Fantasy Football 2021: Predicting This Year's Biggest Breakouts
Training camp is just around the corner, and before you know it, the 2021 NFL season will be upon us. And with another season of football comes another year of fantasy, as millions of people worldwide build teams in an effort to win their own little slice of glory—and maybe a few bucks.
Some fantasy drafts (such as the Scott Fish Bowl) have already begun. But in the vast majority of leagues, the draft hasn't started yet. What has started is the preparation. The search for values. And sleepers. And breakouts.
Those last ones can be the most important of all. Finding a player who smashes his average draft position and explodes into fantasy stardom can make all the difference. Ask the folks who drafted Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the ninth round last year. Or those who selected Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf at the back end of Round 4. Or Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery one round later.
In that respect, all the young players listed here should be of particular interest to savvy fantasy managers.
Because all 10 of these youngsters have substantial breakout potential in 2021.
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Burrow's first NFL season was uneven. He flashed the throwing talent that got him drafted first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals. But playing behind one of the league's worst O-lines, Burrow took a beating, and 11 weeks in, an ACL tear ended his inaugural campaign.
Over his 10 games, Burrow passed for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions—numbers that landed him 18th in fantasy points per game at the position in NFL.com default scoring.
That hardly inspires a ton of enthusiasm among fantasy managers. But there are a couple of things to get excited about.
The first is that Bengals offensive line. The team bolstered it with the addition of veteran tackle Riley Reiff in free agency and guard Jackson Carman in the draft. The return of a healthy Jonah Williams will also be a big plus at left tackle after a knee injury.
This isn't to say Cincy has a good offensive line. Only that it should be substantially better.
There's also no shortage of passing-game weapons. Tyler Boyd has quietly become one of the league's better slot receivers. Tee Higgins showed flashes of star power as a rookie. ESPN's Mike Greenberg thinks fifth overall pick Ja'Marr Chase is a superstar in the making (h/t Dave Clark of the Cincinnati Enquirer):
"The rookie, who [in 2019] - at the age of 19 - playing with (Bengals quarterback) Joe Burrow - who will be his quarterback in Cincinnati - became the only college receiver ever with 20 touchdowns and 20 yards per catch in any season. Did I mention he was 19 years old when he did that? The world has forgotten how good he is because he opted out of last season. But he is going to be spectacular. He's reunited with his college quarterback. I think Ja'Marr Chase is going to hit the league by storm."
All the ingredients are there for a huge jump from Burrow in 2021.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Jalen Hurts is one of the more polarizing quarterbacks in fantasy football this year.
Supporters of the former Alabama and Oklahoma star point to the 354 rushing yards he piled up last season, which ranked inside the top 10 at the position. Over his four starts, Hurts averaged 68 yards per game on the ground—one more yard per contest than Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens averaged in 2020. Hurts also topped 300 passing yards in two of those four starts.
Detractors, on the other hand, point to Hurts' 52 percent completion rate and the fact that in his other two starts, he averaged fewer than 120 passing yards and threw just one touchdown.
However, quarterbacks with the ability to rack up big rushing numbers will always appeal to fantasy managers, as it gives them a nice floor. The Eagles offensive line should be healthier (and better) in 2021. The addition of DeVonta Smith gives Hurts added firepower and a familiar face (they played together at Alabama) in the passing game. And some fantasy pundits, such as Shawn Childs of Sports Illustrated, are predicting huge things for Hurts:
"I'm confident that Hurts will run the ball between eight and 10 times in most games, leading to 800-plus yards on the ground with at least seven scores. With 225 passing yards and 1.5 passing touchdowns per game, I expect 4,500-plus combined yards with over 30 scores. He has an excellent chance of outperforming Josh Allen due to more weapons in the passing game, and his price point is much more favorable."
Out-scoring last year's top fantasy QB might be pushing it. But if things fall into place, Hurts has a legit shot to crack the top five—and that would make him a massive value, given his ADP of QB11.
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens
When it comes to fantasy running backs, there may not be a player who invites a wider variance of opinions than the Ravens' J.K. Dobbins.
In some respects, he had an excellent rookie season. The second-round pick out of Ohio State surpassed 900 total yards, averaged six yards per carry, scored nine times on the ground and was a top-15 fantasy back from Week 10 on last year.
However, Gus Edwards and his 153 touches in 2020 are still in Baltimore, and between that carry share and Dobbins' lack of usage in the passing game, many fantasy managers are skeptical about a Dobbins breakout in 2021.
However, per Clifton Brown and Ryan Mink of the team's website, head coach John Harbaugh said more targets are coming Dobbins' way this season.
"One of the main points of emphasis has been to involve our running backs in the passing game more," Harbaugh noted. "J.K, obviously, is going to be a focal point in that."
