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Faking the Leap: Calming Expectations About Three NFL Breakout Candidates

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These three players have shot up draft boards this summer despite a lack of proven production.

It's easy to get caught up in the "hipster" takes of the fantasy football offseason. Lots of experts and analysts have been hard at work looking for "sleepers" and "breakouts" in hopes of finding the player that wins their (and your) leagues next season.

But in doing so, players can get inflated values and no longer become a sleeper or an unknown. The collective thought process on a particular fantasy prospect can become so competitive that it drives his average draft spot higher and higher, reaching an unreasonable level compared to the player's reasonable expectations.

This season, there are already three players who are being boosted up draft boards that may require a second look. Just how good are these players? Have we assumed too big of a leap? Are we banking too heavily on a breakout?

T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

T.Y. Hilton was an attractive option in fantasy football last season, as the speedster just needed a chance to shine after showing up big as a deep threat in his first season in the league.

He got that chance due to an injury to Reggie Wayne, which pushed Hilton into the spotlight on the Indianapolis offense. That led to more catches, more yards, and more hype heading into his third year in the league.

But did he actually "break out" last year? Not really. Let's consider our Net Expected Points (NEP) data from 2013, and see how Hilton did with Reggie Wayne in and not in the lineup.

SituationGamesReceptionsReception NEPTargetsRec. NEP per TargetSuccess Rate
With Wayne72832.79550.6085.71%
Without Wayne95556.38840.6778.18%

Hilton slightly improved on a per-target basis without Wayne in the lineup, but overall, he wasn't very impressive. Hilton ranked 15th out of 21 receivers with 130 targets or more last season in our Reception NEP metric, and 13th in per-target efficiency.

Had he been on his "without Wayne" pace for an entire season, he'd still have only finished 14th among that qualified group of high-volume receivers, with numbers more on par with Brian Hartline than big-play top guns like Calvin Johnson, or even a solid WR2 like Eric Decker.

Hilton's only "improvement" over the course of the season was receiving more targets. With Dwayne Allen and Wayne returning to health, and with the addition of Hakeem Nicks, Hilton's volume will drop, and so will his fantasy relevance.

Hilton is currently a fifth-round pick in fantasy drafts, according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. This puts him ahead of Torrey Smith and Marques Colston, both of whom have clearer paths to high volume, and more proven track records of being a team's top receiving option.

Our projections currently see Hilton finishing with 70 catches for just under 900 yards, and even that might be a bit ambitious considering the crazy amount of competition he'll see for work with the Colts this year. Be wary of Hilton's current price tag, and consider the more proven options with better paths to targets and touchdowns.

Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

There may be no sexier sleeper pick this summer than Cordarrelle Patterson, who played well at the end of last season and earned unlimited amounts of hype this offseason as a potential breakout star.

That hype has reached a fever pitch at this point, as the Vikings' wideout is going in the fourth round of fantasy drafts, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. His current draft position has him ahead of Wes Welker, Larry Fitzgerald and Roddy White, proven veterans with better quarterbacks.

So what is it that's setting Patterson apart? He's clearly a freak of an athlete, and that's always going to draw attention. Stephen Hill's ticket to the NFL was based on highly-paid and trained scouts getting wowed by a physical profile, but eventually let down by a lacking football skill set.

Some will point to Patterson's success as a return man and a runner, but not every league rewards for returns. And his running was limited to 12 carries, so it would be foolish to take Patterson as a borderline WR1 because of rushing volume.

Others will point to his second-half breakout, when he settled into the Minnesota offense and became more involved. So let's consider how he did in the first half versus the second half according to our numbers.

SituationReceptionsReception NEPTargetsRec. NEP per TargetSuccess Rate
First 8 Games137.88200.3961.54%
Last 8 Games3222.40570.3965.63%

Like Hilton, Patterson saw more looks in the second half of the season, and didn't do any better with them. In fact, his per-target numbers remained exactly the same, and they were really poor compared to his peers.

Patterson finished 38th among 39 receivers with 75 to 125 targets in Reception NEP last season, and 37th in per-target Reception NEP. Had he been on his second-half pace for a full 16 games, he'd have climbed to 29th out of 39 in reception NEP, but the per-target ranking remained the same.

Our current projections are lower on Patterson than they are on Hilton, as our data predicts Patterson as the 34th-best receiver for fantasy football. This starkly contrasts with his current value, which is based on the hope that an Adrian Peterson-focused offense with a mediocre-at-best quarterback situation will get him the ball enough to break several big plays during the course of the season.

Buyer beware, because that's a lot to ask, especially when considering that Patterson remains more of an athlete than he is a football player. Percy Harvin is available around the same time in drafts as Patterson, and at least he has a track record of NFL success to go along with his hype.

Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos

Montee Ball is a second-year running back with 120 carries under his belt, and is being selected as the 11th player in fantasy drafts, according to the aforementioned data. That alone should set off alarms and whistles in the "common sense" portion of your brain.

But there's reason for optimism, as being the lead back for Peyton Manning is often a rewarding task. But let's consider the leap that Ball must make to turn his limited success as a rookie into first-round fantasy value.

Since 2010, only Joique Bell and Knowshon Moreno (the man who left Denver to present Ball with his opportunity) have posted similar NEP statistics in a limited role and gone on to top-15 running back fantasy success the next in a bigger role. Bilal Powell, Isaac Redman and others have done the opposite, falling off the next season after good per-carry averages in a limited role in a breakout campaign.

Ball didn't even come close to producing like Moreno did last season, earning less than half of the NEP per carry of his teammate. But he was consistent, and had a higher Success Rate (ratio of positive NEP plays to total attempts) than his now departed teammate.

But the one area where Ball hasn't proven himself at all, and where Bell and Moreno stood out, is as a receiver. Peyton Manning likes to get his running backs involved in the passing game, something Ball didn't get a chance to do in 2013.

Among backs with 75-150 carries last season, Ball finished above average as a rusher according to our NEP metrics, but well below average as a receiver. Passes caught by Ball last season only added around six Net Expected Points to the Broncos' cause, resulting in a per-target efficiency less than half that of top dual-threat backs like Andre Ellington and Gio Bernard.

And if he's unable to cope with life as a dual-threat back in the NFL, it will cut into his opportunities to produce. His NFL.com draft profile states that he's a capable pass-catcher, but last season he wasn't used in that role at all in the pass-happy Denver offense.

Our projections like Ball this season, but the assumption that a 120-carry back will leap to the same sort of consistency at 270 carries is quite the risk. Add in questions about his NFL ability as a receiver, and there's more than enough evidence to possibly target DeMarco Murray or Marshawn Lynch at the end of the first round instead, just to avoid the risk of Ball's inexperience and lack of proven production.

Ball, like Hilton and Patterson, may meet or exceed his expectations. This article isn't to dissuade you from taking them in your fantasy drafts altogether. But some perspective is needed as these players continue to climb up draft boards and gain more and more hype without some historical context.

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In This Article

T.Y. Hilton
WR, Indianapolis Colts

Cordarrelle Patterson
WR, Minnesota Vikings

Montee Ball
RB, Denver Broncos

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