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Fantasy football sleepers, busts and breakouts for 2022

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Should Matthew Stafford's injury scare away fantasy managers? (1:18)

Field Yates details how fantasy managers should handle Matthew Stafford's elbow injury. (1:18)

As we enter into the heart of fantasy football draft season, the ESPN Fantasy Football experts are here to bring you their latest sleepers, busts and breakout players for the 2022 campaign, as defined here:

  • Sleeper: A player who is being overlooked and will outperform his average draft position (ADP) in 2022.

  • Bust: A player who is highly regarded and will underperform his ADP in 2022.

  • Breakout: A player (rookies included) who will rise up with career-best numbers in 2022 and make a huge impact.

Our panel comprises the following ESPN Fantasy writers and editors: Stephania Bell, Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Daniel Dopp, Joe Kaiser, Eric Karabell, Keith Lipscomb, Liz Loza, Eric Moody, Kyle Soppe and Field Yates.

Each analyst named a sleeper and a bust for each of the major offensive positions, as well as one breakout candidate. You can find their picks below, and their analysis and insight on a selection of players they felt most passionate about in each category.

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Quarterback sleepers

Matt Bowen: Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders
Mike Clay: Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Daniel Dopp: Derek Carr
Joe Kaiser: Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
Eric Karabell: Trevor Lawrence
Keith Lipscomb: Trevor Lawrence
Liz Loza: Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Eric Moody: Matt Ryan, Indianapolis Colts
Kyle Soppe: Trey Lance
Field Yates: Derek Carr

Stephania Bell: Matt Ryan
Ryan will be the fifth starting quarterback in as many years for the Colts, and reaction to his change of locale has been mostly tepid. But why? Yes, he's 37 years old, but his 14 years in the league show he's durable (he has missed just one game in his 12 years as a starter) and an experienced decision-maker who can get the ball to his receivers quickly (another trait already on display at minicamp). He showed in OTAs his arm is still strong, and he'll play behind a better offensive line; instead of scrambling for his life behind the line of scrimmage, he can actually get the ball out on time. Earlier delivery gives the offense an advantage, leading to increased opportunities for Ryan's receivers, especially when it comes to YAC ... all of which translates to fantasy points.

Quarterback busts

Stephania Bell: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Matt Bowen: Aaron Rodgers
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Aaron Rodgers
Daniel Dopp: Aaron Rodgers
Joe Kaiser: Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Eric Karabell: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Keith Lipscomb: Joe Burrow
Liz Loza: Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Eric Moody: Aaron Rodgers
Kyle Soppe: Kyler Murray
Field Yates: Aaron Rodgers

Mike Clay: Joe Burrow
Burrow enjoyed a breakout 2021 season in which he paced the NFL in completion percentage and yards per attempt (YPA), while finishing no lower than eighth in passing yardage and TDs. And yet he finished eighth in fantasy points, with a ridiculous 47% of those points coming in three games -- his only weekly finishes better than eighth on the season. Burrow didn't add much with his legs (118 yards, 2 TDs), and that will need to change just to offset inevitable YPA regression to the mean. Yes, Burrow is emerging as one of the league's top quarterbacks, but that has yet to translate to the high-end QB1 fantasy output that his ADP suggests.

Running back sleepers

Stephania Bell: Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
Matt Bowen: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Mike Clay: Miles Sanders
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Daniel Dopp: AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
Joe Kaiser: Ken Walker III, Seattle Seahawks
Keith Lipscomb: Travis Etienne Jr.
Liz Loza: Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears
Eric Moody: Melvin Gordon III, Denver Broncos
Kyle Soppe: AJ Dillon
Field Yates: AJ Dillon

Eric Karabell: Travis Etienne Jr.
Fantasy managers just need to forget about last season's dysfunctional clown show that was the Jacksonville Jaguars and see all the potential in a new, competent coaching staff with a tantalizing, young offense. Trevor Lawrence will thrive with his college buddy Etienne, a 2021 first-round pick and the Jaguars' new lead back, healthy after a lost season. Etienne boasts Alvin Kamara characteristics as a runner and pass-catcher. He's fast, elusive and a terrific receiver, and injured James Robinson is way behind Etienne in terms of September readiness. Etienne has RB1 upside right now, but he's going in flex range. Be prepared to jump a round or three to go get him.

Running back busts

Stephania Bell: James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
Matt Bowen: James Conner
Mike Clay: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Cordarrelle Patterson, Atlanta Falcons
Daniel Dopp: James Conner
Joe Kaiser: Cordarrelle Patterson
Eric Karabell: Cordarrelle Patterson
Keith Lipscomb: James Conner
Liz Loza: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
Eric Moody: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Field Yates: James Conner

Kyle Soppe: Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
The idea of this exercise is to evaluate not only players but our user drafting patterns, and my decision to fade the talented sophomore is based on the latter. I love the upside, but I don't love having to bank on that sort of growth out of my third-round pick. The Broncos not only brought in Russell Wilson to bolster the pass game; they also re-signed Melvin Gordon III. There's no question Gordon is on the back nine of his career, but six straight seasons with at least eight rushing scores is rare air. "Rare" as in here is the list of players who have ever done that: LaDainian Tomlinson, Jim Brown, Adrian Peterson and Emmitt Smith. The top 15 RBs in terms of total points last season scored, on average, 12.1 touchdowns, and the presence of Gordon on this roster, not to mention a potentially more open offense to cater to Wilson, makes it tough to assume Williams reaches that threshold. Love the talent, hate the price.

