seen in recent history. He completed 66.6% of his passes and threw for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns in 15 games. He also showed out as a runner with 234 rushing yards and another 5 touchdowns with his legs. As with some of the other recent breakout performers (Mahomes and Allen), Herbert has freakish physical ability. In addition to size and speed, he has a cannon for an arm.
The Athletic’s annual Quarterback Tiers article provides a good reality-check when it comes to contextualizing where young quarterbacks fit into the league's hierarchy. The survey of 50 NFL coaches and talent evaluators tends to favor veterans over youth, making Herbert’s appearance as a consensus Top 10 quarterback after just one season all the more impressive. The comments from an anonymous NFL head coach sum up well what Herbert showed as a rookie.
“He’s smart and he just kind of gets it. If you get someone who can see and anticipate and is smart, and has the athletic ability and size, you’ve got something. The sky is the limit for the kid. The players love him there… I know that when we played him, he felt like (he belonged in the elite tier). The ball went where it should go.”
Offensive line additions
Our first potential breakout offense - the Bengals - added an elite weapon (JaMarr Chase) to help their young quarterback heading into year two. The Chargers took a different approach, focusing instead on improving a terrible offensive line.
Los Angeles added the top center on the market, Corey Linsley. Then added a pair of solid guards, Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi, early in free agency. In the first round of the NFL Draft, elite tackle prospect Rashawn Slater fell into the Chargers’ lap. This could be one of the most improved offensive lines in the entire NFL. You can sense the excitement and confidence of Chargers general manager Tom Telesco when it comes to the offensive line upgrades:
I'm happy with what we have right now upfront, I'm happy with some depth. It's never perfect, but I feel pretty good about it. Now, it's like you said — let's see once we get on the field in training camp. Let's see how guys come along. This is a new offensive scheme we'll be running. All-in-all as we sit here today, I'm pretty pleased with the plan that we put together back in February. As we sit here on May 1, to kind of see it crystalize and go to where we needed to go is a good feeling.
Herbert needs better play from the skill positions if this offense hopes to jump to that elite tier. Keenan Allen is already one of the best wide receivers in the league and excels in his role. Austin Ekeler is one of the best pass-catching running backs. If he can stay healthy, Ekeler is a lock for a big fantasy season. He certainly seems to agree with that assessment.
Continue reading this article with a Season Long Pro subscription.
"Footballguys is the best premium
fantasy football only site on the planet."
Matthew Berry, ESPN