7 Under-the-Radar NFL Breakout Candidates in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2021

7 Under-the-Radar NFL Breakout Candidates in 2021

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    There are many breakout candidates beyond the usual suspects going into the NFL's 2021 season. 

    Onlookers know the big names: Joe Burrow, D'Andre Swift, Mecole Hardman and even Jalen Hurts. 

    But a handful of proverbial under-the-radar players share many of the same traits as the top breakout candidates, such as improved surroundings, developmental upswing, hints of production and plenty of reason to project quite a bit more. 

    The one thing they lack? Name recognition, sheer hype or some combination of both. 

    Otherwise, the following players have just as much breakout potential as any of the other big names and should have fans watching them carefully this coming year. 

Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    It's a little easy to forget about Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers. 

    After all, Akers had a ho-hum rookie season after coming off the board in the second round in 2020. He received just 145 carries and turned it into 625 yards and two scores on a 4.3 average. While that attempts number led the team, Akers was just one of three backs with more than 100 carries. 

    One of those backs, Malcolm Brown, has since left the team though, vacating his 101 carries. And this offseason, Rams head coach Sean McVay has gone out of his way to praise Akers, telling Stu Jackson of the team's official website: "I think he's an every-down back. I think he's a very special player." 

    It's easy to see an angle in which the Rams just took it slow with Akers last year before really turning him loose as a sophomore. He had just two games with double-digit carries through the end of November last season, then 15 or more in six consecutive games, including two postseason matchups. 

    Given his average and versatility even with limited results last year, Akers looks poised to erupt with more usage. 

Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    While running back Jonathan Taylor would seem to be the obvious choice for an Indianapolis Colts breakout candidate, Michael Pittman Jr. should not be forgotten. 

    After the Colts took him in the second round last year, Pittman appeared in 13 games, catching 40 of his 61 targets for 503 yards and one score. 

    Not terrible numbers for a rookie, but keep in mind Pittman did this after an unorthodox first-year onboarding process with no preseason. He also had to work through a ho-hum year of quarterback Philip Rivers adapting to a new team for the first time in his career. Pittman was just fourth on the team's target list, even behind running back Nyheim Hines, whose 76 targets ranked second. 

    On paper, things should open up with the big-armed Carson Wentz under center now. And it's worth considering that the 6'4" Pittman can be a big-bodied Alshon Jeffery type for the former Philadelphia Eagles passer, allowing Pittman to capitalize on a solid quarterback fit paired with his natural developmental upside for a 2021 breakout.

Zack Baun, Edge, New Orleans Saints

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Zack Baun looked like one of the bigger steals of the 2020 draft after he unexpectedly fell to the third round and was taken by the New Orleans Saints at No. 74. 

    But the Saints, already a stacked contender, didn't deploy the former Wisconsin star much as a rookie, letting him play just 8 percent of the defense's snaps over 15 games. Otherwise, he cut his teeth on special teams, playing 54 percent of the snaps there. 

    But Baun is about to see a big leap in playing time as the Saints transition out of the win-at-all-costs mode with Drew Brees gone. Plus, the defense lost Alex Anzalone and breakout pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson. 

    And while the Saints added edge-rusher Payton Turner in the first round this year, Baun should still be a big part of the game plan after the team traded up to get him a year ago. He's got big upside, a year in the system under his belt and the versatility to rush from all over the formation. Baun could see his playing time leap by more than 90 percent. 

A.J. Terrell, CB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    A.J. Terrell had a ho-hum season for the Atlanta Falcons after being selected 16th overall last year. "Ho-hum" is about as nice as the description gets for most 2020 rookie defenders not named Chase Young after offensive counterparts like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert shredded the league upon arrival. 

    Still, among rookie defenders, Terrell was almost at the very top. He battled through an early stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list to play in 14 games, getting work on 84 percent of his defense's snaps. Opponents went after him for obvious reasons, and Terrell allowed 71 completions on 106 targets (67.0 percent) with six touchdowns. 

    That sounds worse than it is though; Pro Football Focus assigned him a 60.8 grade, which isn't terrible for a debut season. Terrell still flashed his immense upside every time he took the field, and it's hard to knock him too much for struggling considering his inexperience, the unusual offseason and having to face off against a battery of NFC South receivers on a four-win team's rebuilding defense. 

    All of which is a long way of saying that Terrell's elite physical traits and natural developmental curve should have him steadily improving, if not shooting into the top 20 players at his position in a hurry now that he's getting his feet under him and the team around him has (at least on paper) improved. 

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last year seemed like prime breakout territory for Vita Vea as he headed into his third season after being drafted 12th overall in 2018.

    Instead, Vea appeared in just five games during an injury-riddled campaign, posting 10 total tackles and two sacks. 

    But even that brief bit of playing time hinted at much bigger things to come for the heart of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. Vea graded out at a 90.1 at PFF, and while it was a small sample size, the leap from his 78.7 mark over 16 games as a sophomore was both huge and telling of his developmental upswing. 

    With key pieces like Shaquil Barrett returning around Vea, he's bound to break out in 2021 despite some of the hype around him cooling over the past year. 

Jonah Williams, OT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Offensive linemen may not play the flashiest position on the field, but their importance can't be understated. 

    Just ask the Cincinnati Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow; his team had only Jonah Williams as a viable lineman last year, and we all know what happened to Burrow's season. 

    After missing his entire rookie season, Williams appeared in 10 games for the Bengals at left tackle in 2020 and finished with a 70.1 grade at PFF after allowing just three sacks over 634 snaps. For his first season playing at the pro level on the league's worst line in front of a rookie passer, the 2019 11th overall pick did pretty well. 

    And Williams should only keep improving as he heads into his second year on the field, especially since the line around him continues to improve and the unit upgraded at line coach with Frank Pollack. 

    It might happen a little later than originally envisioned, but the Bengals have a breakout candidate on their hands at left tackle.

Drew Lock, QB, Denver Broncos

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    Justin Edmonds/Associated Press

    When one thinks of breakout quarterbacks, the big three sophomore passers—Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert—come to mind. Jalen Hurts might for most, too. 

    Drew Lock, on the other hand, seems like a long shot. 

    But he's one worth considering. Yes, the 2019 second-round pick struggled last season when his appearances ballooned from five as a rookie to 13. He only completed 57.3 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. 

    Yet many of the caveats that come with other younger players on this list apply to Lock too, such as the lack of a preseason. He's still got a chance to get on the same page as tight end Noah Fant and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick to make something special happen. 

    Of course, Lock will have to compete with veteran Teddy Bridgewater. But last year in Carolina under hyped coordinator Joe Brady, Bridgewater managed just 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Panthers' willingness to discard him after one season suggests he's hard-capped as far as upside goes. 

    If there's upside in the quarterback room in Denver, it's with Lock. That's not to say it won't be a bumpy ride, but Lock has been doing the right things—such as training with Peyton Manning—while trying to make a breakout happen.