Predicting Every NFL Team's Breakout Player for 2021

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 21, 2021

Predicting Every NFL Team's Breakout Player for 2021

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Breakouts are an annual occurrence in the National Football League.

    Sometimes, it's a young player exploding into superstardom, ala Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen in 2020. Or a rookie that takes the league by storm, as Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson and Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert did last year.

    However, not all breakouts are the same. A running back or receiver recording his first 1,000-yard season can be considered a breakout. So can a linebacker tallying over 100 tackles for the first time. Or an edge-rusher leading his team in sacks. Or even an offensive lineman who finally lives up to his draft slot.

    Here is one player on each team who is poised to break out in 2021. Some are highly drafted rookies for whom stardom is expected. Others have been around for a while and are entering make-or-break campaigns. And others still are being counted on to step into an expanded role that should result in the best season of their career.

    All breakouts may not be created equal. But one thing is for sure…

    Everyone is glad to see them happen.

Arizona Cardinals: LB Isaiah Simmons

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    In 2020, the Arizona Cardinals made Clemson's Isaiah Simmons the first off-ball linebacker selected in that year's draft. It was with good reason—the season before, Simmons piled up 104 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks for the Tigers.

    However, Simmons' first year in the pros was underwhelming. He played just 34 percent of the Cardinals' defensive snaps, started only seven games and finished with a relatively modest 54 total tackles.

    Still, it's not that unusual for even highly touted linebackers to take a little while to acclimate to the NFL. Headed into year two, Simmons will be a full-time starter next to rookie Zaven Collins as part of an inside linebacker duo that Redbirds head coach Kliff Kingsbury said oozes potential.

    "We know there will be growing pains, two guys getting indoctrinated to the league," Kingsbury told reporters. "But they are athletic enough to make up for some of the experience they don't have, and we're excited to grow with them and see what they can become together."

    We're inclined to agree that Simmons' coming-out party should be fun to watch.

Atlanta Falcons: TE Kyle Pitts

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Given the hype surrounding tight end Kyle Pitts, one would think he had already broken out—which would be quite the feat (even for him) given that he just got to the NFL.

    When the Atlanta Falcons made Pitts the fourth pick in this year's draft, they made history. No tight end has ever been drafted that early. And as Jake Gordon of Sports Talk ATL wrote, Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot told NFL Radio that it wasn't a difficult decision.

    "No way we weren't drafting Kyle Pitts," Fontenot said.

    The term "athletic marvel" gets beaten to death every year when discussing prospects, but with Pitts it really does fit. At 6'6" and 245 pounds, he is too big for cornerbacks to cover. Linebackers and safeties have little chance of keeping up with his 4.44 speed. And in a Falcons passing attack that includes wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, defenses won't be able to focus their attention on the youngster without getting roasted outside.

    Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the most receiving yards a rookie tight end has ever compiled is 894 by Jeremy Shockey in 2002.

    Shockey won't hold that record much longer.

Baltimore Ravens: RB J.K. Dobbins

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    With Mark Ingram II now playing in Houston, the title of lead running back for the Baltimore Ravens has fallen to second-year pro J.K. Dobbins. And that's fine with the former Ohio State standout.

    "The team is looking at me. The coaches are looking at me. I love that. Put it on me and let's go," Dobbins told The Lounge (h/t Ryan Mink of the team's official site). "That's how I see this offseason, and that's how I'm attacking it. My teammates and coaches are putting trust in me, so I can't let them down."

    He was hardly invisible as a rookie—he averaged six yards per carry, topped 900 total yards and scored nine rushing touchdowns on just 134 carries. Per Kevin Oestreicher of Ravens Wire, Dobbins ranked first among running backs in yards per carry, first in true yards per carry (5.4), first in breakaway run rate (8.2 percent), third in yards created per touch (2.18) and fifth in juke rate (30.9 percent).

    The only thing standing between Dobbins and stardom is opportunity.

Buffalo Bills: Edge A.J. Epenesa

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills spent significant draft capital on the defensive line in 2021, using their first two picks on edge-rushers in Miami's Gregory Rousseau and Wake Forest's Boogie Basham.