For his part, Dobbins told reporters he's ready to do whatever it takes to help the Ravens win.
"Yes, the main goal is to do better than what I did last year," he said. "This year, I want to come in, help my team in all ways possible on that field to get to the Super Bowl. It could be receiving; it could be running"
Dobbins is flat-out a better running back than Edwards. The latter will mix in, to be sure. But Dobbins will see a big bump in touches, and a top-10 fantasy season is well within reach.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Last year, the offseason hype surrounding Kansas City Chiefs rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire was overwhelming. By the end of fantasy draft season, he had an ADP of sixth overall. The former LSU standout piled up 1,100 total yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry, but his RB22 finish in point-per-reception scoring systems was considered a substantial disappointment.
Now, fantasy managers have soured somewhat on Edwards-Helaire, who's being drafted as an RB2 on average. Given that he has a year of experience and will benefit from a "normal" offseason in 2021, there's real rebound potential present.
Edwards-Helaire made improving his receiving chops a priority in the offseason after catching 36 passes as a rookie.
"It was seen that I can run the ball between the tackles, outside," Edwards-Helaire told reporters. "That was kind of seen, so just being able to also get out, and not just routes out of the backfield but also spread out in the slot position and also the outside wideout position. So, just being able to expand my skill set was my thing."
Per Pro Football Focus, the top running back in Andy Reid's offense has cracked the top 10 in fantasy points 10 times since 2007. Edwards-Helaire absolutely possesses the talent to be the 11th. There's a reason he was the first back drafted in 2020.
He's a great target in Round 2 for teams that start their draft with a wide receiver or Travis Kelce.
D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions
Of the running backs included, D'Andre Swift of the Detroit Lions is the most speculative breakout pick. He only averaged 10 touches per game in 2020, and free-agent signee Jamaal Williams could eat into his workload.
But Swift averaged a respectable 4.6 yards per carry last year and caught 46 passes on 57 targets. As Chris Towers of CBS Sports wrote, the youngster from Georgia could be in for a huge bump in passing-game work:
"Under [new Detroit OC] Anthony Lynn, the Chargers threw 27.5% of their targets to running backs over the past three seasons -- and it likely would have been even higher if not for Austin Ekeler's injury in 2020. That's a very high rate, and one key reason to be very intrigued by Swift's potential in this offense. He earned a big role in the passing game as a rookie despite a pretty high-profile and costly drop in Week 1, and was targeted at least four times in all but two games -- one of which he played just six snaps. He should be a big part of the passing game in Detroit -- especially given their lack of playmaking in the WR group -- and that's where you start when you want to talk about his breakout potential."
No one is doing cartwheels over the Lions offense in 2021, but Swift should be a focal point. He will also be running behind an improved line, which PFF ranked 10th in the league for 2021.
Swift has one more thing going for him from a fantasy perspective: His ADP of RB19 is the lowest of any back listed here.
Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers
In 2020, Brandon Aiyuk parlayed 96 targets into 60 catches for 748 yards and five scores—numbers that slotted the rookie 34th at his position in PPR points.
Had he played in all 16 games, Aiyuk's 62.3 receiving yards per game would have put him close to 1,000 for the season. Aaron Larson of the Fantasy Footballers thinks Kyle Shanahan's history with X receivers could mean a target share that will put that first 1,000-yard season well within reach:
"It wouldn't be shocking to see Aiyuk hang with (George) Kittle when it comes to targets. He plays the 'X' receiver for San Francisco, which is historically the target hog in Kyle Shanahan-led offenses. Examples of target hog 'X' receivers from Shanahan's former coaching stops include Andre Johnson (171), Pierre Garcon (181), and Julio Jones (203!). It isn't fair to directly compare these players to Aiyuk and Shanahan's offense continues to evolve, but it shows that he's perfectly comfortable hyper-targeting an outside receiver."
We have also seen a healthy Aiyuk peel off a dominant stretch. From Weeks 7 to 15 last year, Aiyuk averaged over 21 PPR points per game. The only wideouts who averaged more were Green Bay's Davante Adams and Kansas City's Tyreek Hill.
Durability has been an issue for Aiyuk, as he missed four games in 2020 (though he spent two of those on the reserve/COVID-19 list). The uncertainty under center in San Francisco is a concern too. But WR1 upside available outside the top 25 wideouts is worth a little risk.
Diontae Johnson, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Diontae Johnson has been breakout adjacent, as his 923 receiving yards paced the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020. For much of the season, he looked the part of the team's best wide receiver, and as Sam Monson wrote for Pro Football Focus, the third-year pro displayed an impressive ability to get open with regularity:
"Johnson gets open as well as any receiver in the NFL, which is a great starting point for success. Over his first two seasons in the league, he has been charted as open on 46% and 48% of his targets — that is 6-8 percentage points higher than the league average. If Ben Roethlisberger can improve on an unconvincing 2020 season and give the Steelers passing game some more teeth, Johnson will be open and looking for targets."
