Buying or Selling NFL's Early Breakout Teams, Players

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2021

Buying or Selling NFL's Early Breakout Teams, Players

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Two weeks into the 2021 NFL season, some eyebrow-raising breakout teams and players have emerged. 

    Several of these franchises have outperformed preseason expectations. The players who shine brightest in this category were either written off or overlooked on a national scale.

    Next? Dissecting whether the breakouts are early-season shenanigans or something more. Did teams just have soft opponents to start the year? Did players just have a game, or are there signs that it can be something more? 

    Here's a look at some of the most notable breakouts and a buy or sell verdict. 

Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Football Team

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Terry McLaurin isn't a household name. 

    Part of that stems from his playing on ho-hum Washington teams since he was a third-round rookie in 2019. He's also played with 10 different starting quarterbacks over 31 appearances. 

    McLaurin did score seven times as a rookie in 2019 and had 1,118 yards in 2020. But this year feels different, with the quarterback situation improving, as Taylor Heinicke (who gave McLaurin 14 targets in Week 2) has quite a bit more upside than the veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.

    In a Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, he caught all four of his targets for 62 yards, averaging 15.5 yards per catch. And he followed that in a win over the New York Giants with 11 catches on 14 targets, tallying 107 yards (still a 9.7 average) with a touchdown. 

    Even last year, McLaurin only had three 100-yard games and five outings with double-digit targets. He also scored just four times. But he's consistently looked like a No. 1 wideout so far, and things should only get easier for him once free-agent addition Curtis Samuel, who is out for at least the first three weeks with a groin setback, gets off injured reserve and into games to space the offense.

    Verdict: Buy

Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Yes, Daniel Jones' New York Giants are off to an 0-2 start. But the 2019 No. 6 pick has surpassed expectations in light of his first two seasons. 

    In a 27-13 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 1, Jones threw for 267 yards and a touchdown, adding 27 yards on six rushes with a score (4.5 average). He followed that with 249 passing yards and a touchdown in a Week 2 loss to Washington, adding 95 yards on nine carries with another score (10.6 average). 

    For his career, Jones averages just 6.6 yards per passing attempt, so it's notable he's averaging 7.5 through two games. His completion percentage (63.8) is a full point above his career average (62.3), and he's already matched his career high for rushing touchdowns in a season while averaging quite a bit more yards per carry (8.1) than his usual (6.6). 

    As fun as the mini-breakout has been, Jones has suffered six sacks behind a bad offensive line. He's yet to throw a pick, but his lone fumble this year earned him the dubious distinction of becoming just the second QB since 1994 to lose 30 of them by his 28th game, per NFL on CBS.

    The path for Jones' winless Giants will only get more difficult thanks to matchups with NFC East and NFC South foes, not to mention the Kansas City Chiefs. He's already had what appeared to be a sideline conflict with free-agent prize Kenny Golladay, and that could be an indication of where this is going. 

    Verdict: Sell

Las Vegas Raiders

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    In Week 1, Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr threw for 435 yards and a pair of touchdowns against a respected Baltimore Ravens defense, spurring a 33-27 overtime victory. His defense held Lamar Jackson to a single touchdown pass and 86 rushing yards. 

    Las Vegas followed that by hitting the road to take down another would-be contender from the AFC North in a 26-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

    There, Carr threw for 382 yards and a pair of scores, while receiver Henry Ruggs III broke out with five catches for 113 yards and a TD. The Las Vegas defense flustered Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger all day, limiting him to one touchdown and an interception while holding Pittsburgh backs to just 2.8 yards per carry. 

    Normally, onlookers might expect a "wait until they play Kansas City" evaluation. But it's easy to forget that during an eight-win season last year, the Raiders beat those Chiefs once and came within four points in a close loss in the second encounter. 

    They look like a threat in the AFC. 

    Verdict: Buy

Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Jalen Hurts stunned his doubters in his first game of 2021 as the unquestioned starter for the Philadelphia Eagles, throwing for 264 yards and three touchdowns in a 32-6 humiliation of the Atlanta Falcons. 

    He looked just as good for most of his team's 17-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. He threw for 190 yards on 23 attempts (8.3-yard average) and had a stunning, accurate 91-yard completion to Quez Watkins. He even led the team in rushing with 10 carries for 82 yards and a score. 

    But his performance feels like fool's gold. He got to feast against a miserable Falcons defense that went on to get blown out in Week 2 by Tampa Bay while letting up five passing scores. Beating up on one of the league's worst rebuilders only earns him so much credit. And while San Francisco hopes to contend in the NFC, it did allow 33 points to Detroit in Week 1. 