    It's the second straight year Buffalo has gone that route with its initial selection—after dealing their first-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings in 2020, the Bills used their second-rounder on Iowa edge-rusher A.J. Epenesa following a 2019 season in which he piled up 11.5 sacks for the Hawkeyes.

    Epenesa's first year with the Bills was uneventful. The 6'6", 260-pounder played 27 percent of Buffalo's defensive snaps, amassing 14 total tackles and a single sack.

    But it's hardly unprecedented for young edge-rushers to need a season to adjust. And Epenesa's first year was unprecedented in its weirdness—thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was thrown to the proverbial wolves without any real training camp.

    Now, Epenesa has a year of experience, whereas Rousseau is a 21-year-old who didn't play at all last year after opting out of his final college season.

    Epenesa will be counted on to play a much larger role in 2021, and it won't be much of an upset if he leads the Bills in sacks.

Carolina Panthers: DT Derrick Brown

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    Brian Westerholt/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers invested their first pick in the 2020 draft along the defensive front, selecting Auburn tackle Derrick Brown seventh.

    From a statistical standpoint, his first season was unimpressive—he tallied 34 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a pair of sacks in 742 snaps. But those stats only tell part of the story, and even then, Brown's eight TFL belie how often he was blowing into opposing backfields.

    It's more a rule than an exception for young defensive linemen to take a while to get their sea legs in the pros. That the 2020 offseason was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic made things all the more difficult.

    But Brown's talent isn't in question. Leading into the 2020 draft, Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network called Brown "one of the most complete interior defensive line prospects to pass through the draft process in recent memory." Colleague Benjamin Solak compared the 6'5", 320-pounder to Ndamukong Suh.

    With a full offseason under his belt, Brown should see his production to meet his potential in 2021.

Chicago Bears: QB Justin Fields

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    While speaking to reporters from rookie minicamp, Bears head coach Matt Nagy insisted that despite trading up to the 11th pick to select Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, veteran free-agent acquisition Andy Dalton will be the starter in Chicago.

    "Andy is the starter," Nagy said. "Andy's going to get the one reps."

    If this article came with a B.S. meter, it would be redlining.

    Betting on Dalton to hold that starting status in September wouldn't be wise. Fields is a wildly athletic, accurate quarterback who completed over 68 percent of his passes at Ohio State and had seven times as many touchdown passes as interceptions.

    This isn't to say there isn't room for improvement in Fields' game, or that there won't be growing pains. But he offers the Chicago offense a new dimension and a ceiling that is exponentially higher than what Dalton offers at this point in his career—or possibly ever could.

    The sooner Fields takes over as the starting quarterback in the Windy City, the better the Bears' chances of making a third trip to the playoffs in the past four years.

Cincinnati Bengals: Ja'Marr Chase

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    When the Cincinnati Bengals passed on drafting the top offensive line prospect in the class of 2021 in lieu of selecting a wide receiver, the decision was criticized in some circles.

    However, as Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski wrote, that criticism had nothing to do with the player the Bengals did pick.

    "Ja'Marr Chase is an exceptional talent," Sobleski said. "He was clearly WR1 heading into the 2021 NFL draft."

    When last we saw the 6'1", 200-pound Chase, he was helping to propel new (old) teammate Joe Burrow to possibly the best single season by a quarterback in college football history. In 2019, he reeled in 84 passes for then-SEC records of 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns.

    We just saw Chase's former college teammate Justin Jefferson break the rookie record for receiving yards. You would be hard-pressed to find a pundit or scout who doesn't believe Chase is a better talent entering the pros. He's not just this year's No. 1 receiver. Some believe he's the best wideout prospect in a decade.

    If the Bengals can keep Burrow off his backside, he and Chase should stage quite the reunion.

Cleveland Browns: LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns spent most of the 2021 offseason trying to overhaul their mediocre defense. On paper at least, that remodeling job appears successful.

    And it's one of the most recent moves that could be the most impactful.

    For most of the predraft process, Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was widely considered a first-round prospect. Lance Zierlein of wrote that "his athletic traits, versatility and playmaking demeanor give him a chance to become the most impactful defender in this draft." But thanks to concerns about a possible heart condition, the 6'1", 221-pounder fell to the back half of Round 2 before the Browns traded up for him.