Wide receiver sleepers

Stephania Bell: Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints
Matt Bowen: Russell Gage, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Clay: Drake London, Atlanta Falcons
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals
Daniel Dopp: Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
Joe Kaiser: Jerry Jeudy
Eric Karabell: Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
Keith Lipscomb: Garrett Wilson, New York Jets
Liz Loza: Marvin Jones Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Kyle Soppe: Christian Kirk, Jacksonville Jaguars
Field Yates: Drake London

Eric Moody: Chris Olave
The Saints moved up from the 16th to the 11th spot in the 2022 NFL draft to select Olave. He'll be a star in New Orleans. The time is right to go all-in on a rookie wide receiver. Olave stands out among the six receivers selected in Round 1. He's a fluid route runner who ranks third in Ohio State history with 176 receptions and fifth in receiving yards with 2,711. Olave was able to accomplish this while playing alongside fellow first-round pick Garrett Wilson and projected 2023 first-rounder Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Olave's talent and position with the Saints, who desperately need help at wide receiver, certainly justify selection at his ADP. Olave could lead the team in targets.

Wide receiver busts

Stephania Bell: Amari Cooper, Cleveland Browns
Matt Bowen: Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Clay: Allen Robinson II, Los Angeles Rams
Daniel Dopp: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Joe Kaiser: Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins
Eric Karabell: Michael Thomas
Keith Lipscomb: Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins
Liz Loza: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers
Eric Moody: Gabriel Davis
Kyle Soppe: Jaylen Waddle
Field Yates: DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks

Tristan H. Cockcroft: Allen Robinson II
His arrival in L.A. both strengthens the Rams' passing game and gives him a fresh start coming off a disappointing 2021, but it also lands him in a supporting role. For all the Odell Beckham Jr. comps, bear in mind that Beckham was fantasy football's WR32 with a 33rd-ranked 17.1% target share during his Rams tenure, a touchdown-dependent player for our purposes. Robinson should have his share of productive games, but if he's going among the top 25 at his position, he's too pricey for my tastes.

Tight end sleepers

Stephania Bell: Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
Mike Clay: Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Irv Smith Jr.
Daniel Dopp: Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears
Joe Kaiser: Evan Engram, Jacksonville Jaguars
Eric Karabell: Logan Thomas, Washington Commanders
Keith Lipscomb: Hayden Hurst, Cincinnati Bengals
Liz Loza: Mo Alie-Cox, Indianapolis Colts
Eric Moody: Evan Engram
Kyle Soppe: Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers
Field Yates: Logan Thomas

Matt Bowen: Cole Kmet
Kmet caught 60 of 91 targets last season. And we know the pass-catching traits are there to see the ball in Chicago's new offensive system with quarterback Justin Fields entering his second pro season. It's the anticipated red zone usage, however, that puts the third-year tight end in the mix for a potential breakout season. Kmet saw a total of just 12 red zone targets last year, with only six end zone targets. And he failed to log a single touchdown. But with tight end Jimmy Graham now out of the picture, there's an open door for Kmet to see a boost in scoring opportunities -- which would push him into the TE1 discussion.

Tight end busts

Stephania Bell: Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders
Matt Bowen: Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills
Mike Clay: Dawson Knox
Tristan H. Cockcroft: Hunter Henry, New England Patriots
Daniel Dopp: Dawson Knox
Eric Karabell: Hunter Henry
Keith Lipscomb: Darren Waller
Liz Loza: Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Eric Moody: Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles
Kyle Soppe: Darren Waller
Field Yates: Noah Fant, Seattle Seahawks

Joe Kaiser: Darren Waller
Waller was limited to 11 games due to injury last season, causing his numbers to plummet compared to the season before, when he finished with 107 receptions, 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns. Waller turns 30 in September, and the addition of Davante Adams over the offseason means the Raiders have one of the premier -- and highest-paid -- receivers in the NFL. While Adams will take some defensive attention away from Waller, he's also going to take away targets.

2022 breakout players

Stephania Bell: Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Matt Bowen: Trey Lance
Mike Clay: Breece Hall, RB, New York Jets
Tristan H. Cockcroft: J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Daniel Dopp: Derek Carr, QB, Las Vegas Raiders
Joe Kaiser: Darnell Mooney, WR, Chicago Bears
Eric Karabell: Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos
Keith Lipscomb: Darnell Mooney
Eric Moody: Skyy Moore, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Kyle Soppe: Joshua Palmer, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

Field Yates: Gabriel Davis, WR, Buffalo Bills
When looking for a breakout player, I'm mindful of several key factors: the player's skill set and the chance for it to improve from one year to the next, the role he may play and the offense that he plays in. Davis flexed his vast potential when he set an NFL record with four receiving touchdowns in a playoff game last season and with the departure of Emmanuel Sanders, he now has a chance to be a near-every-down player for the Bills. This offense is downright frightful to opposing defenses, meaning the No. 2 pass-catcher in it could have a legitimate shot at a top-20 season. Davis fits the bill.

Liz Loza: Nico Collins, Houston Texans
Collins emerged as the Texans' No. 2 WR over the final five weeks of 2021. The former Wolverine averaged six looks per contest from Weeks 14 through 18, managing two efforts above 65 yards and a score over that span. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Collins thrives in contested situations, dominating on the outside and in the red zone. He and Davis Mills spent much of the summer working out together and further developing the chemistry that started to build last winter. The second-year wideout has received glowing reviews during camp and projects to work as a complement to Brandin Cooks. He's in line for upwards of 90 targets and could easily post a 65-830-6 stat line in his second season.