Predicting NFL's Biggest 2021 Breakouts

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2021

Predicting NFL's Biggest 2021 Breakouts

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Everyone knows that accurately predicting production for NFL players in their rookie years is more of an art than a science. So many factors that stretch well beyond a player's actual talent or college production can influence how he performs in the league.

    When we think about which rookies may have the biggest breakout seasons in 2021, it might seem like it would be easy enough to go down the list of skill-position players drafted and, assuming they are expected to play in 2021, check them off. 

    But racking up stats requires so much more than demonstrable skill. We've seen sixth- and seventh-round and even undrafted players emerge as some of the biggest weapons on their respective teams (think: Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan in 2020) just because they found themselves in a good situation. 

    The players who follow have an opportunity to break out largely because they are in environments—whether it be sparse depth at their position, a recently departed player, a new system that complements their talents well or, in two instances, a quarterback they played with in college—that suit such production. Let's break them down and, with the caveat that predicting stats before training camp is even less of a science than coming up with a shortlist of these players, float some potential stat lines.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons

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    Some of the players on this list are primed for breakout seasons because they play on a team with a wide-open depth chart or figure to fit perfectly into an established system. 

    And then some of these rookies just have to light it up in 2021 based on their sheer talent alone, and that is definitely the case for Kyle Pitts. Considered a generational tight end talent, Pitts makes any team instantly better, and there are very few places he could have landed this year where he wouldn't make his presence known from day one. 

    Atlanta, then, is an interesting franchise for Pitts. The Falcons are not hurting for pass-catchers. Just this week, Atlanta picked up the option on Calvin Ridley's contract. But it's still possible that WR1 Julio Jones gets traded this summer, according to NBC Sports' Peter King. Such a move would likely happen after June 2 to spread his dead-cap money over two years. 

    Regardless of who else is looking for the ball on any given play, however, it seems certain Arthur Smith will find a way to get the ball into Pitts' hands. After all, the former Florida Gator had the most yards per catch (17.9) of all college tight ends ever with 40-plus receptions, per Rich Hribar of Sharp Football Analysis (h/t CBS Sports). His touchdown rate of 27.9 percent was the second-best ever. He finished his college career with 100 receptions for 1,492 yards (14.9 average) and 18 touchdowns in just 24 games.

    Whether you're a Falcons fan, a fantasy football manager or just like watching fun players, expect Pitts to make waves in 2021. 

    Stat projection: 56 rec, 724 yds, 9 TDs

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

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    When it comes to the Denver Broncos' backfield, Javonte Williams has come into a fantastic situation.

    This offseason, the team moved on from running back Phillip Lindsay, who himself had a breakout season his first year in the league, racking up more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games. One could assume Lindsay, currently on the Houston Texans, didn't seem too pleased by the Broncos' selection at No. 35 overall—a spot they traded up five spots to be in—but for his part, Williams has to feel good about his potential role on the team heading into training camp. 

    True, he will likely have to share the workload with veteran Melvin Gordon, who had just under 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns last season. But there's no such thing as too many good running backs on a roster, and if Williams flashes in training camp, the Broncos will find opportunities to get him on the field. 

    Williams had 1,168 yards and a whopping 19 touchdowns for the Tar Heels last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams led the nation with his 75 broken tackles. That's not a player who's going to languish on the bench in the NFL.

    Stat projection: 198 att, 812 yds, 6 TDs

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    One of the surest ways for a rookie wide receiver to turn heads and pad the stat sheet is to dominate downfield, and Ja'Marr Chase may turn out to be the league's best rookie deep threat when the season's over. 

    According to Pro Football Focus grading, in 2019 with the LSU Tigers, Chase was "the best vertical receiver in the nation," racking up 24 receptions, 860 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns solely on deep targets. 

    Moreover, in 2019, fellow Tiger Joe Burrow was PFF's "highest-graded deep-ball passer."

    "No player saw a higher percentage of catchable deep targets than Chase (68%)," wrote PFF's Andrew Erickson. 

    With the two reunited on the Cincinnati Bengals, expect them to be lighting it up. The team's revamped offensive line will also help present opportunities for splashy plays. There's no A.J. Green to pilfer Chase's potential targets, and while Tee Higgins was the team's clear No. 1 wideout in 2020, expect Chase to earn his fair share of snaps at worst and challenge for the No. 1 spot at best. 

    Stat projection: 54 rec, 712 yds, 7 TDs

DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    In DeVonta Smith, the Eagles gain a receiver who can line up all over the field and, therefore, will have many opportunities for highlight-worthy plays. 