    However, Cleveland's doctors cleared Owusu-Koramoah, who insisted that his health is not an issue. What could be an issue for opponents in 2021 is the range, coverage skills and positional versatility that appear to be a perfect fit for what Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods does.

    It's not difficult to imagine Owusu-Koramoah leading the team in stops as a rookie.

    There's a reason USA Today named him one of the biggest steals of the second day of the draft.

Dallas Cowboys: LB Micah Parsons

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys are loaded on offense. But if the team is going to make any noise in the NFC East, then its porous defense will have to evolve.

    That's why Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons was brought to town.

    As ESPN's Todd Archer reported, Parsons is looking forward to moving around the formation and wreaking havoc:

    "There are third-down packages I am going to be in. On first and second down, I am going to be in the box. On third down, they are going to find a way to get me to the quarterback, which I am excited about. I think [Dan Quinn] is a great coordinator. One of the best ones. He gets his best players on the field and [in] position to make plays and I have full faith in him."

    Parsons opted out of the 2020 season, but two years ago he was a force, piling up 109 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss and five sacks.

    Dallas didn't use the 12th overall pick on Parsons so he could be eased in slowly, and if he earns an every-down role from the get-go, the 6'3", 245-pounder has a good chance of leading the Cowboys in tackles and being in the thick of the Defensive Rookie of the Year race.

Denver Broncos: WR Jerry Jeudy

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Jerry Jeudy's first season was an up-and-down affair. From Week 12 to Week 16, he managed just 10 receptions for 127 yards. But there were also flashes of his game-breaking ability—in Week 17, Jeudy caught five passes for 140 yards and a score, and he ranked fifth in air yards and second in air yards per target in 2020, according to NBC Sports Edge.

    All told, the Alabama product finished his first professional season with 52 catches for 856 yards and three scores—not bad, but certainly not on Jefferson's level.

    Still, Jeudy's second season sets up well for improved production and his first 1,000-yard campaign. Teddy Bridgewater isn't an elite quarterback, but he did help produce a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (DJ Moore and Robby Anderson) last year with the Panthers.

    With Jeudy's first season in the books (and an actual in-person offseason in 2021), his route running and understanding of the offense should improve. The return of a healthy Courtland Sutton from a torn ACL should help draw defensive attention away from Jeudy.

    It's time for the 15th pick in 2020 to show what he can do.

Detroit Lions: OT Penei Sewell

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    When Dan Campbell was introduced as head coach of the Detroit Lions in January, he made a rather, um, interesting comment regarding the team's toughness.

    "This team is going to be built on," Campbell told reporters, "we're going to kick you in the teeth, right? And when you punch us back, we're going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we're going to get up, and on the way up, we're going to bite a kneecap off. All right?"

    Kneecap-biting aside, it's clear that Campbell wants to build a team that's dominant in the trenches. Selecting Oregon tackle Penei Sewell seventh overall in the 2021 draft was a big step in that regard.

    A 6'6", 325-pounder with 33-inch arms, Sewell was widely regarded as the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2021 class. Zierlein went so far as to compare Sewell to perennial Pro Bowler Trent Williams of the San Francisco 49ers, calling him a "rare-breed tackle with good size and the elite foot quickness to make the most challenging move blocks the game has to offer."

    In Sewell and Taylor Decker, the Lions have one of the league's better one-two punches at tackle.

    He's exactly the kind of player Campbell is looking for—although he may not be a biter.

Green Bay Packers: LB Krys Barnes

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    This column is loaded with early draft picks. Guys who are essentially expected to become breakout sensations relatively quickly.

    Green Bay Packers linebacker Krys Barnes is not one of those players. As a matter of fact, the second-year pro out of UCLA wasn't drafted at all.

    Barnes may not have attracted much attention before the 2020 draft. But the 6'2", 229-pounder made an impression on the Green Bay coaching staff. By Week 6 of his rookie year, he was playing full time at inside linebacker. At season's end, only Christian Kirksey played more snaps than Barnes inside, and his 80 total tackles trailed only veteran safety Adrian Amos on the team.

