NFL Breakout Watch: First Look at the 2021 Candidates

NFL Breakout Watch: First Look at the 2021 Candidates

This article is part of our 2020 NFL Breakout Watch series.

if you're anything like me, you started looking ahead to 2021 some time between late December and mid-January. We still have trades, free agency and the NFL Draft to sort out this offseason, but it's never too early to speculate on breakouts, and it doesn't hurt to have the 2020 campaign fresh in mind. Let's take a look at the top candidates for 2021, starting with Carson Wentz's replacement in the City of Brotherly Love (Wentz was traded to Indianapolis on Thursday). 

Quarterback

The Popular Pick: Jalen Hurts

If a quarterback can run for 40 yards per game, he'll have fantasy value even if he's hurting his real-life team. Granted, he'll eventually get benched if he really stinks it up, and we shouldn't neglect that possibility when considering the floor scenario with a second-round prospect like Hurts.

His four starts last season included two 300-yard passing performances and three outings with more than 60 rushing yards, but he completed only 51.9 percent of his throws and somehow fumbled six times. The combination of rushing stats, butterfingers and a low completion rate might draw some comparisons to Lamar Jackson's rookie season, though the Ravens QB completed 58.2 percent of his throws and actually won a bunch of games.

While Hurts undoubtedly made the Eagles more interesting, they still averaged only 20.3 points over the final four weeks, going 1-3 in the rookie's starts. Don't mistake the Eagles' divorce from Carson Wentz as evidence of unfettered confidence in Hurts. The veteran QB played his way out of town, and Hurts' competent cameo was merely the spit that sealed the envelope.

This is not the same as a 2020 investment in Kyler Murray, who had already shown a decent fantasy floor over the course of a full season and also had the job security that comes with being a No. 1 overall pick. Hurts has a similar ceiling, sure, but the floor is much lower. I'll pick him in the ninth or 10th round, not as a Top-100 guy.

A Bit Less Obvious: Baker Mayfield

I mentioned Mayfield earlier this week in a recap of my first 2021 best-ball draft, noting how his final 2020 stat line was impacted by three consecutive games in bad weather and another where a COVID-19 breakout robbed him of all his wide receivers. In those four games, he averaged 185.8 passing yards and didn't throw any touchdowns or interceptions.

In his other 12 regular-season games, Mayfield averaged 235.0 yards, 2.2 TDs and 0.5 INTs, completing 65.8 percent of his passes for 7.7 YPA. He even had success in obvious passing situations, the Achilles' heel of Cleveland's 2019 offense. 

In 2019, the Browns converted only 24.1 percent of third downs where they had more than three yards to go. In 2020, they improved to 35.2 percent, jumping from 28th to 12th in the rankings.

The Cleveland passing game took a big step forward — or at least returned to where it was in the second half of Mayfield's rookie year — despite rushing Jarvis Landry back from offseason hip surgery and then getting only six games out of Odell Beckham. The latter still has a long rehab process ahead, but we can at least figure Landry won't have the early season limitations again.

Plus, the Browns opened up their offense down the stretch last year, with Mayfield averaging 36.6 pass attempts over the final six weeks of the regular season, before throwing 37 and 34 times in the playoffs. Cleveland won't turn away from its powerful rushing attack anytime soon, but Mayfield at least has upside for 500-to-550 pass attempts, rather than the 486 he got in 2020.

The Dark Horse: Taysom Hill

Looking at early best ball drafts, Jameis Winston tends to go ahead of Hill, even though Sean Payton chose the latter over the former just a few months ago. Maybe that changes now that Winston has more time to learn the offense, but you could also argue that Hill's performance in November/December boosted his stock. The versatile 30-year-old completed 71.9 percent of passes for 7.3 YPA in his four starts, adding 39/209/4 on the ground em route to a 3-1 record. 

Others to Consider: Joe Burrow, Daniel Jones, Tua Tagovailoa 

   

Running Back

The Popular Pick(s): Cam Akers, D'Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins

Each of these guys is a 2020 second-round pick who played well as a rookie and earned more work late in the season. I agree with early ADP results that put Akers first among the bunch, as Swift could be stuck on a terrible team, while Dobbins plays in an offense that rarely throws passes to running backs. Akers, on the other hand, has a shot to become a three-down workhorse in the same scheme that catapulted Todd Gurley to fantasy superstardom.

A Bit Less Obvious: AJ Dillon

Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are scheduled for free agency, and the latter figures to get most of his work on passing downs even if he stays in Green Bay. Concern about Jones re-signing has kept Dillon's ADP outside the Top 50, so this would be the time to buy low if you're convinced Jones will leave.

The Dark Horse: Chase Edmonds

Edmonds won't wow anyone with his pure running ability, but he's a well-rounded player who always appears comfortable in Kliff Kingsbury's offense. That doesn't mean the Cardinals will allow Kenyan Drake (FA) to leave without securing some type of replacement, but it's possible whoever is brought in ends up working behind Edmonds.