It wasn't all sunshine and puppies for him in 2020. Pro Football Reference listed the 25-year-old with 13 drops, the most in the NFL.
But if Johnson had caught, say, half those passes at his average of 10.5 yards per grab, the extra fantasy points would have bumped him into the top 15 among all fantasy receivers in PPR points for the year. Tack on another score, and he would be flirting with WR1 status in 12-team leagues.
Even after spending a fair amount of time in Mike Tomlin's doghouse thanks to those drops in 2020, Johnson was still eighth in the league in targets with 144. If he makes better use of those targets and bumps his catch percentage, a top-10 season is doable.
And that makes his WR21 ADP that much more appealing.
CeeDee Lamb, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Of all the players listed, Dallas Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb is the fantasy player I like the least. It's just a matter of value—or the lack thereof. There is quite a lot of hype surrounding the 22-year-old heading into his second NFL season—so much that his ADP has climbed all the way to WR13.
Most of the bargain has been sucked out of him. But there's a reason Lamb is such a darling of the fantasy community in 2021.
Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings wound up ruling the rookie roost among wide receivers in 2020. But it was Lamb who got off to the hottest start. In the five games Dak Prescott played for the Cowboys last year, Lamb caught 29 passes for 433 yards and two scores. Lamb ranked 11th in PPR points among receivers over that span.
Per Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News, Lamb is looking to do bigger things in 2021.
"I want to focus on me being better for the team and definitely want to be as impactful on the team as I possibly can," he said. "Offensively, we got everybody back. It's a whole new role. I'm looking to be a better version of myself. To be better than last year and if everyone has that mindset as a collective group we'll be better."
Amari Cooper may still be the nominal No. 1 receiver in Dallas. But it wouldn't be surprising if Lamb leads the team in most receiving categories, including fantasy points.
Noah Fant, TE, Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos tight end Noah Fant had his moments in 2020, including 18 catches for 181 yards and a score over the final three weeks. As Jon Heath reported for Broncos Wire, Fant's biggest goal in 2021 is to make sure he can make those good stretches last:
"I'm starting to figure things out, starting to be more knowledgeable about the game and starting to get those vet aspects to what I'm doing. Now, it's just consistency. Consistently being at the top level of play amongst the league. I'm not just competing with myself. I'm competing with every tight end across the league. There's some good ones, so I have to step up to that level."
That three-week span was a big one for fantasy managers. From Week 15 on, the former Iowa standout was a top-five PPR fantasy option. It was a tease as to what Fant could be capable of in the pros, and a reminder why the third-year pro was a first-round pick in 2019.
The biggest hurdle for Fant has probably been the wildly inconsistent play of quarterback Drew Lock. Teddy Bridgewater may not be Aaron Rodgers, but he's a more consistent passer—and one fond of making throws underneath.
With Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy drawing coverage away on the edges, Fant should have no trouble getting open over the middle. He could quickly become a preferred "safety valve" for Denver's new signal-caller, should Bridgewater win the starting job.
Dallas Goedert, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
This last fantasy breakout comes with a sizable caveat. Dallas Goedert's coming-out party with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2021 relies on veteran Zach Ertz's offseason exit.
But there continues to be no shortage of speculation that Ertz is on his way out of Philadelphia. If that happens, and Goedert becomes the unquestioned No. 1 tight end, then fantasy managers should take notice.
Goedert has produced at a high level from time to time—he had three games last year in which he racked up at least 75 receiving yards with a touchdown.
With a more consistent target share, the 26-year-old should produce more stat lines like that, especially given Goedert's ability to rack up yardage after the catch and his rapport with Hurts, as Neil Dutton pointed out at 4for4:
"Hurts averaged 6.63 adjusted yards per attempt when targeting Goedert last season, his most efficient link-up with any receiver. Hurts does not have to rely on taking deep shots to Goedert either, as Goedert has shown an ability to rack up the yards after the catch. 695 of his 1,465 career yards have come in YAC. That is 47%. Of the 24 tight ends with at least 1,000 receiving yards since 2018, only eight have a higher YAC percentage than Goedert's. Travis Kelce, the undisputed top tight end in the game, has racked up 39% of his yards in this span after the catch. Just get the ball into Goedert's hands, and let the magic happen."
Managers who miss out on the big names at tight end (or are uncomfortable paying the high draft-day price some carry) should have Goedert high on their wish list.
Average draft positions via Fantasy Football calculator.
Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @IDPSharks.