    Kirksey departed for Houston in free agency, leaving Barnes as the top inside linebacker on the defense of a Super Bowl contender. He doesn't have nearly the notoriety of cornerback Jaire Alexander, edge-rusher Za'Darius Smith or even Amos, but Barnes has an inside track to leading Green Bay in tackles in 2021.

Houston Texans: OT Tytus Howard

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    No team could use a breakout player more than the Houston Texans.

    As a matter of fact, after an awful 2020 season and with quarterback Deshaun Watson's future with the team uncertain at best, there isn't a franchise that could more use whatever shred of good news it can get.

    Given Houston's struggles along the offensive line in recent years, a young tackle starting to realize his first-round potential would absolutely qualify.

    To be fair, tackle Tytus Howard has at least been OK, allowing two sacks in each of his first two seasons, per Pro Football Focus. But Watson's mobility played a part there, and Howard has struggled to stay on the field, missing 10 games and ending both campaigns on injured reserve.

    The Texans likely knew there would be a learning curve when they drafted Howard 23rd in 2019—there's a bit of a jump between Alabama State and the National Football League.

    In year three, it's time for Howard to combine improved technique with the athleticism that got him drafted.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Parris Campbell

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Since being drafted in the second round in 2019, Parris Campbell has been a disappointment. The former Ohio State standout missed over half of his rookie season because of several injuries and made it just two games into the 2021 campaign before suffering a season-ending knee setback. All told, Campbell has just 24 career receptions for fewer than 200 yards.

    However, as Joel Erickson of the Indy Star reported, Campbell said his knee is 100 percent—and he's eager to finally show what he's capable of in the NFL.

    "It's definitely been frustrating," Campbell said, "but I'm also excited about what's ahead."

    There's a reason Campbell was drafted in the second round. In Columbus the 6'0", 208-pounder with 4.31 speed was a threat to take it to the house every time he touched the ball. He hauled in 90 catches for over 1,000 yards and 12 scores as a senior and drew predraft comparisons to Percy Harvin from Zierlein.

    Playing with veteran T.Y. Hilton and youngster Michael Pittman Jr. in a sneaky-good Colts receiving corps, a healthy Campbell should see quite a bit of single coverage.

    If that's the case, the chunk plays will come.

Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Trevor Lawrence

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    Like it was going to be someone else.

    Trevor Lawrence isn't just an elite QB prospect. Or the first pick in the 2021 draft. He's the quarterback prospect. The most hyped youngster at the position since Andrew Luck went first to the Colts in 2012. He's the franchise savior who will turn the Jags from a punching bag into a powerhouse.

    No pressure.

    As Bryan DeArdo wrote for CBS Sports, while making an appearance on All Things Covered, Jaguars great Fred Taylor went one step farther than Luck while describing Lawrence's potential.

    "Peyton [Manning] lived up to everything they thought he was going to be," Taylor said, "and that's what we all hope as Jaguar fans. We hope to get the same thing out of Trevor [Lawrence]."

    Jacksonville isn't hurting for passing weapons (DJ Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr., Marvin Jones Jr.), and Travis Etienne and James Robinson combine for a potent one-two backfield punch. If Jacksonville's offensive line holds up fairly well, Lawrence could challenge Justin Herbert's rookie record for passing scores and Luck's record for passing yards by a first-year pro.

    It's also worth mentioning that in Manning's first season he set a record too—for most interceptions thrown by a rookie.

Kansas City Chiefs: CB L'Jarius Sneed

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs are known mostly for an offense led by Patrick Mahomes that racks up points and yardage with relative ease. But a big part of Kansas City's two straight AFC championships (and one Super Bowl win) is a defense that is much better than it's given credit for.

    Among Chiefs defensive backs , Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu is easily the biggest name. But as Sam Monson reported for Pro Football Focus, second-year cornerback L'Jarius Sneed played a big part in the team's success in 2020: "A fourth-round pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, Sneed was a real find for the Chiefs and a big reason why they were able to make it back to the Super Bowl. In a season in which rookie cornerbacks were regularly torched, Sneed allowed a passer rating of just 66.6 when targeted, including the playoffs.”

    In 410 snaps as a rookie last year, Sneed allowed 59.6 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed for 250 yards while surrendering just a single touchdown pass.

