The NFL's Best Breakout Candidates at Every Position in 2021
NFL breakouts could be bigger than usual in 2021.
Last season, players experienced an unorthodox summer, altered training camps, no preseason and no fans. With things presumably getting back to normal or close to it this year—and the usual items that lead to breakouts, including player development, more playing time, improved surroundings and new coaches—there is huge potential for breakouts.
A year ago, one of the most notable breakout stars was Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who morphed into an MVP contender. It wasn't too hard to see him coming, not since he was entering his third season and his team had worked hard to get him weapons such as Stefon Diggs.
The top breakout candidates at each position have a mixture of the factors above and haven't performed close to their projected ceilings.
QB: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Yes, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick can still break out.
The Cincinnati Bengals failed Joe Burrow last year, placing him behind a laughably bad offensive line. That unit let him get sacked 32 times with countless other hits before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in his 10th appearance.
Even so, Burrow completed 65.3 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns against five interceptions and showed playmaking ability in and out of the pocket. He was perhaps the most statically impressive quarterback ever over his first three starts and ended up as one of the league's deadliest intermediate passers, all while wasting 104 targets on A.J. Green, who caught just 47 with two scores.
If he's healthy, Burrow should only continue to climb his huge developmental track. Cincinnati hired offensive line coach and running game coordinator Frank Pollack in January to replace Jim Turner, cut right tackle Bobby Hart and replaced him with free agent Riley Reiff and boasts the No. 5 pick, which could dramatically improve Burrow's surroundings by becoming a weapon such as LSU wideout Ja'Marr Chase or a lineman such as Oregon tackle Penei Sewell.
Given more time in the pocket and better talent, Burrow has a chance to realize the potential that made him the No. 1 pick.
Honorable mentions: Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Drew Lock
RB: D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
D'Andre Swift was a no-brainer to become a standout rookie last year after the Detroit Lions made him a second-round pick.
Detroit, after all, had long needed an effective runner to pair with quarterback Matthew Stafford. But the Lions won just five games, the coaching staff got canned, and Stafford was traded come the offseason.
Amid the turmoil, Swift appeared in 13 games but got just 114 attempts, yet he still turned in 521 yards and eight touchdowns, good for 4.6 yards per carry. He scored six times on just nine attempts inside the 5-yard line.
A 35-year-old Adrian Peterson led the Lions in rushes last year with 156, and the majority of those should go to Swift. Feel free to tack on his 57 targets in the passing game last year in an offense that should be more run-based around Jared Goff—equating to ginormous breakout potential.
Honorable mentions: J.K. Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor
WR: Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs
Mecole Hardman has the best mixture of talent and situation of any breakout wideout candidate.
A wicked fast second-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019, Hardman put up 560 yards and four scores last year. Over his first two seasons, he averaged 16.4 yards per catch.
Hardman's league-best passer in Patrick Mahomes isn't going anywhere, but 55 targets that went to Sammy Watkins last year will. Even better, the Chiefs didn't land any notable free-agent targets such as JuJu Smith-Schuster or Corey Davis.
With defenses throwing the majority of their resources at Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, Hardman should be free to run wild, hitting what could be the apex of his developmental curve in his third season while playing in Andy Reid's offense.
Honorable mentions: CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy
TE: Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints
The Adam Trautman breakout should be massive.
Trautman, a 6'5", 253-pounder drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round last year, played just 37 percent of snaps but registered the highest run-blocking grade by a tight end at Pro Football Focus. He recorded 15 catches, 171 yards and a touchdown on 16 targets.
Trautman is the top tight end on the roster after the team cut ties with Jared Cook, who had 60 targets last year, the third-highest mark on the team. The owner of the second spot, wideout Emmanuel Sanders, had 82 targets and left in free agency.
With the team swapping Jameis Winston behind center for the retired Drew Brees, the tight ends could get more targets next season. That puts Trautman in position to become a top-10 player at his position.
Honorable mentions: Cole Kmet, Noah Fant
OL: Mekhi Becton, New York Jets
Mekhi Becton was all over the place after the New York Jets made him the 11th pick in last year's draft.
But that was somewhat expected considering Becton joined a franchise that has won more than five games just once over the last five seasons—and won two in December to cost itself the No. 1 pick this year.
With more playing time, a better coaching staff and a normal offseason, never mind his natural developmental arc, one can safely project Becton to clean up some of the issues that hampered his rookie season while retaining the strengths—which would put him in elite company.
Honorable mentions: Jonah Williams, Andre Dillard
DL: Maxx Crosby, Las Vegas Raiders
One could argue Maxx Crosby of the Las Vegas Raiders has already broken out.
That's at least somewhat true, as Crosby was a 2019 fourth-round pick who erupted with 10 sacks as a rookie and added seven more last season.
But he might be capable of so much more.
Not only is Crosby hitting that critical third year of development, but also additions around him such as Yannick Ngakoue and Solomon Thomas will mean less attention from offenses, likely leading to greater heights.
Honorable mentions: Jerry Tillery, Raekwon Davis
LB: Jordyn Brooks, Seattle Seahawks
Is Jordyn Brooks the guy who finally breaks the mold for the Seattle Seahawks?
Those Seahawks haven't gotten much out of first-round picks in recent years (e.g., running back Rashaad Penny).
But Brooks, the 27th pick in 2020, showed flashes while playing 32 percent of snaps. He has elite athleticism and posted 57 tackles with a pair of tackles for loss and two passes defensed.
With Shaquill Griffin and Jarran Reed having departed, it's time for the next generation of Seahawks defenders to make their names. Brooks won't lack for playing time after he a normal run-up to the season.
Honorable mentions: Isaiah Simmons, Logan Wilson
CB: L'Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs
L'Jarius Sneed wasn't exactly a household name last season, getting lost in the shadows of bigger names on the Chiefs.
But it's only a matter of time.
A fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech last year, Sneed got in on 38 percent of snaps and was an unexpected bright spot, allowing a 59.6 completion percentage on 52 targets and picking off three passes. That was good for a 72.9 PFF grade, which feels like just the beginning.
An early-season collarbone injury limited Sneed to just nine games, so he's going to get a dramatic upswing in playing time. With what he's shown so far, the expectations for Year 2 should be huge.
Honorable mentions: Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette
S: Jeremy Chinn, Carolina Panthers
Jeremy Chinn is one of the most interesting defensive chess pieces in the NFL.
The 2020 second-round pick played 91 percent of snaps, spending time in a front-seven role at linebacker and also playing his natural spot of safety. The result was 117 tackles, five passes defensed, one interception and two forced fumbles—plus two fumble returns for touchdowns.
Last month, the Panthers cut starting safety Tre Boston, which should mean Chinn will play his usual position. His 6'3", 220-pound size and length indicate a defender who plays among the front seven in certain run scenarios, but his knacks for being around the football and making plays describe a safety. He's listed at linebacker, but he might fit better as a safety who comes up and plays in the box often.
Given similar playing time and a comfortable role, Chinn shouldn't need long to make himself a household name.
Honorable mentions: Xavier McKinney, Grant Delpit