6 Early Breakout Candidates from the 2021 NFL Preseason

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2021

6 Early Breakout Candidates from the 2021 NFL Preseason

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    The NFL preseason might feature games with meaningless results in the win-loss column, but they're far from pointless for players trying to win jobs.

    With the exhibition schedule reduced to three games, the importance and intensity of each roster battle across all 32 teams only increases.

    And some early performances should receive a spotlight, as players who have made the most of limited exhibition snaps could secure roster spots, if not more playing time during the regular season than previously expected.

    Here's a look at the top non-rookie breakout candidates of the preseason.

Quez Watkins, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Sometimes a small sample size can say quite a lot.

    So it goes for second-year Philadelphia Eagles wideout Quez Watkins. He received just two targets in his team's preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, yet he turned one of them into a 79-yard touchdown to help him lead the team in receiving. The other might have been a long touchdown but was an overthrow.

    A sixth-round pick in 2020 who scored once on seven catches last year, Watkins told reporters: "This whole offseason I just made everything personal. Everything that people said I couldn't do, and that I was just only fast. I just made everything personal and put the work in." Quarterback Jalen Hurts even said the secret's out on Watkins.

    His work has shown, as he got reps with the starters and nearly had two massive plays.

    Jalen Reagor and DeVonta Smith may get the headlines in Philadelphia, but it's Watkins whose preseason might hint at a breakout as he fends off Greg Ward Jr. and Travis Fulgham.

DeeJay Dallas, RB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Considering starter Chris Carson's dominance and the 2018 first-round investment in Rashaad Penny, the Seattle Seahawks turned some heads by selecting running back DeeJay Dallas in the fourth round of the 2020 draft.

    But Dallas has started to prove his team prescient.

    After getting just 34 carries and 20 targets as a rookie over 12 appearances (scoring three times), Dallas used Week 1 of the preseason against the Las Vegas Raiders to turn five carries into 24 yards (4.8 average). He also led the team in receiving with two catches for 45 yards, with one of those going for a 43-yard score.

    In short, Dallas seemed to confirm Michael-Shawn Duggar of The Athletic's notion that he could lock up the primary third-down role behind Carson, fending off not only Penny, but the likes of Alex Collins. If his first preseason contest is any indication, he'll outstrip his fourth-round status.

Craig Reynolds, RB, Detroit Lions

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Craig Reynolds was one of the better stories of the preseason's first week and proof that anything can happen.

    Reynolds, signed the day before the Detroit Lions' first preseason game, introduced himself to his teammates in the huddle and rushed for a touchdown soon after.

    An undrafted free agent in 2019, Reynolds spent time in Washington, Atlanta and Jacksonville, receiving just one carry over five games on an active roster. But during his preseason debut in Detroit, he led the Lions in rushing with six carries for 49 yards and a score on an 8.2 per-carry average.

    And just like that, Reynolds might be in the mix for a roster spot. D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams are the one-two tandem, and the team used a seventh-rounder on Jermar Jefferson, but Reynolds' explosive hello has him on the right path.

Marquez Callaway, WR, New Orleans Saints

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    Marquez Callaway's breakout is real.

    After getting some training camp attention, Callaway showed out in the New Orleans Saints' first preseason game, catching three passes for 61 yards on four targets. That might not sound like much, but the 2020 undrafted free agent spent last season getting just 27 targets over 11 appearances.

    The Athletic's Katherine Terrell reported Callaway was the favorite target of both Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill during camp.

    With a rapport clearly established with both passers and No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas out after June ankle surgery, Callaway is a clear starter.

Tanner Hudson, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Tanner Hudson gets a little lost in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' logjam of tight end talent.

    Going undrafted out of Southern Arkansas and sitting behind Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate will do that to a player.

    But Hudson made the most of his chances in the team's first preseason game, turning a team-high six targets into three catches and 46 yards, averaging 15.3 yards per catch and leading the team in receiving. Over his first two seasons, Hudson had caught just five passes.

    It's the sort of performance that could show coaches a bubble guy is worth keeping around for the long term, considering the once-retired Gronk is already 32 years old, and Brate and Howard are tradable assets.

Dwayne Haskins, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    A high-profile first-round pick needing a preseason breakout with his second team in his third season is usually a bad situation. 

    But to his credit, Dwayne Haskins is making the most of it. 

    Fighting with Mason Rudolph for the right to back up Ben Roethlisberger with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Haskins followed a report from The Athletic's Mark Kaboly that he looked "surprisingly good" in camp with two strong preseason performances.

    In the first, he posted an 8-of-13 line with 54 yards, and then he led the team in his second appearance with a 16-of-22 mark en route to 161 yards and a touchdown. Head coach Mike Tomlin values game performance more than practices, which bodes well for the 2019 first-rounder.

    Haskins has the most upside on this list. If he wins the backup job, he'll be in a position to compete to take over when Big Ben retires.

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