    If he can maintain that sort of pre-snap effectiveness in an increased role in 2021, Sneed could easily earn his first career Pro Bowl spot.

Las Vegas Raiders: WR Henry Ruggs III

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Heading into the 2020 draft, Henry Ruggs III of Alabama was considered one of the best wideout prospects in his class—a 6'0", 190-pounder whose blazing speed drew comparisons to Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs.

     Joe Marino of the Draft Network wrote:

    "Ruggs brings rare speed to the table. The cliche phrases about being a threat to score on every touch are absolutely applicable. One wrong angle or missed step by the defense can result in six points because his ability to accelerate is from another planet. And Ruggs isn't just a burner, he's a fairly polished wide receiver that competes as a blocker."

    All that talent didn't equate to production, though. After being drafted 12th by the Las Vegas Raiders, Ruggs caught just 26 passes, barely cleared 450 yards and scored just two touchdowns. There wasn't a game when he caught more than three passes or was targeted more than five times.

    With Nelson Agholor's move to New England, that has to change in 2021. Ruggs' breakout season is one born of necessity.

    If his numbers don't go way up this year, the Vegas passing game will be in real trouble.

Los Angeles Chargers: OT Rashawn Slater

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    Aside from Lawrence, there may not have been a more obvious pick in the entire first round of the 2021 draft than No. 13 overall.

    The Los Angeles Chargers hit on a quarterback of the future last year when they drafted Herbert. But while he went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, he also took a beating while playing behind one of the NFL's worst lines.

    Improving that line was easily the Chargers' biggest offseason need, and when Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater fell to the 13th pick, Christmas came early in L.A.

    Per Chris Hayre of the team's website, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah actually had Slater ranked as this year's top tackle prospect—ahead of Oregon's Penei Sewell:

    "You go back and watch him at Northwestern against Chase Young in 2019, and he more than held his own. His ability to recover and rework his hands in that game was really good. He can bend. He's one of the better guys. And even comparing him to the group last year, if you look at just the ability to climb up to the second level in the run game and what he can do with his athleticism, I'd say he does that better than even the tackles in last year's draft. But he would be my top one this year."

    With 37 career starts at Northwestern, Slater was the most NFL-ready tackle in the class. He should be a day-one starter—and an impact player from the get-go.

Los Angeles Rams: RB Cam Akers

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    Scott Eklund/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers already broke out—sort of.

    He was the offensive MVP of the Rams' upset of the rival Seahawks in the Wild Card Round last year, piling up 176 total yards and a touchdown. In the divisional-round loss to the Green Bay Packers, Akers came up just short of 100 total yards with another score.

    Akers' regular-season numbers weren't all that impressive (625 rushing yards and 4.3 yards per carry), but after that postseason explosion, Rams head coach Sean McVay said he's confident Akers can be an every-down back, per Eric Williams of Rams Digest:

    "Cam hit his stride at the right moments. You could see he's always had a real and authentic confidence, but then as he's getting more and more comfortable for the different ways that we were able to utilize him. I think he can come alive in the pass game. I think he can continue to play at a high level. Really, I think he's an every-down back. I think he's a special player."

    With Malcolm Brown (and his 124 touches in 2020) now in Miami, Akers appears set for a big bump in workload—and a continuation of last year's late success.

Miami Dolphins: QB Tua Tagovailoa

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    It's Tua time in Miami.

    While appearing on The Joe Rose Show with Zach Krantz on 560 The Joe in Miami (h/t Kevin Nogle of SBNation), Dolphins head coach Brian Flores said that while OTAs are only just starting, second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has already been hard at work.

    "I think having a year under his belt will really help him," Flores said. "But, what we will really like is just him finding time to get with his receivers, get with the center, go through his cadence, go through his communication, go through his reads. They are doing a lot of that on their own."

    Tagovailoa was decent under center as a rookie, winning six of nine starts while completing 64.1 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. But there remains room for improvement, both by the southpaw signal-caller and the team around him.

    The Dolphins have been busy in that second regard—they added wide receiver Will Fuller V in free agency and used their first of two first-round picks on Tagovailoa's old teammate, Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle.

    The offensive line in Miami remains a question mark, but Tagovailoa's supporting cast is substantially better.

