Identifying bounce-back or breakout players for the following season is a long-standing strategy to maximize roster value in the offseason. Here are my favorite bets for an uptick in 2022:
Why: Years 2-3 are the most common seasons for an initial top-12 fantasy finish for the top half of Round 1 quarterbacks. The same applies to breaking into the top-6 of the position. Mac Jones has easily been the best of the rookie quarterbacks, those with any meaningful sample size, in terms of the TD Rate and INT Rate ratios I track closely for regression and success-failure tracks for NFL quarterbacks. Jones' rookie year is in the 'promising' zone, while Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, and Davis Mills are clearly on the failure track.
Jones had and has the built-in positive infrastructure of New England, Bill Belichek, and a strong defense and running game. Jones' 0.84 TD-INT Rate Ratio so far in 2021 is ahead of Josh Allen as a rookie and close to Kyler Murray and Matt Ryan among Round 1 and notable rookie quarterbacks over the past 15 years. The rest of the class, as mentioned above, is on the 'hopefully they have a starting job in 2023 more than worrying about their ultimate upside' part of the historical curve.
Jones' final argument for a 2022 uptick is the supporting cast. Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and N'Keal Harry form one of the weakest wide receiver corps in the NFL. Ideally, any of those options are WR3/4 depth chart players, not thrust into leading roles. Expect the Patriots to supplement the position in the offseason. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are locked in with their splash 2021 free-agent contracts for next season. James White missed this season with a hip injury and is an upcoming free agent. The 'James White' role for a pass-centric running back would also be a noteworthy addition to Mac Jones' arsenal on the shopping list.
Why: Year 3 is the singular most common season for a quarterback to have a breakout season. This I define as their first top-6 or top-12 finish if they have not produced to that level previously. For 1.01 drafted quarterbacks like Joe Burrow, they follow this career arc exactly. Burrow may sneak into the top-12 this season depending on his closing stretch of games by aPPG, but the top-6 is likely not happening.
The ecosystem for Burrow is ideal with all three of his notable wide receivers locked up for 2022 - Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, as well as running back Joe Mixon. C.J. Uzomah is a free agent, but Drew Sample is a Round 2 selection who is in his prime window for a production uptick in 2022 as well.
Burrow enters Year 3 in 2022 with his supporting cast entrenched and potentially an offensive line improvement. Burrow is also on track to be an interception rate regression candidate entering next season. His current 10.9% INT Rate (based on incompletions, not total passes) is one of the highest in the NFL and dragging down his TD-INT Rate Ratio to around the NFL average. Burrow with his weapons and an improved ratio next season is a strong bet for a breakout top-6 season.
Why: Williams was already one of the best running backs not currently in a starting role for the first half of his rookie season. He was highly valued in dynasty and a projected 2022 breakout player with Melvin Gordon III an upcoming free agent. This was before his recent assault on the top of the running back production board with three straight games of at least 20 PPR points, including a 29.8-point outing in Gordon's lone missed game this season.
Williams is already on track for a top-24 aPPG finish as a rookie, a firm success track achievement especially considering operating in a firm committee with Melvin Gordon III for all but one clarified start game (through Week 14). Other historical markers Williams is projected to eclipse is a top-36 finish as a Round 2 rookie, which produces a top-12 finish in their career 75% of the time, 2.6 top-12 seasons, and 4.3 top-24 seasons on average. Outside of a Round 1 rookie running back achieving the top-36 threshold (or higher), this is the gold standard for projecting multiple high-level seasons in the future out of a rookie.
The heat will be intense for Williams high in startup drafts and this late-season production only supports the argument amidst an unsettled dynasty running back position. Outside of Jonathan Taylor (pending his season finish), considerable questions cloud the top of the position from Christian McCaffrey missing a significant chunk of a second consecutive season, Saquon Barkley's injuries and down 2021, D'Andre Swift's durability and situation, and the age of producers like Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb, and Derrick Henry. Williams is low-hanging fruit for a breakout season (top-12) in 2022 and, even if preemptive to draft him as such early in the offseason, will rise into the elite zone of startup drafts by consensus within the next 12 months.
Why: Dillon is rising in the second half of the season, much like Javonte Williams. Aaron Jones was quizzically signed to a strong free-agent contract last offseason despite Dillon having a workhorse profile and Day 2 pedigree-allegiance from the same front office and coaching staff for the Packers. Dillon has already shown capable of being the main cog in a backfield with his 23-touch and 25-touch outings in Week 10 and 12 respectively. Also, Dillon has shown well in the passing game, a common limitation cited during his Boston College career, with quality adjustments to passes, routes, and four games of at least four receptions this season.
Aaron Jones is locked in contract-wise for 2022 considering his dead cap, but 2023 and 2024 are fluff years considering his cap hit vs. dead cap shifts from earlier in his contract. Jones will also be 27.8 years old for Week 1, 2022, teetering on the fringe of a running back's historical prime window of production. This is for a back (Jones) who has only one season of at least 250 touches in the NFL and of tweener size.
Jones will be 27.8 years old for the beginning of the 2022 season, a notable age for running backs to see a decline, especially if not unquestionable elite profiles and talents. Dillon will be firmly in his prime at 24.4 years old by comparison. Dillon has multiple avenues towards a breakout season, one is a significant injury to Jones, who has missed multiple games in every season of his career outside of 2019 (pending his already one missed game in 2021), or Dillon turns into the 1A or starter with Jones more in an ancillary (and receiving-centric) role. Either turns Dillon into a weekly starter with impact upside.