    Early returns suggest Hurts could be quite the fantasy football producer. But we'll have to see how he holds up in a prime-time shootout with Dallas in Week 3 or against Kansas City in Week 4. If Hurts' surrounding cast can't do damage after the catch, it's unclear if he can carry the team.

    Verdict: Sell

Carolina Panthers

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers didn't get a ton of attention in Week 1 by beating the New York Jets 19-14. Quarterback Sam Darnold was fine with 279 passing yards and a score, running back Christian McCaffrey did his usual thing (gaining 98 yards on 21 carries and 89 yards on nine catches) and the defense kept rookie QB Zach Wilson in check.

    But Week 2 was worth raising an eyebrow for. 

    The Panthers unexpectedly took down the New Orleans Saints 26-7. Darnold posted a smooth 26-of-38 line with 305 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception. McCaffrey scored, three weapons had 55 or more yards receiving, and the defense tallied four sacks of Jameis Winston and picked him off twice. 

    It's not just that Winston had thrown five touchdowns in a stunning 38-3 upset of Green Bay in Week 1, either—it's also that this Panthers defense held the Saints to 128 total yards, the lowest ever under Sean Payton. 

    That's a 2-0 mark for a Panthers team that probably hoped for a 1-1 record at best to open the season. The offense should only get better from here as Darnold gets more comfortable in his new surroundings too. 

    Verdict: Buy

Denver Broncos

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Denver cruised to a 27-13 Week 1 win over the Giants while new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater impressed with two touchdown passes. But by the time Week 2 ended, those Giants were already 0-2 and had struggling units on both sides of the ball.

    The Broncos moved to 2-0 on Sunday with a 23-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bridgewater threw another pair of touchdowns, benefited from two interceptions thrown by rookie Trevor Lawrence and largely coasted to a win. 

    Those Jaguars might qualify as the league's biggest rebuilder as first-year coach Urban Meyer tries to cobble together a competitive team, which opened the season by getting blown out 37-21 by fellow rebuilder Houston. 

    Which is to say onlookers haven't seen the Broncos, who won just five games last year, challenged yet. The same goes for Bridgewater, who will not only have to keep pace with the brutal AFC West this year, but will also have to face the three good teams from the NFC East and the whole AFC North. 

    In addition, Denver already has corner Ronald Darby (hamstring) and wideout Jerry Jeudy (high ankle sprain) on injured reserve, which doesn't bode well. 

    Verdict: Sell

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Through two seasons, Kyler Murray was a quick-rising player who looked to have a high ceiling. But the third-year leap looks like it could be bigger than most might have anticipated for the Arizona Cardinals' franchise passer

    Last year as a sophomore, Murray completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,971 yards and 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Through two games, he's completed 73.5 percent of his attempts for 689 yards and seven touchdowns against three interceptions. 

    In Week 1, Murray got the best of a would-be contender in Tennessee, throwing four scores in a 38-13 win. And he followed it in Week 2 with 400 yards passing and three touchdowns in a one-point victory over Minnesota. Last year, he reached the 400-yard mark just once, which didn't come until December against a four-win Philadelphia team, and he surpassed the 300-yard mark just three times all season. 

    In the span of two weeks, Murray has gone from an intriguing high-upside player to a serious MVP threat who's also incredibly fun to watch. It's hard to doubt his developmental curve, especially considering he's played solid competition. 

    Verdict: Buy

Tony Pollard, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    It is Tony Pollard's name, not Ezekiel Elliott's, that sat with a top-15 rushing mark after the majority of the Week 2 contests had gone final. 

    Pollard erupted in the Dallas Cowboys' 20-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2, rushing 13 times for 109 yards and one touchdown, good for 8.4 per carry. He also caught all three of his targets for 31 yards. Elliott, on the other hand, turned his 16 carries into 71 yards and a score (4.4 average). 

    Still, there isn't much reason to think this is the start of something much greater for Pollard. He looks a hair more explosive than Elliott and provides more in the passing game. But in Week 1, he received just three carries compared to Elliott's 11, and for his career he's never received more than 101 attempts in a season. 

    While fantasy football managers might think it wise to pounce on Pollard, his mini-breakout might be an anomaly. When the chips were down against Tampa Bay's elite front seven in Week 1, it was all Elliott. The Cowboys will split up the work to make sure Elliott makes it through 17 games, but it's not Pollard's backfield. 

    Verdict: Sell