    The table is set for a big second-year jump.

Minnesota Vikings: TE Irv Smith Jr.

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Over two years in Minnesota, tight end Irv Smith Jr. hasn't lit up the stat sheet. The 22-year-old has yet to catch 40 passes or top 400 yards in a season.

    There's ample reason to believe that could change this year.

    Smith may not have a ton of catches, but he has taken advantage of the targets he's received. He has hauled in over 73 percent of his targets, and per Noah Cierzan of Zone Coverage the second-round pick out of Alabama has recorded a rating of 134.4 on passes he was targeted on. The 6'2", 235-pounder has dropped all of two passes in two years.

    He also won't turn 23 until August, so he's only scratching the surface. With Kyle Rudolph no longer in the Twin Cities, Smith is the unquestioned No. 1 tight end for the Vikes. And with Adam Thielen and phenom Justin Jefferson drawing coverage away from Smith, getting open shouldn't be a problem.

    He might post better numbers in 2021 than he did in his first two years combined.

New England Patriots: RB Damien Harris

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    It's somewhat difficult to pinpoint a breakout player for the New England Patriots. There aren't a lot of young guys in line for major roles, and the rookie who stands out, quarterback Mac Jones, may not get his chance until later in the season or even 2022.

    However, there is one third-year pro who appears headed for a much larger role and has the talent to take advantage of the extra work.

    Running back Damien Harris barely played as a rookie, carrying the ball all of four times over two games. But after opening the 2020 season on injured reserve with a broken finger, Harris finally got a chance to show what he could do.

    In his first game of the season, he tallied 100 rushing yards on 17 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs. Harris would go on to surpass the century mark twice more, finishing the season with 691 rushing yards while averaging five yards per carry.

    He finished the season tied with Cam Newton for the team lead in carries, and if he can match last year's average of 69.1 yards per game in 2021, he'll rack up 1,175 yards on the ground.

New Orleans Saints: TE Adam Trautman

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    When the New Orleans Saints drafted tight end Adam Trautman in the third round in 2020, it was the first time a player from the University of Dayton had been selected in over four decades.

    Given the massive leap in competition, it's no surprise that Trautman's rookie season was quiet. But as David Jablonski wrote for the Dayton Daily News, Saints head coach Sean Payton said in November he liked what he'd seen from the 6'5", 253-pounder:

    "The more and more snaps he gets, I think the more and more we'll see the development. Sometimes the challenge is just getting them the number of snaps you want to. We have got to keep finding ways for him in the passing game. He's someone that has a real good feel in that area. And I think he's learning the leverage elements of blocking different than in college and certainly with the athletes he's blocking."

    Trautman was wildly productive in college, tallying 178 catches, 2,295 yards and 31 touchdowns over his career. He's not likely to join the ranks of Travis Kelce and Darren Waller among tight ends who top 1,000 receiving yards in 2021, but with Jared Cook gone, Trautman sits atop the TE depth chart in New Orleans and should demolish his stat line of 15 catches, 171 yards and one touchdown from a year ago.

New York Giants: QB Daniel Jones

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    After topping 3,000 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a rookie, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones was a trendy breakout pick a year ago.

    Yeah, about that.

    The thing is, quite a bit of the blame for a lackluster (to be kind) second season from the sixth pick in 2019 lies with factors outside Jones' control. Per Pro Football Focus, New York's offensive line was the NFC's worst last season, and the rookie tasked with protecting his blind side, Andrew Thomas, surrendered a whopping 10 sacks.

    However, there are reasons for optimism in 2021. The return of running back Saquon Barkley from an ACL tear should help keep opposing defenses honest. The addition of veteran wideout Kenny Golladay and rookie Kadarius Toney give Jones an impressive array of passing-game weaponry.

    Veteran tackle Nate Solder is back after opting out in 2020. And to Thomas' credit, outside a terrible game against the Cardinals in Week 14, his second half was better than his first.

    The supporting cast around Jones is much better this year.

    Now it's on "Danny Dimes" to step up.

New York Jets: QB Zach Wilson

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    The New York Jets have been searching for a quarterback seemingly for the entire history of the franchise. And with the exception of a few glory years with Joe Namath, that search has mostly ended in heartbreak.