    At Alabama, Smith had more than 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns solely in his senior year, numbers which helped him earn Heisman Trophy honors. Per Pro Football Focus, "Smith led all of college football last season in yards after the catch and screen yards." 

    Yards-after-catch ability has proven to be one of, if not the, biggest difference-makers for wide receivers, and the ones who can do it successfully certainly possess the greatest ability to blow a game wide open. 

    Smith also arrives in Philadelphia at a time when the Eagles' once-crowded wide receivers room had become a bit barren. There's no reason to think tight end Dallas Goedert and wideout Jalen Reagor will create any significant problems for Smith getting targets from Jalen Hurts.

    Stat projection: 43 rec, 760 yds, 5 TDs

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Miami Dolphins

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    The 2021 draft class was one of the deepest in recent memory for wide receiver talent, and yet another wideout lands on this list as a player to watch this season. 

    Jaylen Waddle was the top-ranked receiver in this class on many draft boards heading into April's draft, and he ended up going sixth overall and second at the position, after Ja'Marr Chase but ahead of DeVonta Smith.

    As with Joe Burrow and Smith, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is reunited with his former Crimson Tide pass-catcher in Waddle. 

    After moving Lynn Bowden Jr. from running back to wide receiver and sticking him in the slot last season, it's fair to say Waddle gives the Dolphins an immediate upgrade near the formation. 

    And don't forget about Waddle's potential on special teams; in his sophomore season in 2019, he returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown against LSU and a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against Auburn.

    According to The Athletic's Josh Tolentino, the Dolphins would have taken Waddle even if Kyle Pitts and Ja'Marr Chase were still on the board. That may be somewhat difficult to believe, but whether it's the truth or the team is ensuring Waddle feels valued from day one, Miami is clearly all-in on Waddle and his stat sheet should reflect that in 2021.

    Stat projection: 51 rec, 689 yds, 6 TDs

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    If the Pittsburgh Steelers did anything this offseason, they had to address their inadequate rushing offense from 2020, when they were ranked 32nd in the league. 

    The Steelers didn't waste any time, tapping Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick in the draft and broadcasting to the rest of the league that the Steelers don't plan to be in the basement when it comes to their run game again this season. 

    During Harris' final season at Alabama, he led the nation in 26 rushing touchdowns and a yards-per-attempt average of 5.8. Pittsburgh would be thrilled to have even half as many scores from the rookie. 

    A three-down back who can kill you with his feet and line up wide, Harris is confident in his ability to do it all for the Steelers. And he said as much in his introductory press conference

    When complimenting the way the Steelers used Le'Veon Bell on all three downs, Harris said, "I feel like I can do all of that stuff, if not better. I'm excited to learn more."

    So too, surely, are the Steelers. 

    Stat projection: 189 att, 799 yds, 7 TDs

Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    The New York Jets selected wide receiver Elijah Moore at No. 34, and then they were able to add another offensive boost with Michael Carter at No. 107. 

    Now, Carter's inclusion on this list and Moore's absence from it does not in the least suggest that Moore isn't also primed for a very good first season in New York.

    But Carter's explosive play ability and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield make him a high-upside first-year player, especially in fantasy. 

    Carter finished his Tar Heels career with 3,404 rushing yards (6.6 average) and 22 rushing touchdowns, with another 82 receptions, 656 receiving yards and six scores through the air. 

    As with Najee Harris and Javonte Williams, Carter comes into a fantastic situation with the Jets. It's highly likely he is able to end the season with more snaps than any of Ty Johnson, Tevin Coleman or La'Mical Perine.

    Stat projection: 181 att, 694 yds, 6 TDs

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Yet another player on this list who has the chance to make an impact immediately, Amon-Ra St. Brown is in a great situation within the Detroit Lions wide receivers room. 

    The Lions will be implementing a new offense with offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn and quarterback Jared Goff. We all saw Goff's struggles in his final season in Los Angeles, but the one area where Goff always produced was when targeting the slot.

    Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods became fantasy mainstays playing with Goff, and it's a safe assumption that St. Brown will also become a go-to target for the signal-caller, especially as he looks for safety-valve plays in his new system. 

    Pro Football Focus' Kevin Cole wrote that the Lions were the team in the league that was the best landing spot for a rookie wide receiver. This is a situation where the environment St. Brown finds himself in is just as important as his talent level in terms of predicting his future production. 

    At USC, St. Brown totaled 2,270 receiving yards (12.8 average) on 178 receptions and added 16 touchdowns. For fantasy, he'll be a great depth option in PPR leagues, and could prove to be one of the Lions' most productive pass-catchers in 2021. 

    Stat projection: 47 rec, 697 yds, 6 TDs