Others to Consider: Miles Sanders, Myles Gaskin, Jeff Wilson, Damien Harris, Zack Moss, Gus Edwards, Jamaal Williams

      

Wide Receiver

The Popular Pick: Tee Higgins

You might argue Higgins already broke out as a rookie, considering he put up 67/908/6 despite barely playing Weeks 1 and 17. If we subtract those two contests, he came through with solid-WR3 production, averaging 4.8 catches for 64.9 yards and 0.43 TDs per week.

He did all that as one of the younger receivers in his rookie class, celebrating his 22nd birthday after the regular season ended. Joe Burrow's knee injury admittedly could complicate things here, but there's definitely room for Higgins' target share to grow, considering the Bengals wasted 104 passes on the remnants of A.J. Green. If Burrow is healthy and Higgins takes on some of Green's vacated targets, we could see the young wideout match his 2020 production by the end of November.

A Bit Less Obvious: Courtland Sutton

I also had Sutton as a breakout candidate last year, believing he would exceed his 71/1,112 /6 receiving line from 2019. Instead, he suffered an ACL tear in September, allowing first-round pick Jerry Jeudy to step up to the No. 1 receiver role.

Jeudy struggled with drops, but he also showed the separation skills and explosiveness to challenge Sutton for No. 1 status long term. Of course, modern NFL offenses typically throw enough passes to support multiple receivers, and the Broncos might get a QB upgrade to facilitate that situation. 2021 Sutton could be what we all expected in 2020, only with a lower ADP after the season-ending injury.

The Dark Horse: Mike Williams

DeVante Parker aside, you won't win much money betting on Year 5 breakouts. Here's to crowning Williams as the next Parker... a blue-chip talent who has been held back by some combination of injuries, questionable coaching and a fluctuating role.

The Chargers have Williams under contract for 2021 via a fifth-year option, but they can still void the deal as long as the wideout is healthy enough to pass a physical. Maybe that happens, maybe he's traded, or maybe he simply stays in Los Angeles. There are a few different paths that can lead Williams to more targets next season, as the Chargers have a new coaching staff and might not retain TE Hunter Henry (scheduled for free agency).

Others to Consider: CeeDee Lamb, Chase Claypool, Brandon Aiyuk, Laviska Shenault, Jerry Jeudy, Michael Pittman, Jalen Reagor, Darnell Mooney, Denzel Mims, Gabriel Davis, Henry Ruggs, Darius Slayton, James Washington, Preston Williams, Scotty Miller

       

Tight End

The Popular Pick: Dallas Goedert

Kelce, Kittle and Waller are the consensus Top 3, followed by Mark Andrews (55.8 ADP) and T.J. Hockenson (77.6). After that, it's a battle for the No. 6 spot between Noah Fant (86.6) and Goedert (89.3) — two guys who are long on potential but short on consistent production.

Fant was an earlier draft pick and saw more passes in 2020, but he still lacks polish as both a receiver and blocker, whereas Goedert is a well-rounded player who mostly just needs more targets in order to reach his fantasy potential. Fant, on the other hand, needs to improve his real-life skills in order to achieve a fantasy breakout.

 I'm not necessarily betting against that, but I think Goedert offers a better floor/ceiling combo, assuming the Eagles get rid of Zach Ertz. Even after the Wentz trade, Philadelphia isn't likely to be in the market for a target hog like Allen Robinson or JuJu Smith-Schuster, so we'll likely see a young offense built around Hurts, Goedert, Miles Sanders and Jalen Reagor.

A Bit Less Obvious: Tyler Higbee

I took a big, fat L on Higbee last year, watching in disappointment as he slipped back into a timeshare with the unspectacular Gerald Everett, who now is expected to sign elsewhere as a free agent. The Rams did draft Brycen Hopkins in the fourth round last offseason, but he played just two snaps on offense as a rookie, so it isn't clear he'll be ready to replace GE™.

We could see Higbee back in an every-down role, running 25-30 routes per game in an offense that's upgraded from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford. Everett got 39 of his 62 targets in 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) last season, so we don't need to look too hard to figure out where Higbee might find his extra volume in 2021.

The Dark Horse: Adam Trautman

The Saints figure to lose Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders this offseason, leaving Tre'Quan Smith as the closest thing to an established No. 3 option behind stalwarts Alvin Kamara & Michael Thomas. Given what we've seen from Smith through three seasons, I'd rather take a shot on Trautman, a 2020 third-round pick who spent his rookie year stuck behind Cook.

The Dayton product was targeted only 16 times on 147 routes, but he did catch 15 of those passes for 171 yards and a touchdown, per PFF. The one thing I might caution against is stacking Trautman with Taysom Hill in best-ball tournaments, as it's better for the tight end's fantasy value if the Saints aren't devoting 8-to-12 plays per game to QB runs/scrambles.

Come to think of it, I like the idea of a Winston-Kamara-Thomas-Trautman stack, even though I favor Hill over Famous Jameis as a solo commodity. I'm often wrong — especially when gauging the whims of NFL coaches — and the blow-up scenario for Winston likely would align with prolific seasons for the New Orleans pass catchers. A big fantasy year for Hill, on the other hand, likely would involve a ton of rushing production.

Others to Consider: Noah Fant, Irv Smith, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Cole Kmet, Hayden Hurst, Dawson Knox, Blake Jarwin

      

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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