    It's too early to pop the champagne, but there's optimism in New York that the Jets finally got their guy.

    Rookie running back Michael Carter admittedly has reason to be biased, but he told SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Jets Wire's Tyler Greenawalt) that he feels Zach Wilson should have been the No. 1 pick over Trevor Lawrence.

    "I love Zach. That's my boy," Carter said of this year's No. 2 selection. "He deserved to be the No. 1 pick if I'm being honest. Everybody knows Trevor Lawrence is elite … all I'm saying is some people arguing for Zach and I agree. I'm not knocking anyone."

    To be fair, Carter isn't alone. Chris Simms of NBC Sports ranked Wilson ahead of Lawrence after his breakout 2020 season at BYU and compared the 6'2", 214-pounder to Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Brett Favre.

    For reals.

    Wilson showed excellent arm talent in college. He could be New York's Week 1 starter. And the Jets have made an effort to not repeat mistakes made with Sam Darnold by putting an actual team around Wilson.

    If he comes close to performing as advertised, he'll achieve star status in no time.

    Such is life as a quarterback in New York.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR DeVonta Smith

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    This stretch of breakout players is sponsored by

    You know, because of the whole Captain Obvious thing.

    For much of the 2020 season, the quarterback play in Philadelphia was abysmal. Partly, this was because Carson Wentz was awful most of the year. But Wentz and Jalen Hurts weren't exactly put in position to succeed—Jalen Reagor was a massive disappointment as a rookie, and the Eagles fielded one of the weakest wideout groups in the league.

    The Eagles went back to the well in 2021, drafting a wide receiver in Round 1 for the second year in a row.

    The second time should be the charm.

    All DeVonta Smith did last year at Alabama was haul in 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns while helping lead the Crimson Tide to a national title. His efforts were rewarded with a big trophy of a dude running that says something about "Heisman" on the front.

    Smith isn't the biggest receiver (on a good day he weighs 170 pounds). But he certainly doesn't play small. He'll be the No. 1 target for Hurts (his old Alabama teammate) from the moment he takes the practice field for the first time.

    It's going to be a lot of fun to watch Smith, Ja'Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle vie for the title of top rookie receiver in 2021—for everyone except the defensive backs who have to try to cover them.

Pittsburgh Steelers: RB Najee Harris

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    It's an onslaught of obviousness!

    Joking aside, there aren't that many real breakout candidates in Pittsburgh in 2021. The Steelers have one of the NFL's more established rosters. And even a youngster like wide receiver Chase Claypool is a tenuous pick after he scored nine touchdowns and topped 850 receiving yards as a rookie.

    That leaves running back Najee Harris, who is no stranger to obviousness in that it was clear the Steelers would seek his services in Round 1 of the 2021 draft.

    No team in the NFL had less success running the ball in 2020 than the Steelers, who managed just 84 yards and change per game. While that was happening in Western Pennsylvania, down Tuscaloosa way, Harris was rolling over college defenses to the tune of 1,466 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground.

    The hype surrounding Harris' arrival in the Steel City has reached the point where pundits like John Luciew of Penn Live are predicting Harris will soon become the face of the franchise.

    "Sure, Big Ben will be the Steelers' starting QB for at least one more season," he wrote. "But as far as face of the franchise goes, it's looking like a rookie running back will finally surpass Roethlisberger as the signature Steeler in the eyes of most fans."

    That's big talk. But it's not outside the realm of reason to imagine Harris threatening to become the third back in six years to lead the league in rushing as a rookie.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Brandon Aiyuk

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The 2020 season was an injury-marred catastrophe for the San Francisco 49ers. Just about every player who could get hurt seemingly did—on both sides of the ball.

    However, amid all the doom and gloom were bright spots. The play of rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk was one of them.

    After a slow start, Aiyuk exploded for 115 yards on six catches against the New England Patriots. The following week in Seattle, he hauled in eight passes for 91 yards and a score. Two weeks after that, he caught seven passes for 75 yards and another touchdown in New Orleans.

    For the season, Aiyuk tallied 60 receptions for 748 yards and five scores in 12 games—numbers that would have come up just shy of 1,000 yards over a full 16-game season. As Alex Didion reported for NBC Sports Bay Area, Aiyuk has already been working out with rookie third overall pick Trey Lance.

    Combined with Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle, Aiyuk gives Lance (and veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo) a formidable trio of pass-catchers who all excel in gaining yards after the catch.

    That depth makes focusing on any one pass-catcher problematic—and sets Aiyuk up for a big jump.

Seattle Seahawks: LB Jordyn Brooks

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    For the past decade, K.J. Wright has been a fixture at outside linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. Wright amassed over 100 tackles five times and was named to a Pro Bowl.

    The only constant in today's NFL, though, is change, and Wright remains unsigned.

    That means that yet another connection to the team's Legion of Boom heyday is gone. And that it's time for Jordyn Brooks to live up to his status as a first-round pick.

    Brooks was just a part-time player for Seattle in 2020, piling up 57 total tackles in 367 snaps. He was OK in coverage, allowing just under 70 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed, with a passer rating against of 95.2.

    That's not especially surprising, though, given how little he was asked to play in coverage at Texas Tech. Brooks has the athleticism and range to be a three-down linebacker, and if he is on the field for 80-plus percent of Seattle's snaps in 2021, a 100-tackle campaign is well within his reach.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Carlton Davis

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    OK, this admittedly stretches the boundaries of who can be considered a "breakout" player. Carlton Davis of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is already considered one of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL.

    But when a team is rolling out the same 22 starters that just won the Super Bowl, it's not especially easy to find a candidate.

    It's really quite rude of them.

    There's plenty on the line for Davis after a 2020 season that saw him set career highs in tackles (68) and interceptions (four) while posting a passer rating against of 87.6.

    That last number may not appear all that impressive at first glance, nor does his completion percentage against of 61.9 percent. But those stats carry a major caveat: Week after week, Davis was tasked with man coverage against opposing No. 1 receivers. And for the most part, the 24-year-old held his own.

    The 2021 season marks the last of Davis' rookie contract. If last year was his coming-out party, this year offers him a chance to entrench himself as one of the league's best at a premium position. To earn his first Pro Bowl nod.

    And to earn an extension that will make him a very wealthy young man.

Tennessee Titans: DT Jeffery Simmons

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    In 2019, the Tennessee Titans took a gamble on Jeffery Simmons. Despite the fact that the defensive tackle tore his ACL in predraft workouts, the Titans took the Mississippi State standout 19th overall.

    Simmons didn't waste much time starting to repay that confidence in his ability. In seven games as a rookie, the 6'4", 305-pounder tallied 32 total tackles and two sacks. In his second professional season, Simmons assumed a full-time role, flirting with 50 total stops while adding three sacks, three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

    When Pro Football Focus offered end-of-season grades for every second-year defender in the league, it was Simmons who sat atop the list (h/t Mike Moraitis of Titans Wire).

    And frankly, that just scratches the surface of what Simmons can do. The youngster still hasn't had anything resembling a normal offseason. The first was wiped out by a knee injury. The second was wiped out by the COVID pandemic.

    With Bud Dupree drawing attention from blockers off the edge and Simmons finally able to properly prepare for a season, a breakout seems more like an eventuality than a possibility.

Washington Football Team: LB Jamin Davis

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    It was tempting to list quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick here—the 38-year-old has a real chance of having one of the best seasons of his career in 2021 and could make his first playoff appearance.

    Whether that would constitute a breakout is debatable. What isn't is that for Washington to make the playoffs this year, the defense will have to set the tone, just as it did in 2020.

    And that means a player who is quite a bit younger than Fitzpatrick will have to grow up in a hurry.

    Of the off-ball linebackers selected in the first two days of the 2021 draft, there wasn't a youngster who fell into a better situation in terms of making an immediate impact than Kentucky's Jamin Davis, the No. 19 pick.

    The 6'3", 234-pound Davis, who tallied 102 total tackles for the Wildcats in 2020, is a rangy player who should slot immediately into a three-down role on the weak side for Washington.

    As good as the WFT defense was last year, the linebackers were average. It can be argued that Davis, 22, is the best talent of the group before he ever plays a down in the pros.

    Betting against him to lead Washington in tackles would not be a wise wager.


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